Thursday, 7 May 2020

Underrated

Day 7's prompt is the simplest yet - underrated. How many fans can't think of authors and books they think are underrated? To fit this, here's my simplest blog post yet, and that is a list of authors/books I think are underrated, split between Old and New.

Old

Katherine Kerr - Deverry Cycle

Anyone who reads this blog regularly or follows me on twitter might raise an eyebrow at the inclusion here. Kerr is, after all, well known with a vocal (if maybe not gigantic) fanbase. However, I'd submit the words in the brackets is the key part. Kerr should have a gigantic fanbase. Kerr's reputation should probably be as big as Jordan's, certainly as big as Feist's or Brooks'. The Deverry Cycle should be as loved as anything from the 80s/90s. It is the tale of four souls bound together through the ages by tragedy, slowly fixing their mistakes and learning better ways through incarnations, all in a grand Celtic kingdom riven by bloody war and ruthless politics. The worldbuilding suffuses the characters' worldviews entirely yet while Kerr shows the allure of those violent times and makes the characters sometimes alien, she also shows its woes and allows the characters to be better than their land. She has the rare gift to celebrate and criticise at once, all tied up with fine prose, strong characterisation, and virtuoso storytelling.

I can kind of understand why it isn't. The prose has a strong pseudo-Celtic lilt to it that may not be for everyone, some of the content might squick out others. It perhaps lacks the easy to grasp basic principles of other works of the period to start with, and throughout the series the narrative becomes complex and ambitious. The endings might be a tad more bitter than sweet at times. We are now though in an age where Jaime and Cersei promoted 'vice is nice but incest is best' all over our screens, where bittersweet endings are common, and where the audience seems to be seeking a sweet spot between grimdark and shiny happy Feist/Lackey vibes. This is an age where the Deverry Cycle could finally find the grand audience it deserves.

Robert Holdstock - Mythago Wood

It is perhaps strange to label a World Fantasy Book of the Year as underrated. Yet thirty-five years down the line, here we are. I only heard of it in an interview and outside of that conversation, have rarely heard it mentioned or enthused about since. That seems a sad and undeserved fate for one of the best examples of liminal fantasy I've read, and an even sadder and undeserved one for readers. It is the tale of a young man returning home after WW2 to find his older brother is claiming he's seen mythagos - people formed from idealised myths - in the local wood. Inside the wood he finds a parallel universe, a capricious and boundless place full of mythagos, along with a solid dose of love, betrayal and adventure. The book is written in a period style but still flows elegantly and while the characters take second place to the exploration of the idea, they have charm and depth. This is a very strong recommendation to anyone interested in fantasy deriving from myths, fantasy about supernatural places abutting our world, or just the history of the genre.

Barry Hughart - Bridge of Birds

The year Mythago Wood won, it split the win with another book. Bridge of Birds is that book. When looking at the way books set outside of faux-medieval Europe have flourished (even if authors descended from people outside of Europe find themselves struggling to be heard at times), it's astonishing to think that thirty-five years ago, a Chinese fairytale retelling won World Fantasy Book of the Year and then floundered because the publishers had no idea how to market it. That failure probably accounts for how a rip-roaring adventure that is by turns howlingly funny and grippingly tense is little more than a cult classic today. It details the search for a cure for a small village's poisoned children, and how the unlikely heroes stumbled right into a retelling of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. It mightn't be the most authentic spin on an ancient China that never was - honestly, I'm in no position to judge, but wanted to be clear I wasn't claiming that - but I do think it's a story that deserves to live on.

Janny Wurts - Sorcerer's Legacy

A chance pick-up at a charity shop for me, Wurts' debut has sparked a long writing career that often goes little recognised outside of her collaboration with Feist. This is the book that led to Feist seeking out that collaboration and it's really not hard to see why. Sorcerer's Legacy packs a huge amount of story and fantasy conceit into its small page count in which a widowed pregnant noblewoman is asked by a time-travelling wizard to leave her world and to another, where his king desperately needs a heir to keep his power. The result is part mystery, part romance, part exploration of the unknown, and wholly satisfying with a particularly memorable main character.

Katherine Kurtz - Deryni Rising

Long before the likes of GG Kay, GRR Martin and KJ Parker struck it big with their mixes of close to historical fiction with only a few lashings of magic to stir things up, there was Katherine Kurtz, first of her kind. First doesn't always mean best but to this day Kurtz's work remains very readable, with a pleasant prose style that has a hint of historical gravitas without feeling overwhelming and intricate, intriguing worldbuilding. Set in a kingdom heavily based on early medieval Wales, it is very faithful to the mix of politics and religion that dominated the noble world at that time.

Michael Moorcock - The War Hound and the World's Pain

Is Michael Moorcock underrated? Depending on you define it, maybe. It is interesting to me how an explosion of action heavy, morally murky books, Moorcock hasn't become as well discussed as other big authors from his era. Is that because we have replacements for what he offered better than we do Jordan? In any case, The War Hound and the World's Pain is an underrated book, overshadowed by the likes of Elric. It follows the quest of a jaded amoral German soldier from the Thirty Years War who makes a deal with Lucifer to find the Holy Grail, the physical manifestation of God's mercy on earth, and end the world's pain. The quest to do is by turns picaresque, weird, and harrowing, and our soldier Von Bek the perfect observer with his keen eyes and almost total lack of self-deception.

Peter Morwood - The Horse Lord

If it wasn't for Goodreads, I could believe that I and I alone know of this book. It belongs roughly to the heroic/S&S school of fantasy and without being fantastic, it hits several of my sweet spots. The hero captures some of the arrogance, coldness, and insecurity that seems right for a young training-to-kill noble warrior without being an ass. Magic and dragons are powerful, grand, and somewhat inscrutable. There's a good old fashioned revenge story and a society that doesn't confirm to our mores. In fact, it hits a lot of the same notes as Kerr's Deverry, and while it lacks the greater depth and power of Deverry, there's moments where the stripped back narrative carries the story better. 

Tanith Lee - Night's Master

Beautiful. Entrancing. Compelling. Tanith Lee constructed her own mythology here, loosely inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, and it functions exactly like mythology should. That is to say, it is full of larger than life, strangely charismastic assholes and saints, changing the world and doing the impossible through their power and passion. The only flaw is the prose is so rich, so descriptive, I can only consume little parts of it at a time. But for anyone who wishes fantasy was written like new myth, this is a stone cold classic.

(Before I get to the new, there is a brief point I'd like to make about the old, and that is the majority of these books are wildly inventive, very good, yet chucked into the same bin as Jordan, Feist, Eddings et al when inveighing against non up to date recommendations. I don't think this is particular fair or helpful to the genre. I am all for promoting the diversity of our genre, both in terms of stories and those who make it, and to urge a focus on the now does not always help us. Every story has its expiry date and we are certainly not short on new material readers, yet I still think we should dust off these gold nuggets and offer them along with more recent material. Speaking of which...)

New

Aliette de Bodard - Dominion of the Fallen

I shall restart as I started, with an author that is well-known enough but should be a great deal more. I've included her best fantasy series here, but I've read books by her in three different series and each time I've been impressed by her inventiveness, her elegant prose, and her ability to build slow burning mysteries. In my most recent read of hers, The House of Binding Thorns (the middle book in the Dominion of the Fallen series), I was stunned. The series is a kinda-Gothic-Urban Fantasy that features fallen Angels, Vietnamese rong, an Immortal, and the poor ordinary Parisians scrapping over a post-war city. It is the sort of semi-familiar, semi-new fantasy conceit that I love and while maybe they're slow burners on the market (I've no idea tbh), it's the sort of thing that I believe in time can become classics. The sooner the better.

MD Presley - The Woven Ring

One of the by-products of the explosion in independently published fiction is there's a lot of talented authors out there struggling to gain recognition, well-known in small circles and completely invisible in the wider world. Some of them play the genre a lot more traditionally than most of the big house commercial fiction, others push the envelope a lot harder. One of Presley's strengths is that he occupies a happy medium with his kinda anime-meets-American Civil War aesthetics, all set in a cheerful tale of revenge, redemption and more revenge. It makes for some fantastic action scenes, which is half of the reason I'm recommending him here. The other half is how tightly plotted the whole thing is here; it's a twisty, engaging ride, and I love the alternating present day/flashback structure. Disclaimer: I regard the man as a friend, but that ain't why he's getting recommended. I've got quite a few indie/small press friends, and only one other is getting recced here.

Bryan Wigmore - The Goddess Project

This is the other friend; again, not why they're here, but full disclosure. The Goddess Project was one of those books that hit all the right notes with its mix of baroque late Victorian aesthetic with 'primitive' shamanism and occult conspiracy. It mainly follows a young man and woman seeking out an artifact to repair the hole in their memories and as anyone who read my review of Cold-Forged Fire will know, I have a soft spot for that sort of conceit. It's an adventure-action where quick wits and uncovered secrets tends to save the day rather than violence - I love reading about violence, but also love it when books buck the trend - and that delves deep into its themes about identity and division, sometimes harshly but rarely ending without kindness and optimism.   

Lindsay Buroker - The Emperor's Edge

An independent author who doesn't seem to have made much of an impact in the circles I move in, Buroker writes slick action fantasy stories of the sort that Hollywood would write. The characters are archetypal, but not boringly so. Few pages go by without a quip at someone's expense. Fights are plentiful and inventive. The first book follows an Imperial enforcer (policewoman) tasked with tracking down a notorious assassin on behalf of a precariously positioned Emperor. Hollywood, amirite? There are deeper, heavier books on this list. There are few as fun though and sometimes, that's the poison of choice.

Cameron Johnston - The Traitor God

First off, ten out of ten for a very metal name. Second, The Traitor God has a fantastic feeling to it, the sort of thing that I want to call Magepunk and then hate myself for doing so right after. Yet it fits. The crowded, inequal city in which our protagonist stalks the mean streets looking for the man who butchered his friend is very cyberpunk, just in a fantasy setting. And one of the most fantasy things about it is how it's ruled by mages - nasty, conniving mages, all looking for a way to become gods. Or use horrific Cthulhian monsters to murder people instead. It's very much a book that deserves to be better known. Disclaimer: I know Cam a little from the internet.

Max Gladstone - Three Parts Dead

I'm never quite sure what people think of Max Gladstone. Certainly he's sold enough that people must know him but is he considered a great? A curiousity? Just kinda there? I don't know. But I get the feeling he's not high on most people's lists and that's a mistake. His Craft Sequence is, in its way, the closest thing to latter day Pratchett I've found; satirical, sharp, cynical mysteries with heart and a grin. It's more focused on the malfeasances of the business world than the satire but Gladstone makes it work, and his take on gods as corporations is truly inspired. Very highly recommended.

Jacqueline Carey - Kushiel's Dart

Carey is pretty well known to be fair - who hasn't heard of the mainstream fantasy author who wrote a ton of BDSM sex scenes into her work? But the brilliance of the books sometimes falls behind. Set in a light fantasy inlay of a vaguely renaissance Europe, the heroine is a courtesan and a spy, following the loyalties of the man who gave her meaning and the merciless, but not pitiless, bidding of the fallen angel who marked her as his own. The books are full of interesting characters, frustrating mysteries, romance, sex... okay, a lot of sex. Don't recommend them to your mum like this fool did. I'm still grateful she didn't like them, but most people will. Celebrated as a (kinda) modern classic, they should be.

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