Year of Fun Reading: A Book About Books or Reading

June marks halfway through the year (!) and so I’m also halfway through my Year of Fun Reading Challenge. This month I was to read “a book about books or reading.” So in keeping with my take on this challenge, which is, as much as possible, to read books in each category that are speculative fiction, this month I read Ink and Bone: The Great Library #1, by Rachel Caine.

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One of the great sorrows in the world is that the great library compiled in Alexandria, Egypt, founded in 3 BC by Ptolemy I, the successor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed by fire either in 48 AD by Julius Caesar or sometime in the third century AD  by the Roman Emperor Aurelian. The remaining books (in the form of scrolls, of course) were moved to a secondary site called the Serapeum (a temple) that was destroyed either in the fourth century or the seventh century, depending on what narrative you believe. But no matter when it happened, at some point all the accumulated wisdom from centuries past that had been collected in the Great Library was lost, except for copies that had survived in other places. There is great speculation about what could have been housed there in its vast collection (some say up to half a million scrolls!) but no one knows for sure, as the index of the scrolls stored there was also destroyed along with the library.

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One artist’s conception of what the Great Library might have looked like. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo. It attracted the great teachers of the classic era, such as Euclid and Archimedes. Image from crystalinks.com

When I heard that the premise of Ink and Bone was of an alternate history where the Great Library had not been destroyed, I was immediately excited to read this book. It’s about books, and reading, so how could I go wrong?

The story opens in a sort of steam-punky London. The main character, seventeen-year-old Jess Brightwell, comes from a family of book smugglers, which steal originals of books and sell them to the highest bidders. This is necessary because the Great Library of Alexandria has grown to be the repository of all books, and ownership of original books is only possible for the very wealthy and privileged few.  Alchemy allows the Great Library to deliver copies of books to anyone, but not every book.

This is a fun take on the real history of the Library. It is said that as soon as any ship docked in Alexandria, they were searched, and any scrolls found on them were taken to the Great Library, where copies were made. The copies were delivered back to the ships and the Library kept the originals.

The books in this story are not papyri, but instead what is called “blanks”, which are very like an e-book. No one has the original paper books or parchment scrolls, except for the Library.

Jess is sent by his father as a sort of spy to the training school for students who wish to be employees of the Great Library. The Library is the enemy of the book smugglers, and so he wants his son to find out all he can about how the Library works and the various raids that might be coming up against book smugglers. Jess manages to pass the entrance exam and is sent to Alexandria, Egypt, the site of the Great Library, to begin his training. His fellow students come from around the world, and they all are in competition for the six spots that are open to them. They have to go through various tests set out for them their exacting teacher and mentor, Wolfe, in order to keep advancing towards their goal.

This is a YA novel (drat, I wish I had known that before I started it!) and there are several elements in it familiar to others. You have students in a school (Harry Potter), competition against each other to gain what they desire (Hunger Games) and a slightly dystopian setting (like so very many of the YA speculative fiction novels these days).

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But although in general I am not a big fan of YA fiction, I will say I did enjoy this book for the most part. Jess is an interesting character, and although there is a romance in the book it’s not quite as annoying as I find many of the love story elements of other YA books which have a female protagonist. In fact it was refreshing to have a male protagonist for a change!

There are definite twists and turns to the plot, which kept it interesting, and the interaction between the students and seeing them come together into a united group by the end was enjoyable to read.

But what I like most about this book is the setting. The whole concept of the survival of the Great Library and translating that into a more modern-day setting was intriguing. The big questions that book asks about censorship, and the power of knowledge, and the value of free access to knowledge as opposed to only knowing what “they” want you to know, added some thought-provoking elements to an otherwise standard YA novel.

There are other books in this series, but I’m not sure I will read them (YA is just not my thing, as I explained here. But this one was a fun ride with deeper themes than most, all about the importance of books and the lengths taken to preserve them.  I give kudos to the author for indulging my fantasy of having access to the Great Library of Alexandria, but seeing as the Library in the book is a sinister entity, perhaps the lesson is that getting what you want is not always a good thing!

My rating: Three stars

 

 

 

Fiction Feature: More

More

Matt was just getting off the subway when he saw her. It was rush hour, the people jostling and frantic, ejecting from the car like so much human vomit. And that was just about how Matt felt at the end of the work week.

His briefcase snagged on the door, slowing him down, and he looked back, to see what had happened. But instead, his eyes lit on her, way past the surging crowd, almost swallowed up in the dark of the tunnel beyond.

She knelt with her hands caught in the fur of a shaggy dog’s neck, and it was something about the way that dog was looking at her that caught his eye, or maybe it was the way she was looking at it? Matt couldn’t explain the sensation that pricked at him with a thousand tiny fingers.

He froze, seeing her golden hair that shouldn’t be shining so in the darkness, wonder unfurling like a blossom, and then he was jostled, snapped back into the human stream. When he looked again, she was gone.

A split second of inattention, that’s all it took.

He glimpsed the dog, though, weaving through the crowds, heading out the exit with the rest.

The tingle faded. A harsh curse in his ear made him realize he was standing still, got him moving again.

He forgot her in the bustle of life, the wearisome numbness of work and deadlines and pressure, until three days later, when he saw her again.

The weekend this time, walking home from the grocery store with bags dangling from his hands, no more thought in his head but to get home, put his feet up, watch the game.

The setting sun bathed the city with its last luminescence, everything aglow with the fading of day.

And there she was, just ahead. He knew it from her hair, from the golden strands that held the fading light. She walked slowly, with measured grace, and with his first glimpse his pace quickened, like his body knew before his mind that he had to catch up.

But he couldn’t. The people on the sidewalk, families and hipsters and geeks, became obstacles that blocked and delayed and harried his steps.

Just before she faded into the crowd, she turned back and looked at him, right at him and through him, and he felt that tingle again, stronger and deeper than before; everything ripe with possibilities and charged with meaning.

He heard something, too; a song, bells? Faint, and chiming. Her eyes were the green of mossy woods, and he felt the weight of them, just for a second, and then she turned, and was gone.

A word wafted through his mind.

More.

He saw her again, two days later, and again, a week after that. Brief glimpses. It was driving him crazy. Especially because every time, he forgot about her right after, until his eyes snagged on her and it all came back, the ache of it, and then she would turn a corner, or the bus he was on would whiz past. Or, maddeningly, the elevator door closed in his face just as he glimpsed her walking by, her head turning to look at him.

That time, though, he clenched his fists and fixed her in his mind, and he held on to her for a few seconds. Then the elevator door opened, his boss walked in, and just like that she was gone from his mind as thoroughly as she had disappeared from his sight.

Later, he sat on his balcony in the warm summer night, listening to the sounds of the city murmur around him, a cold drink in his hand. He felt restless, unmoored, aching for something he couldn’t even define. Then he heard it, ghosting above the traffic and the sirens and the heat.

More.

He stood up, looking down, and saw that golden hair, saw her, standing below, looking up at him.

Everything shifted around him, that tingle pricking at him, and he shouted, desperate. “Wait!”

He looked at her in agony for a moment, knowing that as soon as he straightened up, ran down there, the reason for doing so would likely leave him the moment she left his sight. “Stay there! Please!”

He sucked in a breath and ran through his apartment, out the door and down the three flights, tearing the door open, holding her firmly in his mind – don’t forget, don’t forget – and when he burst out onto the sidewalk and found it empty, he could have wept.

Except – there –  she was walking around the corner and he followed, into the Park, under the trees, the muggy heat cooling there, the whizzing sounds of the cars fading into a low murmur, his heart pounding loud as she stopped under the spreading oak and turned back to him.

“So. Will you come?”

Matt stopped short. “I’m here.”

“Yes. Here. Will you come?”

“Where?”

She smiled as slow as the sun going down. “It cannot be undone.”

Matt felt the truth of it. A door was opening. Once he crossed, he couldn’t come back. “But where—“

“Not where. You will be here. The same, you’ll see. But not. A world within the world. Where the edges are different. Where your word is true.  Deeper danger and stronger joys. The stakes are higher.” Her head tilted. “Your choice. Come, or no.”

She stood serene, her hand out.

The song was filling him to the edges, softening his thundering heart, opening his shuttered eyes.

More.

Matt stepped forward, the door closing behind him, and took her hand.

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This Girl, by Fio Karr, on unsplash

 


Featured photo: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

Fiction Feature: Life for Life

I aim to share more of my writing on the blog, hopefully once a month. We’ll see. Seeing as my novel-in-progress features elves, of a sort, I find that I have quite a few stories floating around in my mind about elves and the mythology surrounding them. The elves in this story are a little more traditional than the ones in my book. It was a fun one to write. I hope you enjoy it, at any rate. Any comments welcome. 


Life for Life

We broke from the trees, the mountain rising before us like a juggernaut, lazy mist swirling around its flanks. I grew cold at the sight. At the base of those rocky slopes I had lost all I held dear, and now I returned, to get it back.

Gruff snarled beside me, and I motioned him to quiet.

His large head swung towards me, lambent yellow eyes glowing, ears twitching.

I let out a breath, which ghosted silver around us. “Not far now.”

He smiled, showing snaggled teeth, the hatred of his kind for the elves sharp in his eyes. “Elf-blood. Soon, Lady, soon.”

I set my jaw. “Perhaps,” I cautioned. “But be wary. Their Charms are powerful, I know it full well. If they use magic we must fight. I will get my child back, or die trying.” My hand fell to the knife at my side and I squinted at the sky. “We must away. I would not fight the Elves at night, with the moon to aid them.”

Gruff nodded, and I gestured him forward, my purpose hardening. I would not fight the Elves at all. That way led to doom. But I kept that from the ogre for reasons of my own. I followed in his wake, the icy ball of fear in my gut growing with every step, no matter my boastful words.

My husband is dead, my family scattered since the Wars. My child is all that was left to me, and I would retrieve him, no matter the dire warnings, the mutterings about the Elves and their trickery. I had thought long, though, and come up with some trickery of my own. I could only pray it would be enough.

Two hours later we came to the riling brook that was the border to Dayladel. We had been watched for some time. I felt their eyes upon me, their mild regard. They had no fear of a human and an ogre, why should they? Their magic shielded them. The same magic that separated me from my babe last year, their songs and enchantments drawing me here, deep into the woods, my son strapped to my back as I stepped across the brook. When I awoke the next day he was gone. They left me with a changeling, a mewling misshapen creature that I brought back, weeks later. When they ignored my plea I left it there to die.

I shook the memory from me. The noonday sun sparkled on the water as I lifted my chin, my hands fisted at my side. “Raleadon!”

My voice was strong enough to startle a bird into flight nearby. The mist swirled among the trees, and beyond the brook I could see but little.

The ogre growled deep in his chest, a low rumbling noise, as a figure appeared through the mists, walking slowly towards us, a high, thin song floating with him.

That song twined around us, the melody elusively complex, carrying with it hints and promises, glimpses of Dayladel, where the dancing Elves wore garments of moonshine and lace, shimmering in a silvery glow….

Beside me, Gruff roared, his foot stamping the ground and my eyes flew open. I staggered as I checked myself–one foot was in the brook. Heart pounding, I leapt back. My cheeks flushed under the cool regard of Raleadon’s violet eyes. So easy it was to be Charmed.

I must act now, or never.

“Gruff!” The word tore out of me and Gruff roared again, lifting his arms and shaking his spear, taking one step towards the Elf.

Suddenly there was a twisting in the air around us. The mist swirled around the ogre, obscuring him from my eyes. Then I blinked, for where Gruff once stood a twisted pine lifted it’s branches to the sky, throwing a spiky shadow.

I swallowed back my surging elation and faced Raleadon. “I’ll have him back. My son is no Elf. My blood has rights on his.”

One thin eyebrow lifted as Raleadon’s eyes flicked over me. “We traded you life for life, and you rejected it. The matter is done. And as you see, we cannot be forced.” He turned, to leave me.

“Nay, it is not. You tried to trick me, thinking my love would blind me to the flaws of the creature you left me with. ‘Twas no true bargain. I want my son back.”

He turned back, his face serene. “But you have nothing to give in exchange.”

I gestured at the pine. “Life for life.” I held my breath, hoping against hope it would be enough. For Gruff I felt but a twinge of regret. He held no claim on me, none at all.

Raleadon’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the tree, and then a wide smile split his face, the cold beauty of it dazzling to my human eyes. “Ah, you prove more interesting than most.” He gestured, and two other figures materialized out of the mist behind him; one wreathed in song, the other, a child.

It took everything I had not to cross the brook. I would not be trapped there again.

The Elves’ magic had done its work; it was no toddler but a young lad that surveyed me with wide eyes. His father’s eyes. With a slight push Raleadon sent him towards me, and he splashed across the water to my open arms.

The Elves turned and faded back into the mist with nary a glance back.

I had won.

A tremor ran through me, and for a moment I placed my hand on the pine’s knobbly trunk. Life for life. It was the deepest magic, the only thing that could sway the Elves. “I won’t forget,” I whispered.

The boy looked up at me with his father’s eyes and my heart swelled. I took his hand, and together we turned our back on the mountain, towards home.

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Image from suwalls

Feature image: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

2017 Reading Challenge: A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

As I work my way through the Year of Fun Reading I am finding it a bit tricky to keep my focus on finding a book that meets the category for the month as well as keeping to my own standard of that book being one in the speculative fiction genre.

This month, in which I was to read a book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit, was particularly challenging. I mean, I suppose there are lots of fantasy worlds I would love to visit–Narnia, Middle Earth, or The Land (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) spring to mind– but I wanted to keep the spirit of the challenge, which meant finding a speculative fiction novel set on Earth.

So. I browsed through some of the suggested titles, and, eureka, found one I thought would fit.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Book 1), by Liani Taylor, is  an urban fantasy, set in modern-day Prague. So, seeing as anywhere in Europe is on my bucket list of places to visit, I figured this one might just work. And I love urban fantasy, so, bonus.

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Cool cover!

Karou is seventeen and attends school at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia, a private school for students of the arts. She has blue hair and interesting tattoos, and a secret: she has been raised by  half-human creatures called chimaera, the chief of which is a demonic looking being named Brimstone.

Brimstone is the Wishmonger, who barters teeth for wishes. He is her adopted father, who has raised Karou since she was a baby. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, and she longs to discover who she is and how she is connected to the chimaera.

Brimstone’s workshop is in another place, separate from Earth, which she accesses by going through a door that is opened to her from the inside, by the Gatekeeper, Issa, who is half-snake. These portals are all around the world, and Karou uses them when Brimstone sends her on errands to collect teeth from various traders and dealers.

Karou isn’t exactly sure what the connection is between the teeth and the magical crafting of wishes, which Brimstone makes into beads of various size, shape and power, but her questions are left unanswered, as do the ones about her own origins.

An encounter with the seraph Akiva in the streets of Morocco starts a chain of events that leads Karou to the answers she seeks, even though they are not necessarily the answers she wants to hear…

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I am always amazed at fan art. This picture of Karou and Brimstone was done by the talented Natalie Braconnot, on Tumblr.

Taylor is a New York Times bestselling author, with many books to her credit. This book (published 2011) is the first of a trilogy, all of which are available now. Her new book, Strange the Dreamer, which begins a new series, has just been released.

I will admit to feeling a bit conflicted about Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Taylor writes well, and the plot had enough twists and turns to keep me reading.

However….although I can see that this book would be very popular with a certain audience, I can’t say I loved it. Here’s why:

  1. It’s Young Adult. I didn’t realize that this was a young adult book until I started reading it. I know that young adult is one of the most popular type of books out there, especially when it comes to speculative fiction, but they are just not my cup of tea. I find the plots often revolve too much around teenage angst, which, while great for teenagers, is not too interesting to me. Too often the plots and character development can be a bit simplistic, as well. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a little better than some in the plot department, but I did find the characterizations a bit ho-hum at times. I also have a problem with the romance that is usually part and parcel of this genre, and is in the forefront here. In this book, Karou is seventeen and as the book opens she is recovering from a relationship gone bad. And although I know that there are many teens out there who are involved in sexual relationships I can’t help the jarring feeling I get when I read about these when they are presented like it’s no big deal. Call me a prude, whatever.  Karou gets involved with another partner, and things get quite steamy indeed. And all the while the voice in my head is saying, “She’s only seventeen!” There are certainly a lot of “paranormal romance” books out there featuring adult characters, and while I don’t particularly like those either, when they are aimed at teenagers I find it icky.
  2. Tropes. I, for one, am heartily sick of the warrior chick with the vulnerable heart trope. Although Karou has an interesting back story and is well fleshed-out, basically her character embodies this trope. I find myself getting bored by it, to tell you the truth.
  3. The world building. So, as I mentioned above, one of the main characters is the seraph, Akiva. Seraph is short for seraphim, and yes, he is supposed to be an angel. But not an angel in the Christian tradition, of course. For, as Karou is confronted with Akiva the first time, she recalls what Brimstone has taught her:

She’d heard the word before; seraphim were some high order of angels, at least according to the Christian mythos, for which Brimstone had utter contempt, as he did for all religion. “Humans have gotten glimpses of things over time,” he’d said. “Just enough to make the rest up. It’s all a quilt of fairy tales with a patch here and there of truth.” 

Ok, fine. Let’s dismiss all of religion, except use bits and pieces of it where convenient for the plot. And it is very convenient to have an utterly beautiful otherworldly being with wings and supernatural power for Karou to fall in love with.

I realize for the average reader, this dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular would not be a problem, but it irritates me.  Especially when it has to be dismissed to make a major part of the story work, as in this case. And doubly especially when the author dismissed all of the world’s religions as “myths” and then runs smack into the problem that her characters actually need some kind of religion or mythos of their own to make the story work. So, when Akiva and Karou discuss how Brimstone makes his wish-beads, Akiva says, in answering Karou’s question of why pain and not joy is necessary in the crafting of wish-magic, Akiva says,

“That’s a good point. But I didn’t create the system.” 

“Who did?”

“My people believe it was the godstars. The chimaera have as many stories as races.” 

Ok, so every Earth religion is a quilt of fairy tales, but the seraphim and the chimaera have their own stories and myths, which are….what? Fairy tales too? Or are they the truth behind the stories?  And if so, why?

This highlights the problem of the philosophy that says every religion is just as good as another. If it brings you comfort, go for it, in other words. Any religion will do. But if it brings you comfort and isn’t ultimately TRUE then what is the point?

This is a minor part of the plot and to be fair, Taylor builds just enough of the world of the seraphim and chimaera to make it work for the book’s purposes, which is to serve as a backdrop to the story of Karou and Akiva.

I guess what I’m saying is that sexy angels just don’t work for me.

I give this one two stars/five, with the caveat that I know a lot of people would probably like this more than I did. If you like young adult fantasy featuring Romeo-and-Juliet-type love angst, and it doesn’t bother you that a handsome, poster-boy angel is the love interest, you will probably like this book.

Next month: A book I’ve already read. Oh, so many to choose from! Tune in on the last Friday in the month of May to see my pick. 


 Other posts in this series: 

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

The Trouble with Tropes

If you are a writer worth your salt, one of the cardinal rules you must follow is to make sure you follow the submission guidelines of the publications in which you hope to be published.

Mainly these are fairly prosaic: guidelines about line spacing, font preferred, word count, type of file to send, etc.

But often I will see other recommendations, not so much about the nuts and bolts but more about the meat and bones of the story. These are equally as important to pay attention to, if you want to give your work any kind of chance at all.

Often these will mention avoiding tropes. Tropes, according to Wikipedia, are “commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative work.”

Every genre has its own tropes. Think of the hardboiled detective in mystery novels, or the swashbuckling hero in romances. Fantasy is no exception. There are many of these tropes, but just to give you an idea, here is some of the advice given to hopeful writers from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly:

Witty banter usually isn’t.

Stories that start in an inn are usually out.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious individual who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire).

Double ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious man who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire) who then turns on the very adventurers he/she/it hired only to be thwarted by the one dwarf in the party.  In fact, toss us a dwarf curveball.  So far we’ve never seen a story with a dwarf character where that character doesn’t kick ass from beginning to end.

We are not all that interested in stories with vampires.  We feel much the same re: zombies.

Neither are we terribly keen on pirates; just remove that word and your odds go up.

There’s more, but you get the drift. (Let us all spare a moment of sympathy for editors everywhere, who have to sort through piles of drivel in order to strike gold, and who,in most cases, are doing this just for the sheer love of stories, with not a coin exchanged in compensation.)

A few of the fantasy tropes are listed here, such as the inn as meeting place, the overuse of sorcerers/vampires/zombies, the hard-as-nails dwarf. Once you start thinking about it,  if you have read any fantasy at all, you will be able to come up with quite a few more. How about:

The orphan whose mysterious past vaults him into the role of hero, sometimes (often) reluctantly. Chosen One, anyone?

The peaceful, nature loving, mysterious elves; the grumpy dwarves; the terrifying orcs/monsters; the wise wizard/mentor. 

The quest for the sacred sword/jewel/manuscript/whatever. 

The evil Empire. 

Fake-medieval Europe/England setting. 

Weird names with apostrophes. Tal’c or Ryl’d or Sh’one or whatever. (I first encountered this in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, and there, the Dragonriders were given a new name that was a shorter form of their original name, as a form of honorific that denoted they had become Dragonriders. Fair enough. But I see this so often now, and often for no reason except that it looks exotic.)

One evil twin, one good twin, separated at birth. 

The school for youngsters where they learn how to use magic.

Villain is hero’s father. 

I could go on, and likely you could think of many more.

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The scantily clad, ferocious warrior-chick is a fantasy trope I’m more than happy to say good-bye to!

It’s a bit terrifying as a writer, to be honest. How do you avoid all these clichés? They are so ingrained in our collective well of story-telling that often you find yourself using them, even though you are trying to be original.

The good news is, you don’t have to, at least, not entirely. It is true that it is easy to fall into the trope-trap, and if your story has too many of these, it is likely not going to be published. However, there are plenty of excellent stories and books being published today in which you can find more than one of these tropes and yet they still feel fresh, exciting, and original.

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“An elf, a wizard, and a giant walked into an inn…” (Horsemen and Travellers Outside an Inn, by Pieter van Os, on Wikicommons. )

Take The Name of the Wind, by Pathrick Rothfuss, for example. That book is full of standard fantasy tropes including the orphaned hero, the school for magic-learning, the vaguely medieval setting. And it even starts in an inn!  But Rothfuss takes these tropes and, through the power of strong storytelling and beautiful prose, creates a compelling and original book.

Of course, George Lucas famously studied Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and used it as the basis of his Star Wars movie. Which became a cultural force to be reckoned with (pun intended!).

So tropes aren’t necessarily bad. Including them in a story isn’t necessarily lazy storytelling. In fact, in some cases such as The Name of the Wind, or Star Wars, readers and movie-goers have rewarded the storytellers who use them in their works.

Why? Perhaps it’s because there is something about the hero’s journey (embodied in many of the tropes) that speaks to us on a deep and subconscious level, something that resonates with the story of the backwater nobody who becomes the hero, the forgotten prince who arrives on the scene to rescue his people, the group of friends who band together and conquer the evil in their world.

The great Christian writer and philosopher, C.S. Lewis,  would explain this resonance by saying that there are deeper truths hinted at by the hero’s journey. In other words, we long to be rescued, and stories allows us to vicariously fulfill that longing, which is why they are told over and over again and continue to be popular. Lewis would say that the  story of the prince who came to rescue his enslaved people is the true story which is the foundation of all the hero stories, and it is the story that is told over and over again in the Bible, culminating in the final telling of the story of the life of Jesus.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. Half the battle is being aware of them, and the other half is using them sparingly and wisely.

So let your wizard wander into an inn. Carefully.

 

Featured image: The Wizard, by Sean McGrath, on Wikicommons

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

I’m not exactly going in order through Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge. Last month I did the first one (a book I read because I liked the cover), but this month I skipped ahead, to the second-last one in the list: a book I was excited to buy or borrow but haven’t read yet. 

This was surprisingly easy, given the backlog of books by my bed and on my Kindle. I decided to read The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. I bought this book last year, when it was available as a Kindle deal – in fact I think I might have got it for free. I’ve heard lots of good things about this 2014 fantasy novel, and I was quite happy to give myself permission to read it, finally!

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Yes, this is also a book I would read because of the cover! 

 

Kelsea Gwynn is a nineteen year old princess whose mother, the former queen of the Tearling, is dead. Kelsea has been living in an isolated forest home, raised by two guardians who have kept her hidden from those who would harm her, in particular, the Red Queen of the rival kingdom of Montmesne, who is a witch who has lived longer than she should and has ruled over Montmesne for over one hundred years.  But her time of isolation is over, and the book opens with the Queen’s Guards coming to escort her to the capital, where she will be crowned as Queen.

Kelsea is not your average fairy-tale princess. She is overweight, and plain. But she has spent a lot of time reading during her time of exile, and she is smart and compassionate. Her journey to the capital is fraught with danger, for her Uncle who is Regent is not exactly thrilled to give up the throne, and the Red Queen wants her out of the way as well.

The young queen must prove herself at every turn, to her hardened guards, her advisers, and most importantly, to herself. She struggles with doing the right thing, because she is often unaware of what that might be, just like in real life. And there is much that is hidden from her, including important details about her mother, whose memory she idolizes. No one knows who her father is, and it is hinted that this is a vital piece of information, especially to the Red Queen.

There is some magic in this book, but not a lot. Kelsea has a blue stone that she wears around her neck, given to her as an infant, which is one of the ways the Guards know that she is, indeed, the princess they seek. This stone gives her prophetic dreams and superhuman strength at times, but Kelsea is unsure how it works.

Most of the book is about Kelsea settling into her role as Queen, and trying to prepare for the war with Montmesne that she knows is coming, due to the fact that her first act as Queen is to stop the shipping of slaves from Tearling to Montmesne.

I enjoyed this book, with some very large reservations:

The setting. As the book begins you assume this is a medieval-type fantasy, set in an alternate world, as the people ride horses and don’t have electricity or any modern conveniences. But soon you find out that this book is set on Earth, in the future, after some kind of disaster that prompted William Tearling to set off in a boat with a bunch of survivors, discovering this heretofore undiscovered continent. Right. In fact this premise was so obviously bad that I kept giving the author the benefit of the doubt, and pretty much convinced myself that the “ship” must have been a spaceship, and that this was a new planet. But alas, nope. Somehow with all our satellites and images of the Earth from space, we have totally missed a continent. Huh? This was more than annoying to me, and every time the Crossing was mentioned, or the fact that they used to have this or that technology, or mentions of Harry Potter (!), it totally threw me out of the story. Which is a bad thing. I just don’t understand why keeping the setting as Earth was necessary to the story, when it would have been much better set on a different world altogether.

The magic system. As I said, there is a little bit of magic in the book, but given that this is supposed to be Earth in the future, well, how? None of that is explained. Kelsea has her stones that give her some powers, and the Red Queen has done some kind of deal with the Devil (or the Dark Thing as it is called in the book) and one supposes that is why she has some magic powers, but it’s all very nebulous.

Bashing of religion. I’ve said this before, but I get tired of books that portray religion and religious people as Bad or Stupid. Here are some quotes from the book:

“(…) If you can tolerate my arguments, you’re free to minister to or convert any other occupant of this Keep, not excepting the pigs and chickens.”

***

“You make sport of my religion, Lady,” (…)

“I make sport of all things inconsistent, Father.”

***

Andalie pursed her lips (…), “I’m not a religious woman, Lady. I’m sorry if it pains you, but I believe in no god, and even less do I believe in any church.”

***

“How do you expect anyone to believe in your God in these times?”

“I believe in my God, Majesty.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

Okay, we get it.  Enough already. Obviously the author has bought into the cultural narrative that religion, and in particular, the Christian religion, is Bad. In particular, the Catholic Church, as this is the only religion that is portrayed. What happened to all the other denominations and all the other faiths isn’t explained. Another problem with setting this book on a futuristic Earth.

What audience is this for, anyway? I thought this book was  an adult fantasy, when I first started reading it.  But given that the main character is nineteen, and the story line seemed to be about her transition from child to adult, I began to think that perhaps this was meant to be a Young Adult book.   However, there are some pretty sexual themes and scenes in this book, and some strong language, mainly in the scenes with the Red Queen, who likes to have sex with her slaves to alleviate her frustration at not being able to find Kelsea, and tortures them as well when they displease her. And she uses them as a sacrifice to the Dark Thing. So a little too intense for Young Adult,  I would say. I found it a bit jarring, as the lack of strong world-building and the focus at times on Kelsea’s appearance and her unrequited attraction to the charming rogue, the Fetch, seemed pretty YA territory to me, which was interspersed with scenes featuring the  sad0-masochistic Red Queen. It seemed like Johansen was trying to write to two different audiences.

The villain. Kelsea has a bit of a set-to with her uncle, but he is quickly dealt with (and left to go high-tailing to the Red Queen, which doesn’t seem like a great idea), but aside from that, the danger comes from the Red Queen, and it’s a very far-off danger. The two don’t even meet in the book, although Kelsea has vague dreams of her (and vice-versa). We see the Red Queen’s obsession with Kelsea, but we are not sure why, other than Kelsea is Queen of a rival kingdom that under the Regent had been subjected to Montmesne. It’s all a little too unfocused and unclear for me, and even though I was interested in Kelsea’s growth as a person and as a Queen, I would have liked to have seen more about this conflict in the book.I suppose the fact that this is the first book in a series has something to do with that. Presumably the conflict between Kelsea and the Red Queen will intensify.  But we still need some conflict in this book, and I don’t see it. The Regent Uncle, although nasty, is taken off the scene early, and the Red Queen is a remote threat. And while we are on the subject of the Red Queen, this is how she is described:

No one knew who she was, or where she had come from, but she had become a powerful monarch, presiding over a long and bloody reign…

Hmm. No one knew who she was or where she had come from? Really. Presumably she had at least come off the ship with the rest, hadn’t she? And for that matter, if there was a previously undiscovered continent on Earth, were there people there, or not? Maybe the Red Queen was the only remaining person of the Lost Tribe on the Lost Continent? Which, for all the problems with that premise, is at least more interesting than the above description.

I have heard this book compared to The Hunger Games and The Game of Thrones. I’m not sure why, to tell you the truth. I didn’t particularly like The Hunger Games, but the story and the world-building was much more compelling than what I found in the  Queen of the Tearling. And while Johansen is a competent writer, she has nowhere near the skill of George R. R. Martin, never mind that the political machinations in Tearling are not nearly as compelling as those in Westeros.

So, I’m a bit conflicted about this one. It held my attention, and I liked the fact that the heroine was not your typical beautiful, svelte princess. I really wanted to love it. But the confusing setting and the lack of real conflict was a big drawback. This is the first book in the series, so perhaps it gets better in subsequent books, now that the scene is set and the characters are in place. Maybe. But I’m not sure I liked this one enough to pick up the next ones.

Emma Watson is set to play Kelsea in the upcoming movie based on the book (unattractive and frumpy she is NOT, but oh well). Maybe the movie will fix some of the obvious plot holes. We can only hope.

My rating: three stars.

Year of Important Books: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

So it’s come to this, the end of my Year of Important Books! Although I had a few times this year where I wasn’t exactly sure what book to read in a given month, my last book of the year I had decided right from the beginning. I wanted to end with The Lord of the Rings.

As I started it this month I realized that I would not be able to read all three books in December – there was just too much going on. So I ended up just reading the first of the trilogy.

It might seem strange to you that in this series of re-reading important books of my childhood that I chose this book and not The Hobbit. There is a simple reason for this, and that being that I actually discovered and read LOTR first, and once I read it I went looking for other books by Tolkien and found The Hobbit.

John Ronald Rauel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892, where his father, Arthur, a bank manager in England, had been promoted to the head of the bank in Bloemfontein. He lived in South Africa with his family, which included his younger brother Hilary and his mother Mabel, until he was three, when he and his mother and brother went to England for an extended family visit. While they were there, his father died of rheumatic fever in South Africa and they stayed in England.

At an early age Ronald, as he was known in the family, was interested in languages, reading and writing. He was a keen pupil, from all accounts. His mother converted to Catholicism when Ronald was 8, and he remained a devoted Catholic for all of his life. When Ronald was 12 his mother died at the age of 34 from the complications of diabetes. She had arranged previously that her sons would go live with her close friend Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan, as their guardian, and Tolkien remained grateful to Fr. Francis’ influence on his life ever after, seeing him as the father figure he had missed.

Tolkien married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt, in 1913, and in 1914 when war broke out he did not immediately enlist, to the vast disapproval of his relatives, but instead delayed enlistment as long as he could until 1915 by entering an agreement which allowed him to complete his degree first.

Tolkien did not have a particularly robust constitution, it seems, for he was sickly on and off during his war service and was eventually declared unfit for regular duties and was given garrison duties for the latter part of the war. This likely saved his life, for as he said, “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

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J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, in the midst of his war duties, when he was 24. His eyes look a bit haunted, don’t they? Photo from Wikicommons.

After the war Tolkien continue his work in languages, notably Anglo-Saxon, and eventually ended up in Oxford in 1925 as a professor of Anglo-Saxon. It was during this time at Pembroke College in Oxford that he wrote The Hobbit and the first two books of The Lord of the Rings, but it wasn’t until 1948 that it was complete, nearly a decade after he began it. LOTR was published in 1954, and it has since become of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Fantasy books are standard fare for children’s stories, but LOTR brought fantasy popularity as a  genre for adult books as well. Not that there weren’t adult fantasy books before its publication, but the success of LOTR certainly legitimized the genre and inspired many, many writers to try their hand at it.

I can remember reading LOTR for the first time and falling under its spell from the very beginning. Here was a book that included the fantastical elements I had loved so much in my books as a child, but they were brought in to a complex, grown-up story. And thus began my life-long love of the fantasy genre and inspired my own desire to write my own. LOTR became one of those books that I re-read every couple of years, although I admit that it has been far too long since the last time I picked it up. It was so nice to revisit it again this month.

One thing that struck me anew as I re-read Fellowship was Tolkien’s masterful world-building. There are reams of words written about how he built his Middle -Earth and the extensive time he spent on its history, languages, and culture. I won’t go into all that here, but suffice to say, it works. You know there is a lot going on behind the scenes in this world, and that we are just seeing a small slice that begins in the hobbits’ sheltered Shire and gradually expands as we journey along with Frodo on his quest, and it is a great deal of fun to discover this world along with him.

Tolkien paints a rich an full picture of Middle -Earth, using some lovely lyrical language. For example, as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leave the Old Forest after their sojourn there with Tom Bombadil, they pause for a moment to to get their bearings:

“Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.” 

That sentence, all on its own, makes me want to be a better writer.

The story that Tolkien gives us is an adventure tale, with a small and ordinary hobbit from the back waters of the Shire suddenly presented with an onerous task and even worse, the ultimate responsibility to carry it out: to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, deep in the heart of Mordor.

One of the beautiful pictures Tolkien paints in this book is the importance of friendship to help us carry our burdens, big and small. Frodo is not alone in his quest. Fellow hobbits Sam, Merry and Pippin accompany him from the Shire; Gandalf gives him instruction and help along the way; the mysterious Ranger, Strider, joins their company at the opportune time; and of course once they get to Rivendell the elf lord, Elrond, gives Frodo eight companions to share the journey with him.

Tolkien, himself, had a band of companions which greatly helped him not only in the writing of The Lord of the Rings, but who journeyed through life with him as well. The “Inklings”were a band of like-minded friends and writers at Oxford who met regularly to discuss their works-in-progress and to share a pint and great conversation at the Eagle an Child pub in Oxford. C.S. Lewis, a fellow Oxford don, was a member of this group (he famously nicknamed the pub “The Bird and Baby”), as was Charles Williams. The value of this group to both C.S. Lewis and to Tolkien’s writings cannot be underestimated, and its influence upon Tolkien’s view on the importance of having a group of friends behind you in any great venture can only be guessed at.

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The Eagle and Child in Oxford. Wouldn’t you love to have had a chance to overhear some of the conversations that took place here?

Another theme that runs throughout  Fellowship is the idea that small people can do great things too, and in fact may, in the end, be better suited for those great things. Elrond sums this up during the Council when they are deciding what should be done with the One Ring:

“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” 

From all accounts Tolkien came out from his war experiences with a profound appreciation for the men under his command: the ordinary, enlisted men from the agricultural counties of England. It is possibly this real-life experience that brought him the understanding that it is not always “great” men who do the great deeds. But  however he came to see this, it is this portrayal of unsung hereoes like Frodo and especially Sam, that gives The Fellowship of the Rings, and indeed the whole LOTR saga, its heart.

I wish I had the time to read the other two books of the trilogy this month, but I was very glad to at least get the chance to read the first one. It was a fitting end  to my Year of Important Books, for it provided me a bridge from my well-loved childhood classics to the more mature books of adulthood. This book cemented in me my life-long love of fantasy, and showed me that these tales of heroes, dragons,wizards and elves need not stay as nursery stories, but could be told to adults as well. 

Speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin summarized Tolkien’s views on fantasy stories this way:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

I’m sure I speak for many of you when I give my hearty thanks to J. R. R Tolkien, for taking us all with him in his escape to Middle-Earth