With the Marvel Cinematic Universe in high production, high-level sci-fi productions of The Expanse and Star Trek Discovery (and Picard!) in the midst of their multi-season runs, the release of Denis Villeneuve’s atmospheric and evocative retelling of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Apple’s remaking of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series, and the upcoming unveiling of Amazon Prime’s take on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time epic fantasy (not to mention the still delicious screen adaptations of Good Omens, Shadow and Bone, Sweet Tooth, and so many more!) where does one go to get their fix when the need for fantasy, sci-fi and all things fantastical is between releases?
My first recommendation is to go back to the source. Reread (or in the name of all that is good in this world) READ the source materials! Almost all of the amazing stories that are coming to both the big and small screens had a literary start – trilogies, novels, comic books, multi-book series – and many of the others have novelizations that flesh out timelines, secondary characters, side stories. It’s wonderful to go back and see what the author envisioned that didn’t make it to the live-action versions – the added action, the deeper dimension of characters, the broader worlds. There’s no need to judge which version is better – just indulge!
Even if you struggled with the film or television versions of something, don’t discount the original work from which it took its inspiration. I, personally, could not watch more than the first few episodes of American Gods – it simply was too graphic for me. But Neil Gaiman’s book remains one of my true loves, with all its darkness and freakishness and bizarre twists and turns – at the technicolor level that my own sensibilities can handle.
But what if you want to experience something that just might be (or even is going to be) the next big thing in fantastical storytelling? Where do you go to scratch that outside this world itch? Well, here are a few suggestions.
For sheer variety and scope, you can’t go wrong with Wild Cards, a series of superhero shared-universe anthologies, mosaic novels, and even solo novels (27 works and counting!) edited by George RR Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, written by a collection of more than forty authors (including Cherie Priest, Daniel Abrahams, Ty Franck, Victor Milán, Carrie Vaughn and Roger Zelazny, as well as Martin and Snodgrass). Set largely during an alternate history of post-World War II United
States, the series follows humans who contract the Wild Card virus, which rewrites DNA and mutates survivors – some powers are superhuman, some are grotesque, and some are just downright inconvenient. Don’t wait for the planned series to come out on Peacock – jump into the fray now!
Another wonderful series that deserves its own screen treatment is Wesley Chu’s Tao Series: The Lives of Tao, The Deaths of Tao, and The Rebirths of Tao, wherein IT slacker Roen Tan is in the wrong place at the wrong time, inadvertently picking up a parasitic being from another world who, along with others of his kind, have been clandestinely directing Earth’s development for generations. If that’s not bad enough, these beings have split into two factions – one peace-loving and one aggressive – and from Day One, not only is Roen’s world been turned upside down, but now this out-of-shape, unmotivated schmuck is running for his life, er, both the lives he carries. It’s not only exciting but a hoot (and touchingly inspirational), as well.
If you like your fantasy well-written and unabashedly steamy, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series (Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, and Kushiel’s Avatar) is simply superlative – as are the ongoing trilogies that follow. Quite simply, the Kushiel series is the story of Phèdre nò Delaunay, a flawed and unwanted child who is sold into indentured servitude and ends up shaping the course of her world. The setting of the books is an echo of what might have been in a different wrinkle of time, where the law of the land (at least the one Phèdre inhabits) is “love as thou wilt.” Flawlessly imagined, with characters that transcend known conventions, these books are simply peerless.
If Regency Lit is more your level of romanticism, then you simply must read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories (Shades of Milk and Honey, Glamour in Glass, Without a Summer, Valour and Vanity, Of Noble Family). Written in unabashed homage to Jane Austen, these books follow talented but homely Jane Ellsworth, who lives in a Regency England much like ours except that along with embroidery, music, and the painting of fine china, a young lady in Jane’s gentry must also have at least a rudimentary knowledge of “glamour” (the ability to “reach into the ether” to magically manipulate shape, light and color, sound and sensation, in order to create panoramas, tableaus, and other gentile decorations). This twist allows author Kowal to explore the history of the time in a familiar and yet fresh viewpoint, and her writing is simply spot on.
And if you’re hankering for straight-up epic fantasy, check out Linda Nagata’s The Wild Trilogy (The Snow Chanter, The Long War, Days of Storm). These books, written in a very formal yet flowing style, echo writers such as JRR Tolkien and Robert Jordan in tone and theme but are interwoven with an embedded ancestral-spirits mythology and a message of the detrimental effect of disregarding the spirits who first inhabited the land. Full of epic tropes that nevertheless feel fresh in the circumstances that surround them, these books will take you on a sweeping journey to places you’ve never been before. (And in case you want to do a hard 180 from these to hard, fantastic science fiction/fantasy, follow these books with Nagata’s
Nanotech Succession novels, or her near-future military sci-fi trilogy, The Red – this lady is nothing if not wildly, diversely talented!).
I’m sure there are many, many more options out there, but these are some of my favorite fantasy reads. Why not share some of your own suggestions in the comments! We can never have too many wonderful fantastical choices for the exploring!