Archive | Fantasy

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).

American Gods & Anansi Boys | Neil Gaiman

The cover of Neil Gaiman's American Gods / Anansi Boys omnibus

Barnes & Noble Edition

Imagine a world where all the gods of mythology are real. It doesn’t matter what mythological system, either—figures from Norse legends like Odin and Loki to African folk-gods like Anansi still roam.

Now imagine that they’re tied to their worshipers. The more devoted worshipers a god has, the stronger that god is. When the last worshiper dies, that deity is extinguished. This is the world that Neil Gaiman explores in his two novels, American Gods and the spin-off Anansi Boys.

Before I get into the novels, I should offer a brief note about the edition I’m reading from. In 2011, Barnes and Noble reprinted a number of important works with exquisite binding. This particular edition is leather-bound with an embossed cover. It even features a ribbon bookmark. After I finished reading the book, I found the spine as straight as the day I brought it home from the bookstore. If you’re interested in reading Gaiman, track down this edition.

Okay, enough gushing over the binding. On to the novels …

American Gods

The cover of Neil Gaiman's American Gods

First Edition Cover

Shadow is a tough prisoner who has spent his jail-time avoiding attention and practicing coin-tricks. As you might expect in a book called American Gods, his life gets caught up with all sorts of deities beginning with Mr. Wednesday. (Read this book if you can’t figured out who he is!)

In Gaiman’s world, when a person immigrates to America, they bring their deities with them. The US is littered with old-world gods from every tradition who fight for position with new upstart American gods like Technical Boy and Media.

The idea behind this story is brilliant—lifted and tweaked (admittedly) from Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories. It provides a fertile landscape for the sort of fantastic mystery story-telling Gaiman excels at. There’s no question why this book is still being reprinted.

Anansi Boys

The cover of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys

First Edition Cover

Mr. Nancy, one of the deities from American Gods, is the protagonist of this spin-off novel. Or, to be precise, his “boys” are. Anansi is a West African Trickster god who frequently takes the form of a spider. He has a number of stories associated with his name.

Anansi crossed the ocean in the devotion of slaves on trade ships to Haiti. From there it was a quick jump to America where he found himself a home in Florida.

Since these two novels are published under one cover, it only seems fitting to compare them. Anansi Boys is shorter and nowhere near as epic in scope as American Gods. Don’t misread that as criticism, though. Anansi Boys is a different type of novel with a stronger sense of humor.

There’s a rumour going around that Gaiman is writing a full-fledged sequel to American Gods.  I’ll be the first in line.

The Dragon in the Sword | Michael Moorcock

The Dragon in the Sword is the final volume in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion trilogy (Book 1: The Eternal Champion; Book 2: Phoenix in Obsidian). It’s interesting to consider the distance between the books. The first two volumes were both published in 1970 with 159 and 127 pages respectively. This third book was released 17 years later and weighs in at 283 pages. The higher page-count is welcome! Moorcock’s writing is more refined and the metaphysical questions which took a backseat in the first book have become as exciting as the mere action of book 1.

Like the earlier books, the eternal champion is called from his life to once again serve fate in another part of the multiverse. This time, however, he begins his new life by encountering a person from his original time-frame: our 20th century. Ulrich von Bek is a Christian who attempted to kill Hitler and escaped the Gestapo by entering this area of the multiverse known as the Middle Marches. Obviously, Bonhoeffer comes to mind when you hear this sort of back-story. The similarities end there.

At first, I thought the glorification of violence which overwhelmed the first book would take a back seat to questions about the nature of evil. While this was certainly explored, in the end, the violence was merely shifted to a more abstract realm (you’ll have to read the book to understand this sentence—I don’t want to give away the plot).

The plot moves quickly and the characters are exciting. These three books have served their purpose as a good introduction to the prodigious works of Michael Moorcock.

Phoenix in Obsidian | Michael Moorcock

Second volumes rarely live up to the first. Setting aside some obvious exceptions (like The Empire Strikes Back), you expect sophomore efforts to lack the originality of the first. In the first volume you build the world, in the second volume you work within it.

Fortunately, Phoenix in Obsidian bucks this trend. This second book in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series feels like a new start. While the characters still feel unidimensional, the world they inhabit is fleshed out in intriguing detail. Where the first volume focused on hack-and-slash style action, the second book is more of a metaphysical mystery.

After finishing this volume, I quickly found a second-hand copy of the third book in the series and ordered it online. Now I need to see how John Decker’s story arc ends!

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