Any serious reader will tell you that there are books…and there are books.
The first kind are your normal, everyday releases that are consumed voraciously one after another. They serve their purpose as entertaining diversions in which to escape the mundanity of the real world. For speculative fiction readers, this would include the latest epic fantasy or a new rip-roaring space opera. Publishers release these stories like clockwork around the calendar.
Then there's the second kind, said with a kind of lustful inflection usually reserved for cake. These books are clearly set apart from their brethren by the extra affection they receive. They aren't merely books; they're treasures, meant to be adored and shown off by their owners and coveted by other readers. These are produced more sparingly, which only adds to their "want" factor.
Speculative fiction has its fair share of these must-have books. Here are some of the latest drool-worthy books…
Folio Society Editions of Neil Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS and Mary Renault's THE BULL FROM THE SEA and THE KING MUST DIE
The Folio Society makes some of the most breathtaking books ever. Since 1947, they've been publishing definitive editions of literature's most beloved classics. (Here's how they do it.) Their recent offerings are no less impressive and are, quite simply, things of beauty.
Their new edition of Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a perfect example. You've probably heard of this book before. It's the story of a man named Shadow whose wife dies shortly before he is released from a three-year prison sentence. With no basis for normalcy, Shadow takes a job working as a bodyguard and driver for a mysterious man named Wednesday, a strange and wily con man with even stranger friends. After embarking on a road trip across America, Shadow finds himself in the middle of a war between old gods and new ones.
It's obvious that Folio Society's brand new edition of Gaiman's dark fantasy classic is something special as soon as you pull it out of its sturdy slipcase. The production value of this and all of Folio Society's editions are a cut above the rest. American Gods includes wonderful illustrations by longtime Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean. Even the slipcase contains an impressionistic version of McKean's artwork. This edition also contains a bonus treat for people who have already read the book. It contains the author's preferred text – about twelve thousand more words than previous editions.
Also available from Folio Society is Mary Renault's historical fantasy duology The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea. These engrossing stories look behind the mythological story of Theseus, who slayed of a child-devouring Minotaur in Crete. In The King Must Die, Theseus learns he is not the son of Poseidon as he believed, but is instead the son and sole heir of the King of Athens. In an attempt to fulfill his destiny, he travels to Athens only to learn that King Minos of Crete is sacrificing human tributes to a monster. Theseus aims to kill the monster and set the people free. In The Bull From the Sea, Theseus returns to Athens and assumes the role of King. He meets Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, and falls in love. But the Athenians do not trust Hippolyta, so Theseus is forced to marry Phaedra, his jealous betrothed, as the land falls into war.
The Folio Society editions of these historical fantasy classics are also works of art. They are individually slip-cased and contain terrific illustrations by Geoff Grandfield. You can feel the quality of the books as you hold them and read them (should the booklover in you find the strength to remove the shrink wrap). These are the kinds of books you put on a shelf in plain sight.
The Penguin Galaxy SF Series
Serious science fiction and fantasy readers cannot resist the classics. It's just not in their DNA. That's what makes The Penguin Galaxy Series so appealing. It's a collection of six collectible hardcover editions of science fiction and fantasy classics, which you can purchase individually or as part of a boxed set. Each of the novels here has earned their place in the halls of literary history. Included in the set are:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke- an intelligent and thoughtful space adventure in which first contact with an alien species leads humans towards space travel.
- Dune by Frank Herbert- a gripping story that depicts the messianic rise of Paul Atreides on the desert planet Arrakis amidst treachery, betrayal, and giant sand worms.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson- the pioneering cyberpunk novel about a data thief who is enlisted to go against an unimaginably powerful artificial intelligence.
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein- the story of the Mars-born human Valentine Michael Smith, who visits Earth and becomes a godlike figure to his millions of followers.
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin- which is about a lone human emissary's mission to the planet Winter, a world whose inhabitants can choose and change their gender.
- The Once and Future King by T.H. White- the page-turning fantasy that serves as an excellent retelling of King Arthur's life, from boyhood to old age.
Each book in the series comes with an introduction written by Neil Gaiman titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Science Fiction." Their small form factor and minimalist covers call out to readers and makes them fun to read all over again.
Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie
Even casual speculative fiction fans are fans of Star Wars, which is why they will fall in love with Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie, a luxurious boxed set of two art books filled with enough eye candy to give you a toothache. This incredible set of books, over twenty pounds of visual goodness, is overflowing with the work of Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who helped design the original look and feel of the Star Wars universe. The set covers the original Star Wars trilogy as seen through hundreds of concept pieces: sketches, pencil drawings. and glorious full-color artwork. It includes story boards, matte paintings, posters, logo art, art that's made its way to book, and album covers, as well as costume designs and George Lucas' holiday greeting cards. (My kitschy favorite is the artwork behind 1978's someone-please-tell-me-it-was-all-a-dream Star Wars Holiday Special.) All of the artwork has been specially scanned in for this definitive collection and it is simply gorgeous.
All of that alone would easily be worth the price of admission here, but this magnificent behemoth offers much more. It also includes the stories behind the artwork, providing historical context for the evolution of the people, places, and tech of Star Wars. The book shows how McQuarrie and Lucas worked together to reshape the look of cinema. It includes rare, previously unpublished interviews that are as informative as they are fun. You can see the films taking shape as you go through the chronologically-ordered illustrations and read the accompanying text. If anyone you know has even a passing interest in art or Star Wars, this comprehensive piece of film history is a solid must-have.John DeNardo is the founding editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning science fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. You can follow him on Twitter as @sfsignal.