Rose’s Top Ten Most-Recommended Fantasy Novels (that aren’t by Tolkien)
Note: The contents of this list will probably change like the wind, because I’m not only always reading new things, but also changing my mind. Also, though this list has numbers, they’re not really meant to be rankings; most of the books are so different that there’s really no comparison.
1. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis — It’s possibly Lewis’s least-known novel, and it’s probably the best thing he ever wrote. This retelling of Cupid and Psyche is one of the best examples of POV and narrative voice that I’ve ever seen. Oh, and it’s also fabulously insightful and deeply moving as well.
2. The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle — You’d think that one book could not be at once a satire on fairy tales, and a discussion of them, and one of the most heartbreaking pieces of prose you’ll ever read. You’d be wrong, and this book is the reason why.
3. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury — Bradbury is one of the great masters of the English language; pretty much everything he writes is brilliant, but this novel is one of my favorites. A strange carnival comes to a small town, and two young boys get curious; and it’s creepy and crazy and beautiful in the way that only Ray Bradbury can be.
4. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin — In an act of pride, a young wizard accidentally unleashes a dark creature that he must hunt down and stop. Le Guin writes spare, beautiful prose, and she creates one of the most evocative and compelling worlds in all of contemporary fantasy. The philosophical underpinnings of the novel are not exactly Christian, but it’s still one of the best portrayals of consequences and responsibility that I’ve ever seen.
5. Declare by Tim Powers — Cold war spy novel with magic (which is to say, djinn, Mount Ararat, the lost city of Wabar, Gilgamesh, ankhs, and the Nephelim). Tim Powers has made a career out of inventing crazy yet hypnotically logical fantasy explanations for disparate real-world events; Declare is his most compelling yet. It’s also masterfully written and structured, and it has the best-integrated Christian themes I have seen in a very long time.
6. Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip — All of McKillip’s books have beautifully dream-like writing and imagery, but in this one style and substance match perfectly, as a young woman fights to save herself, her sister, and a mysterious young man from an alluring world of dreams and obsessions.
7. Watership Down by Richard Adams — An epic story about rabbits. Yes, really. Adams is one of the few authors whose animal characters seem truly like animals; the rabbit society he creates is both fascinating and convincing.
8. Coraline by Neil Gaiman — Why this book is shelved in the children’s section, I’ll never know, because it’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read. But it’s wonderfully evocative in the way of stories that tremble on the edge of meaning without becoming actually symbollic; and it’s got a simply and beautifully stated message about love, courage, and reality.
9. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis — This is science fiction, not fantasy, but I’m sneaking it on anyway because it’s just so good. It’s a time-travel story, about a young historian who gets trapped in England at the time of the Black Death; it’s grim and heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. Willis asks a lot of questions about religion and meaning and suffering that she doesn’t answer–after reading this book, I couldn’t tell if she was a Christian at all–but she treats religion with a thoughtfulness and respect that is quite rare.
10. Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant — It’s yet another children-drawn-into-a-fantasy-world-to-save-it novel, but with a sense of wonder and terror that most such novels lack. The mythology Chant creates for her world is rich and evocative; her prose is fluid and beautiful; and the growth her protagonists undergo is quite well-done. Despite some gratuitous apostrophes in the names, this is a gem of a book.
Rose’s Top Ten Most-Recommended Non-Fantasy Novels
Note: Once again, numbers do not equal ranks. Also, you’ll notice that this list has a lot of the same books as Sasha’s. It’s not my fault she has good taste.
1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky — I’m not sure what to say about this novel, because really, superlatives fail me. It pulls you straight into the mind of an axe-murderer and keeps you there, and brings you out again in a magnificent tale of redemption. I cannot praise this book enough. Just read it.
2. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo — Love! Hate! Escapes! Revenge! Barricades! The Paris sewer system! Hugo manages to fit just about everything under the sun into his 1500-page masterpiece, but at its heart is an incredibly moving story of redemption.
3. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — This is the best (non-Tolkien) novel of the century, and not just because of Waugh’s masterful prose, insightful characterization, or caustic wit. It’s a tremendously moving story about the grace of God at work in even the worst of lives, and it ends with one of the most stunning eucatastrophes you will ever read.
4. Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers — This is technically a mystery novel, but it’s not just about mysterious happenings at Oxford. It’s about choices, vocations, intellectual and artistic integrity, gender roles, the scholarly life, power balances in relationships, the consequences of ideas, principles versus personal demands, AND it’s one of the best love stories ever written. Read it.
5. Moby Dick by Herman Melville — It’s about, um, I’m not terribly sure. Whales, and the meaning of life, and everything else too, probably. And it’s got fabulous writing and characterization, and some amazing drama.
6. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco — This is another mystery novel that isn’t really about mysteries. The plot is centered on a series of murders at a medieval monastery, but the book itself is a dizzyingly complex discussion of the search for meaning. Eco does not provide a lot of answers, but he has some wonderfully phrased questions.
7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen — Honestly, I’d rather just give Austen a lifetime achievement award than pick one of her novels. But I’m putting down Pride and Prejudice because of its wit and charm, as well as characterization.
8. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg — This novel tells the story of Deborah, a teenaged schizophrenic girl who has taken refuge in an imaginary world, and her slow journey back to sanity. It’s not just a “problem” novel: Deborah’s secret world is described in harsh, haunting imagery, and the themes of alienation, connection, and hope are universal.
9. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert — This book could make it into any top-ten list by sheer strength of prose alone; the way that Flaubert matches his style to his subject is breathtaking. But it’s also a chillingly convincing portrait of a woman who has lost any sense of reality, and thereby the ability to love.
10. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer — These are not novels, but I’m adding them because this is it. This is where everything begins. The entire Western literary tradition started with these epics, and they are every bit as relevant and compelling today as they were 3,000 years ago. Provided that you have two working eyes and a soul, there is no excuse for not reading them.
Sasha’s Top Ten Most-Recommended Fantasy Novels (that aren’t by Tolkien)
Note: This list will undoubtedly change very soon, as I read new books or remember other old ones. Also, I confined myself to only one title by each author — several of these authors have several books which I highly recommend.
1. Passage by Connie Willis — This fabulous book about Near-Death Experiences is thrilling, intriguing, complex, bizarre, and both depressing and hopeful. Willis brings up multitudes of fascinating questions while dealing with her themes of death, memory, and metaphor, but gives no easy answers, inviting intense thought from the reader.
2. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis — More mythology than fantasy, this book still deserves to be in any top-ten list. Based on the story of Cupid and Psyche, it contains all of Lewis’ trademark profundity disguised as a simple story about a jealous young woman and her beautiful younger sister Psyche. Christian truths and fascinating ideas are deeply imbedded in this beautiful book.
3. The Song of Albion trilogy by Stephen Lawhead — Okay, so it’s three books, but one story, so it ought to count as one. This trilogy, which tells the story of Lewis Gilles, an Oxford grad student who finds himself in the Otherworld and embroiled in politics, is based on Celtic mythology is exciting, fun, and well-researched, as well as containing Christian themes.
4. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — In this short volume, Bradbury shows himself both a brilliant wordsmith and a philosopher with keen insight into modern societal trends. This book has entered our society’s consciousness, yet most people have no idea how close to home it actually hits — or how gorgeously written it is. Read it today.
5. Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip — Most Patricia McKillip novels are equally satisfying, in my opinion, but I decided on this one as a token because its motif of music was especially pleasing to me. McKillip’s writing is always beautiful, and once you’ve gotten used to her rather unusual descriptive style, a lot of fun to read.
6. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold — This book has some of the best world-building and character development that I’ve seen in a modern fantasy novel. The central character, Cazaril, is a truly selfless man struggling to do his duty in a politically complex setting. Fantasy just doesn’t get much more well-crafted than this.
7. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander — Five fun YA books from the Newbery Award-winning author, these stories are based on Celtic mythology and are a lot of fun. They’re also surprisingly touching at times, and quite insightful into human nature, with a laudable moral grounding.
8. The Once and Future King by T. H. White — White’s retelling, published in the 1930s, of the Arthurian legends, particularly those surrounding the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinever. White is a wonderful writer, who manages to craft a highly heterogeneous narrative voice while reimagining these classic stories for his own era. The book is by turns farcical, tragic, and everything in between, but always captivating.
9. The Sword and the Circle and others in the trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff — Sutcliff’s writing is beautiful, and her retelling of the Arthurian legends for young adult readers is deserving of the highest praise for its beautiful prose and sensitive depiction of the characters and tales of Malory. (I like these books much better than Malory, for what it’s worth…)
10. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones — Hilarious, fantastical, unpredictable, creative, delightful…those words (and many more superlatives) could describe just about any of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, but I think this one is still my favorite. Featuring a spunky young heroine in an old woman’s body, and a very non-conventional evil wizard, this is one “kids’ book” that adults will not want to miss!
Sasha’s Top Ten Most-Recommended Non-Fantasy Novels
Note: I actually read very widely, and just in case anyone else out there is curious to know what else I read aside from fantasy, I’ve created this list. (I couldn’t resist — I love to plug my other favorite books!) Once again I have resisted re-naming authors, so several of these writers have other books which I greatly appreciate.
1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky — This fascinating psychological thriller will grip you from chapter one and never let go. Reading it will change your perspective on life, and its powerful portrayal of murderous insanity and far-reaching redemption will stun you with its brilliance. It’s the best book I’ve ever read.
2. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo — In the novel’s nearly 1500 pages, Hugo creates a compelling picture of a society on the brink of change, as well as an intensely personal portrait of a man attempting to make good his own reformation. The plot is wide in scope, but the characters are very real; Hugo enters their minds with incredible realism.
3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville — Another book about everything, this one set on the high seas with well-developed characters and a tangibly real setting. The ambiguous symbolism and imagery are interesting as well. Melville’s innovations with narrative voice, and his supremely cool melodramatic quality, make for a fascinating, entertaining, and complex book. I adore it.
4. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer — Okay, so they’re not novels, and there’s two of them. But the very fact that Homer’s books are still around after almost 3000 years is a tribute to their quality; the fact that they still move readers to tears is a testament to their immediacy. Take a fresh look at some of the oldest fictional characters in existence, and thrill to Homer’s lovely poetry. I recommend Lattimore or Fagles as translator.
5. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens — This novel describes the climate of London and Paris during the French Revolution with Dickens’ typical mix of sarcasm and hyperbole, but manages to capture the historical period with some realism. The story of French and English characters struggling to hold together during this difficult time also contains beautiful treatments of profound themes — resurrection, self-sacrifice, redemption.
6. Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers — Three books, yes, but the story of one relationship: the romance between Lord Peter Wimsey, British aristocrat and amateur detective, and Harriet Vane, mystery novel writer. Founded in extremely well-drawn characters, the books are each mysteries — and fun, page-turner ones at that — but the star feature is the depiction of Peter and Harriet’s relationship, which is most definitely the most realistic romance I’ve ever read.
7. Emma by Jane Austen — Austen’s witty, insightful tale of the proud, well-meaning, and somewhat clueless Emma Woodhouse is charming and enjoyable, as well as containing a fabulous development of an unreliable narrator and well-rounded characters. Austen’s insight into human nature is never more evident than in this entertaining book.
8. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger — This book will make you laugh, cry, and fanatically wish for more from this first-time modern writer. This story of tragedy, hope, and miracles is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy with asthma, growing up in the Midwest in the mid-20th century. I couldn’t stop reading, and I guarantee you won’t be able to either.
9. The Ballad of the White Horse by G. K. Chesterton — All right, so this isn’t a novel either — rather, it’s a book-length poem of marvelous quality. Chesterton’s poetry has an incomparable ringing rhythm to it, as well as gorgeous descriptions, and the content is profound too. This poem tells the story of King Alfred’s defense of England against the Danes, and contains glowing passages which are quite beyond description.
10. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev — This short novel depicts the changing relationships between two generations in a Russia on the brink of drastic change. The characters are incredibly drawn, and their relationships shown with moving, powerful realism. I read it twice in a week and loved it even more the second time.