Inspired by this post, here’s my own list. I just reviewed Declare, so I’m using this post to look back at less recent books I loved. I will stick to recommending one book per author for the main post, but I want to give an honorable mention to Deerskin by Robin McKinley and Haroun & the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie.
This is probably my favorite fairytale retelling that I have read so far. I might be the only McKinley fan who didn’t like Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast. I thought Rose Daughter, McKinley’s other take on that fairytale, was more interesting, but nowhere near as good as Spindle’s End. This is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but most of the book focuses on the life of Rosie, the princess in hiding, and her adoptive family. The climactic confrontation with the evil fairy godmother is mysterious, dramatic, and satisfying when the novel finally gets there, but that’s not what most of the book is about.
This book has one of my favorite first chapters of all time. I already quoted the first paragraph when I did the first set of Wyrd & Wonder prompts as a blog tag, but here it is again:
The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (It didn’t have to be anything scary or unpleasant, like snakes or slime, especially in a cheerful household—magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself—but if you want a cup of tea, a cup of lavender-and-gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory. And while the pansies—put dry in a vase—would probably last a day, looking like ordinary pansies, before they went greyish-dun and collapsed into magic dust, something like an ivory thimble would begin to smudge and crumble as soon as you picked it up.)
This is an early fantasy novel (1926). The people of the village of Erl petition their lord for a magic lord to rule them, so he sends his son Alveric to find the King of Elfland’s daughter and bring her back with him. It is suggested that the reason they want magic is simply to shake things up and bring something new into their lives.
“They have chosen foolishly,” the old lord said, “and only the Dark Ones that show not their faces know all that this will bring: but we, who see not, follow the ancient custom and do what our people in their parliament say. It may be some spirit of wisdom they have not known may save them even yet. Go then with your face turned towards that light that beats from fairyland, and that faintly illumines the dusk between sunset and early stars, and this shall guide you till you come to the frontier and have passed the fields we know.”
It has been years since I read this, but it really impressed me at the time. This is an odd novel; most people who like Dunsany’s work prefer his short stories, and I’m not sure why I don’t. I need to read this again someday and see if it still holds up, but there are some great passages.
And little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man’s thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills.
This Booker Prize winner is another book I plan to reread. I loved this when I first read it. It is sometimes described as magic realism, but the magic appears to be less random and more systematic than that term usually suggests. It is intense and harrowing at times but also fun and clever.
The blurb on GoodReads:
Saleem Sinai was born at midnight, the midnight of India’s independence, and found himself mysteriously “handcuffed to history” by the coincidence. He is one of 1,001 children born at the midnight hour, each of them endowed with an extraordinary talent – and whose privilege and curse it is to be both master and victims of their times. Through Saleem’s gifts – inner ear and wildly sensitive sense of smell – we are drawn into a fascinating family saga set against the vast, colourful background of the India of the 20th century.
The first paragraph:
I was born in the city of Bombay … once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more … On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate – at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time.
The classic Arthurian retelling. I quoted this in Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Inspirational/Thought-Provoking Quotes from Classics (#5 and #6). It is very quotable! And I loved the characters: Arthur is a great character, of course, but this book has one of the best secondary casts I can remember from a fantasy novel. I found Gawaine and Mordred very memorable.
Magicians in Georgian-era England (in an alternate historical timeline, but still recognizably England). Not for everyone, but I adored it. I loved the two protagonists despite their obvious failings (especially Norrell, who can be quite ruthless). Still, this is another one with a great secondary cast; my favorite of the bunch is the mysterious Childermass, but Emma Pole and Stephen Black also stand out. My review.
Houses, like people, are apt to become rather eccentric if left too much on their own; this house was the architectural equivalent of an old gentleman in a worn dressing-gown and torn slippers, who got up and went to bed at odd times of day, and who kept up a continual conversation with friends no one else could see.
In which an angel and a demon team up to prevent Armageddon. This is one of the funniest books I have ever read, in any genre, and I love the characters. In April I listened to the audio, my first time with the audiobook and fourth time reading the book. My review.
Some police forces would believe anything. Not the Metropolitan police, though. The Met was the hardest, most cynically pragmatic, most stubbornly down-to-earth police force in Britain. It would take a lot to faze a copper from the Met. It would take, for example, a huge, battered car that was nothing more nor less than a fireball, a blazing, roaring, twisted metal lemon from Hell, driven by a grinning lunatic in sunglasses, sitting amid the flames, trailing thick black smoke, coming straight at them through the lashing rain and wind at eighty miles an hour.
That would do it every time.
Have you read any of these? Do you have any favorite standalone fantasy novels? Let me know in comments!