Books That Blend Science and Magic, Minus the Fantasy Tropes

Over at Barnes and Noble, an interesting post by Martha Wells: 8 Books That Blend Science and Magic, Minus the Fantasy Tropes

Martha Wells was already an award-nominated fantasy writer when she found herself unable to sell her latest book—because publishers didn’t know how to market it…

Yes, anything that strikes a publisher as hard to market is liable to fall through the cracks, no matter how much it might appeal to readers. Why, I too have had books rejected on the grounds that “This is beautifully written and we really like it but we don’t know how we would market it.”

Such a bummer.

Of course the Raksura series falls into this category:

[The Cloud Roads] offered an engaging world readers had never seen before—non-human protagonists, complex alien cultures, genre-mixing plotting—but the lack of tropes made it difficult to pigeonhole.

To me this series does read almost like SF rather than like fantasy, despite the prevalence of magic in the world. Because, yes, of the lack of typical fantasy tropes. I would have difficulty finding seven other books or series that offer anything like the same feel, and in fact I’m not sure any of these that Martha Wells has selected do have the same feel. But these are interesting selections and I see how the ones I’m more familiar with do blend science with magic.

Starting with Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series. The feel is completely different because of course it is; Shinn writes very different books than Wells. But it’s a good choice for this column, because the Elemental Blessings series takes place in a fantasy world that is currently undergoing a kinder, gentler industrial revolution. Also sort of flirting with the idea of more democratic forms of government, though they’re not there yet. It’s a unique fantasy setting, and a pleasant world in which to spend some time.

Here’s one that Wells doesn’t mention that seems to me to possibly fall sort of in the same category: The Order of the Air series by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham. There is so much about the early aircraft, and definitely a blending of magic and science.

Here’s one that doesn’t fit this category, but kind of does, but really doesn’t: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, one of my all time favorite fantasy series . . . um, science fiction series. It falls in the even tinier subgenre of “science fiction that totally looks like fantasy and uses fantasy tropes but it’s really science fiction all the way.” In fact, that particular subgenre is so tiny I’m not sure any other books fall into it.

Anyway, interesting post; if you have time, click through and see what other titles Martha Wells has included.

Also, you do know that the last of the Raksura novels just came out, right?

It is quite wonderful and gave me an excuse to re-read much of the earlier series in anticipation. High points: the relationship between Pearl and Malachite — did you expect them to kind of hit it off? Because wow, what a team. Also, the half-fell flight. Love them! If Wells goes on with this world from a different pov, I totally vote for the half-fell queen. Or the kethel. Or probably anybody associated with this wonderful group of new characters.

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7 thoughts on “Books That Blend Science and Magic, Minus the Fantasy Tropes”

  1. Ansen Dibell’s trilogy might fit the same niche as Kirsten’s Steerswoman. It looks like fantasy, reads like fantasy, but the underpinnings are scientific and the great epic event a character has been working towards for millenia is solidly biologically based – she’s been wanting the genetically engineered people to breed out the feature of 5-10 female to one male birth ratio. They finally have due to her social engineering finally killing off enough of the ‘brotherless’ so they couldn’t breed. So now they can go into a mass mood-echo thing and kill off the invaders (everyone else) There’s a bio-starship, too. Which doesn’t really want this to happen, and needs a ‘King’ to report to. So it made one and it likes him. And the King is married to one of the ‘brotherless’….

    They’re from the 1970s, the author died in 2006 and apparently no one is minding the estate – not on Kindle, if you’re interested you’ll have to buy used.

    I can’t think of anything that fits Wells’ description, although what I’m reading at the moment is certainly fantasy without the tropes. So far we have half dragons and True Dragons and links to the Power in the land,; the Power has opinions, but hasn’t done much (overt, and yet). AND WWI just started in an apparently alternate Europe since there’s a Rudolph who might have been heir but isn’t due to vague Powers thing (our POV character guesses but doesn’t know), but he’s alive and the Rudolph in our timeline suicided/was murdered with his mistress long before WWI started. No science, except military science, so far. I don’t know enough about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the early war to spot other differences, although I have my suspicions about the existence of ‘Bathory’.

  2. Anne McCaffrey seems like a biggie – she’s got a ton of sci fi books about people with telekinesis and other mental talents, and her dragon books are in a sci fi based world (if you get far enough in the series, anyways). The dragons were bioengineered by the first settlers on the planet to deal with issues there, and they eventually lost all technology due to being cut off from home.

  3. Sarah, of course, Anne McCaffery. I count those as fantasy despite the trappings of science fiction because they just feel like fantasy — but technically they fit the same subgenre as The Steerswoman.

    Elaine, that Dibell trilogy sounds really interesting. Maybe I will look it up.

  4. Oh, Wen Spencer also comes to mind as someone who blends sci fi & fantasy in interesting ways. For example, in her Elfhome series, all the elves & magic & whatnot get sci fi explanations (parallel dimensions, bioengineering, and quantum hand-waving).

  5. I am surprised to see you unable to think of other examples of SF disguised as fantasy, since your own second most recently published book is probably an example. Though I believe Kirstein avoids using semi-magical hypertech.

  6. I thought I’d made an additional comment with the titles of the Dibble trilogy. Oh, well. Here they are:
    Pursuit of the Screamer
    Circle, Crescent, Star

    There were two others, that were only published in Holland in Dutch, but IMO Summerfair wraps up the story arc nicely. Things are left in a better way, with possibilities open.

    They have some of the more plausible portrayals of empathy I’ve seen, too. The genengineered people with the sex ratio problem are all born empaths. They have to learn ‘breath talk’.

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