- Washington Post Book World
- New York Times Book Review
Samuel Delany’s four-book Nevèrÿon fantasy series consists of Tales of Nevèrÿon, Neveryóna, Flight from Nevèrÿon, and Return to Nevèrÿon. Delany (photo, UR) primarily writes science fiction. He's won both of science fiction's highest American honors, the Hugo award and the Nebula award, the latter twice in the 1960s.
Delany's Nevèrÿon books are certainly not pot-boiler or formulaic fantasy; they are somewhat experimental and in places challenging. While some of the Nevèrÿon tales involve dragons and barbarian warrior-heroes, which are relatively common fantasy tropes, there are features of the decidedly unromantic Nevèrÿon world and cultures that are highly original creations by Mr. Delany, and the tales themselves are naturalistic and sometimes so gritty you're surprised there isn't a fine layer of dust and the smell of cold cave stone clinging to the page. Most of Delany’s characters are earthy survivors who interact with the tales' various cultural, social, economic, and physical environments in a matter-of-fact way interrupted—in the case of some characters anyway—with contemplation, even a sort of philosophizing. Yet, there is poignancy throughout, and it’s subtle and masterful. The reader can’t help but wish the characters well--characters who cover a wide range: male and female, free and slave, simple and complex, active and passive, young and old, healthy and ill, famous and obscure.
One additional note: Delany's "Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," which is in the third book, Flight from Nevèrÿon, is a milestone in American literary history insofar as it was one of the very first works of fiction, and certainly the first work of science fiction or fantasy, to be informed by the beginning of the modern AIDS pandemic, the inauguration of the manuscript having been inspired by AIDS before the disease even had a name.
Most fantasy is inspired more by the medieval era than any other, one in which disease and plague were significant factors in the lives of everyone and shaped their imagination, and yet disease and plague go virtually unmentioned, certainly rarely detailed, in most published fantasy.
This is not to suggest that disease or plague is a major factor throughout the Nevèrÿon series. But in focusing one of the Nevèrÿon tales, and a particularly haunting one, specifically on disease--including its social context in a pre-modern, urban, fantasy setting--and in managing to make that tale so compelling, Delany becomes yet more noteworthy as a fantasy writer.
On a more personal note, I find Samuel Delany an inspiring person. He has acheived his academic and authorial success despite having been born black, gay, and dyslexic. I've attended three readings he's given, the first of which was at Yale in the mid-1990s and organized by a faculty gay studies committee for which I was the student administrator. (He shared the podium that day with Edmund White and Sandy McClatchy.) Delany is a native New Yorker, and since moving to Manhattan in 1997, I've bumped into him--and once him and his daughter--occasionally on the Upper West Side, and said hello. I highly recommend Delany's Hugo award-winning autobiography, The Motion of Light on Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, and his astonishing science fiction work, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.