Game of Thrones is Getting Me Down
June 27, 2012 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I need a great escapist doorstop novel, and I love some magic and weird creatures, but most big fantasy novels seem to be about BAND of WARRIORS leading to EPIC BATTLE and grimness and people dying. Battles bore me and I'm just not that interested in violence (including magical violence). I'm also interested in people without so much power-- so no royalty, super-wizards, or Chosen Ones. Can you recommend fantasy books that AREN'T about warriors, magical or otherwise? That feature intrepid traders? Cunning craftspeople? What are the bourgeoisie and the working stiffs up to in magic epic land?

There seems to be a lot more scifi that's about productive economic activity than there is fantasy, but I'm craving some fantasy right now and everything seems to have swords on the cover.

I've read all of Pratchett, devoured Harry Potter, adored 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', and have read 'Little, Big' too many times. 'Pillars of Earth' but with wizards and cute magical beasties would be just the ticket. Have sadly exhausted Lois McMaster Bujold's stuff, which hits just the right note.

Bonus points for: long and absorbing; great female characters, especially female leads; travel to exotic locales and culture clashes; a sense of humour; and great writing.
posted by Erasmouse to Writing & Language (78 answers total) 223 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have you read any of China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels? Perdido Street Station is usually the first one people read (it's about a magic professor trying to help a crippled Garuda fly while trying to find his missing insect-woman lover) but The Scar might be more up your ally (a translator is captured by pirates and becomes a pawn in a power struggle in the floating pirate city).
posted by Oktober at 2:36 PM on June 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: How about some Ursula LeGuin?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:41 PM on June 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Mareilon the Magician (and sequel)

A College of Magic (and sequel)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:41 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have you already read Outlander? (Diana Gabaldon)

A lot of YA novels fit the bill but they are rarely doorstops (Twilight and Harry Potter being the exceptions that spring to mind.)
posted by small_ruminant at 2:42 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Crown Duel and Court Duel, though the first is very battle-y. The second is straight up court maneuvering.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:43 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic stuff might fit the bill. It's about mages whose talent shows up as a predilection for a certain kind of craft, they're YA but good. There's a sense of destiny but mostly it's just these 4 kids at this temple figuring out what kind of person/mage they want to be. Definitely has the female lead and culture clash thing happening.
posted by edbles at 2:43 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Name of the Wind and the sequel The Wise Man's Fear both tick a lot of your boxes. Very engrossing.
posted by CheeseLouise at 2:44 PM on June 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

(You would have to get a bound set of all 8 circle books for it to count as doorstop).
posted by edbles at 2:44 PM on June 27, 2012

Yes to LeGuin, though she is technically sci-fi. But none of her characters tend to be in charge of things, generally speaking.

Robin McKinley tends to write royalty who are not very comfortable at being royalty--most of her leads are odd-thinking, fish-out-of-water types regardless of whatever post they hold. Outlaws of Sherwood is all common-folk, as are most of her short stories and later novels (Dragon Haven, Sunshine). But still fantasy.
posted by emjaybee at 2:46 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came here to recommend The Name of the Wind and sequel as well. There is some magic, but most of the characters are poor, urban, and rough and tumble, and the magic is slowly learned and earned, not some incredible skill you're both with a la Harry Potter. I don't like much fantasy outside of the big famous ones (LoTR, etc.), but I love those books.
posted by something something at 2:46 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Oh, you should read Nicola Griffith's novel Ammonite (adventures of anthropologist on The Planet of Women Only Due To Mysterious Past Event). And Peter Beagle's incredibly, insanely, unjustly underrated The Folk of The Air (adventures of underemployed, roving former sixties Berkeley student returning to Berkeley in the late's very hard to describe this novel effectively, but it's one of my absolute 100% favorites - it's insightful, it's lyrical, it's well-observed, it's written by a straight white dude in 1979 and none the less manages to have major characters of color, some of whom talk to each other and several of whom talk directly about race (I mean, it's not The Perfect Novel About People of Color by a White Author, but it's pretty good) and also has great women characters, or really just great characters all around. I'd say that if you like the gentleness of Little, Big you will like Folk of the Air, plus it's way less sexist. (I'm not sure Little, Big rises to the level of actual misogyny (or hatred of women!) but it has some really creepy gender stuff IYAM).

I have heard good things about Andrea Hairston's new novel, Redwood and Wildfire, although I have not read it yet.
posted by Frowner at 2:47 PM on June 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

For instance, I just read one called The Princess Academy (not really about princesses) that I liked but it took me 3 hours on the plane to read it, so it wasn't exactly a hefty tome.

The Hunger Games is good, but not cheery. The sequels, in my opinion, are positively grim.

I liked A Soldier in the Great War, which isn't exactly fantasy but read that way to me. The women in it are unremarkable, if I remember correctly. The same author wrote A Winter's Tale that many on metafilter like, but which I didn't. In fact, I found it very distasteful.

More YA: I just read Cashore's Fire again, and liked it a lot. Graceling is also good, but more violent. Both have good female protaganists.

I also read Robin McKinley's early YA books, up through Deerskin, regularly. Her later ones are in need of a heavy editor.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:47 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

How about Lev Grossman's The Magicians?
posted by idest at 2:49 PM on June 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch -- I very much enjoyed this book, haven't read the others yet; no notable female characters, alas (I also look for those!), but no battles, either. Our protagonists are merry thieves and conmen.
posted by artemisia at 2:49 PM on June 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede (and sequel, and upcoming sequel) ... Not sure how long it is is because I read it on kindle.

A lot of Diana Wynn Jones, especially Chrestomanci series. Not super long but plenty of reading when read all together.

Elizabeth Bear has a series of novellas starting with "New Amsterdam" that's an alternate history series of murder mysteries, with magic and vampires. I do not like vampires but I kept reading these. Again, a good length when read all together.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:54 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "Illusion", by Paula Volsky. Basically the French Revolution, but with magic, and a great female lead character. She starts out as a noblewoman but, as it's the Revolution, she's not living a life of privilege for very long. A really fun read.
posted by OolooKitty at 2:55 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders books are... about traders. (And they're good - it's sort of the middle trilogy, of a set, but it's only loosely connected.) L.E. Modesitt's Recluce books are largely about craftspeople who get caught up in larger events. (Some of them are about city guards or soldiers, but they're much, much more workaday than Epic Adventure.) Some of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar books strike the same notes with me, although most of them have some sort of epicness in there somewhere (and they're pretty uneven in quality - happy to point you at my Goodreads page in my profile for detailed reviews, since I have those handy.)

(The sequel to Locke Lamora has a pretty stellar female secondary character, fyi.)
posted by restless_nomad at 2:56 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I really enjoyed the Fever series, although I wouldn't necessarily consider it a doorstop. It does have a strong female protag though. But it may be a little "chosen one" like... but I tend to get bored with battles and fight scenes as well and I don't remember it dragging me down. The same thing with the Kate Daniels series.
posted by Quincy at 2:57 PM on June 27, 2012

Septimus Heap (a 7 book series starting with Magyk) fits some of your requirements (little to no violence, very few warriors, sense of humor, strong women) but there is a chosen one and a princess. But there are also lots of "humble" folk and the royalty is limited to a single main character, while another is more of a political leader. So, it might be worth a look. It is classified as YA, has six of seven books released with the last one due out next year. Each book is close to if not over 500 pages.
posted by soelo at 2:57 PM on June 27, 2012

Not what many would consider "fantasy" but Haruki Murakami's recent 1Q84 seems to fit most of your criteria. Review here.
posted by gyusan at 2:59 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Oooh! OOh! The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud!
posted by capnsue at 3:06 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thirding Name of the Wind. Maybe Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy? It's a little grim and features some street fighting (no swords), but it's epic and one of the main characters is female and awesome. Also, the first one centers around a gang of criminals, though they do all have magical abilities. On the lighter side, you might also like Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, though it's a short, quick read. I just read Thief of Time, and the Lobsang/Lu Tze scenes reminded me a lot of Bridge of Birds.
posted by natabat at 3:06 PM on June 27, 2012

Discworld series?

There's also the Piers Anthony Xanth series. Lots of quests, but no wars. And the protagonists vary quite a lot as the series progresses. (For instance, one of them features a Nightmare.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:09 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Not quite a fit, because it features a few Chosen Ones, and a climactic battle, but "Lord Valentine's Castle" is set on a marvelous world. Most of the plot is concerned with a band of jugglers, with a chosen person among them. Charles Stross's "Laundry" novels (and numerous short stories) are about an IT guy who works for a secret agency that polices the activity of Eldritch Horrors (Lovecraftian stuff) in the UK. But his "Merchant Princes" books might be more up your alley; they focus on an economics reporter who discovers she's a member of a clan that can move between parallel universes (our own, and a medieval-level world), and applies her economics knowledge (and Stross, like all the major Scots writers these days, is no slouch when it came to studying economics) to change things in both worlds. Later on, a third world, somewhat Edwardian, is added to the mix. The world-shifting deal is the only magic I can recall; the rest is up to the characters.

I'm even tempted to suggest the "Baroque Cycle" trilogy by Stephenson, but I'm afraid historical fiction is too far afield. There is a magic form of gold that forms a current through the books and for every Chosen One, there's an army that thinks he's a Usurper. (Most of the fighting is out of sight of the reader.) A little of it is set in the New World, in a barely populated place called Massachusetts, while other great sections are set in the alien landscape (and seascape) of The Orient.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:16 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks folks! This will be one useful list! Everyone's been telling me to read China Meiville so I've cued him up; Frowner, The Last Unicorn is an old favourite so thanks for reminding me of the existence of Folk of The Air!

Love Murakami but I'm currently struggling through IQ84 on audiobook.. :-/

I had a feeling I'd need to look to YA so those are good recs as well!
posted by Erasmouse at 3:17 PM on June 27, 2012

Yeah, Liveship Traders series is pretty awesome. There's also Temeraire, although there is a dearth of female characters. (One of the most awesome female characters is a dragon, though.)
posted by elizardbits at 3:27 PM on June 27, 2012

Jacqueline Carey's novels definitely have a Chosen One thing going on (or at least a Very Special One), but otherwise seem to fill the bill quite well. There's a ton about religion and religious beliefs/practices, which fascinates me. We meet and spend time with many "everyday" characters. The second trilogy features a prince who goes to university masquerading as a commoner, so that whole chunk is very "typical college student" for that time and place. Also, there's constant travel--the main character starts out in alternate-world France, and by the end of the three trilogies, we've covered Europe, large chunks of Asia, parts of Africa, and hit the Americas. Fantastic stuff.
posted by epj at 3:30 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Connie Willis's Doomsday Book is technically sci-fi, I suppose, but I find it also scratches the fantasy itch, due to the medieval setting.
posted by EvaDestruction at 3:31 PM on June 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Lev Grossman's The Magicians and the sequel are great. I'd also recommend Jo Walton's Among Others. Both are different, very very different from most fantasy. But in a pretty excellent way.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:37 PM on June 27, 2012

Diane Duane's Young Wizards series and the Feline wizards spin-off books. Imagine wizards as tech support for the universe. They are not Chosen ones, exactly -- their wizard manuals catch their attention by whatever Powers That Be, but they don't start learning the art unless they take an oath and choose.

Most of the books are led by Nita Callahan, who I would hope is one day played by Maisie Williams or someone of her caliber. And even when the location takes place strictly on Earth, they manage to travel someplace exotic and wondrous. The aliens featured in the series are easily some of my favorites (the Fifth Doctor even makes a cameo in one book). Basically, this series tops my rec list anytime someone comes off Harry Potter or any grimdark series.
posted by vaghjar at 3:40 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Yeah, I have to really strongly unNth Name of The Wind, the protagonist of the series is specifically a super wizard and warrior who's so cool there are legends devoted to him, and happens to be like, the most talented thief and wizard of all time - of all time - who gets caught up in a world-ending conspiracy. Also, they are totes boysy, and the girls in it exist pretty much solely as plot devices/love interests for the boys.

They are literally the opposite of what you are asking for most ways.

Books that I think you might enjoy, especially given your preferences:

Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirless, concerns the efforts of the mayor of a town to deal with an influx of fairy magic.

The Princess of Roumania quartet by Paul Park is definitely one for you. John Crowley loves it, and it has a similar... otherwordly kind of feeling. 2 and a half out of 4 of the main characters are women, and the books are filled with strong women, and regular people struggling to make sense of a confusing world.

I enjoyed Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay a lot. It's not world-ending, and I felt like the power relations lined up much more closely to what realistic feudal powers would look like. Additionally, there's a significant element about trading and the main characters form a kind of travelling company of bards. There are two powerful wizards, but paradoxically, the books feature almost no magic! Worth consideration.

Nthing Liveship Traders. Damn, I loved those books, and sadly Hobb has never again achieved that height.

Nthing Ursula LeGuin. Even the powerful are not what they seem in her books.
posted by smoke at 3:42 PM on June 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Jack Vance's The Dying Earth books, especially The Eyes of the Overworld and its direct sequel, Cugel's Saga. It meets many of your criteria (resourceful, intrepid, violence is incidental, no kings or chosen ones) and Vance embodies "travel to exotic locales and culture clashes; a sense of humour; and great writing." Not many well-written female characters in the Dying Earth books, though.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:45 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Check out Daniel Abraham's The Dragon's Path. it's about an orphan who weasels her way into running a branch of a bank's trading house. There's a little magic (she has no powers herself), mercenaries, an acting troupe and some battles, etc. But the focus is more on business and trading and preventing a religion from taking over the country when there are changes in nobility rather than powerful wizards and monsters. There are two books so far and it's really good.

Just what you are looking for.
posted by MCTDavid at 4:04 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just came in to recommend Jack Vance, who I only just discovered. Some of his books are fantasy, some are Sci-fi. They don't tend to have female protagonists, but the women in his books at least are their own people. I don't know why I didn't get into Jack Vance earlier- I am really enjoying his work. (And there's a TON of it, though, as with many good writers, very little of it shows up in our local used book stores.)

Oh- graphic novels, but you might enjoy Carla Speed McNeil's "Finder" series. I do.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:08 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Diane Duane's Young Wizards series and the Feline wizards spin-off books. Imagine wizards as tech support for the universe. They are not Chosen ones, exactly -- their wizard manuals catch their attention by whatever Powers That Be, but they don't start learning the art unless they take an oath and choose.

I have to second these. The plots and conflicts largely aren't violent, although some books have more action than others. And while the characters are wizards and technically chosen ones:

1) They are low-level wizards, at the absolute bottom of a pretty big hierarchy. It's implied that there is a whole lot of bureaucracy, although their immediate supervisors shield them from the worst of the paperwork.

2) The protagonists mostly don't use their magic powers for fighting, and although there is usually action it's not where the drama comes from. In a lot of the books they have to talk to people (and sometimes animals, and trees), figure out complex situations, and help make a resolution that satisfies different conflicting parties.
posted by vogon_poet at 4:08 PM on June 27, 2012

Piers Anthony's stuff is pretty egregiously sexist, so I'm unNthng those.
posted by winna at 4:24 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

A second vote for Daniel Abraham's The Dragon's Path. The best fantasy novel about trading I've ever read!
posted by willbaude at 4:41 PM on June 27, 2012

This is YA, but I can't believe no one has mentioned the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.

Great female characters, especially female leads: CHECK!
Travel to exotic locales and culture clashes: CHECK! (even different worlds!)
Sense of humour: CHECK!
Great writing: CHECK!
Lengthy: CHECK!

Seriously, please check out this series. It is the best.
posted by dysh at 5:11 PM on June 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

I don't know if this is quite what you're looking for, but I love the Artemis Fowl novels. They're young adult, and they do sort of feature a super-special protagonist, a boy of 11 or 12 who is both a genius and incredibly rich. But they also have a second character I think of the other main character, a female fairy who works for the Lower Elements Police. It has fights but not battles, and a lot of cleverness and intriguing characters. Each book is a relatively quick read, but there are seven of them (with the 8th and final one coming out later this year.
posted by not that girl at 5:11 PM on June 27, 2012

You might like Christopher Moore's books, they are funny as well as bizarre fantasy.
" The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove" is a good one, and "The Island of the Sequined Love Nun".
posted by mermayd at 5:16 PM on June 27, 2012

Came in here to recommend Lev Grossman (The Magicians and The Magician King). I don't want to oversell it but I think it should meet your criteria.
posted by immlass at 5:30 PM on June 27, 2012

We seem to have really similar tastes. I would nth the Ursula Le Guin recommendation, especially the Wizard of Earthsea series. Also Robin McKinley. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is delightful, although it's sci-fi/historical fiction and not fantasy. Maybe the Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey?
posted by beandip at 5:46 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I always wonder why no one but me seems to have read any John Varley. Specifically, the Gaea trilogy (Titan, Wizard, Demon), but most (not all) of his other stuff is good too. Strong female characters, even some nanotechnology-enabled gender transitions.
posted by caryatid at 6:11 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

nthing John Varley's Gaea trilogy. What a great series!

Came to recommend Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. Many of them would fit the bill. They are not so much wizards as telepaths, slaves, pages, the downtrodden can figure into the various novels as much as the princes and so on. Of course, her Mists of Avalon is also great. MZB's oeuvre will keep you busy a long time if you like her style.

Anne McCaffrey's Freedom series is also nuts and bolts about building a functioning society on a "new" planet.

The Once and Future King, by T.H. White is also outstanding.
posted by rw at 6:26 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Liliths' Brood by Octavia Butler is also superb. It has weird creatures galore.
posted by rw at 6:28 PM on June 27, 2012

If YA doesn't turn you off, try Graceling, Fire (mentioned above and my favorite of the three), and Bitterblue, a YA trilogy by Kristin Cashore that together might make a doorstop. The first two have fighting in them but aren't about fighting ... honestly, mostly they're all about the effects of lies.
posted by kostia at 6:30 PM on June 27, 2012

Seconding the His Dark Materials trilogy.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:41 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Lots of excellent suggestions here already, many of which I would have made if I weren't late to the party. But here are a few more suggestions that I think are very good books and meet your criteria (except for [spoiler] and [pedantic detail], but from the other things you said you liked I think that'll be OK):

Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books. A sadly unfinished series. Probably still in print. I have an agenda: perhaps if you buy them she'll write more.

Obliquely applicable: Caroline Stevermer's When the King Comes Home and Sean Stewart's Nobody's Son. Both of these are kind of morning-after fantasy: yesterday there was a great legend and climax and special effects and the credits rolled, but today everyone still has to get up in the morning and continue with their life.

I think all of Martha Wells' output would scratch your itch.

Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books are, like Jack Vance, the source material for many of the cliches we know and love from fantasy books and RPGs. But they're fun short stories. Two random guys just kind of swashbuckling along. If you like those you might also like other pulps like C. L. Moore, Andre Norton(?), A. Merritt.

Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books are very swords-and-spells, and occasionally get a little Fate-of-the-Empire-y, but they are written on a human level.

You might like C. J. Cherryh; for some reason I like her SF but can't get through her fantasy, but I think it fits your criteria.

The she-hattifattener suggests Eleanor Arnason and (if you don't mind twee) Ysabeau S. Wilce's Flora Segunda.
posted by hattifattener at 8:06 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd also recommend the Locke Lamora books. There are a few female characters in there and they definitely aren't bad, but yeah it's mostly a kind of picaresque. But they are good picaresques.

I wouldn't personally recommend the Lev Grossman Magician books because the female characters and the protagonist's relationship to them and their ultimate destinies was basically worst case scenario for a story about a randomly super-special boy IMO. Clearly mileage will vary on that but for me the female characters were the only thing which kept them from being enjoyable.

Gene Wolfe's New Sun books are very strange and there is no great fight and every character is simultaneously somehow undercharacterized and heavily invested with symbolic/archetypal meaning, so the stiff and Significant female characters aren't like underwritten or cheap versions of the male characters; all of the characters are peculiar and challenging to understand. I'd get the first one to see if you like his work. There's definitely no "gathering of the armies of good and evil" going on there. Read with a dictionary nearby.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman has great female characters and although there is sort of a big important goal that everything is moving towards, it isn't a giant swordfight. It's more like a series of deals made and arrangements, and it's about London. It's basically a running joke that the characters with personality and agency are all women and that the protagonist has his work cut out for him keeping up.

Nthing Lud-In-The-Mist like mad, that's your go-to if you ask me.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 8:30 PM on June 27, 2012

Yes to Octavia Butler and MZBradley's Darkover, which I came in to make sure someone had recommended. I recently read the aforementioned Ammonite thanks to another post here and enjoyed it a lot. And I looove Miéville.
Now off to put a bunch of new stuff on hold at the library.
posted by librarina at 9:51 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: I dislike pretty much all fantasy for the reasons you cite, but I'm rereading and enjoying Tamora Pierce's stuff right now. It's definitely not High Literature but it's fun and quick reading.

(I slogged through 1Q84 as well, so I feel your pain there.)
posted by easy, lucky, free at 10:06 PM on June 27, 2012

Tales of the Otori, historical fantasy set in feudal Japan with magical realism and characters from all walks of life.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:09 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

oh god yes the Urth of the New Sun books are AMAZING. They are dense and alien but SO REWARDING. And quite a doorstop. There is violence but it's rarely front and center, for all that the main character is a torturer and executioner.

I could never get into the sequel series, the Book of the Long Sun (and the sequel to THAT, the Book of the Short Sun) but New Sun is well worth the time it will take to read. Plus it will probably wedge a few wonderful words into your vocabulary.

If you don't mind contemporary fantasy there's James Blaylock. My favorite book of his is The Last Coin, though it seems to be astoundingly out of print. He can be a little twee at times but when he's on he's ON. His protagonists are always resoundingly normal aside from being kind of silly people.

Also Michael Swanwick. The Iron Dragon's Daughter is a wonderful piece of fantasy about a changeling forced to labor in the dragon works, its sequel, The Dragons of Babel, is equally amazing and completely different, with everyone telling it's peasant protagonist very peculiar stories. I'd also suggest his book Stations of the Tide; it's SF but it's one of the most magical books I've read.
posted by egypturnash at 12:05 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: While neither book qualifies as a doorstop, both The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Soulless by Gail Carriger meet your other criteria: magical, weird creatures, no swords (although, there is that parasol), great female leads, travel, and even some romance (ok - you didn't ask for romance). Also seconding Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. It's definitely a doorstopper, at 650+ pages, with time travel, cultural clashes, strong female lead, and surprisingly well written - but there are a few battle scenes.
posted by kbar1 at 12:12 AM on June 28, 2012

I don't think he has already been mentioned so I would like to recommend Charles De Lint, particularly the Newford series of books, and specifically ' The Onion Girl' and 'Widdershins'.

I hope all the suggestions upthread lead you to finding some good new fiction, a lot of the suggestions have certainly made my 'to read' list :D
posted by Faintdreams at 1:25 AM on June 28, 2012

Oh, gosh, yes, Jo Walton. I'd actually start at Lifelode first, and then Tooth & Claw and Among Others. Lifelode centers on a woman who runs the domestic side of a small manor, and her three partners (a potter, the lord of a small manor, and the herdsman). It's fantasy and deals with work and has wonderful female characters and is absolutely terrific.

I also N'th Dianna Wynne Jones and Robin McKinley.
posted by pie ninja at 5:27 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: Book of the New Sun is all about a Chosen One and it's pretty misogynist (like all Gene Wolfe, really). And yet it is absolutely worth reading. It is one of very, very few books where I am both willing to tune out the misogyny because the book is so wonderful and able to tune out the misogyny because so much else is going on. If you haven't read it, a treat is certainly in store. Although it's not precisely lighthearted.

If we're recommending doorstoppy non-lighthearted books, though, you might want to consider Samuel Delany's Neveryon books. Start with the one that has "The Tale of Old Venn" - they all have "Blah Blah Neveryon" titles and I get them confused. They are stories about how certain things might have come into the world - money, clockwork, buildings with stairs - and how people believe things have come into the world. They're also a reworking of some of the tropes of good old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery/brawling-in-the-marketplace kinds of books. (See, what I want to know is why do we have to have fucking Game of Thrones on the tee-vee - with so many white people and all the rapey stuff and female characters whose whole lives are circumscribed by romance and rape - when we could have the 20 million times more awesome Neveryon series? No, really, it would make a fantastic television show - the big arc is about this fellow Gorgik who was enslaved as a boy due to imperial upheaval and who....oh, jeez, it's too complicated to relate. But there are all kinds of things about freeing slaves and about women who have both sexuality and agency and there's gay people too, whee! Of course, Delany's books are actually about what it might be to be a slave and fight slavery, instead of about the fantasy that some sympathetic outsider will free the slaves. Oh, Samuel Delany, you are a great person.)

Oh hey, you have read the Neverending Story and Momo, both by Michael Ende, right? I swear up and down that you will love Momo if you liked Jonathan Strange. They're not the same at all, of course (Momo is better, though shorter) but they are so charming. And what about Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie?
posted by Frowner at 6:42 AM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Oh, and practically everyone in the Neveryon books would today be described as a person of color - it's not made much of in the books except to note that some of the enslaved barbarians are white and how weird that is. That's probably why we can't have it on the tee-vee - not only does it have a gay protagonist, but there probably aren't enough working television actors of color to fill half the roles. After the revolution and once my reign of terror has simmered down, we are absolutely going to have a Neveryon mini-series.)
posted by Frowner at 6:45 AM on June 28, 2012

I disagree that Book of the New Sun is about a Chosen One but I can't make my case without spoilers :) . I agree that basically any Delaney is a good choice.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 6:48 AM on June 28, 2012

Oh, yes, definitely the Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey. I was also going to suggest Moreta and Nerilka's story as fantastic female protagonists (I actually prefer Nerilka to Moreta in this instance because Moreta is a HERO and Nerilka is a ground-troops "hero").
posted by jillithd at 6:49 AM on June 28, 2012

I think you might also enjoy Anvil of the World by Kage Baker. It's about a former assassin who becomes a caravan leader, but of course he can't shake off his former life entirely. There are other books set in the same world, but sadly Kage died a few years ago so there aren't tons. All the books stand alone just fine though.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:40 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: Guy Gavriel Kay and Daniel Abraham. Based on your question, I think that they will hit the spot better than someone like Mieville.

A few specific books by Kay have been mentioned, but I would also suggest the Sarantine Mosaic which is about a craftsman summoned to to the capital city of an empire (based on Byzantium) to create a mosaic for the emperor. I don't think that there is another writer in fantasy who can evoke a mood the same way that Kay can. Highly, highly recommend all of his books (except the Fionavar Tapestry - bleh).

Abraham is fantastic too - nthing the suggestions for the Dragon's Path and the Long Price Quartet.
posted by nolnacs at 10:42 AM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well I have 'Perdido Street Station' on loan now from a friend, and 'Momo' and 'Folk Of the Air' on hold at the library, and Bartemius Trilogy and Outlander (32 hours, whoo!) on the Audible wishlist.

'Lud-in-the-Mist', the Dragonsinger books, Robin McKinley, and Dark Materials are all old friends so great calls on those!

I've Best Answered more or less at random but will back to this list often over the summer! Thanks everyone!
posted by Erasmouse at 10:43 AM on June 28, 2012

Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series (Souless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless, Timeless) are a wonderful steampunk fantasy read with a little bit of Austen thrown in (the comedy of manners starts losing to comedy of action pretty soon, but there are still some lovely ironic bits). I cannot recommend the series enough; very re-readable, funny, exciting, with vivid and interesting characters. Not many battles, either, and they tend to be brief with a lot of focus on "cleaning up" afterwards.

I have a particular weakness for Anne Bishop and the Black Jewels series; it's a bit dark & sexy, but the writing is good and I've really grown attached to the characters over time. It also has the best Mary Sue who is Not I've ever run into. Her initial trilogy has a lot of "day to day" details (I wish there'd been more) and the sequals are actually more about rebuilding than Epic Battle of Doom, which I really like. Some flaws on the racism/prejudice side (the fantasy trope of Intelligent Animals as Stand Ins for Minorities is strong) but she seems to be improving with time, which is awesome. Later books are also less "omg sexual abuse everywhere!!!" which I found much more enjoyable (the abuse is always shown to be wrong, but it is plot-centric for the initial trilogy, which could get overwhelming).

Mercedes Lackey has a couple of new series I've been really enjoying. One is the Elemental Masters Series (The Serpent's Shadow, The Gates of Sleep, Phoenix And Ashes, The Wizard of London, Reserved for the Cat, Unnatural Issue) which is Victorian-times retellings of faerie tales... kind of. Sometimes you really have to squint to see the inspiring faerie tale. They are in the same world but with very little overlap, so you can start anywhere. My fav is the Serpent's Shadow, with Reserved for the Cat a close second. The Second series is the 500 Kingdoms series (The Fairy Godmother, One Good Knight, Fortune's Fool, The Snow Queen, The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Werewolf). Again, these exist in the same world but are only loosely related; The Fairy Godmother (my favorite) introduces you to the main cross-over characters. My second favorite is The Sleeping Beauty, followed closely by Fortune's Fool. Again, these hinge a lot on fairy tales in a fairy tale world, but are not limited by the fairy tales (and some outright combine them to hilarious effect).

Jane Lindskold, Thirteen Orphans and Nine Gates books. Glorious urban fantasy based around Chinese mythology... kinda. Very engaging characters, much more realistic urban reactions (they worry about cops and security systems!), and very complicated plots. All of the female characters are strong and interesting, and there's a real awareness of prejudice and how it acts in modern society with a real diversity of experiences.

Lynn Flwelling's books are also excellent, and more "bands of spies and diplomats" than epic battles. Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness remain my favorites, but her other books are in the same world. Tends to be very dark in general (war, despair, really nasty magic) but Luck in the Shadows in particular is much more light and all of the books are engaging.

I also love anything Robin McKinley and Patricia A. McKillip write, but I don't know how much you can get on a kindle. If you can get Fool's Run, it is a seriously mindblowing experience and one of my go-too reading books now for years. It improves on re-readings; like most McKillip the writing style is very poetic and dense. Sunshine, by McKinley, is my favorite of her more recent releases (I grew up on her) and is a very different view of vampires and a kind of fantasy futerestic thing.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:03 AM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I scanned the replies, so may have missed this, but Barbara Hambly has several fantasy series that would be worth trying. The Darwath trilogy is excellent, as are the Windrose Chronicles and the Sunwolf and Starhawk books. ( Note that there are swords and soldiers, but all of her books are worth reading for the strong female characters and for the cerebral aspect of the stories. Barbara Hambly rocks!) I was checking her website and THERE ARE NEW BOOKS COMING OUT!! WOOHOO!
posted by LaBellaStella at 11:18 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb.)

If you like Little, Big, you should try the Aegypt tetralogy, which is complete at long last.

nthing Jo Walton's Among Others. Incredible book.

Gaiman's American Gods wanders in and out of EPIC BATTLE, but Anansi Boys should fit the bill.

Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds reads a lot like a Discworld novel in a lot of ways, but pretty much fails on gender issues.

Good god, no one has mentioned Tim Powers? Declare, The Anubis Gates, and Last Call are my favorites.
posted by Zed at 11:23 AM on June 28, 2012

I implore you to read The Gormenghast Trilogy.

Mad fantasy, jewel and grime encrusted language and the most disturbingly odd characters you could imagine. Violence, when it occurs, tends to be in the manner of a fat, whirling, cleaver-weilding cook versus a taciturn, skinny man with clicking knees rather than hordes of yeah yeah whatever versus hordes of yeah yeah whatever and a couple of wizards. The first two books are absolute genius. The third is not as good (Peake was losing his marbles at the time) but still delightfully off-kilter and intriguing.

Great female characters? Try Lady Groan and Fuchsia. People without power? Try most of the inhabitants of Gormenghast: teachers, cooks, poets, servants...

The Tower of Flints, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

If you love language, you will love this.
posted by Decani at 12:26 PM on June 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I love Robin Hobb, though my favorite is her Assassin's Apprentice series. I just discovered Helen Lowe via a recommendation Robin made on FB, and her new series is good, though uneven.

I am so sad no one has mentioned R A Macavoy here. Her Lens of the World series is my favorite, but everything she writes is beautiful. Character driven, small stories-small in the sense that the drama doesn't swamp over the focus on the intriguing main characters.
posted by purenitrous at 8:49 PM on June 28, 2012

I came in to suggest the Earthsea series, so here's me nthing that recommendation. I liked the first three when I read them, but Tehanu was completely devastating (in a good way) - I thought that was the best of the series.

You mention you've read all of Pratchett - does that include Good Omens? If not, go read that NOW. It's not a doorstop, but it is totally absorbing, very funny, and extremely well-written. It's one of my favorite books.
posted by kristi at 10:20 AM on June 29, 2012

Best answer: The Oracle Glass is my favourite ever escapist novel. I'm a re-reader so I pick this up when ever I'm having a stressful time, have a cold, or it's just been awhile. It ticks pretty much all your boxes- multiple strong female leads, magic and weird creatures, cunning craftspeople and bourgeoisie, page-turner writing, and depending on your point of view, exotic locales (gutters, shops and palaces of 17th century Paris). It's historical fiction rather than fantasy. In a nutshell, brilliant, disabled Genevieve runs away from her middle class home to become an apprentice fortune teller to fashionable Parisians. She's got a keen logical mind and loves philosophy, which makes for some brilliant culture clashes with the witches of Paris. It's based on a real historical event, l'affaire des poisons (wikipedia page contains spoilers), which adds to the thrill for me. Never soppy, quite feminist. Love it.
posted by Concordia at 12:51 PM on June 29, 2012

In case a third recommendation for Tamora Pierce will help sway you, I especially recommend her latest trilogy about Beka Cooper, who is very much my favorite of Pierce's protagonists. This particular trilogy reads less YA to me than most of her others as well, though I expect it's still classified as such. There are some battles, but they're more on the level of a bar brawl or city riot; she's effectively a cop, not a warrior. She's also about as common as they come.
posted by ashirys at 1:20 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh god yes, please please read the Steerswoman books! Sort of starts out fantasy and becomes more like SF. It's not what you think it will be!

Also, Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks (and its two sequels). Ignore the super-lame cover. Lots of interesting characters of various genders and sexualities, but that's not what the story is about. It is about ways of doing things, and culture clashes, and making stuff, and complicated relationships, and there are just lots of things in it.
posted by exceptinsects at 1:39 AM on June 30, 2012

I came back to recommend a book that a friend of mine gave me a while back and that I've finally finished reading: Per Jorner's After The Campfires. It does have a bit of a special boy in it but he's not special in and of himself and he's not at all the awesome hero type. It also spends some time dealing with governance and trading and other, related issues.

I wouldn't personally recommend the Lev Grossman Magician books because the female characters and the protagonist's relationship to them and their ultimate destinies was basically worst case scenario for a story about a randomly super-special boy IMO. Clearly mileage will vary on that but for me the female characters were the only thing which kept them from being enjoyable.

I didn't think the boy was that special, but my specific recommendation of the books has to do with the story of one of the female characters, which is one of the major plot strands of the second book, and is specifically all about the ways in which non-super-special people deal with having magic.
posted by immlass at 7:23 AM on June 30, 2012

I hear you and it's a matter of taste so it is beyond debate, but that specific story bothered me, as well as the one from the first book, which is the reason for my YMMV-qualified anti-nthing.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 9:37 AM on June 30, 2012

Gormenghast is astonishing.
posted by Marlinspike at 9:58 AM on July 2, 2012

nthing Gormenghast.

Also The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay is about a mosaicist, in a fantasy version of the Roman Empire. It's pretty neat.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:23 PM on July 3, 2012

Response by poster: Book Report!

- Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders WINS! Ticked all my boxes, engrossing, escapist, smart, lots of trading. Recommended.
- Had to abandon, yet again, China Mieville. I'm stressed out enough as it is (my third attempt to scale Gormengast will also have to wait until I can luxuriate in fictional misery :P )
- Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog is good fun

All I've had time for so far, but I have a lot of great-sounding stuff on my list. Thanks again everyone!
posted by Erasmouse at 2:13 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Months late, but Ravenwood by Nathan Lowell is exactly what you're looking for.
posted by JDHarper at 5:56 AM on December 26, 2012

« Older Human training.   |   Help me get someone else to help my mom. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.