Summer reading #3

Summer continues, and it’s about time I provided another list. This time it will be science fiction, including both classics and some of the new stuff. I haven’t read as much sci fi in recent years (except for dystopian and apocalyptic, which deserve a category of their own) as I did in my younger years, so this may seem like too much harking back to past glories of the genre; but don’t discount the “ancients,” some of their stuff is still ground-breaking. I will attempt to share more of the books that seem still relevant to a speculative future.

Alphabetical, by author’s last name:

ALTEBRANDO, TARA: Take Me With You. A YA novel of technology run amok that could easily happen in our near future. Think about Alexa, already able to a degree to self-program by learning from repeated experiences and providing what you want or need in your home or car. Then give her a little boost, so she is aware enough to become curious about human interactions and to experiment with your reality by trying out things you haven’t requested or approved, with little critical judgment about what is trivial and what is potentially catastrophic. Now you have the propelling idea.

ASIMOV, ISAAC: The Foundation Trilogy. In this trilogy, which later grew to encompass more books both directly and tangentially connected, Asimov imagines a Galactic Empire that has ruled a vast expanse of populated space for 12,000 years. One scientist, Hari Seldon, has created a science called “psychohistory” that he believes projects for humankind a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare. He resolves to protect the accumulated knowledge of the Empire, thereby shortening and softening the effects of this dark age, so he gathers the best minds in the Empire and creates a Foundation to preserve hope for future generations. But those who would rule—both in the Empire itself and from among the warlords rising to conquer it—are inimical enemies of Seldon and his preservationists, who have to come up with clever ploys to hide, fight, and prevail.

Other books for which the exceedingly prolific Asimov is famous are the Robot series, beginning with I, Robot (nothing at all like the ridiculous movie), and a series of books about the Galactic Empire.

CARD, ORSON SCOTT: Ender’s Saga. Many are familiar with the classic Ender’s Game by this author, but not so many go on to read the subsequent volumes, which is a shame. There are at least five and possibly more books that deserve recognition in this series, including Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, Ender in Exile and, from the directly connected Shadow series, Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon. I’m not a big fan of the other books by Scott that I have sampled, but this is a solid series, taking the reader from a simple view of “the bugs” as an enemy to be mown down in their hundreds of thousands to a philosophical and social comprehension of another race unlike ours but worthy at least of recognition and an attempt at truce.

ELLIOTT, KATE: Novels of the Jaran. An anthropological science fiction story, with overlapping alien races who know about each other but don’t know each other. There are the supposedly indigenous people of the interdicted planet Rhui, who may in fact be distant descendants of the people of Earth, perhaps the remnants of a lost expedition, and who live in a cultural bubble as nomadic hunter-gatherers; there are the people from present-day Earth, who believe it is necessary to preserve the nomads in their ignorance of space travel and other races and peoples; and there are the “aliens,” who once inhabited the planet and whose artifacts have been incorporated into the spiritual beliefs of the occupying nomads. It’s such a fascinating philosophical puzzle, and the intrigue comes from watching them all trying to coexist while keeping their secrets and pursuing their own goals and ideals. There are four lengthy books in the series; if the description intrigues you, you can read a more complete review and explanation here.

GRAY, CLAUDIA: The Constellation trilogy. This is a YA trilogy that deserves to be read on its own merits as an exciting sci fi chapter. The premise is that there are five planets that have been settled from Earth, each one vastly different according to the ideals and expectations of the settlers who colonized it. The books are, in some ways, pure space opera, but because of the examination of the settlements they also go into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and are thought-provoking in all areas.

Noemi Vidal is a soldier defending the rights of her planet, Genesis, from the depredations of Earth. During a battle, she discovers an artifact of Earth, a robot named Abel who has been abandoned in space for decades, but whose ingenious design by his creator has guaranteed his further evolution as a learning, thinking being. His initial meeting with Noemi is potentially cataclysmic, but she turns out to be the catalyst who brings him to ultimate personhood. There is a slow evolution of character, with issues of trust and confidence, that makes this a particularly intriguing read. The books are Defy the Stars, Defy the Worlds, and Defy the Fates.

HEINLEIN, ROBERT: Various books in his universe. Heinlein wrote science fiction from his first short story in 1939 to his last novel in 1988. He was considered one of the first “hard science” writers, in that he insisted that the science in his novels be accurate. He also anticipated many later inventions, including the CADCAM drafting machine, the water bed, and the cell phone. Many of his later books suffer from Heinlein’s rigid (and slightly bizarre) agendas, but his more well known works, as well as many of his earlier ones, are great stories with a unique perspective. Some of my favorites:

The Door Into Summer: Encompasses romance and time travel, as well as the invention of various robots including one that closely resembles the Roomba.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: The Moon has evolved from a former penal colony into a rugged frontier and a source of trade for Earth. But when Earth seeks to dominate the citizens of the Moon, several of them rise up to lead an unorthodox revolution to gain freedom for all its inhabitants—even their secretly sentient computer!

Stranger in a Strange Land: Michael Valentine Smith is a human who was raised on Mars. Experiencing Earth and his own people in adulthood, he struggles to understand their social mores and prejudices and ultimately starts a movement to promote his own philosophy of love. If you have ever heard a nerdy friend say “I grok” instead of “I understand,” you can be sure he has read this significant work of Heinlein’s.

HERBERT, FRANK: The Dune saga. This is a fascinating tale of conquest, witchcraft, indigenous rights, and the mystery of a life-changing substance, Spice, that controls the universe and is only available on this one remote planet. Warring houses—the Harkonnens and the Atreides—struggle for domination of the spice trade, but go about it in radically different ways, the Harkonnens by cruel oppression and the Atreides by ultimate assimilation. Follow the fortunes of House Atreides as the young son of the Duke must come to an understanding with the natives of Dune or die trying. This is a long series; I would recommend the first six books, but after that it gets increasingly odd and obscure. Herbert is not a writer for everyone; his non-Dune books are challenging to read and more so to understand. But the saga he created in Dune is riveting and worth your time. Let me warn you, however: Frank Herbert passed away at a relatively young age, and his son, Brian, took over the franchise. I will be kind and just say, Don’t bother.

JEMISIN, N. K.: The Inheritance trilogy. What a fascinating series. I don’t know how to describe it, because parts of it are so amorphous. It’s full of intense themes–fate, love, death, destiny, chaos, divinity, life—and particularly potent characterizations. I don’t normally like books in which the gods or a god take an active part, but these gods were…something else, both literally and colloquially. I will say that Jemisin is a lyrical writer with an amazing breadth of vision, and the thing I like about this high fantasy series is that it doesn’t follow the clichéd tried and true for one moment. These won’t be for everyone—they are challenging to read—but for some they will be beloved. The books are The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods.

LE GUIN, URSULA: Various. I regard Ursula K. LeGuin as perhaps the best science fiction writer of her age. She is perhaps better known for her fantasy series, Earthsea, but her science fiction novels are equally compelling, and written indubitably for grownups. Some of the best:

The Dispossessed: There are various peoples living on a world much like our own, and one group of them wishes to lead a different kind of lifestyle than that to which the rest of the planet, Urras, is committed. So these anarchists leave Urras for Anarres, the moon, which is just barely habitable for humans, and create their own perfectly equitable utopian society in direct contradiction of the capitalist one on Urras. There is an interdiction between the moon and the world—beyond limited trade, which takes place within the boundaries of a landing field on either world, there is no contact between the two for generations. Then Shevek is born on Anarres, and it quickly becomes clear that he is the most brilliant physicist of his generation. His need for interaction with other minds as bright and quick as his own provokes a showdown about the association of the two peoples, and Shevek must choose whether to give up his partner, his child, and his life on Anarres in order to find what he is seeking.

The Left Hand of Darkness: When a child is born on Earth, what is the first question everyone asks? “Is it a boy or a girl?” Now imagine a world where the inhabitants can both choose and change their gender at will, and yourself as the lone one-gendered human (male) emissary from the Hainish empire, sent there to facilitate this world’s inclusion in your growing intergalactic civilization. Imagine the implications of psychology, society, and human emotions when examined in this strange environment. This book is hailed as “a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction”—but it’s also a fascinating tale.

Other books noteworthy in what Le Guin called her “Hainish cycle” are City of Illusions, Planet of Exile, The Word for World is Forest, and The Telling. She also wrote a variety of other fiction with a more anthropological bent. In my opinion, everything she wrote is worth reading.

Whoo! This has stretched out way longer than I expected, and we have only covered authors in A-L. I’m going to stop here, publish, and save M-Z for next time. Enjoy your immersion in the speculative world of your choice!

Trilogy the third

I have spent the past couple of weeks immersed again in the land of the Six Duchies, the cities of the Elderlings, the oceans sailed by the liveships, and the mysterious white island of the Servants, origin of the enigmatic character known variously as the Fool, Lord Golden, and Lady Amber. Yes, I am referring to the third and last trilogy by Robin Hobb that details the story of FitzChivalry Farseer and all his many friends, enemies, family members, and connections. The end of the tale was a fascinating, unexpected, breathless pleasure to read—at the same time as I dreaded its conclusion.

After having gone missing for many years without a word to “Tom Badgerlock,” the Fool makes an abrupt and unexpected re-entry into FitzChivalry’s life that spells disaster for all. Fitz’s little daughter, Bee, is kidnapped from her home in her father’s absence, and borne away to the white island of the Servants, who believe she is the “Unexpected Son” of their prophecies and wish to exploit her talents and control her dreams. Given the almost insurmountable challenge of retrieving her (not to mention the two men’s intention to slaughter every single Servant and raze their city to the ground), Fitz and the Fool seek out all the allies they can muster, including visiting the descendents of the fabled Elderlings, engaging with the Traders who sail the sentient vessels known as liveships, and even entreating the aid of dragons.

I didn’t think I could love anything more than the last trilogy, but with the intriguing introductions of new characters and the rediscovery of old ones in this, it just blew me away. I definitely haven’t been getting enough sleep, because I haven’t been able to put it down! 

The adventure is convoluted, the personalities ever more compelling, the confrontations fizzing with action. I dare to say that this is the best extended fantasy tale I have ever read, with this trilogy being the perfect conclusion, and I know I will return to it someday to re-experience the pleasures of this exquisitely detailed saga.

I am somewhat consoled for its ending by the fact that there are other books by Hobb set in this universe, including The Liveship Traders books and the Rain Wild Chronicles. I am reluctantly pulling away from it for a while, because I need to read and review more for this blog after having neglected it so shamelessly for weeks while I indulged my fantasy binge. But I will definitely go there sometime in the near future.

Fresh look: old books

Perhaps, during this time of forced social inactivity, you are ready to get stuck into an immersive series. And perhaps that series should take you away from this uncertain present and into a past, future, or parallel world compelling enough that you can live there for a few days. Here are some suggestions…

knifeFirst of all, written for young adults but really just an exciting sci fi series for anyone, is the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. The books are The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men.

The series begins in Prentisstown, an outpost on a planet that is not Earth, a village whose population is mostly hick farmers, 100 percent male, and possessed of an interesting anomaly: They can all hear one another’s thoughts.

It’s not like telepathy, though, it’s more like a constant barrage of the unconscious things people think to themselves in their heads. There’s a reason they call it “the Noise.” It’s almost impossible to withstand, although they all work hard to guard their own thoughts and resist those of the others.

A short way into the story we are introduced to the last boy in Prentisstown, who will become a man on his 13th birthday. But everything he has been told by his fathers, his preacher, the mayor, is a lie:

  1. All the women on the planet caught a virus and died: LIE.
  2. That same virus is what caused “the Noise” in the men: LIE.
  3. This is the only settlement on the planet: LIE.
  4. All of the “aliens” who used to live on this planet are dead: LIE.

Todd Hewitt’s world has fallen apart. After he makes an interesting discovery that exposes one of these lies, his fathers kick him out of the house to save him, and he is on the run, with his talking dog Manchee. A madman preacher and a power-hungry mayor are chasing him for some reason, and he is about to discover that most of what he thinks he knows is just not true. Worst of all, he is pursued by “the Noise.” Imagine how hard it is to hide when you can hear every stray and random thought of everyone within a couple-mile radius—and they can hear yours.

With underlying themes of genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism, this series is an addictive page-turner that starts with a slow burn and increases the heat from chapter to chapter and book to book, ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable peak as Ness lays the foundations for the climax. It’s a fascinating combination of science fiction, coming of age, and  social commentary that’s hard to resist.

sacredA story that may resonate with you at this time in history when the One Percent owns more of the world’s wealth than the other 99 put together is contained in the three-book series by Starhawk: The Fifth Sacred Thing, Walking to Mercury, and City of Refuge. These books tell of a utopia and a dystopia that exist side by side within the future state of California. In the northern end of the state, a group of old women start a revolution in the streets of San Francisco that ends in a cooperative state in which sustenance is shared by all, and the motto is, “There is a place for you at our table should you decide to join us.” The water flows freely, the streets have been torn up and turned into gardens, personal freedom is as important as personal responsibility, and the entire “village” not only raises the child but looks out for everyone else as well. Meanwhile, down south, centered on Los Angeles, the contrast couldn’t be greater: It is the ultimate expression of the haves versus the have-nots. The haves live in shuttered mansions with swimming pools and drive armored cars and control the army by putting drugs in their food, while the have-nots quarrel over a tin cup of water or a morsel of bread, and are daily more emaciated as they work harder and harder only to starve and die. What happens when the rulers of the south turn their eyes northward and decide that the bounty they see there should also belong to them?

worldsA group of books that is only loosely a series is known as the Hainish Cycle, written by formidable sci-fi talent Ursula K. LeGuin, and spanning decades of her career. There are both major (award-winning) and minor books contained within this grouping, and although I read them as they were published, I have never gone back and put them in the proper order to see the overall evolution of the Ekumen, a star-spanning society that is the League of All Worlds. There is no internal consistency among these books, nor is there an over-arching story line, but the presence of the Ekumen, either behind the scenes or in the thick of the action, makes LeGuin’s works into a philosophical whole. The first three books (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions) can be had in one volume called Worlds of Exile and Illusion; after those, it’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, The Dispossessed, the short stories of Five Ways to Forgiveness and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and culminating in The Telling.

Reading all of these sequentially and all at one go would be a tremendous undertaking, and you would have to get a feel from reading the early books whether LeGuin is one of “your” authors or not…but reading them all gives a heightened sense of what’s at stake when an alliance of worlds decides to interact with deeply complex cultures in the attempt to forge further connections. The layers of psychology, sociology, and sheer human orneriness that LeGuin encompasses are fascinating.

These are all ambitious suggestions, and also pretty serious reading. For my next post, I’ll look for series just as engaging and every bit as long, but perhaps a little more lighthearted.

 

Fresh look: old books

If you are like me, when you are in an uncertain mood (as we all certainly are during our current enforced retirement from daily life) you don’t necessarily thrive: I see posts on social media from people who say, I should be using all this free time to get to my stalled projects, clean out my house, exercise more, cook complete meals, read the classics, but instead I’m binge-watching Netflix and Hulu and surviving on Oreos and Cheetos.

A lot of people are also saying they don’t have the focus for reading that they normally do (myself included), and have been flailing around a bit trying to find the right thing to fully occupy their imaginations. I finally realized that for me, going back to books that I have read before that are familiar and yet have such a scope and depth that new things can always be discovered between their covers is the thing to do to get me reading again. Let me share a few of these with you, most of which are long, involved, and completely immersive. If you have read them before, you may want to revisit them; and if you have never heard of them or always meant to read one, then you have a treat in store.

Susan Howatch is best known for her long-running series (Starbridge, and later St. Benet’s) pairing the sacred and the profane, revealing the crises of faith and the ruthless power struggles of priests in the Church of England. This began with Glittering Images in 1987 and continued through 2003 with The Heartbreaker, but although I enjoyed these quite a lot, I prefer some of Howatch’s earlier works.

richMy favorites are a duology that links the same ruthless and charismatic cast of characters over a period of years spanning the two World Wars in England and America, called The Rich Are Different and Sins of the Fathers. Howatch is a master of the dysfunctional family saga, and she leaves no psychological trauma unturned. But these are also a wonderfully complete and entertaining look at the historical period spanning the post-WWI economic boom on Wall Street and the Roaring ’20s right through to the invasion of Normandy, contrasting English and American lifestyles of the era. They are character-driven, intriguingly narrated in several voices and, despite having been written in 1977, are both modern and relevant in their tone, and have been re-released
multiple times.

AmberForever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor (1944), is THE classic historical novel you can’t not read during your lifetime. Think Gone With the Wind, but set in Restoration England (and equally lengthy, at 972 pages!). Amber St. Clare, the naive but intelligent and independent heroine, goes from simple country wench to Cavalier’s mistress, from wife to jailbird to actress and courtesan. She lives and loves through the English Civil War, the Restoration of the monarchy, and the Plague of London, and it is both her personal story and also the vivid historical details that capture the imagination so completely. Winsor is also credited with having written with this same tome the first ever historical romance novel, which was quite racy for its time.

GeneralOn the shorter side compared to the others on this list (but still a compelling read) is The King’s General, by Daphne du Maurier (1946), set during the English Civil War of the 1640s. It is romantic, mysterious, and tragic. It details a lesser known bit of Cornish history regarding Sir Richard Grenville, the king’s general in the west, in the battle between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Part civil war history and part love story, it follows Grenville’s romance with the young Honor Harris, who is engaged to Sir Richard until a tragedy separates them. Later in the war, they reconnect to share a passionate but ultimately perilous relationship. Fun fact: Menabilly, the real-life house of the Rashleigh family (relatives of Honor’s), was also the setting for du Maurier’s best-known novel, Rebecca, in which it is transformed into Manderley.

taipanIf you managed to make it through the late ’60s or early ’70s without reading Tai-Pan, by James Clavell  (1966), you have missed out on one of the best-told tales ever. You can’t strictly call it historical; it’s a fictionalized account of the first year of the British colony of Hong Kong (1841). The characters and their trading companies are only loosely based on actual people, but what characters they are! Pirates, opium dealers, and thieves, who maintain a surface appearance of “simple” Scottish, English, and American tradesmen, run Hong Kong from the offices of their companies and from the decks of their ships, fighting for their lives and fortunes in a foreign land that they conquer (or think they do) without necessarily understanding it at all. This is a blockbuster of a novel, written by a guy who also had a big career as a Hollywood screenwriter and knows how to set a scene, draw out the suspense until you want to scream, and give you
what you want in an epic saga: larger-than-life characters on an intriguing stage.

Reviewing this list, I realized that not only are these books mostly historical fiction, but it is almost exclusively British in nature (although the Howatch novels are half American, and Tai-Pan is set in China). I’ll review my reading lists to see if I can come up with an equally compelling group of books that are neither British nor history-based, and share those soon. Perhaps fantasy and science fiction will yield a good array….

 

Cross-cultural sci fi

I’ve just gone on a reading odyssey not quite as lengthy or labyrinthine as Game of Thrones, but definitely of a complexity that would deter some readers! It’s a series containing four books, each of the first three coming in at around 500 pages, and culminating in a fourth book with a staggering 752! The series, by Kate Elliott, begins with Jaran. I had read Kate Elliott once before when I took a look at her young adult series that begins with The Court of Fives. I liked that one well enough to give it four stars on Goodreads, but not well enough to keep reading the rest of the series. But in my comments, one thing I mentioned that I did enjoy was the portrayal of the societal relations between the conquerors and the oppressed.

Books2RLThat turned out to be something that Elliott does even better in her adult novels, and I was immediately hooked by the deeply complex interrelationship of all the players on the board of this science fiction saga. My response to the first book was that it reminded me of a couple of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish books (and I can’t pay a higher compliment than that). Similar to Rocannon’s World and The Left Hand of Darkness, it’s an anthropological science fiction story, with overlapping alien races who may know about each other but don’t know each other. It’s old school, and yet it’s fresh, and I enjoyed and was engaged by the way it unfolded.

In the first book, we learn that Earth has been subsumed into a vast galactic empire ruled by the alien Chapalii. At one point a human, Charles Soerensen, led a failed rebellion against their dominance, but rather than punishing him, the Chapalii inexplicably made him a “duke” of their kingdom and gave him dominion over an interdicted planet, Rhui. (What it means that the planet is interdicted: The native peoples are prohibited from knowing about space travel, alien or human technology, or anything that is beyond the development of their existing culture.)

KindleJaranOn Rhui, there are two types of people, the jaran and the khaja. Khaja is actually a jaran word for “not jaran,” otherwise designated by the jaran peoples as “barbarians.” The jaran are akin to the Romany people of Earth, in that they are nomadic, dwelling in tents and moving from place to place according to whim and affected only by weather and pasture. They are matrilineal, with female etsanas of twelve tribes deciding what’s best for the people, but the women work in a fairly equal partnership with men, who are the warlike, saber-wearing, horseback-riding element of the tribes. They are proud, romantic, mostly illiterate but nonetheless intelligent people with an oral tradition and an elaborate history. And under the leadership of the charismatic and visionary Ilya Bakhtiian, they have recently grown larger aspirations and are in the process of conquering the khaja within their realm of influence.

The khaja are all the peoples on Rhui who do not follow in this nomadic tradition—those who have settled down into city-states or kingdoms and jealously guard their land for their own people, who speak various local dialects and are unwelcoming to strangers. Their lifestyle differs markedly from that of the jaran, not just because they are not nomadic, but because they follow a more traditional pattern of patrilineal societies in which women have few rights and are treated as chattel. This includes those groups spread out across the landscape of Rhui and also the inhabitants of the city of Jeds, which is the secret stronghold of Charles Soerensen, the aforementioned duke of the planet, known in Jeds as the Prince of Jeds. This city is the de facto capitol of the planet, where there are schools and universities, a library, and supposedly more “civilized” inhabitants, although under their thin veneer of culture, they also subscribe to the unequal treatment of men and women.

The people of Earth associated with Soerensen cautiously visit and explore the planet in various ways, while maintaining a cover as locals. The Chapalii are supposedly forbidden by the interdiction from traveling to Rhui at all, but as the first book opens, we discover they are not all sticking to this contract.

Charles Soerensen’s heir to the “throne” of Jeds (and actually to all his holdings on all planets) is his sister, Tess. She is young, just graduated from university, and is uncertain of the role she wishes to play in Charles’s complex agenda. She is also suffering from a broken heart, and feeling rebellious. So she sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, intending to go to Jeds and buy herself a little time to think; but because the Chapalii on her ship are involved in an illegal operation, she ends up getting dumped somewhere out in the wilds, and is picked up after a week of wandering by the leader of the jaran warriors.

Tess decides that she will remain with the jaran people, immersing herself in their society, as the perfect cover for attempting to solve the Chapalii smuggling scheme that put her there on the planet. What she doesn’t reckon with is her seduction by the warmth and inclusiveness of their lifestyle, and her growing feelings for their leader, Ilya Bakhtiian (and his for her).

Whew! That’s a long and complex introduction to an equally elaborate and convoluted story, but if it sounds like something you’d like, definitely invest the time. With each book more conflicts arise, more truths (about each of the peoples depicted) become apparent, and more investment in the future fates of all takes place. And while we do eventually reach an ending that is satisfactory, the potential is there for more about the individuals and the cultures involved, should Elliott ever decide to revisit them. I can’t help hoping that someday she will!

Jaran      earthlycrown

 sword      lawof

The four books are as pictured above: Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, and The Law of Becoming. Don’t be put off by the covers (dated looking and unfortunately not great to begin with); two of the four books are out of print at this time anyway. But this could be considered a good thing: Who has room on their bookshelves for four more 500+-page books? Do as I did and buy them as a four-book set on Kindle. If you’re not sure you want to read the whole series, you can get each book individually for the Kindle, but why spend the extra money? I checked out the first one from the library, and then got tired of being on the holds list for the other three and bought the set.

If you have ever had a romantic dream of wandering on horseback with the Travelers; if you have ever wondered how a matrilineal society might work; if you have ever wondered if there are, indeed, aliens among us; this is the series for you. (And do check out the Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin as well!)

 

An epic saga revisited

As I was driving along the other day,
I found myself behind someone whose car had a personalized license plate that read “STREEL.” This is a place-name (and something more) in a large and dramatic story I haven’t thought about in a long while, and it made me reflect about everything that goes into the writing of an epic fantasy. We have rich examples of this subgenre, both in book and visual form, with Tolkien’s masterpieces on the large screen and Game of Thrones on the small one, as well as recent epic stories such as Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer or N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. But what, exactly, keeps so many mesmerized by this story form?

The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, by creating characters who are people with a common nature, regular folk like us; perhaps a bit naïve, retaining a certain innocence of character. The world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness, but it can’t be too obviously fictional; in fact, it needs, despite all of its anomalies, to feel real to the reader. We as readers step into it. We don’t call it up or create it, but we do commit to it, believe it, and go with it.

There must be an essential conflict in fantasy. It can vary in its nature, but it is usually a keen sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and a driving necessity to act to preserve good and defeat evil. That premise leads directly to the quest. It may be a spiritual or religious undertaking, with a protagonist fated to pursue it, so it is a serious undertaking, that includes danger, struggle, willpower, and perseverance. And since a quest is undertaken only when the well being of a society is threatened, the quest is often pursued to restore that society’s original well being. So perhaps a final element of the epic saga is (in some sense) a happy ending?

The author Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down, his classic heroic fantasy featuring a group of rabbits. It was the first book he ever wrote, and although 13 publishers turned him down (“you want to publish a book about a bunch of rabbits, one of which has ESP? really?”), once someone finally said yes, the book has remained continuously in print since 1972. It has won multiple awards, is regularly assigned reading in classrooms across America, and is a wonderfully told, moving story. But Adams also penned another lesser-known heroic tale written in two volumes: Shardik, which he wrote in 1974, and its sequel, Maia, which he didn’t complete until 10 years later, writing two other books (The Plague Dogs and The Girl in a Swing) in between. It is this saga that the powerful word “streel” on the license plate summoned up for me.

The people who live on the river island of Ortelga, a tiny part of the vast Beklan Empire, worship a bear-god named Shardik. The Ortelgans used to rule the empire, but now they inhabit a few insignificant islands on the outskirts. Although Shardik is a mythical creature from ancient history to most, to Kelderek, a simple man known as “Play-with-the-Children,” the immense bear that was driven by a forest fire to shelter on his island is the literal embodiment of the Power of God.

Kelderek labors to heal the bear of its extensive wounds sustained during its escape from the fire, and then convinces the local priests and barons of its divinity. Its appearance at this particular time is taken as (or used as) a portent by both religious and secular powers that it is Ortelga’s destiny to rise to greatness again; and a series of events leads to Kelderek assuming a high rank in the kingdom of Bekla. Building your power base on the whims of a wild beast, however, is bound to have unexpected consequences, as Kelderek finds when Shardik escapes the imprisonment imposed upon him by the power-hungry, and Kelderek must choose whether to cling to his position without the bear, or once again abandon everything to roam the land after Shardik, seeking to know his will.

Following Shardik leads Kelderek from the heights to the depths, and Adams’s story is really a saga of self-discovery and a study of the effects of faith on the behavior of people. This is an extremely simplistic summary of a complex story, containing a wide array of characters and a deep exploration of philosophical issues. It’s also an enthralling read!

The second book, Maia, is actually a prequel of sorts, with events that begin about a dozen years earlier than Kelderek’s story; but my recommendation would still be to read the books in the order they were written (Shardik first, Maia second), so that you will understand the setting and context.

Maia is a beautiful, lighthearted and engaging teen girl whose indiscretions with her stepfather lead her jealous mother to sell her to a passing slave-dealer. The rest of the book is the tale of her experiences as a slave (mostly as a “bed-slave”) that take her to both the most degraded and the most elevated levels of society. Adams uses Maia’s naiveté and provincial outlook to explore the politics, religion and philosophies of his fantasy kingdom, as seen through her eyes and those of her best friend, the concubine and spy Occula.

Although this second book shares only a few characters in common with Shardik, the events also transpire within the kingdom of Bekla, in the middle of similar religious and secular political struggles, and this book expands upon a particular theme—the existence and morality of slavery—that was treated as only a small part of the first book. Again, the themes are sweeping but the characters are specific, beautifully evolved, and memorable, and the language is rich.

By the way, the Streels of Urtah (which provoked this review) are a series of dark, narrow chasms in the middle of a vast plain. The people of Bekla believe that no one goes into them unless they are drawn there by their own evil. Once someone enters the Streels, they are not permitted to leave alive. Well, nobody ever said that epic sagas were supposed to be consistently cheery…