So now that J.K. Rowling has brought the Harry Potter series to a close (notwithstanding the possibility of future add-ons, such as the Potter Encyclopedia she has hinted at), what else are Potterphiles to turn to? I thought I would take a moment to recommend some of the books and series I have read and enjoyed myself — mainly in the domain of YA Fantasy. These are all books I’ve read myself, so it is this more than anything else which accounts for obvious omissions (e.g., the Xanth series of Piers Anthony, the Pern books of Anne McCaffrey, or Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series — they may all be great, but I wouldn’t know, never having read them myself). The list is also, by necessity, selective. I read a lot, but I obviously can’t put down everything here in a single post. So, take this for what it’s worth: it’s just one man’s opinion, and only part of it.
Alexander (who passed away very recently) is best known for his Prydain Cycle, five novels (plus a couple of add-ons) that take as their rough inspiration the Wales of the Mabinogion. These are wonderful, of course, but Alexander has dozens of other books to offer famished readers as well. There are the Vesper Holly and Westmark series, as well as many individual books worth reading, such as The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, and Time Cat — and the posthumous Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, published only last month. I’ve read almost everything Alexander wrote and can recommend all of it without reservation.
The Foundation Trilogy. This is only the “science-fiction” on an otherwise exclusively fantasy-centered list, but I include it for two reasons: a) it’s not really conventional science-fiction, in the sense of, say, Stanisław Lem or Arthur C. Clarke), and b) the sheer scope of the imagination involved is enough to earn it a place here. Asimov did publish a lot of mainstream sci-fi, and there are also a number of add-on books in the Foundation series (which I haven’t read). These three, however, are remarkable, and will give you a whole new appreciation for the idea of “hacking history”. In fact, the science of psychohistory, as propounded in the novel, may make you think of Stanisław Lem — or Aldous Huxley perhaps.
I’m thinking of three books in particular: Stardust, American Gods, and Anansi Boys. The latter two are related through a minor character, the African Spider-god, Anansi. Immensely imaginative, entertaining, and actually quite funny in places, all three are rewarding in their own ways. Plus, reading Gaiman makes you “cool”. ;)
Garner wrote two Alderley Edge novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (of which, the first is definitely the better), as well a number of wonderful individual novels — The Owl Service (like Alexander, with a nod to the Mabinogion), Elidor, Red Shift, and the more difficult Strandloper. Like Tolkien, Garner drew on a combination of local (Cheshire) history and Germanic and Celtic mythologies for his fiction. Almost forgotten today, though I don’t really know why, Garner is well worth discovering.
L’Engle passed away only a week ago, and it’s another devastating loss, following right on the heels of Alexander’s passing. I haven’t read a lot of her work, but I did read three of the four books in the Time Quartet (the fourth book came too long after). They were incredibly eye-opening for me — they’re the reason I could throw around words like “mitochondria” and “tesseract” at the tender age of ten or so. I also have fond memories of watching the Wrinkle in Time filmstrip (yes, filmstrip — remember those? :) in elementary school.
Ursula K. Le Guin
The Earthsea Trilogy was a special favorite of mine, growing up, and I reread it earlier this year. Read it — you won’t be sorry! Like Tolkien, Le Guin shows a special appreciation for the power of words, names, and language. Le Guin eventually wrote several add-on books (of which I didn’t especially enjoy Tehanu; though The Other Wind was excellent). Le Guin is also a master (err, mistress?) of the fantasy / science-fiction short story. Her collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is definitely worth making time for.
I only read The Chronicles of Narnia at the embarrassing late date of, err, earlier this year. And while they do have their defects, they were incredibly influential (they still are), and they really are great fun to read. I could include the Space Trilogy here, but for the fact that I haven’t read it yet. Also, I don’t think it’s quite meant for the YA audience (just as Lewis’s superb novel, Till We Have Faces, is not).
Byron Preiss / Michael Reeves
Dragonworld was a great discovery for me in the early 1980’s. In some ways, it owes a large debt to Tolkien — e.g., its main character, Amsel, is a small person, very much like a Hobbit; however, it’s a world away from the rip-off work of Terry Brooks. Plus, it’s long and copiously illustrated; it’s the kind of book that you can luxuriate it. And it has some quite original ideas, too. Look for it. Sadly, Preiss was killed a couple of years ago in a car crash, a year or two after filing bankruptcy. :(
Owing an enormous debt to Milton, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (with the add-on, Lyra’s Oxford, and the forthcoming Book of Dust) is one of the most imaginative series of recent years. The books aren’t without their faults, but they’re probably the most inventively mythopoeic works since Tolkien and Lewis — despite Pullman’s vociferous dislike of those two. I’m looking forward to the film version of The Golden Compass.
What do I really need to say? If you haven’t read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, isn’t it about time? :)
Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Wangerin is, like Lewis, a Christian apologist, but one who brooks no apologies for the disturbing nature of some aspects of the mythology. I’m thinking here of the duology of The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows. Owing a good deal to Celtic and Germanic mythology, Chaucer, Milton, and of course, The Bible, these books are Christian allegories told from the point of view of animals (before the arrival of Man on Earth). They are, for Christianity, what Orwell’s Animal Farm was for political ideology. The relationship between Chaunticleer and Mundo Cani is one of the more original in YA literature, and it forms the bridge to the sequel, which is (I must warn you) one of the single most depressing books you will ever read. But what did you expect from something called The Book of Sorrows?
Okay, I should preface this recommendation with a caveat lector: John White’s Archives of Anthropos series is a very obvious Christian allegory and borrows pretty transparently from The Chronicles of Narnia, only published a couple of decades before. I really enjoyed the two I read as a kid — The Tower of Geburah and The Iron Scepter (which also borrows Dante’s conception of Hell from Inferno) — but I haven’t read them since. Having now read their inspiration in Lewis, I can see the obvious connections. The stories involve a group of children who get sucked into an alternate world, not through a wardrobe but through some strange old televisions in an abandoned attic (not unlike the method of ingress into Narnia in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Character and place-names owe a lot to New Testament Greek: The World of Anthropos (ανθρωπος), Castle Authentio (αυθεντικός), King Kardia (καρδιά) — and a koine rubric of “love” that is straight from Lewis’s The Four Loves. But they were fun books to read.
What can any of you recommend?