The Wood Beyond the World is an 1894 novel written by William Morris. This novel is one that could be called pre-fantastic, as it was originally published before the modern genre was born, but was later re-published in 1969 in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (the series which, arguably, formed the modern genre). The Wood Beyond the World tells the story of Golden Walter, who leaves home after finding out his wife has cheated on him, and the story of how he eventually gets lost at sea and has adventures in the fantastical place that he finds himself in.
The first thing that any reader of the story is going to notice is the language. Morris intentionally attempted to emulate English as it was written in the late Middle Ages, around the turn of the 16th century. Having heard that, I expected the language to be more of a challenge than it actually ended up being: while the language is definitely archaic, it is highly readable, and it didn’t take me long until I was immersed enough in it that I hardly noticed it.
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The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an 1886 gothic novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson, who is most famous for having written both this work and Treasure Island. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde tells the story of a London lawyer, Mr Utterson, who investigates the strange events that surround his friend Dr Jekyll and the mysterious and foreboding man Mr Hyde.
That plot blurb might have surprised you; it certainly would have surprised me had I encountered it before I had read the novella. The fame of this novella is so great that it has grown a life of its own, with most people knowing the plot twist that occurs at the end of the novel without knowing who the main character of the story is.
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Gateway is a 1977 science fiction novel by Frederik Pohl that tells the story of Robinette Broadhead, who is both extremely wealthy and in therapy because of the traumas that he faced while on Gateway: an alien spaceship hub with spaceships capable of interstellar travel. This novel was an instant classic when it was first published, winning the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, the Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Rightly so, I think.
For one, what struck me from the beginning is how much of a page-turner it is. The set-up for the novel (a traumatised man in therapy because of the mysterious horrours in his past) works beautifully to make the reader feel like the pages don’t turn fast enough. You simply have to race to the end to find out what happened. This is also because the set-up is combined with absolutely marvellous science fiction concept: there are alien spaceships that are capable of travelling anywhere in the galaxy, but you have no idea where you’ll end up, meaning you’ll come back empty handed, fabulously rich, or dead from a most gruesome death. I loved this concept, making me want to read all the faster.
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Mopsa the Fairy is the 1869 children’s novel by British poet and novelist Jean Ingelow. It tells the story of ten-year-old(-ish) Jack who discovers a nest of fairies and is flown to Fairy Land by an albatross.
It was interesting to me to read this text straight after George MacDonald’s Phantastes (review of which can be found here) as Ingelow was directly influenced by MacDonald, and Mopsa the Fairy, like Phantastes, is a pre-fantastic text about the protagonist stumbling into Fairy Land. Most fascinatingly of all for me personally is, that despite these similarities, I enjoyed Mopsa the Fairy despite not having liked Phantastes. in this review I’ll do my best to tease out why that is.
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Phantastes is a novel by George MacDonald, first published in 1858. It tells the story of Anodos, a man of 21 years, who finds his way into Fairy Land, and wanders through it in search of his Ideal of beauty.
The novel can be said to be a precursor of the fantasy genre. In many ways it is like a fairy tale (its subtitle is, after all, ‘A Faery Romance’), but it develops that genre towards what we know today as fantasy (fantasy, of course, was not a recognised genre in 1858). The result of this is that it straddles the line between those two genres, but were it to be published today, fantasy is undoubtedly the genre it would be placed in. This can be seen in how it was reprinted in 1970 in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of books as the fourteenth installment. This series was created by Ballantine after the success of The Lord of the Rings and is considered by some to be the series that created the genre of fantasy in book stores. But not only has this book been influential on the creation of the fantasy genre, it also directly influenced many of the most famous writers within that genre. Perhaps most famously, C.S. Lewis cited Phantastes as a book that changed his life.
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