Episode 130: Contemporary fantasy, lists and other things

The quiet days after the New Year, when Coode Street scribes spend their days slowly summarising the moments of the  year just gone and contemplating what the year ahead might bring, pass slowly in the chill of Chicago and the sweltering heat of the Antipodes. With little specific to discuss, we nonetheless headed to the Waldorf Room high atop the Coode St Motel Six, with no clear intention of what would unfold.

Moments before podcasting began, though, a query came through from James Bradley, asking our thoughts on excellent contemporary fantasy. Interest piqued, we discussed, we listed and we chatted. While we would love to hear listeners recommendations, these are the books we discussed (and recommended) during the podcast:

Contemporary Fantasy Novels (in the order mentioned on the podcast)

  • Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock
  • The Drowning Girl, Caitlin R. Kiernan
  • Last Call, Tim Powers
  • Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay
  • The Limits of Enchantment, Graham Joyce
  • The Wizard Knight, Gene Wolfe
  • The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  • Perfect Circle, Sean Stewart
  • Waking the Moon, Elizabeth Hand
  • Wizard of Pigeons, Megan Lindholm
  • The Scar, China Mieville
  • The Prestige, Christopher Priest
  • Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Brides of Roll-Rock Island, Margo Lanagan
  • Was, Geoff Ryman

The list has its flaws and omissions (one we reason we’d love your recommendations), but it’s a starting point for discussing an interesting subject. Our thanks to James for his question. At podcast’s end we briefly also discuss some points of comparison with the Locus All-Time Poll recently released, and encourage others to run their own similar polls.

As always, we hope you enjoy the podcast!

12 thoughts on “Episode 130: Contemporary fantasy, lists and other things”

  1. I recommend: Evening’s Empire, David Herter; Isles of the Forsaken & Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman; Aegypt Quartet, John Crowley; Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley; Lens of the World trilogy, RA MacAvoy; the White Crow novels, Mary Gentle; The Dragon Griaule, Lucius Shepard…

  2. It is a tricky question, also depending on the interpretation of excellent and contemporary.

    Authors that make good candidates are Walter Moers (the City of Dreaming Books), Zoran Zivkovic who might have multiple good candidates to choose from. And of course as already mentioned in the podcast Terry Pratchett, again with multiple good examples of what can be done with fantasy.

    I think Steven Erikson actually would make a good candidate, but has the big drawback that his best work is hidden inside the big series he has written.

  3. In the Australian corner, I would add Forsyth’s ‘Bitter Greens’, Bishop’s ‘Etched City’ and Warren’s ‘Walking the Tree’ to the powerful Lanagan book. Internationally, Hopkinson’s ‘New Moon’s Arms’, Jemisin’s ‘Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and LeGuin’s ‘Lavinia’ spring to mind.

    But I’m pleased to see Strange&Norrell already on the list, it really was outstanding. For Guy Kay, I like ‘Lions of Al-Rassan’ better than Ysabel, but there must be a decade between them, so it’s not counted as contemporary? :-)

  4. I agree, Joris, that a lot comes down to a personal definition of “excellence” and an agreed interpretation of “contemporary”. We struggle with it a little on the podcast. I think I think that ‘contemporary fantasy’ does not mean “written recently”, but rather means fantasy set in or close to our contemporary world. This would mean works like The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce or Moonheart by Charles de Lint would qualify as contemporary fantasy, while excellent recent secondary-world fantasy by the likes of Erickson, Martin, Abercrombie et al may not. I’ve not read Moers, but agree on Zivkovic.

  5. Hi Thoraiya. Great to hear from you here! The answer on “Lions of Al-Rassan” is, I think touched on in other comments and in the podcast. It comes down to whether “contemporary” means written recently or set in recent times. I think we tended to the latter interpretation, which lead us to “Ysabel” over “Tigana”, “Lions”, or “Under Heaven”.

    In terms of recommendations, it’s great to get some Australian books added to the discussion. I’ve heard fantastic things about the Forsyth, but not read it.

    Best, Jonathan

  6. Alma Alexander’s “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” also qualifies for this particular discussion!

  7. Jonathan, when aiming at non-medieval fantasy (or at least post industrial revolution non-steampunk* fantasy) Moers does not fit comfortably either. Still worth seeking out in my opinion, even if the voice is completely different from most of modern fantasy.

    * Which sidesteps the Steampunk categorization discussion nicely.

    Of course there are the authors usually put into the magic realism box that might fit on the list, but I would expect there is some urban fantasy (by modern usage) that would fit as well, a shame I cannot think of any right now.

    Danielewski – House of Leaves

  8. Aha, I am listening to the podcast now. It seems to me that if you want fantasy set in contemporary times, you have no choice but to look to YA (which you mentioned briefly) and urban fantasy. Aren’t Justine Larbalestier’s “Liar,” Holly Black’s “White Cat” and Karen Healey’s “Guardian of the Dead” the natural descendents of Charles De Lint?

    The same sorts of books when written for adults fall into paranormal romance, though, which I’m guessing you are NOT looking for…then again, it occurs to me that Theodora Goss writes paranormal romance in such a gorgeous literary way that she gets to be classified a fantasist or a magical realist.

    I also wonder about books like “Beauty” by Sheri S Tepper – have either of you read it?

    Glad to hear Gary no longer coughing his lungs out, and now I have to listen to the last 10 minutes to make sure Jonathan has desisted with his talk of chucking in the podcast :)

  9. First of all, I want to say thank you to Jonathan and Gary for taking my question so seriously, and for being prepared to commit themselves to a list at all. I’d be the first to confess I’m not as well read in Fantasy as I should be, so having a road map like this is incredibly useful.

    Interestingly there’s a lot of crossover between your list and the one I drew up for my partner. Mine had Little, Big on it (sorry Jonathan) and Ian MacLeod’s The Light Ages or House of Storms (I haven’t looked at either in a while but loved them when I read them), but I also suggested Margo (although I think I might have plumped for Tender Morsels over Rollrock – although the latter is a more accomplished book Tender Morsels has a charge and sense of discovery and newness that’s really exciting). I’d have had no compunction at all about including Pullman, but I probably would have included American Gods, which despite its prolixity, is still a terrific book IMHO. I also suggested Graham Joyce, Elizabeth Hand, Guy Kay (although I suggested Tigana or Under Heaven), and Geoff Ryman’s Was. I didn’t suggest Wolfe or Lavinia but I should have. But all that said there are several writers on the list I’ve not read at all (Sean Stewart in particular) all of whom I’m going to seek out.

    As everybody seems to acknowledge though, the question of definition is really tricky. As Gary points out in Evaporating Genres, of all the genres Fantasy is the most difficult to pin down, and the one that blurs into others the most, and you really see that here. Much as I love The Prestige for instance I’m not clear it actually is a Fantasy novel. After all, its fantastic elements are all “scientific”, and it could very easily and reasonably be read as science fiction (indeed if it was a century older it might look rather a lot like a Wellsian scientific romance). Likewise I wonder how useful it is to describe the Bas-Lag books as Fantasy: I suppose they are but all the scientific glitter and weirdness means I’ve never thought of them in that way (I was interested to hear Gary suggest a Leiberian influence, which I’d never thought of, although now he’s said it I think he’s right).

    In a way what interests me is the degree to which most of the books Jonathan and Gary (and indeed me) nominate seem to be actively engaged with exploring or subverting the traditions they inhabit. As Gary says in the podcast that’s partly a matter of taste, and no doubt at least partly to do with us all being people who are actively engaged with the work at a critical level. But it’s also a quality that’s much more pronounced in Fantasy than in almost any other genre: obviously being new or fresh usually implies an awareness of the tradition that’s being subverted or broken with, but only in Fantasy is newness and energy so powerfully associated with interrogating its own history.

    I suppose you could read this as a kind of decadence or insularity but I think that would be a mistake. Instead it says something about the way Fantasy as a genre largely inhabits a set of invented traditions, traditions that need ot be reinvented or made new over and over again (horror is a bit the same).

    But, getting back to suggestions I’d probably nominate Lev Grossman’s Magicians books (which are brilliant deconstructions of both the tropes of Fantasy and the desires it embodies), and from outside the field I’d probably also argue Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay deserves a guernsey, as does Hilary Mantel’s simply extraordinary Beyond Black (although both underline how fuzzy the boundaries are). Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians should be there as well. I’m sure more will occur to me as I think about it.

  10. Loved the podcast as always. And I’m a sucker for discussions on lists.

    I would have included: James Blish’s Black Easter; James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah; Rachel Pollock’s Godmother Night; Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and Sheri S Tepper’s Beauty.

    I vaguely remember an essay by Norman Spinrad in Asimov’s (maybe 20 years ago?) on contemporary fantasy set within the modern era that covered some of the same territory as the podcast.

  11. Like a lot of the recommendations a good combination of stuff I love and stuff I am now going to check out. List seems a bit lacking in work not originally written in English but that takes nothing away from the books and authors that are mentioned.

    Surprised no-one mentioned Jeffrey Ford I love his Well-built City books, particularly the first two.

    Some people would include Murakami but I have not read enough of his work to comment further but many are clearly fantastical.

    There are lots of great works that have supernatural in nature but dont feel like horror. Taichi Yamada’s Strangers is one such example. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation is another.

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