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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Best Standalone Fantasy Novel (NOTpoll)

Update: This nomination is closed for now. (But it will come around again.)

What is the best Fantasy novel not a part of any larger series?


While I (really this time) work behind the scenes on the November Newsletter for my patrons, a first of the month seems like a good day to kick off our new NOTpolls. 

If you recall (or even if you don't), I recently ran into enough trouble with free polling programs––and the prohibitive price of the paid ones given that I only ever ran one every month or two. Instead, I decided to change up our entire "poll-like" experience here on Writing About Writing. Rather than of nominations and polls with winners and losers, we're just going to do a comment thread of gushing recommendations. 

There are still rules (below). But instead of trying to figure out what more people think is the BEST (which usually turns into which book has the coolest movie adaptation anyway), we're just going to have a good chat about good books and all come away with some suggestions for our To Be Read Pile™. We'll still have the system of seconds (and "thirds" and "fourths"), but all that will determine is which goes to the top of the list when I post the results. And I'll link out the original nomination post for folks who want to go see what people are actually saying about the book. Eventually these posts listing the results will be compiled in a massive "book recommendation" post.

It's going to be pretty fucking dope.


The Rules

  1. Make two recommendations. Obviously, I can't stop anyone from making fifteen, but nothing beyond the first two will make it onto the master list.
  2. TALK ABOUT WHY YOU LIKE THE BOOK (but without spoilers)! Obviously if you just drop a title name and it gets all the seconds, I'm still going to list it, but the whole point of this is to gush a little about the books you think are great, exciting, well written, or unforgettable. 
  3. For each recommendation, let us know if you're nominating it more as a BEST book in the genre or an UNDERSUNG HERO in the genre. Basically "undersung hero" is for books you think are great, tragically overlooked, NEED to be read by everyone yesterday, but are maybe not necessarily the besty bestest best. They'll all end up in the list I compile, but I'll put them in different places.
  4. As always, I leave the niggling over the definition of genres to your best judgement because I'd rather be inclusive. If you want to nominate Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (though it is pretty clearly science fiction), you should show your work if you desire those sweet, sweet seconds (or thirds....or fourths) and there might be a discussion thread after your comment with a lot of people writing out the "Uh...." 
  5. Your book must not be part of a series or more than tangentially related to a fictional universe. If it makes a reference to another book like once or is clearly taking place in the world of another book without being a sequel, prequel, or grand unified series, that's fine, but if it takes place in Discworld, that's not "stand alone."
  6. You get to mention two (2) books. That's it. Two. You can do one BEST and one UNDERSUNG HERO. Or you can do two BESTS. Or you can do two UNDERSUNG HEROES. But two is the total. If you nominate three or more, I will NOT take any nominations beyond the second that you suggest. I'm sorry that I'm a stickler on this, but it's just lil ol' me compiling this list by myself and it's a pain when people drop a megalodon list of every decent book they can remember in the entire genre. If you list more than two books and your third or later choice gets a second, I'll consider the SECOND the first mention of the book "officially." (Even though that matters a lot less than it did when I was counting seconds to see which titles made the poll––see below.)
  7. Did I mention two?
  8. You may (and absolutely should) second AS MANY nominations of others as you wish. There is no more poll, so this will not be a cutthroat competition to see who makes it to the semifinals. It will simply dictate which titles I list first, and it may influence which books someone considers a good recommendation. ("This one got six seconds, and that one only got two, so I think I'll start with this one.")
  9. Put your nominations HERE. I will take nominations only as comments and only on this post. (No comments on FB posts or G+ will be considered nominations.) If you can't comment for some reason because of Blogger, send me an email (chris.brecheen@gmail.com) stating exactly that and what your nomination is, and I will personally put your comment up. I am not likely to see a comment on social media even if it says you were unable to leave a comment here. 
  10. You are nominating WRITTEN fiction, not their movie portrayals. If you thought Stardust was a spectacular movie, but never really could get through Gaiman's written version, please nominate something else. (I love films, but they're a different medium.)
  11. Have a conversation, but check the typical internet assholery at the door. If someone likes something you think is terrible, it's okay to let them enjoy it. And if someone has one tight and polite bit of criticism about your recommendation ("I was not a fan of the X plot arc or the way that author writes women."), it's okay that they didn't care for it and there's no need to defend it like they have impugned you personally.  I **WILL** delete shitty comments, and I absolutely know that's highly subjective, so better to err on the side of nice. 
  12. TWO!
Hopefully, we all get some great book recommendations (and maybe a few fewer "not winners") out of this new format. 

46 comments:

  1. ○ Mare Internum (graphic novel) by Der-shing Helmer: great story focused on scientists from a research station on Mars who stumble into a huge, underground biodiverse environment (and then it gets weird). It has fascinating character development and rich and stunning visuals on every page. Der-shing Helmer is heavily under-appreciated.

    ○ This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman: A well-paced, hunted/refugee story set amidst a sprawling, galaxy wide civilization where the humans of Earth were genetically warped by the very faster-than-light drives that allowed them to reach the stars. This is one of the few books of this genre I can think of where the post-mutation worlds are the center of civilization and "vanilla humans" are viewed as quaint throwbacks on old, backwater Earth. I especially liked the sly references to a real rock music legend as an avatar/guide for the main character. [Disclaimer: This Alien Shore was written in 1998 and is tagged as part of "The Outworlds series" but as far as I can tell no sequel has ever materialized. For that reason, I'm calling it a standalone book until proven otherwise.]

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    1. And, dammit, I'm going to have to change 'This Alien Shore' from BEST to UNDERSUNG HERO because I just noticed the author published a sequel Nov 3, 2020, roughly 22 years later.

      I'll substitute 'The Anubis Gates' by Tim Powers for my second BEST nomination. It's a crazy alternate history involving 19th-century time travelers, evil sorcerers, werewolves, Egyptian gods and Knights Templar and (along with 'Last Call') was my introduction to Tim Powers' broader works. It's got the classic Powers notion that there's an underlying magic or paranormal forces lurking behind the scenes of real life that Clueful People learn to recognize and use for their own ends.

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  2. BEST: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I reread this book every couple of years and it always astounds me. The prose and description are stunning. I usually have trouble visualising something an author is describing, but when Morgenstern describes the circus, I feel as though I'm there. The story is brilliant, and just a little bit different from other things I've read. I love the characters as well. This book is a lifelong favourite

    BEST: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow. This is probably the best book I've read this year - I finished it over a month ago and I'm still thinking about it. Set just after the time of the Salem Witch Trials, except witchcraft is real. It ties bringing witchcraft back into the women's suffrage movement. The characters are incredibly detailed and real. The writing is beautiful. I want to gush but honestly don't have the words and don't know how to do this book justice.

    Also I know it won't make it onto the list but if anyone is just reading comments for additions to their TBR, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow is brilliant too.

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    1. Well, I haven't read either of those, but I am very excited to see this pair of books pop up together along with The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I just finished that and loved it. (so much catharsis!) I already had Night Circus on hold at the SFPL and now I have another title to add to my TBR! So thank-you!

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    2. Second Night Circus. One of the only fantasy/sci-fi books I have re-read in my adulthood.

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    3. Seconded the Night Circus ❤

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  3. Unsung Hero: Eyes of Silver by Michael A Stackpole.
    A really interesting take on how magical dogma and religion might merge, as well as intrigue, politics and war. The world building is enough to give you a picture, but still enables you to fill the gaps with your imagination. Surprised it didn't get a series.

    Best: Le morte d'Arthur, Thomas Mallory
    Maybe this is cheating the system, but the original Arthurian legend is a classic for a reason. It's great to get to the original text without the stripped-down plot lines and character amalgamations that have come from the rewrites and reimaginings. Everyone knows the basic tale of the boy who became King by drawing Excalibur, but getting deeper into the quests of the round table knights, the flaws of Arthur and his betrayal by wife and friend are worth the time. The unabridged old English versions can be hard going, but whether you prefer those or a more modern translation, the story is timeless.

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  4. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson rekindled my love of fantasy reading after a dry patch! Such a fabulous standalone fantasy read.

    The Door That Wasn’t There by Ursula Horsley-Smith was a children’s book I read to myself many times as a child. I lost my original copy and have never been able to find it again, but I’ve told the story to my children and so it lives on. It’s about some children who get evacuated/get sent to the countryside and follow a cat through a door that appears in a wall at midnight. The town of Aquilegia where everyone wears bells on their ankles. Such a brilliant story.

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    1. Looks like The Door that wasn't there isn't so easy to get a hold of. https://ebay.to/39zv05t

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    2. I have such complicated feelings about Elantris, because it's legitimately the best writing-based magic system I've ever encountered, but the handling of the one autistic character was...uncomfortable.

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  5. The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Yes, the book. When I first read it I thought it actually was an abridgement,
    as it's advertised, so when I found out that was part of the humor, it made the memory of reading it all that much better. Anyone who's only seen the movie should know that the book is equally funny, equally whacky, and every bit as much fun. I don't know if it should be considered a BEST or UNSUNG HERO nom, I think it's both in a way. The book is kind of an unsung hero as most haven't read it. But they should!

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  6. Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams. One of the first fantasy books I ever read. The way Williams created an entire mythos and language and songs and just... everything completely blew my young mind. Plus, CATS!

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  7. Best: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. Such a beautiful, gentle book about a found family that includes a wyvern, a gnome, the Antichrist, a sprite, a were-pomeranian, a blob, an intelligent and soft-spoken gentleman, and a tired bureacrat who didn't know he needed all of them.

    Undersung Hero: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Inspired by the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, set in 1980s England but from the perspective of a young girl who steps into this fairy story. It's both concrete and numinous, a dance around two sets of memories. Not perfect, and definitely not unambiguous, but it's sticking with me.

    I'm also realizing how few books I've read are true standalones.

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    1. Seconding House in the Cerulean Sea; just finished it and it was truly an unexpected delight

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  8. Best: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

    Undersung hero: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. (Not to be confused with that other book). A weird blend of dystopian fiction, fantasy adventure and Douglas Adams-style absurdism.

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  9. Best: Poison by Chris Wooding. When Poison's sister is stolen by faeries she decides to travel to Phaerie and get her back. Stories play a huge role in this book and it's a delightfully well crafted bit of metafiction.

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  10. Best: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. This was an absolutely delightful read full of beautiful ideas, a well-crafted world of whimsical (and dark) fantasy, and characters I was excited to read about.

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  11. Unfortunately Daughters of Nri by Reni K Amayo has a sewuel coming out next year... well, actually kind of awesome news, but means can't be in this poll. I seriously recommend it though - it has wonderful characters, not just the twins of the title, excellent world building which completely draws you in and a pretty nifty plot.

    The heroic ruler that everyone loves because he is so good and saved the world (hint - he's not so great...) decreed all twins must be killed at birth (see?) because he's scared of them. Then a pair of twins are separated at birth so they won't be killed, and grow up with very different lives, until it's time to show why he was afraid of twins.

    Set in a west Africa analogue, it is rich and wonderful and I can't wait for the sequel!

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    1. (Sorry - this one shoild be disregarded for poll)

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    2. I looked up Daughters of Nri, and it's on Kindle Unlimited, yay! Not my library, though.

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    3. I saw it recommended on writingwithcolor tumbler blog and loved it so much! I usually tend towards the sf end of sf&f but this was special.

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  12. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.

    You know how people "don't see" the homeless? This takes it a step further (as someone not a million miles from here did) and has them literally invisible. To most people.

    So there is London above, where scottish Richard Mayhew is struggling in his attempts to make it as a yuppie after moving to find his fortune, and London below which is a feudal, magical society where the forces of evil are flexing their muscles. Richard and his fiancée are on their way out when, somehow, he manages to see a badly injured girl from London below; in helping her (against very angry fiancée's wishes) he gets drawn into the other world.

    It's brilliant. It has the humour you'd expect, and uses the underground map (and other landmarks). Blackfriars. Earls court. Knightsbridge. Serpentine. They all have literal characters.

    This was being written (finished) at the same time the TV series was being written and filmed. Which aparently lead to the repeated cry of "Fine! I'll put it in the book..." whenever certain scenes were impractical to put onto screen. Or, in case of Harrods, the manamgement refused to let them.

    It's in the book...

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    1. I read Neverwhere ages ago and liked it, but I should really read it again (after I get through my insurmountable tbr pile). You'd probably enjoy the series Rivers of London.

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    2. Absolutely seconded! This is one of my favorite books 😊

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  13. Glasgow Fairytale by Alastair D McIver.

    Re-imagining of classic fairytales in modern day Glasgow. It's very funny and more than a little political - Rapunzel is an asylum seeker being held at Dungavel detention centre (yes, it used to be an actual castle, and yes, people are actually locked up there) while her daughter Ella is with wicked foster-mother ans foster-sisters.

    Jack and Jill are main characters - Jack is in love with Rapunzel, and gets magic beans which he tosses into the Clyde. Snowy White is a top footballer whose life is in danger. And, of course, there's the Big Bad Wolf who is a property developer trying to force the three little pigs out of their homes, and also has plot with Wee Red Hoodie.

    Worth having a listen to the skyscraper wean song if you haven't before ;)

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  14. (Glasgow Fairytale would be undersung hero)

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  16. War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull
    Whimsical urban fantasy set in MSP, with characters you can't help but love.

    Kindred, by Octavia Butler
    ...It's hard to put this novel into any category, but fantasy is where it's usually shelved in libraries. It's a time travel story that deals with complex real world issues.

    --Seo-Hyun

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  17. Undersung Hero: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld. This is one of those books I'm constantly rereading. It alternates chapters between a realist queer romance about a girl who got her NaNo novel accepted for publication and moved to NYC to work on the revisions and write the sequel, and the book she nominally wrote, a paranormal romance about a girl who becomes a psychopomp (the magic is much like Greywalker) after a near-death experience. Deserves some kind of award for "Writer Protagonist Who Spends The Most Actual Time Writing" and the interplay between the two kinds of chapters manages to build stakes around technical execution - we're told the first draft of her novel has a really tragic ending, which she is asked to change to something happier, and we get to the point in her story where she rewrites it before we actually get to *read* it.

    Best: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee. Yes it's absolutely *also* science fiction, but there's magic all over the place too. Draws from Korean mythology. Protagonist ends up solving things through cleverness and compassion, which is always nice. Has a nonbinary goblin. The Gumiho choose their genders!

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    1. Oh, ya. Afterworlds was really interesting. It may be better from a technical execution standpoint than from a gripping yarn standpoint. But even merely decent Scott Westfield is good reading

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  18. I nominate Good Omens by Gaiman and Pratchett. It's satirical sci/fantasy detailing the circumstances leading up to the Biblical Apocalypse, featuring the 4 Horsemen and 4 Bikers of the Apocalypse, The Them, a witch, a wanna-be computer whiz, an Archangel, a Serpent, some demons, a demon dog, and lots of fish. The final battle between Good and Evil is nigh and takes unexpected turns. Well worth reading and re-reading due to the incredible amount of detail, quick-paced dialogue, and multiple pop culture references. Maggots make a cameo appearance.

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    1. Seconded - It was an absolute delight 🥰

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    2. If seconding takes into account number of times re-read, this ones going stratospheric

      This is my favourite book

      I buy spare copies to give away to people who have not read it.

      I think there are currently 4 or 5 copies in my house.

      Also has one of the best screen adaptations of I book I’ve seen

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  19. I nominate Good Omens by Gaiman and Pratchett. It's satirical sci/fantasy detailing the circumstances leading up to the Biblical Apocalypse, featuring the 4 Horsemen and 4 Bikers of the Apocalypse, The Them, a witch, a wanna-be computer whiz, an Archangel, a Serpent, some demons, a demon dog, and lots of fish. The final battle between Good and Evil is nigh and takes unexpected turns. Well worth reading and re-reading due to the incredible amount of detail, quick-paced dialogue, and multiple pop culture references. Maggots make a cameo appearance.

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