Tag Archives: Literature

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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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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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 of something utterly new, strange, and powerful: “The Orange Eats Creeps”

Read The Orange Eats Creeps

See, there’s this thing I can’t help doing when I’m reading a novel. More often that I really care to admit, I find myself picturing the author in the act of crafting the page I’m reading. I don’t mean to. In a way, it sort of breaks the spell of the story. In another way, though, it sort of deepens that illusion of connection between writer and reader.

Usually, I picture a man in an untidy office surrounded by piles of books and papers, pounding some old-fashioned manual typewriter while downing mugs of hot, bitter coffee, or a woman scrawling in an elegantly-bound journal, her tongue wetting the corner of her lips in some over-stuffed but cozy Victorian parlor. In her case, the mug is a china cup, and the bitter coffee is tea with twists of steam that carry the scent of lemon. Sometimes I picture a shabby coffee house, all bohemian chic, sometimes a quaint pub, and sometimes a library, with hardwood shelves straining under the weight of two many leather-bound books. More than a of my imaginary writers inhabit those spaces.

It makes me uncomfortable to picture Grace Krilanovich crafting The Orange Eats Creeps. I get these fleeting, nightmarish image of a young woman, wild-eyed and too thin, scrawling the words on the underside of a bridge somewhere, or on the walls of the kind of bar I’d be afraid to enter, even if I was cool enough to know how to find it. I picture her mainlining caffeine laced with meth, or something, some drug I’ve read about in newspapers, not for stimulation but to dull the fire of stranger substances screaming though her veins like electricity. Because you see, witnessing the birth of an new kind of literature, a utterly new way to pound and twist blocks of English into something mind-blastingly fresh, is a little frightening.

Mind, I don’t know anything at all about Grace Krilanovich. Maybe she is huddled safely in a library or parlor, sipping tea and tracing neat letters on fine, cream-colored paper. Her words though, they come from a stranger, harsher, lovelier, and all together original place that is three parts in-your-face and one part heartbreak. Maybe she’s wearing a high-necked blouse and a jacket. I imagine it’s more likely to be a ratty t-shirt, one even the thrift store wouldn’t take, one with writing that holes and fading have long obscured, but might once have been something obscene, or maybe a prayer. You can’t tell. You’ve seen girls with shirts like that. But you’ve always looked away quickly, haven’t you? I have. And later, a part of me always wished I hadn’t.

Ernest Hemingway declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” He’s got a point, because starting with frank Huck and his innocent, original declarations on that raft, American literature has been about voice: about expressing something universal, but in an absolutely unique and personal way. At it’s best, American literature, from Twain to Faulkner to Bradbury to Pynchon, is about grabbing words by the root and pulling them, raw, out of a character’s soul and straight through the gut, to reveal something that absolutely couldn’t have been revealed in any other way, or by any other character.

Grace Krilanovich follows in that tradition. Her voice reminds me of a sort of stylistic love-child of William Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick, and some of the edgier grunge bands of the 90s (it’s best not to try to imagine the physical specifics of that metaphorical union). All the same, I can’t help feeling that listing her even among that august company does her something of a disservice, because while she is clearly a part of a continuum, comparison, pretty much by definition, makes her sound in some way derivative, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Grace Krilanovich has brought forth something new, fresh, and, yes, original.

Take three examples (that I picked largely because I could find them on the Internet without retyping them, but they are more than typical enough to make my point):

“Safeway at sunrise: we storm through the doors; totally wasted we run for the back, behind the scenes. We barricade the door so Josh can menace the bag boy. What would happen if you harnessed the sexual energy of hobo junkie teens? The world would explode and settle on the surface of another planet in a brown paste, is what. Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.”

Or this:

“We not only devour each other, but we bite, hard. We’re blood-hungry teenagers; our rage knows no bounds and coagulates the pulse of our victims on contact. we devour them, too; the bodies of mortals become drained when they reach our fangs. Our cause is nothing…I’ve been living off crank, cough syrup, and blood for a year now. I ride the rails with a bunch of immoral shitheads, hopping freight trains, secreted away in rail cars across this country. We have no home, no parents. I can’t remember being a child, maybe I never was one. But I’m sure I’ll never die; I get older, my body stays the same. My spine breaks and then gets back together. I have the Hepatitis, I give it to everyone, but it never will actually get me. Our kind doesn’t die from anything, all we do is die all the time.”

And this one:

“The city smelled like a wet paper bag. That great big dirty rag hung up in the sky, casting a shadow over the middle of town. A motel was strangely and inexplicably equipped with a smokestack and it spit streams of pigeon-shit colored smoke up into the sky.”

You get the idea. But don’t dare think The Orange Eats Creeps is just about attitude. I did, and so help me, I nearly missed that behind all that aggression was a rather heartbreaking mix of story and character. The voice captivated me, but it has a way of getting the hackles up. While my guard was raised, watching out for the relentless beating power of those words, the story snuck in past my shields and devastated me, leaving my heart a deserted city. I felt numbed and overwhelmed, moved and shaken. Mostly, I felt, well, exhilaration. I didn’t expect that. Not just any book can do that, move you that way, you know. You have to watch out for the ones that can. And you have to share them. Even when you don’t know quite what to say.

An update: A couple of people on Twitter noted that I never said anything about the story, aside from it’s impact. That’s because any kind of synopsis really does the book a disservice. But I aim to please, so here goes.

A band of self-described hobo vampire junkies roam a nightmarish, broken landscape—the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s. It’s not the Pacific Northwest I’ve seen as a tourist, though. Thank Heaven. And when i say vampires, don’t think Twilight, or anything else you know. They are creatures of appetite. The narrator, a girl with (apparently) drug-induced psychic abilities and a strange connection to a young member of the Donner Party (who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her vanished foster sister along “The Highway That Eats People.” Meanwhile, she’s stalked by a monster out of a David Lynch film. She has no memory to speak of, only vague feelings, and she rambles like someone reporting the events of a fever dream.

We never really get a feel for how much of the events presented are “real,” and it doesn’t really matter. The events are shocking, sure, and fascinating. But the haunting power of the story comes from the stream of consciousness that carries us through them, and the burning question that haunted me on every page … is this really what it’s like in the brain of some drug-burned street kid in the urban underbelly of the Pacific Northwest? The story is fascinating, sure. But it what’s might be real that lingers after the last page is turned.

The Orange Eats Creeps is a new kind of literature for a century that’s just getting its feet wet. It’s an undefinable novel for a yet-to-be-defined era. It’s a product of its time, sure, but its one that I think has the power to endure. Ultimately, it is about matters of heart, family, and home, or lack thereof, themes that will always be universal. I’m still not quite sure how to respond to it. But I do know that it’s impossible to be indifferent. I wish I’d discovered it for my own fledgling publishing enterprise. I hope you’ll give it a try, and I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

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Book Review: “The Meaning of Night” by Michael Cox

Read The Meaning of Night: A Confession

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post listing my fifteen favorite first sentences in literature. At the time, I hadn’t read Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night: A Confession, or I would have been forced to give serious consideration to including it. It begins: After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an Oyster Supper. Now that’s a pretty good start. It’s an opening that hooks us immediately on the story, certainly. It’s hard not to wonder what’s going to follow that. More, it hooks us on character—who is this narrator, and how can he describe an act of terrible violence in such a casual manner? I’m happy to report that the balance of the novel lives up to the promise of that first sentence. It is a dark, chilling read, and an utterly compelling one.

Like another favorite of mine, Charles Palliser’s Quincunx, The Meaning of Night is set in the fog-draped London of gaslights and greatcoats—the labyrinthine city that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins described. The language is deliciously Victorian, a pastiche that is always just present enough for flavor but never overpowering enough to distract. And like Quincunx, The Meaning of Night reads like one of the “sensation novels” that Dickens himself might have written, had he the benefit of modern noir sensibility, pacing, and psychological insight while retaining his flair for character and atmosphere.

The story can best be described as, well, Dickensian. There are all the diabolical narrative twists one would expect in a tale of hidden identity, questions of inheritance surrounding a magnificent manor and a considerable fortune, and, of course, revenge. The drive is relentless and the tale is absolutely a page-turner. There are secrets a plenty—some obvious enough, some truly shocking, all earned. But beneath them all, there are deeper levels to explore here. The Meaning of Night is more than a Victorian mystery thriller—it is an unforgettable portrait of psychological obsession, and it is an unrelenting, unflinching exploration of the darkest reaches of the human soul.

The story is compelling, but the most fascinating elements are the characters. None of them are perfect; in fact, most of them are barely sympathetic. Only the most minor bit players are more or less who they seem to be, and not even all of them can be reliably depended upon not to wear a mask or two. Few are entirely innocent in the revealing light of day—the one who comes closest dies quickly; his death is the one referred to in the opening sentence. The next closest is a prostitute. The rest exist somewhere between twilight and the darkness of night. Even the beautiful Emily Carteret, object of the narrator’s obsession and sufferer of a traumatic loss, is very possibly carrying on at least two secret affairs. The rest of her secrets? Enough to say they’ll keep you turning the pages late into the night.

Worst of all, though, is the narrator himself. The narrator is told bluntly at one point to “trust no one.” We’d all do well to bear this in mind, too. Cox raises the concept of the unreliable narrator to a new level. Edward Glyver, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is no heart-of-gold rogue, and certainly no Victorian gentleman hero, even though he comports himself with gentlemanly charm and chivalric courtesy. We know from the opening line that he is capable of unspeakable violence. We learn quickly that he is an accomplished liar. In fact, one of his casual actions may have sent an innocent man to the gallows. More, he shows hints of seeming madness—he is so accused more than once—and is a regular user of both alcohol and opium. Unreliable? Yeah, I’d say so.

But despite the fact that we have, at best, little reason to feel any sympathy at all for Edward Glyver, or even to accept his account of events, Cox’s skill is such that we can’t help but feel for him. We want him to succeed, to achieve his revenge, and claim what is “rightfully” his. In spite of ourselves, we like him. Even—maybe especially—when we really, really don’t want to. Whether we can trust him or not, his is a soul in torment. Is his confession enough to earn him some manner of peace or redemption? That’s a hard question, one to ponder long after the last page is turned. I’ll be interested to know what you think.

Cox has written a sequel, The Glass of Time, one that’s already skipped ahead to the top of my ponderously high “to be read” pile. It’s a stand-alone novel, but from what I can tell from the cover blurb, it seems to deal with some of the consequences of Glyver’s actions. I can’t wait.

Update: I’ve just learned that Michael Cox passed away from cancer in 2009. These two books are all we’ll see from him. Our loss. Rest in peace, sir.

If you liked this review and if you don’t mind, would you please consider using the links below to help spread the word? I’d be grateful.

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“The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Read “The Angel’s Game”

Yesterday, I reviewed Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s brilliant novel, The Shadow of the Wind. Continuing with the “holy crap this is good” theme, today I’m taking a look at his follow up, The Angel’s Game.

While both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game are completely stand-alone novels, they are subtly connected. The two novels both a part of what Zafón says will eventually be a four-book cycle of loosely connected stories with overlapping narratives and characters. Either can be read alone, but reading both makes each a deeper and richer experience. In fact, I read The Angel’s Game at the same time that my wife Carol and I were reading The Shadow of the Wind aloud to one one another, a strange and wonderful experience.

The Angel’s Game has quite a lot in common with its predecessor. Familiar locations recur, such as the mysterious and tantalizing Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dear, familiar, dusty coziness of Sempere and Son book shop. Familiar characters appear, if only briefly—welcome reunions with old friends. And once again, the true star of the work is the poetry of Zafón’s heartbreakingly lovely language —every sentence is a treasure—and the richly gothic and atmospheric streets of Zafón’s Barcelona, beautiful, seductive, and dangerous, as vivid as any gas-lit corner of Dickens’ London.

The differences, though are  stark. The Angel’s Game is a much darker book, with grizzly murders, doomed romance, and subtle, shadowed, edge-of-your-vision elements of the supernatural. If the mystery in The Shadow of the Wind leaned precariously toward the noir end of the spectrum, The Angel’s Game makes a leap. At times it moves close to old-school gothic horror. It’s never graphic; it never even comes close. It’s certainly not the gruesome slasher porn of today. It’s a subtler dread that calls upon the imagination to ponder what might be lurking in midnight’s deepest shadows—those in the city and those in the heart. The Angel’s Game builds dread through hints and atmosphere, making a truly spin-tingling read that haunts the heart long after the last page is turned.

It’s not all fear, though. There is beauty, too, and love. Certainly that. Beauty makes the dread that much worse, and the hope that much dearer. The theme of the book is introduced in the first lines:

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on, he is doomed, and his soul has a price.”

The novel explores, subtly, long before we’ve begun to realize it’s doing so, what it means to sell one’s soul, the many ways we do so, what is gained, and what is lost. Is the gain worth the cost? I’m not sure even the characters themselves could answer that. The question lingers, haunting like the memory of a nightmare, or a fond wish. To me, one of the strengths of The Angel’s Game is that it raises questions and only hints at the answers, leaving the reader to interpret in a sort of storytelling collaboration between artist and audience.

Some of the reviews I’ve read have complained about the ambiguity of the ending. Honestly, I hadn’t even noticed the ambiguity until I read about it those reviews. Most of those critics, I think, seem to expect some kind of science-fictiony explanation for everything that’s happened. Like God is an alien computer or something like that. That sometimes works brilliantly in a novel like say, Dune, say, or Hyperion. Indeed, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (one story in two volumes, both of which which rank among my very favorites) together are a kind of cosmic science fiction dealing with the ultimate mysteries of how the universe is structured and how reality functions—although personally, I think Hyperion’s latter sequels, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, weaken the first two novels by explaining far too much and making the grand sweep too mundane. I digress.

The point is, The Angel’s Game is not that kind of book. It works according to something akin to dream logic. To me, the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate, and it’s one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. Although I confess I am eager to see what Zafón will do in later volumes. Something this good deserves to continue. When Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s next book is released at last, I’ll be first in line. I hope I’ll see you there. Don’t miss these books. And please be sure to let me know what you think, okay?

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