Fantasy Fiction At The Fringe

I’m reading Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon right now and I’m loving the unholy fuck out of it. Arabic myth with a protagonist who’s a fat, old ghul hunter? Oh. Oh. Oh yeah.

(Needless to say, you should go and read it posthaste.)

It’s kind of scratching an itch I’d forgotten I had, which is for fantasy fiction that goes well beyond that Tolkeinist purview to be brave and bold and do something unexpected with the very notion of fantasy.

So, talk to me. Make some recommendations. What would I like? What fantasy is out there — now or from the past — that operates outside the comfort zone and does something new instead of regurgitating all the same old tropes and archetypes and hero-plot piffle?

Further: what do you want to see in fantasy that’s just never represented? What niches need filling?

97 comments

  • Pat O’Shea, The Hounds of the Morrigan Wonderful characters, Irish legend woven into everyday life, a quest, and wonderful descriptions. Not typical fantasy at all.

    John Bellairs The Face in the Frost Very quirky and funny magicians, but also some nightmare-inducing scenes and an ancient book reminiscent of the Voinovich Manuscript that can change reality and make you mad. There’s also a nice Kabbalist who saves the protagonist with some handy doors. Bellairs wrote a lot of YA but this one is for adults.

  • Erekos by AM Tuomala – a very unusual zombi, some interesting hedge magic, and a primarily mixed-race society with some steampunk elements to it, rather than medieval European swords and sorcery. It’s sort of…postcolonialist fantasy fiction, and hugely literary/lyrical, rather than being slam-bang action. Love it.

    I really need to get reading Throne of the Crescent Moon and, oh, EVERYTHING by Nnedi Okarafor.

  • Barry Hughart, if you want to get away from European. Bridge of Birds is beautifully written, and it’s nice to go over to mythic China for a change of pace. Plus two sequels if you find it’s your thing.

    Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. Perhaps not technically fantasy, but it scratches the fantasy itch.

    I assume because you have a pulse you are already aware of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

    If you don’t mind going younger readers, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy has a fantastic take on necromancy that sends me into fits of jealousy. Plus, there’s a fun dualistic take on fantasy implicit.

  • OH! How did I forget the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia – starting with Hard Magic – for some cool alternate-universe/magic ideas set in the 1920s/1930s; it gets a little…deus ex machina…for me towards the end, but the setting is AWESOME and the powers are really intriguing.

    Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne are fun, too – Irish gods, a modern-day Druid, and a nifty little update on urban fantasy.

  • Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. I am only fifteen or so pages in, but wow. Vaguely Middle Eastern setting, bugs as a form of transport, and female main characters who are hired assassins. Good stuff.

  • One of my upcoming projects is a weird west series.

    It started out as basic Tolkienian fantasy upgraded to the steampunk part of history colonizing an American fantasy continent… filled with sword and sorcery tribes.

    It’s still about that, but I’m confident I’ve made it more unique. You don’t see weird west alot, and when you do it’s just mostly “You got supernatural horror in my western!”

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fun alternate-history Regency England with Magic, and it spans from Austen to Byron in its inspirations.

  • I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but hardly a mention of a short story in the comments yet. If you’re looking for experimental fantasy or fantasy that pushes boundaries (location, theme, protags, etc), check out the fantasy magazines. There have been some amazing stories in the past few years that fill all these niches people are describing here. Read Lightspeed, Apex Mag, Mag of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 10Flash Quarterly, Clarkesworld. Read stories by Saladin Ahmed, Catherynne Valente, Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, Mary Robinette Kowal…(I could go on and on). Especially with all the “Best of” lists floating around now for the awards season, now is a great time to peruse them to find some great stuff to read.

    You know, sometimes these fringe stories can be difficult to turn into a full novel, but short stories are just the right length for experimentation. That’s why I love the shorts.

  • I have forgotten to mention Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. It’s an African fantasy.

    It’s on my to-read pile, so I cannot vouch for it’s quality myself (maybe someone else here can?), but it’s bound to be unique because… dude, how many African fantasies are there in U.S. bookstores?

    Yeah, some of these recommendations posted here could be considered ‘main stream’ but there’s Concept vs Content and Tropes vs Execution and “Voice” to consider. Any of these done well could make a book feel fresh and original. It depends on what Chuck is looking for most, and reading his post I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I spread my recs across several categories. I think he’d find something non-standard in all of them (along with plain ol’ good storytelling).

  • I’m not sure if it’s labelled as “fantasy” or maybe “science fiction” either way, you can’t miss reading Felix J. Palma’s THE MAP OF TIME. Brilliant book. It’s only downfall is not introducing the real plot sooner. It’s a long buildup-sort of like a movie trailer that goes about the wrong advertising-but it’s well worth the wait. I loved every minute of it. It has H.G. Wells as the centre character and is a fantastic re-imagining of the TIME MACHINE. Also fun but might be classified as “science fiction” (I’m really not sure how they’re categorising “steampunk” these days) is the BURTON&SWINEBURN trilogy from Mark Hodder. These are a definite fantasy series that play around with the notion of the parallel dimension theory and just what would happen if actions that were supposed to be taken weren’t, and the consequential rift in the space/time matrix. These books feature Sir Richard Francis Burton and the poet Algernon Swineburn (and a host of other historical persons) doing things they definitely weren’t in the history books we know today. Lots of fun to read despite the “Soprano”-esque ending in the third novel.

  • Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart deserves a mention, though it’s a quest-based fantasy. It’s well-written, hilariously offbeat, and set in a mythical ancient China, which already makes it different than the normal fantasy type. Also, the main characters is a not-so-bright but well-meaning man named Number Ten Ox and an old sage named Master Li with a slight flaw in his character.

    In yet another style, there’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, which is also well-written and not yet another rehash of the most tired-out tropes. I also enjoyed the first book of Elizabeth Moon’s Paksennarion series, which yes, trotted out the standard Tolkienish races (elves, dwarves, gnomes, yada yada yada) but that was mostly incidental. The story itself had more to do with the gritty reality of being a soldier, down to the digging of latrines and the day-to-day chores. Not romantic stuff, but actually really interesting to me, and written with authenticity since Moon herself is an ex-marine.

  • The Black Company by Glen Cook excellent. It’s dark, epic and full of bad ass characters making terrible decisions and getting everyone around them killed.

  • Thought of an author rec– Emma Bull. In particular, Territory. It’s magic… set in the wild wild west, with (historically accurate) elements of Chinese philosophy/magic.

    Most of her books are worth reading if you enjoy fiction that strays from the beaten path, but Territory and Bone Dance are my favorites. Bone Dance is good for anyone who loves post-apocalyptic stuff, though it’s the kind of book you understand a LOT better the second time you read it–to say it moves along at breakneck speed is an understatement.

  • Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. books have always been favorite’s of mine. They’re pure, simple, funny fun.

    If you’re looking for a rather different take on war, mercenaries and magic, his Black Company series is hard to beat.

  • I’ll second the suggestion for Swanwick’s Iron Dragon’s Daughter, which is one of my favorite novels despite the fact that I also find parts of it utterly depressing.

    Also, Mieville’s Bas Lag books.

  • I definitely second the NK Jemisin, although I’ve only read the first two books of her first trilogy. Looking forward to her new series, too.

    Somewhat second the Brent Weeks recommendation. I’m still not sure what I thought of the Assassin trilogy and Black Prism. Some salting of the earth going on there, at least in the assasin books. If nothing else, I have thought about the books since finishing them.

  • Just about anything by Glen Cook- The Dread Empire Series, The Tower of Fear, and the Black Company books (the first book, The Black Company, is one of my favorite books of all time)

    Older Tim Powers – The Stress of Her Regards, On Stranger Tides (Yes, he sold out to Disney and they butchered the story for the most recent Pirates movie. But, the book is phenomonal.

  • I should have mentiones The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers as well. It has a slight Sci-Fi twist to it, and it is not as dark and creepy as his other stuff, but there is a reason ti won both a Hugo and a Nebula.

  • Dunno if anyone has mentioned them already, but Steph Swainston’s Castle Circle books are fantastic – the first is “The Year of Our War.” “The Etched City” by KJ Bishop is good too. I love Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books which are pretty nuts in places. Peake & Mieville of course but everyone will mention them. Anyone who hasn’t read Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger books must do so, immediately. They are mad & wonderful. If you don’t mind fantasy written for younger readers, the Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson is great.

  • I second The Black Prism by Brent Weeks. Be aware that it’s a hell of a big book. I dropped it while reading in bed and nearly gave myself a concussion. Love the light/color based magic system, very cool.

    I recommend P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath novels to pretty much everyone, and nobody has ever heard of them, or her. They start with the book God Stalk, and the protagonist Jamethiel is an avatar of the destructive face of her people’s Three-Faced God. She just can’t seem to help destroying things…including people. The setting is very different, and there’s a complex backstory to the Kencyrath (Jame’s people) that the author doles out a little at a time over the course of the series.

    I know this won’t bother Chuck, but for others considering reading these, be warned that they get pretty ugly in spots. People skinning other people alive for fun, many mentions of abusive childhoods, and other things that may be triggers for some.

  • I recommend, as a few others above have, Scott Lynch’s books, “The Lies of Locke Lamora” and “Red Skies over Red Seas”. Think Ocean’s Eleven + Renaissance Italy + exotic setting with no magic. I really enjoyed the stories and couldn’t put them down. A lot of action and intrigue that keeps pushing through the pages.

    I also heartily recommend you read Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Name of the Wind” and “The Wise Man’s Fear”. These are amazingly detailed and wonderfully characterized, telling the story, from 1st POV’ the tale of a legendary hero/villain (depending on perspective) and how he became that person, and highlighting the errors of where those legends came from (calling lightning from the sky when in fact he caught a magnesium stash on fire). It’s funny, endearing, and amazing!

    Another, mentioned above, is Brent Weeks’ “Night Angel Trilogy”. An interesting take on magic through ownership of a linked stone and the rogue who acquires a shadow stone giving him powers over shadows and darkness. Action packed and fast paced and doesn’t feel like any fantasy trope even though there are some sprinkled within.

    Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is also really well done. Sanderson claims that when writing (Sanderson’s First Law of Magic)is: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. He makes this perfectly poignant by introducing this system of magic (consuming metals for specific effect) and has a rather dark story about the current world when the Hero of Ages failed to save the world a thousand years before. Somewhat religious allegory but a story about a group of rogues upsetting the status quo under the tyrant who defeated the Hero.

    Lastly, for an interesting take on magic and story telling is “With A Single Spell” by Lawrence Watt-Evans. The tale of a somewhat lazy apprentice who ends up finally apprenticing under a wizard and learns one spell before that wizard is killed. Too old to apprentice and too under educated for anything he wanders about seeking his fortune. Very clever story and really drives home the idea of what one can do with just a little skill and lot of luck and creativity.

    Oh, and if you want characters that will make you pull out an extra chair at the dinner table before realizing they are fictional then anything by Paul S. Kemp, especially his Erevis Cale books. Though the Star Wars books will get your goat too.

  • I second The Black Prism by Brent Weeks. Love the light/color based magic system, very cool. Be aware that it’s a hell of a big book. I dropped it while reading in bed and nearly gave myself a concussion.

    I recommend P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath novels to pretty much everyone, and nobody has ever heard of them, or her. They start with the book God Stalk, and the protagonist Jamethiel is an avatar of the destructive face of her people’s Three-Faced God. She just can’t seem to help destroying things…including people. The setting is very different, and there’s a complex backstory to the Kencyrath (Jame’s people) that the author doles out a little at a time over the course of the series.

    I know this won’t bother Chuck, but for others considering reading these, be warned that they get pretty ugly in spots. People skinning other people alive for fun, many mentions of abusive childhoods, and other things that may be triggers for some.

  • Don’t know if anybody’s mentioned it already, but I really enjoyed Holly Black’s White Cat, the first book in her Curse Workers series. It’s definitely a take on fantasy that I’ve never encountered before. She takes a mob world and injects fantasy elements: the curse workers, and then shows how that world works. She also has a different (and very cool, in my opinion) take on how magic works in this world, because every time someone works magic (or, more properly, a casts a curse), they endure a fitting “blowback” that affects them in a manner appropriate to what they accomplish. For example, someone who kills people with curses will suffer a similar deathly effect in their person.

    It’s a really easy read, entertaining, and pretty unique. Give it a try.

  • Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands. Dark, brutal, gay protagonist, lesbian protagonist, awesome prose.

    Really bizarre stuff (and I can’t say if I liked it, but it reads like poetry and it’s like nothing else): Hal Duncan’s 2 novels, Vellum and Ink.

  • Yay for Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series (and I found him through To Reign in Hell…also really dug on his Phoenix Guards/3 Musketeers sendups), and I’m happy to see lots of nods to Glen Cook’s Black Company. Hell, I might need to read that all over again, now.

  • NK Jemisin has been mentioned, so I’ll just 3rd or 4th that rec. Can’t wait for her new duology.

    The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett – starts in Africa, ends in England. You have people with superpowers hidden among the normals. The lead in this one is a healer, but I liked how they showed that a healer can be a very destructive weapon when he wants to be. Lots of grey areas here, not too many “heroes” among those with superpowers. I liked it.

    Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – still reading it; set in Africa; you’re just thrown into the world of the story, and it takes a bit to figure out what’s going on, but I like that sort of thing.

    Briarpatch by Tim Pratt – another one I’m still reading, but good so far; Things are pretty f’d up for the lead guy right now, and I still have a ways to go until the end, so this should be good. Has a hidden “other” side to the city that he is going to be thrown into soon.

  • The Jump 225 trilogy (Infoquake, Multireal, and Geosynchron) by David Louis Edelman (@davidledelman) is a fantastic, very believable series set 500 years in the future. Take a look at his website for more info: http://www.davidlouisedelman.com

    Also, The Codex Alera — that “other” series by Jim Butcher — was quite enjoyable.

  • A huge strong recommendation for Prince of Nothing – R Scott Bakker’s first trilogy of the Second Apocalypse, for all the reasons Mild mentioned. And also because it’s vicious and mean and fucks with you.

  • If I were to assume by “fantasy” you really meant “spec fic” then I would be able to recommend Ian McDonald’s “The Dervish House.” It’s a look at a near-future Istanbul and has great prose, engaging ideas, and a cast of terrific characters. It’s really worth reading.

  • @Arnout Brokking – The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan (mentioned above, I think) has a gay protagonist, though I had issues with that story in other matters.

    I’ll second Tambo’s mention of her novels. “Ghosts in the Snow”, “Valley of the Soul” and “Threads of Malice” are great books, straddling fantasy and crime fic/mystery. I especially love Threads, which deals with a Gacy-style serial killer and some real tough times for the protags.

  • I’d also recommend Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards books, especially if you like it when things all go to shit.

    Also check out Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven books if you like a new twist on an old tale (Robin Hood) where the magic is subtle but real.

  • Something I just read that’s a long way off the post-Tolkein radar is Kaaron Warren’s ‘Walking the Tree’, about young vaguely Polynesian women embarking on an epic journey around their entire world, an island occupied by a single vast tree. Amazing focus on culture in world building (and pretty damn creepy as well)

  • I’m personally fed up by this cliche of the young outcast who then goes through a portal/is informed by some sipernatural creature that he/she is the supercool chosen one and gets fae and praises in some parallel world. I mean, after Harry Potter, you can’t really afford to write that anymore

  • I didn’t read all the comments before mine, but the entire Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey–as far as I can tell it’s entirely new and different. She creates an alternate history by turning Christian mythology on its head, creating a world that resembles our own but with crucial differences. Her books are also incredibly sensual and use sexuality as an important part of the plot, rather than just as titillation. They’re all-around brilliant. I also recommend the Foundling’s Tale by DM Cornish. Don’t be discouraged by the fact the the books are classified as YA; they’re incredibly dark and the world-building is lush and unique. Men sail vinegar seas and inhabit a world rife with monsters. The prose is a bit dense, but I like that, especially in a pseudo-Victorian fantasy setting.

  • I always used to have trouble accepting ‘elves’ in fantasy (I admire Tolkien’s work but his elves were a little too flowery for me) but damn James Barclay’s take on the pointy-eared percentage in his fantasy series is fantastic. Would definitely recommend his RAVEN books. Great sense of humour between the characters and his portrayal of magic, dragons and the ‘kickassery’ of his elves was wonderfully done. Well worth a read!

  • What a great discussion. The best conversation on fantasy reading I’ve seen for a long time. I’m not sure why people haven’t mentioned Stephen Donaldson – his third Covenant trilogy is out now. Is that too “mainstream”?

  • Anything by Elmore Leonard. Not fantasy, but reads like it in a way. Super!
    I’ve found a ‘new’ author lately> Patricia Anthony> post apocolyse and sci fi.
    Also The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins. And two sequels. Must go get them.

  • I absolutely adore Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters Trilogy (Daughter of the Forest is the first book), and anything by Charles de Lint (but especially Someplace to be Flying). What I love about those authors is their lyrical nature and that they deal with real folklore and use old stories to tell new stories and ideas.

  • I’m late to commenting, but Stephen Brust’s Taltos Series is different and addictive. I reread 6 of the books from the series last month….so ….good..

    And Lois McMaster Bujold is another favorite of mine. The Vorkosigan series is classified as Sci Fi. Amazing characters and stories.

  • The Rothfuss books, i couldn’t lay them down. And the writing is great, you get the feeling that every word is chosen with greatest care and every sentence is built with the help of precision technology. I guess it is since he takes about three years, not writing the next book, but editing it. Rothfuss is a douchbag/hero for that

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