Neglected Fantasy Gems

In this blog post, we share recommendations for fantasy works that have been neglected, overlooked, or forgotten. We hope to inspire you to pick up one of these books or stories! The recommendations here were shared in one of the bi-weekly meetings for our fantasy PhD students.

Annals of the Westen Shore by Ursula K Le Guin 

Recommendation by Christopher Lynch Becherer

Dear reader, I know exactly what you’re thinking! Ursula K Le Guin in a blog post on overlooked fantasy works?  

Yet her final fantasy trilogy, Annals of the Western Shore (2004-2007) is curiously ignored. These three novels, Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007) are set in a fantasy world where both the fantastic and the protagonists are marginalised, side-lined within their own worlds. Despite each novel in the series being award winning, and despite Le Guin’s place at the heart of the fantasy canon, there is almost a complete paucity of scholarship on the series. I suspect this has something to do with their Young Adult categorisation, but maybe also to do with the time in which she wrote and published these novels. After her Earthsea novels (1968-2001) revolutionised fantasy, and the Hainish Cycle (1966-2002) asked bold new questions of science fiction, her work turned inward. After interrogating the patriarchal assumptions of the genre, she turned the critical lens on herself, to stunning effect. Always Coming Home (1985) and the later Earthsea works (2001) re-envisioned her own understanding of fantasy storytelling. 

Her mid-2000s writing is rather unexamined in contrast. For me, though, the Annals trilogy suggests a calm settling of her work. All the richness and balance of her writing is still here, but in this Third Age of Le Guin, there is a settled quality to the texts: a certainty and trust in the simplicity of her sentences, and the assuredness of her characterisations. They may not have revolutionised the genre, but these three final fantasy works are ultimately amongst the most moving and readable of Le Guin’s oeuvre. A beautiful conclusion to a wonderful career, but not a complacent ending: typically of Le Guin, these are still urgent and fiery texts at their heart. 

Of the three novels, I’ll highlight the concluding one, Powers, which focuses on Gavir, a young man escaping slavery in the city state of Etra. Along with her final novel, Lavinia, this text finds Le Guin delving further back for the inspiration for her setting. In this case, early Roman history provides the rich soil for a novel about how history is written and revolutions are born. This final novel, I would suggest, is the novel for today: a book about re-examining the past whilst urgently facing the future, about migration, postcolonial identity, and a personal exodus in a time of crisis. Pick these books up: you won’t be disappointed! 

Tatterdemalion, by Sylvia V Linsteadt & Rima Staines

Recommendation by Lynn R S Genevieve

Tatterdemalion is a piece of speculative fiction but written in a folk-tale manner. The author Sylvia Linsteadt was inspired by the artwork of Rima Staines, who describes her paintings as ‘Waymarkers to the Otherworlds because I am fascinated by the shamanic process inherent in creating art’. What is specifically different about the writer’s process here is that the illustrations came first; Linsteadt used the pictures Staines had already produced to craft a story – and did so extremely successfully. The title Tatterdemalion is evocative of both the process of piecing together the book from scraps and one of the main characters, the ragamuffin Poppy.

            There is a helpful ‘Time Line’ rather than a standard index setting out the order of events, but conversely, the story is told in a reverse fashion. A series of ‘Constellations’ are interspersed with other named story chapters. This adds to the patchwork effect of the storytelling, marrying up the disparate paintings with what could be a disjointed narrative if it weren’t for the sign posting. It is an unashamedly feminine perspective, the work of two women, involving intuition, dreams and magic.

            I particularly appreciated the style of prose. The mix of an old-world lyricism within a – at first glance – dystopian future is unsettling whilst inviting a familiar warmth of round the fire fairy-tales. There is a deliberate wildness capturing the old Northern European tropes that inhabit much of Staines’ work and placed in (the more familiar to Linsteadt) California. The narrative deliberately sets out to create a future world that has been ‘uncivilised’, recognising the value of the indigenous and the marginal.

            I cannot end before introducing a central character, the strange, wheeled creature that came from a painting, called Lyoobov:

‘He came on perfect wheels of skin and wood and bone; he was a leathery-skinned, ancient, trunked beast, rolling the way no orderly thing, no neat instrument of civilization, should roll.’

            The impossibility of this being adds to the originality and wonder of this book and I appreciated the thread of imagination reflecting reality, a mirroring of themes held in stories, so important to humanity. The symbolism of this is held in a book within a book within a book; Lyoobov holds one, Poppy tells the tale from one, and you hold one in your own hands when you pick up Tatterdemalion.

I would recommend further exploration of Rima Staines’ work which is far ranging; married to the notable poet, Tom Hirons (Sometimes a Wild God), they have collaborated with Terrie Windling, Jay Griffiths, and Martin Shaw, amongst others.

Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw, by S.F. Said

Recommendation by Emma French

For my neglected gem, I chose Varjak Paw by S.F. Said. This was partly because I think it’s a uniquely strange, wonderfully gothic children’s book, with a beautiful and haunting illustration style. I feel it has long gone underappreciated, ever since I first read it, aged 11. But now, reflecting back on it as a fantasy scholar, I also think the book is an excellent example of Todorov’s concept of fantastic hesitation.

This duology of books follows a purebred pedigree cat, Varjak Paw, who must leave the safety of his home when it is threatened, and travel into the city looking for a way to save his family. While exploring the urban landscape, Varjak also travels to a fantastical version of Mesopotamia in his dreams. There, he learns ‘the Way’ from his ancestor Jalal: a series of ancient martial arts techniques for cats (for Mesopotamian blue cats, specifically!) In a feline hero’s journey, Varjak embarks on a quest to learn how to defend himself, facing off against monstrously frightening cars, befriending dogs, and attempting to defeat the strange, ghostlike cat, Sally Bones, who rules the city.

The story opens up many uncertainties where fantastic interpretations can reside. We never know if Varjak is truly speaking to Jalal in his dreams. Nor do we know if the abilities of ‘the Way’ are supernatural, or simply a learned set of martial art skills, but they do seem to affect the world as if with magic. Antagonists like the Gentleman and Sally Bones also dwell in the liminal space between the mundane and the supernatural, seemingly possessing preternatural abilities. As a child, I really enjoyed how so few of these ambiguities were explained away, and now I understand that this contributes to the strange, unsettling and fantastic quality of the story.

“The Woman in Red” and “Unmasked”, by Muriel Campbell Dyar

Recommendation by Georgina Gale

Many think of Victorian fiction as stale, outdated, and often riddled with harmful ideology. However, this is certainly not true of all nineteenth-century literature, and there are some brilliant works which are sadly overlooked despite their quality, originality, and surprisingly pertinence in the twenty-first century. My favourite case in point: Muriel Campbell Dyar’s ‘The Woman in Red’ (1899) and its sequel ‘Unmasked’ (1900), both published in The Black Cat magazine. These two stories are not only excellent works of dark fantasy but, when read together, they also raise important issues concerning men’s attitudes towards women and accountability for their behaviour. Yet, despite Dyar’s talent and the popularity of the first story amongst contemporary readers, the two tales are little known today. Were it not for the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series – set up specifically to recover and share great yet neglected short stories – then I may never have had the pleasure of coming across her work.  

The first of Dyar’s pair, ‘The Woman in Red’, features an enchanting, masked woman who enraptures the men around her after suddenly arriving at Monte Carlo with no name and only an old woman for company. With no clues as to her identity but plentiful rumours about her wealth and beauty, it’s not long before the men begin to speculate about who she might be. However, tragedy ensues after one gentleman succeeds in peering behind the mask. A year after this story’s publication, and after high demand for a sequel that ventured deeper into the Woman in Red’s secret, ‘Unmasked’ was published and proudly advertised at the top of the issue as ‘“The Woman in Red” – Unmasked!’. ‘Unmasked’ is equally well-written and reveals an excellently chilling twist that makes the reader question their previous understanding of the events in the first story, and makes a rather poignant remark on men’s mistreatment of women, one that still resonates to this day. 

The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink 

Recommendation by Mariana Rios Maldonado

Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem (1915) is a story about the fluctuating lines between reality and superstition, reason and madness, and the frail construction of what we call the self. Using Prague’s streets and alleyways, with their history steeped in folklore and magic, Meyrink tells the stories of the forgotten souls of the Jewish ghetto, whose beliefs and suffering share the stage with legendary creatures such as Golems and Doppelgängers. At its core, the text poses the following questions: if you realized that in this world there is a force superior to you, to your strength and imagination, a force that steers your life in mysterious, even mystical ways, what would you do? Would you feel comforted in the knowledge that every aspect of your life has led you to this moment? Or would you cower in fear, paranoia, for there is a chance that this force is not simply indifferent or benign, but indeed antagonistic to human desires and purposes, and that resistance is futile? Beyond the plot of the novel, Meyrink’s narrative has endured a fantastic history of its own: from being the author’s most renowned novel and a celebrated piece of Germanophonic fantastic fiction at the beginning of the 20th century, The Golem was later banned by the National Socialists and burned due to the narrative’s apparently “harmful worldview”. But the text survived, and its words have inspired scholars and writers of the likes of Gershom Scholem and Jorge Luis Borges. Although obscure and in some corners of the world still unknown or forgotten, The Golem remains a seminal text in the history of European fantastic literature.

The Winged Histories, by Sofia Samatar

Recommendation by Matthew Sangster

Sofia Samatar’s first novel, A Stranger in Olondria (2013), deservedly won numerous plaudits, including the World Fantasy Award.  Her second, The Winged Histories, is, in my view, even better.  It’s gorgeously written, deeply human and packs incredible richness into its relatively short span.  One way of describing it would be as the story of a war, but that isn’t really accurate.  Instead, it’s the story of aspects of conflict and its consequences that usually get left out of conventional histories and military epics.  It’s told in the voices of four women – a soldier, a scholar, a singer and socialite – reaching back to their roots before the war, winding around the rebellion itself and exploring some of what happens in the aftermath.  This makes for an allusive and elliptical narrative, but never a needlessly cryptic one.  It’s a book about empathy, and the power of story, and the strength and limits of love.  It reworks many of the pleasures of more traditional fantasies (it includes convincing political manipulations, deep histories, cryptic writings and rich romance), but it does so in ways that make these pleasures new, bringing home how differently such things can hit when we hear of them from diverse and self-aware storytellers, rather than from the avatars of a Manichean conflict.  It’s intense and sad and keening and wondrous.  You should read it as soon as you can.

Hobberdy Dick, by K.M. Briggs

Recommendation by Dimitra Fimi

Katharine Briggs was best known as a folklorist, President of the Folklore Society (1969-1972) and author of many books on folk beliefs about, and literary uses of, fairies. Her work includes key studies on folklore and fairies still very much cited today, including The Anatomy of Puck (1959), The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), the 4-volume Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language (1970-1971) and A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (1976), among many others. Hobberdy Dick is only one of only two novels for children she ever wrote, and is – for me – a perfect example of a neglected children’s fantasy that really does demand more attention.

The titular Hobberdy Dick is a hob, or hobgoblin, or brownie, a fairy creature tied to a domestic space, usually benevolent if treated well, though playing minor pranks (especially when disrespected), isn’t beyond such a being’s sphere of activities. Dick belongs to a house which is in transition at the very opening of the novel. Our setting is a country house in 1652, just after the English Civil War and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime. As the novel begins, the old, royalist family, fallen on hard times, is leaving, and a new, Puritan family are moving in. We have, therefore, a moment of tension between the well-to-do family’s Puritan attitude towards the supernatural (seen as unholy superstitions) and the (still very much living) folklore beliefs of their servants and workers, who know (as does the reader) that fairy creatures, witches, and, yes, hobs too, exist, and should be treated cautiously. The fact that the story is told from Hobberdy Dick’s point of view establishes the supernatural as true, and reveals an entire parallel world of spirits, ghosts, and witchcraft.

What makes this novel special is its combination of historical fiction (well-researched), Briggs’ extensive knowledge of folklore traditions (used very effectively to advance the plot), and, ultimately, the point of view of a fairy being, who plots and schemes to bring about the best result possible for its beloved home, and the human beings he favours. There’s a bit of an unexpected twist at the end, and a very moving conclusion, but I’ll let you discover this for yourselves. I think this little novel is a perfect example of rich folklore scholarship explored via creative practice, something I would love to see more of.

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