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Book Recommendations: Unique Fantasy

July 13, 2012

I’m doing readers’ advisory practice.

Which is just a fancy, librarian jargon way to say: I’m recommending books.

We’ll start with Anna R., because she and I have been talking books for months, and I owe her a book list.

What Anna likes: Anna likes to read books that really draw her in, and is looking forward to a vacation that will let her have time to get engrossed in some good stories. She is a fan of good YA, and a fan of fantasy with uniquely drawn characters. She says she started a series of really thick books, and discarded them because the characters were too black and white, so much so that they felt like cliches. Anna recently read Sunshine (on my recommendation, I think! Good job, me!) Anna is fond of fantasy (with good characters) and is happy to read interesting YA. She also really liked Smilla’s Sense of Snow, which I haven’t read. Anna described it as complex and cerebral, with really well drawn characters and a moody sense of spookiness.

So, let’s stir those ingredients together to come up with a book list, shall we?

White Cat, by Holly Black. Cassel Sharpe is part of a family of curse workers, powerful and feared magic users. At first, his sleepwalking and odd snatches of memory give him the ominous feeling that he is losing his mind. But, when he discovers his brothers have been using Cassel’s powers against him, he plans his revenge. (It’s sort of like magic-user family as mob family.) This is the first installment in a trilogy.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. A vampire tale that dips between modern times and flashbacks, engrossing and mysterious. I loved it for being creepy and Gothic in much the same mood as reading Dracula for the first time.

Guardian of the Dead and The Shattering, both by Karen Healey. Each weaves the cultural heritage and mythology of New Zealand into a fascinating magical tale. For me, reading about life in New Zealand and Maori culture was as intriguing as Healey’s original magical creations and storylines. Great characters as well, fully human teenagers dealing with Intense Magical Stuff Happening.

The magic of The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern is more on the lush and beautiful side than the spooky and tense. Reading this is like wandering around, gawking at the circus, and wishing it could be real. The characters may not be constructed to quite the level of detail Anna usually seeks, but I’m willing to bet the intricate magic and setting compensate.

Veronica, by Nicholas Christopher, works in a similar vein, with a setting full of subtle magic touches, and characters who are just slightly odd, giving a sense of the real world on a particularly dreamy night.

The ensemble cast of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman might also work, because of the way Gaiman envisions ancient Egyptian and Norse gods adapting and grappling with the modern world. In some ways, the god characters are humanized, in some ways they’re caricatured… but I think they’re drawn with enough creativity to work. And Shadow, the protagonist, makes a good anchor.

For more traditional fantasy, separate from the modern world, I suggested:

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay, which has a distinct feel of Moorish-influenced Medieval Spain. Also A Song for Arbonne, which sort of draws on the idea of French troubadors, reinvented in a fantasy setting. What he does, adapting and transforming historical ideas, works in interesting ways as an anchor, leaving him more leeway for character particulars.

Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey seems to veer closer to the good/evil dichotomy of flattened characters that Anna doesn’t like… but possibly, the worldbuilding, and the workings of the internal mythology may make up for it. (Also the sex. Lots and lots of interesting sex.) The characters may have a few one-note moments, but the internal mythology may make up for it. Worth at least reading a few chapters.

Although not fantasy as such, The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, might also be a good fit, given Anna’s interest in learning styles and the workings of the mind. The central character has autism, and works at a company where his perspective is prized for specialized kinds of tasks. Interesting commentary on the workings of the mind, disability, and learning style, and also gorgeously written.

Still pondering cerebral mysteries for our Anna, but these will take care of her through at least this vacation, no?

Any other ideas, faithful readers?

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