7 Fantasy and Sci-Fi classics you need to have on your bookshelf

Celebrating the rich heritage of fantasy and science fiction, I’ve tried to put together a list of my favourite works of fiction the two genres have to offer. From lands of elves and dragons, to worlds inhabited by hostile aliens, these are the novels, series and novellas you need to have on your bookshelf.

The Wheel of Time — Robert Jordan

Series begins with: The Eye of the World

eye-of-the-worldWhen it comes to building a world of staggering depth, complexity and unbridled imagination, there are few writers who can claim to be as proficient as the late Robert Jordan. His epic series spans 14 novels, covers 12,000 pages and is told in no fewer than four million words. This isn’t a series for the lighthearted or the uninitiated; it’s a truly masterful weaving of multiple tales, following the unfolding fates of dozens of beautifully-crafted characters, perhaps none of whom are as profoundly important as Rand al’Thor.

Though Jordan died in 2007 before he could complete his epic body of works, the series was finished in style by fellow fantasy stalwart Brandon Sanderson. It’ll take up room, but it’s an absolute must have for your collection.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — Philip K Dick

do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep.jpegAlthough the novel became perhaps more famous for its use as the basis of the classic film Blade Runner, Philip K Dick’s bleak futuristic tale of Rick Deckhard’s quest to retire rogue androids as a means to achieve his life goal of owning a real animal goes down as one of science-fiction’s most engrossing reads. Eschewing titanic space battles, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a masterfully somber affair that explores what it’s like to be human against a post-apocalyptic backdrop.

It’s an altogether different experience to the film, and doesn’t deserve to fall foul of comparison. Ultimately, Dick created one of the genre’s most lasting pieces of fiction — moving, thought-provoking and utterly brilliant.

The Kingkiller Chronicles — Patrick Rothfuss

Series begins with: The Name of the Wind

wind.jpgPatrick Rothfuss’s compelling if atypical fantasy series may not have reached completion yet, but deservedly earns a spot on the pantheon of all-time greats. Impeccably written and beautifully composed, it tells the story of Kvothe in the form of a wistful autobiography told to a mysterious chronicler. Full of intrigue, exquisite prose and sheer adventure, it’s a fantasy novel for people who don’t necessarily enjoy fantasy.

The first two novels, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear have since been joined by a delightfully enigmatic novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things which explores the strange and wonderful realm of Auri; while the third eagerly-awaited installment in the series is already in the works.

Starship Troopers — Robert A Heinlein

ST.jpgMany will recall the 1990s cinematic satirical adaptation that placed a great deal of emphasis on blowing up aliens, but the source material for the film was far more complex than that. If you’re after a traditional story, then Starship Troopers isn’t for you: its pacing is unorthodox, its plot structure a little odd and its themes definitely not mainstream. It follows the exploits of Sgt. Juan “Johnnie” Rico, who enlists in the futuristic Mobile Infantry, and the trials and tribulations he faces.

It’s less a traditional adventure story and more a commentary on society and human nature in general. And though it espouses some fairly radical militaristic views, its a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking read. Oh, and some aliens get blown up too.

The Legend of Drizzt — RA Salvatore

Series begins with: Homeland

homeland.jpgRA Salvatore is about as prolific as they come. The revered author, responsible for the most famous of dark elves, Drizzt Do’Urden, writes almost exclusively in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting of Dungeons and Dragons. Of his many series, the core tales surrounding Drizzt and the Companions of the Hall are the most engrossing, yanking the reader by the arm and hurtling them along through a series of fast-paced, action-packed novels that take in everything from evil wizards, marauding orcs, sinister drow and conniving assassins.

The Drizzt saga now spans 27 novels, with the debut Icewind Dale trilogy and the Hunter’s Blades series being particular highlights. But, quite simply, just start with Homeland and read the whole bloody lot.

I Am Legend — Richard Matheson

legend.jpgBlurring the lines between sci-fi and horror, Richard Matheson broke ground with his 1954 novel I Am Legend. Credited with introducing the modern vampire, Matheson’s creation belongs more in the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction and directly influenced the rise of the contemporary zombie outbreak. The novel is bleak, dark and – and times – cripplingly lonely; so much so, it was once described as the “greatest novel on human loneliness”.

Don’t draw parallels with the film — it’s far, far better than the cinematic adaptation. A genuine science-fiction horror story, it moves slowly, creates tension superbly and ultimately leaves you with an unmatched bittersweet feeling.

The Lord of the Rings — JRR Tolkien

lotr.jpgWhere would fantasy be without the man who popularised the genre over seventy years ago? A renowned scholar, Tolkien painstakingly crafted an entire world down to its most minute details. His finest work, The Lord of the Rings, takes place in the Third Age of his epic mythology and is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever written. Pitting good against evil, exploring friendship, heroism, love and heartbreak, Tolkien’s masterpiece transcended the genre and became an integral cornerstone of Western literature.

It’s not only a stunning read that you cannot help but be enthralled by, it’s an entire universe to lose yourself in. Before you read it, however, make sure to read The Hobbit, the prequel in which the events of its successor are set. Plus, it’s a much easier read than its larger cousin!

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Ranking every Top Gear special from worst to greatest

It’s only a few weeks now until the eagerly-awaited Grand Tour debuts on Amazon Prime, returning our beloved — if occasionally controversial — petrolhead heroes Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May to our TV screens.

And with the return of the iconic trio comes the restoration of spectacular road trips, the likes of which proved extremely popular during their Top Gear run. In total, eleven specials were produced over an eight-year period, and over the course of their run, morphed into two-hour epics that swallowed up two nights of viewing.

So popular were the specials that the Grand Tour threatens to be nothing but extended road trips full of calamity and chaos.

So, to prepare for the inevitable mayhem that is about to come, here’s every Top Gear special ranked in order from worst to greatest.

India Special (2011) 

The India Special arrived during a period in which Top Gear was suffering somewhat of a series slump. With the average viewership down from 7+ million in 2008-2009 to below 6 million in 2010-11, when watching the farcical trip across the Indian continent it’s not hard to see why.

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Largely directionless, the hour-long programme knitted together a series of woolly scenes around a weak premise (a British trade mission) and relied far too heavily on several instances of forced humour. There was the odd chuckle (like James May’s errant autonomous lawnmower going AWOL), but, on the whole, the India Special deservedly goes down as the worst effort produced by Wilman and the team.

Middle East Special (2010) 

This period of lacklustre programming also happened to include the next special on the list, the Middle East Special, which, although was a slightly sharper and tighter affair, still suffered from an over-dependence on engineered laughs.

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It contained a bit more of the camaraderie for which the three presenters are renowned, but a relatively exciting start soon tailed off into incessant meandering through uninspiring scenery, and sadly ended in a thoroughly underwhelming fashion as the three lads delivered presents to… Baby Stig. Sigh.

It speaks volumes when the best part was James May suffering a potentially threatening head injury…

Africa Special (2013) 

The African Special profited from a well-timed two year hiatus, being the first special since 2011’s Middle East venture, and it was far more reminiscent of classic Top Gear programming.

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The premise — which had been shaky in the Africa and Middle East specials — was far more stable, and presented the trio with the genuinely interesting challenge of locating the true source of the Nile. This produced a number of laughs and exciting moments along the way, which included the now-infamous “We’ve just come into Jezza!”, as well as Jeremy’s woeful attempt at utilising a log as a handbrake.

Winter Olympics (2006) 

The inaugural Top Gear special paved the way for the development of the feature, even if it didn’t quite follow the now-recognisable format.

It saw the trio attempt to run their very own Top Gear Olympics with a predictable serving of utter chaos and abject failure, as they fired a jet-propelled Mini down a ski slope, raced a bobsleigh against a rally car and participated in a thrilling motor biathlon.

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It was a solid special and the banter between Clarkson, May and Hammond at its absolute finest; Richard Hammond building a barrier out of chairs at the bottom of the wrong slope being a memorable moment of calamity.

Bolivia Special (2009) 

The Bolivia Special was an example of Top Gear at its finest. Set against a beautiful backdrop, the three boys blundered their way along a tortuous route and drove their 4x4s to the absolute limit.

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James May falling off a barge, Richard Hammond discovering a snake in his cab, the perilous trip along Death Road; and the epic final stretch when the boys barrelled down enormous sand dunes to the sea — this special had the lot.

Polar Special (2007) 

The Polar special followed on from the success of the Winter Olympics and USA specials, and by now had transformed into the classic format which was followed practically unto the end of the series’ run.

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James and Jeremy raced Hammond to the North Pole, car vs dog sled, in a contest fraught with peril (Polar bears and melting ice), tantrums (Richard Hammond) and gales of laughter (toilet-based shenanigans galore!). It was a truly epic piece of programming.

Patagonia Special (2015) 

It garnered infamy for the events that unfolded towards the end of the trip, but the Patagonia adventure was a pretty solid special in its own right, minus the unsavoury drama.

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The cars were magnificent, the trip took them through some spectacular vistas and there were a plethora of cock-ups along the route. The idea of ending up in Ushuia to play a car football match against Argentina also had the promise of sheer entertainment.

Sadly, it was all marred by a group of Argentine nationalists who perceived Jeremy’s licence plate to be a direct reference to the 1982 Falklands War. Thus, the episode ended with the presenters and crew being hounded out of the country amid scenes of violence.

Burma Special (2014)

Another of the two-hour instalments as opposed to the earlier 60-minute specials, the lorry trek across Burma was Top Gear at its best.

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Whether they were causing mayhem in Rangoon, playing football on a motorway or making an absolute pig’s ear out of building a bridge over the River Koq, the drama rattled along at a terrific pace.

It is simply one of the most epic adventures undertaken.

USA Special (2007) 

Despite its age, the USA road trip is still one of the finest specials to date. The premise of having to buy cars for less than it costs to hire them from the airport allowed for dozens of brilliant moments as the  boys took their £1000 rides all the way from Florida to New Orleans.

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There was American Stig, Jeremy’s love of Florida (“everybody’s very fat, everybody’s very stupid and everbody’s very rude”), the roadkill challenge, the alligator-infested wood, and — who can forget?! — the infamous run-in with the gang of rednecks on a petrol station forecourt in Alabama.

Pure brilliance from start to finish.

Botswana Special (2007) 

Who can forget Oliver? The relationship that bloomed between Richard Hammond and his terrific little car was nothing short of beautiful.

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In a trip that saw the trio cross Botswana in its entirety, in the most unfitting cars possible, the boys barely survived the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, and undertook a hilarious route through the stunning Okavango Delta.

Somehow, in their fleet of woefully-prepared road cars, all three presenters made it, genuinely against all the odds. If anyone wants to try and count the number of times Jeremy broke down, feel free — you’ll need a day off work it was that many!

Vietnam Special (2008) 

Okay, so it doesn’t technically involve any cars, but the Vietnam special is by far the most complete road trip Top Gear ever undertook.

From Jeremy’s initial reluctance to engage in riding anything that resembles a bike, the narrative develops into a astoundingly good road trip that contains everything you’d want from a TV show.

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The boys buy each other comedy gifts, purchase tailor-made cashmere suits, get on the wrong train, crash into things, fall off their bikes, encounter the most terrible traffic, soar along breath-taking mountain roads, and generally have a bloody good laugh.

And then, when you think it can’t get any better, they have to transform their bikes into boats and sail for the finish line amid the myriad of islands in Bahang Bay. Absolutely stupendous.

A bittersweet take on United’s season thus far

United fans of the past three decades have enjoyed a pretty good life, what with Sir Alex Ferguson sweeping aside all that stood before him, conquering both England and Europe with a swagger that garnered as much ire as it did admiration.

He built and re-built teams that were as dynamic as they were dominant, familiarising Manchester United fans with success. Success that many of them hadn’t witnessed since the heyday of Sir Matt Busby.

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So, it’s with the last 25+ years in mind that Manchester United fans have had to temper their expectations. David Moyes floundered beneath a deluge of expectation; Louis van Gaal — despite winning the FA Cup — alienated supporters with his stagnant brand of possession football; and so, following these disappointments, faith was placed in a man who had long coveted the head role at Old Trafford.

The thing is, in spite of all his undoubted brilliance, José Mourinho hasn’t exactly restored the club to its winning ways.

There is certainly an arrogance about United fans — even being a fervent one myself — that demands success, as if it is some God-given right, rather than earned through graft, guile and sheer bloody-mindedness.

With Mourinho, there is the expectation success will follow, especially when the club shells out in excess of £130 million in transfer fees for some of the footballing world’s most promising names.

But with United stuttering through an indifferent start to the season, what’s missing? With the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Mata and De Gea, Mourinho has a glittering squad at his disposal, yet this behemoth of a club languishes in 7th place, having been soundly beaten by Chelsea, outplayed in the Manchester derby and staunchly boring the entire of Merseyside to death.

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First off — play people in their actual positions

As anyone who’s played football to any half-decent level will testify, attuning your game to a host of different positions is tricky. Sure, there are the gifted few for whom versatility is second nature, but understanding the tactical and positional differences of a winger and a striker take time to comprehend.

And that’s going some way to explaining United’s sheer lack of both excitement and proficiency this season.

It may be a sign of the lack of genuinely talented wingers in the squad, but sticking Marcus Rashford out on the flanks is doing nobody any favours. With his fearless nature and direct running, the last place you want the young England star is 30 yards from goal and approaching the byline rapidly. The same goes for Anthony Martial.

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Their frightening pace would be far better serviced through the middle, but not necessarily at Ibrahimovic’s expense. Late on in games, tired legs are going to have a hell of a time keeping up with Rashford and Martial.

Concerning the wide areas, United have a man in Henrik Mkhitaryan who was at the top of his game last season; drifting in off the right-wing to register 11 goals and 15 assists in the Bundesliga as Dortmund finished runners-up.

But it seems as though this United squad has an abundance of talent, all of whom want to play in that coveted ‘number 10’ role — Rooney, Mata, Pogba — and who are similarly bringing a distinct lack of balance to the side.

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Let’s take Paul Pogba. Undoubtedly he possesses a wealth of talent, but he has the positional awareness of a man registered blind. His inclusion in the side warrants a solid base in midfield, potentially robbing the side of creativity going forward. There’s no scope to play Pogba in a midfield two — he too often leaves his partner woefully exposed.

Which brings us neatly onto the next point:

Mourinho needs to establish his first-choice XI — quickly

Unfortunately for United fans, Mourinho has too often got his starting XI and tactical set-up completely wrong for the big games.

Struggling to piece together the jigsaw of how the fuck you fit Paul Pogba in this United side, Mourinho has frequently opted for the lumbering figure of Marouane Fellaini in centre midfield. A curious charge when you consider the big Belgian’s talents as a footballer: he can head the ball. Aaaaand that’s about it.

In years gone past, United have dominated the English and, to a lesser extent, the European scenes thanks in no small part to their strength in centre midfield. Keane, Scholes, Butt, Carrick, Ince would all walk into today’s side without a concern.

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But if you insist on playing Pogba, who anchors the midfield? Do you entrust the energetic and criminally-underrated Ander Herrera, sacrificing his creative instincts in the name of solidarity? Or do you trust in Michael Carrick who, although is certainly into the winter of his career, has a proven time and time again he has the ability to dictate play from the centre of the park.

And what of Morgan Schneiderlin? The aggressive ball-winner seems to have been entirely overlooked alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger when both can offer more consistency in the centre of the pitch that Fellaini.

But that’s not the only area of the pitch Mourinho is struggling with. The right-back berth seems to have been filled, albeit we pray only temporarily, by Antonio Valencia; a man whose ability to defend is less compelling than his attempts to speak English. So many times the Ecuadorian is caught out by even the merest hint of intelligence in an opposition winger; sure, most won’t beat him for pace, but the man doesn’t seem to know what offside is!

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Similarly, Mourinho’s proclivity for playing Young and Lingard in important fixtures beggars belief. These are two men who epitomise one of the bleakest problems that English football is facing: we seem to appreciate a lack of actual footballing talent as long as it is compensated for by a willingness to “put a shift in”.

Since when did top-level international footballers rely solely on their ability to work hard? Carlos Tevez works bloody hard, but he’s also a terrific goal threat to boot; the same goes for Luis Suarez, who never gives defenders a moment’s rest. Cafu would steam up and down Brazil’s right flank in the 90s, yet he could cross a ball like no one’s business and tackle like a bull.

Panicking is going to help absolutely no one

Football fans are fickle, and perhaps none more so than Manchester United fans, many of whom expected a continuation of the club’s phenomenal success once Fergie had waved a fond farewell in 2013.

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Moyes’ head was called for extremely early on, while van Gaal hardly lasted much longer before the masses turned against him. Already there are rumblings of disquiet amongst the United faithful who seem to have once again rolled out that old chestnut “playing the United way”.

Well, what is the United way? Rampaging wingers and an attitude that boldly proclaims, “You score four, we’ll score five”? See how far that gets you against Barcelona! The modern game is changing and so is the entire landscape of football.

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Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the last old-school managers, who ruled the club from top to bottom, and in José Mourinho, United, at least, have a man of similar ilk. Players desire to play for him; they want to impress him. And that’s what the club needs.

Scholes, Giggs, the Nevilles, Keane — all players for whom playing for Manchester United meant something. United fans were blessed indeed to witness such a crop of players come through their club at one time, and it’s a feat that will likely never be repeated, but United still possess the tools to re-establish themselves at the pinnacle of the game.

This season has been lukewarm to say the least, but it has produced moments of startling potential. So despite the current lowly state of affairs United find themselves in, with City dropping points, Chelsea’s slow start still hampering them and Liverpool’s complete inability to beat anyone in the bottom five a title challenge really isn’t that far off.

 

The Walking Dead is back to its emphatic best

For a show that established where the line should be then gleefully crossed it many, many episodes ago, it’s hard to believe The Walking Dead was capable of shocking us any further.

But, for viewers of the season 7 premiere, any semblance of preparation for the events about to unfold were summarily smashed and ground into the dirt in horrifyingly emphatic fashion.

It’s not as though fans of the series are unused to genuinely shocking moments. After all, over the seasons, the writers have developed an uncanny ability to play to the viewers’ fears whilst tugging on their heartstrings in an almost mocking fashion.

We’ve witnessed the much-loved Herschel beheaded at the hands of The Governor; endured Rick’s descent into madness as his wife, Lori, died during childbirth (and was subsequently eaten); watched Carol shoot twelve-year-old Lizzie following the murder of her own sister; and perhaps, most begrudgingly of all, sit through poor Sam Anderson’s grisly dismemberment at the hands of a horde of ravenous zombies.

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So, despite the introduction of Negan and the promise that season 7 would begin in the most spectacular of fashion, Walking Dead viewers were ready, right?

The Walking Dead played on our fears — and then some

One of our beloved main characters was set to feel the bite of Lucille, Negan’s trusty wire-clad baseball bat — that much was abundantly clear, and the months leading up to last night’s unveiling have been rife with speculation as to who.

Would it be Glenn, who’d already suffered a rather ignominious fake death earlier in the season? Could it be his wife, Maggie, who has the added emotional weight of pregnancy? What about Carl? That’s guaranteed to fuck Rick up. Or how about Daryl, the all-action, arse-kicking anti-hero?

In the end, The Walking Dead did what it does best; it drew out our fears, dangling the tantalising fruits of six months of speculation right before our eyes, before exploding them in much the same way as poor Abraham’s head did when it was he who fell victim to Negan’s ruthlessness.

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Yet, even as we watched in horror as Negan beat Abraham to a blood pulp, you couldn’t help but feel like the show was simply warming up. Abraham had his fans, for sure, but he wasn’t the “big character” the show’s creators had promised.

And yet there never felt like there was even a whiff of hope. No indication that perhaps our most beloved characters, some of whom have been on the journey since the very beginning, were going to escape.

In an hour of television that transitioned masterfully from one scene of utter dejection to the next, you couldn’t help but watch. It was quite possibly the most harrowing hour that’s ever graced the small screen, but it was never not compelling at its very core.

Thus, the viewer was rewarded for his or her resilience when Daryl invoked the wrath of Negan, striking him across the face following the murder of Abraham.

It transpires lightning can strike twice

It was poor Glenn who paid the price. Glenn, who first saved Rick back in the very first episode; Glenn, the guy who’s saved the group from utter annihilation countless times; Glenn, who’s relationship with Maggie was one of the few genuinely touching things to come out of the post-apocalyptic shit storm that is The Walking Dead. 

Many thought he would escape Negan’s punishment (even though his character does meet his end at Negan’s hand in the comics) thanks to his “death” in the alleyway, that later turned out to only be a cruel red herring.

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Instead, his presumed earlier demise appeared to be more a case of foreshadowing.

In that moment, when Glenn was beaten to death with such vicious indignity, you really felt like there was nothing left The Walking Dead could do to rob you off hope. Not only was Glenn dead, he left behind Maggie — who’s already seen her father beheaded and her sister shot. Glenn was all she had left.

But there was one final trick in store for us.

We finally saw Rick break — and it was gut-wrenching to witness

Rick, who’s served as a paragon of authority, the pinnacle of survival instinct, the man who’s fought off countless adversaries and dragged his friends and family through every mess they’ve found themselves in, was reduced to a snivelling, hollow shell of a man at the hands of Negan.

Accustomed as we are to so often seeing Rick in control of a situation, it was anathema to see him broken by Negan. It felt worse than the deaths of Abraham and Glenn. They paid with their lives, but Rick, the perennial and proverbial beacon of hope, was extinguished — and that light was doused when Negan gave him one final choice: cut off your son’s arm or see everyone you know and love perish.

If you’d considered the previous forty-five minutes a masterclass in how to rob an audience of hope and instil in them a sense of complete and utter dejection, then The Waking Dead managed to outdo itself again.

With Rick broken, it feels like nothing will ever be right again.

There is finally a worthwhile adversary again

If there’s one thing the writers of the show can execute flawlessly, it’s making the viewer loathe a villain. And it’s what the show has needed once more.

However, while Negan has left a generation of fans distraught, his introduction makes perfect sense in narrative terms. The show craves that antithesis to Rick and all that he’s fighting for. The Governor provided it, Terminus threatened to restore it; and now Negan has resurrected it.

In Negan, The Walking Dead has established a villain with whom there is absolutely no empathy. The Governor was terrifying, but there was an understanding to him: he’d lost his family, seen everything he had burn, but with Negan, on the back of this episode alone, there feels like there’s no limit to his malice.

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His character supplies the much-needed antagonist of thoroughly terrifying proportions that stops the show from becoming a bunch of people wandering about in the woods killing zombies.

He didn’t just kill a few of the show’s favourite characters, he stripped the show’s driving force of its principles; he took any wisp of hope and crushed it.

Season 7 of The Walking Dead is going to make for some horrendously difficult viewing.