Earlier this week I posted some of the literary fiction authors that I thought fantasy fans might enjoy. When I was trying to think about the flip side of the coin for this post, I had a much harder time. Not because there aren’t dozens of beautiful writers working in the fantasy genre that I think deserve a wider audience — there are. But while I think I would not have too hard a time convincing most of the fantasy readers I know to take a chance on someone from outside their genre, I’m afraid I can’t say the same about those who self-identify as literary fiction fans. Those readers willing to take even the trippiest of trips with Murakami or go off with the fairies with Donohue if they are shelved in literature have a built in resistance to stepping over a few aisles to the SF/Fantasy section. Of course, that’s why displays exist, right? Pull those suckers out of their genre ghetto and display them with some of your LitFic fabulists and you just might make a sale. I would love for those who refuse to read anything marketed as fantasy to get a chance to read the gorgeous prose and bravura feats of imagination found in that genre. But I have tried to keep my expectations realistic. No dragons, no magic wands. Here are just a few of the fantasy authors that I think could work with the literary crowd.
Walton has so many books that would work for literary fiction readers. While I might not start with her Victorian novel (but with dragons), Tooth and Claw, there are many other books that showcase her psychological insights, lovely language, and remarkable characters without the hurdle of imaginary creatures. For those who enjoy historical settings and mystery plots, I would suggest her Small Change series, starting with Farthing. Admittedly more SF than Fantasy, these books are set in a world where history took a different course when upper-crust English politicians convinced Churchill to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler. Another winner from Walton (literally, as it won both the Hugo and Nebula award in 2012) is Among Others, her story of a young girl who goes to England for boarding school after breaking with her mother. Mori is a damaged soul, so it’s hard to know whether to believe the stories she tells of a magic-wielding mother. But as a love letter to the power of reading and a coming-of-age story, it should resonate with even those who don’t recognize the science fiction books that are Mori’s only solace. And Walton’s most recent novel My Real Children looks at a woman’s life and the two paths it could have taken.
The sheer imaginative scope of Gaiman’s body of work might be intimidating for literary fiction readers. I’m tempted to say that maybe they can’t handle the Gaiman! But if I wanted to open up someone’s eyes to the possibilities of this fabulist’s worlds, I would hand them The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s frame of a man returning home for the funeral of his father, reminiscing about a childhood memory, is easy for any reader to respond to. It does go to some crazy places, of course, but I think the magic and wonder being remembered as a child’s experience eases in non-fantasy readers. Of course, once you have them hooked, there are so many great Gaiman books to try. I might also suggest one of his short story collections as a gateway drug for Gaiman’s drug of imagination. Fragile Things is a favorite, and non-genre readers are often more open to weirdness in their short fiction. Finally, slightly more fantastical is the novel American Gods, in which an ex-convict gets pulled into a war between gods.
If I had to pick one word to describe Jonathan Carroll’s fiction, it would be quirky. A scan of libraries actually seems split on whether to put him in SF or FIC, and I can see why. His books are character-driven, like most literary fiction, but also fiercely imaginative. One way they lure in wary literary readers is by starting with regular characters who are drawn into unusual, sometimes bizarre, sometimes deeply unsettling situations. The Ghost in Lovefeatures a man who takes a bad fall, but when he doesn’t die as expected the ghost meant to guide him to the afterlife is at a loss as to what to do next. Anyone who has ever been obsessed by books will feel a kinship with the protagonist of The Land of Laughs whose pilgrimage to an author’s home takes a dark turn. In the romantic White Apples a man dies but is brought back to life to save his unborn son so that he can in turn save the universe.
Powers is a genre-bender who often uses historical settings. His novels are complex, dense, and rewarding for those who put in the time. Declare is his homage to the spy novel, following a young recruit to the intelligence service through his career and the one mission he can’t forget. Time travel gets a fantasy treatment in The Anubis Gates when a literary scholar tour group heads back to 1810 and runs into sorcerers as well as poets. A bigger stretch might be the thoroughly believable but unreal world of the loose series that begins with Last Call, which has one of the coolest magic systems ever, but also has a throughly messed up father-son story. Poker fans should definitely pick it up.
Guy Gavriel Kay
The worlds that Kay builds, one beautiful sentence at a time, are almost always very close to our own. He paints every detail, and then populates these mirror worlds with brilliant characters. Although my favorite Kay might be the magical Tigana, I think some of his more history-grounded fantasies might be an easier sell. Kay has written many barely-fantastical novels in various settings that are as meticulously researched in their historical periods as any piece of historical fiction, but then he changes all the place names and people. Have your cake and eat it too, much Kay? But really, they are stunning re-envisionings of those periods, including 12th century France, renaissance Spain, and ancient China as in Under Heaven in which he tells of a soldier who is given a reward that brings him into dangerous political waters. In Ysabel he employs a more rare contemporary setting, telling of a man who visits his father in Aix-en-Provence where myth lie close to the surface.
Charles de Lint
After completing the post, I realized that I didn’t include any books that fall into the urban fantasy subgenre. I actually LOVE urban fantasy, but when I think about the books I love best they are usually exceptional for their characters, and the compelling plots, and sometimes the interesting worlds they build that are so close to our own. But usually I don’t wallow in the language. But there is one exception: Canadian author Charles de Lint. In the Newford series of novels and short stories, tied together by their fictional setting, we get to meet a whole host of interesting characters living lives touched by magic. The collection The Very Best of Charles de Lint should give readers a taste of Charles de Lint’s style. My favorite non-Newford novel is the gorgeous The Little Country, about a musician who finds a manuscript in an old trunk. I’m a sucker for a mix of music and magic and myth, and this novel delivers.
HONORABLE MENTIONS More fantasy that people should take a chance on: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe
Magic for Beginners: Storiesby Kelly Link
The Eyre Affairby Jasper Fforde
The City & The City by China Mieville
The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake