Tag Archives: fiction

Did y’all know I have another blog, too?

Hey, did y’all know I have another blog, too? It’s about stories, writing, fantasy, mythology, and Renaissance festivals.

You can find it here: http://blackthornefaire.net

The most recent post is about Renaissance fairs, and the feeling of falling into a story. There’s a lot there about communities, too. I hope those of you who follow this blog will take a look at that one, too. I’d be grateful.

Thanks and huzzah!

IK

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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: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

Read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Wow, the last quarter of 2011 has been a grand one for books. Erin Morgenstern’s lovely and haunting The Night Circus continues a string of truly good reads that began with Among Others and The Magician King. It’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a while, and one I’ll alms certainly read again some day … something increasingly rare when my to-be-read stack reaches the ceiling. It’s certainly one I’ll be pushing on my friends and family. Lots of them, in fact. The Night Circus is a book that I can recommend to a wide swath of them, because it will appeal to a very broad range of tastes. It’s romantic, it’s mysterious, it’s evocative (certainly that!), it’s magical (oh yes), it’s lovely, and it’s (at times) heartbreaking. And it’s almost impossible to describe.

Celia and Marco are the young proteges of rival magicians that have been dueling for ages. They are meant to continue the struggle by playing a game they don’t really understand, for stakes they can barely imagine. The arena is the marvelous Le Cirque des Reves, The Circus of Dreams, a place that Celia calls “wonder and comfort and mystery all together.” Think of the most wonderful Cirque du Soleil possible, a carnival imagined by Isabel Allende, Ray Bradbury, and J. K. Rowling.

Le Cirque des Reves appears suddenly, and is open only at night. It’s the place of wonders we’ve all dreamed of finding, the marvel the artist sleeping within has always longed to create. It’s a place you’ll ache to visit. Neither Celia or Marco knows how to win the game. But they know they can’t stop playing, and they begin to suspect that the loser will die. The game gets complicated when Celia and Marco fall in love.

A synopsis doesn’t do The Night Circus justice. The prose is lovely and elegant. The writing is not as lush as, say, a Ray Bradbury, Catherynne Valente, or Mark Helprin, but the lighter touch is perfect for the story, like cotton candy spun from silver moonlight (which, by the way, is the kind of thing one would be likely to find at the Night Circus). At times, her descriptions seem almost like sketches, whips of dream glimpsed then vanished. Nonetheless, it’s a sensual treat … the sights, and even the sounds, textures, and scents, seem immediate and real. We never stay too long with any one character or scene. We drop in and are gone. We long to linger, yes, but we are eager to see what’s around the next corner, too. It’s a brilliant structure for a novel.

As author Katherine Dunn said, The Night Circus has a “leisurely but persistent suspense.” I wanted to rush through The Night Circus, and I wanted to savor every word. I couldn’t wait to get to the end; I wanted it to go on forever. I hope you’ll give it a read. Your local corner bookshop is sure to have a copy, or it’s perfect for that new holiday tablet gadget. Either way, I look forward to hearing what you think.

UPDATE:

Erin Morgenstern will be signing here (or at least fairly close to here) in the Greater Atlanta Area on Friday, January 27, at 7:00pm. The event occurs at FoxTale Book Shoppe, in Woodstock, Georgia. It’s a ticketed event; $30 admits two and includes a copy of the book ready for signing. For more information, contact: FoxTale Book Shoppe, 770/516-9989, 105 E. Main St., #138, Woodstock, Georgia.

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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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Belated Book Review: “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

if there was ever a book I truly don’t know what to say about, it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Don’t get me wrong—I adored it. I’ve recommended it to dozens of my friends. But not all of them. I don’t even recommend it to all of my friends who like fantasy, or mythic fiction, or British drawing room comedies of manners.

It’s a massive book, something like 400,000 thousand words (that’s a guess; I haven’t actually counted them). Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted from page one. Magic and sly witticisms were so thick I had to swat them away like flies, and the oh-so-English narrative delighted me. The characters are engaging and well-drawn, and the period voice, complete with obsolete spellings and elaborate, fanciful footnotes (don’t dare skip them!) delighted me. All the same, when I was nearly halfway through, I found myself still wondering when the actual story was going to get started. It had been going all along, but Ms. Clarke, like any good magician, had distracted my attention. Tricky rascal.

Clarke has crossed a fantasy mythology as complex as those of Tolkien himself, or very nearly so, and coupled it with the gaslit, fog-shrouded Britain of Dickens or Jane Austin. It’s a book-lover’s book, not something for the causal beach reader. Mr. Norrell, magician, is out to restore magic to Britain in the age of Napoleon. In Clarke’s Britain, gentlemen scholars pore over the magical history of their island, following tantalizing hints dominated by the mysterious Raven King, who long ago mastered enchantments from the lands of Faerie.

The study of the gentlemen scholars is only theoretical, of course—until Mr. Norrell reveals that he is capable of producing actual magic and becomes the toast of London society. Meanwhile, one Jonathan Strange, an impetuous young aristocrat, decides that he, too, will follow the practical study, and finds surprising success quickly.The two magicians irritate one another equally, but Strange becomes Mr. Norrell’s first student. Soon enough, the British government shows interest in their budding work. Mr. Strange, in fact, serves with Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars, but after finds himself unable to accept Mr. Norrell’s rather restrictive views on magic’s proper place. And all of that is almost incidental to the main story, teeming just below the surface. Still with me?

The copy i have to give away has this nifty white cover.

In Susanna Clarke’s England, magic is a believably complex and almost tedious labor. Her England is a strange (no pun intended) land of omens and miracles, where every incident or object may harbor secret meaning. Through it all, signs indicate that the Raven King may return, and more than one character is more than what they seem. It’s a dense, slow, fascinating read. In many ways, it’s like rich food. It’s delicious, but you don’t want too much at once. It’s a feast to savor slowly. It’s not for everyone. All the same, it’s a book that absolutely deserves a wider audience. There are wonders here. We need more books like this.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not a new book. I’m reviewing now not because I’ve just reread it (although I due, as soon as my to-be-read stack grows slightly less ponderous) or anything like that, but because I have recently found myself in possession of an extra hardcover first edition that needs a good home. Atlanta friends, I’ll trade it to you for a beer. Or heck, you can have it free for nothin’. Just let me know.

In the meantime, please use one of the links to help spread the word? I’d appreciate it.

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Book Review: “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss

Read The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

A few years back, I read and fell utterly in love with a book called The Shadow of The Wind. I recommended it to a friend. “This one is special,” I promised him. He raced out at once … and bought a book called The Name of the Wind. Different author, vastly different genre, similar title. All the same, an easy mistake to make.

A days later, he called to thank me for recommending such an amazing read. “Special indeed,” he agreed. “Damn special.” When we began to compare notes, we discovered the mistake. The book he read wasn’t set in gaslit Barcelona, and didn’t feature a sinister police officer or the Graveyard of Forgotten Books. The one I read didn’t involve a fantasy world, a stunning woman who appears and disappears like the wind, or a University of arcane knowledge that makes Hogwarts seem like a mundane kindergarten.

So we both raced off to the bookstore, and we each found another book that found its way to the top of the favorites list. Amazingly, both have remained at the top of that list despite a few years of reflection and even a reread or two. To this day, it seems amazing to me that two absolutely brilliant books with such similar titles could be released at around the same time, and both feature such lovely, aching prose (with sentences and even whole passages that absolutely demand to be read aloud) and such utterly unforgettable characters. But there you go. These books are special. Both of them.

Quality aside, the books could not be more different. The Name of the Wind is a fantasy with all the imagination that makes the genre so rich. And in a market where the shelves are overflowing with doorstop-sized tomes offered tin-eared echoes of the mighty J. R. R. Tolkien, Patrick Rothfuss has created something that feels comfortably familiar at times, and startlingly original at others. More, he has, without question, the best ear for prose since, well, Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, or Patricia A. McKillip.

Rothfuss creates characters, and a world around them, every bit as complex and believable as those crafted by George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but without the relentless darkness. That’s not to say that Rothfuss’s work is all sweetness and light. Far from it. But he balances that darkness with joy. The latter makes the book shine with a beauty that the best fantasy strives for, and makes the former all the more poignant. In fact, that balance is a key part of the book’s success. Some of the very best, loveliest, and most wounding fiction comes from an author who crafts characters that you can’t help but love, and gives them true happiness—for a moment—and then snatches it away. Or who gives his characters exactly what they want the most, but in the worst possible way. Joy and heartbreak, blended. It worked for Dickens, it works for Joss Whedon and J. K. Rowling. It certainly works for Patrick Rothfuss. (In fact, Rothfuss’s fans seem to have the same level of passion of Rowling’s and Whedon’s.) It’s a brilliant, beautiful book that comes awfully (emphasis on the awe) close to doing all that fantasy can at its best. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so.

The sequel to The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear, was released a few years later than promised, but it was worth the wait. The new volume picks up right where the last one ended. The central character, Kvothe, has been narrating the truth about his life—already a legend—to a scholarly young man known as Chronicler. Kvothe promised that the telling would take three days. The first volume was day one; the new one is the second day. The final volume, day three, should be released within our lifetimes, if all goes well. There’s apparently a sequel trilogy coming after that. I have no idea when, but I feel utterly safe in saying that whenever it arrives, it will, like The Wise Man’s Fear, be worth the wait.

Of course, that strength is also the book’s shortcoming. It’s not so much a book as a chapter. (A hell of a long one, but still.) The Wise Man’s Fear doesn’t really have a beginning—that was offered in The Name of the Wind. It doesn’t really have an end. Kvothe stops narrating when the day ends. He happens to be in a happy place then, but we have enough foreshadowing to know that it’s not going to last. The Kvothe who’s narrating the story isn’t the same man who’s living it. Something has happened, a wound, and the next book will tell us what, and how he came to be where he is now, a shadow of his old self, living in hiding, even his name left behind.

I reread the first book before diving straight in to the new one. It’s one of the very few books I’ve read in the last decade or two that I feel is honestly worth a second, and perhaps even third read—yes, it’s that good. And looking back, I have a hard time remembering where the first one ended and the second one became. They blend together seamlessly. The first book doesn’t so much end as stop, pausing for a rest before the next one begins. The second volume does the same. That can be especially frustrating when the next book is a year or three away. But like I said, it’s worth the wait. And please, don’t bother waiting until all are released. In most cases, I’d agree without hesitation. That’s the right thing to do. In this case, you’re only denying yourself the pleasure of a very special read. And the anticipation? That’s a small price to pay.

The books, both of them, are rather episodic. That’s not truly a complaint—the underlying storyline is subtle at times but always present—ad the character arc is always moving. That’s the real reason that we’re along for the ride, after all. If I have one other complaint, it’s this: some key segments seem to be missing. At least two sequences are skipped over—the narrator insists they’re not a part of the main story. When one of those glossed over instances in a very critical court trial that can cost our hero his life, and the other is a sea voyage that involves, among other adventures, a shipwreck and a pirate attack, well, I beg to differ. I ache to read those scenes. And while the episodes that we skip ahead to reach are breathtaking, I miss the chapters we don’t see. All the same, when a book nears 400,000 words and still leaves you wanting more … well, it’s done its job, wouldn’t you say?

The story is fascinating, as is the world of its setting. The is magic aplenty—well designed and believable—with daring adventure and romance. The pace is fast—I had a hard time putting both volumes down, even when I reread the first. Kvothe is an engaging lead character. Sure, he may seem a little too perfect at times. Even his flaws, of which he has many—not the least of which include his temper and his arrogance (he is all too aware of his own cleverness)—are, in a strange way, perfect. But then, Kvothe is narrating his own story, and he has established himself as a gifted, if occasional, liar who is not above deliberately crafting his own mythology. So we never really get a feel for how reliable a narrator he is, and that subtle ambiguity only adds to the complexity of his character arc. Speaking of which, his arc follows one as old as storytelling itself—Kvothe grows through the hero stages of orphan, wander, warrior, and, ultimately, martyr. But in Rothfuss’s skilled hands, it never feels clichéd or formulaic. Somehow, it always feels fresh, new, and surprising.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my day. Some where brilliant, some almost embarrassingly bad. There were many, many that I liked, and dozens that I adored. But loved? That’s a shorter list. Tolkien’s books, certainly, and the Narnia series. John Myers Myers’s Silverlock, of course. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. The Harry Potter books, maybe. It’s early yet—it takes a little time to know that you’ll return to a book more than once. All the same, I think it’s safe to say that Patrick Rothfuss’s books are going to remain on that very special, treasured, rarest shelf. These are special. They are.

Please be sure to let me know what you think.

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“The Ruling Sea” by Robert V. S. Redick

Read “The Ruling Sea”

This is a short review, folks, largely because pretty much everything I said in my review of The Red Wolf Conspiracy also applies to its sequel, The Ruling Sea. Once again, Robert V. S. Redick has created a fantasy that recaptures the swashbuckling adventure that I first fell in love with in my youth in books like Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, The Sea-Hawk, Captain Blood, and the wonderful, marvelous tales of the ever-brilliant but woefully under-appreciated Lloyd Alexander. Yet once again, despite the familiar elements, The Ruling Sea doesn’t come across as a pastiche; it feels terrifically fresh. And, again, it’s packed with page after page of rollicking fun.

Like The Red Wolf Conspiracy, The Ruling Sea is set aboard the great sailing vessel Chathrand, a veritable fortress on the waves, last of her kind. The story picks up right where the previous volume left off, launching us directly into the adventure. Again, there is swashbuckling action, deft conspiracy, double-crosses, and unexpected twists aplenty. This time, Redick adds budding, forbidden romance, a secret island witch, a monster on a jungle island, battle at sea with cannons ablaze, and a whole lot more.

Indeed, there are times when I think Redick must have made a wish list of all the things he’d like to read in a favorite “under the covers with a flashlight” novel and then twisted his plot until he found a way to work them all in. As a result, the novel feels rather episodic at times. Some chapters, or at least groups of chapters, feel like complete adventures as well as a part of a larger, sweeping saga. Nonetheless, the well crafted, complex characters, both major and minor, and their evolving, engaging arcs tie the episodes together and kept me turning the pages long after bedtime. They are terrific, and I loved spending time with them. Now that the last page is turned, I find myself missing them all—as much as I miss those dear heroes from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain and Westmark books. Thankfully, Redick’s next novel in the series is coming soon. I’ve already preordered my copy.

I should mention that the book has a much more evocative title in England: The Rats the the Ruling Sea. I’m not sure why it was changed, save that rats play only a minor part in the story. I suppose rats just don’t sell as well in the United States as they do in the UK. Go figure.

As always, let me know what you think, okay?

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