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The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison (1922)

The Worm Ouroboros

We call it world-building; no unified field-theory covers all observed data.

Most models require one Grand Map pairing with one Encyclopedia; these collide to spin off races and faces, languages, currencies, histories and customs down to table placement for royal dinners. Success by this model of world building is measured by (quantity of books times quantity of characters) to the nth story-arc squared. A clear and fair formula.

But sometimes world-building is something different. It is the evocation of another reality. Soon or late, this feeling comes to most lovers of fantasy. Not often enough; but it drives them to wander story-wastelands, seeking the italicized thrill again.

The sensation is evoked by descriptions of scenes, conversations, ways of thinking and acting by characters who seem strange, absurd, impossible; and yet immediately recognizable. Like music you never heard before, yet you know the coming notes.

Eric Rücker Eddison (1882-1945) was a British civil servant when the sun dared not set upon an ordered Empire, and servants knew how to set a proper tea. A scholar of Old Norse, he wrote one fantasy book of note. It is a world in a book. Not an easy read. Not a believable world. Yet it has evoked that ‘other-place’ feel in so many notable authors, it ranks as a major inspiration to fantasy's desire to give readers that shiver again.

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The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson (1950)

Repulse boarders
Art by James Boswell

There are few things less Gothic than vigorous physical activity, so the very idea of writing a series of linked short stories that combine the motifs and props of the horror genre with those of sports journalism must surely be the endeavour of an author who hungers for obscurity. The two literary traditions are in opposition and don’t blend at all. Yet Maurice Richardson made the unnatural collision work in the 1940s. More than anything else, his ‘Engelbrecht’ stories are funny, and their oddness never seems awkward. I am at a loss to find much, if anything, to compare them to, either before or after they appeared in the pages of Lilliput magazine and then in a limited edition hardback issued by the legendary Phoenix House.

The Exploits of Engelbrecht is a work of fiction that fitted into no known category back then and has subsequently inspired few imitators. It is perhaps the ultimate definition of a ‘cult book’, a work read by only a small number of people who grow wildly enthusiastic about their discovery and try to spread the word. The word falls mainly on deaf ears but occasionally a new convert will be won, and that is how the cult perpetuates itself, slowly and inefficiently. Some illustrious figures are proud members of this particular cult. The most vigorous, Michael Moorcock, was the one who first alerted me to the existence of Richardson and his book. In one of his essays, Moorcock made the startling claim that no other writer, not even Borges, could much the density of invention of The Exploits of Engelbrecht. In the days before online bookshops it took me many years to track a copy down. I searched in vain in second-hand outlets for a copy. I knew it had been reprinted once, in 1977 by John Conquest, but no bookseller I approached had heard of the title.

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Where to begin with Tanith Lee?

The Dragon Hoard
What’s the word for a gang of silly princes? Let’s call it a ‘prance’.

In Tanith Lee’s first novel, The Dragon Hoard, a prance of princes sit trapped at a magical feast. A mad wizard declares they must tell a story. When the story stops, they’ll plunge to their deaths. The hero rushes into an absurd Once-Upon-A-Time about a princess named Soppy… till he stutters. Writers block! What now? Cleverly, he passes the story to the next prince. Who adds an enchanted elephant, then hands the narrative to the next prince, who tangles the plot with twins, then the elephant comes rushing through, Princess Soppy on his back…

The Dragon Hoard was fairy-tale riffing to make kids giggle, grownups smile. The first of 90+ novels, hundreds of short-stories by Lee. Some for smiles; others for shivers. Some for dark dreams, others for bright amaze. Her dragon-hoard of tales spark every reaction words can send down the spine, across the cortex or below the belt. Masterfully composed pieces in every key of the fantasy voice. I say it plain: no other writer hits every note across the fantasy musical-scale from comic to epic, horror to erotic, lyrical to classical, and yet keeps the level of quality achieved only by the genre specialists.

Let’s use that mad feast of tales as model for Ms. Lee’s books. Pass on to the next prince! Lee’s second novel: The Birthgrave. Just the title evokes eerie recognition. A child-woman awakes in a tomb; flees as it collapses. She has no memory of who or what she is, only the heart-breaking conviction she is a lost thing, cursed in soul and face. Veiled, she wanders a world exactly like herself; cruel, mysterious, and haunted by the spirit of a vanished race, a forgotten face.


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Where to begin with Andrew Lang?

The Violet Fairy Book

While some come to reading later in life, many of us have our roots deeply implanted as children. For me, it all started in supportive parents and amazing librarians and one spectacular independent bookstore owner, all of whom fed the imagination of a young child by mostly letting her hang out in their spaces and read all the books.  Indeed, one of the great thing about libraries is how many older books you find and how easy it is to get a wide swathe of influences because of it.

My hometown library in the middle of nowhere Washington state (USA) had a fantastic children's section with more classic children's lit authors than you can shake a stick at, including the magical "Rainbow" fairy tale series compiled by, I thought, Andrew Lang.  I can't tell you how many times I checked the various colours out, but it was definitely double digits.

Imagine my surprise when I went to learn more about Andrew Lang - and discovered that he probably should have been credited second.

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Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett (1998)

Carpe Jugulum
Carpe Jugulum

Who doesn’t love a good cravat? A silk waistcoat embroidered with peacocks? The widow’s peak, the glint of the fang? The thing about vampires is they’ve got style. Everyone knows that about vampires, who knows anything about vampires. The only problem is that by now maybe vampires know this, too.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is home to vampires, witches, wizards, golems, goblins, elves, and a race of Scots-adjacent ‘pictsies’ known as the Nac mac Feegle. In a world that is disc-shaped, riding on the back of four elephants, themselves positioned on the back of the great turtle A’ Tuin as it travels through space, this is hardly surprising.

There are forty-one books in the Discworld series, their setting ranging from city of Ankh Morpork to the more rural settings of the Ramtop Mountains and the leas of the Chalk. In such a vast fantasy world, it often seems difficult to make inroads, especially if unfamiliar with the series. But, as the title of Pratchett’s book reminds us, maybe it is best to simply carpe jugulum. Go for the throat.

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Where to begin with James Blaylock?

Lean in! Close. Closer. I am going to whisper a secret…

The Last Coin

Good writers keep the rules. They learn syntax and expression, the subtle formulae of narrative arc and tension. For the architecture of character development they memorize each separate building-code requirement. The Rules: professionals read, practice, and solemnly promise to obey.

They lie, of course. There are no rules to writing. Only good writing advice. How is that possible? I have no idea. I only dangle the idiot point to lure you sufficiently close to SHOVE YOU IN THE RIVER.

Done. Splash and curse a bit while I settle here on the bank and light a pipe. We are waiting for a raft to come by. It’s in no hurry; nor the river, nor we. Well, me anyway.

While treading water I invite you to appreciate the wonder that is a large river meandering through wild lands, past small towns, heading on to adventure and the sea. Do you not feel that, besides being damned cold, a river is the perfect road for adventure? It has no idea where it goes. It just does; forever on its way.

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The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) & The Cruise of the Talking Fish (1957) by W.E. Bowman

The Ascent of Rum Doodle
The Ascent of Rum Doodle

I was given a copy of W.E. Bowman’s entire published works in an omnibus edition as a gift and I turned my nose up at it. I mean, I accepted it courteously and my face undoubtedly even had a smile on it, but I really wasn’t that enthusiastic. I had hoped for a book by an author I knew, a reliable favourite. I read the back cover blurb and leafed through it dejectedly. My fear was that it was going to be unfunny, irritating, perhaps twee, like so much other ‘humorous’ fiction I had been exposed to in the past decade or so. I put the book away in a box. And that’s where it lingered for a number of years until one day I chanced upon it again.

I can no longer recall what compelled me to try reading it. I had moved house and maybe it was the first book to resurface when I unpacked. I don’t know. I settled on a sofa and opened it and began reading with no great expectations of finishing it. A few pages later I was regretting that I hadn’t jumped right in when I first had the chance. Here was monstrously brilliant prose and exactly the kind of ecstatically daft comedy I enjoy best. The omnibus contained only two books, The Ascent of Rum Doodle and The Cruise of the Talking Fish, the first two novels in the ‘Binder Trilogy’, because that was the totality of Bowman’s published output. The third volume exists only in manuscript form and may never be published.

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Bête by Adam Roberts (2014)


Bête is set in a world where green activists (or terrorists - depending where you stand on the story's events) develop a microchip that allows animals the power of speech. Although the initial wave of 'cunning' animals is small, the chips are easily replicated and passed on - before long, hundreds of thousands of 'Bêtes' on are on the prowl. As well as the expected results (our protagonist, a cattle farmer is suddenly out of a job as Britain goes vegan), there are great repercussions: what does it mean to be 'human'? Or a 'citizen'? To be represented, and, quite literally, heard?

Roberts is one of the modern masters of 'big idea' science fiction - a single concept, extrapolated and explored through all its various ramifications and permutations. And the talking animals of Bête are no exception - but like his literary predecessors, Roberts cleverly limits the story to something more manageable. Bête is, for example, a quintessentially British novel - along the lines of After London or even the works of John Wyndham, one gets the impression that the world extends only so far as the ocean.

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Where to begin with E. Nesbit?

"After Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit is the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children) and like Carroll she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own." - Gore Vidal

"There is no bond like having read and liked the same books." - E. Nesbit

The Enchanted Castle

Edith Nesbit, aka Edith Bland (married name), known to most of us as E. Nesbit, lived from 1858-1924, and she had a really interesting, convoluted life. Her husband had an affair with a friend of hers, and the friend/mistress came to live with them as a housekeeper. Edith and her husband had 3 children but adopted the housekeeper's 2 children (...that wound up being Edith's husband's real children).

Everything about her husband screams "OMG RED FLAG" to me. He lived with his mother and had a kid with another woman who thought they were engaged at the same time that a pregnant Edith was marrying him. The other woman? A friend of his mother's, so he continued to live at home with mom after marrying Edith because he didn't want mom to know that he had gotten married to someone else. He apparently went broke frequently also. One website I read called him "feckless" and while I think it fits, I don't think it goes far enough. I do think of words with "f" and "c" and "k" in them though, when I read about these things...

From most accounts, Edith put up with all of this because part of her innate personality: to be a caretaker and forgiving person. But oddly enough, this didn't always translate to her kids. She appeared to run hot and cold in waves, not just with her own children but with all kids. Strange in one of the western world's most beloved authors for children, no? I found it fascinating. She has this talent and does it, and she sacrifices a lot to adopt her husband's out-of-wedlock kids with her own friend, and she loves them… but then she also just couldn't even sometimes. I get it, Edith, I get it.

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Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)

Mort by Terry Pratchett

A cleverer person than me would probably open a piece like this with the argument that if death (Death? DEATH?) is the ultimate expression of reality we’ll all face one day, then perhaps fantastical literature is humanity’s way of expressing hope in the face of that truth: Storytelling as an act of creation beyond the reach of that grim but grinning full stop that awaits us at the end of our own stories.

I would likely also nod to the way that myth, folklore and fantasy have always ultimately been one of our finest tools for telling ourselves stories about what happens beyond the last page as it were - ‘what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil’ as Shakespeare had it - but really I’m here to talk about Mort, not death, and while the latter may be somewhat unavoidable in the long run I am here to fully recommend introducing yourself to the former as soon as possible.

Mort is the fourth book in Terry Pratchett’s epic Discworld sequence, but to my mind it’s actually one of the best titles to introduce new readers to his work.

His first two books, The Colour of Magic and its direct sequel The Light Fantastic are hilariously re-readable romps for SF&F fans where the territory is instantly recognisable even if Terry’s books are the notable exception on the fantasy bookshelf because they don’t bother to include a map.

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