Favourite Fantasy

In the last few weeks I’ve been asked by a couple of lovely people for recommended reading in fantasy and science fiction. My only qualification is that I have read so much in these genres over the last [redacted] decades that I have opinions based on vast experience, but here goes.

A few general points first …

I’m not going to mention a book or series by name unless it’s one I recommend. That saves me from saying “this is a good book” every time and it saves you from even hearing about bad books.

Inline links are (unless otherwise noted) to my own reviews, most of them very short, on this blog or on Green Path.

There’s nothing wrong with escapism but I do prefer fiction which provides insights into ourselves or the way we live. I’ve said elsewhere that SF is brilliant for thought-experiments, but so is fantasy.

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Introducing Discworld

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is old enough that it should hardly need an introduction but some people have been unfortunate enough not to encounter his magical (in both senses) world. It’s their loss, not mine, but I am always sorry to see people missing out on such a feast of freewheeling humour, ingenious invention, sharp satire and humane wisdom.

For their benefit, then, I have put together a quick introduction to the series, short reviews of two of the books, and advice about making the sprawling series more approachable. All of that makes this blog post long enough to need its own index but I’m also going to put the Reading Guide here at the top for convenience.

IntroductionMaking MoneyI Shall Wear MidnightNavigating the Series

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Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus

Night Circus - cover shot The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern

Harvill Secker, $32.95, October 2011

The Night Circus is an astonishingly rich and detailed work of the imagination, bringing to life a world firmly grounded in late nineteenth century England and, within it, a small group of people with magical powers.

Two shadowy master magicians pit their prize students, Marco and Celia, against one another in a duel which neither of them wanted nor fully understands. Their arena is a travelling circus, the Circus of Dreams, which is a mix of illusions and real magic, circus artists and magicians – acrobats, a tarot reader who can indeed see into the future, an ice garden, jugglers and an illusionist whose feats are not tricks. Only after Marco and Celia find themselves in love do they discover that their duel can end only in death. Or can they escape the trap their teachers have so callously constructed?

Twilight has driven a surge of interest in paranormal romance but The Night Circus rises far above that level, beautifully written and seamlessly integrating a wealth of esoteric knowledge. It merits comparison with Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which won nearly every fantasy award in its year of publication. That was a debut novel, as is this. History may be about to repeat.

• Review written and first published in 2011, added to this site in December 2020.

Gaiman: Coraline

[This is my 2008 review of the graphic novel, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell, with some afterthoughts.]

book coverNeil Gaiman has been having a very good year, for about the tenth year in a row, writing fantasy for all ages and adapting it for other media. Coraline was his big success in 2003-04 as a short children’s novel, winning the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and other awards.

It is already available as an audiobook, it is in production as an animated film and here it is as a graphic novel (a classy comic book, to those who think ‘graphic novel’ is pretentious).

Does Coraline deserve this much attention?

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Big Questions reading list

This short list recommends a few books that may be of value to those interested in religion (particularly Buddhism) and philosophy. It’s just a personal list, not a systematic set of references, so use it for what it’s worth.

1. Nonfiction

Books which are primarily about people and society but throw light on Buddhism as practised in Tibet and China.

Bones of the Master by George Crane (1996)
George Crane, American poet, meets Tsung Tsai, a Chinese Ch’an (Zen) monk who escaped from the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1959-60. The two of them travel to Inner Mongolia to re-establish the monastery.

Namma by Kate Karko (2001)
An English girl marries a Tibetan and goes to Tibet to live with his still-nomadic family for a year.

2. Fiction

…with a religious and/or environmentalist slant and a sense of humour. A fun way of exploring serious ideas.

Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
The President of the USA doesn’t want to know about global warming but an odd coalition of American scientists and Tibetan diplomats is about to do something about that. It is the first book of a trilogy but can stand alone.
The other two books are very good as well but don’t really make sense without their partners. In Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting we get disastrous climate changes, a presidential election which puts an activist in the White House, and the beginnings of wholesale changes to the way the USA operates; also a bunch of sub-plots which any other author would spin off into a whole new book. More: http://www.sfsite.com/lists/ksr.htm

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson (2007)
Science fiction about ecological collapse and much more. My review is here.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Gods really do exist on Discworld, but only so long as people believe in them. Their power is proportional to the number of worshippers they have, which makes for some fairly desperate deific competition.

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett
Golems are made to serve. Does that mean they should have no rights?

If you’re hooked on Discworld after these two, read Thief of Time or Reaper Man next. If you’re not, you probably never will be.

My introduction to Discworld is here. For a tiny sample of Pratchett’s work, visit http://www.au.lspace.org/books/dawcn/dawcn-english.html

American Gods by Neil Gaiman is ‘serious’ (and very, very good) fantasy which brings immigrant Americans’ gods to modern USA. The book (2001) is now quite old; the TV series (2017 onwards) has been updated and adapted by the author and it is also very good but it is rather different.

3. The serious stuff – books about religion

The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
A short, very clear, no-nonsense introduction to mindfulness meditation, which is all about giving full, calm attention to the present moment. It is very practical – lots of exercises and very little religious theory although it’s very firmly grounded in Vietnamese Buddhism. As such, it’s a great introduction to something that more and more of us need in these stressful times.

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
Buddhist meditation explained from a Theravada perspective. Very readable at any stage of the path but profound enough to reward re-reading when one has practised for a while longer.

Tao Te Ching
The classic of Taoism. The thoughtful, poetic and beautifully-presented edition from Element translated by Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay is my favourite, but there are many others.

God – the Interview by Terry Lane
Against Religion by Tamas Pataki
Two attacks on Christianity with occasional swipes at Judaism and Islam. Both make some very good points, though neither plays quite fair. Links take you to my reviews of them.

Created April 2008,
updated and published here February 2021

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