I am a binge reader. I will go for months at a time without cracking the cover of a book, and then in the space of a week I will do nothing but scour book listings in my free time and avidly consume everything I find. Thanks to my utter lack of discipline when it comes to reading, this typically results in me losing sleep, wandering around the house in a daze, and generally making a nuisance of myself.
It’s been a while, but I think it is long past time that I shared the love. Here are some authors that I have discovered recently who you should not miss, along with some old friends and standbys.
In general, my tastes run to fantasy and science fiction, so that’s what you will find here.
Some of my standbys you already know about from elsewhere. Neil Gaiman (start with Neverwhere if you prefer action, StarDust if you like romance, or The Graveyard Book if you just like a ridiculously good novel). Terry Pratchett (start with Nation, or just about any Discworld book aside from Colour of Magic; Equal Rites or Guards! Guards! would be excellent entry points). J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis.
But there are at least four that you might not have heard of, and need to know about. (Note that all links below are unencumbered; I tried playing the affiliate linking game in the past, but it made me feel dirty and didn’t make any money, so screw that.)
First up, Diana Wynne Jones. If you like children’s fantasy, you’ve probably already run across her, but if not you should waste no time in picking up one of her novels. Sadly, Jones passed away this year but she has a large corpus of novels, virtually all of which are excellent. Start with Howl’s Moving Castle, The Lives of Christopher Chant, or (if you can find them) Cart and Cwidder or Archer’s Goon.
Second, C.J. Cherryh. Cherryh mostly writes science fiction, but she dabbles in fantasy from time to time, and she is fantastic. There are a few of her older books that I like less well, but in the last couple decades she has really hit her stride and at this point I buy whatever she publishes sight unseen. Great starting points for Cherryh are Foreigner (stick with it until you meet Bren Cameron; maybe the first quarter of the novel sets up the historical situation and is less interesting), Cyteen, or if you can find it Merchanter’s Luck. Also, don’t be scared by the number of Foreigner books out. Yes, it looks like another Robert Jordan-level commitment, but it’s not. Each book is self-contained, and they have broader story arcs that are organized into trilogies so if you only ever buy one to three books at a time you’ll have a very satisfying reading experience.
Third, Jonathan Stroud. I, likely along with most of his readership, discovered Stroud in the surge of children’s fantasy that occurred thanks to the success of the early Harry Potter books. However, I like him far better than J.K. Rowling (particularly after reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its awful ending/epilogue). Start with Amulet of Samarkind, and if you don’t hit it off with Bartimeus read Heroes of the Vally instead.
Last, Megan Whalen Turner. There’s only one starting point for Turner (The Thief) since she has only published books in a single series/world so far. Aside from Cherryh (whose intense third-person style might not appeal to some folks), Turner is the most likely of these authors to not appeal to everyone. The Thief is very accessible and kid-friendly (it was a Newberry Honor book), but Queen of Attolia is much more stand-offish when it comes to characterization and is more of a YA or adult book thematically. Each of her novels so far has had a distinct flavor from the rest, making her a difficult author to pin down.
I’ve been reading a lot more self-published authors on Kindle lately, and wow is it ever a mixed bag. A small number of them have been horrible (but evidently spent a lot of time making the first part of the book that’s in the sample read great, unfortunately). Most of them have been mediocre to the point where I stop halfway through and move on. And at least two of them have quickly rocketed onto my favorite authors list.
First off, Michael J. Sullivan. At this point, he has achieved a level of legitimacy dreamed of by most other indies, and you can find his fantastic six Riryia Revelations in ebook or print format. Start with Theft of Swords (followed by Rise of Empire and finally Heir of Novron). Sullivan writes old-school adventure fantasy, and I can’t recommend him highly enough.
Next up is Lindsay Buroker. If Michael J. Sullivan was the best indie author I discovered in 2010, Buroker is hands-down my favorite for 2011. Her first book is The Emperor’s Edge, and it is a wonderful romp through a steam-powered fantasy city. Note that this is not steampunk (although she has a mini-series of novellas that apparently do fit that genre which I have not yet read). Instead, the Emperor’s Edge series are character-focused fantasy adventures. This is also one of the few series where I’ve discovered an “ultimate assassin” type character who actually seemed realistic (it’s really difficult to create a sympathetic cold killer, but over the course of the three books currently released Buroker manages it).
And that’s about it for the independent authors. I’ve found others who were decent, but those are the only two who fall into my “must read everything they write and evangelize them afterward” category.
I have run into a fair number of excellent authors since I last posted anything on this blog about reading, so these are in no particular order.
You need to read D.M. Cornish. His first book is The Foundling’s Tale (might also be called Monster Blood Tattoo, depending on where you live) and he is one of the authors on this list who is not optional. It is very, very rare in fantasy for people to create things that are truly unique. Typically fantasy relies on mythology, fairy tales, or Tolkien and the many stereotypes that arose out of his founding epic. D.M. Cornish, however, has created a world unto itself, including a new and wonderful vocabulary. He is also one of those rare authors who illustrates his own works, giving you some wonderful insight into how he sees the characters he is describing.
I discovered Catherine Fisher because of Incarceron, which is a fantastically interesting book about two worlds: one privileged, with their high technology hidden behind the scenes in order to enforce the illusion that they are living in the past; the other a prison-world where the prison is actively trying to kill its inmates. I highly recommend it. After finishing Incarceron I discovered Fisher is quite prolific. So far I have only read her Oracle trilogy, but it was excellent (a very odd blend of Egyptian and Greek mythology that somehow completely works). I’m looking forward to discovering more of Fisher’s work in the months to come.
A year or two ago, I tried Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan (this one is legitimately steampunk), and since then I’ve read everything he’s written that I can find. Westerfeld is an intriguing one: his premises and characters are flawless and fascinating, but in almost every world he has written I have left it feeling like he fell short of his own potential. He tends to setup worlds where people are diametrically opposed to one another, but often they just shrug off their differences and move on with it. For instance, Leviathan focuses on World War I except that the two sides are divided into Clankers (people whose society is powered by mechanical constructs) and Darwinists (people whose society is powered by artificially fabricated animals). This is a socio-cultural divide that would be deep-seated, largely emotional, and difficult to overcome. Yet the one time the main characters address it boils down to an argument where one says “machines are better”, the other responds “no, animals are better!” and they leave it at that. The ethical, psychological, and cultural ramifications of Westerfeld’s creations are largely unexplored (or left to the imagination of the reader). I have to recommend him, though, because his books and characters are so much fun, and although he pulls back whenever it comes time to deal with deeper issues his premises on their own open up a lot of interesting supposition about our own world. Other than Leviathan, Uglies is an excellent starting point for Westerfeld. In all cases for Westerfeld, ignore the covers of his books. They are never indicative of the quality or style of the books themselves.
Rachel Neumeier is another author whose entire corpus is worth reading (although her very first book is less excellent). In particular, The Floating Islands is a ridiculously good standalone, and her griffin mage trilogy (starting with Lord of the Changing Winds) is one of my recent favorite fantasy discoveries (and what introduced me to her). At this point, Neumeier is another one of the few authors whose books I will simply buy without looking at the description because I know they won’t disappoint.
Lastly, Patricia Briggs. Although I have been getting bored recently with her Mercy Thompson series (stereotypical vampires+werewolves urban fantasy is not my thing), her writing is excellent, and I particularly enjoy her early “duologies” like Dragon Bones and its companion Dragon Blood. Mercy Thompson is worth reading, too, if you aren’t burnt out on all the terrible urban fantasy (this is one of the urban fantasy series of late that actually deserves to survive, although I hope Briggs brings it to a close sooner rather than later).
The search goes ever onward
There are of course loads of other great books that I’ve read in the recent past (I didn’t even touch the mountain of princess books that I worked my way through recently; I have no idea why I went on a princess kick, but once you start something like that you enter into a self-reinforcing cycle with Amazon’s “other users bought such and such” and “if you liked this, maybe you’ll like that” recommendations. I barely escaped alive). Perhaps I will remember to post about them here at some point.
In the meantime, the search for more wonderful authors and books continues! If you’ve read some ridiculously good fantasy or science fiction (particularly YA or kids stuff; I tend to enjoy adult novels less because of the graphic violence and escapist sex that often are their defining characteristic), I would love to hear!