Welcome one and all to our newest feature, Readers of the Lost ARC, a project aimed at recommending under-read books from the past few decades to highlight stories that might interest readers looking for that next great book. We're happy to welcome Courtney Schafer to Lady Business to tell us all about her favorite under-read books from the 1980s. Read on for some cool recommendations.
Greetings, everyone, and thanks to Renay for inviting me to the blog! I'm Courtney Schafer, adventure fantasy author and (far more importantly) voracious reader. I've been devouring SFF books ever since I can remember. As a little girl I started off by reading every single book in the children's section of my local library that had either a spaceship (SF) or unicorn (fantasy) stamped on the spine. By about age seven, I'd exhausted the children's shelves, so I began working my way alphabetically through the adult SFF stacks even as I haunted the new release sections.
Looking back, I was quite fortunate in how well those shelves were stocked. The librarian who made purchase orders for SFF must have had a real love of the genre and a very deep budget, because I'm pretty sure she or he bought nearly every SFF book put out by the publishers of the time. I only wish today's libraries had the funds to do the same; having a resource like that at hand was such a wonderful gift.
I did not realize just how lucky I had been in that smorgasbord of SFF selection until much, much later. When I first dipped my toes into online SFF fandom in 2011, I was soon startled to find that few other SFF fans had even heard of the books I loved best, let alone read them. Like so many readers, I had always assumed that if a book was good, it would naturally find an audience and earn the recognition it deserved. Since becoming an author and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the publishing industry, I now know just how seldom that is true. Countless excellent books never find a readership, for a whole host of reasons that have nothing to do with their quality.
Even if a book does find a reasonable readership, it still runs the risk of fading out of collective memory as time passes—this seems to be especially true for SFF books/series authored by women. If you look at most lists of epic fantasy of the 80s and 90s, you'd think only men were writing the genre; whereas in those decades I read many, many excellent series from female authors.
Thankfully, the good news is that all these excellent books are still out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by new readers. And if there's one thing I love more than reading, it's sharing the books I love. When Renay asked me to do a post here about under-read books, I jumped at the chance. Only problem was, I couldn't whittle down my list to a reasonable size. How about one list per decade, starting with the 1980s? I asked, and Renay and her cohorts here at Lady Business were kind enough to agree.
So this is the first of a set of four posts (1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s), in which I shall be your guide to a sampling of under-read treasures. Note that these lists are wholly personal and not at all meant to be exhaustive. These are not the best books of each decade, merely books I loved that I feel are least talked about today. Plus I have limited myself to choosing only series per author, and listing any given author only once over the four decade span, rather than multiple times in different decades.
But the more recs the better, so If you have other books and series to share, please, do so in comments!
Treasures of the 1980s
Tales from the Flat Earth by Tanith Lee (pub dates 1978-1987)
This is a five-book series of novels (Night's Master, Death's Master, Delusion's Master, Delirium's Mistress, Night's Sorceries) that are unique in style, lush in prose, and (for me, at least!) utterly captivating. Each book is essentially a set of linked short stories whose plots interweave and influence each other. Certain characters reappear, most notably Azhrarn, the prince of Demons—who is beautiful, cruel, destroys the lives of most mortals he interacts with, and yet is capable of love and sacrifice. The setting is Arabian, and the books are narrated as in an oral storytelling tradition. The series as a whole is an incredible achievement—complex, powerful, and breathtakingly gorgeous. The first three books were reissued recently and are worth every penny.
Saga of the Pliocene Exile by Julian May (pub dates 1981-1984)
A bold, colorful series that's a gleeful mash-up of SF and fantasy tropes, combining time travel, psychic powers, and aliens right along with clever reworkings of Celtic myths. The four books in the series—The Many-Colored Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-born King, and The Adversary—form one continuous epic that bursts with invention. The many POV characters are memorable, the worldbuilding well-developed, the action and battles spectacular, and the ending satisfying (or at least, I found it so). If you enjoy the first four novels, good news: there are more! A prequel (sort of!) set in quasi-modern times called Intervention is followed by another three books (Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat) that further flesh out events referenced in the Exiles Saga and provide final closure to a certain character's plotline. Best of all, the formerly out-of-print books were all recently re-released in ebook form, so if you haven't read them, now's the time to start.
The Journeys of McGill Feighan by Kevin O'Donnell (pub dates 1981-1986)
This series starts with a cheerfully zany premise in classic 80s style: as a newborn, protagonist McGill Feighan was swallowed by a giant gastropod sent by the Far Being Retzglaran, and regurgitated after 71.4 hours. This makes him a target for a criminal organization engaged in a covert war with the Far Being; the more so when it's discovered he's a "Flinger"—a teleport who can send himself or any other cargo across the universe in a flash. Over four books, Feighan struggles to evade enemies, come to terms with his power and his past, and help various friends in need. Simple enough, and not so far different from many other stories of the era—but what sets this series apart for me is the imaginative alien settings (referred to in the book names: Caverns, Reefs, Lava, Cliffs), and the odd mix of humor with far more serious and unsettling moments that stuck with me years after I first read the books.
Darkchild by Sydney J. Van Scyoc (pub date 1982)
Darkchild is sometimes shelved in YA because it has two children as protagonists, but I don't think it was necessarily intended as a YA novel. One protagonist is a brainwiped boy (the eponymous Darkchild) who's been sent as an unwitting spy, meant to record details of a planetary culture in advance of an invasion force. The other is the daughter and potential heir of a powerful bahrona (ruler/mage), who takes in the boy and tries to discover his past. Scyoc's worldbuilding is quite interesting—the inhabitants of the planet have made some very unique adaptations to survive—plus she uses the division between Darkchild's primary personality and the lurking "guide" within his mind to explore the question of identity with fascinating (and sometimes surprising) results.
The Tree of Swords and Jewels by C.J. Cherryh (pub date 1983)
Plenty of fantasy novels involve elves, but few make elven characters feel much different than pointy-eared humans. One of Cherryh's greatest strengths as a writer has always been her ability to make aliens feel truly alien, and she applies it to excellent effect here. The elf Arafel is the last of her kind, standing guard over a faerie wood even as magic fades and her realm diminishes. Cherryh captures the sense of the weight of the years Arafel has lived and her loneliness and regret at the changing world in a way that makes her feel both very real and truly other. The sense of loss that pervades the story is heartwrenching, yet there is hope, too. The style is very formal, which puts some people off, but for me it worked perfectly to enhance the wistful, melancholic feel of the story. I love both Arafel and the primary human character, Ciaran Cuilean, who is far less passive than is typical for Cherryh's male POVs, and I especially love the magic, which feels wild and old and like a myth that is true.
True Game books, Sheri S. Tepper (pub dates 1983-1986)
These are a trilogy of trilogies that share a common setting (and some overlap in characters). In the lands of the True Game, some humans have developed powerful psychic talents, ranging from telepathy to beguilement to shapeshifting. Over the years, a rigidly hierarchical society has developed, in which the talented compete for dominance in elaborate battle games, using the untalented as pawns. Another author might well make the games the focus of the story. Tepper takes a far different approach, using the games as a mere backdrop to a greater tale. Her world is wide and varied, full of magic both older and wilder than any human talents, and Tepper's protagonists visit all manner of societies that challenge their assumptions. Tepper has a particular gift for eerie imagery; certain scenes, particularly from the second of the trilogies, remain vivid in my head years after I first read them. That second trilogy is in fact my favorite; the female protagonist, Mavin Manyshaped, is a headstrong, clever, brash shapeshifter whose curiosity leads her into all manner of strange lands and adventures (even as Tepper uses those adventures to explore deeper philosophical questions). The first trilogy of the True Game books (the "Peter" series: King's Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, and Wizard's Eleven) are now in print again in omnibus form as The True Game. Sadly, the rest of the books remain out of print, but they are very much worth the effort of finding them in libraries or used bookstores.
The Alchemists and The Pathfinders by Geary Gravel (pub dates 1984 & 1986)
These may be the most obscure of all the books on this list, but oh how I love them. Each book can stand alone, but the connections between them enhance the experience if they're read together. The Alchemists starts off with an intriguing mystery: on an alien planet, creatures are discovered who look perfectly human, yet the scholar sent to investigate them finds they seem to lack all sentience. Desperate to protect them from extermination and colonization, the scholar assembles a group of experts to help him fake the aliens' sentience and get the planet marked off-limits. As you might imagine, Geary uses this set-up to explore questions of humanity and identity. Yet as interesting as the ideas are, the best part of the book for me is the characters. The cast is wonderfully diverse in every sense of the word, from attitudes and personalities to skin color and sexual orientation. (For those seeking books with non-tragic LGBT relationships, this book features a happy lesbian relationship treated as perfectly ordinary.) Sequel The Pathfinders is likewise wonderful in its characters and the vibrancy of the various planets they visit. The protagonist is a fiercely independent girl with a rare psychic talent, who wants to solve the mystery of her recurring episodes of blindness, which coincide with starships disappearing mid-jump. The plot is inventive and interesting enough, but the development of protagonist Ai's friendships with two other women, one an older dancer, the other a young, sheltered telepath, is what really shines.
The Windrose Chronicles by Barbara Hambly (pub dates 1986-1993)
The premise of the series might sound cheesy to modern readers: Joanna, a computer programmer living in LA, runs afoul of a mystery hacker late one night at work and is kidnapped and transported to an alternate world in which magic exists. She escapes, and in the company of Antryg Windrose—a condemned wizard, the former apprentice of a viciously powerful mage who nearly conquered the world—she struggles both to find her way home and make sense of the dark magic that has begun to affect both worlds. I'll be the first to admit that the technology portion of the first two books' plot hasn't aged well, but the characters are so wonderful that they eclipse any such issues. Joanna is strong, competent, clever, adaptable, without ever needing to turn into some kick-ass warrior. Antryg is equally engaging, covering his own sharp intelligence and his emotional scars with a zany, disarming cheerfulness reminiscent of Tom Baker's turn as the fourth Doctor. The books are long out of print, but Hambly has released them as ebooks, and also recently e-published some short stories featuring Antryg and Joanna (which I'm absolutely delighted about, after years of wanting more of their tale!).
Tiger & Del books by Jennifer Roberson (pub dates 1986-present)
When people talk about sword and sorcery, you often hear names like Fritz Leiber, Robert Howard, and C.L. Moore...but in my view, Jennifer Roberson's Tiger & Del series should be right up there as a top recommendation. The premise of the first book, Sword-Dancer, is simple: Tiger, a skilled swordfighter, is hired to guide a foreigner from the north—a woman named Del, a sword-dancer like himself—through the fierce desert of his homeland, so she can find and rescue her stolen young brother. Adventure ensues, with a nice mix of action and magic. One thing that differentiates Roberson's series is the risk she takes with Tiger, the initial POV character. He starts off as a total jerk. Cocky, arrogant, deeply prejudiced, utterly dismissive of women, the sort of guy you're dying to punch in the face. But as Tiger travels with Del, he's forced to re-examine his beliefs, and Roberson handles his inner struggle and gradual change in a believable fashion. Successive novels get more complex, both in terms of character and plot, and Roberson does a wonderful job of furthering the partnership between Tiger and Del without letting either character stagnate.
Continuing Time books by Daniel Keys Moran (pub dates 1988-present)
The first book in the series, Emerald Eyes, is the tale of an enslaved bioengineered telepath who fights a battle for the freedom of his people that is impossible to win. But there's a lot more going on than that; Moran's the type of writer who created an incredibly complex multi-book timeline and cosmology before he ever set hands to keyboard. In Emerald Eyes, his ambition exceeds his grasp a bit—the book is choppy in structure, jumping too fast between POVs to properly build character—and yet the ideas are so exuberant and intriguing that I couldn't help but be fascinated. The real payoff comes in the following books, particularly 1993's The Last Dancer, which is a richer, deeper, much more mature work that has a terrific female protagonist. For anyone who enjoys grand-scale, wildly inventive SF, you've got to check these books out.
Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge (pub date 1988)
Joan Vinge won the 1981 Hugo award for her SF novel The Snow Queen, but for all I love that book and its sequel The Summer Queen, it's Catspaw that is my favorite of her work. Catspaw is the second in a series featuring a half-human, half-alien telepath struggling to survive in a gritty, dystopian future—and oh, what an amazing job Vinge does with Cat's character and voice! I credit the first novel in the series, Psion, with instilling in me an abiding love of snarky, cynical first-person narration. But Psion is a relatively simple tale; it's in Catspaw that Vinge really pulls out all the stops, both with character development and plot. Clever twists abound, her dystopian future is believable and well-realized, and the novel delves into the cyberpunk realm without ever bogging down in dated technobabble. Best of all, Vinge doesn't gloss over Cat's flaws and prejudices, and she doesn't shy away from following through on the consequences of his mistakes (of which he makes many, some of them quite serious). Yet this isn't an unremittingly bleak novel—there's a welcome thread of hope woven throughout, as Cat finds friendships in unexpected places and undergoes real growth as a character.
Alamut by Judith Tarr (pub date 1989)
Alamut is historical fantasy set in the Middle East during the time of the Crusades, and handles both Christian and Muslim viewpoints with equal grace. Tarr weaves in a hefty dose of magic—one POV character is an immortal knight, another character an ifrit assassin—without losing the feel of historical accuracy of events, which is no easy feat. Tarr's characters and the historical figures such as Saladin that they encounter are all very well drawn, and locations from cities to desert are so vividly depicted that they stand out in sharply in my memory even years after last reading the novel. Tarr also does a wonderful job showing that women in historical fantasy can be strong, active characters despite the societal constraints of the time period. If you like Alamut, not only is sequel The Dagger and the Cross also excellent, but Tarr has written many other historical fantasy novels with non-European characters and settings, all with the same careful attention to character arcs and historical detail.
Falcon by Emma Bull (pub date 1989)
Emma Bull has been quietly writing amazing, trend-setting novels for years. Yet apart from her urban fantasy War for the Oaks, which is often cited as one of the seminal works of the genre, none of them have had the recognition they deserve. Falcon is an SF tale about the younger son of a planetary dynasty who becomes a starship pilot after a bloody revolution. It's not quite as polished as her later work—a huge time jump happens midway through the story with an abrupt shift of POV characters that feels quite jarring—but I love the book regardless of its rough edges, because every character in the novel is so vividly drawn. You get difficult family relationships, betrayals, and reluctant friendships mixed in with surprising plot twists and space battles. I once went on a 7-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada with three fellow engineering students, all of whom rarely cracked open any book not required to solve a problem set. Unable to fathom a week without reading, yet conscious of my pack weight, I brought only one book along: Falcon. Midway through the trip, one of my friends asked to see the book, curious why I'd bothered to bring it. He started to read...and didn't stop until he finished, forgoing our planned hike up a side canyon. My other two friends were amazed. One by one, they borrowed the book—and each of them spent long hours huddled over its pages, ignoring all the spectacular mountain scenery around us. There is no better praise I can give a novel than that.
Courtney Schafer is an avid mountain climber and an author, combining her love of scaling steep and massive rocks with her love of books to create The Shattered Sigil series, which begins with The Whitefire Crossing, a story about survival, betrayal, blood magic, and friendship. She's on Twitter at cischafer.