The reading list for the Imaginary Worlds course is a fantastic cross-section of the imaginary genres, from classic epic fantasy to literary fiction to dystopias to steampunk. Each week on the Facebook page I'm introducing one of the 16 books in more detail, and each month I'll gather up a cross-section of four of the books here, to introduce you to. (By the way, if you think you don't like reading fantasy or sci-fi, you should read this article first: Why you like reading fantasy and science fiction even though you think you don't.)
This month, we have Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice, Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber, Peter F Hamilton's Neutronium Alchemist, and Ken Liu's Grace of Kings. Note: if you're coming on the course, don't panic - the 16 books are recommended reading, not required reading! It's fine if you don't read them before the course, we'll be looking at their blurbs and extracts during the course.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
The blurb for this book reads like fairly standard "sword-and-sorcery" style epic fantasy, but Robin Hobb's books are anything but standard. They're definitely within the genre of epic fantasy and use a lot of the genre's features, but with fabulous freshness, they duck a lot of the usual cliches and take an unexpected approach to some of the familiar tropes. The characterisation and sense of place are especially good, and the books are shot through with a deep sense of wisdom. I don't think I've ever used my Kindle's underlining feature so much.
This is the first book in the Farseer Trilogy, and if this one hooks you, you're in luck: several other trilogies follow the same characters and world, alternating between the Farseers and the Rain Wilds, all with gorgeous cover art by Jackie Morris. The chronological order for the trilogies goes...
- The Farseer trilogy
- The Liveship Traders trilogy
- The Tawny Man trilogy
- The Rain Wild Chronicles (four books)
- Fitz and the Fool trilogy (in progress)
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Midnight Robber is a wonderfully unexpected mix of genres, starting off in a future world with some exciting new tech, feeling more like fantasy for much of the book, mixing in folklore and myth, and towards the end starting to feel a bit magical-realist, all sprinkled with Carribbean dialect. In the prologue, I found the dialect a tiny bit heavy, as I'm not used to it, but after a couple of pages I could tune my ear into it more easily (and I also checked ahead to see if the rest would be a bit lighter, which it was). Once I was into the story, the dialect felt lighter and also an essential part of creating the book's atmosphere. Most of all, the book's world is splendid and rich - I was gutted when it ended, because I'd have happily spent a full trilogy living in and exploring that world! A lot of fantasy draws on vaguely European landscapes of fields, mountains, plains, etc, and in the weaker books a paucity of animals, just foxes / hares / snakes / birds; to be in a compelling and fully realised jungle, replete with a jungle's many creepy crawly bitey things and humidity, was pure delight.
What this book does especially well: Many things - but for the Imaginary Worlds course, it's a particularly fine example of creating a world that doesn't follow the usual sci-fi / fantasy template, and also of filling it with flora and fauna.
Hopkinson's other novels use a similar freestyle approach to genre and play with language, so if you like Midnight Robber, you have another five novels you can read: Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, The New Moon's Arms, The Chaos (Young adult), and Sister Mine. She's also published six anthologies of short fiction.
The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F Hamilton
The ancient menace has finally escaped from Lalonde, shattering the Confederation's peaceful existence. Those who succumbed to it have acquired godlike powers, but now follow a far from divine gospel as they advance inexorably from world to world. On planets and asteroids individuals battle for survival against the strange and brutal forces unleashed upon the universe. Governments teeter on the brink of anarchy, the Confederation Navy is dangerously overstretched, and a dark messiah prepares to invoke his own version of the final Night. In such desperate times the last thing the galaxy needs is a new and terrifyingly powerful weapon. Yet Dr Alkad Mzu is determined to retrieve the Alchemist - so she can complete her thirty-year-old vendetta to slay a star. Which means Joshua Calvert has to find Dr Mzu and bring her back before the Alchemist can be reactivated. But he's not alone in the chase, and there are people on both sides who have their own ideas about how to sue the ultimate doomsday device.
Peter F Hamilton writes fantastic beasts of books, great whopping volumes. I love long books and series of books - I've never understood some people's dislike for them, because what are you going to do when you finish besides read another book? Why not carry on with the same book? That's even better! If you like long books as much as me, this author's a winner: most of these tomes clock in around 1000 pages, and they come in THREES.
Hamilton writes serious solid sci-fi. Most sci-fi gets divided into "actual sciency stuff" (extrapolating a scientific principle) and "space opera" (lots of planets and aliens), but he does both together. His books are huge in scope as well as actual size, with a substantial cast and usually about five plot threads running together, but absolutely worth any momentary confusion of "Who's that again?" The metaphysical payoff at the end of his novels is invariably spectactular, leaving your mind reeling with ideas.
I do have a couple criticisms of his work. He definitely has a sexual "type", which becomes increasingly clear across the books. By the seventh nubile girl with freckles across her breasts - well, le sigh, but whatever. That said, his female characters are generally strong, complex characters. He also goes into more detail than necessary sometimes with the tech - by the third page explaining how a spaceship works, I tend to think "I wasn't planning on building the bloody thing!" but some might enjoy that aspect. And sometimes, with 5 threads, the tension is lost, because when you return to that thread, you've forgotten the cliffhanger you left it on. But these are very minor quibbles compared to his book's strengths.
What these books do especially well: fantastic themes, which culminate powerfully in each trilogy's ending; heaps of new ideas with careful thought of how these ripple through the society; some brilliant science.
I heard Peter F Hamilton speak at a panel at the World Fantasy Conference, and afterwards asked the panel which of their ideas they thought most likely to come true some day. Hamilton said that his idea of OC tattoos, circuitry under the skin, were already true, and he was kicking himself for not having patented the idea!
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
The Grace of Kings is book 1 of The Dandelion Dynasty, but feels and works like a standalone book, with narrative satisfaction at the end. It's epic fantasy, in the sense of being set in an imaginary world and exploring its large-scale politics, but without many of the usual tropes of that - notably, no magic and no mythical beasts - and using tech with steampunk leanings, while not overtly being steampunk in other ways. Its main concern is with politics: how political machinations work (or fail), changing perceptions, and the personalities behind it. It had much less description than epic fantasy usually does, which is a shame for me, as that's what lets me imaginatively inhabit a world, but the rest was good enough to keep me engaged.
What this book does especially well: Its precise exploration of politics is fascinating, especially in how tightly this is woven with an understanding of characters. Each time a character does something that thrills or disappoints you, you have a sense that that was, perhaps, inevitable in their personality.
New recommendations are coming out each week before the Imaginary Worlds course. You can follow me on Facebook/writersgreenhouse or Twitter @writersgreenhse to see the latest, or sign up to the newsletter to get the next blog-batch sent to you and other occasional interesting things: