Book and

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Book and

Epic Fantasy

Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the best writers of our time. I’ve heard mixed reviews for The Fionavar Tapestry, his first work, a Celtic/Arthurian trilogy with some modern-day university students dragged into the thick of an epic war; some folks I know found it derivative, but I find him to be uniformly excellent. The books (in order) are The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. His next book, Tigana, I consider an absolute masterpiece; if someone held a gun to my head and demanded that I name the best piece of epic fantasy written in this century, Tigana would spring immediately to my lips. It is set in an world inspired by medieval Italy, under the domination of warring wizard-kings. In his subsequent work, the magic becomes extremely subtle, and the stories are almost alternate histories. A Song for Arbonne is inspired by Renaissance France, and The Lions of Al-Rassan by Moorish Spain. Kay is one of the few authors I buy in hardcover.

Katharine Kerr has a fascinating series of books in a fantastic sort of alternate history: the action in her Deverry series takes place in a parallel world settled by Gauls on the run from the Romans. A single thread of story unites all the books, with extended flashbacks into earlier parts of the history of Deverry, where we see the main characters in past lives and how they build up ties that last through more than lifetimes. Re-reading the series is almost as much fun as reading it; there is foreshadowing in very early books that pays off in spades as the story unfolds. The series is, in order: Daggerspell, Darkspell, The Bristling Wood, The Dragon Revenant, A Time of Exile, A Time of Omens, Days of Blood and Fire, Days of Air and Darkness, and The Red Wyvern; at last report, there are three more to go.
Kerr has also written some good science fiction. Polar City Blues is an interesting standalone story. The novella Resurrection late became part of Freeze Frames. I highly recommend the novels of the Pinch: Palace (written with Mark Kreighbaum) and its sequel The Eyes of God (written solely by Mark Kreigbaum).

C S Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy is pretty much fantasy, though there is a science-fictional background to the tale. Black Sun Rising, When True Night Falls, and Crown of Shadows have a fascinating system of magic, well exposed for the reader through the interaction of the hero and the anti-hero, who begin the trilogy as starkly good and evil and corrupt each other steadily through the series, with each of them angsting as they turn from their chosen paths. Friedman’s other work is definitely science fiction The Madness Season tells the tale of a vampire repulsing an alien invasion, and only uses the word “vampire” (or any euphemism) one time in the book, at a very appropriate point. In Conquest Born is a well-written tragedy that suffers from a lack of sympathetic characters that last for more than a few pages. (The lead characters are very well written, but I never managed to get to like them.)

P C Hodgell is another obscure writer with an good handle on the creepy side of magic. Her fantasy depicts magic with all the majesty, wonder, and terror appropriate to a force of nature, seen from the perspective of a pair of twins, the last of their house, The very out-of-print God Stalk and Dark of the Moon are collected together in the very out-of-print Annals of the Kencyrath. Seeker’s Mask continues the tale. Blood and Ivory has a number of short stories set in this universe. You may need to track down Hypatia Press to find her work.

Tad Williams’ trilogy Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a well-written, sweeping epic that does justice to the time-worn “men and elves fight evil in a thinly disguised version of Europe” format. The books are huge: The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower, which was so big it needed a second volume.
His science fiction epic Otherland, where virtual reality plays a crucial part and holds a lot of the action, got off to a good start in City of Golden Shadow, and I’m waiting for River of Blue Fire to come out in paperback. Mountain of Black Glass and Sea of Silver Light are coming up next.

Epic Science Fiction

Daniel Keys Moran (who has inspired more than one web site) has an amazing set of stories set in a universe called the Continuing Time. It has it all: time travel, psychic powers, aliens, genetic engineering, artificial intelligences, and the best depiction I have ever seen of humans interfacing with computer networks, and it all works. The only problem is that he’s currently very out of print. For internal chronology, the stories go in the order Emerald Eyes, The Long Run, and The Last Dancer; The Last Dancer does an excellent job of setting the scene, and is the most available of his works.

Dan Simmons unfolds an epic tale in Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion. The Hyperion boks expose a star-spanning civilization in Earth’s future and proceed to turn it upside down and inside out; the Endymion books show that universe, centuries later, and proceed to turn it upside-down as well. Like Iain M. Banks, Simmons also writes horror, and you can see elements of well-done horror in his SF. His other novels, both SF and horror, are excellent. His short story collection Prayers to Broken Stones contains the short story Vanni Fucci is Alive and Well and Living in Hell, which is my favorite look at the notion that the metaphysical world is shaped by belief; I recommend it to all players of World of Darkness games, especially Mage: the Ascension. Fires of Eden is a tale of something gone terribly wrong with a new hotel development in Hawaii; Carrion Comfort is an intriguing take on the notion of vampires. The Hollow Man and Phases of Gravity are less broad in scope, but have a well-wrought human dimension.

Hard Science Fiction

Hard science fiction is a fun read for those of us who have spent years studying physics, and is an interesting way to learn about physics for those who haven’t. The literature runs the gamut from the very well researched work of Robert L Forward to the interstellar epics of David Brin.

David Brin is best known for his Uplift universe, a centuries-distant future in which humanity had begun to engineer dolphins and chimpanzees for human-level sentience, then made contact with an intergalactic civilization, billions of years old, to which this process of Uplifting protosentients is an almost religious duty, and a mainstay of galactic society. Humans— heretically claiming to be self-evolved, or possibly the result of another race’s negligent upbringing— emerge onto the galactic scene as a patron race thanks to their own work in Uplift, and meet Machiavellian schemes spanning millions of years and parsecs. Chronologically, Sundiver is the first book set in that universe, though Startide Rising, the next book, is the best introduction to a world where dolphins fly starships while pursued by alien religious fanatics. The Uplift War takes place on a planet populated primarily by Uplifted chimpanzees, very slightly after Startide Rising, with the characters in The Uplift War hearing distant rumors of the events in Startide Rising. The story in Startide Rising is then followed up by the Uplift Storm trilogy: Brightness Reef, Infinity’s Shore, and Heaven’s Reach. I picked up the Uplift Storm trilogy in hardcover.
Outside the Uplift universe, his stories are still good. His collections The River of Time and Otherness have a number of intriguing ideas. The Practice Effect is one of the most interesting takes on the “scientist enters a fantasy universe” notion that I’ve ever read, and Earth is an intriguing look at the near future that only goes off the deep end in the last few pages.

Robert L. Forward is an excellent physicist and a variable writer. Dragon’s Egg and Starquake (available in one volume, depicting life on a neutron star, do a good job of depicting the kind of life that could evolve on the surface of a neutron star and how they could interact with human beings. Rocheworld is also good, and the only science fiction novel I have ever read where the first contact between human beings and extraterrestrial intelligences consists of an invitation to go surfing. The sequels to Rocheworld, generally written with members of his family for coauthors, aren’t really worth reading; Timemaster has interesting ideas, but the writing is pretty bad. Saturn Rukh lacks even the interesting physics of Timemaster.

Classics scholars should not miss Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters, which some might consider a work of fantasy but in fact qualifies as hard science fiction— as long as you consider Aristotle to be science! A splendid epic of a war involving starships carved out of celestial matter (which flies, of course, since its nature is to move sideways rather than down!) armed with vacuum cannons and provisioned through spontaneous generation farms fighting Taoist battle-kites armed with Xi lances.

Iain M Banks has developed a far-future society called the Culture, which is predicated on the notion that a sufficiently advanced technology can create an arbitrary deal of wealth for everyone. Since most of the people in the Culture live lives of leisure, the interesting stuff happens at the edge of the Culture, where it meets other societies. In internal chronological order, the Culture novels are Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, The State of the Art (a short story collection), and Excession. When you read Banks, it’s important to remember that he also writes horror; it shows in his science fiction, which contains horrific (rather than splatter/gore/torture) elements, along with a distinctive style of dark humor. The Player of Games is one of the best books to start with; Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons are very well done, but somewhat depressing at the end. He also has some science fiction that’s far enough outside the Culture that it’s not obvious whether it’s in the same universe: Against a Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn are both excellent.

Greg Bear’s Eon is an epic tale of the near future encountering the far future; Eternity is a sequel that suffers from unravelling some tied-off loose ends from Eon in order to tell an even bigger one. Legacy is a tale from the past of one character from Eon, and not up to the par of the other tales. Blood Music is an amazingly optimistic tale of nanotechnology gone berserk; not a wonderful story in its own right, since most of the characters spend their time running around trying to figure out what’s going on and do their best just to figure it out, but worth a read for its thought-provoking qualities. For a look at a society influenced by nanotechnology without the world being drastically transformed, try Queen of Angels and its semi-sequel Slant; it’s one of the few books in which Bear doesn’t blow up the world or transform it almost beyond recognition. He does blow up the world in The Forge of God, but all is not lost: there’s a sequel, Anvil of Stars, that has the folks who have taken up the cause of vengeance. The latter two books are interesting reads, but not Bear’s best work.

Science Fiction

C J Cherryh does really excellent aliens; they aren’t just humans in funny suits and somewhat unusual cultures. My favorite set of books are the Chanur stories, which never give humans the viewpoint and have aliens that are puzzled by other aliens they’ve known about for centuries. The Pride of Chanur is the first book, which stands on its own well; Chanur’s Venture, The Kif Strike Back, and Chanur’s Homecoming are a trilogy that are best read together; Chanur’s Legacy takes place some years after the previous set of books.
Another good trilogy is Foreigner, Invader, and Inheritor a tale of humans stranded for generations in an alien solar system, attempting to deal with a society of humanoids that are ever so close to human, yet so far away that the two cultures are kept in isolation to avoid problems with misunderstanding. The hero is the one human interpreter permitted by the treaty between them... at a crucial point in the history of both groups.

Vernor Vinge has some fascinating ideas about the development of technology and its influence on human civilization. A Fire Upon the Deep is one of his best, with a unique premise that the laws of physics vary as you move out of a galaxy, so the Earth is just inside the zone where FTL travel doesn’t work and there’s a whole galactic Internet out there closer to the edge, staying out of the zone where the truly godlike entities can exist. The Peace War and its sequel Marooned in Realtime, collected together in Across Realtime, are another good read, examining the effects of a technology that can project stasis fields onto hostile powers and the resulting society, and eventually looking at the lives of some people who spent a few million years too much time in their stasis bubbles and discover that the rest of the human race seems to have vanished.

Neal Stephenson has a number of good books. Snow Crash is a fascinating cyberpunk tale involving politics, religion, linguistics, and the origins of human consciousness. The Diamond Age is a good speculative volume on how nanotechnology could transform our world without dropping us off the edge of a Vinge-style Singularity. Stephenson leaves some decent-sized plot holes open and his endings can get a little weak in comparison to his strong buildups, but the books are still well worth reading. Moving away from science fiction, his Zodiac is a humorous thriller of eco-terrorists foiling polluters in the modern era.


Tim Powers writes superb fantasy. He works out the details of magic in his universe very well, and they usually make the process of becoming a competent wizard more trouble than it’s worth. The Drawing of the Dark has a reincarnated King Arthur holding off the Turks at Vienna, protecting a mystic brewery (which I raided for the Amurgsval campaign). On Stranger Tides has voodoo pirates in the Caribbean and some very subtle ties between magic and stellar physics, while The Anubis Gates mixes up Egyptian sorcery with time travel and English history. The Stress of Her Regard has a very unique take on vampires, the Sphinx, and the Romantic poets (Byron, Shelley, Keats and company), with some bonus quantum physics thrown in. Last Call is a modern-era tale of the Fisher King in a Las Vegas rife with sinister Tarot decks and chaos theory; Expiration Date deals with a culture centered on captured ghosts in Los Angeles, and Earthquake Weather brings the heroes of the previous two books together in an extravaganza of trouble from the archetypes.

Barbara Hambly is particularly memorable to me for her characters. They are, as a rule, mature adults who cope with the utterly bizarre problems that assail them in a sensible fashion. When hero and heroine fall in love, it builds on mutual respect as well as going through hell together. Some of her best work includes the duology The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage, where a computer programmer and a rogue wizard team up to stop a mad wizard’s plan to dominate parallel universes. (The book Dog Wizard is a sequel to this duology, and is not as earthshaking.) Those Who Hunt the Night and Travelling With the Dead have a British secret agent in the Victorian era and his wife dealing with problems involving the vampires of Europe. Bride of the Rat God is as good a tale of magic intruding itself into 1920’s Hollywood as the title is lurid.

Charles de Lint is one of the best authors in the field of urban fantasy. His tales make it seem quite plausible that we share the world with magical beings, right there on the street, if only we could see them; the magic seems somehow right, though I’m hardly an authority on the subject. Jack the Giant-Killer and Drink Down the Moon are adventure tales of young women encountering urban faeries, collected together in the volume Jack of Kinrowan. Moonheart and Spiritwalk tell the tale of a very magical house in the middle of modern Ottawa. The Little Country won the World Fantasy Award, and richly deserved it. The Newford books, Dreams Underfoot (an anthology), Memory and Dream (a novel), The Ivory and the Horn (another anthology), and the novels Trader and Someplace to be Flying, evoke a sleepy town, somewhere in the northwest of North America, subtly pervaded by magic and magical beings. These are some of de Lint’s best writing; Greenmantle certainly deserves an honorable mention, as do Yarrow and Mulengro.

The World of Faerie

C J Cherryh’s The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels, collected together as The Dreaming Tree, do an excellent job of capturing that alien quality of the fey; Faery in Shadow The trilogy of Rusalka, Chernevog, and Yvgenie is a tale of hedge wizards living against a background of Russian faerie tales, and is well done.

Greg Bear’s The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage, collected together as Songs of Earth and Power, tell a tale of the world of faerie coming to merge with our own, with some fascinating ideas regarding parallel histories and magic in general.

Space Opera

David Weber’s Honor Harrington books are an homage to the Horatio Hornblower historical novels. In order, they are On Basilisk Station, The Honor of the Queen, The Short Victorious War, Field of Dishonor, Flag in Exile, Honor Among Enemies, In Enemy Hands, and the short story collection More than Honor, which has S M Stirling and David Drake writing in Weber’s universe, along with Weber providing the story of the first meeting between humans and treecats. Weber has carefully contrived a future physics and technology that makes it efficient to patrol certain spacelanes and have your battleships firing broadsides at each other, forming a three-dimensional “wall of battle” in space. The story is also excellent, though Weber indulges in some revisionism later on in the novels. The heroine, Honor Harrington, gets healthy but non-crippling doses of well-portrayed angst on a regular basis.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books are another good angst factory, and also well done. Some of the coincidences in the books get downright cheesy, but the tales are well told, and the characters are excellent, suffering human failings without an undue degree of gross stupidity that happens to be convenient to the plotline. Shards of Honor and Barrayar give the story of the troubled times in which hero’s parents met; they are collected together in Cordelia’s Honor. Miles’ story begins in The Warrior’s Apprentice, where flunking out of the military gets his career in motion. Borders of Infinity is a short story collection whose stories begin at this point; a helpful section in the backs of the books tell where the stories come with respect to the novels. The Vor Game is the next actual novel; Young Miles collects The Warrior’s Apprentice, The Mountains of Mourning (which also appears in Borders of Infinity, and The Vor Game into one tome. Cetaganda, Brothers in Arms, and Mirror Dance continue Miles’ first career, which is finally finished off in Memory, which launches him to his new one in Komarr.