My Summer Reading Project: Which SF/Fantasy Epic Should I Read?

I do not read beach books in the summer, unless they are literally beach books:  I recommend the Odyssey, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, and Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage.

For summer reading projects I prefer classics, the kind for which you need an introduction and footnotes.  One summer my husband and I read Juvenal’s satires (at a coffeehouse called Cafe Diem).  We pored over Roman phrases, trying to decipher the slangy meanings our Lewis and Short dictionaries were unprepared to reveal.  And we found a little of Juvenal’s obscenity goes a long way…

The summer we read Juvenal…

For six summers I comically tried to finish Hermann Broch’s novel, The Death of Virgil, a German classic which, via stream-of-consciousness, portrays Virgil’s dying.  I started it, abandoned it, and restarted it every summer… and after 100 pages I crossed it off my list as unreadable.  The sentences, which may be beautiful in German, go on for pages, Virgil grotesquely has an eye for the boys as he’s dying (one accompanies him from the ship to Augustus’s palace), and starting around page 100 Broch decides to arrange some clumsy sentences in verse. My guess is the lack of an introduction and footnotes is due to the unpopularity of the English translation.

Usually I enjoy my summer projects I loved The Histories of Herodotus, The Tale of Genji, and Durrell’s Alexandria quartet.

But this summer I am thinking of reading an SF/fantasy epic instead of a literary classic. Why?  Because I say SF is my preferred genre, and yet I’ve read remarkably little SF in the last few years.

Critics seem to be crazy about George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series.  At The Guardian John Mullan wrote,

Any connoisseur of narrative drive who crosses that divide will surely be caught up by the sheer energy and inventiveness of Martin’s multi-viewpoint story. His is a peculiarly unidealising variant of AU (alternative universe) fiction. In the land of Westeros, a chivalric yet brutal pre-industrial world, warring kinship groups struggle for power. In the adjacent land of Essos – more primitive, even more thoroughly Hobbesian – a young woman descended from the ancient rulers of Westeros plots and struggles to lay claim to the land from which she is exiled. JRR Tolkien, who may not have invented AU fantasy but certainly was its most influential exemplar, gave weight to his imagined world with invented languages, legends, genealogies, poetry. Martin provides some of this, but devotes most of his energies to convincing the reader of the entirely human fears and ambitions of his leading characters. Tolkien gave us hobbits, orcs, elves and dwarves. Martin deals in men and women.

I am a “connoisseur of literary drive,” but there are 5,216 pages in the series.  Perhaps I don’t have to read all the books?

Should I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels, available in two Library of America volumes? But do I want to immerse myself in the Hainish cycle?  Some are great (The Left Hand of Darkness), some are mediocre (The Word for World Is Forest).  I have read a lot of Le Guin over the years.

How about Frank Herbert’s Dune series?  But I’ve heard the series went downhill after the first book (which I loved and wrote about here)… and then there are so many in the series, several written by someone else.

And  C. J. Cherryh?  I read her stunning, angst-ridden novel, Downbelow Station.  (and wrote about it here).  One of the best SF books I’ve ever read.  But she has written so much–a novel a year, I think.  Where do I start?

Please recommend your favorite SF and fantasies!

15 thoughts on “My Summer Reading Project: Which SF/Fantasy Epic Should I Read?

  1. I’m an enormous fan of Martin’s ASong of Ice and Fire series, I admit straight off. It is imposing, though, and unfinished, so you gave to decide if you want to get involved in it.

    CJ Cherryh was one of my favorite authors when I first started reading sci fi and fantasy. She’s very prolific and the quality is somewhat variable, as tends to be the case with prolific authors. Other than Downbelow Station, which I think is one of her best, one of my favorite books from her Alliance-Union universe series is Finity’s End, about a boy who grows up an orphan on Downbelow Station but is then returned to his space-faring family and has to adjust to life in space. The Chanur Saga is also interesting, about a race of matriarchal space-faring felines.

    Another Cherryh series that I recommend highly if you can get it is her Rusalka series, set in what is supposed to be Kievan Rus.

    For some excellent hard sci fi, of you haven’t read it yet, I really enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, about the human colonization of Mars.

    And, for something a little different, and, I have to warn you, kinkier, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series is a sweeping epic saga about a courtesan in a French-inspired alternate world (have I mentioned this before?). The world building is excellent but you should be prepared for the fact that bisexual BDSM is a major plot point.

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    • Great suggestions! I should try Martin; after all he’s got to be MUCH MORE FUN than Hermann Broch. I’ve never read Kim Stanley Robinson, and a trilogy is finite… That’s appealing. I might have to pass on courtesans, but now at least I know what Carey is about!

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  2. It’s not science fiction exactly, more like historical time travel, but you might try the novels of Connie Willis. Two very long ones, Blackout and All Clear, are set during World War II. A singleton, Domesday Book, is one of the best of that sort of thing I have ever read. Real contemporary characters return to the past, knowing much too much.

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    • Nancy, those are the only two I’ve read by Willis, and I loved them! In fact, I WANT to rerad them. But perhaps I should try one of her other books? If you can recommend any, please do.

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  3. Difficult decisions! I keep wanting to find the time to return to Tolkien but it just doesn’t ever seem to work out for me… I think my Eldest Child may have read some of the Dune books but he never particularly raved so that’s no help either. Good luck in choosing (and nice pic, btw!)

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    • Oh, Tolkien is brilliant! I would love to reread at least The Fellowship of the Ring. And there are so many Dune books that they must be fans, but I’m not sure I can read books with titles like “Dune Messiash,” and “Dune: The Machine Crusade”

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  4. How about Doris Lessing?
    “Canopus in Argos: Archives is a sequence of five science fiction novels by Nobel Prize in Literature-winning author Doris Lessing which portray a number of societies at different stages of development, over a great period of time. The focus is on accelerated evolution being aided by advanced species for less advanced species and societies.” (wikipedia)

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  5. That is a great suggestion! I’ve never gone back to those books, and I do love Lessing. Plus they’re not too long. Thank you!

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  6. If you try the George Martin series I’d love to hear your take on it. I have read them all and enjoyed the first two books which, at the time, I thought were a little overwritten. By the third book it seemed clear to me that he was operating without editorial guidance and his books became progressively more and more in need of editorial cutting and feedback. By the “end” of the series he was taking two fat books separated by years in publication to fulfill what he always had done in one book entry previously as to writing the concurrent stories of all the main characters. Since the HBOgeddon of popularity the show has progressed beyond the books and he has said the series he is writing will end differently from how the HBO series will end. Overall, I expect he will never finish the series. I am sure that is a loss but would be happy to be proven wrong. Overall, I do NOT recommend you joining all the trillions of other readers who have been disappointed by long waits.

    Similarly, there is a series called The KIngkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. Again, this is an author who has been ruined by success and has lost his way. The third book has been delayed now for many years. Rothfuss has written books in the universe of the series but divorced from it, and the publisher has said they have no idea when they will receive the third books. Stay away is my advice until the third book is in print, although I think you may be in your 70’s by then.

    My recommendation may surprise you and other readers — try the Shannara Cycle by Terry Brooks. Be aware that the first book (THE SWORD OF….) is very weak and you will immediately notice that it is annoyingly derivative of LOTR. But the second book (ELFSTONES OF….) suddenly becomes both epic and believable and with two well-drawn lead females in the action. The third book (WISHSONG OF….) satisfactorily completes the first trilogy and becomes a doorway into a universe that goes on and on unfolding with each subsequent trilogy (!). I feel that Terry Brooks is a true genius and I don’t know of any other connected series of books in Fantasy that come close to what he has achieved. I can only think of the Palliser and Baretshire novels of Trollope as being equal to his universe building and characterizations.

    Anyway, enjoy the summer!

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    • I also love the Shannara series! I got started with the Heritage of Shannara mini-series, and was immediately hooked. The Sword of Shannara is definitely the weakest, but the later books are often brilliant, especially the world-building and action scenes. Some really solid epic fantasy.

      I got the original “A Game of Thrones” when it first came out, and was instantly hooked. I think the entire series is amazing, although the first book is probably the best. I don’t know if the problem with the most recent books is so much in editing–although the characters and plotlines proliferate wildly in the later books, to their detriment–as in the basic concept of the series as a whole. Martin wanted to challenge traditional plot construction and fantasy tropes by doing things like (mild spoiler alert!) killing off main characters and suddenly switching the point of view to secondary characters or villains. It works incredibly well for in-depth world building and to keep the readers on their toes. But now as the series is nearing its end it’s not clear who the hero is or how he’s going to wrap things up. HBO’s attempts to streamline things for the TV series, however, only highlighted the inherent weaknesses of traditional plotting that Martin is critiquing, and emphasized that Martin is off operating in his own realm of innovation. So you should be prepared to be whacked in the face by some serious frustration if you read the series, but there’s nothing else like it.

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      • Well, with two recommendations for the Brooks I have to consider it!
        Thanks, Neil and Elena for the response.
        There are always headlines about Martin’s not finishing the next book. I’m always puzzled by the fans’ reactions: maybe he’s blocked, or maybe he’s tired, or maybe he doesn’t need to write anymore (presumably he’s rich). But then I’m not hooked and waiting. Diana Gabaldon’s fans are similarly addicted to the Outlander books, and I have read one and a half of them. They’re potboilers and fun! She is behind, too, I think, and hasn’t written a new book in qutie some time. I’ve heard Martin is brilliant, so I shall have to try, I think, if not this summer, later.

        Aha, I have the first Rothfuss book! At a tiny independent bookstore, there was one of those handselling cards in front of the book, and the clerk had loved it so much I had to read it. But have I read it? Not yet! It is certainly epic-length.

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  7. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, or (a children’s book) Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, perhaps. At an angle, James Blish’s After Such Knowledge (A Case of Conscience, Doctor Mirabilis, the three-part Black Easter, and The Day After Judgment} – four [actually three] thematically connected stories or Terry Pratchett’s enormous Discworld series – Pratchett never saw a fantasy or SF book he didn’t see the absurdity of.

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    • I am a fan of Gormenghast, so thanks for reminding me! I wonder if I still have Cooper’s books? It’s been a long, long time. I have never heard of James Blish, but since he wrote a book called Doctor Mirabilis, I shall have to see what’s available. Pratchett is so much fun, and still available at our B&N.

      I should probably mix and match everyone’s suggestions.

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