Five Books About…

Five Great Fantasy Books Most Fans Don’t Know Exist

One of my favorite self-indulgences is browsing the mainstream shelves of bookstores in search of science fiction and fantasy. There’s a lot of it: War-horses like 1984 or Brave New World or Zamyatin’s We. Recent classics like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Byatt’s Possession. New books that could have easily been published as genre but were not.

Here are five out-of-genre fantasies many fantasy readers have never encountered.


Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

big-fishThis was made into a charming movie, but I much prefer the book and its pitch-perfect American tall tale voice. Here’s how it begins:

He was born during the driest summer in forty years. The sun baked the fine red Alabama clay to a grainy dust, and there was no water for miles. […] One man went crazy, ate rocks, died. Took ten men to carry him to his grave, he was so heavy. Ten more to dig it, it was so dry.

What choice did I have but to buy it?


Chimera by John Barth

chimeraPostmodernist retellings of two myths (Perseus and Bellerophon) and the Arabian Nights, the most exhilarating of which is “Dunyazadiad.” Dunyazade was Scheherazade’s little sister, whose job it was to wait at the foot of the bed while her elders slaked their lust, and then request a story. This is a gloriously self-indulgent work, filled with anachronisms, lurid sexual fantasies, and (after Barth himself pops up as a character the sisters confuse with a genie) literary theory.

I heard Barth read from this: All those nights at the foot of that bed, Dunyazade! You’ve had the whole literary tradition transmitted to you—He paused to let a smutty laugh sweep over the audience. Then, lightly, he finished—and the whole erotic tradition too.

“Dunyazadiad” pretends to be about men and women, infidelity and its opposite. But, really, it’s about the passion of storytelling.


Babylon by Victor Pelevin

babylonA young man wanders through the dark wonderland that was Perestroika Russia, taking drugs, having visions, and compulsively creating parodies of modern advertisements:

An ad for Finlandia. Based on their slogan: “In my previous life I was clear, crystal spring water.” Variant/compliment: a snow drift with a frozen puddle of puke on top. Text: In my previous life, I was Finlandia vodka.

Yes, the book turns out to be fantastic. Above and beyond the Russia of that era, I mean.


The Maze-Maker by Michael Ayrton

maze-makerThe autobiography of Daedalus, architect of the Labyrinth and creator of the wings that killed his son. The novel is laced with surrealism. When Icarus flies toward the sun, he undergoes Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction. Smashed to earth, Daedalus witnesses an ant crawl into his nostril and:

Painless to me he passed into my mind and as he went he took the Name of Daedalus, while Daedalus, his future maze, stared down on his apprenticed brothers as they dragged straws to prop up the temple of their home.

A book that embodies the essential strangeness of the Greek myths.


Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

kingdoms-elfinIn an interview, Warner explained, I suddenly looked round on my career and thought, ‘Good God, I’ve been understanding the human heart all these decades.’ Bother the human heart, I’m tired of the human heart. I want to write about something entirely different. So she began chronicling the doings of the fairy courts of Europe, where intrigues are elaborate, affairs are heartless, and the aristocratic never fly, though they have wings, because they have servants to do that for them.

Many readers loathe these tales for withholding the traditional pleasures of fantasy – high consequence, great passions, and the like. But could Warner write! There are times when I want to run my hands over her prose and stroke it like a cat.

Michael Swanwick has received the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards for his work. His latest novel, Chasing the Phoenix, is available August 11th from Tor Books. You can also read his latest Mongolian Wizard short story, “The Night of the Salamander,” here on!


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