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A Prologue of the Person: Books I Love

What better way to get to know a book blogger than learning what books they like? Here are some books I love and recommend frequently.

Epic/Secondary World Fantasy

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

If you have any interest in a huge, sprawling fantasy epic with hundreds of characters, it’s hard to find better than The Wheel of Time. It starts with a lot of old fantasy tropes (Ancient evil! Farm boys with special destinies!) and explores them in a really fascinating way. What happens when all the political leaders don’t want to step aside for the chosen one? What kind of psychological trauma does status as prophesied hero bring? What happens when the magic that will save the world also causes its wielders to lose their sanity? The writing goes heavy on the description, but it makes the world feel alive. Most of the major characters start out immature, so they have their annoying phases, but it leads to some excellent arcs. And the use of prophecy and foreshadowing is world class.

Read if: you have any interest in massive good vs. evil epics.

Avoid if: you like a succinct writing style or you can’t stand immaturity in major characters.

The Lighthouse Duet by Carol Berg.

A perfect combination of many-layered, epic plot and an intense focus on a single perspective character. It’s a slow build, following a renegade, addict sorcerer as he goes to ground in a monastery, while civil war and perhaps the end of the world rage outside, but once it picks up, the momentum doesn’t let up. Eschewing the trilogy (or longer) format for a duology means there’s no middle-book syndrome to be found—the story barely takes a breath between the end of book one and the beginning of book two.

Read if: you like character-driven fantasy, redemption arcs, and epic plots.

Avoid if: you struggle with slow builds or main characters in need of redemption arcs.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

This is the way the world ends, for the last time. Just as epic as anything from the older big names, but with an inventive and fascinating world that doesn’t in the least bit resemble medieval-Europe-but-with-magic. It gets dark and it gets heavy, with the major perspective characters all being part of an oppressed and enslaved group of magic users, but the characters feel real, and slow unfurling of the layers of world-building and backstory add depth while keeping the tension ratcheted all the way up.

Read if: you like great stories that push genre convention, stories with a point to make, or a middle-aged Mom protagonist.

Avoid if: second-person narration is a problem for you, or a (very short) graphic sex scene is a dealbreaker.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

An expertly-written, self-contained fantasy set in an analogue of medieval Spain, where a world-weary hero must guide a princess through a royal court filled with villains and dark magic. Perfectly walks the boundary between a fairly dark world and an underlying optimism about changing it.

Read if: you’re looking for an excellent traditional fantasy standalone.

Avoid if: you’re looking for something action-heavy.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

If you’re on a fantasy book blog, you almost certainly know this one, but it’s one of the greats for a reason. It opens slowly, but by the back half of The Fellowship of the Ring, it becomes a fascinating fantasy epic that’s almost impossible to put down.

Read if: you’re looking for an excellent traditional fantasy, or you want to check out one of the most influential works in the genre.

Avoid if: a slow start is a problem for you.

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

A strong self-contained novel that tells a traditional fantasy story in a fresh setting, with magical priests–a master and apprentice, of course–trying to save their land from evil, but in an Egypt-analogue with dream magic.

Read if: you want a high-quality story with a small cast and without too many competing storylines, or you’re looking for a non-European setting.

Avoid if: you’re looking for something that pushes boundaries or tells an especially intricate story.

Science Fiction

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

A sprawling space opera featuring everything from wars to prison breaks to murder mysteries to romantic comedies and does every single one with aplomb. By-and-large, each story is self-contained, but the characters learn and grow over the course of the series, so it’s generally recommended to read in rough order, starting either with Shards of Honor and Barrayar (these two should be read together) if you’re looking for an enemies-to-lovers romance with war and political intrigue, or The Warrior’s Apprentice if you’re interested in the somewhat manic trickster dwarf who stars in the majority of the Vorkosigan novels.

Read if: you like sci-fi that can be poignant but doesn’t forget to have fun, and you’re ready to learn to love characters over the course of ~20 novels and novellas.

Avoid if: you’re looking for a heavier epic, or the progressive takes on gender and sexuality are a dealbreaker for you.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Military school at its finest, with a young genius enrolling in an elite academy to learn to defeat an insect-like alien threat. Somehow, I have not yet made it to the sequel, which I’ve heard is also excellent.

Read if: you like boy geniuses and combat schools with themes that run much deeper than the description would suggest.

Avoid if: the author’s extratextual comments are a dealbreaker for you.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Humanity begins terraforming a new planet, sending down monkeys and a nanovirus that will rapidly accelerate the evolution of the species. Turns out the nanovirus hits the spiders and ants instead–whoops! Worse, the group of settlers headed there a thousand years later have no idea. A fascinating story split between the perspective of human settlers looking for a habitable planet and that of the spider society waiting for them. With plenty of time jumps, there’s no one character that centers the story, but the spider evolution storyline is riveting enough to make this one worthwhile anyway.

Read if: you’re looking for really creative and well-crafted sci-fi.

Avoid if: you struggle with a story without a strong central character/ensemble, or you’re an arachnophobe.

Urban and Portal Fantasy

The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

The Fae have cut Ireland off from the rest of the world and bring each Irish teen to their realm to be hunted for 24 hours. The survival rate is vanishingly small. The book takes place at a school in which teenagers are studying to survive, with the 24-hour calls of various characters interspersed throughout. Our heroine, paralyzed from the waist down, doesn’t seem to have much chance of making it to adulthood, but she’s determined to use her wits and meticulous preparation to survive.

Read if: you like survival game stories and a creepy aesthetic.

Avoid if: you have no interest in either YA or a bit of body horror.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

At this point, Harry Potter’s faults are well known–the logic doesn’t always stand up to close scrutiny, there’s a bit of bloat in some of the later books (looking at you, book five), and the author cannot resist continuing to bid for the spotlight with her Twitter account. But there’s a reason this series has the reputation it does. The immersion is effortless, the magic feels magical, and there are some really good growing-up character arcs.

Read if: you want an easy-to-read, immersive, and generally really fun story.

Avoid if: you really need your magic to logically cohere or if Rowling’s Twitter is just too much.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

A retelling of a Lovecraft short story that directly addresses the racism in the original. Creepy and immersive with some excellent social commentary. Knowledge of the original is not necessary (I say from experience).

Read if: you’re looking for a story with excellent social commentary, or you want to read something Lovecraftian without reading Lovecraft.

Avoid if: you don’t do violence/horror.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Another classic that’s a classic for a reason. A portal fantasy written for children that is still just as magical for adults, heavily inspired by the central narrative of Christianity but without being preachy. Start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And skip The Last Battle. The first six are wonderful, but The Last Battle falls short both in its storytelling and its religious themes.

Read if: you like easy-reading portal fantasies that feel truly magical.

Avoid if: you don’t do kids stories or you want to avoid the Christian themes.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

A delightful portal fantasy full of absurdity, wordplay, and logic jokes.

Read if: that description sounded good to you.

Avoid if: it didn’t.

Greats That Resist Categorization

Kindred by Octavia Butler

This honestly might be the best standalone novel I’ve ever read. It’s emotionally heavy, featuring a black woman in the 1970s who mysteriously travels back in time to the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. But the writing is easy-to-follow, and the story hits hard. The time travel is the only speculative element, so it doesn’t neatly fit with either science fiction or fantasy, but it’s incredible.

Read if: you like stories that make you feel something.

Avoid if: a story about American chattel slavery hits too close to home.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers (and a whole lot else) by R.A. Lafferty

Lafferty writes in a bizarre mix of New Wave science fiction, Native American tall tales, Greek/Roman/Irish mythology, and Catholic mysticism. He’s hard to compare to anyone else, because he writes like only himself. But he’s exceptional at being himself. I highly recommend starting with his short fiction, either with Nine Hundred Grandmothers or The Best of R.A. Lafferty, which is a little more accessible than his longer work, but he has some excellent novels as well, whether historical and somewhat fantastical tales of the Visigoths (The Fall of Rome) or the Choctaw (Okla Hannali) or mystic, political conspiracy about the battle for the soul of mankind (Fourth Mansions).

Read if: you’re looking for creativity, joy, and madness.

Avoid if: you prefer a more traditional writing style, or the lack of progressive views on gender are a deal-breaker.

4 thoughts on “A Prologue of the Person: Books I Love

  1. Interesting list. One comment is that I’m not sure I’d consider the Vorkosigan Saga of having “progressive takes on gender and sexuality” anymore – it’s very much so in the sense of the 90s, where the books – and this is true of Bujold’s other work as well, be in Chalion or Sharing Knife (especially that last one) – make frequent nods to how acceptable free love or queer love should be, but almost never features such individuals as the main characters – and when they are, those characters are pretty much always in a straight and committed relationship (Cordelia and Jole in Vorkosigan Saga only become a focus after Aral dies, Kareen has tried women on Beta but has decided on Mark, etc.)

    It almost certainly was progressive for a book in the 90s, but I don’t think it really can fit that designation anymore, to the point where I doubt it’d be an issue for even most conservative writers (indeed, it’s published by Baen, a publisher favored often by readers/writers of right wing SF for reasons that never quite make full sense, but whatever)

    1. It’s quite possible that my genre expectations have just changed since I read it, but a subplot about a trans character seeking societal recognition was definitely not part of my stereotype of 90s sci-fi, for all that it’d be unsurprising now.

      I debated whether to include that at all, because anyone who’s dropping it for that reason is probably not going to like a lot of contemporary SFF. On the other hand, I couldn’t think of many reasons that someone wouldn’t want to read this series, and I could see it being jarring for someone who is used to a lot of the older and more conservative stuff.

      1. Yes but the way the trans character is portrayed is again very 90s, with the transition done not due to any feeling of gender disconformity (indeed that’s almost made a joke of) but due to a loophole in a patriarchal society. Again it may be jarring for the most conservative of readers but it’s a good 20 years behind progressive ideas

        But anyhow that’s enough of this topic as we’ve gone of topic haha

    2. And while I obviously stand by all of these as quality, the list is in large part a function of what really good stuff I’d actually gotten to before this year—there are a lot of gaps that I hope to start filling in as my reading increases. So there is a lot of more classic stuff that I’d read quite a while ago, mixed in with a handful of contemporary stuff that I happened to pick up in the last year or two.

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