Fantasy novels that stretch the boundaries

So, Troy Wiggons has a post at Book Riot: 9 Diverse Fantasy Books That Will Challenge Your Idea of Fantasy Fiction

Troy says:

Fantasy recommendation lists are characterized by their safety. Curious newcomers to the genre, having enjoyed their sample of escapist literature, request more stories, more worlds to lose themselves in. More often than not, though, the recommendations that they receive are the same few critically acclaimed authors whose work is all too often presented as representative of the genre.

This is no doubt true, though I roll my eyes at the use of the term “escapist” in this context. Also, I see absolutely nothing wrong with recommending stories that are excellent even if a long-time fantasy reader would say they fit smack dab in the middle of mainstream fantasy. Not only that, I would be cautious about recommending a book that might appeal to the jaded palate of the long-time fan but would perhaps be likely to turn off a newcomer to the genre.

Still, interesting idea for a post, isn’t it?

I have not read a single one of the recommended works, although a couple have been on my radar for a while, including A STRANGER TO OLONDRIA, for example. Troy comments: Samatar’s novel examines the power of words and literacy … Jevick bears a powerful interest in the country of Olondria, and when Jevick’s father dies, he finds himself taking a pilgrimage to Olondria, where he is thrust into a community in flux. A religious war looms, with traditions of literacy representative of the disagreement. Olondria examines some vividly human themes, indeed, examines humanity itself with prose so beautiful that you’ll be recalling passages in your sleep.

Yes, it is comments like prose so beautiful you’ll be recalling passages in your sleep that keep this book from fading off my radar. Of course, one might well argue that many, many fantasy novels examine some vividly human themes, probably including many of the standard works on a typical fantasy recommendation list. Why, I might be able to identify one or two such themes in, say, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which I imagine is on every single list of fantasy recommendations ever compiled.

Still, fantasy that pushes the boundaries . . . fantasy that steps outside the basic medieval setting and the orphaned-heir type of plot . . . what would you recommend? Off the top of my head, I might suggest:

1. The Sharing Knife series. I think of this one because of the continual focus on ordinary life and ordinary people. Yes, yes, I know that Dag is not just *all* that ordinary. This is still a far cry from a medieval Europe-ish setting with a focus on princes and magicians, kings and warriors.

2. The INDA series by Sherwood Smith. I think of this epic fantasy series in contrast to Troy’s suggestion of THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley. Not that I have anything against the latter, except that I have read plenty that indicates it is grim grim grim, probably too much so for me, with all the male characters being victims and all the female characters being rapists, and you know, that is not an attraction. Thus, in contrast, INDA, which does odd things with culture and gender without marching off the cliff of sadistic grimdark tropes.

3. BRIDGE OF BIRDS by Hughart. That steps outside the default European-ish setting to an alternate China, plus it’s a total delight. Or UNDER HEAVEN, which of course is longer and darker and different, but still a beautiful alternate China setting.

4. At the moment, I’d also think of THE DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, with its war between the “angels” and the “devils”, not to mention working in both contemporary Earth, including Prague and Morocco, and the world of Eretz. It gets grim, but not grimdark; and although complex I don’t think it’s hard to follow, and since it’s beautifully written, maybe it could be both welcoming to newcomers to fantasy while nudging a few boundaries. By the way, have you all read “Night of Cake and Puppets” yet? Well, what are you waiting for? Go read that!

5. Let me see, let me see. How about THE CITY AND THE CITY by Mieville. I’ve only read three of Mieville’s books so far and this one is my favorite so far. Of course I like detective stories, too. But the setting, so very peculiar, is one that *almost* worked for me,and I mean “almost worked” in a good way. I really enjoyed this book and have re-read it twice so far. In fact, now that I think of it, I would like to re-read it again.

6. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norril by Suzanna Clarke. Because, wow. Hand it to anybody who likes literary fiction and thinks all fantasy is basically The Sword of Shannara.

7. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

8. Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip. Those interweaving stories — the myths and legends that frame the main story — very beautiful and unusual.

Okay, eight, that’s enough for now, especially since this is just off the top of my head. Which “unusual” or “pushing the boundaries” fantasy novels spring immediately to your mind?

I will add that some of Troy’s recommended works, particularly The Tale of Yin duology by Joyce Chng and of The Imaro series by Charles Saunders, both do look very interesting.

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3 thoughts on “Fantasy novels that stretch the boundaries”

  1. I keep looking at my sample of Olondria and never getting very far into it. Of the others on the list, they mostly don’t sound up my alley.

    A couple suggestions:

    L. Shelby’s CANTATA In CORAL & IVORY, set in a tropical seafaring land, yeah, there’s an Emperor, but the viewpoint character is a sea captain-sort of, the term is different, and he got it by popular decision which is how the culture chooses people to do things. Then he inherits a title and has to go to court. He hates it. He’s used to getting things done, and the courtiers … well, they aren’t. He gets things done anyway, and there’s a magical being involved who invented a telescope.
    a sample: “There didn’t seem to be any way to say the words that wasn’t entirely too stark. “Your uncle, the former Eplakil of Seteblite, is even now ascending to the Celestial Ones, Your Eminence.”
    There was a pause, and when I looked up I could see signs of dismay written on his features. “Is my cousin at court?” he asked.
    “Your cousin became feverish during the worst of the summer storms, Your Eminence. He is also on his way to the Celestial Ones, may both their ascents be smooth.”
    I must have misheard the next words of Isde Ikhsior, for an eplakil would never so forget his eminence that he would comment negatively on the moral worthiness of the Mother Moon.”

    Shelby’s PAVANE in the same setting – different emperor, though – seems to be something of a take on the 12 dancing princesses with a very different cause and resolution.
    Different sort of court & rules and things going on. Not at all medieval.

    Graydon Saunders’ two tales of the Commonweal, THE MARCH NORTH and A SUCCESSION OF BAD DAYS. The first is military action in a polity known as the Commonweal, which is an island of sanity surrounded by ‘The Bad Old Days” otherwise known as Evil Overlords. Some reformed evil overlords serve the Commonweal. The story opens with an out of the way militia-type organization getting assigned three of the top/worst/most notorious reformed EOs. The commander realizes Something Is Up. And indeed it is. This is the book with a creek that sometimes – on a schedule – flows with ‘thaumaturgically active dragon’s blood’ which is used for making artillery.

    The second is sorcery school as a succession of civil engineering projects. Our viewpoint character accidentally invents a magical laser when told to try to make light. He warms things by stirring atoms, so when he had to do something with photons that’s what resulted. The teachers don’t call it a laser, but recognize it. Read the Goodreads reviews, and find Brad DeLong’s and James Nichol(l)’s, to see if these are for you.

    Those are some of the most original takes in world building I’ve run across lately.

  2. The Wheel of the Infinite is a good choice!

    And in fact I have L Shelby’s Coral Palace books on my Kindle right now. I’d like to get to them soon …

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