I must admit that I am becoming a bit of a geek-lit hipster: I love Tolkien, Asimov, and Martin, but I also like reading things that are a little outside science fiction and fantasy’s standard fare. I’m not going to claim that these books are truly obscure; after all, they’re all good enough to deserve to be on this list, so they’ve all received some positive attention from critics and readers. Many of these authors have won awards, but I still find that I know too many people who haven’t read their work. For that reason, I decided to share some of my lesser-known favourites with you.
1. Harrowing the Dragon by Patricia C. McKillip
McKillip’s full-length novels have their charms, but I find that her writing style really shines in the short story format. Harrowing the Dragon is filled with odd characters, curious tales, and beautiful language. Some stories are set in traditional fantasy environments and others are more modern, but all evoke a sense of wonder. McKillip is also one of those quotable authors, the ones who create not only good stories but extraordinarily well-crafted sentences to tell them with. She can get a little sidetracked by her own elegance in her novels, but her short stories are taut and enchanting.
2. Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright
This is a sexy book, both in terms of its story, which is kind of wild, and its erotic undertones. It begins in a boarding school with only five students, all of whom discover that they have some sort of supernatural power, all of which draw from different paradigms (there’s some wacky scifi-fantasy philosophy thrown in for good measure). The students are essentially prisoners until they hatch a daring escape plan, kept from venturing beyond the grounds by school staff who are clearly more than they seem. This premise would be interesting enough on its own, but the story also has a dark and blatantly kinky element. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of sexual energy involved whenever anyone gets tied up, and at least one love triangle. The book is also the first in a trilogy, so there’s more where all of that came from.
3. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
This is not a light read in any sense, but it is a great one. Perdido Street Station is both physically heavy (my copy is 710 pages long) and thematically complex. Set in an economically and socially dystopian world, this steampunk masterpiece actually had me crying a few times. This was due to both the painful realities of said dystopian world and the magnificent characterisation that makes said painful realities more moving. The world of Perdido Street Station includes both magic (“thaumaturgy”) and steampunk technology, and it is described so well that you believe it’s all possible. The story has a number of key players, but events are set in motion by Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a somewhat rogue scientist, and his experiments on a grub that only eats a drug called “dreamshit”. His experiments spawn catastrophe in a city where the social order is already wrecking havoc on people’s ability to function. This is a dark, intense novel that manages to combine wickedly cool scifi and fantasy elements with a story that tackles issues of class and race so poignantly that you find yourself itching to single-handedly destroy corporate greed.
4. Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
The title of this book is misleading, as the cunning and disturbed kitchen-boy-turned-villain Steerpike is the true protagonist. This Gothic monstrosity is the beginning of a series (one which I will admit I have not finished–Peake unfortunately started to show signs of dementia around the time he was working on the third novel–but the first two books work well enough on their own and deserve to be read), most of which is set in Gormenghast. Gormenghast is a labyrinthine castle weighed down and held together by ritual and filled with mad, tragic characters. The daydreaming, Ophelia-esque Fuschia, the increasingly demented Lord Sepulchrave, and the rest of this truly bizarre cast are entrancing. The book feels longer than it is, but this is in part because of the luxurious language. Peake is poetic in his horror (perhaps at times too poetic), and anyone who loves Edgar Allan Poe or William Gibson’s writing style should give this book a try, if only to enjoy sentences like “This was the attic of her make-believe, where she would watch her mind’s companions advancing or retreating across the dusty floor.” The first two books were also made into a miniseries by the BBC starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. This casting choice makes viewers far too sympathetic to Steerpike’s cause and far too enamoured with a character who is supposed to be something of a grotesque both physically and psychologically, so it’s best to read the books first to get a true sense of the character.
5. The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self
Self’s book is a series of thought experiments made into clever, twisted stories. For example, the title story is based on the idea of there being only a certain amount of sanity to go around. Another story posits that the afterlife is set in a London suburb. It’s a weird, quirky little volume of short stories that, while driven by philosophical and psychological queries, is far from stuffy.
6. The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson Dargatz
You won’t find this one in the fantasy section–it’s generally considered “magic realism” and shelved with the capital-L Literature–but it has fantasical elements that are central to the events in the book. Most of these elements are connected with the Native trickster god, Coyote, and werewolves (if you need more than that to qualify something as fantasy, you’re too hardcore for me). The book has also been described as “Pacific Northwest Gothic” by the Boston Globe, and that fits the tone and plot well. It’s a dark story about a girl living with her impoverished and broken family in Shuswap Country, British Columbia. She is simultaneously discovering her sexuality; dealing with classism, sexism, ableism, and racism; enduring her abusive father; trying to untangle the truth behind local myths; and sneaking peaks at her mother’s recipe book, which sounds like a witch’s grimoire at times. The story is harsh, lyrical, and magical. Whatever types of books you usually read, you should give this one a chance.
These are some of my favourites–what about yours? Let us know which science fiction and fantasy books you love are being overlooked.