Book Review: Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, Edited by Laura Miller

This is a beautiful book.  I came across it while perusing new releases at Amazon’s physical bookstore in Seattle.  A relative caught me admiring it and bought it for me for Christmas.  It’s a heavy tome, more like an encyclopedia than a standard volume, and the text is interspersed with drawings, paintings, maps, and photographs to illustrate the fabulous imaginary realms it highlights.

The selections are arranged chronologically, with two to six pages for each book or series and the world it depicts.  It starts with ancient myth and legend, which includes classics such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf, and The Divine Comedy.  The next section covers 1701 to 1900, which the editor refers to as the era of science and romanticism.  Among the diverse books described here are Gulliver’s Travels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, and The Time Machine.  Next is the golden age of fantasy from 1901 to 1945, with titles like The Lost World, At the Earth’s Core, The Castle, Brave New World, and Conan the Barbarian.  The time periods get shorter and the contents more extensive as it moves along to the present.  The new world order section from 1946 to 1980 has twenty-five entries, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, A Clockwork Orange, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Included in the section on the computer age from 1981 to the present are The Discworld series, Neuromancer, The Sandman comic series, A Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series, and 1Q84.  The book culminates with Salmon Rushdie’s fantasy Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

These are all wondrous worlds to get lost in – but of course, what you’re really doing is skimming the surfaces.  The brief descriptions are teases that induce you to look further, to pick up the books themselves and dive into the details.  Through this tome you can get an overview of some of the important works of fantasy in literature, and it’s fun to visit these imaginary lands, albeit briefly.  Let’s say it’s more like going through a directory of alternate universes, but to really get to know any one of them, you have to visit it for yourself.

The selection is fairly well done, although some of the choices are obscure works and there are some notable omissions of groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy that should have been included.  I suppose the publisher and editor didn’t want to make the book too big; it’s already quite physically heavy.  However, considering some of the entries I’ve never heard of even after over five decades of reading in the field, there’s no excuse for not including Frank Herbert’s planet Arrakis from his seminal first volume of Dune.  Another strange land that should have been included is the fantasy realm that the title character finds himself in while searching for his lost wife in James Branch Cabell’s classic Jurgen.  I would also like to have seen Cordwainer Smith’s elaborate universe represented, among others.  There’s no mention of Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, and Roger Zelazny and the amazing worlds they created.  Be that as it may, there are doubtlessly many other worthy fantasy worlds that readers would like to include, but it inevitably comes down to editor’s choice.

Like an encyclopedia, this book is not written by one person but by a large number of contributors.  This leads to a lack of continuity in the contents.  Some writers focus on a description of the fantasy worlds, while others all but ignore the books and talk about the authors, their personal struggles, and the era in which they lived and worked.  Overall, though, this book is quite entertaining, and can also give you a lot of ideas for what to read in the future.

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