Missing on the 100 Must Read Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Debuts

jonathan lethem

So I read this piece on Book Riot titled 100 Must-Read Science Fiction & Fantasy Debuts.

I’m not too into lists but also know that one I made a few years ago about the great speculative fiction novels of the last decade is a piece that I casually still have random people hit me up on social media about and be like “are you the guy who wrote that?” and it’s usually about having played a (very) small part in expanding upon what were then prevalent conceits about what fantasy was in particular (people tend to understand science fiction).

It’s pretty flattering and don’t really take too much credit in what what probably an exercise in laziness as it was easier to make a premade list than join discussions asking for new books.

For this reason I realize the value of such lists and it was bringing back memories as I was perusing of getting initial publisher promo material and advance galleys for many of them.

I come from a childhood of being a comic book fan so first appearances are something that have always been a part of my life and I’m fascinated by introductions of both major mainstream properties but also that just happened to intersect in my life. I have homes filled with collectibles of all types and media that are the first this or that, be it minor cameos and/or splashy intros alike.

One such example of my interested is some I posted about earlier regarding DEFIANT comics or even Daenerys Targaryen of Thrones fame, when, in the case of the former, literally a random childhood memory of me catching a random QVC comic book special lead me decades later buying the original art involved in the product.

As a comic fan that fascination would lead me to spend over 6 figures in that hobby alone, not including books and magazines, just to acquire items representing a creator’s primal manifestation of something that would in many instances go on to leave a mark on me or pop culture in general.

It’s why I have copies of Dune published by Chilton (yes, the car part magazine publisher) and why I spent the better part of 8 years or so after I had disposable income hunting for buying every copy of Hulk #181 (first Wolverine) I found in my travels, even though at the time I didn’t read comics or keep up with the market in any other way.

At any rate I tend to be longwinded  with post intros though so let me just get to this quickly.

These are debut novels from science fiction and fantasy that screamed out to me as missing from a list that I realize was a personal one, not intended to be definitive even though it included 100 entries, and just for fun, just like my addition to it is. Some of these in my opinion would not be misplaced in a “real” top list that did strive to be definitive but again, opinions can and will vary.

Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll

Carroll is in the argument of greatest living american fantasist, and many would point to his debut as their favorite of his catalog, which almost to a book, is high quality.

lands of laughs jonathan carroll

Master of magic realism that still feels like it has a real core to them that makes sense upon introspection Carroll has been described by Neil Gaiman as “a cult waiting to happen”, wrote a debut (1980) that isn’t going to be for everyone but I wish was.

It isn’t perfect, the ending may not hit, but I’ve read it over and over again knowing that very fact.

That said, I don’t agree Carroll peaks in his debut but I think it ages well for a fantasy metafictional commentary, as many such current releases of the same mold feel outdated the year after or even the year previous to publication.

You can read my thoughts on Carroll’s The Wooden Sea.

Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Wouldn’t shock me to be on a top 100 period science fiction or fantasy novels. Lethem would go to be one of our most heralded modern writers but his debut is deliciously weird, hardboiled science fiction and maybe the best of its kind.

Written in 1994 I have a lot more to say about it but all I have to say is on the cover: it’s a book that has kangaroo in a fucking suit in a pulp noir setting and written by one of best writers we have.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

I’m completely baffled how this book isn’t on all lists. Let’s be clear, it’s the WORST of the Steven Erikson’s massive 10 book cycle but it’s also the beginning of the best epic fantasy series ever completed.

It’s the only series that garnered the same appeal from me as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, except Erikson maintained a schedule and delivered a series different in that GRRM, a master, converted non-fantasy fans and tricked them into liking it be sheer quality alone, where Erikson took all this shit we were supposed to grow out of and be embarrassed of and used them as pieces in a this incredible totally unapologetic post-Modern epic fantasy that’s dope af.

I wrote an overview of my thoughts after completing The Malazan Book of the Fallenand Gardens of the Moon kicks it all off and even with the emergence of certain Gotism as the series progresses and expands into this never before even fathomable fantasy series, it’s so large and sprawling, so diverse without any fanfare for it, and so simply badass. I can’t even believe it exists for me to be able to recommend it.

I need the anime now. Only the Japanese would know what to do with this much awesome.

You see particular studios and production companies looking at HBO’s incredible success with Game of Thrones and scooping up fantasy and science fiction properties as source material to try to duplicate the process, and until they pick up Malazan, they’re picking the wrong one IMH0 though I do think the Rothfuss Kingkiller Chronicle with Lin-Manuel Miranda involved is something more than pretty interesting.

You can check out my interview with Steven Erikson and his Malazan-cohort Ian Cameron Esslemont.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Uhhh… just one of the  best works of fiction of the 21st century? Admittedly a bit of a love or hate book but has become a book that if I know someone else likes it, I don’t tune out everything else they say about books.

house of leaves mark z danielewski

Because of this it has become ones of those books that people pretend they have read but really haven’t.

Read it, it’s interesting and if you’re the right sort of reader has a chance to be one of your 10 favorite books of all time.

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

This book.

You couldn’t get people to stfu about Altered Carbon a few years ago.

I actually prefer Morgan’s Black Man novel (titled Thirteen in the U.S. for reasons I will let you speculate on) but Altered Carbon was that mix of science fiction and mystery/espionage that made it inviting, which is why when Altered Carbon dropped in 2002 it became the defacto science fiction book you recommended to fantasy fans who wanted to dabble into science fiction or something new you could recommend old SF heads and be confident they’d feel it.

There’s also a netflix show if you want to check that out.

Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey

I read this book because Jeff VanderMeer was pushing it strong and it’s so accomplished it’s extraordinary this is someone’s first novel.

The Top 100 List that spurned me to write this addition began with the author talking about have an appreciation for weird, and in that respect Observatory Mansions is simply one of the best.

I’m tempted to call it original but it reminded me as this perfection of Ballard short stories that often deal with communities and tenants.

observatory mansions edward carey

Not sure if it’s because Carey is a playwright but a lot of times you read great debuts that are fueled by ideas (China Mieville) or an exuberance and freshness (Scott Lynch) that if lacking do so because there is a sense of an artist still fine tuning their actual craft, and Carey just feels so assured.

Feels a lot like a Susanna Clarke just dropping an opus down from jump.

Huge fan of Carey, love his follow-ups even more. Astonishing writer.

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

If you read this before reading Butcher’s Dresden Files it is a bit alarming, though this feels kind of like a mix of that and Scott Pilgrim, which now that I type it, sounds pretty damn rad.

I’m of the generation that urban fantasy was a moniker still being battled for by two rather distinct subgenres (though some people within interchange them, I think one to borrow the bestsellers, and the other the critical appeal) and I oddly don’t know which one War For the Oaks best fits in, which may be the best compliment for it.

genocides thomas disch

The Genocides by Thomas Disch

For the life of me I don’t know why Disch isn’t being mined in an era where EVERYTHING is for adaptation. While not the heights his later work like 334 and Camp Concentration would achieve, it’s a prime example of science fiction from this era that doesn’t seem to have aged.

New Worlds y’all.

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont

I know my House of Leaves entry being so brief may have been upsetting but I’m going to repeat it a bit here: this book is awesome.

If you are a fan of pulps and want them in an incredibly fun and competent modern novel this is it. His second novel about a fictionalized Jack London (who low key was an  early science fiction writer – check out his The Iron Heel)) is even better.

A Case for Impact: The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

crystal shard ra salvatore

Okay, so at the beginning of this thing I talked a bit about comics and first appearances. These are things we come back to when we have experienced history and are able to evaluate the beginnings of large events.

Unlike comics, books don’t tend to be character driven, and by that I don’t mean we don’t read the more character, we most certainly do, but the books don’t bear the title of their characters.

With comics the characters tend to live on more famous than their even famed creators in most cases. As big as Lord of the Rings is we are aware of Tolkien, as big as Harry Potter is, J.K. Rowling looms. We kind of forget Tom Hanks’ character and just call them the Dan Brown books.

Just look at any airport bookseller or bestseller lists and you will be riddled with the 20th book by whatever author writing about their 20th law case or Nicholas Sparks trashy saltine sentimental cryfest and the name is bigger than whoever the characters are. You know what I mean, Grisham, Steele, etc etc.

crystal shard ra salvatore

There are a lot of great characters in science fiction and fantasy but the ones that carry brands within the genre are very few and far between.

Most are one-off characters with an author busting their entire load and following works try to disassociate from that very character, acknowledging its singularity or forever trying to find them again but only creating lesser versions. Of current works Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files comes to mind though I think it’s P.I./Crime heritage allows more for that, as that genre tends to facilitate leads like that  – going back to Holmes, Poirot, and the like.

Drizzt Do’Urden is a fantasy pantheon character.

A classic fantasy character, as OG nerd you can get published by a pen & paper operation, he’s headlined too many books that were bestsellers when fantasy book just didn’t do that often. He debuted in R.A. Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard, a sidekick character at the time that would become our fantasy representative on bestseller lists for years to come.

And as key and synonymous as Salvatore was to this these are fantasy books that you could hear said about them “is that the new Drizzt book?” when his actual name is on no title.  

No one has ever asked for a new Aragorn book, a new Tyrion book, or new Rand book in that manner. I understand there is a duality to that existence, so it’s not a statement I make entirely related to quality.

Certainly Harry Potter is an example, though again, the name Potter is firmly a part of the series and individual chapter titles. Further, beyond bringing action to the page like no other at the time, Salvatore early on was really playing with important themes of outsiders, isolation, identity, interracial relationships, and accepting of others around instances of awesome Gromph that I was really there to read.

Though Crystal Shard was published I’d recommend reading the Drizzt starring Dark Elf trilogy first starting with Homeland.

sword of shannara terry brooks

Like the next book I’m going to talk about, The Sword of Shannara, there was a day where books like The Crystal Shard, i.e. its sequels, stood as monuments on “new” or “hot” sections of library shelves in a time when libraries were powerful portals in communities.

I’m a Lord of the Rings head, I have appendices, letters, and History of Middle Earth knowledge on lock so you may find me not being the biggest fan of The Sword of Shannara specifically, but even though that is the case, these are books I, and a lot of other people, devoured as kids, and a book I’ve been meaning to write about (and probably will) extensively because it’s a book and series that I don’t think gets its due historically in fantasy publishing.

Point blank, this is one of the most important releases in the history of fantasy and it damn near created the commercial viability of the modern fantasy genre.

Does the book feel a bit manufactured?

sword of shananra trilogy terry brooks

Yes, it does, there was a blueprint, and it was without question followed, but what can’t be denied is that people found it, loved it, BOUGHT it, and kept on buying it for decades, and expanding out from it.

Its success facilitated and insured we’d get more, and later people like Robert Jordan would expand on it and expand epic fantasy out again for people like George R.R. Martin or Steven Erikson. Brooks has a string of Shannara bestsellers that would make almost anyone envious.

When I used to go to my library, the only fantasy books that would merit spots on the big shelf highlighting what people “should” read along with books like Memoirs of a Geisha, Celestine Prophecy, or Gaiman’s American Gods and similar such in the moment it books were books by Brooks, Wheel of Time books by Jordan, Star Wars novels, and Drizzt books – clearly books that hit the bestsellers lists librarian easily could go off of.

I remember future classics and blockbuster sellers like A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings getting skipped for that shelf and went immediately to general population, searchable only via dewey decimal demons.

Seeing these books side-by-side in the wild with other books deemed okay by the mainstream was gigantic.

Along side little gems, midlist favorites, and critical darlings I just think it’s important to recognize the rare franchises and stars that demanded shelf space simply because their appeal could not be denied and once they hooked you, it may lead you to some of these other books we talk about.

Honorable Mentions: The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay, Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod, The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, The Steam Magnate by Dana Copithorne, Vellum by Hal Duncan, The Stone Ship by Peter Raftos, Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan, One for Sorrow by Chris Barzak, 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill.