Archive | Fantasy

The Magician King | Lev Grossman

The cover of Grossman's The Magician KingQuentin still can’t get no satisfaction.

This was the main theme of the first novel of the Magician Trilogy (The Magicians). The emptiness in your life follows you even if you accomplish the things you long for. You can’t put a square block in a round hole. The Magician King begins with King Quentin still longing for that missing something.

What Quentin gets is a quest—a massive, no holds barred quest for the future of the entire multiverse. The plot is unpredictable and satisfying, at least for the reader. For Quentin, it’s another story.

I suppose we’ll find out in Volume Three, The Magician’s Land, if Quentin ever learns, let alone finds what he’s looking for.

—Lev Grossman, The Magician King (New York: Plume, 2011).

The Magicians | Lev Grossman

The cover of Grossman's The MagiciansHarry Potter meets Narnia, the blurbers promised! What’s not to love?

The Magicians is a novel where a socially awkward kid finds out that he has amazing powers. The blurbers were right—almost to a fault. The first half of the book concerns a magician’s school while the second half explores alternate universes. Rowling meets Lewis, indeed! My only criticism was that the nods to Potter and Narnia felt too derivative at times. I quickly got over that.

This book gripped me from the first until the last page. Grossman has written a lead character that acts as realistically as you might expect in the situation he’s given. He makes the sort of decisions any one of us might make in the same circumstances.

The villain is truly terrifying and the magic system is complex and satisfying. I’m curious to see where the next books takes us!

—Lev Grossman, The Magicians (New York: Plume, 2009).

Pump Six and other Stories| Paolo Bagigalupi

The cover of Bagigalupi's Pump SixOne of the most profitable ways to interpret apocalyptic literature is to consider what the words meant to the original hearers. Revelation, for example, was a worship text for the early church which gave them the confidence to persevere in trial. In an analogous way, Bagigalupi’s collection of short dystopian fiction speaks volumes to our present reality.

I purchased this collection because two of the short stories it contains (“Yellow Card Man” and “The Calorie Man”) were precursors to The Windup Girl. These stories were nominated for the Hugo award and won the Sturgeon Award, respectively. As powerful as these stories were, I was captivated by some of the other stories just as much. Each story, regardless of the mechanics, illustrates some of the trajectories of our world, pursued ad infinitum.  “The Fluted Girl” is a story about genetic engineering and politics gone awry. “Pop Squad” explores the quest for eternal life, along with its dark corollaries.

The title story was perhaps the best of the lot. If you’re concerned at all about societal tendencies towards distraction and hedonism, “Pump Six” explores how far down that road we could go as a society, wrapped up in a compelling mystery story.

Pump Six is a disturbing but important collection of stories that describe a world left to its selfish devices—apocalypticism without the hope.

—Paolo Bagigalupi, Pump Six and Other Stories (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2008).

The Tolkien Reader | J. R. R. Tolkien

The cover of The Tolkien ReaderPeople know Tolkien as the writer of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. In 1966, Ballantine books collected some of his shorter works to serve as a paperback introduction for those who had not yet read his Ring Trilogy.

Peter Beagle wrote a fine introduction to this volume. It was amusing to read his biographical blurb which described him as the author of A Fine and Private Place which was “published in 1960, and was extremely well received” (xvi). (Of course, he went on to write the much more famous The Last Unicorn.)

The works collected are a true miscellany, both in content and in style. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” is a somber fragment of a play where two battle-weary soldiers pick through the bodies of their comrades by lamplight to find their war-leader. “Farmer Giles of Ham,” in contrast, is a comic fantasy story about a lowly farmer who becomes a dragon master. This story is suitable for younger readers. “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” is a collection of sixteen poems written during the third age of Middle Earth.

The highlight of this collection is “Tree and Leaf”. After a lengthy essay on the nature of fairy stories which gives the reader insight into Tolkien’s thought process, the story “Tree and Leaf” is a powerful account of a man—a painter—who spends his whole life putting off the future (and his neighbour) in order to paint the perfect leaf. When he is finally forced to go on his journey, he realizes his true role in the world and in the world to come. Reading from a Christian perspective, this story was very moving!

The works collected between these covers are so diverse, only a devoted Tolkien fan would be interested in reading them all. If that’s you, then enjoy!

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader: Stories, Poems and Commentary by the Author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” (New York: Ballantine, 1966).

River of Stars | Guy Gavriel Kay

The cover of Kay's River of StarsThe scene opens with young Ren Daiyan whipping his wooden sword around a bamboo grove, battling imaginary barbarians, imagining great things while the Empire is in decline all around him. Suddenly, a small seemingly insignificant decision sets his life and dreams into motion. How does one man rise as a Empire falls?

In Under Heaven, Kay described life in 8th Century China. In River of Stars he returns to China four Centuries later, in his fictionalized version of the Song Dynasty.

Kay’s writing is as poetic and sublime as ever. The first paragraph sets the tone:

Late autumn, early morning. It is cold, mist rising from the forest floor, sheathing the green bamboo trees in the grove, muffling sounds, hiding the Twelve Peaks to the east. The maple leaves on the way here are red and yellow on the ground, and falling. The temple bells from the edge of town seem distant when they ring, as if from another world. (3)

My only problem with River of Stars is Kay’s tendency to overstate one of his favourite themes: that apparently small random choices have the power drastically change the course of a life and the history of a nation. The theme is interesting, but he mused on it so often, it felt overstated in such a subtle novel.

River of Stars is a gripping account of one man’s life as chaos, war, affluence, and political subterfuge swirl around him. Kay is clearly at the height of his literary prowess.

—Guy Gavriel Kay, River of Stars (Toronto: Viking, 2013).

Grimms’ Fairy Tales | The Brothers Grimm

The cover of Grimms' Fairy Tales

In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published a collection of German fairy tales. A second volume was published in 1815. After various revisions, a total of 211 stories were collected.

My English hardcover contains 55 of these stories, taken from both volumes. Many of the stories are very familiar: The Frog Prince, Rumpelstiltskin Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs to name a few.

The violence in these stories is shocking. The brothers received criticism for it even in their day. In 1825 they printed a Children’s Edition which included some of the safer stories. Walt Disney has rendered even the safer stories innocuous.

Take the original Cinderella, for example. When the prince came to find the sister who fit the golden slipper, the eldest tried first:

Her great toe prevented her from getting it on. Her foot was too long.

Then her mother handed her a knife and said, “Cut off the toe. When you are Queen you won’t have to walk any more.”

The girl cut off her toe, forced her foot into the slipper, stifled her pain, and went out to the Prince. …

Then he looked at her foot and saw how the blood was streaming from it. So he turned his horse round and carried the false bride back to her home, and said that she was not the right one. (162-3)

She was the lucky one! The second sister had to pare down her heel. In the end, Cinderella was married to the prince. As they walked into the church, a dove plucked one eye from each of the false brides. On their way out of the church the dove picked the other eyes. “And so for their wickedness and falseness they were punished with blindness for the rest of their days” (165).

I suppose that’s one way to get children to behave!

These stories are part of our culture. They have staying power that is rarely seen. Enjoy them—just watch out for vindictive doves.

—The Brothers Grimm, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, trans. Mrs. E. V. Lucas, Lucy Crane and Marian Edwards (New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1945) .

The Onion Girl | Charles De Lint

The cover of De Lint's Onion GirlJilly Coppercorn is an irrepressible bright spirit. Her friends are so enlivened by her life, they can’t imagine she would have any enemies. Then she was struck in a hit-and-run and put in the hospital. The darkness of her past caught up with her present.

This is the first story I’ve read that was set in Newford, a fictional Canadian city. According to a list on LibraryThing, ten stories precede this one in the series. While the relational dynamics of Jilly’s posse quickly become evident, it would have been a much richer experience to have first read some of the earlier stories to better grasp the group situations.

There is much to laud in this novel. The “dreamworld” structure led to many interesting plot opportunities. It reminded me of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time world structure. Furthermore, the characters were realistic and behaved like real people. The overarching message of the story is important: dealing with your past and bringing that healing into your present.

My struggle with the book might seem a bit ironic, given my profession as a preacher. The moralistic message of the book felt too preachy. The beautiful message lost most of its subtlety and impact when the characters mused on it in detail.

All said, this was an interesting story to read.

—Charles De Lint, The Onion Girl (New York: TOR, 2001).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane | Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane coverCertain fairy tales have staying power. Take the Brothers Grimm, for example. Who can forget the story of “The Frog Prince” or “Rumpelstiltskin” or “Rapunzel”? Disney’s built an empire on rebooting these stories.

If you’ve ever read the original fairy tales (not the modern sanitized version), you’ll know that they’re much darker. The second sister of Cinderella, for example, slices the back of her heel off at the will of her mother to fit it into the glass slipper. The rationale? “When you are Queen you won’t have to walk any more.”

Neil Gaiman has written a masterful fairy tale in the older, darker tradition. If light can only be seen in contrast to dark, Gaiman’s light shines!

The novel centres around a young boy’s memories of life with a friend who lived down the lane-way from him. When the circumstances in his life became increasingly difficult, his friendship with Lettie Hempstock became life-giving.

As I read through this short 178 pages novel, I felt like I was reading something older—more primal—than the stories we’re used to today. It’s the sort of gripping, enduring, story that you will want to consume in one sitting.

—Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (New York, NY: William Morrow, 2013).

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