Top Twenty Fantasy Series [2]

Here follows the second part of my Top Twenty Fantasy Series list, the first of which ended with Mary Gentle’s First History Sequence.  Already, as I surmised, I made some edits and my initial list has been somewhat changed.  Originally I had planned to include Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy (as well as its connected novels into one larger series), but then I remember Felix Gilman, who was writing around the same time, and chose to push Abercrombie from this list.  To be fair, this is not a decision that came without some hemming and hawing: I think Abercrombie is the best example of the now overly represented “grimdark” subgenre – and I definitely like how the First Law Trilogy functions as a critique of the tropes of Tolkien-inspired fantasy, just as I like how some of the connected novels (especially Red Country) expand the genre concerns – but in the end I felt that: a) I’m already representing “grimdark” with books that existed before this subgenre was named (i.e. Mary Gentle’s books), and; b) the substitution of Gilman’s work is necessary because Gilman is, in many ways, a superior fantasist.

But okay: on with the list!

11) Caitlin R. Kiernan: Threshold, Low Red Moon, Daughter of the Hounds (2001-2007)

When I first encountered Kiernan it was with her novel Silk (which was also part of a small series) and I was so annoyed with the asinine preachiness of this novel that I would have never read anything else she wrote had it not been for an online friend (shout out to Adri!) who convinced me otherwise.  I mean Silk was that kind of urban fantasy-horror that was crafted for maladjusted goth and emo kids to convince them that they were so hard-done by for being white.  Blah-fucking-blah.  Then I was told (by Adri) to check out Kiernan’s Red Tree (which is neither part of a series, nor is fantasy proper), which scared the shit out of me more so than any book since Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, so I decided to give her other books another chance – and I’m glad that I did.

The series that is composed of Threshold, Low Red Moon, and Daughter of the Hounds is urban fantasy (with a strong dose of eldritch horror) at its best.  That is, urban fantasy without wish fulfilment bullshit and intersecting with elements of horror that were truly frightening.  Ghoul societies, djinn magic, and uncomfortable reconfigurations between the three books.  Lovecraftian not in the sense of the mythos where a bunch of people write either Cthulhu stories or thinly veiled Cthulhu stories that are just knock-offs of that racist sunovabitch, but in the sense that Kiernan really channels (as my old online friend Adri once argued) a feeling of something that is horrifically alien and other.  And the prose, especially by Daughter of the Hounds, is pretty fantastic.

Too bad that Kiernan, despite being a trans woman, really fails when it comes to race in the real world.  Back during the Requires Hate online controversy in the SFF community, she sided with the supposed “white victims” [search “Kiernan” in the article for the links and analysis], and her books have primarily concerned a very white (despite being queer and/or trans) subjectivity.

12) Steph Swainston – The Castle (2004-2010?)

At one point Swainston announced that she was quitting writing to become a chemistry teacher – this announcement was precipitated by her complaint that it was difficult to be a woman writing non-conformist fantasy.  But then she wrote another book in The Castle series (Above the Snowline) which, to be honest, I still need to read since, prior to 2010, I was under the impression that this series was simply a trilogy.

What can I say about The Castle series?  It is definitely something that became possible because of “Battleship Mieville” – which is why Swainston has an entry in the New Weird collection – but is also its own unique series.  Swainston’s “Fourlands” fantasy setting (not to be confused with Brooks’ Shannara “Four Lands”, thankfully) is a world where a humanity ruled by “the Castle” is, in the first book, besieged by a super-insect invasion.  The main character, Jant, is an emissary from the Castle (who has wings and can fly), and part of a quasi-pantheon… but also a drug addict.  Oh yeah, and his addiction allows him to enter an alternate world called “the Shift.”  The interesting thing about The Castle series is that it feels both immodern and modern at the same time: it is mythologically feudal, while at the same time its main characters wear jeans and t-shirts with slogans.

13) Catherynne M. Valente: The Orphan’s Tales (2006-2007)

Honestly, between this duology and Valente’s Prester John series it was a toss up… I ended up choosing The Orphan’s Tales because it was more elaborately and intricately constructed.  These two books are the best example of the Arabian Nights influenced “stories within stories” kind of fantasy, more elaborate and beautiful than anything I’ve encountered.  Also, the writing is beautiful… probably because Valente spent years writing poetry and prose poem novellas before tackling The Orphan’s Tales.

The frame tale concerns an orphan girl with hundreds of stories intricately tattooed around her eyes; she requires a boy to read them all in order to break a curse.  The two books are divided into four story sequences, each of which contains stories-within-stories-within-stories-within-stories.  People within each story begin other stories, and they move into and out of the multiple frames over and over until each sequence is completed.  Nor are all of these stories standalones since they all have common characters – uniting each sequence and showing up in other sequences – who together produce a larger mythology that also concerns the main frame tale.  Indeed, the construction of the book is so intricate that Valente must have developed a complex flow chart to plot out her book and keep it on track.  The subject matter of the stories is the kind of fantasy that is drawn from the weirder fringes of every world mythology and, often combined with a critical political awareness, moves into the terrain of the New Weird.  A surreal and poetic example of world-building.

14) Alan Campbell: The Deepgate Codex (2006-2009)

Another series that fits within the New Weird subgenre, or at least does so because of Mieville’s influence. Unlike Valente or Vandermeer, however, Campbell’s Deepgate Codex is new weird epic fantasy – or maybe “new weird meets grimdark” or maybe “steampunk fantasy” – that is so epic that the folks at TV Tropes love the shit out of it.

The first book, Scar Night, concerns a city that is suspended by chains over the entrance of Hell where a corpse-eating god guards the gates of hell, and a nearly invulnerable psychotic angel that, on certain nights of the year, goes on a killing rampage.  And then shit gets serious, the whole city falls into Hell, and the next books concern the broader fictional universe and a war the God of Hell is having with his siblings.  And there is a flying ship pulled along by a chained man called Anchor, cyclopean mecha constructions fueled by the souls of dead gods, time travelling, blood that fuels an army of the damned… Well, yeah, you get the point.

15) Felix Gilman: Thunderer, Gears of the City (2007-2008)

It was a toss up between this duology and Gilman’s fantasy western series (Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City).  In some ways I think the latter is superior, since Gilman’s quality as a writer developed, but in other ways I gravitate towards the former because I remain uneasy with the way in which Gilman depicted colonial usurpation in his weird western fantasies.  So Thunderer and Gears of the City it is!

These books concern Arjun who travels to the city of Ararat to search for the god who abandoned his people.  Ararat is an infinite space-time city, with an eternally expanding interior, that is a magnet for dying gods.  In Thunderer Arjun eventually discovers that the Ararat he is initially shown (a chaotic city-state where various internal fiefdoms contend for power) is just the superstructure of a multi-dimensional city that is fought over by a variety of people, particular one (and his parallel versions), who know how to move from all the possible time-variants of Ararat.  Some of the prose is quite lovely as well.

16) Kate Elliott: The Crossroads Trilogy (2007-2009)

Elliott’s original plan for the setting and story was a set of interlinked series, with what became The Crossroads Trilogy initially intended to be a single book connecting an earlier and later series.  I guess that, when she was plotting out the series as a whole, she felt that the middle narrative was more interesting, focused on it, and turned it into a trilogy that took into account what she wanted to do with the prequel and sequel series.  Considering that it has almost been seven years since she ended this trilogy, I think it’s fair to say that she’s not revisiting this fictional universe and considers its story finished (though I’m quite probably wrong).

There is a lushness to this trilogy, and a depth of cultural construction and historical grounding, that I feel is missing from a lot of fantasy. Driven by an ethical sensibility that eschews simple moralisms, Elliott plays with exoticisms: how different cultures encountering each other exoticize the other but how, in encounters that are not yet (but eventually will be) imperialist, this exoticism tends to lurk at the level of banal ethnocentrisms that say more about each culture’s own particular failings than the veracity of their judgments.

Beginning in a mode of production that is slave-based – but that has no problem justifying its slavery in relation to others who don’t hold slaves but who have terrible gender politics – the series opens in the middle of a history gone awry, a time when the supernatural guardians of the land have disappeared and slipped into myth.  Soon it becomes clear that these guardians have been subverted, are the reason for the violence descending upon the land, and only the violent encounter between this society’s internal struggle and a rebellious scion of an expansionist Empire from elsewhere, will be its salvation.  Except it’s really not, and Elliott concludes by subverting all the saviour tropes of the “good empire”, and true-love-conquers all bullshit.

17) Aliette de Bodard: Obsidian and Blood Trilogy (2010-2011)

Urban fantasy noir in pre-contact South America, at the height of the Mexica Empire.  While colonial historiographies have described this culture [“Aztec”] as primarily barbaric, and while [some] equally piss-poor counter historiographies have tried to claim that it was liberatory, de Bodard takes the critical middle path by depicting this culture as no more or less barbaric than medieval Spain.  That is, as a woman of colour author, she seems quite aware of how romanticizing a tributary mode of production is not the best way to disrupt eurocentrism; rather, it makes more sense to describe it as a class-based society of humans no better or worse than people living in societies elsewhere, a complex tributary formation that is burgeoning with its own contradictions.

But, since this is a fantasy series, as with urban historical fantasy based in European historical space, she crafted a fantasy that functions according to Mexica mythic categories.  The result is something that feels both modern and alter-modern at the same time.

18) N.K. Jemisin: the Inheritance Trilogy (2010-2011)

Despite being called a “savage” by the reactionary Vox Day – one of the fuckers who worked to game the 2015 Hugos because of the recognition women of colour had received – Jemisin is part of vanguard of non-white women authors who are taking fantasy by storm… And she really does deserve all the awards she wins, as should be obvious except for the fact that there are all these internet assholes (like the kind of fuckwits who complain about the fact that there are black protagonists in the new Star Wars) who are bizarrely under the impression that her recognition is some kind of PC plot.  Chances are they haven’t read her books (and probably, because they’re crypto-nazis, won’t) because otherwise they would understand (one would hope) why she received so much recognition.

A war amongst the gods results in one god, through deceit and murder, becoming supreme and forcing his opponents into slavery, relegated to living weapons of the victorious god’s chosen people: conscious fantasy atom bombs for every culture that dared to challenge the nation that had supported the victorious god.  The first book functions to shatter the hegemonic false mythology, reverse the power dynamic, and release a host of gods back into the world.  The second and third books function to question the complexities of this reversal, the very function of gods in the world.  A fantasy variant of the need for counter-history, but conscious of the contradictions that a history of gods and their offspring permit.

[I really wanted to place Jemisin’s current series on this list, but that would be disingenuous.  I haven’t yet read the first and only book of this series, The Burning Season, though I just grabbed it from a close friend, so I’m only assuming that it is going to be awesome.  Give me a year or two and maybe I’d alter this list with its inclusion.]

19) Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death, Book of the Phoenix, ?? (2010-??)

Although I debated adding this series to the list due to the fact that the prequel, Book of the Phoenix, functions in some ways to explain the fantasy elements of Who Fears Death as the residue of science that was forgotten in an epoch of post-apocalyptic Africa (where extremely advanced technology is misconceived as magic), I ended up choosing to include it because Book of the Phoenix does not explain away the fantastic elements due to the fact that is still incorporated in a fantastic frame tale.  Also, Who Fears Death was enshrined as “fantasy” when it won the World Fantasy Award.

A female sorcerer goes out into the world to confront her rapist father, who leads a genocidal culture, and rewrite the dominant cultural narrative.  An engineered being, created at the end of the a society approaching apocalypse, becomes part of the mythology that this female sorcerer is struggling against.  Problematics of gender, war crimes, and racialization function to produce a complex narrative.

Oh yeah, and Who Fears Death is a reference to a statement by Lumamba…

20) Kameron Hurley: The Worldbreaker Saga (2014-??)

Also known for her awesome science fiction Bel Dame Apocrypha, Hurley’s epic fantasy series is punch in the skull.  Indeed, one of the editors of Angry Robot (its eventual publisher) declaimed that he would “knife fight” for the honour of getting this series on the publication list.

A fantasy world of living forests, multiple genders, magic attuned to alien astronomy, and the confrontation between one world and its parallel universe other.  Grimdark meets some variant of the New Weird, fantasy unbounded… I’m annoyed by the fact that I’m going to have to wait until 2017 (unless it is extended further) for this series to conclude.


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