I’m reading the Amber series, given to me for Christmas, and it’s fascinating to note the structural parallels between Gaiman’s Endless and some other works like Robin Hobb’s “Assassin” series (and no, it’s not just the first person). There are other series that draw heavily on each other: Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” and Nix’s “Tower” series, most immediately spring to mind. However interesting these parallels are, they begin to comprise what I think of as the English Major Crack response, where I read the book without actually enjoying it, though I do spend my time analyzing and “digging.” And for What? (Which means, “To what End?”, a.k.a., “Why?”) I think it’s just trained into me. There’s honestly no reason for me to stick with a book that I don’t like, a book where I keep thinking, 200 pages in, “Soon, it will gel soon,” a book that I would not recommend to anyone. In some senses, this is the cart driving the horse – the contemporary publishing industry dictating what I ought to read, demanding, by its presence, it’s “thereness” in the landscape, that I respond, categorize, sift, judge, etc. But, despite its difficulty, after however many years of academic indoctrination, I don’t have to play that game. If someone asks me about the sci-fi/fantasy genre, I can just say, “I got 200 pages into the Amber series and decided to stop.” No matter how illuminating it would be in terms of understanding threads I see in other authors. No matter how crucial the linkage, it’s ultimately boring.
I will put the book down and let the dust accrue.
What I should be doing is a more serious review of a more personally valuable work.
I should also put together a sci-fi/fantasy short reading list for anyone who is interested. I used to have a detailed list of everything I’d read (and I read a lot), but that's too much of a pain in the ass to look for and I stopped updating in it 2000 or so. Instead, I offer a short first-cut list of books that I found interesting enough to re-read:
First, the two that shaped the contemporary genres more than anyone:
Tolkien – Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion
HG Wells – The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man
Adams – Hitchhiker’s Guide
Andre Norton – Witchworld.
Barbara Hambly – Darwath
Brin – The Postman
Cooper – The Dark is Rising
CS Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia
Garrett and Heydon – The Gandaralla Cycle
Garth Nix – Sabriel
Gibson – Neuromancer
Guy Gavriel Kay - Sailing to Sarantium
Harlan Ellison – Deathbird Stories
Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land
Herbert – Dune (only the first), The Jesus Incident
Kenneth Morris –The Dragon Path
L.M. Bujold - The Curse of Chalion
Le Guin – A Wizard of Earthsea
Lindholm – The Wizard of the Pigeons
Lovecraft – Selected Works
Martha Wells – everything she’s written thusfar.
Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Game
Patricia McKillip – Riddlemaster
Peter Beagle – The Last Unicorn
Sean Russell – Moontide and Magicrise
Silverberg – Lord Valentine’s Castle
Miller – A Canticle for Leibowitz
Turtledove – The Misplaced Legion
Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
I’ve deliberately left off Pullman, Peake, Dunsany, Eddison, Howard, Pynchon, Vance, Leiber, White, Jordan, Martin, Eddings, Williams, Feist, Hobb, Pratchett, Anthony, Slavatore, Brooks, Dickson, Donaldson, Stephenson, Tepper, May, McCaffrey, Rice, Moorcock, Verne, Cherryth, Weis/Hickman, Resnick, Eddings, Robinson, Duncan, Banks, Brust, Williams, Rowling, et al., all of whom I've read to some extent.
There are some good stories in the “off” list, but I’m really not into the endless outline/formula writers (Jordan, Martin, Eddings, Williams), nor do I like the melodrama of Feist or Hobb, and the punning stuff (Pratchett, Anthony) bores me. Actually, the endless outline writers kind of offend me; take 3-6 rather boring and clichéd narratives and weave them in and out. Then there are those who were promising but just leaned too heavily on other things – Pullman, Salavatore, Brooks. And those like Orson Scott Card who write one brilliant book (Ender’s Game – everyone should read it) and crank out thousands of pages of absolute crap afterward.
For those of you with a hankering for interesting contemporary fantasy, Martha Wells just might be the best current fantasy writer out there for my money. Actually, my big trio, Sean Russell, Barbara Hambly, and Martha Wells have all slid somewhat recently. Russell hasn’t yet proved he can escape Tolkien (as LeGuin pointed out, Tolkien crushed a generation of fantasists). Hambly lost her way and became preachy, making some of the plots seem morality driven. In her two most recent books, Wells has lost a lot of the tactility in her earlier novels. I realize that there’s a huge subsection of readers out there who hate descriptive novels, desiring plot/dialogue, plot/dialogue, but, frankly, that bores me. It’s also a lot more work to create a tactile world without over-describing. Wells, in City of Bones, Death of the Necromancer, The Wheel of the Infinite, (and to some extent The Element of Fire) succeeded at this. Her plots and settings are also refreshingly unconventional, breaking with the standard medieval fare and dealing with worlds modeled on 17th, 19th, and 20th century socio-political/economic structures. Main characters die. She drops the hammer sometimes 1/3rd of the way into the book. It’s good stuff really - a truly viable writer within the genre who takes intersting risks that ultimately pay off for the reader.