Category Archives: Book Reviews: Fantasy

Love and comfort in fantasy, or why George R. R. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien

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I totally stole this image. I honestly have no idea where it originated, but I really like it. So many, many props to some unknown but sincerely appreciated artist.

First, I am really enjoying HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I was enjoying the books, immensely, until I realized I was forgetting so much between volumes that it just made more sense to wait until the entire series is finished to dive into them again. My “to be read” stacks are perilously high, and having to re-read an entire series of not exactly concise tomes every time a new volume is released takes a lot of all-too-scarce reading time away from other books, any one of which might become a new and beloved favorite.

Overall, though, I’m a fan. I mention that because what follows might be perceived as throwing shade on Mr. Martin’s books, or on HBO’s adaptations, and I don’t mean it that way. This is, in fact, not a review at all. It’s just a series of thoughts that occurred to me about my own writing, specifically in my Widening Gyre series, as I was watching the most recent episode of A Game of Thrones on HBO.

Sure, Professor Tolkien’s and Mr. Martin’s books have a lot in common … on the surface.

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Also, both Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin introduce heroes of smaller stature. I stole this image, too, by the way.

I often hear Mr. Martin called “The American Tolkien.” I can see why people say that. (Was Lev Grossman the first?) Both write (or wrote) extremely complex fantasy novels, both have very passionate fan bases (with a great deal of overlap), both have created British Isles-inspired worlds rich with invented history and languages, and, well, both authors have the initials “R. R.” in their names.

But honestly, I think the resemblance ends there. The similarities are superficial at best.

Mr. Martin’s books are grounded in, well, the rather unpleasant realities of a world at war. Mr. Martin has made no secret of the fact that his books are inspired by true history, most notably the War of the Roses. When his books are brutal, it’s because, well, history was brutal. In fact, Mr. Martin has criticized Professor Tolkien, pointing out that his wars aren’t like the wars of history (they certainly aren’t), and even pointing out that The Lord of the Rings never bothers to address Aragorn’s tax policy. (For more, read this article and this one.)

To be fair, I think Mr. Martin’s complaints have more to do with how Professor Tolkien has become a template for lesser writers than with any real issue with The Lord of the Rings, but I think the point is an interesting one.

You see, Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin are writing books in the same genre only to the extent that it makes it easier for bookstores to know where to shelve them. Mr. Martin writes grounded, historically-based fantasy that appeal largely (I think) because they are so grimly real. The famous shocks and twists come from the harsh brutality of a world at war. Even the famous Red Wedding is based on two different historical events. (For more information, read here and here.) To a large (and often uncomfortable) degree, Mr. Martin is writing history, with a few ice zombies and dragons tossed in.

Professor Tolkien, on the other hand, is writing myth.

In his book The Inklings, biographer Humphrey Carpenter recounts a significant and now famous conversation between Tolkien and a then-atheist C.S. Lewis. The two were walking among the colleges in Oxford on a September evening in 1931. Lewis had never underestimated the power of myth. One of his earliest loves had been the Norse myth of Balder, the dying god. All the same, Lewis did not in any way believe in the myths that so thrilled him. As he told Tolkien, “myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though (they are) breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” 

Tolkien went on to explain that early man, the creators of the great myth cycles, saw the world very differently. To them “the whole of creation was myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Tolkien went on to argue that man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his ideas into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideas. Therefore, Tolkien argued, not only man’s abstract thoughts, but also his imaginative inventions, must in some way originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth.

When creating a myth, a storyteller is engaging in what Tolkien called mythopoeia (myth-oh-pay-uh). Through the act of peopling an imaginary world with bright heroes and terrible monsters, the storyteller is in a way reflecting God’s own act of creation. Human beings are, according to Tolkien, expressing fragments of eternal truth. Tolkien believed that the poet or storyteller is, then, a sub-creator “capturing in myth reflections of what God creates using real men and actual history.” A storyteller, Tolkien believed, is actually fulfilling Divine purpose, because the story always contains something of a deeper truth. Myth is filtered through the artist’s culture, experiences, and talents, but it is drawn from a deeper well.

By Tolkien’s argument, all myth is a response, a reaction to the force of creation occurring all around us. Granted, this calls for a slightly different definition of myth — and ignores the perhaps (probably) different intentions of the storytellers — which, of course, we can never know in any case. But a story can be myth, Tolkien would argue. Indeed, it could scarcely be anything else, because any act of creation is a reaction to the call of the Divine. Tolkien and the Inklings were responding to the same “shout” that the creators of myth have been responding to throughout the ages — the utter magnificence of a beautiful, dangerous, and impossible universe.

I’ve written more on that topic here (in fact, I stole the preceding five paragraphs from myself).

I bring that up because I can’t help thinking that anyone who reads The Lord of the Rings and comes away asking about Aragorn’s tax policy has completely missed the point. (Although again, I think Mr. Martin is actually ranting against the clichés that sprung up from Professor Tolkien’s imitators, rather than the books themselves. The Lord of the Rings was groundbreaking … but I certainly can’t blame Mr. Martin for wanting to break the template. In fact, I applaud him.)

The twin ideas of mythopoeia and eucatastrophe are at the heart of Professor Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the deeply mythic concept of eucatastrophe, a sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the hero does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom, is antithetical to the core of Mr. Martin’s work.

Professor Tolkien formed the word eucatastrophe by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. For Tolkien, the term had a thematic meaning that went beyond its literal etymological meaning. It was at the very core of Christianity and his love of myth and art. It was a part of his very DNA.

Eucatastrophe is the blessed conclusion we all crave; it’s something we long for deeply in the heart — a time when wounds are healed, the broken are mended, and rights are made wrong. That longing, I think, is key.

In that sense, Mr. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are polar opposites, matter and antimatter.

Let me ask you this. Would you really want to visit Westeros?

There’s quite a few variations of this meme floating around on Facebook and Twitter:

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There’s something in the mythopoeic works of Tolkien and Lewis that calls to that deep longing within us. There’s a part of us, somehow, that knows that the fantasy landscapes are a metaphor for something beyond, something more than the fields we know. It makes us feel almost homesick for a place we’ve never been.

I image that most of Mr. Martin’s fans can relate to the Hunger Games fans. A visit to the world of A Game of Thrones is … well, less appealing.

(Although I think there’s another blog to be written about the appeal of The Hunger Games. Stay tuned.)

This idea struck me when I was watching the most recent episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones with my wife, Carol. The episode happened to feature two absolutely stunning shots of the castle Riverrun. Carol and I turned to each other with wide eyes and just said, “wow.” The shots were lovely. It was, in fact, the first time I can remember that a location in A Game of Thrones had made us want to visit that place. The fact that there was a siege going on quickly damped our enthusiasm, but still, I was struck with the idea that A Game of Thrones is almost utterly devoid of any kind of wish fulfillment, key elements of fantasies like the Harry Potter series or, say, Star Wars.

It made me wonder if anyone would want to visit the locations in my books, or spend time with my characters. I hope so. I really do. At very least, I hope readers would long to visit the Renaissance festival in Blackthorne Faire, or the Commonwealth pub in The Widening Gyre. I try to ground things, solidly — a lesson I’ve learned from Mr. Martin — but mythopoeia and the longing for eucatastrophe are in my DNA, too.

Another thought struck me soon after.

Both the television and the novel versions of A Game of Thrones are short on love. I don’t (necessarily) mean romantic love, but love. Love of family, love of place, love of friends, love of partner. When love is there, it’s usually broken in some way … think of the late King Robert’s lost love for Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna. Think of Jamie and Ceresi Lannister (but not too much, because ewwww). Think of Tyrion’s love for his prostitute, Shae. Perhaps the purest love in the story is that of Ned Stark’s family, and look how that turned out.

By contrast, The Lord of the Rings is bursting with love, even though it is (almost) completely devoid of romantic love. There are certainly deep and loving friendships — Merry and Pippin for Frodo, Sam and Frodo, Gandalf and Bilbo, Gimli and Legolas. There is also a deep love of place … think of Frodo’s love for the Shire, all the walks he takes. Think how heartbreaking it is when Frodo’s ultimate sacrifice isn’t his life, but rather the life he has known and loved in the Shire. When he returns, his battles won, the Shire is lost to him, but not his love for it.

Indeed, the whole story turns on the role of Providence, the divine love that leads to eucatastrophe, that dearest of all loves.

The Narnia stories, too, are rich with love. So are the Harry Potter stories. They shine with love and grace.

Last — and this is something that the films missed for the most part — The Lord of the Rings, the novel, holds precious moments of comfort, even in the midst of terrible war and danger. There’s Bag End of course (who wouldn’t want to visit Bag End?) — which, to be fair, the films absolutely nailed. But Bree, a port of (at least temporary) safety in the books, is a frightening place in the films. Ditto Lóthlorien, that precious place of unfallen paradise. Gone utterly are Tom Bombadil’s house and Crickhollow.

The dear and comfortable places make Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth come to life. It makes us long to visit, just as (for example) Cair Paravel and Beaver’s Dam make us want to visit Narnia, and Hogwarts makes us long for an owl-delivered letter.

For the most part, the Lord of the Rings films miss these moments of comfort, and the moments of the numinous. I think that’s why they’re less likely endure the test of time, as the books certainly have.

These moments are, at best, rare in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mr. Martin seems to be crafting more of a puzzle box, closer to, say, Lost than to The Lord of the Rings. When was the last time you heard someone talking about Lost? (To be fair, I expect a much stronger resolution to A Song of Ice and Fire.)

I wonder … when the last shock has shocked and the last twist has been revealed in all its gory glory, will we still turn to A Song of Ice and Fire?

Probably. I certainly think so. I think Mr. Martin’s achievement is a remarkable one that will continue to find new readers for generations. I hope writers will learn the right lessons from it … break the templates, don’t just imitate the new ones.

I think A Song of Ice and Fire will gain as many new readers as The Lord of the Rings does. When all the mysteries are unfolded, and there’s no need to go back and scour the text for clues, I wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire will have as many re-readers? I don’t think so.

I wonder, too, if A Song of Ice and Fire will inspire the same enduring love, and longing, that The Lord of the Rings kindles. Time will tell.

In the meantime, both have lessons to teach writers like me. I’ll ground my fantasies. I might even think about the tax policies of my own (metaphorical) Aragorns. But I’ll always season my stories with love, place, and comfort, even in the moments of darkness.

Mr. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien. He’s the American Martin. That’s more than good enough.

Book Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

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Read City of Dark Magic: A Novel

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

If I didn’t travel, I probably wouldn’t have discovered City of Dark Magic, a lovely little gem of a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box, or rather it seems to fit into several of them at once. It’s part historical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part spy novel, and part, jeez, contemporary fantasy or magic realism, I guess, all wrapped up in a candy shell of romanic comedy. Unfortunately, that makes it kind of to browse for in a bookstore. If I hadn’t noticed it in an airport newsstand, I surely would have missed it. That would have been a shame.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I'd love to visit. I'd glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I’d love to visit. I’d glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city steeped in legends of magic, a history of blood, and a legacy of secrets. It has been home to geniuses and eccentrics. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston discovers. Sarah has come to the Prague Castle for the summer with a team of colorful academics to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. There, she finds clues that might finally unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s famous immortal beloved. What follows is a tale of mystery, politics, furtive sex, music, alchemy, murder, a time traveling prince, a centuries-old dwarf, and even a portal to hell or two. Yes, and its a romantic comedy. This isn’t a book that follows genre conventions, it lays them out like toys and plays with them.

Sarah is a delightful character to spend time with, and the Prague created in these pages is one I’d love to visit. Even minor characters are vivid and often fascinating. The mystery is intriguing, the danger feels real and immediate, and the comedy is wicked and delicious. The plot twists in the most delightfully labyrinthine manner.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are flaws; for example: the enigmatic prince’s secret, which drives much of the plot, is revealed in an off-hand way that does more to set up a sequel than to resolve tension. Sarah and the novel’s primary villain, an ambitious politician with a shadowy past, never spend much time together. None of the flaws diminish the absolute fun of City of Dark Magic. It’s smart, exciting, sexy, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you like a little dark mystery, magic, and romantic adventure (spiced liberally with cleverness and loads of charm) in your summer read, this is the book for you.

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Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery

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One of the most iconic images in all of fantasy literature: The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.

If you read Part One of this series, you already know that some partners and I are starting a new publishing company, ePic Adventures, Inc. As I mentioned, we’ll be doing print books, both hardcover and paperback, but our emphasis is on eBooks designed to stretch the capabilities of smartphone and tablets and redefine what an eBook can be in the age of transmedia. Again, think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

As we build the ePic Books brand, we’re focusing on a single genre (or range of subgenres, I guess), at least for the first year or two: fantasy. A part of our strategy involves looking for certain elements that the very best and most successful fantasies share in common. When I say “most successful,” I’m talking about the classics of the genre, the most beloved and enduring works that stand out, across years and even generations. These are the works that shine above the rest, when as works of equal, or arguably even greater, quality dim into obscurity.

One of those elements that most enduring and successful works seem to share, Iconic Imagery, is very closely related to the Iconic Locations detailed in Part One. If you haven’t read it, skip back. It’s okay. we’ll wait.

Back? Okay then.

Absolutely iconic.

Star Trek is a terrific source of iconic images: the famous badge, the bridge of the Enterprise (always recognizable, generation after generation), tribbles, and, of course, Spock’s ears and Vulcan salute. Bladerunner? Don’t even get me started.

Speaking of the bridge of the Enterprise, how is an iconic image different from an iconic location? I admit the line is thin. In fact, at least three of the examples I mentioned in Part One, the Lamppost in Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, and the Death Star from Star Wars, might better be called iconic images rather than locations. The lamppost especially … our first view of it includes two characters, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus with his umbrella and bundles; the characters are as much a part of that scene as the lamppost and the snow-covered trees. So whether you consider it a location or an image, the point remains; it’s iconic and unforgettable. You want images like that in your story … assuming that you are striving for one of those enduring, unforgettable classics. And if you aren’t, seriously, why the hell not?

I should also point out that iconic images, at least as I’m thinking of them, aren’t always exclusively visual (which makes me think I have likely picked the wrong word, but there you are). Consider the Lightsabers in Star Wars. Those glowing laser swords are unforgettable—and are even, I think, a part of why the first film was so astonishing successful. But as iconic as that image is, most of us, I am willing to wager, can recognize a lightsaber even without the visual. The sound, that unmistakable hum, is as much as part of the integral lightsaber-ness as the visual design. If someone plays you a clip of a light saber activating or deactivating, you’ll know it at once. Go head, give it a try.

Star Wars is another gold mine for iconic images: The Millennium Falcon, the X-wing, Yoda, Wookies, the creatures in the cantina, Princess Leia’s hair buns, R2 and 3PO…. In fact, that’s one of the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy is chock full of iconic images. The prequels have far more incredible and imaginative designs. But how many stand out? How many are memorable? Of those, how many didn’t appear in the original trilogy first? Off hand, Darth Maul’s character design is about all I can come up with. Could you sketch him? Or even describe him in a sentence?

Tolkien’s ring is one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy. So are his hobbits, with their pipes, their small stature, and, of course, the furry feet. What would the Harry Potter books be without, say, the wands or the moving paintings? I can honestly say that I remember more about the visuals of The Wind in the Willows, from the characters to the locations, than I can about the story itself (which means it’s probably time to revisit it).

Captain Hook’s hook is an iconic image that helps define him as a character. without it, he’s a generic pirate.

Personally, I think the best and strongest iconic images are related closely to a character if only because they have the effect of making that character iconic almost by consequence, although of course the image alone won’t do that. But at a glance, they give the character a very specific look, and they tell us a little something about the character. More, the character just won’t be the same without it, like the Dread Pirate Roberts without his black shirt and mask.

Some examples? Remember how Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and cape stands out from that sea of white-armored Stormtroopers the first time we see him in Star Wars. Think of Indiana Jones with his jacket, whip, and hat. He’s still Indy without them, of course. He’s wearing a white dinner jacket in the opening scenes of The Temple of Doom. But when I saw the film on opening night, the first real spontaneous round of applause from the audience came when Indy pulled on his familiar “uniform” on that little plane.

If you see a poster—or read a description—of a muscled man wearing a loincloth in the jungle, chances are you’ll assume it’s Tarzan. If you see a stern male figure smoking a large pipe and wearing a deerstalker, you’re probably not thinking Nero Wolfe or James Bond. When you see a man on a white horse wearing a white hat and a mask, you won’t have to ask, at least not with a straight face, who was that masked man? It’s the Lone Ranger.

Bob Kane’s original concept for The Batman, before Bill Finger suggested the dark knight we know today.

The colorful uniform made Superman stand out from his pulp-era forefathers like Doc Savage and The Shadow, themselves iconic. When Bob Kane created Batman, he originally envisioned a bright red body suit, bat wings, and a domino mask. Bill Finger contributed a different look … the brooding cape and cowl. Would Batman have worked either way? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Granted, iconic imagery is a pretty shallow way to define a character, and it takes far more than a distinctive look to make a character truly classic. The icons help us recognize a character at a glance (Harry Potter’s glasses and scar); they don’t make us care. It’s at best just one layer, the surface one, but it’s a good place to start.

Iconic images present a challenge to the writer. It easy to show an iconic image in, say, a film or a comic. On the page? Not so much. I include the screenplay page here, too. Strong visuals help a film sell. Regardless of the medium, iconic images have to be described in sufficient detail that we can see it, sure, but the best resonate through the other senses as well. When you’re reading or writing, think of sound (remember the lightsabers), smell, and weight. The icons have to be real. In this case, the written word has an advantage. You can’t smell a film, but a writer can make a scent real. For better or for worse. A film can show us a magic sword, but the written word can show us what it feels like to hold that power pulsing through the palms of your hands.

They present challenges, but they have advantages. They make your character (or prop, or location, or vehicle, or…) a part of the collective zeitgeist. Just about any man, woman, or child can recognize Superman or Mickey Mouse at a glance. Most of them can recognize Harry Potter, Spider-man, or a lightsaber. If you want to have your work adapted for the screen, or illustrated, iconic images give the interpreters a strong foundation from which to start.

And finally (this may sound a little crass), iconic images are merchandisable. You can make toys, t-shirts, costumes, posters, mugs, trashcans, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Just look at what Patrick Rothfuss has been able to do. That’s a way to keep people talking about, and promoting, your work. And it’s a pretty good way to make it attractive to studios and publishers. And it’s certainly something that’s on our checklist at ePic.

Any thoughts, writers and readers of the world?

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Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part One: Iconic Locations

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When asked to picture Narnia, you probably think of something rather like this, don’t you?

If asked to close one’s eyes and picture Narnia, I am willing to bet that just about everyone will picture a snow-covered wood surrounding a clearing where a lamppost sheds a soft, golden light … just beyond a wardrobe door. Something about that image, that specific location, is iconic. It’s a strong, concrete, visual image. It’s something we almost can’t help responding to, almost like it, that one place, was a character in a story. When we revisit, years later, it’s like meeting an old friend.

As many of you know, some partners and I are starting a new publishing venture, ePic Adventures, Inc. We’ll be doing print books, sure, but our emphasis is on eBooks. Magical eBooks. Think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

In short, ePic Books present a platform that stretches the idea of what an eBook can be. The original idea was to focus on a narrow selection of genres — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, paranormal romance, and young adult. Our investors and advisors talked me out of that. So we’re focusing on fantasy, at least for the first year or two, and expanding once we’ve built our brand.

Quick, what’s this? Once answer: it’s utterly iconic.

That still doesn’t narrow things down a whole lot. So we have developed a sort of checklist of things we’re looking for. Some of them have to do with the medium … books we we purchase (yes, we’ll be paying advances and royalties) have to have elements that fit the technology we’re developing. That’s obvious enough.

And, of course, we’re looking for the usual: strong characters, excellent writing, surprises, unique ideas, well-structured stories. all that stuff. I would have mentioned that first, since ultimately those are most important. But they are kind of obvious, and most publishers, even small ones, have literally hundreds of manuscripts that meet those criteria on their desks at any one time.

Beyond that, we took a heuristic look at story, trying to identify elements that the truly successful works in the genre, regardless of medium, share in common. That’s not to say that we’re trying to be formulaic. Far from it. But certain elements are at the heart of successful stories, especially in the fantasy genre. There are things many share in common. Those are the elements we’ll be looking for next year.

The first? Iconic locations. Think of some of the most beloved and successful fantasy works. Almost without exception, they feature absolutely forgettable locations: places that everyone who has ever experienced the work can describe in a minute. Think of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory or the cantina in Star Wars. In the Harry Potter books, Hogwarts is almost as much a star as Harry himself, and it stands out in a series that is absolutely packed with iconic locations.

In fact, I am at a loss to think of a truly successful fantasy that has endured the test of time that doesn’t include at least one absolutely iconic location. The Wizard of Oz? Think of that first color shot Munchkin Land, or the Emerald City, or even the Yellow Brick Road. Field of Dreams? The baseball field in the cornfield. The Name of the Wind? The University, of course, and its library in particular. A Song of Ice and Fire? I think the Wall is likely the best example.

If you’ve read the works of Charles de Lint, think of his Tamson House or his city of Newford. Speaking of cities, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be an exception, although you can argue (convincingly, I think) that the snow-covered London is as much a part of the story as Scrooge and the ghosts.

Now, picture scenes from the best of the Disney animated films. They are rife with iconic locations, from the cottage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the castle, the pub, and the lonely tower in Tangled. Picture Pleasure Island or the Fairies’ House from Sleeping Beauty. Chances are, if you’ve seen any of those films, those places are locked away somewhere in the attics of your brain. They are beautifully realized.

Professor Tolkien’s Bag End, one of the most iconic fantasy locations of all.

Or maybe the most perfect example of all: Bag End in Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Tolkien even begins with a description if Bag End in The Hobbit … it is described in loving detail long before we learn one single fact about the main character (aside from the fact that he lives there, which now that I mention it does tell the reader rather a lot about Bilbo Baggins) or the story. We know about that hole in the ground long before we learn of wizards, dwarves, or dragons.

Of course, Professor Tolkien’s works are full of iconic locations, and many of them are places you long to visit. LothLorien. Rivendell. The Lonely Mountain. Beorn’s House. The Prancing Pony in Bree. Minas Tirith. Mirkwood. Gollum’s cave.

Gormenghast. Amber. The Swiss Family Robinson’s treehouse. Dune. Treasure Island. 221 B Baker Street (although as with Mr Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle’s London might be a better example). The Hundred Acre Wood. Ray Bradbury’s Greentown or Mars. Barsoom. Callahan’s. Neverland. Prydain. The Commonwealth (yes, the whole damn thing) from Silverlock. The Batcave. The starship Enterprise. Even the secret junkyard headquarters in the Three Investigators books.

Mentioning the Three Investigators may be a cheat, since they are mystery rather than fantasy, but looking back at my love of reading, I honestly think it begins with my longing to visit that secret headquarters (through Tunnel Two, naturally) or Charlie’s chocolate factory, that amazing creation of Mr. Wonka and Mr. Dahl. The place was a part of the appeal. If you’re lost in a story, isn’t one of the reasons that some part of you wishes, deeply in the heart, to visit those places you’re falling in love with?

I won’t say that is rule is universally true. But again, I am at a loss to think of an exception. I’m sure one will occur to me the instant I hit “publish,” but it’ll be the exception that proves the rule. I am also not saying it’s the only element that makes these stories work, or even that it’s the most important one. (We have a whole list of key elements that I’ll be talking about on this blog over the next few weeks.)

So what makes an image iconic? Four things, I think.

First, an iconic location is utterly unforgettable. Once seen, it lingers.

Two, it’s distinctive. If you’ve experienced the story, you should be able to name the location at a glance or describe it in a sentence or three. It must be utterly unmistakable. There’s no confusing Bag End or the Emerald City. Both were described perfectly, and later realized brilliantly on screen. Ideally, one should be able to sketch it (although you’d need a green crayon for the Emerald City).

Third, it’s an integral part of the story. After all, where would the Arthurian legends be without Camelot? One of the reasons the ending of The Lord of the Rings (the real one, not the awful movie ending) works so well is because we’ve come to share the characters’ love of the Shire.

What makes a location iconic? A good map never hurts.

Finally, and most importantly, an iconic location inspires emotional response independent of the audience’s response to the character or story. Iconic locations evoke strong emotions … usually wistful longing (who doesn’t want to visit Bag End or the Beaver’s Dam for Tea?) or dread. The Death Star and Orthanc are both unforgettable and utterly unmistakable, but really, who wants to hang out there?

By the way, my friend Angela Still has pointed out that iconic locations are also a key part of gothic literature, too. I think more than a few of these key elements are also important in other genres, too. I should also point out that iconic locations are very close to, but not quite the same as, the next criteria on the list: iconic images. But I’ll talk about that next week.

So what do you think? Are iconic locations a part of what you respond to? If you are a creator, how important are iconic locations to your story? I’d really love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

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Book Review: “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

Read The Magician King: A Novel by Lev Grossman

I don’t usually review sequels. That’s not a bias, mind. I have nothing against sequels, especially when they continue a story I enjoyed. There are exceptions, of course. I reviewed the brilliant The Angel’s Game, for example. Although that doesn’t really count; it’s not so much a sequel as a related novel set in the same basic milleu. Besides, it really is a special read. I reviewed Robert V. S. Redick’s The Ruling Sea, the second in a series. I didn’t review the third book, despite the fact that I rather liked it—mostly because readers of the first two were already likely to pick it up, and those who haven’t aren’t going to want to start in the middle. As with most sequels, generally speaking, I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t already said about the first book. (If you haven’t read Redick’s series, it’s worth checking out. It’s a light, fast-paced, fun read with characters that remind me of those created by the late, great Lloyd Alexander. But I digress.)

If you read my review of Lev Grossman’s previous novel, The Magicians, you’ll recall that (spoiler alert!) I liked it a great deal. On the surface, it’s a sort of Narnia/Harry Potter book for adults, with familiar archetypes viewed through the lens of modern literary fiction, with all of the cynical irony you’d expect in the post Bright Lights, Big City era. But it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s a powerful and moving novel about what happens when wishes come true, about power, about love, yes, and even about responsibility. It’s also a heck of a fun read, albeit a heartbreaking one at times, one that my love of the source material (Narnia, Harry Potter, The Once and Future King, etc.) made especially poignant. It’s exciting, it’s funny, and, frankly, it’s darned insightful. I was excited to learn that a sequel was in the works.

I went to hear Mr. Grossman speak when his author tour brought him to Atlanta, and while I found his talk and reading delightful, I didn’t think The Magician King was a book I’d be reviewing. Largely because, when someone asked about a third book, Mr. Grossman joked about writing as many as his agent thought he could sell. Great, I thought. This isn’t a book. It’s an episode. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I've got to say, the Brits got a much cooler cover than we did here in America. Of course, you can't judge it that way.

While The Magician King assumes familiarity with the first book (although it does a fine job of reminding you of the hight points if it’s been a while since you read it), this is a sequel with it’s own beginning, middle, and very definite end. It’s not a product. It’s a novel. And darned if it’s not an out an out better book.

More, Quentin Coldwater (how great is that name?), the main character, grows and changes in this book. Sure, he’s (at times) the same whiny git he was in The Magicians, and you’ll want to slap him more than once. But there’s something in him that longs for more, and that something makes us long right along with him. If the first book was (at least ostensibly) about Quentin becoming a Magician, learning to harness, if not live up to, the power within, the sequel is about Quentin learning what it means to be a hero.

The first book had nods to all sorts of fantasy classics, and the sequel has them, too, with all sorts of delicious Easter eggs for fans of the genre (from the obvious—a winking reference to mischief managed—to the almost achanely obscure—Free Trader Beowulf). The structure of the main story is drawn primarily from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of my favorite of the Narnia tales, but The Magician King is far more than a mere homage or pastiche.

There’s a parallel story as well, one that shows us what happened to another character, Quentin’s friend Julia, while he was away at the Brakebills college of magic in the first book. Her story is a harsher one than Quentin’s, and in some ways a more interesting one, but it provides a delicious counter melody. What Quentin was essentially given in The Magicians, Julia has to fight for. Hers is a gripping and, at times, even difficult story to read. If you’ve ever wondered about the characters left behind, the unchosen, so to speak—think of Dudley in the Harry Potter stories, or Susan in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle—Julia’s story will fascinate you. Julia is the one who wasn’t granted access to Brakebills, the one to whom magic is denied. But unlike cartoonish Dudley, Julia is a character of mighty intellect and grit. And also, alas, a toxic sadness. A sea of depression that seems sure to drown her. She pays a terrible price, but she gets what she wants. But in Grossman’s books, magic and irony come wrapped together, like a bitter center in a sweet chocolate.

The stories intertwine, and their parallel resolutions, which come with sacrifice (from both), reward (for one), and loss (for the other) are elegant and unexpected—although, in retrospect, inevitable. It’s got an ending that absolutely threw me for a loop, but by Heaven, Grossman earned it. As Quentin learns, the hero isn’t the one who gains the reward; the hero pays the price.

At the end of the story, Quentin is a man who has accomplished his quest and become a hero. But in many ways, both literal and metaphoric, he’s lost everything he holds dear. But oddly, he’s left in a good place, or as close to it as a flawed hero like Quentin might hope. There’s a sort of optimism wrapped in his too-familiar despair, a core of cheerful nihilism. A journey has ended, sure, with victory and heartbreak. But I for one can’t wait to see where the next one takes him. When the next book is released, I’ll be first in line.

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Book Review: Jo Walton’s amazing “Among Others”

Read Jo Walton’s Among Others

I readily confess: I am not above occasional flights of hyperbole. Nonetheless, I don’t think I am indulging in it even in the slightest when I say, Jo Walton’s lovely, startling Among Others is more than amazing. It’s a book that’s going to save someone’s life some day.

On the surface, Among Others sounds like a typical genre book. An almost too-smart, too-precocious, too-isolated teen girl, suffering the loss of her twin sister, must find the strength to confront her-own half-mad (at least) witch mother. That kind of synopsis is more than inadequate. It’s almost unspeakably unfair. It doesn’t scratch the surface of the subtle way the story is told, and how we’re not always sure what is literally “real,” and what is the product of a lonely girl’s desperate imagination. (The book provides clear answers, don’t worry, but it manages to do so without sacrificing any of its delicious ambiguity.) The writing is spare and lovely, and the story is certainly engaging. Although honestly, the story is almost incidental. Here, character is what matters. And the lead character, Morwenna Phelps is fascinating. And for, I think, more than a few of us, the bookish types, she’s a little too familiar.

Morwenna narrates her own story through a series of journal entries. Ostensibly, she’s telling us about her encounters with magic, here something more akin to the subtle marvels that Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez might describe, rather than the bombastic miracles that Harry Potter encounters. More importantly, she’s talking about growing up in a world (here, an English boarding school) that she is in but not a part of. With subtle and and times devastating cleverness, Jo Walton lets Morwenna show us the loneliness of growing up surrounded by others who simply can’t — or don’t care to — understand her, and so respond either by tormenting or simply ignoring her. It describes her escape into the world of books — mostly science fiction and fantasy — that provide her only real company, as well as (for better or worse) her framework for understanding the challenges and complexity of her world.

That latter part, the escaping into the beloved worlds of Tolkien, Zelazny, Heinlein, Silverberg, and the like, hit a little too close to home for me. Like Morwenna, I was a child of the late 70s, and those very same books were my own solace and escape. Morwenna’s reading list is my own biography. Now, I was one of the lucky ones. I found friends like Chris, Jay, Big Squat, Beth, Terri, Lashayne, Patty, Jim, Doug, DJ, Greg, Celine, Laura, Paul … and others that I’ll kick myself later for not mentioning … that pulled me out of my dusty covers and showed me the world of music, parties, March of Dimes Haunted Houses, theatre, baseball, astronomy, beer, and, yeah, girls. And even other authors (like Dickens and Bradbury … thanks one more time, dear Matt) that I hadn’t found on my own. You can’t, after all, live your life in the isolation of fiction. You learn its lessons, and then you have to live out here, Among Others. The others I found, they made it worth while. I’ll love them forever for that.

I know others that weren’t so blessed. For them, high school was four or five years of hell made remotely tolerable only by rare escapes into the fleeting heavens of Narnia, Middle-eath, and Amber. For them, I think, Among Others is going to read a little like a love note, one they might wish they could send back to the child they used to be, that says, things are going to get better. Really. You are going to meet people that are like you and who will understand you. You are going to meet people you will like, and who will like you back. You’ll even love some of them, and that love will prove stronger than years and miles. It’s worth the wait. I promise.

When a book can do that, it’s more than a book to read. It’s a book to cherish and share.

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Book Review: “The Magicians and Mrs. Quent” by Galen Beckett

Read The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

I was about halfway through reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent when I decided to pop online to check out the reviews. It’s a rather irritating habit (irritating to me; I can’t imagine that anyone else cares), but I like see if every one else agrees with my own assessment. The first review I read (I tried to find it again to link, but alas, it seems to have vanished) offered this critique: “nothing new.” For the record, that doesn’t seem to be the majority opinion, but frankly, I can’t say I disagree. None of the ingredients, or few of them, anyway, are what you’d call groundbreaking. But then, it’s not always the ingredients that make the stew; it’s how they’re mixed. Sure, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is pastiche. But it’s very good pastiche. Outstanding, even. My wife and I took turns reading it aloud to one another, and we had an absolute blast.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a fantasy set in an alternate world that has strong echos of an England that would be familiar to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In fact, the author’s voice is a deliberate pastiche of Jane Austen’s in the opening chapters, and of the Brontes and even Dickens in latter ones. The plot certainly carries with it echoes of Austen and the Brontes: comedy of manners, a strong emphasis on marriage proposals, a gothic country house where the brooding but romantic master hides a secret, falling ill in someone else’s house, the entailed house, and couples carefully (and at times sadly) avoiding the “inappropriate” marriage. Not to mention a Dickens-worthy subplot concerning a young man of good family fallen on hard times and working as a scrivener in a counting house to provide for his frail sister.

The echos extend beyond plot: Beckett does a terrific job of suggesting the wit, atmosphere, and mood of his sources without merely mimicking them. More, he does it without ever coming across as stilted, dated, or musty. He strikes a pace and tone that’s decidedly modern. More, he writes complex, fully-developed characters that are of their time and culture—his women, especially, are strong and determined even a restrictive age that Austen would recognize. They are not anachronistically feminist or democratic, for example. But they’re not pushovers, either. They are compelling. Nonetheless, the structure of their society places restrictions on men and women of all classes, although to the modern reader, at least, the plight of women and the poor are more likely to make us cringe. Women, for example, are not allowed to perform magic (a story reason is given, but it’s a spoiler so I’ll avoid talking about it) but the lively, intelligent, and charismatic young heroine, Ivy Lockwell, consoles herself with historical study, thereby placing herself in a position to become a hero.

The cosmology in Beckett's familiar yet strange world is not like ours, and signs in the sky auger a dark future, creeping inevitably closer—and possibly tying in with the madness of our heroine's magician father.

Beckett doesn’t shy away from the sex and class restrictions of a society that reflects the England of Austen and Dickens. Nor does he use the tropes of an alternate fantasy world to sidestep them. Instead, he uses them to build compelling characters and to tell a story that’s truly gripping. He doesn’t skimp on the world building, either. While Beckett’s in Invarel is a mirror of Austen-era London, it has a cosmology that is utterly unique, and a subtle, creeping mythology that as unique and delicious as anything in, say, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. His descriptions are vivid and lovely to read—especially his word-paintings of the shadowy underbelly of the Illusionists shows on mysterious Durrow Street, or the streets and alleys were dark-clad highway men prowl, or the taverns and coffee houses where students and intellectuals question authority in whispered tones.

I should say something about the story, although it’s not really one that lends itself to a paragraph. Our heroine, Ivy Lockwell, is the unmarried daughter of a family stricken with poverty after her magician father went mad. She meets the aristocratic Dashton Rafferdy (I would have called him dashing, but you knew that already, didn’t you?) and, despite obvious mutual attraction, can not pursue a relationship. Rafferdy, meanwhile, has strange and unsettling encounters with a gentleman magician. Ivy travels from her home to become a governess at the country estate of Heathcrest, a Bronte-analogue complete with a brooding and mysterious Rochester stand-in. Soon, Ivy discovers an ancient story wrapped in the dark mythology of a sinister wood, still working its will on the world. And I haven’t even mentioned all of the lead characters! Mysteries, romances, magic, illusions, cons, dark prophesies, and even revolutions abound—enough to keep you turning the pages long after bedtime.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is complex, but the pace is relentless, the story gripping, and the characters unforgettable. It’s a page turner with smarts and depth, and its a terrific, truly fun read. I hope you’ll give it a try.

One sequel, The House on Durrow Street, has already been published, and another is coming. I can’t wait.

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