Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Favorite Reads in Other Genres, Part II

Elizabeth Zelvin

My last post on this topic covered some beloved authors: Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, and, and Kate Elliott, especially their genre-bending series, respectively, the Vorkosigan saga, the Samaria novels, and the Jaran series. Here are some others that I love.

Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular Outlander series is the gold standard for time travel romance, but it’s also a remarkable set of historical novels (sticklers may question the accuracy of the history, but it’s close enough for me) and precisely the kind of character-driven novel that makes readers fall in love with the protagonists and want to take them home. In this case, it’s 20th-century Claire, the World War II nurse, and 18th-century Jamie, the Scottish Highlander, who fall in love two years before Culloden, have a child, and go to extraordinary lengths to be together. Gabaldon herself has some entertaining forwards, and she admits that her husband claims she knows nothing about men. That’s to women readers’ advantage (and some men’s too—Jamie is also attractive to 18th-century gay guys), since Jamie is complex and charismatic and utterly romantic.

Elizabeth Moon has been sticking to hard science fiction lately, but I periodically reread the Sheepfarmer’s Daughter trilogy, aka The Deed of Paksennarion. It’s a fantasy: pre-technological world, elegant elves in the Tolkien tradition (and their cousins who have gone over to the dark side), paladins with mysterious powers. But Moon puts Paks, her protagonist, into a mercenary army where she learns to fight as a foot soldier in the rank and file. I believe Moon has a military background, and she’s great at the details: for example, how a group of soldiers would fight in formation with twelve-foot spears without knocking each other over. The coed army is presented in a satisfyingly matter-of-fact way, as is the fact that Paks is not interested in sex. She’s just a peasant girl with a low libido and a winning personality who wants to be a fighter.

The late Dorothy Dunnett wrote perhaps the most brilliant historical novels I’ve ever read, the Francis Crawford of Lymond series. Her intelligent characters are demonstrably brilliant. Her mastery of a huge historical and geographical canvas is amazing: 16th–century, Scotland, England, France, and as far as Russia and Turkey. Lymond himself is a “man of destiny,” one of those save-the-world superheroes that the reader can’t help falling in love with. And the heroine, Philippa, is a worthy partner—like Mary Russell to Laurie King’s Sherlock Holmes. This is the world whose princes spoke several languages at the age of five or six, and could write a poem, win a game of tennis, and ride a horse with equal skill. There’s just a little woo-woo to spice it up, including a very funny scene with Nostradamus and an oracle that can’t spell. Dunnett’s later House of Niccolo series, in the mercantile world of Europe and such exotic locations as Timbuctoo at the height of its glory as a center of learning, may be even more brilliant. But it’s the Lymond characters who are truly lovable.


Sandra Parshall said...

Diana Gabaldon does a tremendous amount of research into the historical periods she writes about and tries to ground her stories in factually accurate history. That probably helps readers accept the time travel aspect. She includes some fascinating bits of "medical" history when she has the 20th century Clare making do with what's available in an earlier time.

I used to read a lot of science fiction, but I can't remember the last time I did. Ray Bradbury was and is one of my favorite writers. I don't read as much literary/mainstream fiction as I used to, but I still enjoy Louise Erdrich's, Edna O'Brien's, and Barbara Kingsolver's books. The writing of Erdrich and O'Brien is simply gorgeous.

VickiVanV said...

I love most of the books/series mentioned in this post, but I had great trouble getting into the first Lymond book for some reason and boy I really wanted to love it. Maybe I should try it again. And while I couldn't get into Deed of Paksenarrion (despite the urging of many friends who adore it) I love Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, an SF thriller. It's awesome.

Oh, and speaking of Mary Russell, the first book in the series is a free ebook for a few more days at, in case anyone wants to grab it.

Anonymous said...

I had trouble with the first book in the Lymond series too. But, I kept picking it back up and one day, about 100 pages in, I got hooked. After that, it was hard to concentrate on anything else because I wanted to be back in the world Dunnett created. I bought the first book in the Nicolo series recently but I'm afraid to open it -- I'm not sure I can afford that kind of all-consuming adventure just now.