Today’s guest is fantasy author Courtney Schafer! Her first book just came out a couple of years ago, and there now two books in her Shattered Sigil series, The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City, with another book forthcoming. Both books are enjoyable, but The Tainted City blew me away—it’s a phenomenal book and only a second novel! The characters and world were both fascinating and complex, and the story was so exciting I didn’t want to put the book down. Reading it put the third book in the series on my shortlist of books I can hardly wait for.
Since reading her books, I’ve also become a big fan of Courtney Schafer’s book recommendations on her own blog, so I was quite pleased she decided to write about some lesser known books from the 80s and 90s today (which sound spectacular and are now all on my wish list!).
I was so very lucky as a little girl. Growing up in the 80s in northern Virginia, I didn’t have to hunt for female names on the spines of SFF novels in my local library. I started out young with Diana Wynne Jones, Madeleine L’Engle, Jane Yolen, and many other excellent YA authors. As I got older and ventured into the adult SFF stacks, I found they were also populated by a host of talented women.
Some of those women remain household names in SFF fandom: Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Patricia McKillip, Lois McMaster Bujold, C.J. Cherryh. Yet others, the authors of novels I devoured with equal delight, are not discussed nearly so often nowadays. A shame, because it means new generations of readers may miss out on experiencing some terrific books. So I’m happily taking the opportunity here at Fantasy Book Cafe to highlight a few of these lesser-known gems from the 1980s and 1990s – novels that influenced me deeply as an eager young SFF fan, that I delight in re-reading now. Perhaps you, too, will find a book here to stretch your imagination and capture your heart.
Catspaw, Joan Vinge
Joan Vinge isn’t exactly unknown, especially among older SFF fans. After all, she won the 1981 Hugo award for her SF novel The Snow Queen. (A well-deserved win. The Snow Queen is a great book – though I’d say the sequel, The Summer Queen, was even better.) But for all I love Vinge’s Snow Queen cycle books, it’s Catspaw, the second of her lesser-known Cat series, that is my favorite of her work.
The protagonist of the series is a half-human, half-alien telepath struggling to survive in a gritty, dystopian future – and oh, what an amazing job Vinge does with Cat’s character and voice! I credit the first novel in the series, Psion, with instilling in me an abiding love of snarky, cynical first-person narration. But Psion is a relatively simple tale; it’s in Catspaw that Vinge really pulls out all the stops, both with character development and plot. Clever twists abound, her dystopian future is believable and well-realized, and the novel delves into the cyberpunk realm without ever bogging down in dated technobabble. Best of all, Vinge doesn’t gloss over Cat’s flaws and prejudices, and she doesn’t shy away from following through on the consequences of his mistakes (of which he makes many, some of them quite serious). Yet this isn’t an unremittingly bleak novel – there’s a welcome thread of hope woven throughout, as Cat finds friendships in unexpected places and undergoes real growth as a character.
There’s a third novel in the series, Dreamfall , also good – and I keep hoping that one day Vinge will write more. (She took a long hiatus from writing after suffering significant injuries in a car crash back in 2002, but recently she published a tie-in novel. My fingers are crossed for seeing more new work from her, of any variety!)
The True Game series, Sheri S. Tepper
Sheri S. Tepper is an award-winning author who’s been writing steadily for years. She’s perhaps best known for SF novels like The Gate to Women’s Country, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and Grass. But the books I return to again and again are those in her nine-book True Game series, a trilogy of trilogies. (The trilogies are interrelated, but each set of books features a different protagonist.) The True Game books may be more raw in quality than some of her later work, but the imagination and the sheer, wild sense of possibility in Tepper’s world have always awed me.
In the lands of the True Game, certain humans have developed powerful psychic talents, ranging from telepathy to beguilement to shapeshifting. Over the years, a rigidly hierarchical society has developed, in which the talented compete for dominance in elaborate battle games, using the untalented as pawns. Another author might well make the games the focus of the story. Tepper takes a far different approach, using the games as a mere backdrop to a greater tale. Her world is wide and varied, full of magic both older and wilder than any powers that humans might wield, and Tepper’s protagonists visit all manner of societies that challenge their assumptions.
Tepper has a particular gift for eerie imagery; certain scenes, particularly from the second of the trilogies, remain vivid in my head years after I first read them. That second trilogy is in fact my favorite; the female protagonist, Mavin Manyshaped, is a headstrong, clever, brash shapeshifter whose curiosity leads her into all manner of strange lands and adventures (even as Tepper uses those adventures to explore deeper philosophical questions).
The first trilogy of the True Game books (the “Peter” series: King’s Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, and Wizard’s Eleven) are now in print again in omnibus form as The True Game. Sadly, the rest of the books remain out of print, but they are very much worth the effort of finding them in libraries or used bookstores.
The Sword-Dancer Saga (Tiger and Del), Jennifer Roberson
Jennifer Roberson’s Tiger and Del novels were my first introduction to the “sword and sorcery” subgenre – and a fine introduction it was! The premise of the first book, Sword-Dancer, is simple: Tiger, a skilled swordfighter, is hired to guide a foreigner from the north – a woman named Del, a sword-dancer like himself – through the fierce desert of his homeland, so she can find and rescue her stolen young brother. Adventure ensues. The really interesting part is the risk Roberson takes with Tiger, the POV character…because frankly, he starts off as a total jerk. Cocky, arrogant, deeply prejudiced, completely dismissive of women, the sort of guy you’re dying to punch in the face. But as Tiger travels with Del, he’s forced to re-examine his beliefs, and Roberson handles his inner struggle and gradual change in a believable fashion.
Successive novels get more complex, both in terms of character and plot, and Roberson does a wonderful job of furthering the relationship between Tiger and Del without letting either character stagnate. The series is perfect for anyone who likes fantasy with a nice mix of action and magic (plus an interesting desert setting, as opposed to the usual quasi-western-European locales). The first six books (Sword-dancer, Sword-Singer, Sword-Maker, Sword-Breaker, Sword-Born, Sword-Sworn) were published between 1986 and 2002, and a seventh (Sword-Bound) was just published this February – I’m looking forward to reading it.
Saga of the Exiles, Julian May
If you love meaty, bold, colorful series with epic scope, a broad cast of well-developed characters, and clever re-workings of existing myths, then you must read Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles series. The four books in the series – The Many-Colored Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-born King, and The Adversary – form one long fascinating story that bursts with invention, combining SF and fantasy with gleeful abandon. I’d love to discuss in more detail exactly why I love these books so much, but that would wander too far into spoiler territory – and I don’t want to ruin any of the delightful surprises May packs into the pages. Suffice it to say the characters are memorable, the worldbuilding fascinating, the action spectacular, and the ending satisfying (or at least, I found it so). If you enjoy the first four novels, good news: there are more! A prequel (sort of!) set in quasi-modern times called Intervention, followed by another three books (Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat) that further flesh out events referenced in the Exiles Saga and provide final closure to a certain character’s plotline. Best of all, the formerly out-of-print Saga of the Exiles books were all recently re-released in ebook form, so if you haven’t read them, now’s the time to start.
The Windrose Chronicles, Barbara Hambly
Barbara Hambly is the best kind of author to discover: she’s astonishingly prolific and dependably entertaining. These days she writes primarily historical mystery novels (the long-running Benjamin January series), but in the 1980s/1990s she produced a score of terrific fantasy novels, both standalones and series, covering everything from historical fantasy to epic fantasy to horror fantasy. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read from her, but my personal favorites are the three novels of The Windrose Chronicles: The Silent Tower, The Silicon Mage, and Dog Wizard.
The premise of the series might sound cheesy to modern readers: Joanna, a computer programmer living in LA, runs afoul of a mystery hacker late one night at work and is kidnapped and transported to an alternate world in which magic exists. She escapes, and in the company of Antryg Windrose – a condemned wizard, the former apprentice of a viciously powerful mage who nearly conquered the world – she struggles both to find her way home and make sense of the dark magic that has begun to affect both worlds.
I’ll be the first to admit that the technology portion of the first two books’ plot hasn’t aged well, but the characters are so wonderful that I find they eclipse any such issues. Joanna is a terrific female protagonist – strong, competent, clever, adaptable, without ever needing to be some kick-ass warrior. Antryg is equally engaging, covering his own sharp intelligence and his emotional scars with a zany, disarming cheerfulness reminiscent of Tom Baker’s turn as the fourth Doctor. The books are long out of print, but Hambly has released them as ebooks, and also recently e-published some short stories featuring Antryg and Joanna – something I’m absolutely delighted about, after years of wanting more of their tale.
Falcon, Emma Bull
Emma Bull has been quietly writing amazing, trend-setting novels for years (her War for the Oaks is often cited as one of the seminal works of modern urban fantasy). She’s not as prolific as some authors; but she’s so good that the long waits between novels are worth it. (And in the meantime, she’s the executive producer and a writer for Shadow Unit , a free online SF series.) Her debut novel, Falcon, an SF tale about the younger son of a planetary dynasty who becomes a starship pilot after a bloody revolution, is rarely mentioned – and oh, what a crime that is, because the book is such a wonderful read. Every character in the novel is so sharply, vividly drawn – some books, the side characters fade from my memory, but not this one.
Bull took a lot of risks with the novel’s structure. There’s a huge time jump midway through the story, along with an abrupt shift of POV characters. Yet Bull’s sheer skill with prose and characterization makes the story work. You get difficult family relationships, betrayals, reluctant friendships, surprising plot twists – and yes, space battles. I once went on a 7-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada with three male engineer friends who rarely cracked open any book not required to solve a problem set. Unable to fathom a week without reading, yet conscious of my pack weight, I brought only one book along: Falcon. Around the third day of the trip, one of my friends asked to see the book, curious why I’d bothered to bring it. He started to read…and didn’t stop until he finished, forgoing our planned hike up a side canyon the next day. The other two guys were amazed. One by one, they borrowed the book – and just like the first, spent long hours huddled over it, ignoring all the spectacular mountain scenery around us. There is no better praise I can give a novel than that!