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At the Mountains of Madness by Ian Culbard (2010)

At The Mountains of Madness
At The Mountains of Madness

When Herge-style artwork meets one of Lovecraft's most popular works, the result is going to be notable - either as a resounding failure or a genius success. Fortunately for the reader, INJ Culbard's ballsy re-interpretation of At the Mountains of Madness is definitely the latter.

In his adaptation, Culbard successfully surmounts two critical challenges.

First, he's forced to condense one of Lovecraft's longest works into a graphic novel. "At the Mountains of Madness" is a big short story (actually, serialized novella). As well as the adventure component, the heart of "Mountains" is an entire history of Lovecraftian Earth. Imagine the task when it comes to converting this eons-spanning, immensely detailed info-dumping into a readable graphic novel. Keeping Herge in mind, it would be the equivalent of a Tintin adventure in which the intrepid reporter stumbles into a pyramid and finds the whole of Egyptian cosmology written on the walls... 

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Dumarest by E.C. Tubb (1967 - 2008)

Mayenne
Mayenne by EC Tubb

It took me over 10 years to find all 33 books in the Dumarest of Terra series, a far-ranging and rollicking set of science fiction novels by Edwin Charles (E.C.) Tubb, concerning Earl Dumarest, formerly of Terra, who stowed away as a child on a spaceship and now, as an adult, finds himself very far from home and wanting only to return.

Earl possess genetically superior luck and is inordinately fast with his reflexes when he chooses to be (mostly to the detriment of those whom he reluctantly kills who barely have time to gasp “too fast, he was just too fast….” before they die of a chest wound).

He is usually described as of medium height, with brown hair, wearing nondescript grey clothing and carries a knife in his boot (though you would not know this from the 1970-1980s UK book covers which mostly feature him in blue denim and having a blond mullet any member of supergroup Poison would have been proud to have been seen in).

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Phonogram (2006)

“I refuse to admit there is no meaning here. I will find meaning. I will force it.”
Lloyd, Phonogram: The Singles Club #6
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Phonogram

For over a half century, the use of music and magic has stayed firmly rooted in the model Tolkien created: a bardic, Bombadillian tradition of sorcerous chanting. As a result, we've had wizards extemporising poetry and forcing rhymes. It is way of creating a functional metaphor for the otherwise inexpressible: a way of objectively measuring and comparing the immeasurable and incomparable. Music, like, presumably, magic, relies on wit, vocabulary, memorisation, and artistic prowess: therefore magic-as-music become a recurring metaphor. It was a way for the reader to understand the un-understandable. Music as an expression of an individual's magical skill was, and still is, the dominant paradigm - it can still be found happily chanting away in many a high fantasy series.

In the 1990s, the technology and production of music changed (well, it did in the 1980s, but it took a while for fantasy fiction to catch up). Music was no longer, if you’ll pardon the pun, a one-man band – the bard, furiously racking his memory for demon-repelling doggerel. Music itself began to be made in layers: songs and studios, productions and distortion, sampling and remixing, a task that could involve dozens or hundreds of people… or even one vocally-challenged youth with an Amiga, a kit-bashed mixing board and an army of samples. Stage presence was no longer required – nor, for that matter, a singing voice. Pop stars may swan around like kings and queens, but, as Faithless pointed out, “God is a DJ.”

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The Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander (1981-1984)

The Beggar Queen
The Beggar Queen

Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy - Westmark (1981), The Kestral (1982) and The Beggar Queen (1984) - is a fusion of traditional fantasy, influences from other genres, and clear historical inspiration.

Westmark, the kingdom, is reminiscent of pre-Revolutionary France - a weak monarchy, a strong aristocracy and a vast number of schemers on all sides of the political spectrum. Theo, a printer's apprentice, is an accidental revolutionary. Although he thinks of himself as politically aware, he crosses the line when he prints a commission that hasn't been authorised by the authorities.

As the situation escalates, he's forced to flee his hometown, and the sheltered, if not comfortable, world in which he's lived. Theo quickly falls in with disreputable sorts - the thief Mickle, and the con-man Count Bombas - who are keen to open his eyes. Through his adventures with them, Theo begins to learn about the 'real' Westmark.

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Michael Moorcock's 100 Best Fantasy Books

House_on_the_Borderland
House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn's Fantasy: The 100 Best Books is a terrific selection of classic (Western) fantasy. Organised chronologically, the authors' reviews are both passionate and snarky. 

Below, I've pulled out all 100 books (100+, really, as there are a few series), and added links to free, legal sources where I could find them. (Publication dates and titles are as the authors had them. Where possible, I've left series together, even when it screws with chronology.)

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Where to begin with Mary Stewart?

The Crystal Cave
The Crystal Cave

To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written. Beyond that, you cannot categorize… ‘Storyteller’ is an old and honorable title and I’d like to lay claim to it.

Mary Stewart (1916 - 2014) is a British novelist, known for her significant contributions to multiple genres. She was of the most prominent - and critically-acclaimed - creators of the romantic thriller. Stewart then went on to write the Merlin series, a best-selling blend of history and fantasy.

Combining genres

Her romances and suspense books aren’t totally relevant to an ostensibly fantasy site, but they’re damn good books - and show how you can breathe new life into a genre by lifting/learning from others. Stewart is credited as one of the primary inventors of the 'romantic thriller', with young women facing peril in exotic locations.

Her books are also notable for a few different reasons:

Incredible scenery. The scenic descriptions are a masterclass, you can practically breathe the air. They’re worth reading for potential writers (especially of fantasy), as they bring landscape and location to life. Stewart took setting seriously, and noted that “research is most useful when dealing with place rather than action. After all, you're inventing almost all of the story anyway.”

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) has been one of my favourites since childhood. And, even then, I knew that the covers were awesome.

Wolves is the first in a long series of Victorian-esque novels, as Aiken's adventures are set in a slightly alternate history. In the world of Wolves, King James III has ascended the throne and wolves have migrated to Britain through an 19th century version of the Chunnel. Curiously, the alternate history elements are merely set dressing, with the titular wolves - and the seemingly perpetual winter - are used almost wholly for atmospheric tension. They do come howling through at a few moments, but largely they pad around in the distance - a soft background of danger throughout.

(I wonder if this actually qualifies as environmental SF? The winter/wolves aren't plot elements, but they do change the tone of the book. Because of the cold, stakes are higher, help is more remote, the characters' decisions feel more absolute. Plus, wolves.)

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Where to begin with KJ Parker?

Devices and Desires
Devices and Desires

K.J. Parker is a cult author.

I don’t mean that in entirely in the colloquial sense, but in the semi-Lovecraftian waybooks talked about passionately, in hushed tones, by a cabal of true believers huddled in forbidden libraries and dark corners of basement bookshops. There are those that have stumbled upon Parker’s texts and worship them with a feverish intensity… and those that haven’t and are therefore unenlightened.

Needless to say, like any other cult, we Parker readers proselytise ceaselessly. There’s a gross, cosmic unfairness to the fact that we, who have been enlightened, are surrounded by the darkness of human ignorance. But, of course, we keep trying. The stakes are too high.

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The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925

According to The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925, A clue in the literary labyrinth for home library builders, booksellers and librarians, consisting of a list of 1,000 best books selected by the best authorities accompanies by critical descriptions written and compiled by Asa Don Dickinson, Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania, Author of 1,000 Best Books. 

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Where to begin with Jane Gaskell?

Atlan
Atlan

Her books feature gorgeous settings, icy protagonists; batshit worlds and beautiful words. Strange plots and great prose... welcome to Jane Gaskell's weird fantasy!

First, there are no Gaskell ebooks, because life is cruel. Fortunately, super-cheap Amazon Marketplace copies aren’t hard to find, and you can build out your Gaskell collection for a few quid. Two problems though. The naming/editions can be annoying, especially in the Atlan series, so use ISFDB to make sure you’re getting the right book. Also, some of her books - the best ones, at that - can be very difficult to find.

The latter category includes her very first book, and a very good place to start...

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