Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Unique Novels

So, this post at Random Musings of a Bibliophile caught my eye this morning: Most Unique Books I’ve Read

Brandy lists ten titles, six of which I’ve read. Of those ten, I would particularly pull out one as really unique. (I know unique does not take technically take qualifiers, but here in this post it’s going to.)

That one is Ash and Bramble by Sarah Prineas.

What makes this book so very unique: I’ve read a lot of fairy tale retellings. I don’t really get tired of the form, so no doubt I’ll read a lot more in my life. But I don’t expect ever to read another one that deconstructs the whole idea of fairy tales as thoroughly as this. Prineas did an amazing job taking the whole concept apart. I’ve got the sequel on my TBR pile, but although it may be very good, I don’t see how it can possibly be as startling in construction.

I would like to add a handful of other seriously unique titles. So —

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fford.

Speaking of deconstructing stories and the whole idea of Story, it’s hard to think of any other fictional world which does this more completely than the world of books and fiction in this series. In this world, “England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.”

How does anybody ever think of things like that?

Okay, here’s one that also strikes me as unique, although not in a deconstruct-fiction way.

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennen.

This series is soooo close to the tone of a naturalist’s writing from, say, the eighteen hundreds . . . but delicately slanted just a touch toward modern sensibility in order to make the protagonist sympathetic to a modern readership. I don’t think you can spot this unless you’ve read actual accounts written by real naturalists around the late 1800s or early 1900s. Then it will probably leap out at you. As novels go, these aren’t the kind I just fall into and get absorbed by . . . but intellectually, they are just SO COOL. Plus, such stunning covers and artwork.

Next —

The Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliot

More absorbing as stories, the cluttered worldbuilding is particularly noteworthy in these because of the inclusion of the “feathered people” — troodon-derived people who are human-like enough to interact with humans, but who really have quite different instincts. A wonderful detail of almost-science fiction included in this baroque fantasy setting. I wish I’d thought of doing that.

And that leads me to —

The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

There are plenty of fantasy novels sort of wrapped in a science-fiction-esque setting (Pern, for example; and The Warlock series by Stasheff). But I have never seen a REAL science fiction setting so thoroughly disguised as fantasy in my life. Also, some of my favorite characters ever, and exciting storytelling. There’s a reason this series was my single favorite reading experience the year I read it.

Okay, moving on to something different:

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

I’ve seen created languages before . . . I’ve never read A Clockwork Orange, so I can’t really compare these two dystopia/postapocalyptic stories, but Newman’s book does the most amazing things with language. Even more so than in Hellflower by Eluki bes Shahar, although that’s as comparable as I can think of. (The stories are nothing alike otherwise.)

I thought there was supposed to be a sequel . . . which is needed because the first book leaves us in such dire circumstances . . . yes, I see references to a sequel in interviews with Newman. One of these days, then, I trust.

And now, unique in a whole different sense:

Illuminae by Kaufman and Kristoff.

The title and cover of the third book just got released, by the way. It’s Obsidio, so of course the cover is black black black.

One rather assumes the authors’ names are going to be on there somewhere too, but no sign of that here. Hmm.

It is, of course, not the plotting or characters or storytelling or any of that which is unique in this trilogy. It’s the layout and visuals used throughout the story.

Really amazing.

Which naturally leads me to this one, not out yet, which I mentioned yesterday:

Apparently half novel and half art book, with 120 full pages of artwork included in the novel, this sounds like quite a departure from the standard format. I’m kind of excited about it myself, even though I’m trying not to expect too much of the storytelling just in case that is not a strength.

Okay, how many is that? … Eight. All right, what are two more contenders for “most unique” SFF novels?

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8 Comments Unique Novels

  1. SarahZ

    Agree entirely on the bizarre wealth of ideas in Eyre Affair – I also liked his Nursery Crimes spinoff books, but the Thursday Next series eventually wore me out on a narrative level. Lots of ideas, not enough attention to character.

    Shadowshaper is an interesting pick on the part of the blogger, because while its racial elements are (sadly) pretty unique, the story itself is bog standard (teen discovers her secret magical inheritance, the enemy of her grandma who’s returned for revenge…).

    For something more unique, but with that racial diversity in fantasy, The Summer Prince (Alaya Dawn Johnson) sprang to mind.

    Neal Stevenson’s Diamond Age seems like it could be on this list too, with its cyberpunk and neo-victorians mixed together.

    Also, maybe the alien races in Future Boston? The book includes the informational brochure they give out to people before they meet the insectoid “Bishop” to ensure they don’t accidentally identify themselves as being edible.

  2. Craig N.

    THE DIAMOND AGE strikes me as a decent choice.

    Rachel, you’re not a fan of R.A. Lafferty, but the only reason his novels aren’t unique is that that he wrote more than one of them. To my taste (which seems to be unusual even among the tiny circle of Lafferty fans), FOURTH MANSIONS is the most successful at telling a story of sorts while maintaining the Laffertyness all the way through.

    Cordwainer Smith only wrote one novel, so NORSTRILIA is a good candidate for your list even though his short fiction probably averages out better. (And I’m not sure how well the novel would work if you came to it without seeing any of the shorts.) The weirdness of his far-future setting is hard to describe.

    Tim Powers’ THE ANUBIS GATES is unusual even by his standards of thoroughly-researched history with weird magic stuff stuck in the interstices: the time travel (with some classic time paradoxes) adds an additional level.

  3. Kim Aippersbach

    Oh, The Steerswoman series! Wonderful, and completely unique.

    Patrick Ness writes unique books, each one very different from anything else he’s written. Same goes for Frances Hardinge.

    I thought both the Ancillary Justice series and The Fifth Season were quite unique. I guess Ancillary Justice uses lots of familiar sci-fi tropes, but put together in a different way. And Fifth Season is just crazy different in setting, theme, structure, character development.

  4. Rachel

    There are so many really creative, unusual SF settings, I’m torn about Ancillary Justice and others. I did read The Diamond Age, but only once and I don’t remember it well. I have to take Craig’s work about Lafferty because I never read any of his.

    But I have to vote for Cordwainer Smith over all other choices. His work really is totally unique.

  5. Hanneke

    I’d never heard of the Steerswoman series, but bought all four of the eboks and am reading them now: thank you for the recommendation.

    I’m still thinking about whether to buy and try The Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliot; I read some other books by her but found the portrayed mindset about people and society (and bureaucracy of magic IIRC) a bit too negative and hope-less for my taste. Enough so to decide at the time not to read any more by her, as I didn’t like the lingering aftertaste.

    Ash and Bramble is one of very few books I put aside half read. I hated it so much at the end of the first & start of the second half, that I checked the ending to see if it might be redeemed, and then stopped reading it (which is very unusual as I’m very much a completist), and even deleted it from my library.

    I know I’d dislike Ice Cream Star from your description, but the Lady Trent book is on my TBR pile waiting ’till I’m in the mood for a slow oldfashioned reading experience.

    I’d be very interested in your opinion on the art book with the polar bears. I love that image, but several of the interior images with the (military?) people look a lot less interesting to me.

  6. Evelyn Hill

    Lafferty drives me crazy, but he’s got a true, original voice that makes each of his novels unique. I’d say Fourth Mansions or Past Master would be his best work.

    I haven’t read most of the books on this list — I will look out for them!

  7. mona

    I’ve read 3 of these after hearing about them here, and enjoyed them very much: Lady Trent, Spiritwalker, and Steerswoman.

    Now I’m looking forward to the Eyre Affair!

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