Tag Archives: fantasy

Confessions of a Certified Slytherin

27 Apr

Someone who (at age 21 and a half) has read the Harry Potter books innumerable times and been to every midnight showing since Order of the Phoenix is, probably, a little old to be signing up for a kids’ literary enrichment website.  Most of my peer group are the same way–I can walk into almost any classroom on campus and make a comment about the Muggle civil liberties infringements brought about by the International Statute of Secrecy to general agreement and outrage (seriously, don’t Obliviate spells strike you as incredible invasions of privacy?).

So why did we all sign up for Pottermore?

Two words: Sorting Hat.

For over a decade now, almost an entire generation of readers have been wondering what house they would be placed in, should they have been the lucky recipients of a Hogwarts letter to save them from the trials and tribulations of fifth grade and its mixed fraction computations.  Putting on a magical old hat that reads your mind and tells you about the deepest parts of your personality would be super creepy when you think about it, but way cool.  The closest thing we Muggles have to that sort of insight is psychotherapy, and, I assure you, that may be creepy and unnerving, but it’s definitely not fun.

As the series unrolled, I began to resign myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t have been a Gryffindor.  Or if I were, I’d be like Neville in the early books (before he got super badass and faced down Voldemort and friggin decapitated Nagini).

Of course, I had the consolation of relative surety that I wouldn’t be a Hufflepuff either.  I mean, no one has ever accused me of being “warm” or “kind.”  Whatever that means.

I expected Ravenclaw.  Because you see, friends, academic elitists aren’t made, they’re born.  And I’ve been correcting people’s grammar since I learned how to read.*

But as you may have guessed from the title, I’m not an eccentric, quirky, non-conforming Ravenclaw.  I’m not a noble, self-sacrificing Gryffindor.  I’m not a cheery, loyal Hufflepuff whose badger mascot is a little less lame now that the honey badger no longer has to give a you-know-what.

I’m in the house of You-Know-Who.  The house of magical racists and dungeons and snakes that turn people to stone.  I’m a Slytherin.  And as good ol’ J.K. says in her video intro to the sorting process–the decision is final.

The thing is, after a moment of stunned silence as I sat in front of my computer, I realized that it makes absolutely perfect sense.  For more than ten years I’ve avoided seeing it because, despite J.K. Rowling’s insistence that Slytherins aren’t all bad, we’ve never actually seen a good one.  Pottermore tells us Merlin was a Slytherin, which is cool, but as an historian, I’ve got to say that it’s doubtful King Arthur, Camelot, and Merlin ever existed.  It’s probably a myth some woebegone Slytherin made up so her housemates would feel better about themselves.

I should have seen the warning signs long ago, but I refused to look the basilisk in the eye.  It’s done now, and my metaphorical magical heart has turned to stone.  Some of you, dear readers, might be like me: fearing to know your true self.  Maybe you’ve been designated a Slytherin; maybe you’re afraid to put on that hat.  The following is for you.

A Guide to Accepting Your Serpentine Heritage

1. Would you describe yourself as cunning?

The first time Harry and Co. hear the Sorting Hat sing its sinister, sibilant song, the part about Slytherin goes like this:

Or perhaps in Slytherin/ You’ll make your true friends,/ Those cunning folks use any means/ To achieve their ends.

You, like me, may prefer to imagine yourself as a frank, open, straightforward person.  Certainly not deceitful in any inherent sense.  But think back to your past: at any point in your academic or workplace life did you do something like this?

A girl I know–I’m not going to give any names, but she writes some second-tier sci-fi/whatever else blog on wordpress–went to a Catholic high school.  She was diligent, hard-working, and hid her contempt for certain classmates with impressive grace and aplomb.  She had almost all of her classes with the same 20 or so girls, all of them smart, all of them hard-working.  But one in particular annoyed this friend of mine.  That girl was pathologically hard-working.  Like, obnoxiously diligent.  And my friend didn’t like being shown up.  One week near the end of their senior year, my friend’s teacher told the class that there were some extra assignments for those who wanted some points to shore up their grades.  Both my friend and the other girl had better-than-perfect grades in the class.  But that other girl said that she’d do the assignments anyway.

My friend, as I said, didn’t like being shown up.  She knew that the other girl, let’s call her Mary, because she was freakin’ perfect, would get all sorts of brownie points for being pathologically diligent.  My friend tried to explain to Mary that there was no reason to do the additional essay or whatever but no, friggin’ Mary was going to do it anyway.  My friend considered doing the extra work too, simply to keep pace.  But then she realized something: this new assignment wasn’t extra credit.  It didn’t go on top of the grade; it just got averaged in.  Which meant that someone whose grade was already an A+ could actually suffer a net loss in points by doing an extra essay that could only get her an A.

My friend encouraged Mary to write the paper.  My friend didn’t.  And my friend got the highest grade in the class.

Oh, and did I mention?  This was religion class.

I realize that that sounds kind of horrible.  But don’t judge my friend too harshly for her “cunning.”  What she did can be seen negatively, but that’s the easy answer.  If you really think about it, while her motives were hardly pure, her reasoning was perfectly sound.  My friend wasn’t going to waste her time with something that couldn’t benefit her.  Mary was so caught up in her single-minded work-work-work attitude that she didn’t actually stop to think about what was in her interest (I’m going to guess that Mary’s a Hufflepuff).  So you see–cunning isn’t evil: it’s about achieving your goals.

And speaking of goals…

2. Do you have any plans to take over the world?

Or at least, your little piece of the world?  You don’t need to build a giant laser on the moon and try to blow up the earth to be ambitious.  And besides, that’s horribly cliché.

From the Sorting Hat’s next song:

And power-hungry Slytherin/ loved those of great ambition.

There’s nothing wrong with a little ambition, you know.  It’s not all throwing money around and waving silver-headed canes in people’s faces like the Malfoys would have us believe.  Ambition takes determination, hard work, intelligence, and long-term planning.  You have to imagine what you want to be in five, or ten, or twenty years and have the discipline to make those dreams come true.  And you know why Slytherins are good at that?  I’ll tell you why: because, unlike the namby-pamby other Houses, we don’t call them “dreams.”

We call them plans.

3. Do you care about people’s bloodlines?

In its final appearance in the books, the Sorting Hat gives us this even less flattering portrait of the serpent House:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those/ Whose ancestry is purest.”

Okay… not going to bother with that part.  “Pure-blood” talk gives me the creeps.  Let’s just admit that, as a House, we’ve turned out an unfortunate number of seriously nasty characters and be done with it.

Conclusion

The point is, brother and sister Slytherins, that while we may get a bad rap, we just need to own it.  Not the Death Eater stuff, obviously, but the cunning and ambition.  That’s not a bad thing.  It’s more effective than the abstract intellectualism of the Ravenclaws, and do I really need to insult the Hufflepuffs again?  I mean, their House ghost is the Fat Friar and they live in a cellar next to the kitchens.  What else is there to say?  As for the Gryffindors, well, I’ll just quote a badger friend of mine:

“Gryffindors are like Hufflepuffs, except bro-y.”

Well said, friend.  Well said.

*As a side note, and further evidence that I would make an awesome Ravenclaw, I can still distinctly remember at least two years before I learned how to read and write.  My older sister, 2 years above me, was making my mother cry with her staged readings of “The Giving Tree” (friggin communist altruist hippies).**  Meanwhile, I got my hands on a little pink-and-white notebook wherein I would make scribbles and try, to no great avail, to inscribe them with meaning.  I was so jealous I wanted to papercut my sister with her precious book.***

** I apologize.  I worked a summer at the Ayn Rand Institute.  Sometimes this stuff just comes out.

*** Oh god … I totally am a Slytherin.

Advertisements

More proof that William Cullen Bryant should have been a vampire:

27 Apr

I’m so going to embarrass myself right now.

You know how the other day I wrote a long rambling post about various historical figures who–if they weren’t–at least should have been vampires?  Top of my list was the 19th-century Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant.  I cited his obsession with death and creepy face, but I realize that I have even more damning (pun intended) evidence for his vampirism.

He’s totally the historical doppelganger for Klaus from The Vampire Diaries.  I’m not saying I watch the show, but–oh, what the hell.  I watch the show, and as I was watching it last night I suddenly remembered Bryant’s creepy (but handsome) face and matched it with creepy-but-handsome Klaus.  Clearly, this is who the character was modeled on.  Look, just look: a picture’s worth a thousand words.

Top 5 Historical Americans Who Were Probably Vampires

24 Apr

Heroes and villains with secret identities are about as American as apple pie, teeth whitening, and fundamentalist Christianity–and these days (sadly enough) you can add sparkly vampires to that list too.  So with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter coming to the big screen in June (and oh, what fun we’ll have here then), it’s only natural to speculate about other historical figures who may have had their own supernatural secrets.  I’ve already written about fictional Lincoln and his flame gun, and zombie Henry David Thoreau, but as I sat in English this morning, dreaming about all the midday naps I’ll take after graduation, I began to compose a list of famous Americans who may not have burst into flames in the light but certainly had their vampiric qualities.

1. William Cullen Bryant

He was a 19th-century romantic poet.  He was a boy genius.  He wrote his masterpiece, “Thanatopsis” (Greek for “a view of death”) at age 17.  And look, just look at that face.  The collar, the cloak, the pallid skin and sinister smirk all point to one thing: he prowls the streets at night searching for blood.  In fact, I’m pretty sure he tells us that in his poem:

When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;–

Go forth, under the open sky, and list

To Nature’s teachings

In other words, feast on the blood of the innocent in the moonlight, friends, for tomorrow Lincoln’s coming for you with the hatchet he keeps under his stovepipe hat.

2. Edgar Allan Poe

Do you think it’s a coincidence that poets top this list?  It’s not.  And if we know one thing about Poe: he never met a stiff he didn’t like.  There’s a movie coming out about him too, you know, in which some super creepy groupie goes on a killing spree in which he (or she) brings all the gruesome deaths in Poe’s writings, shall we say, to life.

More likely explanation: Poe committed them all himself.  After all, as your teachers will tell you, write what you know.

Just look at those eyes.  Those are the eyes of a haunted man who’s seen eternity, and shrinks from it.

3. President James K. Polk

One of my history professors put this image on a powerpoint the other day, and you have to admit, Polk does look quite a bit like Lucius Malfoy.  If any of our past presidents were Slytherins, Polk definitely would have made the cut.  This is the man who imagined up a war with Mexico and made it happen for kicks.  (Or territorial expansion, one or the other.)

And lest we forget, Polk did have some tense run-ins with Lincoln during his presidency.  When Polk, licking his lips, thundered that Mexicans had “spilled American blood on American soil” (which they hadn’t, and which wasn’t), Lincoln was one with the “Spot Resolutions”–calling for Polk to identify just where exactly the blood had been spilled.

I’ll tell you where.  Into his wine glass, that’s where.

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder

Bet you didn’t expect this one, did you, eh?  Her Little House books are staples of childhood bedside reading.  But did you ever ask yourself, as your parents tucked you in at night, why the Ingalls were always moving West?  I mean, from the way she writes you’d think they had it pretty good in the big woods.

I’ll tell you why: Pa was a vampire.

People of the 19th century were not as accepting as we are today.  They wouldn’t have swooned in desire to see a vampire.  They would have staked him, like, immediately.  But Pa was a good guy.  I’m guessing that, of all of these American bloodsuckers, he was closest to the “vegetarianism” of the Cullen family.  The West was indeed a land of bounty: wild and full of wild game, Pa could feed without being tempted by human blood.  Because out there, the only humans for miles around were Ma, Mary, Laura, and Carrie, and eating them wouldn’t have been acceptable.

I’ll let you speculate as to why Pa called Laura “Half Pint.”

She herself seemed to take after her father more than her sisters, and while Mary would have gasped and fainted away should she have ever found out about her father’s true nature, I’m guessing Laura probably just shrugged it off.  And later, when she was grown, she probably asked him to turn her.

Why do you think the Little House books are so rife with nostalgia for a lost childhood and passing way of life?  The times she wrote about weren’t only her youth, they were her last years as a human.

5. Benjamin Franklin

You know him as the face on the $100 bill, the man people still think was president at some point, the guy who flew a kite in a lightning storm and lived to make a fortune off of it, and the name that keeps popping up in your history textbook at points long after you would have expected him to be dead.  He was everywhere!  He did everything!  In his old age he was a lecherous old man with a coterie of buxom French hotties!  And he didn’t give a shit.

*

That’s all for today, folks, but join me next time for a gendered interpretation of the cover art for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series!  Sounds fun, right?

Walden: Escape to Zombie Mountain (a horror novel somebody really needs to write)

11 Oct

So, I was sitting in English class today, poring over Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalist classic Walden, when I had a brilliant idea.  It was the kind of brilliant idea that comes without warning, a bolt of electricity shocking the torpid mind of a college senior in a freshman English class at 8 am on a Tuesday.  That kind of idea.  You know what I mean.  And the idea was this:

Somebody needs to turn Walden into a horror-fantasy novel along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Think about it for a minute.

Genius, right?

He's halfway to zombiehood already. Look at those circles under the eyes.

Walden, for those of you whose minds and imaginations also occasionally drifted off during your 8 am English courses, is a book (nonfiction) about a man who lives in almost perfect solitude in the woods for two years, communing with nature, building rickety shelters for himself, and all around disappointing the parents who put him through Harvard.

But take this 19th-century intellectual, Henry David Thoreau, place him in a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving bands of hungry zombies, and you’ll never look at Transcendentalism the same way again (“I went to the woods to live free of the undead,” or something like that).

I can see Thoreau escaping his little Northeastern town, overrun by hungry corpses, and hiding out at Walden Pond for his survival.  But, being Thoreau, and feeling all at one with nature in his hermit-like life, he finds himself realizing that the zombies have it right: They suck all the juices and marrow out of life like real men (literally).  The following is an actual quote from the real Walden:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way.

Thoreau naturally grabs his buddies Emerson and Whitman, and joins the zombie hordes just long enough to get brutally dismembered and die screaming.  But they lived, you know?  They followed their own Truth.  They didn’t conform to the conventions of a society that told them to run from the undead parasites taking over the world.  That’s the path to a life of quiet desperation.

Anyway, I think Walden‘s in the public domain, so: somebody get on this.*

* 50% of royalties to me, goes without saying, amiright?

“How to Succeed in Evil” stands out among indie ebooks

11 Oct

Edwin Windsor is not a super villain. True, he has the perfect name for it, as well as the additional prerequisites of extraordinary wealth, cold hyper-rationality, impeccable taste in suits, a flawless golf game and a vicious attorney for a henchman. But that could describe any number of the successful business overlords those disgruntled Occupy Wall Street protesters despise, right? So whatever the appearances, Edwin Windsor is not a super villain. He simply advises them.

Click here for the original column in the University of Alabama's Crimson White.

This is the leading man in Patrick E. McLean’s novel “How to Succeed in Evil” (without really trying). And as our Mr. Windsor is not a conventional protagonist, neither is “How to Succeed in Evil” a conventional novel. For one thing, you won’t find it in proud stacks of glossy hardcover books in the checkout line at Barnes & Noble (or any other brick-and-mortar bookstore, for that matter). At the moment, you can’t get it in paper at all. McLean’s very clever, very funny, very smart superhero story is also very, very independent.

“How to Succeed in Evil” is one of the growing number of indie novels by new authors, self-published in electronic formats like Amazon’s Kindle e-books. But don’t let that dissuade you from picking it up (virtually, of course). While a disappointing number of self-published books rightly deserve the name “vanity presses,” McLean’s novel soars over the mass of mediocrity like a bird, a plane or Windsor’s cape-wearing nemesis Excelsior.

I’ll admit, there were some pretty bizarre proofreading errors. Like one spot where I couldn’t tell if the word was supposed to be “air” or “aether.” But that’s what professional copy editors are for, and if this book takes off — as I think it deserves to — then maybe next time McLean publishes a book, he can get one. And in any case, the occasional typo isn’t too distracting, considering just how good the quality of storytelling is.

Edwin Windsor, as I said, is not a super villain — or, at least, he doesn’t want to be. He finds violence distasteful, secret lairs vulgar and grandiose schemes of “giant lasers in space,” for example, quite banal. When confronted by the strongest man in the world, Edwin wants to put him to work as a one-man demolition team. And in Edwin’s mind, the most profitable use of zombies would be as a cheap, easily replaceable factory labor force. But as the consultant finds, his clients tend to be — in the highly frustrating fashion of wannabe super villains — a little too megalomaniacal to take his good advice. They just won’t listen to reason.

And thus Edwin commissions a sinister (but immaculately tailored) black suit and decides that maybe consulting isn’t his calling. “In a time gone mad,” he thinks to himself, “the only sane thing to do is take over the world.”

Naturally, havoc and hilarity ensue.

In “How to Succeed in Evil,” Patrick McLean breaks the mold. Yes, I know, I know, postmodernist anti-heroes are so common these days as to be almost cliché, but Windsor and Co. are truly outside of the box. Just try to find me another novel with a cast like this — Agnes Plantagenet (that’s right, history majors, Plantagenet), Edwin’s more-English-than-bulldogs-and-bad-teeth secretary; “Dr. Loeb,” a trust fund baby from Alabama with some serious mommy problems (understandable, considering that his mother is a delusional Southern belle who wants either the South, or Napoleonic France, to rise again); an obscenity-shouting, vertically-challenged lawyer with a Napoleon complex of his own; and Excelsior, the emotionally unstable American Hero with his chain-smoking handler Gus.

 

Readers might also like: “Johannes Cabal the Necromancer,” by Jonathan L. Howard; “Sandman Slim,” by Richard Kadrey; “The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart,” by Jesse Bullington

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman: The Anti-Harry Potter?

7 Sep

In this bleak and empty wasteland of the post-Harry Potter world we live in, it’s inevitable that any book about twenty-somethings at a school for magic will come under the closest scrutiny. That would be daunting for most fantasy writers, but in “The Magicians,” author Lev Grossman relishes in the prospect.

His characters are us—college students who grew up in the pages of Hogwarts, Middle Earth and other classics of fantasy lit (including a Narnia-like universe called Fillory, complete with talking animals and thinly veiled religious allegories). And naturally, just like us, their expectations of what magic should be like are colored by these books. Quickly, they realize that they (and consequently we too) couldn’t have been more wrong.

Click for the original article in the Crimson White, the University of Alabama's campus paper

Quentin Coldwater is a genius. He, unlike a disturbing number of Hogwarts students, has more than a fifth-grade education in the traditional three R’s—which is all for the good at a magical college with a broader curriculum than the Hogwarts’ spell-casting of made-up Latin, wand-waving and jazz hands.

Magic at Brakebills Academy requires calculus, a working knowledge of quantum physics and proficiency in the very necessary languages of Estonian, Bedouin Arabic and Old Church Slavonic (just to name a few). Plus, giant spiders in the woods are nothing compared to the inter-dimensional Beast swimming up from the depths of the multiverse to devour students alive in the middle of class. In other words, practicing magic is actually kind of hard.

And that’s not the only difference. Brakebills, for one, is American. Located in upstate New York, the school caters to the uber-nerds, super-geniuses, hippie Wiccans and hipster intellectuals of the country. People like Quentin, our anti-hero, whose first reaction to the revelation that magic exists and he could be a magician (“wizard,” you know, is so passé) isn’t the wide-eyed wonder of a ten-year-old Harry Potter.

This is a world-weary high school senior we’re talking about, the kind who makes arch allusions to quidditch and the Anglophilia of American prep schools, quotes Borges and Cervantes alongside Star Trek references, whose professors curse often, turn their students into geese for a semester, and sanction a shocking amount of on-campus alcohol use, and whose headmaster tattoos battle demons into his students’ backs the night before graduation.

Not to mention that the central theme of the book is a whole lot more complicated than the clear-cut battle of good and evil we, the Harry Potter generation, have come to expect. Brakebills students are cynical, sarcastic and hardly heroic. They’re college kids, after all, with unlimited power and no small amount of post-traumatic stress disorder from battles with monsters out of H.P. Lovecraft’s worst nightmare. In “The Magicians,” Quentin and his cronies discover, as he says, “the horror” of getting what you wish for.

Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” (2009) is the anti-Harry Potter, a story that riffs on contemporary expectations of fantasy tropes and heroes. In its characters and plot, however, the novel is completely original—a trend that only continues in Grossman’s sequel “The Magician King,” just released last month.

This is a book you will devour, so get excited. But maybe not too excited. In keeping with the spirit of Brakebills and its denizens, try, at least, to affect an air of indifference. Hold your “retro” Kindle 2 casually aloft in one hand with the hip lassitude of the youthful literati, and just pretend you don’t wish that you too could be one of The Magicians.

 

“The Magicians” is available in that old-fashioned pulpy stuff called paper, as well as ebook form on Amazon, for $12.99

 

Readers might also like:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke; A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin; The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross; Johann Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

One Throne to Rule Them All

20 Jul

This month, TIME magazine christened novelist George R. R. Martin, author of the epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the “American Tolkien for a jaded age.” Possibly, it’s the two Rs for middle initials; possibly, it’s the grandiloquent series title; possibly, it’s the fact that both write in the fantasy genre with a cult following dissecting every word and chapter. Personally, I think it’s a facile comparison. Call me a blasphemer, but George R. R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms wipe the floor with Middle Earth, and here’s why.

Read my original column on the Crimson White website, campus news for the University of Alabama

The Tolkien universe has long been the standard against which readers and critics compare any fantasy work. The more mediocre sword-and-sorcery writers think that vomiting dwarves, elves, dark lords and half-baked mythologies onto a computer monitor makes a bestseller – Eru knows there are enough of those on the market. Plots are predictable: an evil menace, a chosen one destined to save the world, a malevolent piece of magical jewelry and a final battle between good and evil (I think I unintentionally described Harry Potter here). It’s boring, plain and simple. The sheer quantity of this kind of hack fantasy drove me into the arms of science fiction long ago, but George R. R. Martin has gradually pulled me back.

“A Song of Ice and Fire,” which begins with “A Game of Thrones,” has no hobbits or orphan boys on a quest to save the world. We have one dwarf, but he doesn’t go around swigging ale and swinging axes – he’s just a man with achondroplasia, and if he drinks a little much, it’s probably because his father tries to get him killed in battle. His sister, the queen, wants him dead too (along with a long list of other powerful people), and his only weapon is the ability to create really smart, funny dialogue. Tyrion might be the most likeable character in the book (he’s my favorite, at least) – and he also happens to be a member of the superficially villainous Lannister family.

Unlike Tolkien, Martin gives us no clear-cut good versus evil. Instead, we get a five-sided civil war (six or seven, counting all the madness across the Narrow Sea) in a world peopled by people best described as anti-heroes, or maybe just human beings. Instead of epic quests, Martin delivers realpolitik and plotlines as complex as his characters. Oh, and by the way, in this fantasy universe, women actually do stuff. And I don’t mean the token Eowyn, or elf princess Arwen who (movies to the contrary) actually spent her time sewing Aragorn a battle standard. For real. For three books.

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh on J. R. R. After all, even the new HBO series “Game of Thrones” cast Sean Bean, alias Boromir, as this season’s lead (and I say this season because, spoiler alert, Sean Bean’s character kind of has an unpleasant encounter with a sword and his neck). Which brings me to another point: the bloody-minded George R. R. Martin will kill, maim, torture or torment any of his characters. No one is safe. Plot twists might leave you crying or leaving profane notes in the virtual margins of your Kindle, but they keep you guessing, and originality is the holy grail of fantasy novels.

There’s only one downside as I see it: fans probably have another five years to wait before book six comes out. Of course, with five books at 1,200 pages each, new readers might just take five years to catch up. I highly encourage it.

 

You might also like… “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan; “The Worm Ouroboros” by E. R. Edison; “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch; “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke.

China Mieville keeps getting weirder (and that’s a win for all of us)

20 Jun

“Weird fiction” writer China Mieville doesn’t write space opera (or at least he hasn’t yet), but even so (perhaps because of it), his non-human races are nonpareil.  The khepri, garuda, and vodyanoi of Bas-Lag are foreign and compelling, but Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council are most memorable as masterpieces of crypto-communist steampunk.  Kraken was completely different, a thriller-detective-theological hybrid.  And now we have Mieville’s latest literary work, Embassytown, my favorite without a doubt (and here I was thinking nothing but Gormenghast was better than Perdido Street Station), with the most breathtaking alien race I’ve ever read (and that includes The Gods Themselves).

But let me stop title-dropping and write a little more coherently (with less parenthetical asides).

You could call China Mieville’s writing style schizophrenic–if he weren’t so good at everything.  Every book he has come out with has been different–wildly different–from the last.  Maybe he’s experimenting with narrative.  Maybe he gets bored easily.  Maybe he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.  “Weird Fiction,” after all, as far as genre categorization goes, doesn’t tell readers much.  And neither can I, except that I’m in raptures and YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK:

Click for Amazon.

China Miéville doesn’t follow trends, he sets them. Relentlessly pushing his own boundaries as a writer—and in the process expanding the boundaries of the entire field—withEmbassytown, Miéville has crafted an extraordinary novel that is not only a moving personal drama but a gripping adventure of alien contact and war.

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.

 

This has been a production of the Scattering’s “Least Helpful Books Reviews” series.  I’m going to blame the whole “applying to grad school” thing.

Game of Thrones great on tv, even better in print

19 May

Robert Frost may not have been able to decide whether the world would end in fire or ice, but George R. R. Martin has: and the answer is… both!  And I’m with him all the way (even if he is in a Twitter war with Damon Lindelof).

I love you Tyrion Lannister.

HBO’s new series Game of Thrones, starring Sean Bean as Boromir (sorry, Ned Stark), that creepy guy from The Wire, and Liz Lemon’s almost-boyfriend is currently at the top of my weekly Megavideo viewing list.  Bored by The Borgias and determined not to study for finals, I watched the premiere about a month ago–and loved it immediately.  So much so, in fact, that I felt compelled to check out the crypto-medieval fantasy series it’s based off of, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Martin isn’t called the American Tolkien for no reason, and I can’t praise the series enough.  Every three or four years, when science fiction starts to get a little tedious (cue gasp) I go back and re-read The Lord of the Rings for a taste of epic fantasy.  I have a feeling that it’ll be Martin’s books with the place of honor on my bookshelf from now on.  Or at least they would if I weren’t reading everything on the Kindle.  Alas, alack.

I started the series on April 27, the night of the dreadful Tuscaloosa, AL tornado, and am already on book three (which is saying something, considering each installment goes past 20,000 locations–or 1,000+ pages in print).  And so far, Martin seems not to have gotten the memo that successful authors can coast on sequels.  A Clash of Kings was possibly better than A Game of Thrones.

It makes sense, actually, that the series only keeps ramping up as it continues.  George R. R. Martin himself may hold the throne as the king of characterization–with each successive sentence, chapter, novel, his heroes and villains become ever more highly developed and multi-dimensional (so much so that I couldn’t name one individual I could pigeonhole as hero or villain).

Here’s the book blurb for Game of Thrones.  I highly recommend it, especially if you, like me, are determined not to study for the GRE either:

In a world where the approaching winter will last four decades, kings and queens, knights and renegades struggle for control of a throne. Some fight with sword and mace, others with magic and poison. Beyond the Wall to the north, meanwhile, the Others are preparing their army of the dead to march south as the warmth of summer drains from the land.

Although conventional in form, the book stands out from similar work by Eddings, Brooks and others by virtue of its superbly developed characters, accomplished prose and sheer bloody-mindedness. Although the romance of chivalry is central to the culture of the Seven Kingdoms, and tournaments, derring-do and handsome knights abound, these trappings merely give cover to dangerous men and women who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

When Lord Stark of Winterfell, an honest man, comes south to act as the King’s chief councilor, no amount of heroism or good intentions can keep the realm under control. It is fascinating to watch Martin’s characters mature and grow, particularly Stark’s children, who stand at the center of the book.

Bloody-mindedness–that’s the word I was looking for: prepare for battles in A Clash of Kings as epic as Helm’s Deep.

Availability: Game of Thrones is $8.99 as an ebook on Amazon.  And catch it on the small screen Sundays on HBO.

Valar morghulis!

Macabre, monstrous, gruesome and ghastly Gormenghast: Why aren’t we reading it in the States?

16 Apr

After three years living in Tuscaloosa, I’m beginning to despair that I’m the only person in the state of Alabama who’s read anything by Mervyn Peake.  If I get that Lifestyles columnist gig on the campus paper, the first thing I’m doing is plugging Titus Groan and Gormenghast like crazy.  Mervyn Peake is the grandfather of steampunk, the dedicatee of Perdido Street Station, and the forerunner of PKD’s psychological madness.  In sum:

Why aren’t we reading him in the States?


I realize this is an indie speculative fiction blog, but Mervyn Peake is so little-known in this dear city (and state… and country) of mine that I’m going to give him a well-deserved blog post–for in truth, he deserves a blog of his own.  One that deals in Literature with a capital L.

So, a little background:

Mervyn Peake was a brilliant, badass English artist, illustrator, poet, and writer–today, he’s best-known for his Titus books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, and, in a few short months, the posthumous Titus Awakes).  He was the child of medical missionaries in China, a soldier in WWII, a war artist, an author and, tragically, a victim of Parkinson’s Disease.  I’m no fan of C.S. Lewis in general (he reminds me of a smug, Modernist Thomas More), but I can agree with him on this: “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”

Mystical-sounding?  Definitely.  But it’s about as good a description of Mervyn Peake’s writing as anyone could give.  Peake’s poetry and the Gormenghast books are less about plot, shall I say?, than effect.  It’s often categorized as fantasy, but Peake doesn’t write about elves or magic.  His writing is surrealist, gothic, and something of a social comedy.  And threading through the themes of stagnant tradition and freedom and oppression, there’s that element of madness.  Gormenghast is grotesque, gory, ghastly, mystical, lyrical, monstrous, mind-bending, and inarticulably beautiful.  His characters are strange, sympathetic, and Machiavellian by turn, and he names them with Dickensian flair (Steerpike, Flay, Fuchia and Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan).

I had Titus Groan on my bookshelf since I was eight.  Didn’t pick it up until I was eighteen, of course, but that’s another story.  This story, in fact (hey, you clicked on the link; you get the self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical book reviews):

A very long time ago, my dear beloved mother took me to a used book store.  I wandered around the disorderly stacks of books, sneezing, because unlike many people who love the smell of musty old books (the same people, I might add, who sniff haughtily and turn away when they see my Kindle 2 with the Dharma Initiative decal) stale, yellowing paper just makes my eyes water.  Unless it’s part of a 19th-century historical manuscript collection–then it’s cool.  Anyway–

Seriously--wouldnt this give you nightmares when you were eight?

I came to a straight-backed wooden chair piled with books.  Sliding down the side was a book with a brightly-colored cover, Titus Groan.  My mother was at the check-out, so I grabbed the book, ran back to her, and smiled, as always quite pleased with myself, when she purchased it without a second glance as the clerk bagged up her nth copy of Jane Eyre.  For better or worse, she let me read whatever I wanted from the moment I could.

Of course, when we got home and I looked more closely at the cover, I was a little disturbed.  And the title was a bit frightening too.  So I hid it at the back of the bookshelf and trained my eyes to slide over it every time I looked up there.

Ten years later, college freshman me was packing boxes to ship to the University of Alabama, surreptitiously taking books from the family cache and slipping them into my suitcase with the justification that having read them more than my sisters, they were “mine.”  But Titus Groan really was mine, and I read it my first semester, and praised Palgolak that serendipity had led me to the best series I’d ever (and still have ever) read.

The book shortly fell apart, and is currently held together with scotch tape.  My copy was thirty years old when I got it, and I’ve never worried about breaking spines.

Neither was Steerpike… but that’s another story too.  And how about, instead of me boring you, you read it yourself?  This has the Scattering’s eternal seal of approval.

Here’s the link to Titus Groan on Amazon