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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?


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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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014)

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) is a brand new book about two very old topics: time travel and the apocalypse (aversion thereof). I have to confess, I went into this novel a bit jaded. Time travel - be it relating to wives, doctors or serial killers - has been everywhere lately. As has, frankly, the apocalypse. I couldn't see how Harry August would have anything to add into the mix.

I was, of course, wrong. I like this book because, rationally, it takes a new approach to two of the oldest tropes in science fiction. And I love it because Harry August himself is such a brilliant character.

Let's start with the latter.

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Keeper by Mal Peet (2003)


Mal Peet's Keeper (2003) was a recommendation from a friend, who referred to it as the book that made him into a writer. He's a very good writer, so that's one hell of an endorsement. And he was right: Keeper is a terrific book, combining the known mechanics of sport with a type of ecological mysticism. It is a ghost story, a coming of age tale and a fantasy that's uniquely its own.

El Gato is the best football player in the world: a goalkeeper that's completely without peer. He's just won the World Cup, and, throughout Keeper, that ugly/beautiful trophy is always within our field of view. Keeper is structured as an interview - the reclusive El Gato is baring his soul to journalist Paul Faustino. Faustino, originally just keen on a few pretty pictures and some quotes, realises that he's bitten off more than he can chew, as El Gato's story goes all night, and into the morning.

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Where to begin with China Miéville?

The Last Days of New Paris
The Last Days of New Paris

China Miéville’s books range freely across categories and classifications – epic and urban fantasy, hard and squishy science fiction, crime, horror, young adult and more. He addresses, dances with and ultimately departs from the traditions and expectations of every genre. Although many thousands of words have been written trying to put Miéville’s work into neat buckets, a China Miéville book is ultimately, well – Miévillian. He is a category unto himself.

And what is Miévillian? ‘Tremendous’, ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘unmitigated brilliance’ are all true, but they’re not very helpful. The trick is to look at the books’ shared qualities. A Miévillian book provides glorious entertainment, powerful themes, intellectual depth, joyous wordplay, subversive approaches and with a few rare exceptions, monsters.

Each and every one of his books is an award-winner, a critical darling, and a reader favourite. So where to begin?

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