Welcome back to 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 back to Lady Business to continue sharing her favorite under-read books from the 2000s. Read on for some cool recommendations.
So, we meet again! This is Courtney Schafer, and after a bit of a hiatus brought on by day jobbery, I have returned to share yet another set of under-read SFF treasures. I’ve already covered the 1980s and the 1990s, so now it’s time to look at the 2000s. To repeat my usual caveat, 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. I’ve simply chosen reads I enjoyed that seem to have fallen off the radar and deserve to be discovered by more readers. I have also restricted myself to choosing only one book/series per author, and listing any given author only once over the four decade span of my posting series. (Okay, with one exception—I’ve got Sherwood Smith listed once for a co-authored series in the 1990s, and once for a solo series in this 2000s post. Rules are meant to be broken, right?)
As always, if you have more recs, please share in the comments! And now, onward to the books…
This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman (pub date 1998)
I’m starting off with a novel that technically should have gone in my 1990s post, as it was published in 1998—but darn it, somehow when listing out books I misplaced it onto my 2000s list, and I don’t want to leave its praises unsung just because of a date mishap. Anyway! C.S. Friedman is probably best known for her Coldfire trilogy, which is dark science fantasy, but my favorites of her work are two standalone SF novels that I rarely see discussed these days: The Madness Season, and This Alien Shore. I agonized over which to list here, since I love them both, but in the end I chose This Alien Shore. Why? It’s one of the few SF novels I’ve read that explores neurological differences. Friedman posits a universe in which the technology initially used for FTL travel caused a variety of genetic mutations in outbound colonists. Earth reacted with fear and prejudice, but many of the colonies embraced their mutations. Particularly on Guera, a planet where the mutations are expressed in neurological differences rather than physical appearance. Everyone on Guera has some variant of what Earth would consider mental disorders (autism, OCD, multiple personalities, etc). The original Gueran colonists forged a society with codified rules meant to allow all these different neurological variants not only to work together but (in theory) reach their peak potential. And Guera’s eventual discovery of a means of non-mutating FTL travel provides them a monopoly in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the Spacing Guild in Frank Herbert’s Dune. All this is essentially background worldbuilding in the book. The actual plot involves two main threads: one, the hunt for the creator of a deadly computer virus, and two, a young girl on the run from the Earth corporation that experimented on her. Yet interesting as those plotlines are, I found the portrayal of neurodiversity the most intriguing part of the story. The Gueran POV characters go about their lives with their differences considered not a disability but part of their identity, which they would never dream of giving up. Earthers continue to fear them, but Guera’s political dominance affords them the ability to simply ignore and/or scorn that fear. (They have no interest in cures, nor is the story about "fixing" them.) The book is a great marriage of "big idea" SF with engaging characters; it may not be a perfect novel, but it’s a fascinating read that I feel deserves more recognition.
In the Company of Others by Julie Czerneda (pub date 2001)
I always love a good space opera, particularly the kind with an interesting mystery, and In the Company of Others is a solid example of the genre. The premise: a seemingly harmless, mindless fungal form of alien life known as the Quill abruptly turns lethal, infecting every terraformed world and trapping much of humanity on overcrowded space stations. An Earth scientist is hunting the one human survivor of exposure to the Quill, in hopes studying him can lead her to answers and solutions. Yet this survivor has good reason to be wary of scientists, as his exposure did not leave him unchanged. This is Cherryh-style SF, with more focus on politics, cultural tensions, and internal struggles than guns-blazing action, though there are a few memorably intense action scenes. I enjoyed the ideas, the worldbuilding, and the friendships; I was less convinced by a romantic plot, but I’m pretty picky about those, and I did feel Czerneda ties up both plot and emotional threads well at the end. In any case, I’d recommend the book to anyone who enjoys space-station-and-science SF.
Tamir Triad by Lynn Flewelling (pub dates 2001-2006)
Flewelling’s best-known series may be her Nightrunner books (which are fun adventure fantasy and feature an enduring, happy romantic relationship between the two male protagonists), but the Tamir Triad deserves just as many readers. In contrast to Nightrunner, the story is quite a bit darker and creepier. I’ve seen Flewelling refer to the Tamir books as gothic fantasy. That description fits the first book, The Bone Doll’s Twin, particularly well, given that it features secret infanticide and a malevolent ghost. Yet to me the most interesting part isn’t the tone of the story, or even the plot (which is pretty standard for epic fantasy), but the protagonist. At birth, the female Tamir is disguised by spell to appear male, to protect her from a powerful relative intent on killing any female children of royal blood. She grows up believing herself to be a boy (and feeling not quite right in her skin), only to learn the truth at puberty. Flewelling portrays the difficulties of the adjustment well, for both Tamir and her friends; I thought the character work was excellent. Plus the gothic tone helps put a unique stamp on a classic storyline where Tamir must fulfill a prophecy and take the throne.
Warchild by Karin Lowachee (pub date 2002)
Warchild is dark, intensely character-focused military SF that examines the psychological effects of war and abuse. Definitely not light reading, but not unremittingly brutal; embers of hope and kindness shine amid the darkness. Lowachee handles difficult material in a way that is unflinching but not gratuitous, and makes both protagonist and story compelling. My one frustration (and warning for potential readers) is that she doesn’t do nearly as good a job with her aliens. They come off as weirdly derivative of a mishmash of Asian cultures in a way that was disappointing to me (it felt lazy compared to the care with which Lowachee portrays the dynamics and complexities of the human characters’ interactions). Still, the focus of the book isn’t the alien society, but the human struggle to break free from cycles of violence, so I didn’t mind as much as I might otherwise have. If you’re interested in a deep exploration of the human psyche, and especially if you like books about damaged people who slowly learn to trust, this book and its sequels (Burndive, Cagebird) are excellent reads.
Pellinor series by Alison Croggon (pub dates 2002-2016)
The Pellinor books have a devoted following, especially in Croggon’s native Australia, yet I rarely see them mentioned in discussions of the fantasy genre. Pellinor is beautifully written traditional epic fantasy, with all that entails. Yes, you have a young orphan protagonist learning to wield a magical gift, and she’s prophesied to play a vital role in a struggle against dark forces… I can imagine all the jaded fantasy readers rolling their eyes. Yet to dismiss the series as "been there, done that" does it a great disservice. The first book may feel rather Tolkienesque, albeit with a female protagonist, but in succeeding books Croggon takes the story to some quite different and interesting places. And Croggon, a poet, has the literary chops to pull off a highly formal prose style. Her descriptions are full of vivid and evocative imagery, and her cultures and myths rich in detail. I particularly loved the third Pellinor book, The Crow, which contains a harrowing examination of the use of child soldiers, and the fifth book, The Bone Queen, which is a hauntingly melancholic prequel to the main series. But all the Pellinor books are good—the kind of classic fantasy you can sink into and really savor.
Covenants (Borderlands series) by Lorna Freeman (pub date 2004)
I discovered this series only recently, thanks to a post on r/Fantasy about the books. The first book, Covenants, is surprisingly hard to get hold of for a novel published in the modern age. No e-versions for sale, and no physical copies available even through my library’s expanded Prospector network. On top of that, it seems the author has completely vanished—a truly unusual trick in this digital era. Freeman’s books are not exactly run of the mill, either. I’ve rarely had such a divided reaction to a read. On the one hand, her world is amazing: creative, detailed, memorable, and the politics are intricate and interesting. On the other hand… the young, snarky protagonist is the most special of snowflakes, and I could write an entire essay ranting about how frustrating I found some of the author’s stylistic choices. (I’ll contain myself to saying I have never before read a 1st person POV that’s so irritatingly opaque.) And yet, and yet. Something about the series is so compelling I can’t put it down. Maybe because stories about young mages in danger from their former masters are my jam. Or maybe because the world, with its uneasy détente between magical creatures and human settlers, catches so strongly at my imagination. In any case, I don’t want this series to vanish like its author. If you like secondary-world fantasy with complex politics, nonhuman characters, and plenty of magic, Covenants is well worth the effort to track down.
Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette (pub dates 2005-2009)
Sarah Monette has had well-deserved success with her recent novel The Goblin Emperor (published under the name Katherine Addison), but I wish more people had heard of her earlier, far darker 4-book Doctrine of Labyrinths series. The first book, Melusine, gets off to a bit of a shaky start, but once the story gets going, it’s a stellar exploration of difficult relationships and the differing ways people handle abuse and trauma. The books focus on half-brothers Felix and Mildmay, who discover each other as adults, and the bond that develops between them as they negotiate all manner of political and magical difficulties. Monette gives each brother a wholly unique and compelling first-person voice, and doesn’t try to soften their flaws in the least. (Felix in particular is deeply fucked up, thanks to his past, and there’s no sugarcoating of his resultant selfishness and cruelty to those he cares about.) Don’t seek these out expecting a comfort read like The Goblin Emperor, but if you like character-focused fantasy and don’t mind a story tackling dark themes (rape, abuse, etc), you’ve got to try them. (One last note: for those interested in reading more LGBT protagonists, Felix is gay, and despite the darkness of the books, he gets a reasonably happy ending.)
Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier (pub date 2006)
I’ve seen a lot of people asking for more books like Naomi Novik’s recent novel Uprooted, and Wildwood Dancing is one I always leap to suggest. Wildwood Dancing too has a Slavic setting, a fairy-tale feel, a determined young woman as protagonist, some romantic elements, and an overall hopeful tone. (Plus it boasts an incredibly gorgeous Kinuko Craft cover! I first read the book because I saw the Craft painting and had to find out what book it represented.) Wildwood Dancing is based on several old tales: the Twelve Dancing Princesses, the Frog Prince, plus Transylvanian vampire lore, yet Marillier makes the story very much her own. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the faerie realm, the relationships between protagonist Jena and her sisters, and the exchanges between Jena and her frog companion. For anyone like me who had significant problems with the romance in Uprooted, I’ll say Jena’s eventual romance in Wildwood Dancing worked far better for me. (I wasn’t so fond of the romance of one of Jena’s sisters, which is based on the aforementioned Transylvanian lore, but it’s a lot easier to take a romance that rubs you the wrong way when it’s not the protagonist involved.) Anyway, Wildwood Dancing is a great read if you enjoy mythic fantasy—and if you like it, good news! Marillier has written many other fantasy novels for you to enjoy.
Inda series by Sherwood Smith (pub dates 2006-2009)
If you like grand-scale epic fantasy complete with a variety of POV characters, detailed cultural worldbuilding, and plenty of military tactics and strategy, the Inda books are a must-read. Even if you’re the sort who feels a bit leery of Big Fat Epic Fantasy, you should give the series a try, because the characters are so wonderful. Also, the series is complete at four books! No interminable plot sprawl, no waiting for eons for the author to finish. Just a satisfying, sweeping epic that includes pirates and magic and battles and enduring friendships and enough surprises amid familiar tropes to keep the story feeling fresh. Plus, while there’s plenty of violence, very little of it is sexual (a nice change from the usual these days). If you’d like to read and discuss with others, r/Fantasy is currently working through a detailed group read of the series.
Lighthouse Duet (Flesh and Spirit / Breath and Bone) by Carol Berg (pub dates 2007-2008)
Carol Berg is one of my all-time favorite fantasy authors, and this duology is my favorite of her work to date, perhaps because I have a particular soft spot for sardonic rogues as 1st-person narrators. But runaway, drug-addicted mage Valen isn’t the sort of rogue who snarks his way through a story with no real change in his attitudes—Berg portrays his slow shift away from selfishness in deft and believable fashion. Also, the world is richly described without sacrificing pacing, the magic is unique and fascinating, the plot clever and twisty, and many of the side characters are just as intriguing as the protagonist. One of Berg’s particular gifts as an author is the portrayal of an epic-stakes story that nonetheless retains an intimate feel, thanks to her superb skills with voice and characterization. I cannot recommend her novels enough.
Dhulyn & Parno novels by Violette Malan (pub dates 2007-2010)
I’m a sucker for sword and sorcery novels featuring a buddy duo, so this series is right up my alley. Dhulyn Wolfshead and Parno Lionsmane are lifebonded mercenaries who hold to a strict code of honor as they sell their services as warriors. Often in series of this nature, the pair will start as strangers and slowly build their bond (as in Jennifer Roberson’s Tiger and Del books). Here, Dhulyn and Parno’s bond is already long established at the start of the first book, The Sleeping God. They are partners and lovers secure in their trust, and I very much enjoyed Malan’s portrayal of a mature relationship. The pair’s various adventures have plenty of heroism and magic and swordfighting to enjoy; the series is just a really fun read.
Stratford Man duology (Ink and Steel / Hell and Earth) by Elizabeth Bear (pub date 2008)
Spies and secret societies and Elizabethan court intrigue combined with magic and Faerie and a fascinating portrayal of the devil… oh goodness, I adore these books much it’s hard to be objective. I love the twistiness of the intrigue, the layers of hidden motives, the secrets the characters must uncover out of their own pasts… but most of all I love the depth and complexity of the characters and their relationships, particularly that between protagonist Kit Marley (a.k.a. Christopher Marlowe) and Will Shakespeare. Love and sacrifice form the heart of the tale, and Bear does a beautiful job in telling it. The prose is rich, the depiction of the historical time period feels very real (at least to me, though I admit I’m no Elizabethan scholar), and the plot works even better upon a re-read, when you can appreciate the truths that lie hidden in seemingly innocuous dialogue. This duology is only one part of a greater extended series, the Promethean Age books. The other parts of the series are set in more modern times, and while those stories didn’t resonate with me as well as this one, the rest of the series is still well worth seeking out. (LGBT note: both Kit Marley and Shakespeare are portrayed as bisexual. Pansexual is perhaps a better description, in the case of Kit. In any case, there are several major same-sex relationships.)
The Drowning City by Amanda Downum (pub date 2009)
I love this one because it’s a spy novel in a fantasy setting. Not the big flashy explosions and cool tech sort of spy thriller, but the subtler, more introspective Le Carre-style espionage tale, where fallible characters with conflicting goals struggle to navigate a messy tangle of loyalties and information. Not to say the book doesn’t have some interesting magic and nice action scenes, because it does—but to me, the real strength lies in Downum’s weaving of the viewpoints from various characters (some jaded spies, some not so) to create a coherent tale. I also appreciated the plethora of female characters, and I loved the Malaysian-inspired setting and Downum’s depiction of the city, which felt both real and pleasantly unique. The following two books are quite good as well (The Bone Palace, Kingdoms of Dust).
Living With Ghosts by Kari Sperring (pub date 2009)
This is a gothically atmospheric fantasy full of mysterious magic and complicated intrigues. Gracielis is a failed priest/mage who now makes his living as a high-class courtesan in a decadent city; he also sees ghosts, and is constantly shadowed by one (who provides a sort of constant sardonic commentary on Gracielis’s scenes without actually talking). There’s a sorcerous plot against the city that Gracielis and his friends must foil, but the real focus of the book is on the characters’ shifting web of relationships and internal struggles. The deliberate pace and introspective nature of Living With Ghosts means it’s not the sort of book every reader will love, but if you enjoy dark fantasy with gorgeous, sensual prose, it’s a lovely experience.
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.