Top 10 Fantasy Books (Honorable Mention)

 

TOP 10 FANTASY BOOKS (HONORABLE MENTION)

 

I tend to play fast and loose with my definition of fantasy – which is only fitting, as like many genres, it is notoriously difficult to define. Sure, the core of the genre or so-called ‘high fantasy’, like its SF equivalent ‘hard SF’, tends to be clear enough. However, there is no succinct definition that encompasses it all – and the boundaries with science fiction or horror are particularly ambiguous or slippery. As a general rule, I tend to define fantasy by the presence of magic or the supernatural (although there are exceptions), so that also tends to include dark fantasy or horror that involves those elements.

 

Stark After Dark has its Top 10 Fantasy Books as well as its Top 10 Fantasy Stories & Works, but there is always more love to share in fantasy for my ongoing roll call of Top 10 Fantasy Honorable Mentions – ongoing, that is, as the definitive criteria for honorable mention is for authors and their works which I continue to follow or in which I maintain an active ongoing interest.

 

 

(1) TERRY PRATCHETT – DISCWORLD (1983 – 2015)

 

Discworld needs little introduction to fans of fantasy – a literal flat-earth (hence its name) balanced on the back of four titanic elephants in turn on the back of the cosmic turtle, Great A’Tuin. This world is the setting for a fantasy comedy series (spanning over 40 books and a similar number of years) which is a parody or satire of virtually every trope within fantasy and many outside it, as well as virtually every major work of fantasy – from Lovecraft through Conan to Tolkien and even the bard himself, Shakespeare.

 

Books in the series follow different story threads or characters within it – with my favorite being those that follow the cowardly ‘wizard’ Rincewind, “a wizard with no skill, no wizardly qualifications, and no interest in heroics” (and the Wizards of the Unseen University in general), ever since his role as the protagonist in the first two books (escorting the naïve tourist Twoflower and his Luggage). Sprawling in some degree through most of the books is the city of Ankh-Morpork (and its City Watch, the protagonists of their own story arc or thread of books within the series) – a city clearly influenced by Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, and like that city, a city which somehow survives despite itself.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(2) DAN SIMMONS – SONG OF KALI (1985)

 

Where to start with this genre-crossing author, spanning fantasy, horror and SF?

 

There is his towering SF classic, the Hyperion Cantos – which opens with its frame story, modelled on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with its diverse group of ‘pilgrims’ to the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion, sent by the galactic Hegemony and the Church of the Final Atonement to face the terrifying Shrike.

 

Or his other towering SF classic in two parts, Ilium and Olympos, in which the Trojan War is reenacted by post-humans posing as the Olympian gods on a terraformed Mars around (where else?) Mons Olympus.

 

Or perhaps his dark fantasy or horror Summer of Night, reminiscent of Stephen King with its group of adolescent boys facing a medieval supernatural terror, or his take on psychic vampires in Carrion Comfort.

 

The correct answer is all of them, but for my honorable mention entry, I’ll nominate where it all started – with his 1986 World Fantasy Award winning novel The Song of Kali, a psychological horror about a journalist encountering a latter day cult of Kali.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

 

(3) TAD WILLIAMS – OSTEN ARD (1988 – PRESENT)

 

Tad Williams fantasy series set in the world of Osten Ard – with its definitive Memory, Sorrow, Thorn trilogy – perhaps represents the archetypal post-Tolkien high fantasy, with the arguable exception of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, itself influenced by Williams’ series. (The other arguably archetypal post-Tolkien high fantasy is possibly Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, although that can be a little too intense for readers).

 

Osten Ard, like Tolkien’s Gondor, has a history influenced by that of the Roman Empire (indeed Tolkien’s Gondor is essentially the Roman Empire – or more precisely the Byzantine Empire), although its equivalent in Osten Ard has since been overshadowed by the predominant Erkynlanders (resembling medieval England with some Arthurian folklore thrown into the mix) under their legendary king Prester John.

 

Unlike Tolkien’s Middle-Earth however, the mix of fantasy counterpart cultures extends to broader world cultures – and its dark lord, the Storm King, has more justice to his claims, in the near genocide of his elfin Sithi people, although that is outweighed by the evil of his means.

 

Williams has recently returned to his world of Osten Ard – after a prolific career in other series or works – with his new sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(4) CHRISTOPHER MOORE – THE ISLAND OF THE SEQUINED LOVE NUN (1997)

 

Christopher Moore is a writer of comic contemporary fantasy, who has combined the narrative voice (and Californian geography) of John Steinbeck and the comic absurdist fantasy of Kurt Vonnegut.

 

Like other writers, Moore has constructed his own storyverse (or The Verse in TV Tropes lingo), with its focus in California (Moore himself lives in San Francisco) and particularly the sleepy town of Pine Cove. Sleepy that is, until invaded by demons and their weary summoners (Practical Demonkeeping), Godzilla (the fantastically named Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove) or near-miss zombie apocalypses (The Stupidest Angel).

 

“Moore’s novels typically involve everyman characters struggling through supernatural or extraordinary circumstances”. As for which Moore novel is my personal favorite and accordingly takes its place in my top ten, there’s some tight competition – such as the Bloodsucking Fiends vampire love trilogy set in San Francisco or A Dirty Job psychopompic thriller also set in San Francisco (which crosses over with Bloodsucking Fiends).

 

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However, as my title makes clear, my personal favorite is yet another fantastically named novel, The Island of the Sequined Love Nun. In this novel, Moore steps outside the main Californian venue of his storyverse to the Micronesian island of the title of the Shark People. Protagonist pilot Tucker Case is fleeing the literal and metaphorical debris of an unfortunate incident involving alcohol, sex and a plane crash. Blacklisted as a pilot in the United States and pursued by the goons of Mary Jean Cosmetics for the destruction of their pink plane, he takes the only job opportunity available to him – flying behind a tiny Micronesian island and Japan for “an unscrupulous medical missionary” and “his beautiful but amoral wife”. The latter is the eponymous sexy blonde high priestess, impersonating the pinup girl on the sacred Second World War bomber of the island’s cargo cult, exploiting the Shark People for a sinister purpose. However, bomber pilot Captain Vincent Bennidetti may be deceased but has also ascended by the power of belief to present-day deity of the Shark People – and he is not about to abandon his flock without some supernatural intervention (and a talking fruit bat named Roberto). That is, when he’s not playing poker with his fellow deities – and losing to Jesus…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 4 STARS****

 

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(5) SIMON KURT UNSWORTH – THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE (2015)

 

I have a soft spot for posthumous fantasy and this debut novel, now the first in what is emerging as a series of novels for its protagonist Thomas Fool, is that darkest of posthumous fantasies set in Hell itself.

 

Hell, however, is not quite what one might expect. It is no longer a hell of burning torture – much to the disappointment of a hardcore angel in Heaven’s visiting delegation. It is a hell of bureaucracy and brutality – the latter typically supplied by Hell’s demon population, which coexists uneasily with its human damned population. The sinners who occupy it don’t even remember their past lives. In the words of one reviewer – “Hell is essentially the worst parts of all the worst cities…part slum, part gang territory and part red light district”.

 

Amidst all this is Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men – or what passes for a minimalist police force, both in terms of numbers and function, the latter virtually as bystanders to Hell’s crimes. However, for once, the powers that be in Hell want him to actually investigate a murder through to a conclusive finding, apparently for their amusement as much as anything else – although it may have also something to do with keeping up appearances for the visiting delegation of angels from Heaven.

 

Of course, murders in hell evoke the line from Apocalypse Now – “charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500”. In this case, however, there is more to it than meets the eye.

 

And that is essentially the inventive twist of the novel – a detective ‘noir’ novel set in Hell, although it is the world-building of Fool’s Hell that holds attention here.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

 

(X) ALANA MELOS – DELILAH DEVILSHOT / VILLAINESS

 

No, I haven’t swapped over to Roman numerals – X marks the spot for a special category within my honorable mentions. Firstly, and by way of full disclosure, part of this special category is for writers I encounter as friends or followers on social media, which I hope to expand over time as I haphazardly make my way through my reading list. Secondly, and not unconnected to the first, it is for writers that publish e-books rather than in print. Thirdly, and not unconnected to the second, it is typically for writers that you won’t find in the prim and proper part of your bookstore, even your electronic bookstore – writers of fantasy kink. And no one does fantasy kink better than Alana Melos.

 

Now obviously this won’t be to everyone’s taste. Some of her titles even make me blush. Just kidding – I’m unblushable. I’m sorry but you’re too late for that, Alana. Philip Jose Farmer brought the kink to my science fiction and fantasy – I read his Image of the Beast (and its sequel Blown) and it…changed me. So now when it comes to literary erotica, I find it mundane or tame without some wild fantasy – and Alana Melos scratches that itch. In her own words, “she’s endeavored to write the very best interesting, weird plot-driven and hot stories”.

 

In particular, I enjoy her Delilah Devilshot series and Villainess series, as those have the more compelling narratives in their own right. Delilah Devilshot (love that name!) is perhaps hotter to my taste, as the titular heroine embarks on a proverbial roaring rampage of revenge in a Weird West setting – rising writhing as a succubus with a six-shooter with a little infernal help from her dying deal with a devil. And no prizes for guessing how that deal was sealed – or how she seals most of her deals from now on

 

The Villainess series on the other hand, with titles named for Crowley-Thoth Tarot cards, has a story dripping playfully with all the best comic book tropes in a fantasy kitchen sink kink setting. Indeed, I would very much like to see it adapted as a comic, perhaps by more mature labels such as Image or Heavy Metals. The titular villainess for hire, Caprice or Capricious Whim in full (again, love that name), positively revels in her supervillainy in a setting that flits fantasy and science fiction in alternate worlds or histories (always a favorite of mine) – and a taste for discipline…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****