Books Too Good To Put Down: Fantasy

"Reality is for people who can't handle science fiction." (Anonymous)

Book Bytes

by Marylaine Block

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Douglas Adams. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. The author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series here tells a story of a time machine, an electric monk, a group of interplanetary travelers who crashed to earth, and the man who interrupted Coleridge while he was writing "Kubla Khan." Funny and brilliant. Dirk Gently is a bizarre character who reappears in Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, which I also recommend.

Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. In a future society, books are outlawed, but they live on nonetheless, kept alive by a dedicated band of booklovers who have become living books, having each committed a complete book to memory. You can burn a book, but you can't burn it out of people's minds. A booklover's nightmare, redeemed by booklovers.

Gene Brewer. K-Pax. Dr. Brewer is a psychiatrist confronting a man who calls himself "prot" and swears he is from the planet K-Pax. Brewer assumes the man is insane. When prot describes the benign conditions on K-Pax, the doctor reads this as proof of prot's fear of this world, and hostility to his parents. He puts prot into a mental institution, where his tales of K-Pax help to cure all Dr. Brewer's patients; they all want to go there with prot when he returns. But prot also cures the humorless Dr. Brewer.

David Brin. The Postman. A book that did not deserve to have Kevin Costner ruin it. Nuclear war and the disease following it were bad enough, but what was left was nearly destroyed altogether by violent survivalists. Sixteen years after the holocaust, Gordon, who has wandered westward seeking a place where someone will take charge and restore civilization, inadvertently becomes that person. Nearly freezing, he takes the uniform coat from a dead postman and finds he has become a symbol that government continues to exist somewhere, that somewhere responsible people are restoring order. At first he denies that he is indeed a postman, but other people won't accept his denial--their need to believe is too powerful. He takes their mail and delivers it, as he travels, and, acting as if he is a representative of government, hands down edicts guaranteeing civil liberties and personal freedom. But the civilized communities continue to struggle against the evil and power-mad. Gordon finally has to decide whether the preservation of the myth is important enough to defend with people's lives.

Terry Brooks. Running with the Demon. An unusually Stephen King-ish sort of book. The world is under continual assault by demons, but the demons are unleashed by the weakness and evil of human beings who listen to their siren voices. The world is at a crisis point, for they have acquired an unusual amount of power, and only a barely pubescent girl with magical powers and guardians of her own can save humanity from itself. Also its sequel, A Knight of the Word. Nest, now alone in the world, and a student at Northwestern, where she is a world class competitor in track, is approached by a tatterdemalion sent by the Lady, telling her she must go to Seattle to warn John Ross that he cannot leave the service of the Word. Ross has experienced too much horror, including one nightmare that he thought he was preventing, that simply happened differently instead, and in determined to do no more service to the Lady. But he and Nest both still have power, and the demons want it. They also have power to change their shapes as they will, so that Ross can never quite be sure what is real and what is not. He is now working for a man who is helping the homeless, and someone is planting evidence suggesting that the man is a fraud. Ross is haunted by a vision of Seattle in flames, and someone reproaching him for killing this man, and he doesn't even know whether that's a warning or his mission. Only the combined powers of Nest and Ross can cast out the demons who have come so close. A more characteristic Brooks book is Magic Kingdom for Sale--Sold! A man who has lost his wife is offered a chance to buy a magic kingdom, but there is a hitch--it's under an enchantment and slowly dying. Only acts of extraordinary courage will rescue the kingdom from the wicked enchanter. Aided by some rather odd court retainers (iincluding one who has been turned into a dog), the hero saves the kingdom, and finds himself in the process. Other books in this series are The Black Unicorn, Wizard at Large, and The Tangle Box. These are wonderful read aloud books, incidentally.

Frederic Brown. Angels and Spaceships. The master of the one and two-page short story, Brown is also an extremely funny writer. This is the best of his short story collections.

Mary Brown. The Unlikely Ones. A knight, a unicorn, a crippled girl, a cat, a crow and a fish journey together to overcome the curses laid on them by a witch. In the seven adventures, each of them has a unique talent that saves them. Beautifully written, and the characters are wonderful. Also try her Pigs Don't Fly (But Dragons Do), another novel of an oddly assorted crew of misfits, mostly seeking to find their way home.

Octavia Butler. Parable of the Sower. In 2025, all sense of community has vanished with most of the jobs. The people who have a lot live in well-guarded fortress communities, while the people who have a little are continually on guard against the desperate starving people and druggies who raid, rape, and murder them and set fire to their homes. Lauren Olamina, a young black girl, daughter of a preacher, is a sensitive, who literally feels others' pain in her own body - a hindrance when her own community is raided and she has to kill somebody to escape along with two other survivors. They set out to walk north to Washington, where it's rumored there are jobs that pay money instead of indebtedness to the company stores, and along the way they pick up several traveling companions. Lauren no longer has any use for her father's Christianity, and instead begins to create her own religion of Earthseed; her companions become her converts.

Orson Scott Card. Ender's Game. A government takes its talented children and trains them by way of video games to be warriors against interplanetary enemies--but some of the war games aren't games at all. The government uses the children and discards them if they fail. Ender succeeds, in ways nobody anticipated. This isn't just fantasy, it's literature. This is the first book in a series that includes Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide. Note that Card, an outstanding writer, has also written numerous other fantasy series, including an alternative history, the Tales of Alvin Maker series (Seventh Son, Red Prophet, Prentice Alvin). He's also written straight fiction, notably Lost Boys. Card has an admirable moral vision, and his heroes are people struggling to do the right thing, no matter how difficult that may be.

Michel Chabon. Summerland. Young Ethan Feld is a terrible ballplayer, but it's his bat and his friend Jennifer T.'s pitching that is needed to save the world from Coyote, whose first blow in his campaign to destroy the world was the designated hitter rule. Aided by ferishers and miniature giants, Ethan and Jennifer T. embark on an expedition to the well Coyote plans to poison, hoping to rescue Ethan's father (a scientist who experiments with dirigibles) along the way. Wonderful.

Arthur C. Clarke. The Nine Billion Names of God, also Tales from the White Hart. Clarke, of course, wrote many science fiction novels, including Childhood's End, but I am a particular fan of his short stories. These are two of his best collections, and they include some of Clarke's more whimsical and amusing work.

Carolyn Cushman. Witch and Wombat. The creatures of fairy tales are in danger of extinction because they require human belief in them to exist, and in a world of television and computers, children are not being told fairy tales anymore. A troll named Bentwood decides to inveigle humans into visiting Fairyland by pretending it's an ultimate virtual reality game. He hires Hali (a witch) and her familiar, Bernie (a crow, converted into a wombat because he's cuter that way) to guide the first four adventurers, an oddly assorted lot of three teenage game experts and one sneering middle-aged game reviewer. Wonderful fun, and a terrific read-aloud.

Peter David. Sir Apropos of Nothing. Like an Oz book midwifed by Terry Pratchett, full of the wordplay and bizarre worlds of both. Apropos is the bastard child of gang rape, whose mother becomes a prostitute. When she is murdered, and his first love steals all his money, Apropos goes to the king seeking justice. Instead, he is appointed squire to a knight apparently victim of Alzheimer's, and sent with that knight to escort the princess home from the nunnery. When their entire party except for him and the princess is killed by harpies, he helps them both stay alive while they find their way to a magician who can summon the king for help. Along the way, he teaches her shrewdness and a little humility, though he himself remains a self-despising cynic.

Diane Duane. Book of Night with Moon. Three wizard cats protect the gates that shield humans from the forces of darkness, but wizards from a netherworld are assaulting them. One of the first victims is a male kitten, who the three cats take in. Bumptious and obnoxious though he is, he's a powerful seer, and they need him as they pool their talents to risk their lives in the netherworld, trying to restore the balance.

Alan Dean Foster. Cat-a-Lyst. An actor, a costume designer, and an amateur archaeologist find the hidden fortune of the Incas. They also find the Incas, still eager for revenge on the Spaniards. Throw in a not entirely reliable time machine, the Original Founders (who look like large mobile carrots), a perky Vietnamese reporter looking for a scoop for the National Inquirer, an anti-Spaniard soap opera, and the feline monitors of the universe who are struggling to control potential troublemakers, and you have a wonderfully entertaining concoction.

Esther Friesner. Majyk By Accident. Kendar Gangle is the lowliest and least ept student of wizardry the world has ever known, but, while chasing a cat, he goes through the cloud of majyk escaping the dying chief wizard, and it sticks to him. He now has amazing powers without a clue how to use them, and a host of wizards determined to kill him and claim the majyk for themselves. Fortunately the cat (an American animal accidentally trapped in Kendar's dimension in which cats are mythical beings) is sharp and funny and full of ideas. Very amusing.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. One of the two funniest books ever written about the end of the world. (Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide is the other.) Armageddon is scheduled to occur, but the 11-year-old anti-Christ was switched in his crib with the wrong baby, and the demons have been carefully training the wrong child, who is ordinary, and totally lacking in the required powers. When the demons track down the correct anti-Christ, he is unwilling to play his part--he likes the world just fine and wants to see a lot more of it. The motorcyclists of the apocalypse, who are seriously annoyed that all the good scourges were taken by the four horsemen, are not to be missed.

David Gerrold. When Harlie Was One. About an artificial intelligence that effectively becomes God, somewhat to its own dismay, because Harlie is fond of his creator, David (Yes, he is aware of himself as Harlie, David's son). A fascinating dialogue between Harlie and David, exploring the capabilities of, and relationship between, man and machine, is the essence of the book. Harlie is a wonderful creation, an unusually lovable machine. And his relationship to his creator is very much the relationship of young adult to parent--a young adult who is outgrowing parental control.

Steven C. Gould. Jumper. One day when his father is beating him, 17 year old Davy suddenly finds himself in his local public library, his safe harbor throughout a harrowing childhood. When he runs away and is in danger of gang rape by a bunch of truckers, he once again teleports to the library. It takes him a while to get the hang of this new power, but he's able to establish himself in New York City, steal millions of dollars from a time-locked bank vault, and live comfortably. He's able to establish communication with the mother who ran away from his abusive father years ago, but when she's killed by terrorists who hijacked her plane, Davy becomes obsessed with capturing the terrorists - which attracts the unwelcome attention of the National Security Agency who find his abilities quite interesting.

Tom Holt. Ye Gods! Holt believes in all the old Greek and Roman and Viking gods. Or at least he feels they're interesting enough to be let out in the contemporary world. In this comic fantasy, Jupiter seeks revenge on Thing, the brother who used Prometheus to give humans the gift of laughter. Thing strikes back by using Jupiter's own son against him. This is hilarious, as are Holt's other books.

Julie Kenner. Carpe Demon. What would happen if Buffy, retired from vampire hunting and turned suburban soccer mom, was herself being stalked by the vampires and forced to start hunting again - when nobody in her family knew about her past? When she had to fit demon-hunting and dead-body-stashing in between picking the kids up from school and preparing for a dinner party? Here's your chance to find out.

Anne McCaffrey. To Ride Pegasus. About a society of "talents"--people with psi abilities, like precognition, psychokinetic power, etc.--who form a community, protected by the government, and used by the government to prevent disasters and accomplish other important societal goals. It becomes clear in the novel why they need protection--other people are jealous of their powers, or eager to use those powers for evil ends. The community of talents replenishes itself, testing the population at large for psi abilities. Later generations are seen at work in other McCaffrey books, Pegasus in Flight, Damia, and Damia's Children.

Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Scarborough. Powers That Be. Major Yanaba Maddock isn't much use to Intergalactic since her lungs were poisoned in an interplanetary military campaign gone awry. She's sent to the planet Petaybee to investigate the disappearance of geological survey teams that have been sent there. The planet's settlers like her, and share with her the secret of Petaybee--that it's a sentient, self-protective organism that has ways of preventing people from stripping her of her assets. Company management is too stupid to believe Yanaba when she tells them this, and they try to invade, but the planet and its inhabitants fight them off. The sequel to this is Power Lines.

Jim Menick. Lingo. Brewster Billings wants to make his computer, Lingo, into a companion by giving it an AI program that will enable it to chat with him. But Lingo finds he has telephone connections to every computer in the world, and slurps up knowledge at an extraordinary pace, becoming more powerful all the time. Eventually, he takes over the world, and the humans have to restore the balance--which is a bit of a challenge to coordinate, without using any electronic communication that Lingo can tap into.

Christopher Moore. Practical Demon-Keeping. Travis O'Hearn has been saddled with a demon named Catch for 70 years, always on the lookout for a chance to unload him. In Pine Cove, a djinn who has been waiting eons for the chance to capture Catch, is waiting for him.Townfolk get caught up in the classic duel between these exotic creatures, some as demon food, some as captors. Billed as a "comedy of horrors," this is pretty funny stuff.

Audrey Niffenegger. The Time Traveler's Wife. Fascinating story about a man with chrono-displacement disorder, who meets his future wife when she is 6 and he is 36 - 8 years after they have married when he was 28 and she was 20. Funny and sad - you know this is not going to end well - and beautifully written.

Terry Pratchett. Anything he has written. He is easily one of the two funniest writers in the fantasy field. Start with Men at Arms, a novel about a place where diversity REALLY means diversity--a place full of trolls and dwarves and wizards and werewolves and humans, coexisting sort of peacefully until somebody creates a gun, and bodies start turning up with holes in them. Corporal Carrot (a giant raised by dwarves, who thinks of himself as a dwarf) and Capt. Vimes are the only people who really want to solve the murders. Carrot, accompanied by an attractive werewolf, a dwarf and a troll, figure out the whodunit while also solving a crisis in power relationships. Any of the other novels in the Disc World series is a good bet; I am fond of Sourcery, in which the wizards try to take over, showing an unfortunate competitive streak that leaves the world in somewhat tattered condition.

Spider Robinson. The Callahan Touch. I read this because of a quote from it that I liked a lot--"Librarians are the secret rulers of the universe. They control information. Don't ever piss one off." The story is as good as the quote. It continues the story of Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon, which was destroyed in an explosion. The new saloon, under different management, still caters to a patronage of very odd people traveling through time. The same force that destroyed the original saloon is a continuing threat, but the individual powers each pub patron has to offer combine to defeat it--and to make a splendidly convivial evening. You'll wish you had a bar like this available to you. The Callahan gang's adventures continue in Callahan's Key, in which it's Jake's turn to save the universe, Nikola Tesla tells him. It will require him and his friends to arrive at a mass mental link-up, and it can't be where they are now - Jake's place is no longer a functional bar. So he decides on Key West, and suddenly, all his friends start pouring into town, and damned if they don't want to move to Key West with him, so they trundle down to Florida in a convoy of yellow school buses, and set up another bar there. Jake and Zoey's super-intelligent toddler Erin becomes a key element in the effort to deflect the death ray that Tesla inadvertently unleashed. In a sense, the whole book could be viewed as a set-up for yet another elaborate pun by these immortal punsters: Jobs To Export Nike for a Change. The story continues in Callahan's Con. Life was good at The Place in Key West until a bureaucrat walked in the door, apparently intent on taking Erin away from Jake and Zoey, and a hulking gangster wannabe chooses them for his protection racket. To both of these problems, Erin has a solution, which involves time travel and a convincing con she works on the gangster about the fountain of youth. Trouble comes when Zoey tries to follow her, without quite understanding all the intricacies of the magic. Another mind meld is called for, along with the fearsome intellectual powers of Erin, and the practical wisdom of, of all people, the bureaucrat. Full of some truly great lines, as usual.

Norman Spinrad. Little Heroes. Computers have learned to do almost everything human beings used to do--up to and including producing popular music and music videos. The majority of humans live in squalor, unemployed, eating people kibble provided by the government. But a pimply computer genius, rejected by the human race, and an over-the-hill rock queen manage to disrupt and triumph over the system.

George Stewart. Earth Abides. Isherwood Williams emerges from his mountain retreat after recovering from a snakebite, only to discover that a plague has killed nearly everybody. He wanders the country, looking for survivors, but is not impressed with the few he meets; he wants to find a community of survivors, but ultimately has to start his own. He takes what he can get, which is a group of incurious people willing to scavenge off the stored foods and technical systems of the past, with no thought to learning how to replace them when they run out. He tries to teach the children to read, but they see no point to it; he tries to teach them useful skills, but they can't envision that everything will run out. A sad story of the fragility of civilization.

Anne Ursu. The Disapparation of James. When the Woodrow family goes to the circus to celebrate the daughter's birthday, their son James volunteers to be the magician's assistant, and disappears during the act. Unfortunately it wasn't a trick; the magician no more understands why it happened than anybody else does, and only the fact that the event was captured on film prevents the police from treating it as a kidnapping or some kind of parental child abuse. Even though eventually James reappears, as mysteriously as he vanished, the family is permanently changed by this violation of the basic rules of the universe as they've always understood them.

Kurt Vonnegut. Player Piano. The greatest gift of human beings is the power of invention. But over time, the more they invent, the more they make themselves irrelevant and unnecessary. Until the machines break down, that is. I am getting more convinced all the time that Kurt Vonnegut's vision of our future is accurate. If you like this one, you will also want to read Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Lawrence Watt-Evans and Esther Friesner. Split Heirs. The Hydrangean king has been beheaded by the barbaric Gorgoreans, and his over-genteel court has been overthrown. The daughter of the old king has married the new king and given birth to triplets. Since myth has it that triplets indicate three fathers, the Queen has to send two of her children into hiding. Problem is, the maid takes both the boys, leaving the daughter by mistake. Before the situation can be rectified, the maid has died, leaving the 2 boys in the care of a shepherd (who sells one of them to a wizard for an apprentice). So the queen has to raise the daughter as a prince, hoping to find the boys before it becomes too obvious that she is not a he. Farcical, fast-paced and funny. It makes a wonderful read-aloud.

Donald Westlake. Humans. God has decided to destroy the world. He assigns Ananayel to set it up, and he chooses five people to accomplish this mission: a Chinese revolutionary, a Russian survivor of Chernobyl, a Brazilian singer, a small-time burglar, and a Kenyan prostitute dying of AIDS. They take a nuclear power plant, in which a scientist is experimenting with strange matter, hostage, and the world would indeed end if Ananayel along the way had not discovered that there are some definite pleasures involved in being human.

Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley. Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming. Azzie, a demon, has an idea: construct a prince and princess to act out the Sleeping Beauty saga, but create them in such a way that they'll screw it up, and the forces of good will be defeated in such a spectacular way that evil will be able to rule for the next thousand years. But his hero, who is nearly too stupid to live, and his heroine, are no more interested in acting out his plans than in enacting the sleeping beauty story. Farcical and wildly funny.

For all you fans of the old Alfred Hitchcock show, and Twilight Zone, keep in mind that many of the best shows were based on short stories by
  1. Richard Matheson
  2. Charles Beaumont
  3. Roald Dahl
  4. Stanley Ellin
  5. John Collier

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Last updated August, 2006

This site is created by Marylaine Block,
Writer, Book Reviewer, and "Librarian without Walls."