In honor of the BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, airing on BBC America this weekend, we present a celebration of alternate Englands, mysterious magicians, and the magic of Faery creeping into everyday life.
A witty, romantic tale of a Regency England where glamor and magic are an essential part of an accomplished young lady’s repertoire, wrought with an impeccable sense of atmosphere and a marvelous eye for detail.
Faithful correspondents and inveterate mischief-makers Kate and Cecelia are about to have the most dashing, dangerous, chocolate-poisoning, curse-dodging, and all around entertaining Season of their lives.
And there was scent of thyme in it and sight of lilac, and the chorus of birds that sings before dawn in April, and the deep proud splendor of rhododendrons, and the litheness and laughter of streams, and miles and miles of May.
Yet in the blood of man there is a tide, an old sea-current, rather, that is somehow akin to the twilight, which brings him rumours of beauty from however far away, as drift-wood is found at sea from islands not yet discovered; and this spring-tide or current that visits the blood of man comes from the fabulous quarter of his lineage, from the legendary, of old; it takes him out to the woodlands, out to the hills; he listens to ancient song.
What are some really lengthy fantasy or science fiction epics / series you would recommend
“Lengthy” is kind of hard to judge, especially since big fat fantasy and science fiction series are a relatively recent development.
One that I’m really fond of is kind of neglected these days: a difficult read, extremely problematic, and yet unique because no one has done the kind of thing that this writer has done. Specifically, I’m speaking of E. R. Eddison’s fantasy novels that begin with The Worm Ouroboros and continue in the so-called Zimiamvian trilogy – Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, and The Mezentian Gate. When J.R.R. Tolkien was just getting started as a writer, it was Eddison – then very much the poster boy for heroic fantasy – who was asked if he would please write a blurb for Tolkien’s new book about a Ring. Eddison laid the groundwork for the relatively ready acceptance of long fantasy novels in the beginning of the 20th century, and was really the first in that period to push open the door that Tolkien then entered through… yet he is now almost completely forgotten.
Eddison’s works appeared in Ballantine paperbacks in the 70s and 80s, and then I believe went out-of-print until relatively recently, when they have been republished as “lost classics”. They are a tough read: in some ways artificially archaic, definitely sexist and imperialist, just reeking with white male privilege, and for various other reasons — particularly the vigorous yet ersatz Shakespearean prose — definitely not to everybody’s taste. Regardless of that, I dote on them.
The Worm is a straightforward swashbuckling fantasy of the kind that no one else does anymore, based around four princely dudebros, the evil wizard-king who is their archenemy, and their wars against each other and adventures through a genuinely magical and extremely dangerous landscape. There are also many wonderful ancillary characters, including the sweetly virginal but dangerous and resourceful sister of one of the dudebros; an intelligent, scheming and beautiful queen who is both the best wife to her husband imaginable and at the same time the woman you least want to ever get on the wrong side of because she will simply vengeance you to death; and the best and sweetest-natured traitor ever written, an endlessly conniving political type with a bent for natural history and a chronic inability to stay on the winning side of an argument for more than five minutes (because he starts feeling so sorry for the losers whom he just helped to beat that he shortly defects to their side).*
The trilogy, on the other hand, is a from-1920s-Earth-to-Vaguely-Renaissance-AU-Earth story in which an extremely quirky, smart, sexy, and (sometimes) deadly version of the Goddess wanders back and forth between universes as the whim moves her, and does whatever she damn well pleases both with her own avatars and with the guy who is her lover and/or husband in each universe. (Warning ahead of time: the third book is incomplete, and contains notes for chapters that were not finished at the time of the author’s death.)
Also in the rather-ignored-and-unappreciated-these-days category, but also one I’m fond of, is Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn, which foreshadows “Game of Thrones” in some interesting ways (and which George Martin will certainly have read). It’s chunky, but not hugely long. A very perfectly realized alternate universe and an excellent example of the “how to worldbuild so that it seems always to have been there” school of writing.
Additionally, if you haven’t read them before, you should seek out and read everything by Lord Dunsany. Mostly he wrote short works, but there were quite a few of them. Nobody does the delicate and musical things that he did with prose, and nobody imagines things — both beautiful and horrific – quite the way he did.
*Oh… and there’s a hippogriff. Eddison had him first.
Below, in an illustration from the Worm, the four Princely Dudebros (and rulers) of Demonland: Lord Juss (who is Wise and a Bit of a Magician), his brothers Spitfire (who has Impulse Control Issues which literally cause sparks to come out of his nose when he gets angry) and Goldry Bluzco (who is a Terrific Wrestler and spends most of the book having been kidnapped and tormented for having killed their sorcerous archenemy King Gorice in a wrestling match – but not to worry, it didn’t take and he comes straight back, really pissed off), and the Snarklord in Chief, their cousin Lord Brandoch Daha (whom I privately suspect of being smarter than all the rest of them). Don’t ask me who’s who in this image: I can’t tell. Those are feathers in their crowns, I think. Also: despite the fact that this is well pre-Homestuck, they all have horns. It’s a Demon thing. Go figure. (Also: Demonland is on Mercury. Don’t let it bother you. It didn’t bother Eddison for more than twenty minutes’ worth of the novel before he forgot all about it.)