Tag Archives | fantasy

The Vorrh | B. Catling

The cover of Catling's The VorrhIn the heart of Africa lies the Vorrh, a primal forest from which the world was created. The Vorrh is not a place to be wandered into lightly—it changes people, erasing memories.

The Vorrh appealed to me because the premise echoed Vandermeer’s gripping Southern Reach Trilogy. Furthermore, Vandermeer’s blurb on the back cover said The Vorrh “is unlike anything I’ve read.” I had to find out for myself.

B. Catling, a poet, sculptor, painter, and performance artist turned novelist, has created a compelling surrealist fantasy. It’s a world where an orphan cyclops raised by robots lives alongside historical figures like experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge and French author Raymond Roussel. At times it reminded me of some of Michael Ende’s Mirror Within the Mirror stories.

Speaking of Muybridge leads me to my only criticism of the book. Some of the plot threads refuse to coalesce. I finished the book thinking that Muybridge’s narrative could have been a separate novel without effecting the primary narrative of The Vorrh. I have read that in his sequel, The Erstwhile, Catling has tightened his storytelling. I can hardly wait dive back into Catling’s vision.


Catling, B. The Vorrh. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.

The Magician’s Land | Lev Grossman

The cover of Grossman's The Magician's LandIt’s time to return to Brakebills, to Fillory, to the world of Quentin Coldwater.

When we left Quentin at the end of The Magician King, he was banished from his beloved land. We meet him in The Magician’s Land walking into an under-average looking bookstore on earth trying to figure out how to live a meaningful life.

A meaningful life is the underlying theme of the Magician Trilogy. In each volume we see Quentin transform from a self-centered angst-ridden prodigy to something deeper. The Magician’s Land finishes this transformation in fantastic style. Grossman pulls together a number of old plot threads into a completely satisfying concluding volume.

The Magician’s Trilogy ranks among the finest Fantasy literature around. I’m proud to shelve these volumes beside Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, and of course, C. S. Lewis.

—Lev Grossman, The Magician’s Land (New York: Plume, 2014).

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 Valley of Spiders | H. G. Wells

The cover of Wells' The Valley of SpidersWhile in high school I found second hand copies of H. G. Wells’ classic works: The Invisible ManThe Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine. I was completely entranced. Wells’ writing is so matter-of-fact, it sounds convincing. I can understand why people panicked when The War of the Worlds was dramatized on radio!

The short stories collected in The Valley of Spiders have that same convincing quality, but lack the imagination of his major works. Of the 13 stories, only two stood out:

  1. “The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham” is a disturbing tale of waking up in someone else’s skin. Wells conveys the horror of coming to grasp just what has happened brilliantly.
  2. “The Door in the Wall” mixes childhood memory and adult disillusionment in one unforgettable package.

Besides these two shining lights, the collection falls flat.

—H. G. Wells, The Valley of Spiders (London, Great Britain: Fontana, 1964).

Gardens of the Moon | Steven Erikson

I’ve often flipped through Erikson’s books while browsing the fantasy section at my local bookstore. This month I took the plunge and started book 1 of 10 core novels in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

The Malazan idea was birthed when Erikson and I. C. Esslemont (who is publishing a five book series set in the same world) developed the world for role-playing games. Through many twists and turns, that world became the publishing juggernaut that is Malazan.

The first book of the series is both praised and criticized for the same thing: it’s incredibly involved. The new reader has to try to understand a host of characters from human to ancient to divine. Add to this the complex military history of the world, it’s mythical origins, and a bewildering magic system and your brain can start to spin.

I found the whole thing mentally invigorating.

Armed with warnings of the books thorniness, I read it at a reasonable pace while paying attention to the various characters. The depth of realization gives the book life that make other epic fantasy series feel flat.

I’m told that the next two books in the series give clarity to many elements of this first book. I can hardly wait.

The Empire of the Ants | H. G. Wells

In high school I became infatuated with the fathers of science fiction: Jules Verne & H. G. Wells. After having read many of his famous works (The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Time Machine to name a few), it was a pleasure to find a slim collection of his short stories.

This Scholastic Publication contains five stories:

  1. The Empire of the Ants (1905)
  2. The Country of the Blind (1904)
  3. The Crystal Egg (1897)
  4. The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1898)
  5. The Magic Shop (1903)

Two of the stories really stand out. “The Country of the Blind” explores the old proverb, “In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King”. The unconventional twist (although not entirely unexpected) fires the reader’s imagination. “The Crystal Egg” reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ unfinished The Dark Tower. Come to think of it, the idea of a crystal orb granting vision resonates with Stephen King’s Dark Tower books as well.

Unfortunately, the rest of the stories are at or below average. They might have been titillating in an age where science fiction was novel but they don’t stand up as well today. Unless you’re an H. G. Wells completist, stick to his major works of science fiction.

The Wise Woman and Other Fantasy Stories | George MacDonald

What comes to mind when you think of fairy tales? Children’s stories? One-dimensional fables? Moralistic illustrations? George MacDonald mastered and elevated the genre of “fairy tale” to something greater.

The Wise Woman and Other Fantasy Stories is one of four books published by Eerdmans in 1980 that collect MacDonald’s shorter fantasy tales. This volume includes:

  • “The Wise Woman” (1874, from Good Things)
  • “Little Daylight” (1871, from Works of Fancy and Imagination)
  • “Cross Purposes” (1867, from Dealings with Fairies)
  • “The Castle: A Parable” (1864, from Adela Cathcart)

While each of these stories have merit, “The Wise Woman” stands above the rest. On one level, it’s a simple story about how parents should bring up their children. Look a little deeper and you can see MacDonald’s theology in the Wise Woman Christ-Figure. Her presence and absence in the lives of the children she’s helping beautifully reflect the Christian’s experience of God.

“The Castle” is another story that lays bare MacDonald’s theology. The parable is a clear allegory of the Christian life, where the elder brother is the only one among the family who adequately conveys the desires of the absent father. The way the siblings turn their lives around after the moment of crisis is pure inspiration.

These fairy tales deserve to be read by Christians of any age.

A Dark Matter | Peter Straub

I was introduced to Straub through his work with King on the Talisman and Dark House books. Given their tie to the Dark Tower books, his ability to write about two overlapping worlds (and more) became obvious. In A Dark Matter he’s right back in this element, describing an overlapping world beyond ours with disturbing clarity.

He does take a long time to get to the point of this story, but there is some gifted writing to enjoy en route. He uses multiple viewpoints to continually shed new light on the mystery at the core of the story. The character who spoke primarily in quotations from other literature was entertaining as well.

The highlight of this book occurs (not unsurprisingly) near the end as the narrative approaches its climax. Straub has a gift for using adjectives you wouldn’t expect to make surreal scenes absolutely vivid in your imagination.

A Dark Matter isn’t an instant-payoff novel—it’s like an album you grow to love the longer you listen to it.

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