Best Fantasy Books

hardbound cover
hardbound cover
Charles Vess Story Illustration
Charles Vess Story Illustration

A Primer on Fairies and English History


The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

If you get a chance to get your hands on one of the best fantasy books available, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, grab it! I got mine through a book swapping club and love it! Charles Vess did the illustrations and if you know his work at all you would jump at the chance to get a book full of them, they are graceful and totally perfect for these stories. The whole package in the hardcover is beautiful and worth having even if you never read the book (which would be silly but heck some folks just collect pretty books!)

If you know Susanna Clark’s previous novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell then you will be familiar with the setting for this collection of short stories. It is a charming set of tales set in that same magical England that looks a great deal like our own Victorian history; with the exception that magic exists and is real in this version. One of the things that make this collection different though, is that they are fairy tales told from a woman’s point of view. It does make a difference to see the women characters in this perspective.

A Primer Set for Our Enjoyment

The premise of the book is one of the things, though; that I feel sets it apart. There is a short introduction “written” by a Professor James Sutherland where he discusses the meaning of these stories and how they serve to educate the public about the development of magic in the U.K. She uses this device as an introduction to the stories and it is a great way to tie these various short stories into a theme.

The eight tales that follow this introduction are little folk tales or fairy tales that show how various people came to deal with the world of fairy. The title story deals with an incident in Clarke’s earlier novel that is merely mentioned as a footnote in the novel and then teased out to fully explain the incident here. Just as in her novel, she tells the tales from a third person narrator and gives the narrator an old English accent that suits these stories so well. When you add in that eyebrow lifting sardonic British humor, it will have you amused to no end.

Visiting Familiar Territory

From the retelling of Rumpelstiltskin in On Lickerish Hill to the revisit to the village of Wall in Neil Gaimen’s Stardust novel, these are all tales that show with spirit how women in the stories find new and inventive ways to solve the problems as diverse as an unruly husband’s demands and The Duke of Wellington‘s need to change his personal history.

The collection of short stories made a splash when they first came out, even though several of the stories have appeared elsewhere before this. I love Susanna’s earlier novel and when I found this book I pounced on it with delight. If you love good imaginative fantasy, if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell or you just love female fantasy writing with a quirk, you will enjoy this great collection. Pass it around; tell your friends, it is a group of tales that should be shared around.

Read about more new fantasy books at http://bestfantasystories.com.

Is The Lord of the Rings Nobel Prize Material?


I recently came across a rather shocking little tale in a British newspaper that I just have to share with everyone here. I love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as I think do most of us who have come to love fantasy writing. Particularly if you love the quest and adventure type stuff that I have come to really seek out in fantasy books. But what I didn’t know is that the book The Lord of Rings was once nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature. It turns out that back in 1961, which was at the beginning of the huge popularity of the trio of books that was to culminate in an amazing film the books were nominated for the Nobel. Now, not everyone can nominate a writer for the Nobel Prize for literature. You must be either a former winner, one of a handful of academics that the committee will invite to submit or someone that is part of the international publishing industry that is invited to nominate. So it is surprising that someone would, and it turns out that C.S. Lewis was a good friend of Tolkien and had nominated him that year.

Generally this kind of information isn’t made public, but a reporter was digging into the archives out of journalistic curiosity and was surprised to run across Tolkien’s name as one of the nominees for that year. Perhaps what were more surprising were the comments that they made. Apparently the committee dismissed The Lord of The Rings as work that had not “in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality”. It was criticized as being poorly written prose and bad storytelling, which is news to me. Of course, I don’t agree with this assessment and find it interesting that a set of stories that were so compelling that they basically created a whole new genre of fiction could be dismissed so easily by them. But then again, most of the books that they award with the prize are ones I have never heard of and often have no interest in reading. So maybe we just have different taste in books!

The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay

I read this wonderful little fantasy on my flight home last week, and was charmed by it. It is a graphic novel telling of the meeting between the very last dragon in a mythical land and the young girl whose persistence finds a hero to overcome it and save her village. The story is pure myth, and told with a sure hand by stellar storyteller Jane Yolen. It is a story of the quiet life in a simple village, and the folks in it that are sure the very last dragon was killed centuries ago when a final egg is hatched and they are faced with their greatest fears. Now the daughter of a healer and a hero who doesn’t believe he is a hero must face the dragon. How the young girl comes to teach the hero how to be one, is a wonderful tale of magical delight.

The art when coupled with such writing makes this a book you will want to re-read for just the pleasure of looking at the pages. One of the joys of graphic novels is that coupling of art and story, and Jane Yolen has found the perfect complement to her writing style in fantasy artist Rebecca Guay. The colors are muted, in a way that reminds you of old tipped-in plates in fairy tale books from a hundred or so years ago. But her art never feels forced or out of place. The lines are soft and lush, the approach elegant and graceful.

All in all, this is a wonderful book for any age of reader. It is in keeping with the grand old tradition of mythical tales filled with magical creatures, wise women and brace men. The fact that the wise woman is only a young girl and the brave young man needs to be told he is the hero he plays makes the story brim with gentle humor, adventure and a final confrontation that is depicted in all its glory. Read it for your own pleasure, or pass it on to a friend. It is something that could be read by a parent to a young child as easily as a lover to another. It also proves that magic and fantasy are more than just dark vampires and werewolves in the night. Magic can be green and it can heal too.

The Last Vampire by Christopher Pike

Before the vampire craze began nationwide, teenagers knew how fun a good vampire read could be.  In 1994, Christopher Pike wrote the novel "The Last Vampire" long before writing vampire novels was the popular thing to do.  It is the story of a girl that has been eighteen years old for five thousand years.  She believes herself to be the last vampire alive and then finds out that a detective has been hired to investigate her.  Her goal now is to find the mystery person who has hired this detective and discover their motives:

Do they know that vampires exist?

During her search, she will find herself facing urges she has never known before as well as an enemy that she may not be able to defeat.

The fight sequences are a little graphic but there is enough action to keep any thrill seeker interested.  Is it suitable for a teenage audience?  It is hard to say.  The book was written as your adult fiction but it’s never patronizing to its target audience.  It covers the topics of religion and cloning in a such a way as to allow for the reader to decide how they feel about these potentially sensitive and controversial subjects.

Christopher Pike has created a vampire that you could love to hate but she has an incredible back story that is quite fantastic.  As you read through the novel, you are able to picture in your mind how it could really happen this way - that there could be a ‘last vampire’.  Sometimes it seems a little too convenient when she ends up in a situation where she needs to fly a helicopter to escape and all of a sudden you find out she knows how to fly helicopters.  But, the overall story lets you ignore these little problems.

You can tell the author is a male because the romance in the novel is a little stilted, but if you use your imagination, it is still a lot of fun to read.  The beginning is a bit slow but the book has good dialogue and it’s very unpredictable.  With all of the twists and turns you will find in this novel, I recommend it for a great, fast-paced read.

The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

British fantasy author Joe Abercrombie has produced one of the most impressive trilogies of all times in The First Law trilogy. Published between 2006 and 2008, the books in the trilogy - The Blade Itself , Before They are Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings have brilliant plots and complex characters added to the investigation of the human mind’s dark labyrinths.

A class apart, Abercrombie’s books have no heroes or villains; ‘good guys’ do not get rewarded nor do the bad guys get their dues. Good and evil depends on who is speaking – the author holds up a dark mirror and we can see both the good and the bad behaviors which we are all capable of.

His writing is so effective that his stories allow us to examine our own sins and successes through them. There are no dragons or mages in the storyline but instead these are stories made up of tears, sweat and blood that we can relate to. Abercrombie does not write dialogues, he simply writes the characters and these characters speak to the readers. His fight scenes lack chivalry and valor and his love scenes illustrate that nothing, including love, can save one from his own blindness.

The trilogy is centered around Logen Ninefingers – ‘the thinking man’s barbarian’. Mostly Logen does what he wants to without much exertion, however in war "The Bloody Nine" (his alter ego) takes over. This character is as likely to kill and destroy friends as foe. Other "point-of-view" characters are Collum West (a career soldier), Jezal Luthar (a spoilt aristocrat), Glokta (a war hero) and Ferro (a runaway slave). The politics and social commentary of their worlds is evident throughout the story.

The first book, The Blade Itself , is where we see Bayaz leading his team to war and the conflicts he encounters. Before They Are Hanged , shows the invasion of Angland and the struggle of the badly equipped and trained Midderlands army fighting against the Northmen. The war’s climax occurs in book three, The Last Argument of Kings . While the army is in Angland and the king is newly elected, Midderland is attacked by flesh eating priests leading an army of religious fanatics. They must hold the territory until the army returns.

The expression ‘First Law’ refers to the consequences of breaking the law of magic, of using it from the dark side. Though each of the books is skillfully well-rounded, none of them really stands alone. To really enjoy the epic you must read them as a series in chronological order. So, if you're looking for gritty and harsh fantasy with a lot of destruction and death, these are just the books for you!

Blood Blade

Blood Blade by Marcus Pelegrimas

Blood Blade is the debut novel in a new supernatural series by Marcus Pelegrimas and you realize it’s going to be a different kind of book from page one.  The story begins with a video game designer named Cole Waenecki, who's run into designer's block.  He has a few kinks to work out in a new game that is set to be released worldwide in several months and he cannot finish it.  It seems to him that a vacation would be just the trick in beating his designers block – so, off he goes to British Columbia on an extreme vacation.  He hopes his adventures will inspire him to create new moves in his video game.  

Unfortunately, the trip isn't what he expected, beginning with a terrifying ride on a ‘bucket with wings’ to the middle of nowhere with no way out.  Out in the wilderness, they are attacked by a monster and Cole simply cannot believe it - at first.  But, he finally realizes that he is going to be killed if he doesn’t think of something to do.  He is eventually helped by two men from his travel group who are able to fight this creature, this monster that should not exist.  In fact, they fight better than anyone he has ever seen. They may not be able to kill the monster but they can certainly keep it busy.

These two men turn out to be part of a group of special hunters called 'skinners' that specialize in these hunting these types of monsters.  The trouble is that the monster is a full blooded shapeshifter and the two hunters will never be able to kill it.  In fact, it does kill them both but not before they mysteriously tell Cole he has to ‘call Paige at MEG’.  Now the story really gets started as Cole turns out to be the only survivor of the shapeshifting monster who attacked his camp.  It is hard for him to believe that all of the things he had fantasized about for his new video games are basically true.  Vampires (nymars), half-blooded and full-blooded shape shifters - and more – are all actually living creatures!

Not knowing what else to do, Cole calls the phone number given to him by the mysterious hunters, which leads to his contact with the Midwestern Ectological Group or MEG.  He is given just enough information to make him dangerous while they allow him to access weapons that can truly kill the shape shifters.  Special weapons are just the beginning of his training as Cole goes through a crash course on how to be a hunter or ‘skinner’ as they are called from Paige Strobel, skinner extraordinaire.  And, Cole hopes that he will be learning more than just fighting from Paige, their close contact during fighting lessons has him thinking about other things besides
monsters and martial arts.

Cole becomes increasingly fascinated with this hidden supernatural world and knows that he will never return to his old life. Especially when the master nymar, Mysonik, has made it his life’s goal or, ‘non-life’ I should say, to either kill Cole or make him his slave.  The nymar in this novel are vampires but they have become that way due to a spore that encases the heart of a human and makes them into a vampire (nymar).  Cole is going to have to learn what it means to be a skinner and find a way to stop Mysonik, who not only wants Cole but who also wants to take over all the nymar and other shape shifters.

The novel has great action scenes and good witty repartee between the characters.  The story itself draws somewhat from traditional beliefs about vampires – that they are the bad guys just like they were before being a vampire became sexy.  The author has done a great job of taking well used material and making it new and interesting.  This novel is definitely not for teenagers but for the adult lover of supernatural fiction, this book is just the ticket.

A Sword from Red Ice by J. V. Jones

Called a ‘striking writer’ by Robert Jordan, J. V. Jones is a master storyteller who has woven an unforgettable tale in A Sword from Red Ice. All the emotions of a human spirit – strength, ambition and betrayal make this epic fantasy a fascinating read. The characters are compelling in a saga of the cold, splintered world.

The world is war ridden and in the utter chaos, clans are fighting for dominance. Clan chiefs in their arrogance urge followers to battles and are constantly plotting and killing while most of the clansmen yearn for peace and unity. The darkest threat comes from the city of Spire Vanis whose rulers have long desired to dominate all clans. In the midst of all this worldly chaos, the book also deals with personal demons: A clanswoman who will do anything to save her people; a young woman with an unknown past; a young man betrayed by his brother ;and a natural killer who abounds in love and loyalty. Though individually all of them seek their own survival, together they hold the key to the world’s salvation.

In the previous books from the Sword of Shadows series, J. V. Jones had written powerful stories about Raif Sevrance and Ash March, a man and a woman, whose fates are interwoven while they set out to save the world, all the while trying to find themselves. As Ash pursues her future and Raif takes a refuge, the story turns out to be violent, suspenseful and exciting – all at the same time. If you are fond of fantasy epics on grander scales, this book is a great read.

The author presents fantasy in an intriguingly unique manner which will keep the reader glued to the story until the end. The book's narrative creates a compelling atmosphere of dark foreboding and mounting tension and suspense.  Jones is an imaginative and vivid author and the trilogy is extremely addictive. The seamless narrative and believable character development are added bonuses in the book.

Though the book is absolutely engrossing the copious amount of details provided in the book can put off some readers. Her previous books focused more on relevant sequences of events and some may feel that A Sword from Red Ice spends too much time on initial explanations. However since some readers don't read trilogies or book series in chronological order the history of the characters is to be expected.
 
Overall the book works as either a standalone volume or as part of a series.

Red Seas under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Scott Lynch wrote a prequel to Red Seas under Red Skies called  The Lies of Locke Lamora. However, you don't have to read the previous books in the series to enjoy this new release. The book is a lot of fun and except for a few references from its successor, a story in itself. Though not earth shaking in its plot or characters, they are well imagined and portrayed.

The structure of the book is different in that it does not confirm to any chronological order.  In fact the book begins with a scene that's re-visited much later in the book.  The first half of Red Seas under Red Skies alternates between chapters dealing with the present and flashback chapters. Though it's not clear why this occurs and the pattern is abandoned half way through the book, it surprisingly doesn't detract from the overall storyline.

If the first book was in the veins of Oliver Twist, this book will remind you of the Ocean’s Eleven movies its story centering on a plan to penetrate the vault of an extremely protected casino. The book is funny, fast paced and colorful and the author does a good job with world building.  You can almost feel the place and see the people through the book and its characters.

After the disastrous setback in the first book, Locke Lamora and his friend Jean Tannen reach the city of Tal Verrar. They plan to break into the vault of a gambling den, the Sinspire but are soon hindered by outside influences, namely, someone called The Archon.  The Archon drags them into a plot which would increase his powers.  They are told to capture a pirate ship which will, hopefully, make clear the need to increase the Archon’s powers.

Midway through the story changes into a pirate story.  Locke and Jean are abducted by female pirates who are actually good guys. They are looking to discharge their compulsion to the Archon, remain with the ‘good guys’ and also revamp their Sinspire plans. The fantastical elements are not very impressive but the action scenes once the pirates come in, are fantastic.

In the end, this is a likeable book with good world building and character development.

Acacia : The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham

Acacia: The War with the Mein is a book written without much back story. Its immense readability comes from the way Durham lays out his subplots without adding any artificiality to the narrative or characterization. He gently guides the leader into the world of the story and the reader, instead of wallowing in the history of Durham's world, gets involved in the making of the history.

The book presents the inner turmoil of a father who is caught unawares in his dilemma of his responsibilities to his kingdom as well as to the peace in his children’s life in his final years. He is stuck between a potential fulfillment of his dreams and his worst nightmare coming to life.  In the end he decides to send his children into hiding, just like he hid himself and this is when his children begin to understand the world they live in, and eventually themselves.

Durham has always been involved in historical fiction and Acacia has the feel of a tale told by a historian. Unfortunately this detachment prevents the reader from empathasizing with the characters. So, although the characters show you all they have to offer, there is a lack of emotional highs or lows in the storyline and the reader's not truly drawn into the character’s lives.

Though the book touches on the war, slavery, nationalism and leadership it does so with a somewhat withdrawn quality; it doesn't really reach the point where it affects the reader. Overall the book may be of interest to historians but may not be so easily accepted by fantasy book fans.

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