The reading list for the Imaginary Worlds course is a fantastic cross-section of the imaginary genres, from classic epic fantasy to literary fiction to dystopias to steampunk. Each week on the Facebook page I'm introducing one of the 16 books in more detail, and each month I'm gathering up a cross-section of four of the books here. (By the way, if you think you don't like reading fantasy or sci-fi, you should read this article first: Why you like reading fantasy and science fiction even though you think you don't.) This month, we have The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Fifth Season by NK Jemsin, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This is one of the best Young Adult dystopias out there - and that's a broader category than you might realise! The films did the books a real disservice, so if you've only seen the films, get hold of the books immediately. The films were faithful to the books' events, but they completely lost the sense of Katniss's interiority, which is one of the most powerful aspects of the books. Throughout the events of being filmed, hated or adored by the public, dressed up, paraded, etc, Katniss is extremely aware of other people's perceptions of her and plays that with brutal intelligence. This is the flip side of "the male gaze" - the young woman who despises the system and knows exactly how to game it for survival, however reluctant she might be to do that. In the film, all that is shorn away, and all we're left with is Katniss's outward display. I don't know how one would show interiority in a film, but it felt like the most crucial aspect of the book had been stripped out.
What this book does especially well: The political and economic realities of this world play out in every single aspect of these characters' lives, right from the first scene where Katniss illegally goes hunting. It's a masterclass in how to turn politics and economics, which might seem "dry" subjects, into the stuff of story..
The Fifth Season by NK Jemsin
Given the book's unbelievably gloomy blurb, I expected an extremely gloomy and dystopic book, perhaps even verging on grimdark - one of the few speculative-fiction subgenres that I actively avoid. But that's not how the book felt at all. The events, on reflection, are often dark, but the book itself is good at chiaroscuro, and rather than dark it feels absorbing, gripping, fascinating. It also has a powerful moral centre, whereas grimdark is more usually amoral. I'd also call it fantasy rather than dystopia, even if it is about a world ending, because it's set in a world that's not ours, with magic..
What this book does especially well: beautiful literary prose, playing with the language and idiom of its world, and a variety of magic unlike anything I've found in other fantasy.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Name of the Wind is epic fantasy at its best, and rather than centering around castles and people of power, it centres around a more marginal figure, at least politically. It's rich, fascinating, completely absorbing - when you've run out of Robin Hobb and are wandering the house in despair for what else might match up, reach for this. Much of the first book is set in the university, with the particular enjoyment that brings - think of the pleasure of reading about Hogwarts, in Harry Potter. Well, this is the grown-up version of that. It's also a valuable reminder that tension in a book, especially a fantasy book, doesn't have to be from huge brewing wars and dramatic quests, but can be something as seemingly ordinary as a character you care deeply about trying to raise the money for their next term of education.
Money is Rothfuss's particular thing - currency, actually - and he pays close attention to it, and manages to make it equally compelling for the reader. If you ever meet him, ask him about his currency system, and then sit back to enjoy the flow of talk and his burgeoning beard for the next few hours. Make sure to stock up with a bottle or barrel beforehand. Everyone has their particular geekery, and this without doubt is Rothfuss's - though he also has a fabulous line in inventing idioms and figures of speech from within his world, or using our idioms and giving them new origins from his world.
My only criticism is that his female characters can be quite weak - absurdly fey, or, if they're a "strong character", borderline psychotic. I've noticed a few male fantasy authors gamely try to write "strong female characters" and end up creating these erratic psychotic people whose behaviour is completely inexplicable (to the reader as well as the hapless man) and in any man would be recognised as violent, abusive, and manipulative. I wouldn't mind if the book seemed to recognise that she's mad as a bag of rats and behaves inexcusably, but she always seems to get a pass. That's the main love interest, alas, but some of the secondary female characters seem quite normal, so that's good.
What this book does especially well: economics, plot tension through small-scale events building, and playing with language.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
It's almost impossible to say anything about this book without committing massive spoilers, or just plumping for adjectives like "extraordinary" and "thought-provoking", so for this, I'm just going to have to say, READ IT. Don't even look at the back-cover blurb, just READ IT. You have to trust me on this. I'm not going to be the one who spoils it for you.
What this book does especially well: JUST READ IT. Sorry, I can't say more.