This time around, I’d like to list a few fantasy books, both novels and short story collections, that you may not have heard of before. Some of these are old, obscure but enduring classics; others are newer, but not as well known as they could be. I hope this list helps you discover a great book you’ve never read before!
■ Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees: Written in 1926, this wondrous little novel is older than Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It’s about a town — Lud-In-The-Mist — located on the border between our world and the land of faeries. The people of Lud are determined to lead normal, mundane lives, to resist the lure of Faerie and its strange magic. They have good reason – in the past, the denizens of Faerie have brought disorder and conflict to Lud. The good people of Lud would like to think those days are gone — but madness and magic have a way of creeping back into your life. This is not a fast-paced, plot-driven book but you’ll find that its sense of magical strangeness is powerful and hard to forget.
■ Un Lun Dun by China Mieville: Mieville is known for writing novels that upturn the conventions of fantasy fiction. He stays away from the usual medieval-ish settings and Tolkien-derived quests. His books are full of weird stuff and even some political exposition. In Un Lun Dun, he brings the same iconoclastic spirit to the children’s fantasy novel, imagining a city that is a hidden version of London, UnLondon, which is where all the discarded things of London come to stay. A city of trash! But a nasty cloud of pollution, the Smog, threatens to swallow UnLondon. A girl named Zanna seems marked out to be the Shwazzy, the chosen one who will save UnLondon, but she opts out and the task falls to her friend, Deeba. It’s an exciting book, as funny as it is scary and very different from most other fantasy novels.
■ The Ladies Of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke: What I’d really like to recommend to you is Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but that is such a massive book that you’d better start here!
This is a collection of short stories which shows the influences of both Neil Gaiman and Hope Mirrlees — a kind of very English fantasy story in which fairies and other magical creatures and places seem to be just around the corner from our prosaic world, and in which magic is as scary as it is alluring.
■ Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Jane Yolen: A great fantasy story is both about imagination and about our own world. This collection of stories is about fairies, science fiction worlds, ghosts, more ghosts, trolls, sea monsters and more. It’s also about people and how they deal with life. Each story is special and perfect in its own way, like a string of glittering beads.
■ Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link: Link is a hard writer to pin down. She writes a combination of fantasy, magic realism and something that defies categorisation; a friend of mine said it best: she has an inside out mind. Her stories are like no one else’s. Just about anything can and will happen in them, but at the same time you can relate to the people in the stories and their sorrows and joys.
■ The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente: Another novel in which a human visits fairyland, this one features a girl named September who makes friends with strange creatures, including a cross between a library and wyvern. Her friends are taken away to a jail at the bottom of the world, which is why she has to travel in her own ship to find and rescue them. Set in a slightly mad and very wonderful world, this book is just the first in a series.
■ The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: An oldie but a goodie, this is a bit like Alice In Wonderland but with a boy Milo, who gets a phantom tollbooth and decides to go through it only to find himself in a strange land where he has all sorts of incredible and hilarious adventures, many of which involve places and creatures that are elaborate puns. It’s the sort of book that is framed as a children’s novel but contains wordplay and metaphors that you can continue to enjoy and unpack as you reread it when you grow older.
So there you go: seven invitations to lands of magic and wonder. I hope you enjoy the sites and find your way back safely!