I love books with a strong atmosphere. I’m always looking to be transported: that’s what draws me to fantasy. It’s not descriptions of imaginary places or intricate magic systems that attract me, really; it’s the evocation of a mysterious elsewhere in language as weird and lovely as its subject. Language is the magic system.
Here are five intensely strange, beautifully written, and transportive fantasies.
Ice by Anna Kavan
A man drives into a snowstorm in pursuit of a white-haired girl. His planet is dying, succumbing to the ice of a nuclear winter. Cities crumble, water sources freeze, and our narrator becomes less trustworthy as hallucinations trouble his heroic role. At the center of it all stands the glittering, fragile heroine, passive as snow, apparently at the mercy of her brutal husband. On its publication in 1967, Brian Aldiss championed this novel as science fiction; in the 2006 reissue, Christopher Priest describes it as slipstream. Anna Kavan, who died in 1968, can no longer inform us about her genre (though she told Aldiss she hadn’t intended to write science fiction). She can’t tell us whether she was writing an allegory of the Cold War, an ecofeminist critique, or a chilled fever-dream of heroin addiction. We are left with this crystalline novel by a writer so dedicated to her art she took the name of one of her own characters as a pseudonym. It’s more than enough; Ice is a wintry and desolate marvel.
Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn, translated by Hildi Hawkins
“How could I forget the spring when we walked in the University’s botanical gardens; for there is such a park here in Tainaron, too, large and carefully tended. If you saw it you would be astonished, for it contains many plants that no one at home knows; even a species that flowers underground.”
I first read Leena Krohn’s bright, melancholy novella in the anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer. It’s also available as part of the landmark collection of Krohn’s work published by Cheeky Frawg. It feels strange to describe a work as both “bright” and “melancholy,” but this is the mood produced by Krohn’s fantasy, in which an unnamed human narrator writes letters from a country of giant insects. These insects are sophisticated, sensitive, and rapacious; they ride trams, dine in cafés, feed their children on the corpses of their ancestors, and rub themselves against flowers in broad daylight. Krohn’s is a colorful, anarchic landscape: fresh as spring, sad as autumn, and unified by the lonely voice of the letter-writer, a flâneur of the anthills.
Incubation: A Space for Monsters by Bhanu Kapil
“If the cyborg you read about in bookstores is an immigrant from Mexico crossing into the U.S. beneath a floodlit court, then mine is a Punjabi-British hitchhiker on a J1 visa.”
Welcome to the dizzying world of Laloo, who hitchhikes across the U.S. in an atmosphere of cigarette smoke, barbeque, and stale motel sheets. Laloo means “the red one.” As Laloo informs us, “It is a masculine, sun-like name of Vedic origin but I cannot change that.” She tells us her alien number, her social security number, her phone number. “Please call me and tell me what the difference is between a monster and a cyborg.” Laloo needs to know, because she’s both. Her voice is so direct and intimate, it’s as if she’s seated next to you at a bus stop, whispering in your ear. In her matter-of-fact way, she recounts fragmented memories of birth defects, surgeries, England, car trips, and survival. Incubation is both a poet’s novel and an immigrant’s crib sheet: “a guide,” as Laloo puts it, “to the thoroughfares of your massive nation.”
Event Factory by Renee Gladman
In Event Factory, the first book of Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, a linguist arrives in a glowing yellow city on the verge of ruin. It’s unclear what threatens the city of Ravicka, and how is a foreigner to tell, when she’s just learning to manage a language spoken both verbally and through gestures? Frankly—and this is both invitation and warning—Gladman’s Ravicka series is the weirdest fantasy I know. Communication falters. There’s a poignancy to the linguist’s efforts to connect with others, to move through the failing city. Her attempts at conversation are often funny, with the painful humor of real-world struggles in a foreign language.
“‘Hello. Hi,’ I said to Redîc, the one who had brought me here. Then, ‘Hello. Gurantai,’ I directed to each of the others. ‘But, please don’t,’ they nearly barked back at me. I was confused. Wasn’t this the custom? For clarity, I tried a second round of good will, but this was interrupted by some superficial blows to my head.”
Event Factory revels in the joy, frustration, and sheer quirkiness of language.
Mother and Child by Carole Maso
“The Great Wind came and the maple tree that had stood near the house for two hundred years split in half, and from its center poured a torrent of bats. Inside, the child was stepping from her bath and the mother swaddled her in a towel. Night was all around them. The child thought she could feel the wind moving through her and the places where her wings were beginning to come through. Soon it would be the time of transformation, the mother said.”
The most recent of Carole Maso’s stirring, inventive novels tells of a mother and child in a changing and increasingly dangerous world. The time of transformation is coming, and they must see it through. Yet, despite the dread, the book doesn’t leave an impression of gloom. It’s lit all through, like a kaleidoscope held to a lamp, or one of those Chagall paintings where iconic figures float in vivid blue. Like those paintings, the book forms a secret world of enchanting fairy-tale images: the lamb, the fox, the Great Wind, the Blue Madness, the Girl with the Matted Hair.
Top image: cover for a Russian edition of Tainaron.
Sofia Samatar is the author of the World Fantasy Award-winning novel A Stranger in Olondria, its sequel, The Winged Histories, and the short fiction collection, Tender. Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar, is forthcoming in 2018.