Tag Archives: The Best Books You’ve Never Heard Of

The Darts He Suffers Are His Own

download (1)I write almost exclusively fantasy and science fiction, so the fact that The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett is both a historical fiction and my very favorite series of books should say something about how highly I regard it. The books have been around since the 1960s, yet the only people I have ever met who’ve read them are my mother (who convinced me to try the first book) and the people I’ve convinced in turn. To me this is nothing short of a travesty.

The six books are set in the middle of the sixteenth century and follow Francis Crawford of Lymond. Francis (known simply as “Lymond” to all but his closest friends) is already a wanted traitor to his homeland of Scotland when he returns there intent on clearing his name as the series opens. Lymond is, in the words of the author herself, “a classical hero: a natural leader whose star-crossed career, disturbing, hilarious, dangerous, I could follow in finest detail for ten years.” He is a leader, scholar, warrior and above all, rogue. No mere Mary Sue or shallow Renaissance James Bond, Lymond is a tragically flawed man of deep feeling and a tortured past, and might be better compared to a Renaissance mix of Jaime Lannister and Rhaegar Targaryen.

The series stretches from Lymond’s home in Scotland to the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Malta to the courts of Suleiman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire and Ivan the Terrible in Russia. The breadth and depth of research Dunnett undertook to bring Renaissance Europe to life is nothing short of staggering. Lymond finds himself involved in many of the grand historical events of the time, blending so seamlessly into real history (and surrounded by so many real historical figures) that you’ll swear he must have been there.

Dunnett performs a neat narrative trick which was, for me at the time I first read the series, novel: at (virtually) no point in the series are you ever allowed inside Lymond’s head. Save for one critical scene, the POV always follows other characters. You are permitted to observe Lymond but never to inhabit him. This makes him central to the series but also keeps him at arms length from the reader, a necessary and fascinating technique to maintain Lymond’s air of mystique. It’s a technique I’ve used in my own writing since learning it from Dunnett.

Fair warning: these books are challenging reads, and the first book (The Game of Kings, referencing chess and not A Song of Ice and Fire) has the hardest prose to parse. Dunnett moderates her prose (relatively speaking) in the remaining volumes (Queen’s Play, The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle and Checkmate). But throughout the series Dunnett features quotes in other languages. Lymond is a polyglot and is not afraid to flaunt it. His use of multiple languages is not enough to disrupt your understanding of the books if you can’t translate, but it might be frustrating to those who like their prose clear and unaffected. There is an excellent companion book available for this series (and The House of Niccolo, Dunnett’s other series) that will translate the quotes for you and provide historical context, adding to the enjoyment of the diehards like myself.

The bottom lines are these. If you love action and adventure, read these books. If you love fascinating rogue heroes/anti-heroes, read these books. If you love star-crossed romance (in both senses of the word) read these books. If you love political intrigue and deeply-buried secrets, read these books. If you love worldbuilding and attention to detail, read these books. If you love to have your heart torn out of your chest, read these books. If you love soaring triumph, read these books.

If you love great books, these are the books for you.

Dorothy Dunnett sadly passed away shortly after I read this series for the first time back in 2001. But her work stands as a fitting legacy. Earlier I said that Lymond blends into history so seamlessly you’ll swear he was there. Alas, Francis Crawford didn’t exist in real life. But by the end of this series, you’ll wish he had.

Apples and Aliens

A guest post by Guy Anthony De Marco.

downloadI was a nerdy kid before nerds were identified as a cultural subgroup. I was also a very advanced reader, preferring to enjoy college-level books on astronomy instead of the usual dinosaur or Encyclopedia Brown books in fifth grade.

One day, while wandering through the local library, I spotted a section called “Science Fiction”. Since it did have the word ‘science’ in the label, I stopped to check out what was lurking on the shelves.

My favorite librarian was re-stocking the shelves with returned books, and she was surprised to see me in the fiction area.

“Run out of astronomy books already, Guy?” she asked with a kindly smile.

I nodded, still perusing the strange titles and authors names.

She dug through her pile and pulled out a well-worn book. “Here, give this one a try. The reading level is below your range, but everyone in middle school seems to enjoy it.”

The book she handed me was “The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree” by Louis Slobodkin. The cover had a crude drawing of a flying saucer with two people in an apple grove.

I read it in the library. Then I checked it out and took it home, where I read it every evening for almost a month, until I had to return it.

This was the book that inspired me to write stories for a living. It combined my favorite topic with novels and fiction, bridging the gap between the two separate areas (brain hemispheres?) of the library.

The second book I decided to read was written by a doctor named Asimov. The cover of Foundation looked interesting enough, and as I was checking it out, my favorite librarian took the time to tell me it was an advanced book with some topics that might be confusing to a young boy.

It took me almost a week to get through the dense book. I enjoyed every word, every unusual combination of phrases that changed their meaning and context. I was fascinated by the language Asimov used.

When I returned that book, I found out there was something in fiction called a series, with books called sequels that continued the story. I picked up the next book in the Foundation line, devoured it, and continued on. I eventually read most of the library’s Asimov titles (the man was quite prolific), and moved to Burroughs, Clark, all the way to Zelazny.

Eventually I read all of the books in the Science Fiction section, so I progressed to Fantasy. Horror wasn’t a separate section at that time, but I did read Frankenstein and Dracula.

As far as that innocuous-looking book by Slobodkin goes, with internal drawings that were on par with what I was sketching at the time, it actually changed my entire reading habits. No, it’s not the best story ever written. No, it’s not in print anymore, despite people actually pleading for it to get put back in libraries. What it did was tell a story to a young kid at the right age, at the right time, and made that kid want to read—and write—fiction. I started writing stories and comics, selling my first story in sixth grade to a friend for a shoebox full of baseball cards (which was the currency of kids in those days.)

I actually tracked down a copy of the first edition of “The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree”. Amazon has used copies available, but the interesting thing about the book’s Amazon page is buried in the (all five-star) reviews. “This was the first science fiction book I ever read” is a common comment. “I re-read this book many times” is another. Some are asking the publisher to get the book back into print and into the libraries so their kids can begin their own reading journeys. Reader T. Rose said, “Slodbodkin’s Marty and Eddie books were pretty much the only reason that kept me in the town’s small library as a kid.”

It turns out I wasn’t as alone and weird as I thought I was.

Reference: “The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree”; Slobodkin, Louis. Macmillan; First Printing edition (1952). ISBN 0027853403. http://www.amazon.com/Space-Ship-Under-Apple-Tree/dp/0027853403/

Guest Writer Bio:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award®; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at WikipediaGuyAndTonya.com, and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.