Some authors’ fiercest competition is their own bibliography. When you produce a bestselling masterpiece read the world over, everything else you wrote (or will write) is doomed to live in the shadows. Fortunately, many of our favorite authors happen to be very good at what they do. Glance past the glamorous “most popular” section and you’ll find overlooked books every bit as good as the series that made these writers famous.
Tuf Voyaging, by George R.R. Martin
Years before Game of Thrones would introduce millions of non-readers to epic fantasy, George R.R. Martin was quietly writing stories that didn’t kill a main character every other chapter. Case in point: Tuf Voyaging, a sci-fi adventure that follows a space trader who happens to be in possession of the most powerful weapon mankind has ever created. The tubby, cat-loving protagonist proceeds to travel around the galaxy helping colonists overcome their problems and settle new worlds. More “lighthearted Star Trek” than somber A Song of Ice and Fire, it proves Martin doesn’t need a gritty setting to tell a fantastic story.
The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
When it comes to character driven space operas, you pretty much can’t beat Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga: level-headed protagonists struggling with human troubles amidst space battles, political strife, and of course, aerial jellyfish—it’s a win no matter how you look at it. In the same way the Vorkosigan books make science fiction relatable, Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion brings fantasy down to Earth. The series features heartbreakingly realistic characters, and the plot is delightfully free from “chosen ones” and “as foretold by prophecy” hooks. (Yes, we realize it is a stretch to call a Hugo nominee unheralded, but these books definitely deserve the largest audience possible.)
Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M. Banks
Hey, a different book by that guy who wrote the Culture series! Iain M. Banks’ bibliography is heavily populated by his most popular SF creation, but there are a few other gems worth considering apart from Phlebas. (Sorry, I’ll show myself out.) Feersum Endjinn is set in a far future Earth where the dead can be reincarnated through an intelligent, world-spanning computer network. The bad news is, the entire planet is on a collision course with an interstellar molecular cloud, spelling doom for all the people and all the AI creations. Feersum Endjinn takes a few literary risks the Culture never even approaches, making it one of Banks’ best overlooked books.
Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The name Kim Stanley Robinson conjures images of Red Mars, Green Mars, and all the other colors you can make a planet. The author’s space tales focus on deep human struggle coupled with realistic environmental themes, sending our species far into the future to deal with the same problems we’re working on today. Antarctica does the same thing, only we never have to leave Earth to see what human beings are capable of. Well thought out and slightly left of ordinary, it’s a book that proves Robinson can be at his best even when working on a smaller scale.
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
Butler earned her reputation in the science fiction realm with books like Kindred and the Xenogenesis series. Down on the list of her most popular works is Wild Seed, the chronological origin of the Patternmaster series and a characteristically strange, Butlerian traverse across familiar genre ground. Wild Seed is set in the 17th century and details a struggle between a 4,000 year old vampire, his wild son and bride, and a shapeshifter healer. Sounds like every other book published in the early 2000s, right? Too bad Butler did it in 1980—and she did it better!
Perfect State, by Brandon Sanderson
The Mistborn guy has written a lot over the last 11 years, including the first two epic installments of the projected 10-volume Stormlight Archive, Elantris, several standalone works, and three books in the Wheel of Time. With all those big releases vying for attention, it’s easy to overlook Sanderson’s shorter, novella-length works. Instead of magic and world-building and warring empires, Perfect State is about a planet-conquering God-Emperor going out on a date. Dinner and a movie with a lady God-Emperor: could be dull, could be awkward, or it could be equal parts amusing and thought provoking. Given Sanderson’s talent for storycraft, I’ll let you figure out which one it is.
What’s your favorite lesser-known work by a bestselling author?