Eerie, wonderful, classic, not too upsetting - fantasy recs sought
September 26, 2017 10:07 AM   Subscribe

So I loved The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe - I bought it last month, have read it twice and may well read it again. It had some qualities - enumerated within - that tend to define my very favorite fantasy novels. I am looking for additional recs.

Among my favorite fantasy novels are Lud-In-The-Mist, A Stranger In Olondria and its sequel, The Winged Histories, The Stolen Lake and the other Dido Twite books by Joan Aiken and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell. Also The Last Unicorn.

What these mostly share and what I'm looking for:

1. Beautifully written in a style that draws some attention to the prose - you would not confuse the style of A Stranger In Olondria with The Stolen Lake. Generally not in the first person, with the exception of some of SiO and WH.

2. Relatively timeless. Obviously A Stranger in Olondria has a lot of contemporary concerns about colonialism, language, class and gender, for instance, and Vellitt Boe deals with a lot of contemporary stuff about race, gender and HP Lovecraft, but they're also very much in the "fantastic journeys, oooh, aaaah" tradition and can be read in "escape to fantasyland" mode if you want.

3. Strong characterization and a lot of interiority rather than sweeping epics with tons and tons of characters. In most of these books, the characters are adults, not teenagers becoming adults.

4. Fantastic landscapes and journeys through them. A certain quality of...surrealism, almost? Heightened intensity of landscape? Unusual juxtapositions?

5. Not too much trauma - sad is okay, but not "everyone dies in a pool of gore and everything is crushed forever by dystopia" sad.

I'd say I am mostly not looking for contemporary YA, or YA in general. I've read some Garth Nix, for instance, and although those are very good YA, they are too concerned (appropriately for YA!) with teenage experiences for my purposes here and the landscapes often seem kind of thin to me.

So anyway - recommend me some books to meet my very picky standards.
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if it's eerie enough, but The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison has good prose, strong characterizations, and a comforting feeling of order and family being built out of abuse and venality. I love that book, it's become a comfort-read for me just in the last few years.
posted by suelac at 10:16 AM on September 26, 2017 [15 favorites]

Catherynne Valente's The Orphan's Tales books tick off at least four of your five criteria with gusto (I don't recall there being a ton of characterization) and are fantastic.
posted by dfan at 10:37 AM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a very similar book.
posted by miyabo at 10:47 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, also China Mieville's The City and the City is one of my favorite books and I believe meets your criteria.
posted by miyabo at 10:52 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger has some eeriness to it, and though two of the three main characters are just out of school (not sure if it is high school or college), there is not a big focus on teen angst or YA themes. I see it described as literary horror, probably due the presence of a ghost/spirit. I would not call it horror.
posted by soelo at 10:57 AM on September 26, 2017

Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner is good. It's a collection of short stories.
posted by Hypatia at 11:07 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Uprooted by Naomi Novik is one of my favorites and I think ticks most of your boxes, although it is written in first person. The character is nominally a teenager but the focus is not on her becoming an adult.
posted by Preserver at 11:07 AM on September 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher. Actually, quite a lot of Kingfishers novellas and short stories fit your criteria, although her books do skew YA.
posted by Malla at 11:15 AM on September 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:26 AM on September 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Oh, boy, if you haven't read Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee, yet, you are in for a huge treat. Set in the future, but so far in the future it's sort of swung back around to being fantasy again, if you know what I mean? It's a book and its sequel recombined into a single novel, and they really shine when read together. The writing is beautiful, distinctive and evocative - I find Lee has a very distinctive voice. The emotional growth the main character experiences is the true focus of the story, but the setting is jewel-like and beautiful. I just love this book.
posted by DSime at 11:27 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I want to add that the Amazon description really pitches it as YA, but although the main character is 'young' in their world, and the story does center around their search for self-definition, I don't think that I would call it truly 'YA' in the sense of what that has come to mean. There's more nuance than I often see in modern YA.
posted by DSime at 11:31 AM on September 26, 2017

John Brunner, The Traveler in Black. A narrative made up of short stories with the main character and some recurring ones, lots of gorgeous and unusual vocabulary.
posted by nonane at 11:47 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia McKillip
Declare by Tim Powers
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

I'll agree with those who have suggested Catherynne Valente, but the suggestions already made above tick off most of your checkmarks but not all of them. (The Orphan's Tales, while wonderful, have a sprawling cast of characters, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, while wonderful, doesn't have an adult main character.) Hmm ... The Habitation Of The Blessed probably ticks off all the checkmarks. Or maybe The Labyrinth if you want to try her *really* experimental stuff -- I like it a lot but not everyone does.
posted by kyrademon at 1:46 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

OK a lot of what I'm about to recommend you have probably already read because most of it is old, but, one never knows! So anyway, here goes, in roughly chronological order:
The King of Elfland's Daughter, perhaps the most classic of strange and beautiful fantasy novels.
Gormenghast, the close runner up to the above but possibly darker than you want.
The Riddle Master trilogy, by Patricia A. McKillip or, really, any of her books, I think she gets overlooked a lot but I also think she's one of the best lyrical fantasy writers around, up there with Peter S. Beagle. I cannot count how many times I have read the Riddle Master books or The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.
Little, Big - this is my favorite book.
The Unlikely Ones is out of print but it's just delightful, maybe a little lighter than you want.
Pat Murphy wrote sci fi more than fantasy but There and Back Again has a whole lot of interesting things going on.
and into somewhat more contemporary books, besides seconding Uprooted and anything by China Mieville, I'll add Jo Walton, most specifically, Tooth and Claw and, also with dragons and quick Regency prose, the Lady Trent books by Marie Brennan.
posted by mygothlaundry at 2:05 PM on September 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Based on your qualifications I would actually jump direct to either Full Fathoms Five Deep or Two Serpents Rise from the craft sequence. They've got more interiority. His language gets more lyrical as the series continues. The series can be read out of order but Three Parts Dead is technically the first in the sequence if you want to do the whole craft sequence. They do all follow an action adventure thriller sort of formula and pace so less dreamy and meditative than Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell.

Night Circus definitely meets all of your qualifications.
posted by edbles at 2:20 PM on September 26, 2017

Living Alone, by Stella Benson. It's set in a somewhat alternate-universe England after WWI, in which a young woman's life is transformed after moving to a boarding house run by a witch. Will definitely fit with your desire for surreality and beautiful language. Here is a brief exerpt:
The witch, after a struggle, passed this test, and produced a parchment covered with large childish printing in red ink.

"My employer made up this," said the witch. "And the ferryman wrote it out for us."

This is the prospectus:

The name of this house is Living Alone.

It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery and a convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men and women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to 'bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, and the eternal two generations of roses which riot among blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping and thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, and something else as well.

There are six cells in this house, and no common sitting-room. Guests wishing to address each other must do so on the stairs, or in the shop. Each cell has whitewashed walls, and contains a small deal table, one wooden chair, a hard bed, a tin bath, and a little inconvenient fireplace. No guest may bring into the house more than can be carried out again in one large suit-case. Carpets, rugs, mirrors, and any single garment costing more than three guineas, are prohibited. Any guest proved to have made use of a taxi, or to have travelled anywhere first class, or to have bought cigarettes or sweets costing more than three shillings a hundred or eighteenpence a pound respectively, or to have paid more than three and sixpence (war-tax included) for a seat in any place of entertainment, will be instantly expelled. Dogs, cats, goldfish, and other superhuman companions are encouraged.

Working guests are preferred, but if not at work, guests must spend at least eighteen hours out of the twenty-four entirely alone. No guest may entertain or be entertained except under special license obtainable from the Superintendent.

There is a pump in the back yard. There is no telephone, no electric light, no hot water system, no attendance, and no modern comfort whatever. Tradesmen are forbidden to call. There is no charge for residence in this house.

"It certainly sounds an unusual place," admitted Sarah Brown. "Is the house always full?"

"Never," said the witch. "A lot of people can swallow everything but the last clause.

In addition, it is in the public domain and available at Project Gutenberg.
posted by darchildre at 3:24 PM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Gates of Twilight by Paula Volsky. Illusion by the same author is good too, but leans more towards the "epic" spectrum.
posted by Crystal Fox at 5:52 PM on September 26, 2017

Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass is extraordinary, and it is certainly not just for readers 9 to 11. Don't believe the publisher.
posted by jokeefe at 8:40 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just finished that book myself and loved it.

I agree with the suggestion of Powers, which are rich and strange takes on our own world. Declare is haunting, but you might also like The Stress of Her Regard.

The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys is another Lovecraft retailing and is lovely. It is also free online and the book length sequel is out if you like it.

What about Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master? A Wizard of Earthsea?

A little further afield, for prose and world building and dreaminess, I would suggest Jack Vance's Dying Earth, though the characters are not sympathic. For stylists that are a little more science fiction, I love Cordwainer Smith if you prize language and wonder first, though interior monologues are weak. If you can live with the profession of the main character Wolfe's Urth of the New Sun is stunning.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:58 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Little, Big (and possibly Crowley in general, although I think that is probably the most accessible and the most atmospheric). Also McKillip, as mentioned; though I do not have nearly the love for Forgotten Beasts of Eld that most seem to, she certainly has lots of other fine work.

Other recommendations: George MacDonald's Phantastes. Best known for The Princess and the Goblin, MacDonald was one of the earliest fantasy writers along with Dunsany, and CS Lewis was very much influenced by him. I also love his other fairy stories, but this one is pitched for adults.

As you liked The Last Unicorn, why not try more Beagle? My favourite novels of his are The Innkeeper's Song and The Folk of the Air; both have the lyrical prose that is just breathtaking, though the first is set explicitly in another world while the second is ostensibly real world but not exactly as we know it. Beagle also writes utterly beautiful short stories which I also recommend.

Gene Wolfe's There Are Doors seems like a real-world setting but it really isn't, and you start realising just how mythic it really is.

Diana Wynne Jones primarily wrote for younger readers, but the first book of hers I ever encountered was The Spellcoats and, though it is distinctly DWJ, it has an otherworldliness that is unique. The characters are children, but they are children who are (for the most part) acting like grown-ups and it is definitely not concerned with teenage experiences.

Lisa Goldstein's Tourists. There are teenage characters, but it's not all about them and the poetic prose of the book and the way language, words and stories are themselves characters in the book - I was very glad that this came out as an ebook, despite some typos in it, because it's long out of print and yet still utterly brilliant.

I really hope you have read Le Guin. If not, do. She's worth it. Honourable mentions also go to Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull (an epistolary novel set in a faux-Regency world which turns out to have a lot more going on); Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy which is written for young adults but has that timeless quality you're looking for; Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, again YA but with many adult characters who are unforgettable; and Jonathan Carroll, who writes surreal and creepy novels.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:54 PM on September 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Seconding Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books (start with Titus Groan, then read Gormenghast). These books were a major inspiration on Sofia Samatar's writing (see "On the 13 Words That Made Me a Writer" or this podcast interview).

Peake's writing meets all your criteria to a T, especially the beautiful writing and surreal landscape.
posted by Prunesquallor at 6:12 AM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sounds like you're looking for some of the same things I look for in books, so I'm following this thread with interest.

Another Peter S. Beagle book: Summerlong. Lovely, bittersweet.

The Sorceror of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson might fit the bill. It's a novella, so easy to dip into and out of. The writing uses language that combines different elements including modern vernacular to convey differences in rank and origin. There's a sequel, but I haven't read it yet.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Takes place in sort of an alternate Russia, with some supernatural elements.

I loved
The Girl with Ghost Eyes
by M.H. Boroson. Reminded me a little of Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, and if you haven't read that, read it NOW. BoB and The Last Unicorn are my two all-time favorite books.

I picked up House of War and Witness by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey. It's a story with ghosts, and war, and resistance.
posted by Archer25 at 9:04 AM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

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