Thoughtful Thursday: Beyond Tolkien

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsOne of the accusations lodged against much fantasy is that it is all derivative of Tolkien.  Especially when dealing with epic or high fantasy, you have your ethereal elves, grouchy dwarves, carefree hobbits, evil orcs, heroic humans, wise wizards…  Well, just about any stock character in fantasy can be traced back to Tolkien’s works.  And while there is a reason for this — these archetypes draw on mythic traditions far older than Tolkien — it can get repetitive and make it difficult to do something entirely new.

Our intrepid reviewer Justin was discussing a book that he had just finished reading, Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and commented that one of the things that impressed him the most was all the different races of humans that the author had created, known as the insect-kinden. So you have the ant-kinden who share a mind and work together, wasp-kinden who fly, and mantis-kinden with amazing martial skills.  Another one of our reviewers, Robert T. was equally taken by this aspect of the book, and said:

Personally, I love the concept of insect-kinden. It immediately gives the book a unique flavor and the potential of this setup is just endless. I mean how many different kinds of insects are there in the world? Just in this book alone, we get to meet Beetles, Spiders, Mantids, Wasps, Dragonflies, Ants, Flies, Scorpions, Butterflies, Grasshoppers, and Thorn Bugs. And who knows how many others Tchaikovsky has waiting to be revealed in the sequels. Centipedes perhaps? Mosquito Lords? Regardless, there’s much more to the insect-kinden than just a cool concept. Tchaikovsky has really fleshed out the insect-kinden to the point where each kinden not only has their own distinctive physical traits, but also personality characteristics, history, beliefs, prejudices, etc. Even better, he’s created a whole word of insect dynamics like the contempt they feel for halfbreeds, the hate shared between Spiders and Mantids, the disparity between the forward-thinking, technologically-driven Beetles and the mystical Moths, and so on. Of course, for all that insect-kinden might be different from you and I physically and in other areas, they are still human and act accordingly. So expect insect-kinden to fall in love, to feel jealousy, anger, grief, to sacrifice themselves, betray one another, and to indulge in all sorts of other compelling human drama, which is just accentuated by their kinden backgrounds. (Read the rest of his review here.)

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsHearing something like that made me think back over all the books that I’ve read, and try and identify the most unique races that I’ve read in fantasy.  Sadly, the list is really short.  There have been really interesting and unique human cultures and religions, like the Tayledras in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, or the Kuakgan in The Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon, but no really new original races in and of themselves come to mind.

So, dear readers, the question turns to you. What are some of the original races you’ve read in fantasy? Leave a comment and we’ll enter you in a drawing to win a copy of Empire of Black and Gold, which has gotten great reviews from two of our reviewers. Thanks to Pyr, we’ve got five copies to give away, so we’re going to pick five winners!

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. The two original fantasy races that come to mind are Tolkien’s Ents and Terry Pratchett’s Igors.

  2. I just finished the Warriors anthology and really enjoyed David Weber’s short story. It included an alien race, the Shongairi, that were a sort of wolfish humanoid. Not to give too much away, but the fact that they are pack animals and could not understand human’s tendencies were a major point in the story and made it very interesting. Also mentioned are ‘grazers’, herbaviore humaniods, and how that dictated their standard behavior. Very good stuff and I like how it was a main facet of the story.

  3. The Sull from J.V. Jones’ Sword of Shadows immediately come to my mind. In the first books, the reader thinks they are just are just a bad-:censored: warrior tribes of humans. But by book four; Watcher of the Dead, it comes to light they are more.
    They have a very intriguing culture and traditions, (and they have some very cool names, like Ark Vienspliter or Mal Naysayer).

  4. China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station et al.) are stuffed to overflowing with weird races, but one example in particular is the Khephri — they have female human bodies but their heads are foot-long scarab beetles. They communicate amongst themselves with scent or via their antennae, and write notes or use sign language to communicate with other races. (The males are small mindless beetles whose only real purpose apparently is to help make other beetles.)

  5. I’ve read SO many fantasy’s with original worlds and characters. I love Tolkien, and without him I’m sure fantasy would not be what it is now. Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody series has some very cool characters… Sara Douglass wrote the Axis Trilogy and Wayfarer Redemption which has a unique take on dragons. Sharon Shinn has the Samaria series is a unique world of angels. I never stop being amazed at writers and their imaginations!

  6. Steven Erikson! The T’Lan Imass, K’Chain Che’Malle, Forkrull Assail, the Jaghut, the Tiste races…

  7. Since we have to limit this to fantasy, hm . . .

    The vord in Butcher’s Codex Alera are quite unique, I thought.

    I always loved the Ogier of Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but that archetype is sort of fulfilled by the Ents in part . . .

    Panserbjorne! I love me some armored polar bears from His Dark Materials.

    VanderMeer’s gray caps were creepy as hell.

    That’s all I got. :)

  8. Brandon Sanderson’s kandra can impersonate a person or animal by ingesting its corpse — so cool! Also, his koloss and inquisitors are awesome, too.

  9. Carol Berg tends to have some fascinating races in her work, like the Danae from The Lighthouse Duet and the Dulce from the Bridge of d’Arnath. That’s one of the things I love about her books.

    @David: Did you know Panserbjorne is literally armored bear? I remember discussing this with my husband (who is Danish). When I said the word he knew exactly what I meant, even though he hasn’t read the book, so I was all “Wait. You have a word for armored bear?” I’m sure if his memory was good enough he’d still find that hilarious.

  10. @Beth Johnson: Yes, I did–though I’m not sure if I knew it then (I first read them when I was 17 or so) or if I found it out later. Either way, it’s a cool word. Probably the one thing that sticks out to me the most when I first read The Golden Compass/Northern Lights.

  11. Do the Hippae from Sheri Tepper’s Grass count or is that SF? Or the mitochondria and farandolae from L’engle? Drawing a blank here. I’ll have to go stare at my bookshelves some more.

  12. Speaking of Butcher’s Codex Alera, I love the Canum. Friggin giant warrior wolf-men. The details he puts into their manners and customs is what makes them so cool. If there were ever a Varg figurine made, I would die a happy man.

  13. I myself love all the different sub groups of fairies Laini Taylor created in her Dreamdark series–not sweet at the bottom of the garden type creatures at all, but detailed and complex cultures.

  14. Ruth, I love the picture! :teeth:

  15. For fantasy, hands down the most creative race would by Cin-Sims (Cinematic Simulacrums) in the novels by Carole Nelson Douglass. That said, I think that Science Fiction is the genre for unique races. By its very nature, fantasy, as Ruth says, draws from Mythic traditions – and we want it to. So, in addition to the Tolkien inspired archetypes you get Greco-roman inspired naiads and driads and cyclopses and gorgons and the like as well as vampires and werewolves of course.
    Oh, I confess that I do enjoy the occassional odd were-creature (a were-coyote or a were-tabby). But I’m still holding out for a were-platipus or a were-skunk. Tagline: it’s not as sexy as it sounds.

  16. Anonymous /

    Like Sarah, my first thought was Tepper’s Grass. Darn you, Sci Fi.

    My second thought was any books about women, that incomprehensible species. Again, though, I’m not certain that counts.

    I don’t know if we can imagine the truly alien. Mostly, when we are ‘creative’ or ‘original,’ we’re combining the old in new ways. For example, many of these races are combinations of human and animal–insect, wolf, platypus. Others are exaggerations of familiar human emotions, such as the koloss as an expression of rage.

    Along those lines, before I go back and write more of my own books (while struggling mightily to avoid cliche), I thought of Puddleglum, the uncommonly cheerful marsh-wiggle from The Silver Chair. The flavor of humanity, but with a deep layer of pessimism.


  17. The Sull from J.V. Jones’ Sword of Shadows and Tolkien’s Ents are the first that come to my mind. I would love to read Empire of Black and Gold. Please enter me in the contest, if it is international.
    Thank you!

    Giada M

  18. Other than those original races already mentioned, for me, the cho-ja immediately come to mind from Feist and Wurts. It’s been so long since I’ve read this series, but I recall Mistress of the Empire had a nail-biting climax with the cho-ja.

  19. Rachel, I have that series on my shelf but have never read it. Keep meaning to…

  20. Kat, I would highly recommend the Empires series by Feist and Wurts. Very fun, more political intrigue than action or combat based. Very hard to put down once I started one. And the cho-ja are a great orginal race.

  21. Our lucky winners are……



    Please contact Justin within 5 days after contest ends.

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