Four Classic Old Novels Worth Your Time

Four Classic Old Novels Worth Your Time

My husband likes to tease that my to-read list is ten years long. The sad thing is, he’s not entirely wrong. There are a lot of books I want to read. Some have been waiting on my bookshelves through several moves. Others sit quietly on my Kindle waiting for me to scroll through the proper folder and remember I own them.

This means that by the time I read most books, their initial release hype has faded. So no best new books of the year posts from me. The plus side, though, is I’m not afraid to dig through older books and add those to my to-read pile. And not just decade old books – classics too.

I’ve been trying to clean off my kindle, clearing through the pile of books that have been awaiting my attention. And I realized I’m mostly down to the free classics I downloaded from Amazon shortly after purchasing the device.

Likewise, I finally worked around to a few older novel series that have been waiting patiently on my shelves. So I figured – what the heck! Let’s have a classic series binge.

It turned out to be a great decision because I am digging all these old books! Here’s a look at what I’ve been reading, and why I think you might enjoy these delights as well.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune has been my brother-in-law’s favorite series since forever. My husband and I watched the made-for-TV miniseries produced by the Syfy channel back in the early 2000’s. We thought it was pretty awesome. Sadly, it was made in the early days of special effects and before high definition TV was really a thing. So it hasn’t aged well. But it caught my interest enough to encourage me to purchase the books.

Of all the series on this list, it’s the one I’m furthest into. There are dozens of Dune-related books written by Fank Herbert and, later, by his son. The original series contains 5 books: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune. The first of these (Dune) was published in 1965. The last (Chapterhouse) in 1985, shortly before Frank Herbert passed away.

Dune takes place in the far future when humans have learned how travel among the stars. Much of this universe is powered by melange – also known as the spice, a substance with somewhat mystical properties produced only on one planet: Arrakis (also known as Dune). Arrakis is a desert planet and every aspect of existence there is harsh. But its inhabitants have a dream to turn Dune into a green planet. So they judiciously gather and preserve water, their most precious resource.

The story centers around House Atredies, specifically the heir to the house, Paul. His mother is a member of the Bene Gesserit (essentially space witches) and she has imparted to him training not usually shared with males. If you’ve never encountered Dune before, it’s basically Game of Thrones in space. Much of the story centers around clever political maneuvering between major houses. Whoever plans the most steps ahead wins.

Why Read It?

Right from the offset, I’m going to admit that Dune has its problems. Frank Herbert obviously had some rigid ideas of gender roles which are expressed quite frequently throughout the book. The Bene Gesserit are trying to produce a man capable of accessing a power they themselves can’t because – as the book explains – it requires more taking than a woman can ever do. (Cue eye rolls.)

I’ll be honest, I also find some aspects of the Dune series’ composition to be a bit of a train wreck. The books are written in deep third person limited perspective, but the author leaps between character perspectives at random. Sometimes this is so jarring, I have to go back and re-read the transition to figure out when I actually moved from one character’s head to another.

That said, Frank Herbert created some truly fascinating characters. I was so enamored with Paul, I instantly found myself rooting for him. And despite the fact that all the books in the series often deal with catching glimpses of future events, I never felt the characters’ special abilities leached tension from the books. I spend much of my time nail-biting over whether or not my favorite characters are going to survive, and cheering when they do.

I can see why my brother-in-law loves these books. Yes, they sometimes drag. And sometimes the “intellectual” discourse is so vague that the characters don’t really say anything. But there’s also something magnetic and compelling about the characters and the world they inhabit. I find myself voraciously devouring the series’ lore. And I’m extremely excited to see where the new movie series goes. (Fingers crossed they make it through more than just the first book!)

Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright

The only book on this list that is fantasy rather than sci-fi. Islandia was originally published in 1942, 11 years after its author died. The manuscript was largely written as a hobby throughout the author’s life. It was published posthumously and reduced from its full length by about 1/3rd. The copy I have is large (not traditional paperback size) and it still over 1,000 pages long.

The story itself takes place in 1905 and follows the adventures of John Lang who meets a native of Islandia (Dorn) during university and later becomes America’s representative to his friend’s distant country.

Islandia is a small and somewhat isolationist country located on the Antarctic continent, which is extended in this imaginary alternate earth. One of the most interesting things about the book is that all of the seasons are flipped from the protagonist’s perspective (he grew up in New England).

Access to Islandia is limited by “the hundred law” which prevents more than 100 foreigners from being present in the country at one time. Many of the other nations of the world, and a small group of Islandia natives, hope to change that and much of the story centers around the politics and culture of this imaginary nation. In fact, Islandia has developed something of a cult following because of the expansive and detailed nature of its world building.

Islandia has rejected modern technology such as cars and trains, so all travel is by horseback. The author spends a great deal of time explaining the landscape while his protagonist explores this new realm. Much time is also devoted to cultural and philosophic conversations illustrating the differences between American and Islandian perspectives while the main character struggles to determine whether or not he actually fits among his Islandian friends.

Why Read It?

I first encountered Islandia in high school. One of my favorite authors mentioned the book as an inspiration. One of my English teachers had a copy he let me borrow. (It wasn’t the first time I borrowed a book from a teacher. My history teacher let me borrow the Aeneid, which I devoured.) Sadly, I had so much going on my junior year and so many other school books to read, I was only able to get a small way into the book before I had to give up.

I spent years looking for another copy of Islandia. But it has long been out of print. The copies I could find were always upward of $90. So I waited, and I searched.

A few years ago, a good friend of mine scored a copy of Islandia from a used bookstore. It took a little while to shuffle it into my reading schedule, but I’m currently working my way through it again. And man does it feel good to finally get to finish this story!

Islandia is so long that I decided to break my reading down into three parts. That way I won’t get bored before I hit the end. I’d like the story to maintain some of its magic.

Like Dune, Islandia has a few cultural details that haven’t aged particularly well. And some of the cultural significance of the book has become outdate. For example, it was considered a feminist work at the time it was written because of the freedom and open expression exhibited by Islandian women. (Behavior that seems perfectly normal and, perhaps, even a little restrained by modern standards.)

But for anyone hoping to create a world that jumps to life off the page, Islandia is a great example of excellent world building!

Barsoom by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My first exposure to the Barsoom series came from the movie John Carter of Mars. I think this film was widely overlooked by most people because it seemed highly derivative of just about every other sci-fi series in existence. But that’s because its source material actually pre-dates all of those sci-fi works which are, ironically, derivative of it.

The movie is based on A Princess of Mars, the first book in the Barsoom series. They were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars was originally a serialized series, published in 1912. The novel collecting the entire first story was subsequently published in 1917. (Making it the oldest book in this list.)

The story follows John Carter, a confederate veteran of the American Civil War who is somehow transported to Mars. Despite an out of body experience triggering the journey, Carter arrives on Mars with a physical body much different from the planet’s native inhabitants. His denser bone structure (Earth’s gravity is stronger than Mars’s) allows him to leap great distances and strike far harder than his Martian opponents.

On Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants, John Carter is soon swept up into a generations old struggle between Mar’s ‘red men’ (who look human) and the ‘green men,’ also known as Tharks who are alien in appearance. After the Tharks take a young red woman by the name of Dejah Thoris captive, Carter resolves to change her fate, though it requires him to dive into this long-standing conflict.

Why Read it?

I’ll be honest, of all the books mentioned in this blog, this one feels the most like self-indulgence when I read it. It’s camp pure and simple. There’s almost nothing about this novel that isn’t pure cheese.

There isn’t a lot of science in this sci-fi. The author seemed to have a firm grasp on the gravitational differences between Earth and Mars, and how this might have been affected by its celestial neighbors. But most of the devices on Barsoom are powered by prisms that divide light into its component pieces. One of these components is essentially ‘lift,’ which allows their planes to fly.

And like the other books on this list, it isn’t without its problems. The opening of the book involves a lengthy struggle against a group of Apache warriors, and the descriptions are less than flattering.

But if you can look past its problems, there’s a certain magic in the Barsoom narrative. It successfully immerses the reader in the history of another world. John Carter not only travels the massive wastes of Mars, he encounters ancient ruins of a civilization that has long since faded into an unknown history. He has to learn his way around several new cultures, often without a starting reference. (He doesn’t understand any of the languages when he first arrives on the planet.)

There’s plenty of action in this classic old sci-fi story. But there’s also a fair amount of romance. For me, it’s a somewhat nostalgic read, and it satisfies an itch.

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

This book appears last on the list because it was the last one I started reading. But it is probably the most spectacular of the group. The Dying Earth is a series of short stories written by Jack Vance, published as a collection in 1950. Jack Vance later re-visited this setting for several other novels: The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous.

So far, I have read only The Dying Earth. But wow. Seriously.

The six stories in The Dying Earth are only loosely related. Characters which appear in one story often become the focus of other stories, but there is no particular timeline indicated by the narrative.

The stories take place in the far future of Earth. The planet is old. The sun is a faded red orb, and it is generally accepted that both the Earth and its sun are dying. A thousand civilizations have arisen and fallen to dust. Those who inhabit this planet in its twilight seem to accept that all will soon end and there is little point in trying to prevent the inevitable.

Each of the original stories has a dark underpinning, though I wouldn’t quite describe them as horror stories. Certainly there is a fair blend of sci-fi and fantasy, and it is masterfully crafted. Not only does each story follow the quest of a specific character, it reveals something new about the long history of the world.

Why Read It?

I decided to pick up The Dying Earth when I learned that it was one of the primary inspirations for Dungeons and Dragons, a game I’ve played since high school. Instantly upon reading the first story, you can see the truth of this.

Wizards in The Dying Earth can only carry a certain number of spells with them per day. They memorize these spells as patterns from their spell books. Once they weave the pattern, it vanishes from their mind and must be memorized again. Wizards can carry a different number of spells based on their complexity. For example, the character in the opening story carries 3 spells with him. But his rival in the second story, a less scrupulous character, is able to memorize 6 spells, though some are of lesser complexity.

The spells in Dying Earth are also named in the same manner as Dungeons and Dragons spells. For instance: the Excellent Prismatic Spray.

But while the D&D tie in is cool, it isn’t the main reason I love this book and can’t wait to read more. Jack Vance has a fluid, faire-tale style of storytelling. He paints a vivid picture of Earth in its twilight, a world full of lost knowledge and a small group of people trying to maintain the wonders of the past before they fade forever from existence.

Each of the stories I have read so far has not only engrossed me, but turned out way differently than I expected. There’s always some odd twist. And so far, most of them have blown my mind.

I’m hoping to find more of Jack Vance’s other work so that I can devour it voraciously.

That’s what I’m up to at the moment. What books on your to-read pile are you excited about at the moment?

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