15 underappreciated books: sci-fi, fantasy, horror fiction

Looking for a good book recommendation? Our writers have a few unsung sci-fi, fantasy and horror gems up their sleeves...

Other people. What’s the point of them? They’re noisy and everywhere.

There is one thing they’re especially good at, however, and that’s recommending new stuff. In the spirit of that, we asked our writers to recommend great books that, for whatever reason, haven’t been surrounded by as much fuss and recognition as they deserve.

Nominations came in for personal favourites in fiction, non-fiction, children’s books and graphic novels, so we’ve divided them up into a series of features, the first of which is below, on great unsung sci-fi, fantasy, horror and thriller adult fiction.

Our hope is that you’ll demonstrate your worth as other people by carrying on the recommendations in the comments section below. Thanks in advance.

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The Ladies Of Grace Adieu – Susanna Clarke (2006)

Susanna Clarke’s fantasy historical, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, was a publishing behemoth for Bloomsbury, not just because of its 800-odd page length, but also its success. Due to the tacit comparison, Clarke’s follow-up collection of short stories set in the same world, The Ladies Of Grace Adieu, always seemed to be in the shadow of its predecessor. The former’s imagination and wit though, merit it a reputation all of its own.

That said, Ladies Of Grace is fruit from the same tree—a companion piece though not a sequel to Strange And Norrell. Its imaginative and precisely told stories tell of English magic, John Uskglass, faerie princes and magical roads leading from England to other lands. Clarke’s characteristic footnotes, sardonic tone and talent for nineteenth century pastiche are all here in abundance.

It’s a must for fans of Strange And Norrell (as is the BBC’s recent adaptation), and a ‘probably should’ for Angela Carter fans.

By Frances Roberts

Feed – Mira Grant (2010)

Feed is the zombie novel for people who are tired of zombies. Set in the near future after the dead first started to walk, Feed isn’t really about the undead. They’re a backdrop, there to set the stage for what the novel is really about. You see, unlike most zombie apocalypse stories, in Feed the government held. Society fought back. They’ve established safety protocols to protect the living. Now, everyone goes about their regular lives, more or less, just with a lot more blood tests and bleach showers.

Enter Shawn and Georgia Mason, a set of siblings who run an online news site and who have just been selected to have an all-access pass to a presidential hopeful’s campaign. If Feed isn’t about zombies, then what is it about? Government, privacy, and a world where fear is a powerful motivator to give up the former. If you’re tired of the shuffling dead, give Feed a chance. It’s a highly underrated novel about personal freedom and the culture of fear.

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By Kaci Ferrell

Humans – Matt Haig (2013)

This was the first book I finished after losing my dad, a bereavement that temporarily drained all the flavour out of fiction. Funny, clever and meaningful without being sentimental, Humans restored me.

Matt Haig writes about life and love and death with heart-singing clarity. That’s why, even if this book’s rave reviews and in-store promotions should probably discount it from a list like this, I can’t stop recommending it.

It’s about the arrival on Earth of an alien with a mission, and the chaotic ways that human life gets in his way. It’s something any Douglas Adams fan should enjoy with a story that barrels along, making you laugh and leaving you punch-drunk with fellow-feeling at the end. Towards that end is a short chapter in the form of a list of aphoristic advice from a father to a son. Read it, and see what I mean.

By Louisa Mellor

The Basic Eight – Daniel Handler (1998)

Daniel Handler is better known to most people as Lemony Snicket. His enthralling children’s books have deservedly earned him critical acclaim for his story of unlucky orphans, twisted villains, dark humour and interesting word definitions.

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As good as A Series Of Unfortunate Events is though, for me his finest work is his debut adult novel, The Basic Eight.

Told in the diary form of teenage murderess Flannery Culp, the book counts down the days until its protagonist commits a rather gruesome act on one of her peers.  Flannery is such an engaging narrator and Handler perfectly conveys the complete and total irrationality of the teenage psyche as his character navigates her way through the first couple of months of her senior high school year, dealing with calculus tests, dinner parties with her elite clique of friends and spiralling towards a very dark place, all rendered in Flannery’s cynical black wit.

The book acts as a satire on real crime novels and US chat shows too, but it’s the Heathers-style presentation of high school and teenage friendship that Handler has mastered so completely which has led to many repeat reads of this stunning book.

By James Stansfield

The Lily Bard Mysteries – Charlaine Harris

Before writing about telepathic waitresses and vampires that want to do bad things with you, Charlaine Harris created this series of excellent mystery novels featuring cleaning lady/super sleuth Lily Bard.

The five novels in the collection all take place in the small Arkansas town of Shakespeare where Lily has chosen to escape from the horrific events of her past for no other reason than her name relates to that of the town. Her job as a cleaning lady allows her access to the houses and lives of Shakespeare’s residents, and aids her time and again in piecing together clues to solve the gruesome mysteries that befall the town.

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Lily Bard is a great character, vulnerable and untrusting because of her past, but with a sense of determination to right wrongs and not let similar fates happen to those around her. She’s like a much younger, more angsty Miss Marple, but one whom the men-folk of Shakespeare seem to find irresistible. It’s fair to say the books are a little racier than Agatha Christie’s.

The series is a really well done character journey with some tantalising plots woven in. A refreshing change if you’re fed up of all the damn vampires.

By James Stansfield

Rogue Male – Geoffrey Household (1939)

There had been man-on-the-run thrillers before (The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915), but for sheer unrelenting dread, no other chase thriller approaches Rogue Male. A thriller from 1939, it’s somewhat obscure now but has served as inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, David Morrell’s First Blood, Frederick Forsyth’s Day Of The Jackal and The Fugitive TV show.

The first-person story of a big game hunter who decides to assassinate the dictator of a middle European country, this initially boilerplate premise is the jumping-off point for a terrifying descent into man’s darkest nature. Stalked relentlessly by agents of the state, the nameless hunter is forced to hide out in the wild. Isolated from humanity in an improvised bunker in the middle of England, the protagonist is reduced to an animalistic state as he struggles to maintain his sanity.

Rife with paranoia and moments of visceral horror, Rogue Male feels far more contemporary in tone and style than other thrillers of the same period. It is a testament to the simple, brutal elegance of Household’s work here that subsequent authors have taken inspiration from Rogue Male, to varying degrees of success.

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By Tim George

Dark Star – Oliver Langmead (2015)

A piece of detective noir set on a planet with a sun that only burns black, Dark Star (Unsung Stories) is all about the gloom. The drug of choice on the seedy streets of the city of Vox is Prometheus, which lights up veins like a Christmas tree, giving users a real inner glow. Police detective Virgil Yorke is investigating the theft of the city’s power supply, and so this story is a cross between Dark City and Chinatown, with twists and surprises to spare.

It’s also written entirely in verse, which really works. You soon forget the fact that you are reading poetry and concentrate on the rhythm, which drives the story on. This book is a great example of taking two genres – epic verse and noir – and cramming them together to create something quite new. If you’re looking for something in science fiction that’s original, this should fit the bill.

By Aliya Whiteley

Prince Of Thorns – Mark Lawrence (2011)

The first part of Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire trilogy is a dark and unrelentingly brutal fantasy tale built around the enigmatic young Prince, Jorg Ancrath. When we first meet Jorgy, he is a mere boy leading a gang of cut-throat mercenaries as they commit countless atrocities and generally lay waste to everything in their path. Charismatic and quick-witted, Jorgy is a complex character who takes the term “anti-hero” to a new level. Incredibly charming and yet utterly twisted, his cruelty is deeply rooted thanks in no small part to horrors he witnessed as a young boy.  Now slightly older and infinitely more determined, Jorg is returning home with vengeance on his mind.

The trilogy as a whole is an immersive world that embraces its darkness and revels in the death and destruction it inflicts. This first outing is the tightest of the three books and really sets the tone for what is to come. It will certainly not be to everyone’s tastes mind you. If you like your heroes dashing and honourable and your violence at a minimum, this won’t be the story for you. However in Jorg Ancarath, we find one of the most intriguing characters the fantasy genre has seen in years and his blood-soaked adventures are laced with a rich vein of gallows humour that makes his despicable exploits unavoidably enjoyable.

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By Robert Keeling

The Lathe Of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)

Nominated for a Hugo and Nebula award on release and adapted twice for television, Ursula Le Guin’s homage to the work of schoolmate Philip K. Dick may not technically fulfil the criteria of an ‘underappreciated’ novel, but it certainly merits a wider readership.

The premise involves a man with the power to dream “effectively”, which is to say that he is able to change reality. When his psychiatrist channels that talent via the “Augmentor” machine, the pair attempt to solve myriad of the world’s problems, from war to overpopulation to racism. What follows is an extended ‘monkey’s paw’ narrative, host to a tangle of philosophical and spiritual debates rendered expertly in Le Guin’s fine, precise prose. Think of it as a sci-fi compendium if you like, one seventies ideas novel to rule them all.

By Louisa Mellor

Cold Mirrors – CJ Lines

Don’t be fooled by the slimness of this pocket-sized tome, for in its 200 pages C.J. Lines has packed some of the most powerful stories I have ever read. 

Most of the tales would fall into the horror genre, if you had to put a label on them.  Each has its own unique voice and almost all are equally shocking.  Lines has a talent for easily readable, vividly descriptive narrative which usually builds steadily to a dreaded boiling point.

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Personal picks from this collection would be the macabre puppetry offering Debut. Come Die With Me feels terrifyingly real and had me casting furtive glances at office colleagues, wondering “what if?” 

Lambkin, one of the anthology’s longer stories evokes memories of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black, only with far more malevolence, and Duplicity’s closing paragraph left me feeling in need of a stiff drink.

However, it’s the shortest entry, Clown Station, that, at just two pages, left the biggest impression on me, having seared an image into my brain that I haven’t been able to shake off for years.

Cold Mirrors is a startlingly bold collection of work that at times put this reader in mind of horror anthology series Urban Gothic.

By James Stansfield

The Beetle – Richard Marsh (1897)

1897 was a big year for the burgeoning genre of horror fiction with Bram Stoker producing Transylvanian vampiric sensation, Dracula. Unfortunately, due to the vampire’s continuing chokehold over popular culture, other contributions to the genre have gotten a little lost in its considerable wake. Although it initially outsold Stoker’s tale, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle is one such novel, a rip-roaring adventure founded in Egyptian myth and taking place in Victorian London. It adopts a similar structure to Dracula, using the various characters to narrate the story of an Ancient Egyptian cult who can transform into a beetle at will, brought together by Marsh’s regular intrepid detective, the wonderfully monikered Augustus Champnell.

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Combining its horror elements with the other emerging genre of detective fiction, The Beetle touches on many themes that characterises the horror fiction of the 1890s; the heroine is stolen away by the villain and the monsters are invaders threatening the Empire. It’s also wickedly entertaining, utilising the city of London as a dark, gothic nightmare and playing up the body horror aspects with relish. The descriptions of that tap-tap-tapping noise behind the wall or the beetle’s transformation will send a nice shiver down the spine.

By Becky Lea

Woman On The Edge Of Time – Marge Piercy (1976)

At first glance it doesn’t sound like an upbeat read. Connie Ramos, a working-class Mexican-American in 70s America, is committed to a mental hospital by her niece’s vengeful pimp and scheduled for mood-altering brain surgery.

However, Connie teams up with a time-traveller from a post-apocalyptic, newly rebuilt future. And not just any old time traveller. Luciente is an androgynous member of a poly-amorous society that’s done away with gender roles. Connie visits their lovingly created utopia, complete with communal living, small scale agriculture and frequent recreational-drug-fuelled festivities. It’s kind of like The Good Life. But if they were all sleeping with each other. Which is what we always secretly wanted, right?

Sadly, the commune is threatened by a much darker regime, inspiring Connie to join the resistance and setting up the exploration of political ideologies that give the book its reputation for being radical. But for me, that’s where all the fun is: battling patriarchal off-world organ-harvesters, for example, is stone cold cool. Woman On The Edge Of Time left me mulling on alternative ways of living and I have often found myself thinking fondly of the commune’s fecund permaculture courtyards.

By Caroline Moran

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The Kraken Wakes – John Wyndham (1953)

Not as well-known as Day Of The Triffids, The Chrysalids, or The Midwich Cuckoos, The Kraken Wakes is an excellent companion piece to Wyndham’s more famous works. Told from the perspective of an average English couple, The Kraken Wakes is, at its core, an alien invasion story. Hiding in the deepest parts of the ocean, Wyndham keeps the aliens’ appearance and motives unknown. Attempts to contact them lead to bizarre retaliations.

Like the shark in Jaws, we never get a clear description of what the aliens look like or what they are doing. By having his antagonists remain out of the picture, and telling the story from a remove, Wyndham’s first spin on the theme of alien invasion manages to avoid replicating the familiar tropes laid down by HG Wells while maintaining the sense of escalating panic of Wells’ most famous novel. With its unique conceit and believably bewildered protagonists, The Kraken Wakes is an effective, original take on a well-worn theme that deserves the same level of popularity as Wyndham’s better known novels.

By Tim George 

The Method – Juli Zeh (2009)

If you slap a Fitbit around your wrist each morning to measure your calorific output and heart-rate, then spend your day attempting to follow the government-recommended 10,000 steps, two-litres of water, five-a-day, low-sodium, slow-release guidelines, then sci-fi novel The Method will likely give you pause for thought.

Translated from German, Juli Zeh’s unusual fourth novel takes place in a world of oppressive mass surveillance where health and personal freedoms are minutely monitored and legislated. Smoking and drinking incur fines. Falling for someone with the wrong genetics is a crime. An underground terrorist group campaigns for the People’s Right to Illness.

Like Dave Eggers’ 2013 The Circle, or 1997 film Gattaca, it explores nightmarish conformism dressed up as utopian progress. It sits alongside classic sci-fi dystopias from Ray Bradbury to Aldous Huxley, by probing complex political themes, and its questions linger long after you’ve closed the final page.

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By Paul Roberts

Damnation Alley – Roger Zelazny (1967)

Damnation Alley has one of those perfectly formed pulp novel premises: The world has almost been destroyed by nuclear war, and America has divided into Police States. Boston is in dire need of a vaccine for a killer plague, so someone has to drive from L.A. through a wasteland filled with violent storm, marauders and mutated creatures to deliver it. The only man with a chance is the last surviving Hells Angel, who is promised a pardon for his crimes if he survives… which he probably won’t.

Damnation Alley is best remembered for its tepid film adaptation, and it also served as inspiration for 2000 AD’s famed Cursed Earth saga. The novel is an underrated gem though as it’s a lean, relentless ride filled with creative set-pieces and imagery, and Hell Tanner (yep, that’s his actual name) is an anti-hero in the same vein as Mad Max or Snake Plissken. He’s not a good guy, but he’s given a nice redemptive arc as the story progresses. He also drives one of the coolest vehicles ever conceived, a tank armed with fun toys like flamethrowers, machine guns and rockets. A recommended read for fans of knowingly trashy sci-fi. 

By Padraig Cotter

Read recommendations from the Den Of Geek book club, here, and our writers’ top books of 2014, here.

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