Must Read Books
by Sionna Cailey
If you love fantastical adventure books, make sure you treat yourself to some of the wonderful classics of speculative fiction.
As both a reader and writer, I've always been fascinated by stories of the other-world, the realms of myth and legend and the landscape of the mind. I've always loved books that explored outrageous possibilities: What if we could do magic? What if we could go back in time? What if there were some truth to tales of supernatural creatures and other planets where live existed that was different, maybe even better, than life here on Earth.
Speculative fiction has often been dismissed in the past as escapist. But in the hands of the masters, it does so much more than take you on a brief mental vacation from everyday life. In the hands of the master storytellers, it gives you a whole new perspective by spinning you out and away from the mundane world and giving you a whole new way of looking at it.
Storytelling has always focused on the intangibles: hope, love, faith, fear, guilt, loyalty. Storytelling isn't about wizarding schools or ancient books or precious bird statues or magic rings—it's about the people surrounding them. Storytelling brings people together by teaching them, reminding them, that those intangible qualities exist in all of us. It cultivates tolerance, understanding and cooperation. By taking people out of their "normal" worlds—giving them fantastical powers, magical settings and strange circumstances, no form of literature has cultivated as much common feeling and human connection as speculative fiction. Because despite these fantastic settings and mystical powers, people are still people, with the same fears, needs, wants and goals. Whatever magical world, whatever distant galaxy, whatever superhuman power they might possess, people still hope, love, fear, have faith, feel guilt and stay loyal to their own.
Here's my list of must-read classic books for both fantasy readers and writers from some of the master storytellers
1. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley:
The Mists of Avalon is a 1982 fantasy novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley that retells the Arthurian legends from the viewpoint of Morgana, who traditionally has been characterized as a wicked and manipulative witch. In this fresh retelling, Bradley incorporates the influence of early British Druidic and Pagan religion, and brings us a Morgana who is a strong and intelligent woman, a complicated and rich character who plays an important part in her country's history. The Mists of Avalon is one of the first fantasy novels that featured strong female characters and pinned great events around them. I think the strength of female characters in modern speculative and paranormal fiction owes a great deal to this ground-breaking book. It's also a fantastic and thought-provoking read.
2. Interview with a Vampire, by Anne Rice.
Don't forget who brought the sexy to vampires in the first place. Interview with a Vampire was published in 1976 and it set the current tone surrounding vampire mythology. Before Interview, vampires were ugly, monstrous and soulless creatures. With the deft use of vivid imagery and rich narrative, Anne Rice completely rewrote the vampire meme in the English speaking world. With its sensuous settings, lyrical prose, romantic themes and intensely pansexual subtext, Interview with a Vampire changed the face of the vampire for all time.
3. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Although this book is classified as science fiction, Heinlein's exploration of religion, philosophy, human dynamics and supernatural abilities make it a must-read classic for fantasy and paranormal writers. Published in 1961, it stands out as the first science fiction book to delve into more than hardware and outer space. It was truly ahead of its time, both in the genre and in modern culture, postulating concepts of peace, free love and communal living long before the hippies promoted them. Any writer of paranormal, fantasy or magical realism fiction should examine Heinlein's seamless blend of the material and ethereal worlds.
4. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madelaine L'Engle
Another delightful and thoughtful blend of science, fantasy, philosophy and time travel, this time for children and young adults, it was published in 1962. Although highly Christian in theme and tone, it highlights those themes of Christianity that resonate with a wider audience and is another ground-breaking novel that promoted female characters as strong and complicated protagonists.
5. Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
Okay, this one's not a classic in a temporal sense, having been published in 2002, but it will be. In fact, any of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, starting in 1983, are must-reads. Set on the distant and magical Discworld (which is a flattened disk that floats through space on the back of a turtle of astronomical proportions), Terry's novels are wry satire, farce, drama, character studies, adventures, romances, literary fiction, fantasy, history, commentary and well... pretty much anything else you'd want in a book. I believe there are currently over 35 Discworld novels, with more to come. What makes Terry's books so amazing is that, although they are fantasy and satire, each character is developed with compassion and love, even the bad guys. The deft crafting of theme, plot and wit will make Terry's Discworld series timeless classics on the order of Dickens, Chaucer and Austen.
6. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson
Published in 1995, one of the first true cyberpunk novels, also featuring great female characters and science so amazing, it's practically magic. Like many of my other 'must-reads', it seamlessly blends themes of culture and philosophy and asks important questions about the meaning of life and how it should best be lived in fantastical settings and under extraordinary circumstances.
7. Outlander, by Diana Galbadon
About 12 years ago, somebody gave me this book and since I thought it was just another silly bodice-ripper, I shoved it into a box, being far to thick to use as a leg-table wedge. Totally dry of fresh reading material and bored to tears, I decided to read it anyway. Boy, was I surprised! Outlander features a romance, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's a wonderful and funny love story, with some not-so-stereotypical protagonists; an educated older heroine (go cougars!), a charmingly befuddled young and sexually inexperienced hero, mixed with science fiction, time travel and history. It's also amazingly well-written. Any writer who wants to learn more about blending genres, pacing a story, catching even the most cynical reader's imagination and taking them for a ride, should check out Outlander.
8. The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Belgariad is a five-book fantasy series first released in 1982. Often dismissed for being somewhat formulaic, The Belgariad books stand out as being one of the first popular epic fantasy series that utilized humor and focused on character dynamics and interplay, rather than being just noble quests and bloody battles. Eddings loves his characters and it shows. Later it was revealed that much of the series was co-written with his wife, Leah. Her obviously female touch is what makes The Belgariad special: the flirting, the bickering, the snark, the intrigue, the quiet shows of love, loyalty and family feeling that interweave the heroic events of what is basically a classic, and sometimes over-used plot arch.
9. Ada or Ardor, A Family Chronicle, by Vladamir Nabokov
Published in 1969 by a writer well known for his literary fiction, Ada is at first glance an unlikely candidate for a list of speculative fiction classics. Ada is beautifully lyrical, painfully insightful and truly a literary masterpiece. But, it's also an alternate world story, a history of an anti-Terra, a sister earth where technology is very different and geography is very strange. Within this story of another earth is even another fantastical story, a story within a story, written by the protagonist, Van Veen. At its core, Ada is a love story, a tragic set of circumstances for two people who cannot bear to be apart, but who must be apart, who after suffering despite their attempts, happily (and unexpectedly) refuse to bow to the inevitable. If you're normally a spec fic reader or writer and have wondered what all the brouhaha about literary fiction is about, check out Nabokov's Ada.
10. Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins
Also considered, traditionally, a 'literary writer', to my mind, what Robbins writes is more accurately called magical realism. Even though it was published in 1990, Skinny Legs is particularly spot on about current middle-Eastern affairs, religious debate in the US and the subject of religiously fueled terrorism. But don't let that scare you, because Skinny Legs is also an absolute belly-laugh of a book that will leave you rethinking everything you might think you know about the world. From ancient Babylon, to Seattle, to New York to modern Jerusalem, Skinny Legs and All taught me everything I needed to know, philosophically, about the creation of art. It also features the best opening line of a novel, ever: "This is the room of the wolfmother wallpaper." Brilliant stuff – check it out.