Most readers are well acquainted with the big fantasy titles, here are four lesser known fantasy worlds worth exploring. It is common to encounter pastiches and copies of an established fantasy milieu- for example the Iron Tower trilogy by Dennis L. McKiernan and the Shannara books by Terry Brooks both draw water from Tolkien’s well. More often we see variations on themes, some better than others.
Some of the lesser known fantasy novels and series have been more influential on my writing than the bigger names. My personal library shelves groan with the classics. A curious finger will idle upon the spines of such tomes as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Conan, Earthsea, Game of Thrones, Thomas Covenant, Elric, Discworld and many more. All of those wondrous worlds, epic heroes and strange encounters inspired my own fantasy visions, encouraging me to explore the limits of my imagination. Intermingled among those celebrated volumes, unusual titles will stand out. No less influential for their unfamiliarity. It is some of those titles that I wish to share with you.
Today I found out that a classic, long out-of-print series is finally about to be re-released in e-book form. That news inspired me to write about four fantasy worlds that resonate very strongly and continue to inspire my creativity. These books are about characters and worlds that you may not have heard about or may have forgotten. All are worth exploring.
The Sunset Warrior Cycle
This week Erik Van Lustbader, author of The Ninja and other terrific novels, announced the re-release of his trilogy, The Sunset Warrior Cycle. I am thrilled by this news. The Sunset Warrior, Shallows of Night, Dai-San are three of my most valued books. Written in the early 1970’s, the series begins in an underground city of Freehold. It was built as a shelter for humanity against an apocalypse that occurred so many generations ago that the culture has forgotten the surface world. One man, a master swordsman named Ronin, struggles to find his destiny and seeks the legendary exit to the surface. The books detail what happens to him in his quest.
The story is engaging and a fun read, the characters are rich and full of life. The fantasy world is at once familiar and alien due to its unusual origins. I fell in love with Sha’angh’se, one of fantasy’s most vibrant and colorful cities. These books still inspire my imagination to stretch beyond the traditional landscapes of fantasy. I am surprised by how many fantasy enthusiasts I have met who never even heard of them. It is weird that the books have been out of print and hard to find. Van Lustbader is better known for his excellent Nicholas Linnear series and penning the new Ludlum novels. Find The Sunset Warrior Cycle, read the books and enjoy a unique and wonderful fantasy saga.
Another favorite fantasy series that has passed out of consciousness is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar books. Almost everyone has heard of Tarzan and A Princess of Mars even if they haven’t actually bothered to read the books. As a teen I read every single Tarzan novel, in order. It was Tarzan at the Earth’s Core that introduced me to Pellucidar. As much as I enjoyed Tarzan, I stopped reading them to obtain and devour the seven Pellucidar novels. These are the tales that have forever been seared into my consciousness.
The series begins with At The Earth’s Core written in 1914. A scientist named Abner Perry builds a gigantic earth-boring machine for his friend, the mining magnate David Innes. On the first test, the machine goes out of control carrying the men deep into the Earth. Instead of being destroyed they discover that the earth is hollow. The savage inner world is populated by strange primitive peoples, dinosaurs and megafauna! This hollow world and its inhabitants are dominated by a race of psionic pterodactyls, the Mahars.
The books follow the adventures of Innes and Perry as they explore the world and help the oppressed Stone Age people rise up against their cruel overlords. It is pulp fantasy at its finest and while some of the social mores are archaic and somewhat sexist, it is still a fascinating read. Burroughs’ descriptions of the world, flora, fauna and various civilizations are vivid and inspiring. All these years later, my teenager’s crush for Dian the Beautiful burns just as brightly.
Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser
A series of books that fed my preference for non-epic fantasy are Fritz Lieber’s delightful tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. These collections of short stories are the very definition of the Sword and Sorcery genre. Two unlikely comrades go on wild, strange adventures that include dealing with extra-dimensional traders, religious scams, stealing from gods and pursuing a variety of eccentric missions assigned by their mysterious wizard patrons. Written between 1936 and 1988, the tales were released in chronological order beginning with Swords and Deviltry in 1970. These were the first books I read where the setting, the great city of Lankhmar, was as important a character as the heroes. From the Plaza of Dark Delights to Bone Alley and the Silver Eel Tavern Lankhmar is the most striking and visceral of fantasy cities. Of all the bizarre locations I have ever read about, The City of Seventy Score Thousand Smokes is at the top of my fantasy tourism bucket list.
Jack of Shadows
The last book I wish to share is one of my personal all-time favorites – Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny. While Zelazny is most remembered for his fantastic Amber novels it was Jack of Shadows that ensnared my heart. The tale takes place on a world that is tidally locked, one hemisphere in eternal light, the other in eternal dark. The light side is a land of science whereas magic rules the dark side.
The anti-hero is Jack, the Lord of Shadow. He possesses the ability to move through any shadow at will and can hear his name if spoken by someone standing in one. From his war with the Lord of Bats to his wild schemes and strange encounters, no other fantasy novel has struck me so profoundly. Jack is the first true anti-hero I encountered and is still the most iconic. The Dung Pits of Glyve are as unique a location as they are an idea. I long to visit High Dudgeon and Shadow Guard, to swill down ale at Rosie’s. As a work of writing it may not be Zelazny’s best, but there is a raw intensity to it; a tale told in one great feverish outburst. The ending alone has caused more debate and controversy than any book I have recommended to friends. It is thanks to this book that Shadowjacks exist.
These are a few of my favorite fantasy books, stories that fueled my own imagination. All my life my world building has been inspired by the seeds planted from these fabulous places and characters. What are some obscure or lesser known works that have inspired you and are dear to your heart?
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