Friday, January 22, 2010

Five From Arisia

Last weekend saw Arisia – New England’s largest science fiction and fantasy convention – land like a magical UFO on the bank of the Charles. Amongst the trekkies, cat-girls, and steampunkers, was a wealth of writers, editors, and publishers. Some of who gathered together to produce their list of “scifi/fantasy books you must read”. I now pass that list along for your consideration:

First on this (randomly ordered) list is Sunshine by Robin McKinley. This beautifully written vampire novel is set in a “gently post-apocalyptic” world. With a light touch and a sparsely detailed setting, this stand-alone novel brings a welcome originality to its sad and lovely tale. Told in the first person by Sunshine -- an over-worked, under-paid, hard-working, much-loved baker – this book is haunting, witty, evocative, and refreshing.

Next up is the Hugo Award-winning Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Written in 1968, this amazing novel is set in the year 2010 and predicts a global population of 7 billion (eerily close to the real figure of 6.79 billion). This massive population, writes Brunner, changes everything. His plot-driven, idea-heavy book bombards the reader with a constantly shifting narrative and astounding predictions and details that eerily evoke our modern world (such as insidious media manipulation and the sudden, unexplained appearance of crazed killers called “muckers”). Out-of-print since 1999, this sprawling, multi-faceted book is being republished for 2010 in a special, illustrated edition for $200. Fortunately, used copies are still available. More fortunate still, other of John Brunner’s titles still in print including the harrowing The Sheep Look Up, which does for pollution what Stand on Zanzibar does for overpopulation.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is a fairy tale for all ages, fun and terrifying. Written with beautiful and lyrical prose it explores simple lessons and the universal themes of love, humanity, and finding oneself. More complex than it first appears, this novel also tackles issues of despair, heroism, ecology, and the interaction between the magical and the prosaic world. And yet, for all this, the novel remains true to it’s fairy tale form with an ending that fulfills the reader’s expectations and leaves “all as it should be”.

Another vampire novel, and currently the most popular book on the list, Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris is a fun and memorable read. While part of a growing sub-genre of undead chick-lit, this novel and its many sequels sets itself apart by its immersive southern setting and its plucky, non-violent, and genuinely nice heroine. Humor, thrills, and continuing character growth, all combine to make this series sweet and addictive.

Last, but not least, is Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells. Lavishly detailed and intricately immersive, this novel is set in a faux 19th century, in a Vienna-like city and evokes a Victorian age where powerful locomotives meet subtle magics. With superb writing and mounting tension, this book is a complex puzzle box. Prequels and sequels explore more of the story’s chronology, including a World War II setting.

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