(That are not Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones)
Not, of course, that I don’t or wouldn’t recommend reading them! I just think it would be the lazy choice to include one or all of them. Readers of my blog know that I am very fussy about fantasy. LOTR and Game of Thrones filled me with indifference but I do love Harry Potter. What puts me off fantasy the most is seeing rainforest-murdering tomes with a caption on the back “Book One of this Exciting 40 book series!”
Nothing fills me with greater dread than reading 900 pages where nothing happens and enough of nothing happening to last for 36,000 pages doesn’t fill me with any greater joy. If you are so inclined to try some recommendations from a fellow fantasyphobe, then please read my own recommendations.
Prospero’s Children by Jan Siegel
Given away as a free promotional copy by UK sci-fi magazine SFX, I had no hopes for a freebie from a writer I had not heard of promising a mix of contemporary fantasy, Greek mythology and Atlantean myth. But read it I did, and it would be fair to say that I was hooked by about… page 4? What grabbed me most was the vivid use of language throughout, the compelling fantasy world (especially the juxtaposition between autumnal Yorkshire and the perpetual Mediterranean climate of Atlantis), the eerie sense of something not being right, and the very bright yet ultimately vulnerable and flawed 16 year old girl who is its protagonist. Arguably, the strong female lead is becoming a trope today in her one-dimensional characterisation – and it’s good to see a young girl who is normal with her own flaws, feeling unsure of herself, and trying to do the best she can for her dad and brother following family difficulty. I’ve seen some sources describe her as a typical “kick ass female character” but I disagree, there is a sense of faking it until she makes it and of Fern putting on a brave face to hide insecurities. She is trying to force herself to grow up, but deep down perhaps doesn’t want to.
Fern, her brother and their father move to the Yorkshire countryside to live in a big old house (yes, it feels cliche but stick with it!) following the death of their mother. And there they meet a mysterious old man who tells Fern that there is something different about her. He has a dog called Lougarry who has some odd almost-human characteristics. I don’t want to say any more and give away the story, so just read it.
Two sequels follow but neither are a patch on the first for various reasons – not least of all because Fern’s experiences lead her to become increasingly bitter in the second book and though we see flashes of the old Fern in the third, to me she starts to become a bit whiny.
Why should everyone read this? Almost entirely because of the captivating writing style.
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
From a rare female protagonist to an even rarer black protagonist. Peter Grant is a London copper, oh and a wizard in training taken under the wing of the Met Constabulary’s only wizard (Inspector Nightingale). After witnessing an unusual crime and taking a statement from a dead victim who was actually rather talkative considering his deceased state, Peter finds he has the gift and he is about to enter into a version of London be never knew existed – one populated by many figures of British myth and tradition spanning hundreds of years. What’s more, he’s the first wizard’s apprentice for nearly half a century. In this world, there is no Hogwarts churning out graduates in Occlumency, Dark Arts, Potions or Floo Network Engineers and everything else. Wizards are rare.
Peter Grant, unlike most protagonists who would accept this new magical world as something to wonder at, takes it all in his stride and arguably takes it with little more than mild disbelief and bemusement as he undergoes his training – most of the time thinking Inspector Nightingale is little more than an eccentric and slightly batty old man, though Peter cannot deny what he has seen.
Populated by personified deities of many London landmarks, this feels like The Bill meets Neverwhere as police procedure mixes with urban mythology and British folklore. It’s a great mix too; it works because it appeals to two genre groups without getting bogged down too much in the tropes of either. When it uses those tropes, it very deliberately plays up to them and satirises them. This is fantasy that does not take itself too seriously as it references pop culture by the bucket load. Peter even asks his mentor on one occasion “what was it like when you were at Hogwarts?” which annoys Inspector Nightingale no end. This is a book that delights in lampooning the tropes of its genre while at the same time embracing them and rewriting them.
There are now five books out in this series and having read only two of them, I think I need to catch up a bit! Why should everyone read this? The satire, the self-deprecating British humour and because it is a damned good read.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Some books give us a warm, fuzzy glow when we finish them. That’s a rare occurrence for me, but Gaiman’s parable of the age-old debate over tradition vs progression was one that certainly tugged on the heart strings. I read this over a two-day period that I spent on a Greyhound coach back in 2002 travelling from Toronto (sorry, Tronno) to Calgary. We all know what Gaiman is capable of, his work very often treads a fine line between appealing to children and appealing to adults by including elements favourable to both. His work can be disturbing and joyful at the same time and the book that many people feel is his greatest work is no different. This is certainly in the adult theme though, not because of any violence, sex or bad language, but the concept may just be too complex for a younger audience.
What is America? The world’s youngest superpower is an influencing factor on the rest of the world yet has been influenced by many disparate cultures that made up the country from every migration to the continent between 1492 and 1900. Whether that’s original British, French and Spanish settlers, the Puritans of the 17th century, the Irish looking for work following the Potato Famine of the 19th century, or any number of people who followed in between, the melting pot is also a source of diffusion. If the country was at various times a haven for the peoples of the world, then it is also a haven for the Old Gods who have been forgotten, superseded or simply destroyed by the religions that replaced them in the Old World. Like the people, The Old World gods went to America looking for a better life.
Yet there is a war coming. America has some new gods. The internet, the motor car, the highway, colonisation of other planets, the stock market are all “gods” in their own way and the war is – you’ve guessed it – between the traditions that have made us human and our desire to keep forging forward. It’s a brilliant parable, charming and clever. No side is right or wrong, though in the beginning we naturally side with the Old Gods because that’s whose side our protagonist is on. Yet this disparate group of Egyptian, Norse, East European, South American and African gods are not perfect and they are not fully to be trusted.
Why should everyone read this? There is no greater examination of what makes us human than between the eternal conflict between progression and tradition. This examines that perfectly.
I realise that this list is very Britishcentric, so if anybody has recommendations of contemporary or urban fantasy by American writers with universal appeal, please list them below.