Tag Archives: Fantasy

DRAGONS! A Game of Thrones If/Then Post

Courtesy of The Guardian: www.guardian.co.uk
Courtesy of The Guardian: www.guardian.co.uk

As I mentioned a little while back, when I’m not hanging out with the books, I teach at A Local University.  And, as it happens, all my students are obsessed (seriously…obsessed) with HBO’s Game of Thrones.  To the point where we make Game of Thrones analogies in class to help them better understand the History of the British Empire.  To the point where we had to delay class for ten minutes today so that everyone could finish venting, speculating, wondering, and lamenting what was, apparently, a stellar episode.

For the record, I love when students bring their outside lives to class, because 1) It means they are comfortable enough in class to bring their whole selves, 2) It means they are engaged with their other students, 3) It gives me ideas for blog posts to listen to them talk.

Episode 6 scene 20

As many of you may have heard, George R.R. Martin, the author of Song of Ice and Fire series (the first of which is titled A Game of Thrones) had always intended the books to be ahead of the series, so that readers would know in advance what was going to happen (to the extent that the show and the books aligned).  Lately, however, life has gotten in the way, and Martin missed the deadline for the seventh book in the series, The Winds of Wintermeaning that, for the first time, the show was ahead of the book in term of “what happens next” (sources report, however, that we may see the book by the end of this year, or early in 2017).  While this was certainly a blow to readers, who adore Martin’s detailed prose, his insanely complex world-building, and the sheer grandeur and goriness of his books, it’s made this season of Game of Thrones as much of a surprise for long-time fans as it is for those who discovered the series through HBO’s adaptations.

It turns out, my students fall into both categories.  Many are just discovering the addicting power of Martin’s work, but there are a number of students who are casting around for something to keep them going through the long, dragon-less days ahead.  And so for them, especially (and for you, of course!), I started putting together a list of other epic fantasy series that will tide even the most devoted Game of Thrones fan until the next scintillating episode, or series installment….

If you enjoy/enjoyed Game of ThronesThen be sure to try:

2255985The Darkness that Comes BeforeR. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing novels are perhaps a bit more philosophical than Martin’s books, as it focuses on a world undergoing a Second Apocalypse and all the holy men, crusaders, magicians, and prophets that herald its coming, but it does have that sense of dark foreboding that makes Martin’s work so compelling.  Bakker also does an impressive job balancing the epic scope of his fiction world, known as Eärwa, its armies and teeming streets, with court intrigue, love affairs, and personal interactions, making this book a page-turner on a number of levels.  There are two other books in the Prince of Nothing series, all of which have been published, so you won’t have to wait to find out what happens next.

51LyGnWecTL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Chronicles of the Black Company: For those whose favorite parts of Game of Thrones are the scenes on the Wall with the Night Watch, then this book is definitely for you.  The men of the Black Company wander their shadowy world, doing the work that no others are brave enough–or foolhardy enough–to do.  But as rumors of the White Rose begin to filter into their camps, the promise of a source of good in their bleak days, the world as they know it begins to change.  Glen Cook brings the world of epic fantasy down to the individual in these books, and the relationships and interactions between the men of the Black Company is what makes this book such a success.  As before, this the the beginning of a full series, so you can enjoy all their exploits without worry.

3613007The City Stained Red: For what it’s worth, Sam Sykes is my favorite author on this list, not only because I love the world that he has created in his Bring Down Heaven series, but also because his books are delightfully funny, his characters quirky, and its evident he is having so much fun creating this world that its impossible to not have fun while reading.  In these books, a rag-tag band of adventurers, lead by Lenk,(a man whose past is in itself the stuff of legends) must somehow defeat an ancient god who is tearing the city of Cier’Djaal apart at the seams.  Their quest will bring them into the heart of a deeply complex city, and up against the might of two frighteningly powerful armies, with plenty of action and some great plot twists to keep things interesting.  The adventures continue, and the stakes grow even higher, in the recently released The Mortal Tally.

The Nebula Awards!

Guess what, dear readers?!


Recall, in the past year, how we have talked about book awards, gender, and the discrepancies between the number of women authors in the world, and the lack of recognition they receive?

To recap, briefly, a number of statistics have shown that books about male characters win more awards than books about women, and books by male people tend to win more awards than those written by female people, despite the fact that women are publishing more books overall.  See this graph from The Huffington Post for further details:


This graph only points to one award (though the Pulitzer is certainly a significant award), and doesn’t even hint at the lack of diversity in mainstream literary awards in terms of identity, sexuality, or religion…anyways, the point is that awards, as a whole, need to be doing a much better job.

And today….they did.  Or, at least, one did.  Because yesterday, women writers swept the Nebula Awards!

images (1)

The Nebula Awards are handed out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  All members are allowed to suggest books for consideration, and only members can select nominees.  This means that those invested in the genre and its success are responsible for nominating books, and also that publishers, agents, or any other other outside entity cannot tilt the scales in their favor through any kind of promotional or financial influence.

download (4)For several decades, science fiction and fantasy have been in the position to examine issues of identity, prejudice, and belonging, often in a way that more reality-based fiction genres cannot.  For example, in an interview with The Paris Review, Ursula K LeGuin mentioned how her seminal novel, The Left Hand of Darkness was inspired by emerging debates on gender and identity, saying “We didn’t have the language yet to say that gender is a social construction, which is how we shorthand it now…Gender had been thrown into the arena where science fiction goes in search of interesting subjects to revisit and re-question.”  Similarly, author Octavia Butler, who has made her career out of using science fiction to question issues of gender, race, and identity, noted to Democracy Now that “I think I stayed with [science fiction] because it was so wide open, it gave me the chance to comment on every aspect of humanity. People tend to think of science fiction as, oh, Star Wars or Star Trek, and the truth is there are no closed doors, and there are no required formulas. You can go anywhere with it.”

So it isn’t terribly surprising that the SFWA would be so open to nominating and supporting women, and the challenging, imaginative, and daring books that they write.  But recently, there has been an enormous backlash against women and people of color in the science fiction genre (as represented over the horrible debacle that was the Hugo Awards, but more about that later), so the fact that the SFWA is clearly reaffirming its support of diversity of both authors and books is enormously gratifying, and offers readers a whole new opportunity to discover some fantastic stories!


So, without further ado, here are the nominees and winners of this year’s Nebula Awards!  Check out the Library this week to discover these phenomenal books for yourself (links are provided below for stories available online)!

(Bold indicates category winner)


Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy



  • ‘‘Our Lady of the Open Road’’, Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 6/15)
  • ‘‘Rattlesnakes and Men’’, Michael Bishop (Asimov’s 2/15)
  • ‘‘And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead’’, Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
  • ‘‘Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds’’, Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/11/15)
  • ‘‘The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society’’, Henry Lien (Asimov’s 6/15)
  • ‘‘The Deepwater Bride’’, Tamsyn Muir (F&SF 7-8/15)

Short Story

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation*

  • Mad Max: Fury Road, Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
  • Ex Machina, Written by Alex Garland
  • Inside Out, Screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley; Original Story by Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
  • Jessica Jones: AKA Smile, Teleplay by Scott Reynolds & Melissa Rosenberg; Story by Jamie King & Scott Reynolds
  • The Martian, Screenplay by Drew Goddard
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt

Additioanlly, Sir Terry Pratchett was posthumously awarded the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award, and C.J. Cherryh was named a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master, both awards of lifetime achievement voted on by the SFWA.

Congratulations to the winning authors, and to the SFWA for recognizing such a sensational selection!

*The Ray Bradbury Award is not considered a Nebula award, but is handed out at the same ceremony

If I could save time in a bottle….


I think it’s because I study history when not at the library, but I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of time travel.  Partly, I’d love the chance to see what “the good old days” were really like.*  What was it about Lord Byron that made him so compelling?  What stories did those prospectors tell while panhandling for gold in the Klondike?  I would give a great deal to be able to watch the Wright Brother’s first flight (and jump up and down in giddy delight, obviously); I’d love to hear Queen Elizabeth’s speech before the battle with the Spanish Armada.  Maybe you could even hang out with Amelia Earhart, and be able to record what really happened on that fateful final flight…

But that brings us to the moral dilemma of time travel.  Can we really affect any change–positive or negative?  Do we really know that saving the Titanic from hitting that iceberg, we could prevent World War I?  How do we know it wouldn’t lead to some catastrophic alternate possibility that we never foresaw?  Or that we would discover it is all predestined, and the fates found a way for war to break out in 1914 regardless of our meddling?  Do we have the right to say what should and shouldn’t happen?  And what if we bump into ourselves whilst wandering around?  Would time literally implode, as some writers have theorized?  Or could I be able to catch my 10-year-old self before she falls off her roller skates and fractures her wrist?

84e7a931-39b5-4ad3-939c-30612f6d5207This, dear readers, is the precious gold of which fiction is made…maybe not me fracturing my wrist, but the deep, moral complexities of our power in the world, and our agency within time and space.  Television shows have reveled in these issues…Doctor Who, for example, which is a delightfully entertaining series, often dances with the serious and dangerous aspects of time-travel, giving the show its suspense and daring.  Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander has shown us the soul-changing power of time travel, blending the fantastic and the romantic in a way that has captured two generations of fans.

And books have been showing us the way for even longer.  For those brave enough to tackle the uncertainties of time travel, the results can be wildly entertaining, relentlessly inventive, powerful, and often challenging.  These books offer us the chance to escape into a kind of alternate, “what-if” universe, but still tie us to our present, or our pasts, in a way that lingers once the final pages have turned.  Those are some of my favorite kinds of literary adventures–and if they are yours, as well, then check out these selections on time travel and adventure from our shelves!

If you need me, I’ll be hanging out with Wilbur…

*…and partly, I’d like to know that I could escape those “good old days” and, you know…take a shower.  And wear zippers.  And vote.  But since I didn’t win Powerball, I won’t be building a time machine.  Which leaves more time for reading, at least….

51Z3WahX33L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Smithsonian Institute: A world-renown historian, Vidal’s insight into time travel and change is also a heartfelt study of American history, and a tribute to its most iconic museum.  In this book, ‘T’, a young man, arrives at the Smithsonian Museum at the beginning of World War II, having been hired to work on a secret part of the Manhattan Project.  But what he discovers is that, when no outsiders are watching, the exhibits come to life.  And while such a setup lends itself to comparisons with the Night at the Museum films, the journey that T takes within the walls of the Smithsonian is a wholly unique–and a deeply moving one.  My favorite scene, bar none, occurs the night after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but you’ll have to read it to find out why.  *A note: some editions of this book have a really wacky bodice-rippery cover.  There is no bodice-ripping in this book.  At least nothing that would require a cover that kitschy…

1161903Making History:  Stephen Fry has one of the best minds, and one of the most inventive imaginations at world today, and all of his books have a charm, wackiness, and brashness all their own…but this book is something special.   Cambridge graduate student Michael Young has recently finished his dissertation on the early life of Adolf Hitler when he meets a German physicist who believes he has figured out how to travel in time.  Both men decide to ignore the horrendous danger of changing history, and ensure that Hitler was never born–but can they live with the results.  This is a marvelously well-constructed plot that shifts time, place, and viewpoints with lightning-quick ease (at one point, it is also told like a film script), but, as a whole, it functions beautifully, providing readers with a tragically human story that is ultimately, surprising hopeful.

3508308The Shining GirlsLauren Beukes is a remarkably inventive, ruthlessly creative author who doesn’t pull punches in coming up with deeply unsettling, but irresistibly engaging stories.  This story features a serial killer with the ability to travel through time, the very opposite of the kind of hero we’ve been discussing up to now.  Harper Curtis found a key that allowed him to escape the hell of  Depression-era Chicago, and gave him the opportunity to enact some of his most fearsome desires.  However, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi from 1989, discovers his secret, and begins hunting Harper across time, with only her wits, and a single detective to help her.  Though bleak and genuinely scary at times, this book is also a brilliant re-invention of  the time-travel genre that should not be missed.

Happy Birthday, Charles Perrault!

Courtesy of Google

If you’ve checked Google today, you’ll see that they’ve set up a Doodle to celebrate Charles Perrault, the French author who gave us such classics as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, among others.

perraultIt’s no secret that we here at the Free For All are big fans of fairy tales, magic, fantasy, and those who write them.  Last week, we celebrated the birthday of Jacob Grimm, who, along with this brother, became the most renowned mythologists in western culture.  Their work focused primarily on collecting stories from around Germany, concentrating on how they differed, agreed, and evolved over place and time.  But what sets Charles Perrault apart from the industrious Grimms is the fact that he invented his stories, based on pre-existing French fables, some two centuries before the Grimms began their work–and he was so popular that the Grimms actually recorded a version of Sleeping Beauty that made its way to Germany via word-of-mouth.

Perrault was born on this day in 1628 in Paris, and trained as a lawyer before turning to a career in government service, and finally, to writing, though most of his work dealt in the realm of fables.  He helped Louis XIV design 39 fountains for the labyrinth at the Palace of Versailles that were constructed between 1672 and 1677.  Each fountain featured an animal from Aesop’s Fables, and the water that jetted out of each creature’s mouth was designed to look like conversation between them all.   Perrault also wrote the guidebook to accompany the labyrinth for visitors.

The Gardens of Versailles

He was also involved in the evolution of opera, which was developed as an art form during Perrault’s lifetime.  When a close family friend came under attack from critics for writing a modern opera (one not based on Greek mythology), Perrault wrote a now-famous editorial stating that, thanks to the Enlightenment and the scientific and philosophical progress of the current age, that modern art was better than anything that had been produced by the Ancients.
images (1)It is interesting, then, that Perrault used ancient folktales and fables as the basis for his own fairytales; to be fair, though, he reinvented each so much that they became new and unique, a genre unto themselves (though he did publish his first collection of these stories under his son’s name…just to be safe…).  Many of these stories were inspired by the world Perrault saw around him–one of his friends, the Marquis of the Château d’Oiron, because the inspiration for the Marquis de Carabas  Puss in Boots, while the nearby Château d’Ussé was the model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty.  Like the originally Grimm tales, these stories are far more gruesome and disturbing in the original text than in the versions we read today–these were cautionary tales, meant to warn children of the danger of strangers (like the Big, Bad Wolf) and wandering off alone (usually into the woods), and don’t hold back on the dangers that wait for children who misbehave.  But despite, or, perhaps, because of the unsettling, vivid realities that these stories create, Perrault’s tales live on, and still form the basis of some of our earliest literary experiences.

So come into the library today, and pick out some of these books to help celebrate the birthday of Charles Perrault!

1665863The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault: This beautifully illustrated edition of Perrault’s tales brings together not only his most well-known tales (like”Little Red Riding Hood”, but also “Puss in Boots”), but also some of his lesser-known ones, like “The Fairies”.   The Library also has a collection of Perrault’s tales illustrated by Gustave Doré in 1867.  These illustrations show a completely different side of these tales, and its truly fascinating how much Doré’s imagination changes the tone of the tale.

3168598Puss in Boots: Ok, so perhaps this Dreamworks production isn’t quite an adaptation of Perrault’s original tale, but I’m going to list it here anyways, because it’s just that cute, clever, and funny (and because the feline star looks remarkably like my cat, Oscar Wilde).  This film is, technically, a prequel to the Shrek films, but it’s also a brilliant stand-alone film about the adventures of one of literatures most courageous and charismatic felines that will entertain kids and adults alike.

farjeon_glassslipperThe Glass Slipper: This retelling of Perrault’s “Cinderella” by Eleanor Farjeon is one of the most beautiful and engaging versions you can read.  This version takes out a good deal of the Perrault’s violence and cruelty, and substitutes character analysis and insight in order to make this a story with heart, soul, and substance (the inclusion of Cinderella’s father makes this story even more interesting.  Even better, this version features illustrations by E.H. Shepard, who created the classic illustrations for Winnie the Pooh.

1932474BeautyRobin McKinley is one of my favorite YA authors, and this retelling of Perrault’s “Beauty and the Beast” remains among my favorite of her books.  Like Farjeon’s retelling, this story sticks close to the original story–a young, beautiful girl is forced to live in a castle with a prince who has been transformed into a hideous beast, and helps him break the spell that is slowly killing him–but adds layers of complexity and dimension to the plot and characters that transforms this story into a novel with depth and power.  McKinley’s writing style is stunning, making this story, as well as her numerous others, easy to read, and impossible not to love.  For another adaptation of this story, check out  Beastly, which was also adapted into a film.

Wishing you a day of Happily Ever After, dear readers!

Happy Birthday, Jacob Grimm!

You never need an excuse for cake, but today, there is an excellent reason for one…the birthday of philologist, mythologist, and librarian, Jacob Grimm.



Born in 1785 in Hanau, Germany, Jacob was the elder of the two Grimm brothers (Wilhelm was born about  year later).  He went to University to study law, but, like the best kind of academics, he found learning far more fun that actually finding a job.  It was thanks to a mentor, a famous professor of Roman law, who taught our young Jacob the scientific method of research, which involved deep, historic research to plumb not only all the mysteries of a topic, but also the origin of those mysteries.  Jacob ended up turning his love of study to linguistics, and German literature of the Middle Ages, moving to Paris with his mentor to study in all their libraries (tough life, eh?).

Grimm_WHe returned to Germany to be with his family, and, following his mother’s death in 1808, and was he was appointed superintendent of the private library of Jérôme Bonaparte, who had been placed in charge by his brother, Napoleon I.  In this position, Jacob was responsible for traveling to Paris to demand the return of books that had been seized by the French Army, which may indeed have set the record for the farthest distance traveled by a librarian to recover overdue books….

From this point on, Jacob and his brother insisted on joint appointments, whether as Librarians or Professors, so that they could continue their joint projects.  Though Jacob made some deeply significant findings of his own in linguistics, it was this work with his brother that earned both of them lasting fame.  Their Deutsche Mythologie, published in 1835, was a generally encyclopedic study of the mythology and beliefs of Ancient Germanic peoples from the earliest surviving records to their modern iterations and adaptations into fairytales and local folklore.  They noted how stories changed based on region and linguistic traditions, providing a fascinating way of tracing  oral tradition within a single geographical area.  And it is this book that became the basis for the fairytales that we still read today.

4e309018bba48e085c8578ab9bbd1a38The Grimm’s were, essentially, attempting to understand how the world as they knew it, at their present moment, had come to be, and, as a result the stories they wrote down tend to praise things like work, religious devotion, marriage, and money.  Hence, the fearful dangers to be found when wandering in the woods, or the danger of sneaking off into the night to dance at a ball, rather than finding a proper husband.  Hence the fear of witches, who hold power over the mysterious, and the succession of the millers, and the shoemakers, and the scullery maids, who put in an honest day’s work.  But, on the other hand, it is because of the Grimms that our world can hold fairies, or elves, or enchanted songs, or magical spinning wheels.  For all the nightmares their stories may have induced, they also gave us dreams, and it is for all of this that we celebrate Jacob’s birthday with these magical suggestions!


2250679The Annotated Brothers Grimm: For those looking to start at the beginning, here is a superb collection of Grimm’s Fairytales, in all their gory, surprising, and lovely detail.  They are divided by theme, making for a very interesting comparison and study, and includes a marvelous introduction by A.S. Byatt that looks at the Grimms’ place in history, as well as the effects their tales have had on us as a culture.

2686190Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre: These adaptations of classic fairy tales was, quite literally, my favorite thing about the ’80’s.  They remain among my favorite things to this day–so much so that I can recite very large portions of each episode.  And will do so upon request (you’ve been warned).  Originally a Showtime series, these stories are dated in some ways (so much hairspray.  so much eyeshadow…), but by and large, they are still terrific, detailed, and thoroughly watchable, even now.  Best yet, they feature some surprising guest stars, like Mick Jagger (in The Nightingale) and some pretty well-known directors, like Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola.

3205751Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English VersionIn a age where fairytales are adapted, updated, revamped and revised, Philip Pullman bucked tradition–to enormous success.  His retellings of the classic tales from the Grimm Brother’s work stick very closely to the originals, bringing out the stark beauty, and sometimes chilling details of the tale they uncovered.  He also includes a brief analysis of the story, and how contemporary mythologists understand and classify the story, which is particularly fascinating if, like Jacob Grimm, you think every bit of incidental knowledge is of vital importance.

23848124A Wild Swan:  The peerless Lady Pole discussed this book in November, and it’s worth pointing out today that her praise for Michael Cunningham’s adaptations of classic fairytales is wholly deserved.  These tales twist and turn in the most outlandish and thought-provoking ways, making the reader conscious of the language and the flow of the story, as much as the plot itself.  I can’t help but think that Jacob and Wilhelm would read these stories with glee.

2270600MythologyThough Edith Hamilton’s study of the stories that humanity tells is over fifty years old, it is still a seminal work in the study of mythology.  Hamilton began with the works of Homer, traveling across the western world in search of tales, and retelling them with clarity and obvious passion.  Like the Grimms, she is clearly interested in how we, as storytellers, got here today, and why our stories have adapted as they have.  Her project is one similar, though far larger in scope, to the Grimms, and one that beautifully complements a study of their work.

Traveling Further Afield…

Calendar design by Lance Miyamoto

Yesterday, dear readers, we traveled from our blanket forts around the world, thanks to Ann Morgan’s fantastic Reading the World project.  But what about those intrepid armchair explorers whose wanderlust extends beyond mere national boundaries?

Hermitage Week, as I have come to call the days between Christmas and New Years, when many of us find time to read the books we have been putting off for a busy year, is a perfect time to explore new genres–and, along with them, new worlds and times.  Reading doesn’t just give us the opportunity to explore the past, it also gives us the chance to explore a past that never existed (for better or worse), or lands where no human has (or ever will) set foot.

These kind of books not only give our imaginations a workout, but some can help us navigate the “real” world more adroitly–some fantasy and speculative fiction are very firmly rooted in issues of the present, like M.T. Anderson’s Feedwhich features characters who get computers implanted in their heads to control their environments.  Others give us the opportunities to re-imagine the world around us–Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is as much a tour of the United States as it is a fantasy adventure.  And, it turns out, reading books can actually activate the parts of the brain that control sensation and movement–allowing you to literally put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes!

So today, let’s take a look at some fantastic, fantastical fiction, that will provide you with a chance to escape the bounds of gravity, space, and time, and a chance to stretch your imagination to its full potential…Happy travels!



2974777The Skin Map:  Fans of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere will feel a slight sense of deja-vu in the opening to Stephen Lawhead’s super-terrific, brilliantly creative Bright Empires series as Kit Livingstone discovers the secret worlds hidden in the ley lines of London.  But from there, this book launches off on its own wild course, as Kit and his girlfriend each unintentionally embark on their own adventures through time and space.  Amidst the historic details of their various adventures, and the conspiracies and adventures they uncover, is the story of an explorer, who is determined to discover the full extent of the ley lines, and all the worlds they contain–but when his fabled map is lost, the race is on to find it, and control all the worlds it contains.  I read this book in one sitting because I was too involved to stop, and may have threatened to bite anyone who attempted to distract me.  Lawhead manages to make every storyline in this epic novel engaging and meaningful, and infuses each scene with humanity and humor, making the whole series a sure-fire hit even for those who aren’t big readers of the fantasy genre.

3680958Silver on the RoadI picked up this book by chance, because I am fascinated by references to the Devil in literature…but this story is so much more than that.  Part western, part fantasy, part coming-of-age novel, Laura Anne Gilman’s newest release is a marvel of a book that draws you in, and keeps you on your toes.  Her heroine, sixteen-year-old Izzy, has been raised in a saloon run by the Devil in the town on the western edge of civilization, trained to see the desires that men keep hidden, the needs that drive them on, and the hungers that make them move.  And now, for the first time, she has been given the chance to put those skills to use as the Devil’s own left hand…this book is like nothing I’ve read before, and I couldn’t be more excited about it.

3459381The Martian: My dad saw this movie, and immediately called me to tell me, first, how much he enjoyed it, and secondly, that he was convinced the book would be even better.  And, apparently, he was right.  Andy Weir’s novel of astronaut Mark Watney, the first human to walk on Mars–and the only human left on the planet once his crew leaves without him.  But Watney refuses to be the first person to die on Mars, and puts his considerable guile and energy to use figuring out how to survive on a planet with no atmosphere, no life, and, seemingly, no hope.  The result is a surprisingly funny, wonderfully creative, and spellbinding work that will captivate the science-minded and the novice alike.  And the movie comes highly recommended, too!

3620237The Watchmaker of Filigree Street: Along with a stunning, three-dimensional cover, Natasha Pulley’s novel comes pack-jammed with history, myth, and imagination that draws from many corners of the globe.  Her story begins when Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny London flat to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow…a pocket watch that will save his life…a pocket watch that will lead him to Keita Mori, a kindly Japanese immigrant, and Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist.  Torn between these two powerful personalities, Thaniel soon finds himself on a perilous adventure that might very well change the very course of time itself.  This book is a fascinating blend of steampunk, speculative fiction, fantasy, and history that defies every genre it references.  Pulley is like a twenty-first century H.G. Wells, and we can only hope that she has more tricks up her proverbial sleeve to show us soon!

Safe travels, dear readers!

Genre Talk: On magic, dragons, and friendship…

I just finished this book. You have to read it. Right now. No, like, right now.

Good friends…they aren’t easy to find in this world.  But good friends are often the ones who show you the sides of yourself that you didn’t know were there, and introduce you to books you might never have read.

Take, for example, an exchange between myself, and our fabulous Saturday Blogger, who goes by the name of Lady Pole.  Unsurprisingly, books are involved in a fair bit of our conversations (and, one book in particular, if you haven’t noticed…).  But after our discussions about genre fiction a few weeks back, Lady Pole, in all her splendidness, went and created a Pinterest board titled “Fantastic Fantasy“, showcasing the fantasy novels we’ve discussed here at the Free For All.*

When she first told me about this board, I was delighted, but also surprised.  Because if you had asked me five minutes beforehand, I would have told you that I wasn’t a big reader of fantasy books at all.

But the longer I looked through the books on our list, the more I began to appreciate just how diverse the fantasy genre really and truly is.  Up until Lady Pole’s intervention, I would have told you that fantasy novels were ones with dragons in them.  Possibly warlocks. And unicorns.  But that was about it.

In the interest of full disclosure, it appears that my definition was limited by the fact that I believe that magic, ghosts, fairies, leprechauns, necromancers, and pyromancy are all completely real–and there’s nothing wrong with this.  But it did impede me from seeing all these great elements as part of an enormous and hugely varied genre that incorporates more than I had personally ever imagined.  (Just a note: these things are real.  Never let a leprechaun hear you say that you think they aren’t real).

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d offer us both a little primer of some of the “subgenres” of fantasy so that you and I could both become a little more familiar with all that fantasy has to offer, and really come to appreciate a genre that re-invents fiction on a daily basis.  (We’re going in alphabetical order here, so as to be fair to all the dragons and leprechauns and unicorns)

2641675Dark Fantasy: This subgenre walks a fine line between fantasy and horror, incorporating elements of both to make for a story that is intentionally frightening, unsettling, and generally creepy.  Charles L. Grant, a pioneer of the dark fantasy genre, defined it as “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding”, though it has also come to be associated with stories from “The Monsters’ Point of View”.  Think H.P. Lovecraft, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and China Mieville’s Kraken.

x1280542a_mHigh Fantasy: Here’s where the dragons and warlocks generally show up.  High fantasy books are generally set in a completely different world from our own; worlds with their own rules and population, that generally tend to be pretty epic in their scope (Tolkien invented a language for his characters).  These are the kind of books that tend to get the “Fantasy” stickers with the glowing unicorn on their spines.  Think J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

2751021Historical Fantasy: Now this is a subgenre with subgenres, making it a bit of a tricky category to cover quickly.  Very broadly speaking, these books tend to take place in a past full of magical/fantastical/paranormal elements.  Sometime that can be a familiar past, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or an alternative past, like Keith Roberts’ Pavane, which is set in a world where the Spanish Armada defeated the Elizabeth I.   They can also deal with fairytales and folklore, as in Bill Willingham’s Peter and Max.  Steampunk, which usually imagines a Victorian world where steam, rather than electricity, became the dominant source of power, also falls generally within this genre.  Check out: Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat, Neil Gaimain’s Stardustor V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.

3153256Urban Fantasy:
Fantasy set in a city.  Obviously.  To be more specific, though, these books tend to resemble in many ways the noir detective stories of the mid-20th century: they frequently feature detectives, private eyes, or guns-for-hire who deal in the paranormal, and they often deal with the grittier side of life, and life in the city.  Case in point:  Mike Carey’s near-perfect Felix Castor series, P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files, as well as Joseph Nasisse’s Eyes to See.   Interestingly, urban fantasy is increasingly becoming a genre of heroines.  Sometimes they find a hero along the way, and sometimes they don’t, but this subgenre is fast carving out a space for female heroines–and authors–to break all the rules, with some fantastic results.  For examples, look for Adrian Phoenix’s Makers Song series, Kat Richardson’s Greywalker novels, and Chloe Neill’s super-terrific Chicagoland Vampire series.

It’s also really important to remember that these classifications are by no means hard and fast.  George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is as much high fantasy as it is historical fantasy.  Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are urban fantasy, but they can be shelved in mystery, as well.  A vast number of steampunk books are shelved as romances, rather than fantasy at all.  My hope here is to help you and me to realize that genres can be as vast and unpredictable and wonderful as the people who read them–and the friends who recommend more!

*This is also a great time to remind you to check out all our nifty Pinterest boards!  You can click the link at the top of this page, or go right here!