A friend asked me for my recommendations for the best science fiction and fantasy that I’ve enjoyed over the past decade or so. It’s not an easy question to answer, so I thought it would make a good series of blog posts.
My friend has to highly prioritize his reading due to his busy schedule, esp. since he has to read a lot of nonfiction literature for his job (professor of history). So I can’t just say “Read Wheel of Time and the Cosmere works by Brandon Sanderson” since there’s no way he’s going to be able to read the 4 million+ words in Wheel of Time or the 4 million+ words in Brandon Sanderson’s works. I love long series recommendations because I have lots of time to listen to audiobooks on my daily commute. So instead I’ll make my list of a series of rabbit holes: a short story or novella that is a good introduction to a author’s works, and then the expanded list down the rabbit hole if you enjoy that initial foray.
Today I’ll start with one of my very favorite authors, Louis McMaster Bujold.
She’s a long time mainstay in science fiction, having been publishing since the 80s and having won seven Hugo awards so far, including one last year and one this year. The introductory work I would recommend reading to see if you like her other works would be The Mountains of Mourning, a novella which won her first Hugo award in 1990. It serves as a good introduction to the Vorkosigan Saga, her best-known series. The setting is an interesting mix of both standard SF tropes like spaceships, worm hole travel between star systems, ray guns, etc., but also very philosophical ideas like technology’s ability to empower women, the intersection of society and personal relationships with technology, and the differences between strict hierarchical societies and egalitarian ones.
The series begins on Barrayar, a world that had been colonized by humans centuries ago, but when the wormhole network connecting it to the rest of humanity collapsed the world was left stranded for four hundred years. During that time humans understandably regressed in technology, so that by the time they were re-discovered by the rest of humanity 400 years later they had reverted to pre-industrial revolution technology and become a feudal monarchy ruled by an aristocratic warrior class. Upon rejoining the rest of humanity they rapidly modernized their technological base (not unlike Meiji era Japan), but much of the modern technology has not reached the peasants scattered in settlements across the planet, and the social codes and systems are not always equipped to handle the challenges that the re-introduction of modern technology bring.
In The Mountains of Mourning, Miles Vorkosigan, our main hero through most of the Vorkosigan Saga, must investigate a case of infanticide as the feudal lord in a remote region of the lands owned by his family. During the 400 ‘years of isolation’ it became standard practice to kill children with birth defects or ‘muties’, and the practice still persists in rural areas despite it being outlawed. Miles himself was born with a birth defect, and so has to deal with this deep-seated prejudice while trying to uncover the murderer and bring them to justice.
If you enjoy The Mountains of Mourning, I would recommend beginning the Vorkosigan Saga with Warriors Apprentice, which is the first novel featuring Miles. There are also two earlier novels featuring his parents and how they met, but most fans suggest beginning with reading Warriors Apprentice.
However, Bujold has some fantasy novels as well, including one of my favorite novels of all time, The Curse of Chalion. It takes place in a fantasy world that is loosely based on the Iberian peninsula right after the Reconquista. The protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is a minor noble who had been the castellan of a castle during a seige, but was betrayed and sold into slavery where he served as a galley slave for nearly two years before being repatriated. Though not old, his mind and body are now broken from his difficult ordeals and he begins the novel by journeying to a castle that he served as a page at years ago to try the mercy of the Lord there to hopefully find some minor position so he doesn’t become a beggar on the street. The novel is very thoughtful as it’s told from the point of view of someone who is a bit older and ‘broken’, instead of the typical wide-eyed youth we see in more typical coming-of-age stories in a lot of fantasy literature.
The Curse of Chalion also has a pseudo-sequel (same setting and later in chronological order, but no overlapping major characters) called Paladin of Souls, which is also excellent. The main character is Ista, a middle-aged widowed noblewoman who embarks on a pilgrimage to a remote holy site in an attempt to deal with the boredom and monotony of her life.