Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

People have been telling me to read Pratchett for quite some time now, but I have not yet succumbed to the attractions of Discworld. I’m a bit nervous that once I get started, it’s going to take over my life, and I don’t really want that. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman, though, and this is sort of what I expect from a combination of the two. You remember the old practical joke, where you balance a bucket of water on top of a half-open door, and then someone walks through the door and gets soaked? Funny, right? Now imagine that the someone walking through the door is one of the Lords of Hell, bent on dragging you down to the Underworld to be punished by Mr Big-and-Scaly himself. And imagine that the bucket is full of holy water, which will dissolve the corporeal manifestations of demons on contact. Imagine further that the you running from this demon is also a demon, albeit of a lesser order, and that sloshing any of the holy water on you will dissolve you just as effectively. What was a funny situation is now a game of life or death with eternal stakes. For me, the life-and-death struggle undercuts the jokes.

What happened to England? At one time they were the mightiest empire on the planet. Then they were the only nation to stand up to Hitler and the Nazis, and through the strength of their endurance they won. But sometime during the second half of the twentieth century the national identity shifted to focus on antisocial, xenophobic, inefficient, and unintelligent behaviour. Somehow they went from Winston Churchill to John Cleese. This is one of the things that I admire about Doctor Who: its insistence that no life is unimportant, and that the British people will continue until the end of the universe. The show is making an attempt to restore English nationalism.

The Antichrist is born on earth. Since this book is a little dated, the Antichrist was born the same year I was, and at the time the story takes place he’s eleven years old. He was accidentally put in a normal British family, so he grows up a fairly normal boy, though with a stronger love of home than I had. When he reaches the age of eleven, the hellhound comes to join him, but the boy’s sense of normal infects the dog, and he becomes a normal dog.

It’s time for the great war between heaven and hell, and all the heavenly and infernal hosts are massing together, ready to strike. Earth is the battlefield, and will likely be annihilated. Well, there’s a demon who doesn’t want this to happen. There’s an angel who feels the same way. Aziraphale tries to avoid heaven, and Crowley hell, in order to reach the Antichrist and save the world. Their jobs have been pretty easy until now, human beings being both worse than demons and better than angels. So they use their earthly tricks to dodge the supernatural and get to the boy. This is the type of antihero, praise-of-mediocrity stuff I was mentioning earlier.

This is all laid out in prophecy, of course. Three hundred years ago Agnes Nutter saw it all and wrote it down, quite literally. But like Cassandra of old, no one understands or believes her. Her book is now in the possession of her descendant Anathema Device. Newt Pulsifer, witch hunter, comes to find her and he falls in love (quite a change from Newt’s ancestor, who led the team that burned Agnes to death). His commander in the Witchfinder Army also gets ensnared by a fortune-teller/aging courtesan. (cf antihero, praise of mediocrity)

And there are the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse: Scarlett, Dr Sable, Mr White, and The Other One. Scarlett bounces around the world bringing armed conflict wherever she goes, which seems to be not-quite-industrial societies; Dr Sable is leading a revolution in nutrition in America, feeding us all on fillers without any actual nutritional value; and Mr White brings trash and oil spills everywhere. War, Famine, and Pollution (Pestilence retired after we scientized medicine in the early twentieth century). Death is always present, following the other three but stronger than them all. And they’re coming to start the war that will end everything.

But that normal boy doesn’t want to end everything. He loves his home. He’s spent eleven years making Tadfield the perfect place for a boy to grow up, and he doesn’t want a bunch of angels and demons ruining it. The two factions are equally indifferent to humanity, each intent on bringing glory to their commander by defeating their opponent. But what would happen after? An eternity of nothing. Heaven and hell are both short-sighted in their ambitions. The real goal is play, an activity that has no other goal but its own perpetuation.

I love moments of convergence, when the disparate strands of a story come together at the climax. All these groups find each other at the Air Base that controls England’s nuclear missiles. The missiles are somewhere else, of course, but all the controls are in Tadfield, and the Four Horsepeople are ready to get things moving.

The ancients were always so convinced that the world was going to end. I’m not. The world continues, and life endures. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s intense; sometimes it’s awful and pointless (full of antiheroes who praise mediocrity), but life goes on. Endings scare us; Death endures when all other spirits have passed. Apocalyptic maunderings are all about the fear of death. When one of us dies, however, the rest go on. The world doesn’t stop for a death. The end of life is natural, mundane. Even if all of humanity died, the world would continue; some forms of life would continue even after a nuclear holocaust. I guess having survived the Cold War gives me a different perspective than people had in 1990.

And I guess that’s what this is really about: heaven and hell and their mutually assured destruction are uncomfortably similar to the United States and the Soviet Union, where ultimately the two sides are working for the same goal, the destruction of everything, and are indifferent to other nations, even their allies. I’ve seldom considered what that would look like to the rest of the world; as an American, I haven’t had to. Sometimes the modern world feels like an old Western movie, and every so-called terrorist organization is waiting to see who’s finally going to kill the aging gunslinger. It may happen soon.

We are a group of former British colonies that were largely settled by Germans, so we have the Nazi viciousness and ravenousness combined with the English endurance and self-control.  No wonder people hate and fear us. For all that Good Omens is billed as a comedy, it’s a Lenny Bruce routine, laughing at what has you scared shitless. Perhaps on subsequent readings I’ll laugh more, but this time I saw this as a book of fear.

The trouble with trying to find a brown-covered book among brown leaves and brown water at the bottom of a ditch of brown earth in the brown, well, grayish light of dawn, was that you couldn’t.

It wasn’t there.

Anathema tried every method of search she could think of. There was the methodical quartering of the ground. There was the slapdash poking at the bracken by the roadside. There was the nonchalant sidling up to it and looking out of the side of her eye. She even tried the one which every romantic nerve in her body insisted should work, which consisted of theatrically giving up, sitting down, and letting her glance fall naturally on a patch of earth which, if she had been in any decent narrative, should have contained the book.

It didn’t.

Which meant, as she had feared all along, that it was probably in the back of a car belonging to two consenting cycle repairmen.

 

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Finally, a book that doesn’t remind me of unfortunate periods of my life. In fact, this book reminds me primarily of The Wizard of Oz. Shocking, yes, but hang on, I’ll explain.

Our protagonist comes to a new world, full of things he doesn’t quite understand. Falk doesn’t understand anything, actually. His mind has been erased. The novel begins with him in a pre-linguistic state, just like being born. He grows up in a small, peaceful community, somewhere on the east coast of the United States. Not grows up physically, but mentally. After the time most of us spend between birth and school, he leaves home on a journey to discover who he is. He travels across a post-apocalyptic North America – this is later even than most of Le Guin’s novels because the League of All Worlds has collapsed – in order to find the city that will tell him who he is, that will restore him to himself and give him his home. Es Toch is the city of illusions, just as The Emerald City is in Oz. It’s even built of vaguely transparent green not-quite-glass (over the Grand Canyon!). In Baum’s Emerald City, visitors have to be given green-tinted spectacles so that they see the city as emerald. In Es Toch, there’s mind control.

The premise is, that millennia from now people develop their latent telepathic abilities. But it’s a slow learning process and we can’t control our minds (and hence our communication) well. We can only tell the truth. Then, a race comes from far beyond the familiar stars, beyond the League. The Shing know how to mindlie, so they can easily defeat humanity and the allied alien races. When everyone trusts, the dishonorable prevail. But there’s a small colony of former Earthlings who want to return home, and they’ve developed their mental abilities beyond even the Shing. The Shing can lie telepathically, but the people of Werel can catch them at it. The trick becomes, healing Falk’s mind so that he can foil the Shing and save the world.

Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands do not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed. Between men the only link left is that of owner to slave, or murderer to victim.

This idea, that relationship is bound to physical touch, is one of the problems that haunt my life. I think it’s also one of the reasons I like going to a mostly gay church, even though I kind of expect everyone to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. Gay men, taken as a group, seem to be unusually affectionate. I get tons of hugs, and even some beijinhos, the European-style kisses of greeting that denote simple friendship. And this after only attending three times, and having a friend of a friend to situate me in their network of relationships. I need physical affection (not just sex); without it, I mentally wither and die, like a flower without water or sunlight. Which is why, even though I’m in a tough spot with finances, I’ll drive an hour and use four gallons of petrol to attend a church I don’t know I believe in.

So he played for time, trying to devise a way out of his dilemma, flying with Orry and one or another of the Shing here and there over the Earth, which stretched out under their flight like a great lovely garden gone all to seeds and wilderness. He sought with all his trained intelligence some way in which he could turn his situation about and become the controller instead of the one controlled: for so his Kelshak mentality presented his case to him. Seen rightly, any situation, even a chaos or a trap would come clear and lead of itself to its one proper outcome: for there is in the long run no disharmony, only misunderstanding, no chance or mis-chance but only the ignorant eye. So Ramarren thought, and the second soul within him, Falk, took no issue with this view, but spent no time trying to think it out, either. For Falk had seen the dull and bright stones slip across the wires of the patterning-frame, and had lived with men in their fallen estate, kings in exile on their own domain the Earth, and to him it seemed that no man could make his fate or control the game, but only wait for the bright jewel luck to slip by on the wire of time. Harmony exists, but there is no understanding it; the Way cannot be gone. So while Ramarren racked his mind, Falk lay low and waited. And when the chance came he caught it.

Whenever I try to examine my beliefs, I run into this same duality. I was raised as a Christian, but when I got divorced I revolted against it and moved to the Muslim world. Islam was strong enough to untether me from Christianity, but not strong enough to bind me to itself. I see the logic, I do the critical thinking, I trust that in time I’ll see the harmony of the world. But I’ve also seen the beads on the patterning-frame; I have had enough mystical experiences that I can’t completely ascribe to mental illness. Is there a mysticism that isn’t tied to theism? There must be. Maybe, instead of running from or denying spiritual experience, I should be seeking it out more urgently. Even if I don’t trust or fully believe in God, these experiences have helped make my life more bearable. They help me feel less alone. They teach me about myself. There is value in this type of experience, no matter what cosmology others ascribe to it.

This is the second novel of Le Guin’s obscurity that I’ve read, and it shares more with Rocannon’s World than it does with The Dispossessed or Always Coming Home. It’s more traditional 1960s sci-fi/fantasy; it’s all mythic journeys and manliness. The very few female characters are like Bond girls, either useless or evil. The female scientist is so marginal that her name seems to change several times over the course of the book: at first Rayna, then Ranya, finally Ranna. Maybe these are different women, but they play the same minor role and Falk seems to be referring to a single person. The gender exploration and insistence on female worth will come later. But still, this was a good book for me at this time. Thanks, Catherine, for reminding me of an author who is good for me.

I was talking with a professor once about my master’s thesis, and she asked what was going on in the life of the author I was writing about at the time she wrote the novel, and I told her I didn’t know because I had never read any of the biographies. “How can you stop yourself?” she asked. The truth is, I seldom see authors as people. The name Charles Dickens is a tool I can use to group novels with a similar style and thematic interest, but I find myself curiously incurious as to the man himself. Stories stick with me, like the way that he was driven to keep telling the story of Sikes and Nancy until it killed him (check his public performances rather than only what’s in the novels), but dates and events that don’t inform the fiction just bounce straight off of me. The only author I’ve really felt as a living presence breathing through his stories is Ray Bradbury. Until, of course, I met Clive Barker.

I should make it clear that I’m not talking about an actual physical meeting; I mean I started reading his books. There is something about his writing that makes me feel that we share some important ways in which we see the world. That might seem strange for someone who’s stupidly optimistic about people to say about a horror writer, but nevertheless, I find it to be true.

If she said, “It’s all connected . . .” once in her telling she said it a dozen times, though she didn’t always know (in fact seldom) how or why.

It takes a great deal of skill to write a long novel, particularly one that doesn’t waste words. This narrative reaches almost seven hundred pages, yet is as trim as a distance runner in the Olympics. It’s complex, with several different key characters who come and go and wax and wane in importance. In that sense, it’s a bit like Middlemarch or Bleak House. The first time I read Middlemarch, I thought it was all about Dorothea Brooke and her marriage troubles. The second time, it was all Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, and his growing up to become the type of man she can respect. The third time, it was mainly Mr Farebrother and his disappointment in life. I haven’t yet identified closely with Tertius Lydgate, but I suppose his strand will be the next to claim importance. But they’re all here in the book, all at the same time, with separate but intertwining plotlines that could trip someone who isn’t careful.

For me, this book is mainly about Tesla, even though we’re a few hundred pages in before she walks onstage. Tesla writes screenplays, and she is the hero of this book. She’s friends with a journalist, Grillo, whose name distracted me because it means Cricket in Portuguese, and though they’re both writers, Tesla is the better stand-in for the author.

Mary Muralles had asked to be told Tesla’s story before she told her own, and for all her quiet voice she spoke like a woman whose requests were seldom denied. This one certainly wasn’t. Tesla was happy to tell her story, or rather the story (so little of it was hers), as best she could, hoping that Mary would be able to throw some light on its more puzzling details. She held her silence however, until Tesla had finished, which – by the time she’d told what she knew about Fletcher, the Jaff, the children of both, the Nuncio and Kissoon – was close to half an hour. It might have been much longer but that she’d had practice in the craft of concision preparing plot summaries for studios. She’d practiced with Shakespeare (the tragedies were easy, the comedies a bitch) until she’d had the trick of it down pat. But this story was not so easily pigeonholed. When she started to tell the tale it spilled out in all directions. It was a love story and an origin of species. It was about insanity, apathy and a lost ape. When it was tragic, as in Vance’s death, it was also farcical. When its settings were most mundane, as at the Mall, its substance was often visionary. She could find no way to tell all this neatly. It refused. Every time she thought she had a clear line to a point something would intersect.

Her scenario had been a sort of imagined revenge upon the cosy, smug existence of the town. But in retrospect she’d been as smug as the Grove, as certain of her moral superiority as it had been of its invulnerability. There was real pain here. Real loss. The people who’d lived in the Grove, and fled it, had not been cardboard cut-outs. They’d had lives and loves, families, pets; they’d made their homes here thinking they’d found a place in the sun where they’d be safe. She had no right to judge them.

I feel like this is Barker’s description of his own process. He’s really good with the “bait and switch” – you meet a few people, you spend eighty or a hundred pages with them, and you think they’re the main part of the story, then you meet a different group and they’re the most important for a while, then you switch to a third, and they all meet each other and regroup themselves and, as in those Victorian serials, you have to pause and remind yourself who people are every time you see their names in a different context.

Change is a vital element. There’s an Art to transforming matter, there’s a sea of pure thought that one of our bad guys is trying to reach, and when people go there they are changed – the metaphors that we use to describe our personalities become literal. For example, the contract lawyer who fucked hundreds of people with his writing hand? It turns into a dick. The things people don’t talk about or don’t want to admit come to the surface, secrets are revealed, illusions are shattered, and they have to deal with reality as it is rather than as they’ve constructed it.

Despite the extreme transformations wrought upon most of the characters, Tesla’s changes are primarily internal. She doesn’t go to the dream sea, and the magical evolving elixir leaves her healed, but otherwise apparently unchanged. However,

She no longer had to keep her cynicism polished; no longer had to divide her imaginings from moment to moment into the real (solid, sensible) and the fanciful (vaporous, valueless). If (when) she got back to her typewriter she’d begin these tongue-in-cheek screenplays over from the top, telling them with faith in the tale, not because every fantasy was absolutely true but because no reality ever was.

And

For Tesla, leaving Palomo Grove was like waking from sleep in which some dream-tutor had instructed her that all life was dreaming. There would be no simple division from now on between sense and nonsense; no arrogant assumption that this experience was real and this one not. Maybe she was living in a movie, she thought as she drove. Come to think of it that wasn’t a bad idea for a screenplay: the story of a woman who discovered that human history was just one vast family saga, written by that underrated team Gene and Chance, and watched by angels, aliens and folks in Pittsburgh who had tuned in by accident and were hooked. Maybe she’d write that story, once this adventure was over.

Except that it would never be over; not now. That was one of the consequences of seeing the world this way. For better or worse she would spend the rest of her life anticipating the next miracle; and while she waited, inventing it in her fiction, so as to prick herself and her audience into vigilance.

One of the issues the novel raises, both explicitly and implicitly, is that evil is easy and good is hard. We start the novel with two men, Jaffe and Fletcher. Jaffe has discovered the existence of the Art and has this excessive ambition (think Macbeth) to control all of reality. Classic world-domination stuff, easily recognizable as evil. He runs around town pulling people’s fears out of them and shaping that emotion into evil creatures (terata). So, his partner and opponent, the arch-nemesis, must be good. Fletcher is Jaffe’s reflection; he wants to prevent Jaffe or anyone else from controlling reality. In a sublime moment of sacrifice, he fragments himself into a hundred little bits that fly into people and the things or people they desire most appear. These hallucigenia battle the terata, and that seems like it’s going to be the climax of the book, but, just kidding, it’s not. Fletcher clearly has the more difficult task; he has to be passive and inspire others to action, while Jaffe can be active and force others to passivity. Fletcher gives up his life to empower others to defeat the evil, and Jaffe just accumulates endlessly. However, the difficulty is, how do you represent a good man, when he’s not actually in the act of sacrificing himself? As Jaffe’s emotional mirror image, Fletcher has no ambition at all. He wants to just sit still and contemplate the sky. How is this good? In order to be effective, good must be active. I think this is one of the reasons Fletcher has to be replaced by Tesla as the novel’s moral center. His version of good is just as unrealistic as Jaffe’s version of evil.

As we move into the second half of the novel, Jaffe is also replaced by his son, Tommy-Ray. He has an incestuous obsession with his twin sister, and is in love with death. Instead of wanting to control all of time and space, he wants to kill everything. And instead of stopping Jaffe and wondering if people will eventually evolve into sky, Tesla has to save the world. One of the problems with good and evil is that good is absolute while evil has degrees. If someone starts talking about the greater good, you know they’re only talking about what they prefer or what will benefit them personally more. But there’s always a greater evil behind the one you can see, and Jaffe and Tommy-Ray eventually seem weak puppets caught up in someone else’s master plan.

There was a mention of a love story. I didn’t find it very compelling. A boy meets a girl, their fathers are archenemies, her mother and brother hate him, so they cling to each other and eventually prevail, with the strength of their love and the strength of the apathy of the other characters. They’ve got bigger fish to fry, so Howie and what’s-her-name can do as they like.

One of the bits that I really identified with had to do with private viewing.

Of the hundreds of erotic magazines and films which William Witt purchased as he grew to manhood over the next seventeen years, first by mail order and then later taking trips into Los Angeles for that express purpose, his favorites were always those in which he was able to glimpse a life behind the camera. Sometimes the photographer – equipment and all – could be seen reflected in a mirror behind the performers. Sometimes the hand of a technician, or a fluffer – someone hired to keep the stars aroused between shots – would be caught on the edge of the frame, like the limb of a lover just exiled from the bed.

Such obvious errors were relatively rare. More frequent – and to William’s mind far more telling – were subtler signs of the reality behind the scene he was witnessing. The times when a performer, offered a multitude of sins and not certain which hole to pleasure next, glanced off camera for instruction; or when a leg was speedily shifted because the power behind the lens had yelled that it obscured the field of action.

At such times, when the fiction he was aroused by – which was not quite a fiction, because hard was hard, and could not be faked – William felt he understood Palomo Grove better. Something lived behind the life of the town, directing its daily processes with such selflessness no one but he knew it was there. And even he would forget. Months would go by, and he’d go about his business, which was real estate, forgetting the hidden hand. Then, like in the porno, he’d glimpse something. Maybe a look in the eye of one of the older residents, or a crack in the street, or water running down the Hill from an oversprinkled lawn. Any of these were enough to make him remember the lake, and the League, and know that all the town seemed to be was a fiction (not quite a fiction, because flesh was flesh and could not be faked), and he was one of the performers in its strange story.

Like William Witt, I like pornography, though I don’t keep a large collection like he does. Like him, I look for the signs of reality behind the illusion. But for me, it’s not the camera I’m looking for. I’m not looking for when the actors need prompting – I look for when they don’t. I want to believe that the relationship I’m looking at is real, even though the voyeurism is artificially enhanced. Instead of focusing on the genitals (I fast-forward through the anatomical portions of the entertainment), I look at their faces. I look at how the actors look at each other, I look at how they touch each other, I try to get a sense of what their body language tells me about the interaction. It doesn’t matter how attractive two people are, if they’re just going through the motions, I don’t like it. Even in porn, I want them to make me believe it. My fantasy life has started to change: instead of seeing a cute guy and imagining sex, I imagine romance – how his hand will feel in mine, how we’ll dance to the radio after dinner, how we’ll go out to the woods, the loving gestures (apart from sex) that make a life together. Watching porn for romance is a little counterintuitive, but if two people can preserve their internal sense of relationship while they’re surrounded by directors and photographers and fluffers and other actors, it must be very strong indeed. I know, they’re actors, but I want to be fooled. I want to continue to believe in love after watching.

So, what does such foolish optimism do when confronted with a horror novel? I look for the love. Not the repetitive Romeo-and-Juliet straight romance thing, I look for love between friends and family members. I look for all the places where love appears unexpectedly. I look for the way that, when pushed to extremes, most people are basically good. I look for the weakness of evil and the collapse of selfishness. I’m comforted by the continuity of life. Because of my fucked-up childhood, there is something Heimlich about fear. A certain amount of it is comforting because it’s normal. At one point, Tesla has to descend some caves under the city, and she can’t imagine why anyone would go spelunking for fun. Then, when it’s over, she understands.

Vaguely she thought: this is why men go underground. To remember why they live in the sun.

The caves are, of course, the darker sides of the human psyche, the horror genre itself. I enjoy dark books and films because they teach me the value of light, of goodness. They remind me why I hold so tightly to my foolish optimism, despite the clinical depression and abusive childhood. If my life were a horror movie, I’d be the villain. I have the unfortunate background, intense temper, and violent impulses that role requires. But every day I choose goodness. I choose who I am, not my circumstances, and I have decided to be a hero.

Jackaby (William Ritter)

Posted: August 22, 2015 in fiction
Tags: , , , ,

Well. Somebody got his start writing fan fic. I can’t really judge, not having gotten a good start to writing fiction at all. I started with literary criticism, switched to journal writing, and have now melded the two together. But once I got used to the idea of reading fan fic, I adjusted my expectations and really enjoyed the book.

One of the hallmarks of fan fic is that, no matter where or when the story takes place, the protagonist will sound exactly like a teenage girl from the early twenty-first century. Perhaps if they would all accept the head canon that all the Mary Sues of our time have a device that allows them to travel through all of fictional time and space, their stories would become more plausible. I mean, it’s not like Abigail Rook has an important backstory. Her father was an archaeologist who never gave her credit for her intellect, so she swiped her college money and went on a dinosaur dig in southeastern Europe somewhere. The dig failed in only a few months, so she used the last of her cash to sail to America, the Land of Opportunity and Second Chances. But she doesn’t use any British speech patterns, and really, lots of Americans like tea. That can’t be your character’s only British trait. And, there is a wealth of writing from New England in the 1890s; there’s no need to use contemporary interjections. Do your research, and write like Oscar Wilde or Max Beerbohm, or hell, Henry James would do, but if you want to write a non-fan-fic novel, make your protagonist sound like she’s from the right time and place.

And, if you’re going to give her an amazing backstory like an Edwardian dinosaur dig, use it. Any other backstory would have done equally well without altering the plot in the slightest. Miss Rook could have been brought up to service, but when her master tried to rape her she ran off, didn’t stop till she reached the docks, stowed away on the Lady Charlotte, stole a minimal amount of food to stay alive during the passage, and then mingled with the crowds to get off ship when they arrived in New Fiddleham. Or. Miss Rook could have been raised on a farm in Yorkshire, with her parents saving their sixpences to send her to finishing school so she can train to be a governess. She knows that it won’t be enough to pay for school, but she doesn’t want to hurt their feelings, so she takes the money and buys a ticket to America instead. She can actually only afford half the ticket, so she works in the kitchen to pay for the rest of her fare. Or. Miss Rook’s father died in a Welsh mining accident when she was young, so her mother raised her as a single parent in Cardiff. She fell in love with a local baker’s apprentice, and they ran off to the New World together. He contracted some sort of terrible disease from the other working class emigrants and died on-ship. Or, if we scrap the British thing, Miss Rook was raised in post-Reconstruction South Carolina. Unable to cope with her repressive family and harsh economic conditions, she runs off to the North, envisioning a utopia of freedom and useful work. All of these are equally if not more plausible than Ritter’s dinosaurs, and switching to any one of them would not change anything that happens in the book.

So, what does happen? A nice, somewhat anachronistic girl gets off a boat in a fictional New England town in the early 1890s. No one wants to employ her, and she eventually finds a notice for a detective’s assistant. This detective sees supernatural creatures that no one else can, so it’s all fairies and werewolves and redcaps and trolls and banshees and ghosts and this frog that emits poisonous gas if you stare at his cage and a duck that used to be a man but who refuses to change back. Jackaby is modeled on Sherlock Holmes, the one that exasperates Rupert Graves in contemporary London. Given this much information, you can probably predict with some accuracy what’s going to happen. Murder mystery, coverup of magical elements, repressed love, Mary Sue being a handy target but otherwise kind of useless but everyone inexplicably takes care of her anyway, that sort of thing.

And yet. Despite all this bitching about things that don’t work, Jackaby is a genuinely enjoyable novel. It’s a fast-paced, undemanding text, and if you let go of the expectation that it’s going to be the next Great Expectations, you can easily get caught up in it. Suspend your disbelief and get swept away by the current. In comparing Ritter to, say, Cassandra Clare, I prefer Ritter. She aims high and misses widely; he lowers his sights and hits the target.

It is incredibly difficult for me to judge this book accurately, on its own merits. Originally published fifty years ago, it and others of its type have been so influential that I don’t know if it was new and groundbreaking at the time or run-of-the-mill. Reading it now, it seems fairly unremarkable, a sci-fi/fantasy journey story like many, many others. The writing is better, but plot and character are kind of normal.

One thing that sets this story apart is the blending of science fiction and fantasy. Libraries and bookstores tend to lump these two categories together, but their authors generally keep them distinct. I think it’s Piers Anthony who goes so far as to say that magic and science can’t coexist in the same world. But here, the two collide, sometimes quite literally. Rocannon journeys through an imagined world where all the animals have wings, and there are multiple species of self-aware, speaking beings. One group is small and telepathic, the other is average-human-sized. They fly around on winged battle cats, which are kind of amazing. Personally, I can’t really imagine anyone riding a cat of any sort for more than a few seconds. Rocannon is traveling to investigate reports of weird things in the sky. The enterprising reader will recognize them as helicopters. Some rebels from a different planet have landed down in the southern hemisphere, and are trying to use their techno-savvy to take over the entire world. We don’t see a whole lot of these guys because they’re the goal of Rocannon’s voyage of discovery, but still, the collision of sci-fi and fantasy is interesting to see. And sad, because if you’re on a flying battle cat you really shouldn’t ram a helicopter.

From the right, from the chasm of air and cloud, shot a gray winged beast ridden by a man who shouted in a voice like a high, triumphant laugh. One beat of the wide gray wings drove steed and rider forward straight against the hovering machine, full speed, head on. There was a tearing sound like the edge of a great scream, and then the air was empty.

The two on the cliff crouched staring. No sound came up from below. Clouds wreathed and drifted across the abyss.

“Mogien!”

Rocannon cried the name aloud. There was no answer. There was only pain, and fear, and silence.

And here, toward the end, we see the themes for which Ursula Le Guin has distinguished herself: the rejection of technocratic warmongering, the passionate pacifism, and the compassionate value for all forms of life, both human and nonhuman. Rocannon learns to communicate telepathically, and he uses that power to defeat the rebels, but when he hears all their minds fall silent at once, it unmans him and he ends his days in Byronic isolation, like Obi-wan Kenobi meets The Giaour.

Rocannon’s World is perched at the very beginning of a remarkable career. It began as the short story “Semley’s Necklace,” to be found in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which is now the prologue. In a few years Le Guin will publish The Left Hand of Darkness and pull away from the pack of run-of-the-mill genre writers. Her books are somewhat easy to find in new bookstores but difficult to locate in used shops, which indicates the high quality of her body of work. This one both fitly represents its moment in literary history and looks to the future, to its author’s shining career, to her novels and collections that touch hearts, win awards, and sell millions of copies.

Oh, come on, you remember Robin McKinley. She got Newberys for The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword back in the ‘80s. I loved those books when I was little. Well, that was the beginning of her career. She’s still writing now. Spindle’s End was first published in the year 2000, and these days she has an online serial that she’s doing, alongside other projects for print. Sometimes I reread books from my childhood, and I can’t imagine how I ever got through them, even when I was ten (Roald Dahl, I’m looking at you). Not so here – I was pleased to see that McKinley’s style stands up to the test of adulthood (and a couple of degrees in literature).

We know this story. Not only is Sleeping Beauty one of my favorite Disney cartoons, I just saw Maleficent this summer. But as I’ve mentioned before, we seldom read for plot. An experienced reader knows what’s going to happen pretty early on, no matter what he’s reading; we rely heavily on convention when telling stories. We keep reading because we love the characters and we love the language. But as you would expect from an author who writes about female dragonslayers, the king’s daughter will not wait passively to be rescued.

The first thing McKinley makes clear is that we’re dealing with a place where magic infests everything. It transforms, it binds, it protects, it attacks, it keeps physics from working as it should. As a result, there are fairies, who have the natural ability to work with magic, and magicians, who learned in an academy. [There are also priests and religion, but they’re not very important.] Magic can also have nothing to do with the professionals; a piece of household furniture that is very loved can take on magical properties. She doesn’t make this explicit, but love can be the most powerful form of magic.

Barder’s gift was a little flat medallion of ash, carved, like the plaque over the door of Cairngorm’s pub, in the shape of an egret; but while the pub’s egret stood, gazing over the green marsh at its feet, Barder’s egret curled into the small oval space, its long neck folded gracefully back against its body, its long legs tucked out of sight. Even in so tiny an area Barder had cut the feathers to perfection; Katriona half-expected them to yield under her touch as she stroked them. “A memory charm, eh?” said Aunt, admiring the egret. “He’s given you his own charm, I think, a charm for remembering where to come back to.”

“Barder isn’t – ”

“Not that kind of magic,” said Aunt. “But real for all that.”

And, of course, if there are powerful women and magic, cats won’t be far behind.

Cats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic – which was what all magic was – it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on you knee and purr. Magic never sat on anybody’s knee and purred. Cats were the easiest of the beasts for humans to talk to, if you could call it talking, and most fairies could carry on some kind of colloquy with a cat. But conversations with cats were always more or less riddle games, and if you were getting the answer too quickly, the cat merely changed the ground on you. Katriona’s theory was that cats were one of the few members of the animal kingdom who had a strong artistic sense, and that aggravated chaos was the chief feline art form, but she had never coaxed a straight enough answer out of a cat to be sure. It was the sort of thing a cat would like a human to think, particularly if it weren’t true.

Yeah, sounds right.

We’re just coming out of a spate of gift-giving in this part of the world, and I managed to avoid getting anything but one. Fortunately there weren’t any curses attached. Sleeping Beauty is, after all, a story of gifts going wrong. Normally I’m not into gifts and getting things, but twice a year, birthday and Christmas, the lack of them makes me feel especially lonely. Instead of going to a party New Year’s Eve, I was with a friend whose kids were staying up to midnight for the first time, so I rang in 2015 with a Phineas and Ferb marathon. Nice for a change, fun because I don’t do it often, but if I’m going to spend all year watching cartoons . . . that life isn’t worth living. But anyway, for Christmas my mom gave me my grandfather’s briefcase. I don’t have any specific memories of it, but I love it because it reminds me of him. It’s like when Rosie carves Peony a new spindle end for the princess’s birthday, and she says,

I’m sorry it’s only new.

I think that a gift should bring the giver to mind, so it’s nicer to get things that are either handmade or old. New-bought things are great and all, but there’s very little of the self that the person is giving to you. It gets you the possession you want, but it doesn’t draw your community closer as a gift should.

This last week I went visiting friends and family Down East. One of my friends saw that I was reading this and told me how much she loved it, which told me something I’d already suspected about it: this book is completely kid-friendly. She’s not any younger than I am, but ever since we were teenagers she’s feigned an extreme innocence. The illusions help her square her experience of the real world with her religious conservatism. She wasn’t very supportive when I came out of the closet, but we’re back to being good friends now, probably because I don’t talk with her about my love life. She’s happier putting it out of her mind.

People forgot; it was in the nature of people to forget, to blur boundaries, to retell stories to come out the way they wanted them to come out, to remember things as how they ought to be instead of how they were.

She said there was one moment in the book that struck her as weird and off, but that I hadn’t reached it yet. Later, when Rosie kisses Peony, I knew I had found it. It’s not really weird or out of character, actually, unless you’re a homophobic American. Rosie and Peony meet when Rosie’s family moves from the country into town. Rosie has always been a little butch, wearing trousers, talking to animals, and hanging out in traditionally masculine places like the town forge. She’s the best large-animal veterinarian around because she can ask the horses what their problems are. Peony is the perfect little femme, with all the airs and graces and little household skills you would expect from a princess. Rosie tries to hate her at first, but can’t. Despite the polar opposites of their personalities, they become close friends. Rosie first notices romantic feelings in herself when Peony falls in love with someone else. When Rosie begins to prepare for her twenty-first birthday and final showdown with Pernicia, Peony volunteers to be her stunt double. They tell everyone that Peony is the princess – which is more believable than presenting the kingdom with a short-haired, big-boned, misanthropic horse-girl – and they cover the two of them in binding spells so that even magic spells will confuse the two of them. They breathe in unison and cast only one shadow. So when Peony jabs her finger on that sharp spindle, she doesn’t die because she’s the wrong princess. Rosie goes off on a quest to save her friend (revived by her fairy blacksmith boyfriend performing CPR, not kissing her), which ends in Rosie putting the spindle end that symbolizes their union between Peony’s hands and kissing her. The dramatic moment when Sleeping Beauty is awakened by true love’s kiss, and it’s between two not-quite princesses. They both have heterosexual relationships, but there’s something at least a little lesbian between the two of them. However, as mentioned, the book is kid-friendly so the homosocial content is presented in a world where any sort of sexuality is nearly effaced. You can read it as I do, that there’s an offstage GFY romance, or you can read it as simply two very close friends who spent their teenage years without the company of other girls their age. My religious friend has four sisters, and she’s always been close with at least one or two, so she goes for the second reading, which makes kissing on the lips a little weird, but that interpretation allows her to enjoy the book, so I won’t tell her what I think of it.

Spindle’s End is a good book. It’s especially good for people who like fairy tales, fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery type (but with not many swords or sorcerers, just an everyday sort of magic), coming-of-age stories, and strongly implied feminism. If you need profanity or sex scenes to enjoy a book, you’re better off reading something else.

I’ve just finished four days of this program, one season per day. It’s been a bit rough, but I made it through. In some ways, this program fits the definition for addiction: the more I watch, the less satisfied I become with it, but I can’t seem to stop. I hate Game of Thrones spoilers as much as other people, so I’ll refrain from doing that here. Much.

I’m pretty rubbish at remembering people’s names, especially when I only see them on television. In a book, every time you see someone you read her name, but people don’t always say the names of the people they’re talking to. And the names on this show are usually pretty weird. I remember the names that are short and easily recognized, like Stannis, or the nicknames, like The Hound, or I call them functional names, like The King’s Bastard. It’s hard to know which names are important, because sometimes people seem like extras but end up being rather important recurring characters. Others seem hugely important, but only actually appear a small number of times, like Balon Greyjoy. They keep giving more details about Robert’s Rebellion, but I can’t remember most of the story because I get all those dead Targaryens mixed up.

Backstory. Fifteen or twenty years before the show begins, there was the Mad King, something-or-other Targaryen. He was obsessed with fire, and started burning people alive. Robert Baratheon led a rebellion against him, assisted by his very good friend Eddard Stark. Tywin Lannister, the Hand of the King, was also somehow involved. His son Jaime was the youngest member of the king’s guard, and one day Jaime killed the Mad King, saving thousands of lives. Forever after he’s known as The Kingslayer. Robert became king. He had been engaged to Ned Stark’s sister, but she died, so he married Jaime’s twin sister Cersei. During all the fighting Ned produced an illegitimate child, which he took home to his faithful wife. Catelyn Stark can forgive Ned for cheating, but she can’t forgive the boy for existing.

As the story begins, the King’s Hand, Jon Arryn, has been murdered, so Robert comes to the far north to ask Ned Stark to take his place. Ned is the last man in the seven kingdoms that Robert can trust. So Ned travels to the capital to serve the king, which means figuring out who killed Jon Arryn and why. Game of Thrones begins as a murder mystery set in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world. Unfortunately, as Ned learns how the structures of power work in King’s Landing, the mystery becomes less important and court intrigues take over the plot; they lead to a civil war partially based on the Wars of the Roses (Stark/Lannister, York/Lancaster). The war carries on through several seasons. Meanwhile, Danaerys Targaryen is across the sea, gathering followers, giving birth to dragons, preparing to recover the throne that belonged to her family. Also meanwhile, mystical snow zombies are marching south to destroy everyone. There’s a great wall that should protect them, but the people who live north of the wall (Wildings or Free Folk, depending on your point of view) are running scared, desperate to get to the other side but not desperate enough to abide lawfully.

Issues. The first that springs to mind is gender roles. Jaime and Cersei are twins born to the most wealthy family in existence; he is taught to fight, she is taught to smile. Gender is very rigidly defined, and those who would break the traditional roles end up in a heap of trouble. Brienne of Tarth, for example, is one of the best swordfighters in the show. She’s hugely tall and very strong. She wears armor and protects her king, but people are always making fun of her and she’s always saying either that she’s not a knight or that she’s not a lady. She’s kind of both, actually. I’m not sure what her relationship is to her own body, but she covers it more effectively than most women even when she’s not dressed for battle. There’s a bathing scene that’s kind of awkward; it feels like a violation to see her, even though we don’t see anything. Most of the named female characters are brave and intelligent, and many of them are more effective in achieving their goals than the males. Unfortunately, the unnamed female characters tend to be whores or kitchen wenches. Even those intelligent women often have to use their bodies to get their needs met, and after a while the screen nudity just becomes normal. I kind of went into breast overload and stopped reacting to them. Rape seems to be pretty common; people certainly talk about it a lot.

Men do their best to reduce women to a single trait, beauty. However, they do the same to each other; men are reduced to strength. At one point, a very large man and a girl are traveling through the countryside and he kills a farmer. She asks why, and he says that it is simply because the man is weak. Physical strength is generally the most important, but having powerful allies or a lot of money are also ways to avoid being killed. The pressure on men is most apparent in the portrayal of homosexual men. Yes, there are gay men with almost graphic sex scenes, so hooray for that. But, once a man is seen in bed with another man, he immediately becomes ineffective. Gay men are reduced to their sexuality; there’s very little else interesting about them, and they don’t win any fights. Once a relationship is over, they disappear. Male bodies are often displayed as completely as female, but less often. There is some full frontal action, if (like me) that’s what you’re into, but much less frequently than for the women. It’s almost like an afterthought or a mistake, even though I know it isn’t.

Servitude is also important. Danaerys wanders around Essos freeing slaves, which is great except for the unfortunate race thing, but I’m more interested in the attitudes in Westeros. Most of the characters seem to see their lives as meant for service; they get their identities and self-esteem from serving their masters well. There’s no shame in service, but the dependent attitude bothers me. I go to work eight hours a day, but I tend to think of that as the price I pay for living here. My real life is at home, where I don’t have any masters. I don’t think of myself as serving my employers, either. They do, but I don’t. I teach people to communicate, and in order to work contentedly I have to think of it in these idealistic terms. My teenage rebellion came a little late, when I was thirty years old, and I’m still too independent to be happy working for someone else just to get a paycheck. Almost all of the ‘good guys’ on the show insist on being servants, though, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Reputation is everything at court. It can be built on nothing at all, but it must exist. The world is full of spies and rumors, so it is vital to understand what is being said about you. The reputation for strength is more important than actual displays of it; win a couple of well-publicized fights and you never need to fight again, if you don’t want to. Loras’s grandmother can argue for the value of a little discreet buggery, but no repeated action is that discreet, and people saying tolerant things doesn’t stop jokes like, ‘He can’t be that great a swordsman. He’s been stabbing Renly for years, and he’s still alive.’ It would be very difficult for Loras to lead any kind of group because they’re too worried about what he does off the battlefield; therefore, he doesn’t. On the other hand, Petyr Baelish has worked his way up from nothing to the king’s Small Council; being called Littlefinger doesn’t seem to have damaged him much. As the owner and manager of one of the more exclusive whorehouses, he has a lot of other people’s reputations in his power as well. According to the show, ‘Men like to talk when they’re happy.’ Littlefinger isn’t the only one who rises almost to the top by keeping other people’s secrets.

Power is generally sought by those least suited to wielding it.

People on this show go on and on about justice, but I don’t see much of it. It looks more like revenge most of the time. Justice implies a certain balance, an order restored; there is no balance or order here. Just a lot of violence, some of it for no reason at all. People who watch the show talk about evil, but I think of evil as involving some form of malice that is either without motive or disproportionate to its cause. I’ve heard Cersei Lannister in particular called evil, but she doesn’t fit my definition. She’s selfish and cruel, but her motives are pretty clear, and everyone else’s hatred is on the same scale as hers. In terms of good and evil, she’s not that different from Arya Stark; she’s just in a position to do more about it.

The religion of people is interesting. There are old gods, and there are also several new gods. There’s a group of seven mentioned at weddings, Father Warrior Smith Mother Maiden Crone Stranger. The meaning of those words becomes more clear in Season Four when people start praying out loud, to all seven individually. [See the codification of gender roles in religion! The males are defined by profession, the females by age.] The other gods can be hard to keep up with; there’s a Flayed God and a Drowned God, and probably several more. There’s also a cult of The One True God, some kind of fire deity who demands human sacrifices and calls himself The Lord of Light. He’s involved in several supernatural occurrences, while the other gods aren’t. I think it’s the old gods who are involved in the tree at Winterfell – up north, there’s a species of white tree with red leaves that grows a pattern that looks like a face in its bark and oozes red sap. These trees are regarded as sacred spaces. My favorite religious statement, though, is from Arya’s dancing master: ‘There is only one god, Death. And there is only one thing that we say to Death: Not today.’

Death is one of the most important things in this series. Everyone dies. We all know that, but Americans try to ignore it. In this series, you can’t. Everyone dies. When you get attached to a character, that’s almost a surefire way to predict that he’s going to die. Bad people die, good people die, badass people die, people with nice asses die, everyone dies. It’s actually understandable; there are several dozen named characters, most of whom have their own story to live out, and it’s hard to follow that many plotlines. Solution? Kill people. Maybe they will have some closure, maybe not. But kill them all the same.

Some authors simply love their characters: Jane Austen and Piers Anthony spring to mind. They are determined to give as many happy endings as possible. I have never seen an author who hates his characters as much as George R R Martin. A boy likes to climb? Let’s cripple him. A man gets his identity from swordfighting? Let’s chop off his sword hand. Someone has the initiative, intelligence, deviousness, and proper family to rule the Kingdoms? Let’s make him a dwarf so that no one will listen to him. Someone’s trying to do the right thing? Let’s give him partial information so that his decisions have disastrous consequences. There’s a limit to my tolerance for dramatic irony. The Mad King died shouting, “Burn them all! Burn them all!” I sometimes feel like Martin is going to go the same way. No one is going to survive this series.