Monday, March 23, 2020

Mind Meld: The 101 and the 201 of SFF

Welcome back to the Mind Meld, the feature where we ask a bunch of genre people a single genre related question and compile their responses. Formerly at SF Signal, and at Barnes and Noble, the Mind Meld’s home is now here at Nerds of a Feather.

The question I asked this time:

Some readers are looking for entry points into fantasy and pointing them at a book rich in the conversation and assumed tropes can throw them right out of it again. Other readers want more than a basic experience but are frustrated with novels that retread the same basics over and over.

So I'd like for you to recommend me *two* books:

1. A 101 SFF book that someone who may have seen Lord of the Rings but never cracked open an SFF book might fruitfully read. 
2. A 201 SFF book for someone looking for a deeper, richer experience, rewarding their previous reading in genre. 

Here are our participants and their answers!

Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen writes an alarming number of science fiction and fantasy stories, and now poetry and nonfiction too. You can find her in real life wherever it's cold enough, on twitter @MarissaLingen or on her website at

Fonda Lee's Jade City is exactly the kind of smart, fun read I want to use to invite people into fantasy. It's doing its own thing so much that you don't have to know other fantasy tropes to get it--there's nothing else quite like this. The island of Kekon is the world's source of magical jade--and the home of jade-wielding gangster families. Jade City delves into the heart of both.

A.K. Larkwood's The Unspoken Name is a great 201 book for people who have encountered their first orc and their first world-spanning fantasy already and want to take it to the next level. Orc priestess Csorwe begins the book fully expecting to die in the service of her death cult. When a sorcerer rescues her instead, her life takes a turn--and another--until she's twisting through a labyrinth of worlds that even the most jaded reader will find delightful.

Megan O'Keefe

Megan E. O'Keefe was raised amongst journalists, and as soon as she was able joined them by crafting a newsletter which chronicled the daily adventures of the local cat population. She lives in the Bay Area of California, and spends her free time tinkering with anything she can get her hands on. Her fantasy debut, Steal the Sky, won the Gemmell Morningstar Award and her space opera debut, Velocity Weapon is nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. She is represented by Sam Morgan at The Lotts Agency.

Giving someone an entry point to fantasy is something I feel should be tailored to the reader's personal preferences. Do you like mafia stories? Then Fonda Lee's Jade War will absolutely hook you with its intense action and family drama. Already a sucker for beautiful prose? Patricia A. McKillip is the author for you, and you can start anywhere, but one of my personal favorites is Alphabet of Thorn. Like Supernatural and Buffy? Then jump feet-first into Seanan McGuire's October Daye series. History fan? Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe. Like westerns? Give Joe Abercrombie's Red Country a spin.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins is my immediate recommendation for those who are steeped in the fantasy genre but are looking for a different experience. It's a difficult book to categorize, and those are my favorite kinds of books. I'd also put forth Mirror and Goliath by Ishbelle Bee for its intense, strange beauty, Dinner at Deviant's Palace by Tim Powers for an unusual look at the post-apocalyptic, Cloud Roads by Martha Wells for its unique characters and, if I can sneak some science fiction in here, Starfish by Peter Watts for those who feel their grimdark is still too shiny.

Alix Harrow

A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is now a full-time writer living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral toddlers. She is the author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Hugo award-winning short fiction. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.

1. A 101 SFF book that someone who may have seen Lord of the Rings but never cracked open an SFF book might fruitfully read.

You know what everybody loves? Dueling magicians who slowly fall in love within a whimsical and aesthetically pleasing circus! The Night Circus has been a very successful SFF 101 book recommendation for me. The magic is familiar and the world is very nearly our own, and the spirit of yearning and wonder is one that almost every reader knows well. I've also had good luck with Stardust, because all of us have fairy tales baked into our bones.

2. A 201 SFF book for someone looking for a deeper, richer experience, rewarding their previous reading in genre.

...But not everybody is prepared to read about a geologically-fractured planet and the hyper-evolved earth-benders who manipulate its surface in service to a totalitarian empire. The Fifth Season is brilliant, already-classic, excruciating, and wonderful--but it doesn't hold your hand as it takes you through a continent's-worth of secondary world history and a heady mix of technology and magic. I also try to reserve all 800 pages of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for 201 readers, because not everybody is up for footnotes about fairy history.

Adri Joy

Adri is co-editor here at Nerds of a Feather.

I love how this question is formulated, because it makes one thing clear from the start: very few people coming into SFF books for the first time are entering in a vacuum of previous media. While the literary genre may not have taken over the world, big movie and TV franchises with fantasy trappings are now a major part of the landscape, and any 101 conversation needs to take that into account.

Of course, recommending a book for someone who has seen Lord of the Rings requires understanding if they liked Lord of the Rings or not. I considered breaking the rules of the question to give myself a recommendation for those who do, and a recommendation for those who don't", but I should probably set a good example and do things properly! My 101 book is therefore a pick that I hope will have something for both crowds: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Fans of the fellowship get another close-knit crew, all figuring out their own problems and on a (slightly less epic) quest; those who need to know that it's not all battles and melodrama and highly gender-biased casts get a very different narrative and and aesthetic to the big individualistic epics of film. Plus, in the UK edition at least, it's got a very "crossover"-friendly cover: there's a serif font and everything!

Once somebody's hooked, I feel like there are two ways the "deepening" can go (oh no, I'm about to ruin the premise again, aren't I). One great source of new material is in short fiction, and recent anthologies from and Uncanny Magazine provide amazing showcases of the current talent in that area. Short fiction anthologies and magazines can be a tasting menu, allowing readers to discover new authors and then dive more deeply into the ones they gel with. Now that I've cheated and sneaked in some more books, I'll put in my second recommendation, which is Jade City by Fonda Lee: a book which takes a plot of epic fantasy scale and puts it in a world that's far from the orcs-and-elves trappings of the post-Tolkien "standards". Characters are complex, magic is innovative, and the action is cinematic and compelling. Definitely a book for anyone struggling to break out of an early rut and discover exactly how much fantasy is capable of.

Marina Berlin

Marina Berlin is a critic, author and poet and who grew up speaking three languages in a coastal city far, far away. Her opinions have been published in IGN, VICE, Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons and other venues. You can find her work at her website: or follow her on Twitter @berlin_marina

For a 101 book my pick is Zen Cho's "Sorcerer to the Crown". Set in 19th century England, the book is influenced by the wolrdbuilding in Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell", so magic is a codified, well known aspect of English life, and access to it is stratified along lines of gender, race and class, like every other resource.
Cho's protagonists are Prunella Gentleman, an orphan whose father was a British officer and whose mother was an Indian sorceress, and Zacharias Whyte, a boy born to an African couple who were enslaved by the British, and adopted by the English noble who took him from his parents as an infant. Both Prunella and Zacharias are outsiders in British society, despite growing up steeped in its mores and traditions, and both of them have access to magic, in different ways.
I love the book because of its humor, its global outlook on the 19th century, despite being focused on England, and the gentle, intricate relationships it weaves between its protagonists and their friends, enemies and relatives. On the one hand it's a very easy book for readers new to the genre - it's set in our world, albeit in a different century, the protagonists are humans, and the magical creatures are mostly faeries and dragons, things people with no interest in fantasy are likely vaguely familiar with. On the other hand, it's great for introducing people to genre, it opens so many doors and uses so many tropes, it's a great stepping stone to start from and then move on to other books.

For a 201 book my pick is Yoon Ha Lee's "Ninefox Gambit". I grew up loving science fiction, and the book felt like it was written for someone like me, who knew and loved the tropes, who understood the language of scifi without everything being spelled out. The first fifty pages, especially, are very dense and heavy with made up technical terms, and I felt like someone new the genre would have trouble getting through them.
The book is also rewarding because it blends military science fiction with elements of fantasy, including religious worship in a very high-tech environment. It portrays a form of warfare that's based on a calendar that does everything from dictating auspicious dates to determining what defense formation can be used. If you've read a lot of military scifi in English, the book will likely feel fresh and inventive with its tropes, including the protagonist, a high ranking military officer, spending her free time watching TV shows with robots shaped like mythical animals, who gossip about her when she's not looking.

Lisa McCurrach

Lisa (she/her) is a thirtysomething lifelong book nerd from Scotland who lives surrounded by SFF books and fueled by tea. She is a co-host of SciFi Month and Wyrd and Wonder, both online celebrations of SF and fantasy respectively. She can be found online at Dear Geek Place, or on Twitter and Instagram as @deargeekplace.

The 101: The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

I picked Jen’s debut novel on the basis that someone who has seen The Lord of the Rings and liked it enough to want to find more stories like it, should absolutely try something fresher in the same epic adventure vein. For me, the Copper Cat trilogy absolutely fits that bill. It’s everything an aspiring fantasy nerd could want. It’s entrenched in the tropes comfortably enough to represent the genre well, but unlike Tolkien’s written work, it’s as far from dry as you can get (sorry, Fellowship fans!). And it was among the very first SFF books I read when I was starting out as a blogger, so not only is my personal soft spot for it undeniable, but it leaped immediately to mind when I was considering how to answer this question. I go with my gut a lot of the time, and so here is my 101 offering.

The 201: Hunger Makes The Wolf by Alex Wells

This one also represents a modern genre offering that clearly stands on the shoulders of the classic giants that came before it, but rather than simply leaping off of that foundation, this strange, richly-imagined science-fantasy digs down, getting to know its own soil and coming up with weird and wonderful story gems that make the whole thing feel like an undiscovered country (or planet, if we’re staying properly on-theme here).

It’s Frank Herbert’s Dune for every uppity nerd who ever asked really critical questions about it, who loved its ideas and/or its trappings but wanted more (yes, that’s me, hi how are you). So depending on how deep in love you already are with SFF, it can definitely satisfy that craving for clearer, better storytelling

Melissa Caruso

Melissa Caruso is the author of fantasy novels of intrigue and explosions from Orbit Books, including The Tethered Mage and its sequels; her latest, The Obsidian Tower, launches a new trilogy this June. Find Melissa on Twitter as @melisscaru for tweets about the four classic elements: writing, swordfighting, tea, and pets.

I always like to get a feel for a person’s tastes before recommending a book, but if I had no other information to go on, for a 101 book I might recommend the excellent EMPIRE OF SAND by Tasha Suri. It hits the perfect balance of offering up the delights that make fantasy so compelling (gorgeous worldbuilding, wonder-inducing magic, epic stakes) without leaning on assumed prior knowledge or familiar SFF tropes. The conflict plays out on a very personal, human level, with a compelling main character trapped in an impossible situation and a central relationship that sweeps you away. Plus it stands alone, with a highly satisfying ending, so it doesn’t require the reader to commit to a trilogy—but there’s a companion book if they do come out wanting more!

For my 201 book, I’d recommend Genevieve Cogman’s THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY and its sequels. This series is an absolute romp: fun and clever with plenty of action and mystery, engaging characters, and delicious worldbuilding. Because the series actively plays with tropes, you’ll get more out if it if you’re already familiar enough with SFF to know the familiar story elements and archetypes she’s using as imaginative springboards. Since it hops around between alternate worlds with varying levels of magic and science, having that context also allows for a sort of shorthand that lets you understand more than is outright explained. Plus, they’re the kind of books that make you really want to play (or run) a tabletop game in that world, and it’s a long series so there’s plenty to read!

Andrew Hiller

Andrew Hiller stumbled off the road least chosen into the whitewater best avoided. Astride his capsized raft, you can find his books, A Halo of Mushrooms and A Climbing Stock, his radio work, and a couple of Muppet documentaries.

The letter arrives not by email, but by scroll, carried on the mist of a dragon’s harrumph. I break the seal to find my proposal has been granted. Upon the next semester, I will be teaching SFF 101 at Secular U. Immediately, I think of the syllabus. Should I introduce fantasy through its greats: through Bradbury, Pratchett, Le Guin? The books that made me love the genre? Someone modern that speaks to the issues of the day?

In the end, I realize there is no one right choice, but I discard the Belgariad, Harry Potter, and even Amber.

The first book my students will dig into will be Brian McClellan’s 2017 Epic Fantasy, Sins of Empire. Why? It has echoes of Tolkien with its military strategy, battles, and magical artifacts, but layers in a tale of spies, propaganda, and politics. Even better for my students, Empire features a split narrative.

Why is this important?

If my reader likes adventure tales or superheroes, they have a Hercules of a character in Mad Ben Styke. If they prefer, tales of wiles and wit or to wrestle with racial subjugation and an underground fight for civil rights, then Michel Brevis’ narrative will captivate them. On the other hand, if military strategy is their thing, Lady Flint should more than satisfy. In other words, McClellan’s Gods of Blood and Powder provides a rich buffet. Plus, it’s just a ton of fun.

To follow it up? For SFF 201, I’m picking a book that shows that fantasy is larger than rewashed Tolkienesque quests and battle. I still want a book that’s a ride, fun, and has rich characters. How about a book that marries The Godfather with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ? That’s right, book two is an action intrigue. It’s Fonda Lee’s Jade City.

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan's three month break from computer programming has now lasted seventeen years and counting. He's written more gaming books than he can readily recall, by virtue of the alchemical transformation of tea and guilt into words. He lives in Ireland with his wife, twin sons and a marauding toddler. Find him online at or on twitter @mytholder

101: Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld is fun. The core conceit of the book – Dungeons & Dragons adventuring parties have the same dynamic as rock bands – instantly orientates the reader. Don’t worry about having to wade through prophecies, dark lords, or ten thousand page epic backstories, because we’re getting the band back together. Couple that with compelling characters, a great supporting cast (especially the two-headed giant) and more music in-jokes than you can shake a drumstick at, and you’ve a great intro to fantasy.

201: Not a novel, but a comic book. Kieron Gillen’s Die mixes portal fantasy and mid-life crisis in a tale of six friends from our world who were dragged into an otherworldly realm twenty years ago. Now, they’re back in the game.
What makes Die especially interesting is that they’re not in some generic fantasy-land. Much like Ellis’ Planetary uncovered the secret history of comics, Die's realms trace the development of SFF, from the Bronte’s imagined worlds to Tolkien (and, intriguingly, William Gibson), and the characters as are knowingly genre-aware as the canniest reader. Highly recommended.

Keena Roberts

Keena Roberts wrote a memoir about growing up being chased by lions and now writes queer SFF. She can be found at @roberts_keena on Twitter, tweeting about being chased by lions and queer SFF.

A 101 SFF book that I think is a great "entry" to SFF is Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames (a book I love). It's the sequel to Kings of the Wyld, so you can start there if you want, but I skipped it in favor of the absolutely breathtakingly badass Bloody Rose, a choice I regret not at all. There's a lot in there that can appeal to a casual fantasy fan: there are monsters, and heroes and heroines who fight them with swords and magic, lots of tavern brawls and a lot of clever, engaging dialogue with some swearing thrown in. The epic is beautifully written and totally immersive, with enough familiar material to appeal to someone who like swords and monsters but with detailed and rich world building that will make them wonder why they haven't been reading SFF all this time? It's so damn good.

BUT! If you’re looking for a deeper and more complex 201-level read in SFF, I’d highly, highly recommend Gideon the Ninth. There’s some familiarity here in terms of “hey, look a sword” and “hey, a spaceship” but THAT IS WHERE THE FAMILIAR ENDS. Nothing about this book is like anything I’ve ever read before: the heroines suck but are completely awesome at the same time, death seems to be more of a general concept than an inevitability for anyone, and the back story that develops around the main characters is complicated and confusing and draws you in like a beckoning metacarpal. You won’t know what’s happening to you but you won’t care because whatever it is, don’t want it to stop. 

J Kathleen Cheney

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former math teacher who gave up the glory of public school teaching for the chance to write her stories. The Golden City (2013) was the first of her published novels, and if you look real hard on the internet you'll discover she's still writing despite the insanity of our world.

I'm not as big of a fan of the 'medieval' fantasy, so you'll find my recommendations aren't Tolkien-esque. Given that, for an entry point into SFF fiction, my personal choice would be The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. With two distinctly different cultures set against each other--unfortunately not on equal footing--our heroine finds herself plucked out of her comfortable life and tossed into a situation where she's expected to rescue not only herself but her new people. Marketed mostly as a YA novel, this book introduces a lot of the basic elements we see over and over in fantasy, told in a lovely, flowing style that will appeal to readers who might not be ready to bite into the chewy density of Tolkien's work.

When asked about a choice for a more experienced reader, I always recommend my favorite series: The Fall of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells. This amazing trilogy is a complex fantasy that juxtaposes three different cultures--with their wildly different magic and levels of technology-- on three different worlds. At its heart, this is a portal fantasy, where we get to follow characters into worlds they find confusing and terrifying, but it takes that trope up to another level and leads us to what I consider a very satisfying conclusion.

Elizabeth Fitz

Elizabeth Fitzgerald is a freelance editor and owner of Earl Grey Editing. She lives in Canberra, Australia. An unabashed roleplayer and reader of romance, her weaknesses are books, loose-leaf tea and silly dogs. She tweets @elizabeth_fitz

I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve heard of Harry Potter. Now, imagine if the story was set at an Australian university. There’s no Voldemort, just a share house full of students struggling to find their place in the world, untangle their love lives, manage their magic, keep up with their favourite TV show and make it big with their quirky rock band. Voila! You have Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Belladonna University series. It begins with Fake Geek Girl (also the title of the aforementioned rock band) or you can wait for the first three stories to be released as the collection Unreal Alchemy in April.

For those with a bit more genre experience, I’d recommended Stephanie Gunn’s criminally underrated novella, Icefall. It could be pitched as lesbian space mountaineers, but that wouldn’t do it justice. The novella tackles some significant issues in the genre, such as colonialism, the blending of science and spirituality, and the uneasy relationship between disability and technology.

Camestros Felapton

Camestros Felapton is a blogger and a 2018 Hugo finalist Fanwriter. He and his cat can be found at

There are a wealth of choices for a good 101 SFF book. For a younger reader or indeed an older reader who won’t be put off by books aimed at children, I can’t imagine anything better than Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. The books have so many familiar tropes (magic, dragons, wizard schools) but have a depth of originality to them that showcases how expansive fantasy can be as a genre. Likewise Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a strong introduction to science fiction. It has familiar concepts and sci-fi tropes (a human visitor to a strange alien planet) but it remains a refreshingly original story.

A 201 book? Solaris by Stanislav Lem. Yes, it is another case of a human visits an alien planet but Lem turns core plot that into a psychological horror story and an examination of the nature of identity, memory and intelligence. It’s also a great example of a fully realised truely alien intelligence: a mind so unlike our own that it is barely possible to see that it is a mind.

Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff is Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, AKA The Publisher, at Queen of Swords Press ( She also writes and edits in genres ranging from fantasy to historical fiction and mysteries to horror in her copious free time. The rest of her life is dedicated to doing arcane things with computers and worshipping her cats as they are accustomed to being adored. 

I first read A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin when I was about 12 or so. It was one of the first sfnal novels that I read by a woman author and it served as my gateway drug to the genre. Why Earthsea, out of Le Guin’s many worlds? Well, dragons, for one. What fantasy fan doesn’t love dragons? But also the way that she deals with the idea of words having power and magic: to know something by its true name is a magical gift and potential curse, all rolled up in  one. Plus, it’s a lovely bit of writing and if you like it, there’s a bunch more books to read after it. From a writerly standpoint, her ability to create beautifully three-dimensional worlds and highly memorable characters that don’t overwhelm her stories is an endless marvel. Le Guin’s work appeals to a wide-ranging and large audience so I think she’s one of the best “starter” authors for introducing readers to fantasy (or science fiction, for that matter).

I could easily make a case for her work as my 201 pick too, but instead, I’m going to pick an author who doesn’t get as much love for her work as I think it deserves. Barbara Hambly has had a long and distinguished career spanning multiple genres and I’ve enjoyed a number of her books, but one of my favorites continues to be her novel Dragonsbane. It’s an unusual novel, even by today’s standards: the protagonists are an older established couple with children. Jenny Waynest is a sorceress who thinks her powers have already reached their limit, John has had his moment of glory and thinks he’s done. They are complicated and interesting, as is the dragon, and the story pulls them into questioning what it means to be human and to have powers in a way that I don’t think a lot of fantasy does.

Thanks for asking me to play along!

Sophia McDougall

Sophia McDougall is the author of the Romanitas trilogy, set in a modern world where the Roman Empire never fell – newly out in the US and Canada. Her two novels for children, Mars Evacuees and Space Hostages, are about girls, boys and fish-shaped robots in outer space.

Most of us SFF longtimers encountered our literary gateway drug in our teens, and if you’re curious about the genre or have always wondered exactly how the geek in your life got that way, you could do worse than retrace those early steps. However, some of the giant tomes that made us feel so grown-up don’t always stand up that well when first encountered as an adult -- or are so vast that you kind of need a 14-year-old’s energy levels going in. SFF actually written for teenagers is often an exception, and virtually all of Diana Wynne Jones’s books remain beloved combines dazzling, imaginative fantasy, endearing characters and a lightness of touch that you might not encounter in some of the saga-length adult classics.  Howl’s Moving Castle is a great place to start – starting from tropes you’ll recognise from fairytales and launching off from them in exuberant new directions. Shy Sophie, a hatmaker’s apprentice, finds herself under a deadly yet oddly liberating curse … after which she’s not about to be intimidated by Wizard Howl, even if he supposedly does eat girls’ hearts. If you like it, Wynne Jones has a great canon to explore further, but while many books are series, they’re nearly always stand-alone stories, so you’re not signing up for anything too relentless.

If after reading Howl’s Moving Castle you decide you enjoy flawed but charismatic wizards, you could move on to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke – a richly textured Regency England where magic is both a primal, chthonic force and a genteel subject of academic study. It’s about friendship and rivalry, madness and sanity, and it’s an excellent illustration of how compelling the results can be when the lines between genres blur.

Julie Czerneda

Julie’s been reading and loving fantasy (and SF) as long as she can remember. Unable to get enough, she started writing her own in 1997, and now has 20 books in print from DAW. Introducing this genre to new readers? One of her greatest joys.

SFF 101. Like the movies, not sure what to read in the genre? I suggest Green Rider by Kristen Britain (DAW Books). It’s the first of an epic series, but stands on its own. What I particularly like is the high magic feel and vibrant landscapes reminiscent of LoTR. It’s also very readable, so if you’ve never tried anything like this before, prepare to plunge in and enjoy. (I should also mention among the best and most believable treatment of horses in fantasy.) If you like this? The rest of the ongoing series is even better!

SFF 201. Read quite a bit, looking for more? Well then. Grab J.M. Frey’s The Untold Tale, Reuts Publications. A wonderfully deep, subversive, entertaining book and series. You’ll think you know where it’s taking you, but trust me, you don’t. I find myself thinking about this one often. Great fun and thought-provoking, this is a story that will reward experienced readers—and gamers. Oh, and writers, because Frey is writing to us as well. How circular is that? You’ll see.

Thank you all!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.