Welcome to Readers of the Lost ARC! This project aims to recommend under-read books from the past few decades and to highlight stories that might interest readers looking for that next great book. We're happy to welcome Courtney Schafer back to Lady Business to tell us all about her favorite under-read books from the 1990s. Read on for some cool recommendations!
Hello again! This is Courtney Schafer, here to take you through another sampling of under-read SFF treasures. Last time I shared books from the 1980s, so this time I’ll be focusing on the 1990s. As I’ve said before, keep in mind this list is personal in nature, and not meant to be exhaustive, nor even to identify the "best" books of the decade. Rather, these are some of my favorite reads published in the 1990s that seem to have fallen off the radar and deserve to be discovered by more readers. If you have more recs, please share them in the comments!
David Sullivan series by Tom Deitz (pub dates 1986-1999)
This is a nine book contemporary fantasy series that I decided to discuss here rather than my 1980s post since most of the books came out in the 1990s. Sometimes you want a chewy, challenging read, and sometimes you want to relax with a series that’s just pure fun, and the Sullivan books are great fun. The first novel, Windmaster’s Bane, mixes Celtic legends with a backwoods Georgia setting, which works surprisingly well thanks to Deitz’s imaginative take on the faerie realm and his gift for memorable characters. Protagonist Davy Sullivan and his friends Alec and Liz form a tightly knit trio along the lines of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, except written for an older audience (and without the Chosen One hoopla). As the series continues, Deitz adds a Native American POV character, Calvin, and the adventures shift from faerie to Galunlati, a realm from Cherokee lore. Calvin gets his own solo book in Stoneskin’s Revenge, the fifth book in the series, and while I can’t speak to how accurately Deitz portrayed Cherokee beliefs, I will say that as a teen I thought it was pretty damn cool to read a fantasy adventure with a Native American as the hero rather than a secondary character. But what I like best about Deitz’s books are the solid friendships between the cast that grow deeper with each new problem they face.
Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand (pub date 1990)
I’ll be dead honest: from a structural/plot perspective, Winterlong is a mess. Yet of all Hand’s novels, this is the one that has stayed with me best, thanks to the sheer evocative power of its imagery and the inventive, creepy mixture of mythology and science fiction. The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic Washington DC, where viral plagues rain from the sky and even the trees are carnivorous. The story centers around an autistic girl who has been modified by scientists to feed off emotions, and her long-lost twin brother who is a courtesan in a child brothel. The whole book feels like a fever dream that is disturbing, violent, and deeply strange. Stay far away if you want to avoid books containing rape and other problematic content, but if you have a strong stomach and enjoy SFF that slides right along the edge of horror, with lush, beautiful prose and nightmarish imagery, Winterlong will haunt you for a long time.
Star of the Guardians series by Margaret Weis (pub dates 1990-1993)
How can you possibly include Margaret Weis on an under-read books list? I hear you asking. Didn’t all those Dragonlance and other fantasy books she wrote with Tracy Hickman sell ten zillion copies? Yes, and that’s the thing. All you ever hear about Margaret Weis is in the context of her co-authored series, yet her solo space opera epic, Star of the Guardians, is in my opinion considerably more intriguing (and better crafted) than her co-authored work. Weis is quite open about her inspiration for the series: she loved the original Star Wars movies but she wanted to write the story the way she thought it should have gone. The result is a darker, somewhat more nuanced take on the tale of a galactic rebellion, where the true hero is not the impetuous teenage orphan but a damaged, powerful, jaded, much older female knight. (How often is it that a middle-aged woman gets to be the coolest and most important character in an action-adventure tale?) Weis’s prose is functional rather than beautiful, but she has a flair for story that kept me turning pages, and the varied cast is an interesting bunch. For those of you anxiously awaiting the next Star Wars movie, why not try Star of the Guardians?
Illusion by Paula Volsky (pub date 1991)
Illusion’s plot is essentially the French Revolution in a secondary-world fantasy setting, and in classic form the book chronicles the fall of its aristocratic young heroine from wealth and privilege to begging in the streets. The writing is lush and lyrical, the world realistic and detailed, and Volsky does a terrific job of pulling the reader into protagonist Eliste’s POV and showing how she changes from a spoiled, prejudiced brat into a far more mature, empathetic, and capable woman. Fair warning, the pace starts off slow—Volsky gives readers a detailed look at the existing society with all its excesses and flaws so that when the revolution comes, it carries a proper amount of contrast and impact. If you love richly detailed historically-based fantasy along the lines of Guy Gavriel Kay and Judith Tarr, this is a treasure you should pounce upon. (As a side note, since not everyone is aware: Volsky is still publishing today, but under pseudonyms. In 2011/2012 she put out the Veiled Isles trilogy under the name Paula Brandon.)
Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear (omnibus edition published 1992)
Greg Bear is far better known as a prolific author of science fiction; you rarely hear about this, his one foray into mythological fantasy. That’s a shame, because Songs of Earth and Power is a hell of a story, complex and dark and unique. It was originally published as two separate books in the 80s (The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage), but the edition I own is the combined rewritten edition published in 1992. The protagonist is a young poet who wanders into the realm of the Sidhe and finds himself trapped and struggling to survive. Bear’s take on the Sidhe realm is what really stands out for me: it’s truly eerie and cruel and alien, full of complex politics and cosmology that the reader learns to parse along with the protagonist. I’m usually the sort of person who reads for character, but here it is the worldbuilding and sense of mystery and suspense that made an indelible impression on me.
Island Warrior series by Carol Severance (pub dates 1992-1993)
Carol Severance won a Compton Crook Award in 1991 for her SF novel Reefsong, and followed that up with her Island Warrior fantasy series, of which Demon Drums is the first installment. Severance (who sadly passed away just last year) drew on her experiences living in Micronesia and Hawaii to inform the environments and cultures of her novels. Not only does the Island Warrior series feature coral atolls and island jungles instead of forests and castles, it has a not-so-common protagonist: an experienced female warrior suffering from a type of PTSD after she abandons fighting in a neverending war. The portrayal of protagonist Iuti’s reluctance to make connections is skillfully handled, as is her slow-developing bond with a young woman she’s trying to protect. All three books are good solid reads that deserve to be appreciated by far more readers than have yet discovered them.
Exordium series by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge (pub dates 1993-1996)
Exordium is five volumes of rip roaring yet intelligent space opera (The Phoenix in Flight, The Ruler of Naught, A Prison Unsought, The Rifter's Covenant, The Thrones of Kronos), originally published by Tor and now re-edited and re-released by the authors. I first discovered the series because I saw it mentioned as featuring a character "like Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond, but in space." As Dunnett’s historical epics are my favorite books ever, that pretty much translated to "TAKE MY MONEY." Sure enough, royal scion Brandon Arkad bears a certain resemblance to Lymond—he’s a frighteningly clever character skilled at convincing others to underestimate him. Yet he’s only one of a large and interesting cast, and it’s Rifter captain Vi’ya who became my true favorite thanks to her narrative arc. Some aspects of the series narrative style are also reminiscent of Dunnett, like the use of viewpoint characters who intensely dislike a protagonist & misinterpret his or her motives, but Exordium is all its own creation. The story is jam-packed with nifty SF technologies, great space battles, fascinating alien races (it reminded me a bit of Brin's Uplift books in that regard), and a hefty dose of humor to leaven out the characters' angst. Smith & Trowbridge do a great job balancing viewpoints of the large cast while making each character feel real and distinct. Maybe the best thing about the series, though, is that the ending felt truly satisfying. I find that pretty rare among series longer than trilogies, so kudos to Smith & Trowbridge for pulling it off.
Wars of Light and Shadow by Janny Wurts (pub dates 1994-present)
The 90s saw plenty of excellent epic fantasies from authors like Tad Williams and Kate Elliott and Michelle West (and more!), but Janny Wurts’s 11-book Wars of Light and Shadow stands out to me as an under-appreciated masterwork of the genre. I only started the series relatively recently—I’m currently about to read the 8th book, Stormed Fortress—but I have been blown away by the story’s depth and power, plus the careful crafting of the plot. After Jordan and Martin, I had become awfully leery of long series because of the prevalence of plot sprawl, but so far Wars of Light and Shadow has no such failing. Every scene matters, and in fact scenes in earlier books take on whole new levels of meaning after certain reveals, which is particularly cool. The series is split into mini-arcs, each with a gradual build-up followed by rising action and a tense climax, which works very well to provide rhythm and pacing in such a long continuous story. Granted, these are not easy books to read. The various magical/political factions and their motives are complex, the prose is dense, and the build-up requires patience and trust on the part of the reader. Yet just as with Dorothy Dunnett, or Gene Wolfe, or the infamous Malazan series, if you’re willing to put in the effort, the payoff is huge. (If you’d like to try Wurts without diving headlong into a massive series, I also highly recommend her standalones To Ride Hell’s Chasm and Master of Whitestorm.)
City of Bones by Martha Wells (pub date 1995)
Wells mixes SF and fantasy elements in City of Bones to excellent effect, combining a post-apocalyptic stone desert populated by a bioengineered race with a richly described and dangerous city with laws enforced by mages. My favorite part of the book, though, has to be Wells's characters. Protagonist Khat (one of the bioengineered krismen) is smart, dryly sarcastic, and has a fascinating backstory. Co-protagonist Elen, who is one of the city's Warders, is likewise smart and determined, plus she’s forthright in a way that plays very nicely off the more reserved Khat. The story is standalone—though I sure wish Wells would one day write more!—and offers an archaeological mystery alongside exciting action and magic. Originally published by Tor, now it’s been republished in ebook form by Martha herself. If you enjoy adventure SF/fantasy, it’s a must read.
The Silent Strength of Stones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (pub date 1995)
This is rural contemporary fantasy, set in a small lakeside resort and featuring an excellently crafted first-person narration from a teenage boy struggling to balance his own needs with those of his family. Often in fantasy young protagonists are portrayed as escaping from family situations; to find their own path, they must sever old ties. One of the things I like best about The Silent Strength of Stones is that Hoffman takes a different approach. Her characters—not just her protagonist, but two other very different teenagers he befriends—learn to assert their individuality while also repairing strained bonds and gaining deeper insight into the families they thought were so uncaring. The result is a tale that's full of quiet hope, complete with a resolution I find deeply satisfying. Some books just feel good to read, and this is one of them.
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling (pub date 1996)
This may be my all-time favorite mythic urban fantasy novel. The Wood Wife is a beautifully written tale in the vein of Charles De Lint and Emma Bull, but with Windling’s own unique stamp. The story is set in Tucson, Arizona, and Windling does a superb job of bringing the Sonoran Desert to life, to the point the landscape is as much a character as the people in the novel. The story is steeped not only in art and music but also southwestern myths, which I thought was a refreshing change from the usual European influences. Windling’s nonhuman characters feel both real and convincingly alien, giving the story a nice sense of awe and mystery, and I likewise enjoyed the human characters, finding them flawed, passionate, and interesting. Windling is far better known for her work as an artist, essayist, and editor, particularly of short stories (I'm not much of a short story reader, but even I used to devour the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies that Windling edited with Ellen Datlow). Ever since first reading The Wood Wife, I’ve wistfully hoped Windling would write more fiction for the adult market, but so far as I know, Wood Wife is her only such work. (She has written several children’s books.)
An Exchange of Hostages by Susan R. Matthews (pub date 1997)
If Hand’s Winterlong needed a content warning, Matthews’s An Exchange of Hostages needs a giant flashing neon sign saying "DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU ENJOY STARING INTO THE ABYSS." Seriously, this book is perhaps the most disturbing SFF novel I have yet read. (Nor am I alone, as evidenced by the reviews on Amazon.) Essentially it’s a psychological study of a man with high ideals who discovers he’s a sadist, and an examination of the brutally dystopian futuristic society that enables and encourages his sadism. The story is intelligent, ambitious, and absolutely unflinching. I can’t say that I love this novel—it’s too disturbing for that—but I was deeply impressed by Matthews’s skill in writing it. If grimdark is your thing, well, this is about as grim and dark as SF gets.
Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary by Pamela Dean (pub date 1998)
I adore books that explore the bonds between friends, and Dean’s Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary fits that description perfectly. The title refers to three sisters, of which middle sister Gentian is the protagonist, and the book is loosely inspired by the traditional ballad Riddles Wisely Expounded. But while Gentian's sisters and the dynamics of her family are important in the novel, the real heart of the book lies in Gentian’s relationships with a close-knit group of girls she has known since childhood. Like Dean's Tam Lin, the story builds slowly and the fantastical elements start out very subtle (yet are far more evident upon a re-read, which makes a re-read quite fun). The book includes one of the most unique takes on the devil I’ve yet seen in fantasy, and Dean layers every scene with references to literature both classical and science fictional. (Because of this book, I hunted down a copy of John M. Ford's Growing Up Weightless, which is perhaps the most insanely subtle SF book I've ever read, but that's a subject for a whole different post.) Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary isn't a book everyone will enjoy, as it's odd, leisurely paced, and not without flaws. Yet still, I love it dearly, just as I love Dean’s other novels, which are all well worth seeking out. (She’s running a Patreon right now to support the writing of a joint sequel to her novels The Dubious Hills and The Whim of the Dragon. YES PLEASE.)
Other Posts in this SeriesCourtney Schafer Explores the 1980s
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.