Guest Post: Five Lesser-Known Fantasy Authors by Daniel A. Rabuzzi
June 6, 2023
The following is a guest post from the fantastic, brilliant writer Daniel A. Rabuzzi. Brittany used to religiously read his sadly long defunct blog Lobster and Canary (he always found the COOLEST stuff), and she is not ashamed to tell you that she was totally starry-eyed that he wanted to write a post for us on this topic! His choices are excellent (and a couple are even new to us) – we highly recommend checking them all out ASAP.
Thank you Sara and Brittany for focusing our attention on the forgotten genius of lesser-known fantasy authors, and thank you heartily for inviting me to join the effort. To identify the varied headwaters, and then dabble our toes or immerse ourselves to whatever degree gives both utility and pleasure, seems to me a necessary activity for readers and writers of the fantastical. As Kelly Link puts it: “The literature of the fantastic is peculiar in that stories are necessarily in conversation with other stories, dependent on other stories to achieve their effect” (“Introduction” to Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, Penguin 2015, p. ix). I love acknowledgments pages for this reason. To choose one at random, by Freya Marske in her A Marvelous Light (Tor, 2021, p. 374): “To all writers who came before me and created the stories that were my building blocks, the books that held me together and made me strive to do better…to the memories of Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, Georgette Heyer, Joan Aiken, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Dunnett, and Dorothy L. Sayers.” See the note below for references to similarly illuminating remarks by Ellen Kushner, Terri Windling, Amal El-Mohtar, Theodora Goss, Eleanor Arnason, and Elizabeth Bear. I love that The Carterhaugh School, whose very name venerates the traditions it is taking forward, engages so closely with the history of the speculative genres.
You’ve heard of Holly Black, but have you heard of Patricia McKillip?
When McKillip’s debut novel The Forgotten Beasts of Eld came out in 1974, I ignored most of a dinner and denied myself a night of sleep reading it cover to cover in one go. Ever since, I have tried to find my way back into “the rich dark forests of Eld Mountain.” (Someone – Annie Dillard? Alison Lurie? – has said that much of reading as an adult is an attempt to regain the first all-encompassing rush of sensation that overwhelms when you read as an adolescent.) McKillip is not really a lesser-known author; The Forgotten Beasts of Eld won the World Fantasy Award, and was reprinted by Tachyon in 2017, while her many other books collectively earned her a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2008. Nevertheless, to help preempt any erosion in our memory of her work, I offer McKillip in hopes that other readers may also miss a dinner and a good night’s sleep as an introduction to one of her novels.
You’ve heard of Kristin Cashore, but have you heard of Joy Chant?
Scenes from Chant’s debut Red Moon and Black Mountain (which I first read when its American edition came out in 1971) are among the most indelible I carry with me (*) – for instance, I can see the eagles battling with each other by the light of the red moon, with the grim witnesses below, even as I type these words. I remember thinking that this was Narnia but with teeth, something much more like Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising in terms of atmosphere and stakes. Many others felt the same way, since it won The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in 1972. Chant wrote two more novels in the Red Moon world (1977, 1983) but, alas, has not published since. (*) On par with Ged facing his shadow, Gollum and Bilbo riddling in the dark, Titus, Steerpike, and Flay in the Stone Lanes.
You’ve heard of Leigh Bardugo, but have you heard of Sylvia Townsend Warner?
Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman (1926) is a feminist social satire about a woman who becomes a witch, and is a foundational work of modern fantasy. She gives us “the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.” Townsend Warner wrote another six novels, five books of poetry, a biography of T.H. White, and slews of short stories, capped off with her collection Kingdoms of Elfin (1977; most of the stories were published 1972-’75 in The New Yorker). Her fairies are magnificently vain, haughty, scheming, and ruthless; they might have instructed Machiavelli. These stories are a Lady Whistledown’s newsletter for the courts of Faerie.
You’ve heard of Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette), but have you heard of Lord Dunsany?
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany…surely that is a name worthy of Faerie itself? Dunsany is one of the most influential figures in modern fantasy, a bridge from the Irish Literary Revival (Gregory, Yeats, Colum) through Tolkien to, among others, Le Guin, Beagle, Del Toro, and Gaiman. He wrote some 120 books, but please allow me to recommend two as good places to start: the novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), and the story collection The Book of Wonder (1912), which includes such gems as “How One Came, as Was Foretold, to the City of Never,” “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him,” and “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles.” Dunsany had a gift for the casual depiction of the marvelous, the telling detail that weaves the spell. Here is a favorite passage of mine, from “The Hoard of the Gibbelins” (in The Book of Wonder), describing how the questing knight used his tamed dragon to fly over the Forest Unpassable: “Many a farmer near the edge of the world saw him up there where yet the twilight lingered, a faint, black, wavering line; and mistaking him for a row of geese going inland from the ocean, went into their homes cheerily rubbing their hands and saying that winter was coming, and that we should soon have snow.”
You’ve heard of Emily St. John Mandel, but have you heard of John Brunner?
Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968, Hugo winner) and The Sheep Look Up (1972, Nebula nominee) are early – and still potent – examples of dystopian fiction speculating on futures blighted by environmental degradation. A bit more cheerful are the four novellas comprising The Traveler in Black (1971), whose protagonist sought to bring order to chaos in a world filled with magic. To give you a sense of Brunner’s approach: his epigraphs refer to Amalthea, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Gilgamesh, and Pope’s Dunciad.
Bonus: Nnedi Okorafor is presumably well known to The Carterhaugh School community, but I think her debut Zarah the Windseeker (2005) may get overlooked, given the tremendous success of Who Fears Death and the Binti trilogy.
“I let Dari take my hand and we walked into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle” (p. 93). More, please!
“Interview with Ellen Kushner,” by Jonathan Thornton, The Fantasy Hive (November 4th, 2019); “A Tale of Two Covers: Ellen Kushner on Basilisk,” with John O’Neill, Black Gate (April 8th, 2016); Terri Windling, “Introduction,” to Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands (eds. Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, Random House, 2011); Windling,“Introduction; Fantasy, Magic and Fairyland in Nineteenth-Century England,” to Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells (eds. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Tor, 2013); Amal El-Mohtar interviewed by E. G. Cosh & Chris Kammerud at Storyological (n.d. / c. May, 2017); “Interview with Theodora Goss,” by Vera Benczik and Beata Gubacsi, SFRA Review (52:1, Winter 2022); Eleanor Arnason, “Me and Science Fiction,” Strange Horizons (15th February, 2016); Elizabeth Bear, “My Formative SFF: Forgotten Classics of the ’70s and ’80s,” Tor.com (March 20th, 2018).
For more general critical review and history: Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” (orig. pub. 2007, reprinted in The Secret History of Fantasy, ed. Peter Beagle, Tachyon, 2010); David Hartwell, “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre,” in ibid.; Le Guin, The Language of the Night (Putnam, 1979); Theodora Goss, Voices From Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner (Aqueduct Press, 2008); Farah Mendlesohn & Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy (Middlesex University Press, 2009); Jamie Williamson, The Evolution of Modern Fantasy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance; A Study of Epic Fantasy (MonkeyBrain Books, 2004); Gary K. Wolfe, “Pilgrims of the Fall,” in his Evaporating Genres (Wesleyan University Press, 2011); Patricia McKillip guest post at Fantasy Cafe, April 15th, 2013.
Bio: Daniel A. Rabuzzi lives in New York City with his artistic partner and spouse, the woodcarver Deborah A. Mills (www.deborahmillswoodcarving.com), and of course a muse they share in the shape of a cat. For more, please see: www.danielarabuzzi.com
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