~ Science Fiction & Fantasy ~
“A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
If you haven’t read this yet, you owe it to yourself to do so as soon as possible. Seriously, what’s the hold up? It’s only 120-some pages and it’s the funniest book you’ll ever read. While there are five books in the series and some of the later ones I prefer to this one (but only just a little bit!), like all series volume one is an excellent place to start. Arthur Dent, a noodly, somewhat boring and tragically average English commoner and his best friend Ford Prefect (who is in fact a marooned journalist from Betelgeuse) get whisked away on to a Vogon space ship just moments after the Earth is destroyed to make way for an Intergalactic Superhighway. From there the Hitchhiker’s Guide provides detailed entries on extraterrestrial culture and other things of significance while Ford and Arthur get sucked into a journey to find the mythic world of Magrathea, joined by the two-headed, three armed president of the Galaxy, a chronically depressed android and worst of all, Arthur’s old crush back on Earth.
Geist by Philippa Ballantine
“Geist”, meaning spirit or ghost, is a German word which tends to evoke feelings of both foreignness and familiarity, since most people have heard the word in one place or another. I feel that this is the same kind of reaction I had to Ballantine’s world. The central established conflict in Geist is between mortals and the spiritual entities that inhabit the Otherside. Once separate, the two worlds now touch at moments, causing breaches which these spirits escape from. The Order of the Eye and Fist is a group of monk-like warriors and scholars who fight in pairs against these beings. What makes this order more interesting to me is that although their titles are familiar to us as those of religion, these people are firmly atheist.
Geist’s plot is full of mystery and intrigue, claimant to the throne with a grotesque curse, love, and betrayal. Now, these elements can be difficult to manage all at once without making things melodramatic or predictable, and while I may have seen certain things coming, I think Ballantine did a great job of keeping the flow nice and smooth. Things could be surprising without seeming like a deus ex machina. I enjoyed the action of this novel immensely. If you like the concept of mystic warriors fighting the Otherside, or a heroine who kicks butt and takes names, I totally recommend this one.
Brothers By Ben Bova
Ben Bova has written some great works of science fiction; this one is no different. Taking a step away from some truly ‘hard’ Sci Fi elements, Bova weaves a story that is thoroughly character driven. I am not a big first-person POV fan; this is one of the rare books I enjoyed as it even switches the point-of-view between two brothers as they are questioned regarding their remarkable breakthrough: they have created the ability to regrow limbs, organs, etc. and through this discovery edge toward immortality. This is a fun and thoughtful novel to get into; part brain-candy, part serious science fiction. While unlike some of the other works I have read by Ben Bova, this one is a great and quick read, perfect for an airplane or sitting in a park.
The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer-Bradley
I am generally not a fantasy reader, but I love this book. To this day it is the only version of the Arthurian legend that I will accept as plausible truth. In Mists, Bradley retells this legend from the point of view of the women involved; the Lady of the Lake, Morgan La Fey (Morgaine), and Gwynafar, just to name a few. Set in the midst of turmoil between the new church and the old pagan religion, England needs a leader who can unite both groups to successfully rid the island once and for all of the Saxons. Mists tells how the Goddess-worshiping priestesses of Avalon placed Arthur on the throne and were largely responsible for the best bits of this legend. I refuse to believe that Morgan La Fey was pure evil. The end.
The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card
I came across The Lost Gate by accident, but it was one that I actually put aside the book I had been reading for. The Lost Gate features magic as a power brought from another world by a powerful mage who could make Gates, or portals. This process gave them great power and they were treated as gods, many of whom we are familiar with through mythology. However, the link was broken and the remaining families were cut off from power and home and now live in divided societies. I liked the concept very much, and it was helped by the main character having the power to create Gates himself. Now I don’t know why, but I’ve always enjoyed the idea of portals. A shortcut between home and work, or a way to take a cheap trip to Paris. I liked the interesting ways the character found to use portals, which you’ll have to find out for yourself when you read the book. Magic takes a new and interesting spin in The Lost Gate, requiring no spell books but instead innate talent and practice. Card does not disappoint in the first novel of this new series of magic in the modern world! Allan’s Review
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
If The Left Hand of Darkness is in the Top 10 of the “Most Important SF Books Ever” list, I’d put Childhood’s End here in at least the Top 5. You know that fading dream of the world being a utopic, fantastic, all-around-really-awesome place that I talked about? Arthur C. Clarke exemplified Utopian science fiction. 2001 and Rama touched upon Clarkes ideas that “mankind can rise up from it’s pettiness” but Childhood’s End does it in the most elegant and powerful way. An intergalactic species invades Earth, withstands our resistance, and swiftly claims dominion over the world without harming a soul. These “Overlords” then proceed to greatly advance our technologic progression in a matter of decades, as well as solve most of our world’s social/economic problems. All’s fine and dandy right? It wouldn’t be a story if there wasn’t some kind of tension, and naturally Clarke raises the questions if this Utopia is desired, as mankind grows lethargic and inert. The story’s finale is where the real kick is, and with Childhood’s End Clarke shows us his vision of the future of humanity and the far larger, more important role we may eventually play in the universe.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Dubbed as “Harry Potter for adults,” Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is so much more than that. Clarke fashions up a deeply realized alternate history of England where magic was once prevalent in society. Providing legitimacy to her alternate history are dozens of footnotes and imagined texts that are tapped to explain historical occurrences or terminology and so on. England has been without magic for years and, while magicians are still around, they simply research and study magic without being able to perform it until a Mr. Norrell demonstrates that he can.
What begins is a sprawling quest through England and Faerie Land in search of the legendary and evil Raven King. More similar to the downplayed fantasy of John Crowley’s Little, Big than the magical roller coaster of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the magic is subtle and not the absolute focus of the story. Clarke also has flavors of Austen, Peake and Dickens in her writing. Fans of those authors will find the book among the best around but someone looking for a more fast-paced and hyper-realized novel may be disappointed.
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games, the first book in Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy, took the reading world by storm. Readers young and old eagerly waited for the next two installments of the series and the first book is now being made into a film. The reason is not so much the excellence of the prose, but the compelling and descriptive story Collins tells.
Katniss Everdeen lives in a post-apocalyptic world where actions are circumscribed, work is difficult and dangerous, and hunger is rampant. It’s a world with little hope for the future and indeed, a fear of the future. Enter “The Hunger Games,” a gruesome reality television program sponsored by the rulers in which all the districts have a stake. Two young contestants from each district are chosen by lottery to compete for food for their district and lifelong comfort for their families. The catch is that the competition is a battle to the death.
In The Hunger Games, the first whispers of rebellion begin, continuing through Catching Fire and Mockingjay with Katniss at the center. How she deals with her sometimes unwitting and certainly unenviable role forms most of the rest of the story. Collins treats with themes of torn loyalties and betrayal, choices made without choice, the greater and lesser of evils, and the many struggles that embody change.
Suzanne Collins has created a powerful trilogy that holds appeal for any age, especially reluctant readers. As she writes an action-packed story, she doesn’t hesitate to tackle larger concepts that echo many of the realities and fears of today’s society. There isn’t a “happy” ending as in a fairy tale, but it’s one to live with, as we all do.
Kat ‘s Review
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Reminiscent of The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Stand by Stephen King, The Passage by Justin Cronin is an apocalyptic epic charting the destruction of the world as it is known. The novel moves back and forth through time, slowly revealing the secrets of Homeland Security in trying to develop a super-soldier with a virus, and how the experiment roars desperately out of control. Because this virus doesn’t kill – it changes people into contagious monsters.
One of the most compelling themes in post-apocalyptic literature is how people recreate a society from the ashes of the old one. What kind of hierarchy is developed and how much does it borrow from aspects of history? How are resources allocated? And how do people explain what happened to them, and why? The Passage explores all of these questions during the ongoing war against the monsters those infected have become. This book was an addicting read with a cast of thousands, and I’ve moved on to the second book in the trilogy. Stay tuned!
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
I first picked up this book in high school, and it’s one of those books that I like to re-read from time to time. Each and every time I do I am amazed at just how good it is and how after over fifty years (it was published in 1959) it is still relevant today. That’s because unlike some ‘sci-fi’ or ‘apocalypse’ books its main appeal is not in the technology or the disaster itself, but in the human relationships. The characters in this book deal with matters of love, loss, family and friends, race, and the economy – matters which we are still dealing with today. The people in the small town of Fort Repose, Florida survive ‘the end of the world’ by repeated simple acts of kindness, charity, and community. There is a scene in the book of no great plot importance, but one of my favorites, where two men are at a sort of trading fair. One man has honey, the other liquor. The honey dealer tells the man with liquor that while he does not drink alcohol, he will give the man some honey without payment so that his children might have something sweet to eat. This to me sums up the moral of the book. In a disaster of any kind the way we will survive is if each of us is able to give without thought of our own benefit. Even if you don’t
care for ‘sci-fi’ or ‘apocalypse’ books, give this one a try. Its message of hope is certain to inspire all.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
This book is everything I love about fiction. Gaiman masterfully crafts a novel in which gods from various mythologies are real and trying to survive as immigrants in a modern America. While the novel does deal with some fantastic notions, it isn’t thick with bizarre lands or races like a typical fantasy novel. Rather, the supernatural goes unnoticed by most people in this world, which makes the struggles of the characters all the more interesting. Never before have I read a book in which reality and fantasy were so neatly at odds with each other without really knowing
it. This book is a treasure and a must-read!
Allan ‘s Review
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
Those that keep up with my staff reads may think, “Another Gaiman book?” The only real answer is of course. Fragile Things is a collection of short stories and some poems, all written by Gaiman. The best way I can describe this book is like a box of chocolates. Quick, sweet, fun. None are coconut filled, thankfully. I really enjoyed the stories. At first, my thought was that I might not like short stories as much as Gaiman’s longer works, seeing as how I love nothing more than to be engrossed in his worlds. But Fragile Things is really a perfect title for this collection. The stories and snippets contained within are dreamlike, hints of wonder among the normal world. They’re short glances into wonderful thoughts and ideas, not unlike short examinations of preserved insects or treasures. This is a fantastic book for anyone looking for a sort of inspiration. You can read just one of the many stories from the book, and you can let it steep, or percolate, or whatever it is you like to let ideas do, and before long it’s made you think of something new and exciting. I hazard to say ‘best’ when they’re all great, but best of all for me was the return of a character from what is probably my favorite novel ever. It’s at the end of the book (if you feel like cheating) and came as a happy surprise to me.
Now, I like to notice interesting patterns or styles when reading, and many of the stories in this collection have a cyclical motion about them, either because they begin at the end and end at the beginning, or something in the story is reborn, or a character winds up where they started. Even I, in reading the book straight through, wound up feeling the same way I did after I finished the original novel featuring the character in the final story. Read the stories, see what you make of the cycles. Is it accident or coincidence, or is it simply only that question that matters?
Allan ‘s Review
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I had held off on reading this book for a time because I knew it was geared toward young adults. It’s a silly prejudice -one, in fact, that I was sorely sorry for allowing to cloud my judgment in this case. The Graveyard Book is a fantastic work of fiction that readers of any age can enjoy. Now, when I tell someone who wants to know the premise of the book that it’s sort of an adaptation of The Jungle Book, I’m a little bit right, but I’m also doing the book a large disservice. The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, a boy raised in a graveyard by ghosts, but it also has just the right amount of secrecy, revenge, love, and magic to really shine as a work of its own. The community of ghosts in the graveyard is as much of a work of art as the book itself. Despite being dead, each of these characters feels very alive. One of my favorite touches Gaiman gave the story are the epitaphs on the graves of the ghosts, given to the reader upon meeting the phantasmal character. It struck me as such an ingenious, fresh way to give flavor to a character (perhaps in part to the exact nature of an epitaph, being rarely found on those living), at the same time reinforcing the world that the author has created. The Graveyard Book is a treat, truly, and like many treats, can be enjoyed quickly – but I suggest slowly savoring each morsel.
Allan ‘s Review
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
I am not usually a Fantasy reader, but this book got me hooked forever on Neil Gaiman. It is his first solo novel, and still my favorite. It is a tumble through a parallel world of the London Underground. The protagonist is an unlikely hero, paired with a popadum munching elfin girl. Their journey is truly incredible, and remarkably told. After reading Neverwhere, you will think twice the next time you travel on the Tube, and you may be tempted to give pigeons just a little respect. I have heard that the BBC television series is pretty shabby, so if you have seen that don’t let it dissuade you, the book is phenomenal.
Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordan
Perhaps you are a Lord of the Rings fan. Or perhaps not. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series very much exists as a modern day telling of the Lord of the Rings. The settings of both stories are more or less identical (foot travel is the main mode of transportation in a mythical world) and both involve the protagonists on the run from the monsters and ghouls that are trying to get them. The first book, The Eye of the World starts with three country bumpkins (much like Tolkein’s hobbits) who are sought by evil wizards because they are unknowingly ta’veren which means they more or less create fate for themselves and everyone around them. Throw in a good guy female wizard and her bodyguard and you have a grand adventure right off the bat!
While I dig both Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time , I can’t help but feel that the latter is oh so slightly better than the former. For one thing, The Eye of the World was written in 1990, so the writing is a little more modern and easier to understand as opposed to when my eyes would just glaze over when reading The Two Towers whenever I didn’t understand what was happening (which if memory serves was quite often). This series is also ongoing. At last count it was up to book eleven…and these are some meaty books, so rest assured, there’s a lot of continued reading to be had until the end…whenever that may be.
Kevin ‘s Review
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K LeGuin
If someone were to draw up a list of “The Most Important Science Fiction Books Ever”, The Left Hand of Darkness would undoubtedly make the list, possibly even in the top 10. LeGuin’s finest work of SF hails from the Golden Age of the genre, where the pulp adventures of the early years were beginning to fade out and writers still had some optimism about the future (though this would eventually be crushed during the cyberpunk/dystopic SF of the 70s/80s). At the same time, LeGuin’s work heralded in a new era of thoughtfulness in the genre, tackling ideas such as feminism and sexuality with the androgyny Gethenian that populate the story. Excellent world building and intellectually stimulating, this is one of the SF greats.
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
I recently reread the novella The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin and was reminded of how much I love her work. The best word to describe her writing style is “graceful.” Her language flows elegantly across the printed page like water and she cradles her reader as she journeys to alien worlds that are oddly familiar. Le Guin is the daughter of anthropologists and this informs much of her work, most especially this novella. The Word for World is Forest examines the clash between a colonizing power and and an indigenous people on a distant planet, and both sides’ perspectives are fully explored. Le Guin’s tales are illuminating and cautionary, but she doesn’t lecture. She describes and allows her readers to draw their own conclusions. In true anthropologic spirit, she invites us to look through the lens of another culture in order to understand our own better. Yum! I would recommend almost anything Ursula K. Le Guin has written, but start with this novella!
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley is magical, really. I have wanted to write this review for a very long time but was having trouble with all of the fairy dust that puffed out when I closed it. McKinley retells the story of Sleeping Beauty in a surprising and reinvigorated way. The novel is enchanting. It would be fantastic to read aloud to any younger readers, but is better suited for readers who read Harry Potter novels, as it is almost 400 pages. The fairies, the enchanted animals, the magical plants, the human characters, and, yes, the bothersome fairy dust, all contribute to well-told alternative fairytale. Oh, and another reason I like this book is that it really is G-rated (some scary scenes with mean fairies and enchanted vines, but quite mild). Refreshing!
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
Altered Carbon was a happy accident for me. The book that happened through our shop had a nice shiny cover – book sellers know full well how much you can judge from a book by its cover. I started this book at the Thai Garden after work and did not set it down until the following dawn. It is a fast-paced, action-packed science fiction work with touches of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Tim O’Brien. This is also Richard Morgan’s first novel – and his first dealing with Takeshi Kovacs, who appears in two sequels (both are excellent). What I appreciate about this author in particular is his ability to get into the really ugly/violent side(s) of his protagonist; the violence never used for shock value, but to enhance the dimensions of his characters. Thoughtful, smart, and balanced writing; not always for the light-hearted, but always good storytelling.
Fractions by Ken MacLeod
This novel contains Ken’s first book The Star Fraction and its sequel The Stone Canal. The writing is gritty, blunt, and sets a rough tone for a dim European future. What has kept me involved in this book (and in this author) is his ability to create a really bleak tone. However, he’s careful not hit you over the head with it. This book starts off his Fall Revolution series but instead of attempting (or devolving) into a grandiose and cliche space opera – it tightly follows the actions and the effects this broken, future world has upon his characters. Mr. MacLeod is quickly becoming one of my favorite science fiction authors.
Mort by Terry Pratchett
I’ve been told since high school (hint: a long time ago) that I should read Terry Pratchett. For some reason, I have only recently begun. I read Good Omens – also great, by the way – and loved it, and I decided I wanted to read some of the Discworld books. Mort is about Death taking an apprentice, which causes Death to become interested in activity outside of work while allowing the apprentice to accidentally cause a rip in reality.
This book is full of hilarious quirks, one-liners, and situations. One of these involves a man being quite upset and cursing, which is written as “——-” a fairly common practice for expletives. His friend responds to him, repeating the word, and is described as effortlessly repeating a series of dashes. This sort of dry humor is Pratchett’s forte, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Expect almost every page to get a chuckle out of you, if not a full laugh. There were plenty of sections I had to save so that I could read them to friends, and I only resist here so that you can do it for yourself.
Mort is a great read if you’re looking for something light; it has fairly quick pacing, making you want to read on to see what misadventure comes next. What’s great about it, I think, is that this book is part of a series of sorts, but it doesn’t require any of the other books to be read. Everything is sufficiently explained for the reader to grasp the world the characters interact with. Of course, if you happen to enjoy it as much as I did, there are other books that feature Death, as well as many others featuring other characters. Expect great reads and many laughs!
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
The first novel in a Hugo, Nebula, and BSFA award winning trilogy spans a rich landscape of an unknown planet; focused on the desires and fears of its first colonists. Robinson explores characters of depth, a plot of realistic complexity, and a foreign terrain centering it all. What has continued to amaze me as I continue through this series is the fullness in Mr. Robinson’s writing style. He leaves nothing out and yet everything advances a very complete plotline. Slowly becoming a personal favorite – don’t be surprised if you see me recommending other Kim Stanley Robinson books in the future.
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
The author of the absolutely incredible (and hilarious) Snow Crash really outdid himself for his follow-up The Diamond Age. Set more or less in the same future universe, The Diamond Age extrapolates the next evolution in technology after the advent and initial luster of cybernetics and complete virtual reality. Stephenson goes head first towards the idea of nanotechnology, coming up with ideas I would have never thought to imagine. As the least talked about novel in Stephenson’s recent works, I find it hard to believe it’s under so many readers’ radars- it’s my personal favorite of his novels- take one part hard science fiction, one part social fiction via Victorian ideals, and the trademark Stephenson humor and you’ve got The Diamond Age.
Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller by Neal Stephenson
First published in 1988, this Sci-Fi thriller reads as current as today’s news. It’s a well-paced book that even this non-sci-fi reader enjoyed. Sangamon Taylor, a former chemist who now works for an environmental protection group, spends time zooming around Boston on an over-clocked Zodiac, looking for illegal pipelines and the toxic sludge that they dump, then going after the corporate baddies. He’s smart and an egoist, with an interesting network of friends and allies. He also has some pretty big muscle after him, including a group of satanic, heavy metal dustheads. The book is full of chemistry and tech, but doesn’t get hung up on it, and it’s a great description of traveling around Boston by water. The main character almost seems like a James Bond / Sam Spade-type eco-warrior. The action never stops in this book. You’ll definitely know more about PCBs and organic chlorine after reading this, but might never swim in any suburban waters again!
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams
Epic high fantasy with a capital E-P-I-C! Truly, these books are huge. The Dragonbone Chair pushes 700 pages. Its successor, Stone of Farewell backs off a bit with barely 600. But the last volume in the trilogy, To Green Angel Tower, was so massive that the paperback printing had to be split into two volumes. Poor Mr. Williams lovingly refers to it as “The Book That Ate My Life.” It was well worth it, though. You’ve got your swords, your dragons, your wandering princes, your elf-type-things, your evil priests, your strong-willed princesses, your age-old prophecies… really, it more than fills all of the requirements for a seriously rockin’ fantasy series.
Better than that, it manages to turn a lot of the reader’s expectations completely upside down. The ending is so spectacularly good and stupendously surprising that even folks who’ve had a hard time getting into the beginning of the series have become die-hard Tad Williams fans. Trust me, I’ve talked to them! So if you find yourself wishing that Robert Jordan would just wrap it up already, or that Dennis L. McKiernan would use language that comes a bit more naturally to him, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is exactly what you need.
The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Edited by Terry Windling and Ellen Datlow
I love reading short story anthologies because they give me a glimpse into an author’s work; I can choose who to pursue in the future. At swimming pools, I dip my toes into the water before I go in. Lack of commitment? On the contrary: I inevitably dive, but I like to know what I’m getting myself into.
For those who enjoy magical realism, fantasy, and horror fiction, there is no better guide than the yearly anthology of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Originally edited by Terry Windling and Ellen Datlow, this collection is entering its 22nd year. Aside from the amazing short stories these volumes contain, the editors include lists of “must-reads” from the year of publishing, provide updates on writers’ histories and activities, and give information on related sub-genres (music, graphic novels, movies, manga and anime, etc.) Anyone interested in the fantastic will appreciate these volumes (any of them!) for the wealth of information and the depth of the writing. You will find authors whose works you wish to further explore, as I have. Dip those toes!