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…
Just as there are “crossover” books written for adults but both suitable for and interesting to teens (see “Alex Awards“), there are also some teen books that are equally readable by adults. In fact, for some of them, it’s a shame that they have been marketed and sold as a Young Adult title, because they deserve to be widely read.
One of these is the historical fiction book Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.
The book starts out a little confusingly: It’s about two young women in World War II England, mostly before America has entered the war. One of the women is a spy; the other is a pilot. Together, they make a great team. But the team has been split up: One of them has fallen into Nazi custody, and is being tortured to write down every detail she can dredge up about the British War Effort. She decides to write it down not from her own point of view but from that of her friend’s. It took me a while to get comfortable with the way the narrative has been switched around, but once I did, I was riveted.
I can say almost nothing about this book without giving away significant details that you should be allowed to discover on your own. I will say that the first half of the book is heart-breaking, but by the time you get to the twist in the middle, you are no longer reading the story, you are living it. I am not an emotional reader, but this book made me weep, both with sorrow and with joy. This story is among the best historical fiction I have read.
Nation, by the inimitable Terry Pratchett, creator of Disc World, is a stand-alone story of apocalyptic adventure in an alternate world much like ours. Its protagonist, Mau, is woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that changes everything; he has been living alone on the Boys’ Island, preparing to leave his boy soul there and make his transition to manhood in the ways of his tribe. But on the morning he sets out in his canoe to return to the island and people he knows as the Nation, everything there is destroyed by a giant tidal wave. The wave does wash something up on his shore, though—a ship with a sole survivor, a girl from an empire halfway around the globe, who will help him work through both shattering doubts and confidence-building certainties about the new life they both must create.
This book is deeply philosophical, examining complex religious and cultural concepts, but Pratchett dresses the philosophy in a wardrobe of ghosts and gods, talking parrots and mutineers, cannibals and secret treasures, forming a seamless story that keeps you enthralled to the very last page. While this was an honor book in 2009 for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and will certainly appeal to teens, it is a wonderful story for all ages. And, as with all Pratchett novels, it has many funny moments as well.
Although Meg Rosoff is best known for her post-apocalyptic teen book, Where I Live Now, one of her lesser known titles sticks in my mind as a great read for both older teens and adults. In The Bride’s Farewell, set in 1850s rural England and with a Hardyesque feel, Pell Ridley leaves her home in the middle of the night to avoid marrying her childhood beau; she can’t bear the thought of repeating her mother’s life of domestic drudgery and constant child-bearing. Her mute little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind, so the two ride her white horse, Jack, to the Salisbury Horse Fair, hoping to find work. When she loses everything dear to her, Pell must discover her own resources—both inner and outer—and decide what’s worth fighting for, clinging to, or surrendering.
I couldn’t put this book down—I started it at 7:00 p.m. one night, and finished it at midnight. It contains wonderful scene-setting as well as compelling characters and situations. Rosoff’s language is spare, but deeply emotional.
So…adults out there—by all means recommend these to your teens, but read them yourselves as well! And mention them to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus!
For those who have never read Greek mythology, or who have hit just the basics but not all the extras, here is the story of the half-goddess Circe in a nutshell: She was the daughter of sun god and top Titan Helios, and Perse, an ocean nymph. She was a sorceress who was exiled by Zeus to an island, to which she lured Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War, seducing him and turning his sailors into pigs.
In Madeline Miller’s book Circe, we get the back story, the forward story, and pretty much the entire kitchen sink of Greek mythology, with mixed results.
We discover that the reason she was exiled by Zeus was that she was either A. clever enough to realize that certain flowers that had been bled upon by gods still contained powers and make use of them, or B. powerful enough within herself (despite no previous knowledge of this) to catastrophically transform both her love (a fisherman) and his subsequent flirt (a nymph) into, respectively, a god and a monster (in the nymph’s case, the monster Scylla).
This book feels like a saga; but is it an epic saga? Certainly it is a long story with many events, much colorful detail, and some extraordinary insight into the natures of both gods and mortals, but…
The main issue I had with the book was that it was a retelling rather than a reimagining. Although Miller certainly did some impressive research and tied things together beautifully, I could wish that she hadn’t tied in quite so much, and had instead focused more on a personal story for Circe. So many Greek myths and personages are crammed into this book’s pages that I felt like the objective of the book ceased at some point to be about Circe and instead focused on giving a slightly more personal feel to a panoply of stories about everybody from Daedalus to the Minotaur to Odysseus. The stories that were told from a first-hand point of view were most of them compelling; but the stories that were related about and to other characters in the book second- or third-hand were, dare I say, a bit tedious?
The book was also both accurate and depressing about the depth of disdain in which women (in which I include goddesses, nymphs and other supernaturals, and human females) were held by both gods and men in these legends and these times. Not that it should have surprised any of us, but the portrayal of the almost offhandedly vicious disregard for women’s feelings, their priorities, and life itself was constant and disheartening.
The parts of the book I loved unreservedly were Circe’s personal experiences and, paradoxically, the most mundane details of the story. After her exile to Aeaea, she must come to terms with being alone and isolated on this island and turn it into her own place. The passages about her immersion in nature and the delight she took in it, and also the narration of the everyday tasks of feeding the livestock, tending her garden, and gathering herbs, learning to weave, and all the daily routine, were beautifully showcased. They made me think of poetry such as William Butler Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” with its mesmerizing tone of joy.
I also rooted for her as she began to come into her powers, trying them out and honing her knowledge and practice of witchcraft. The paradox at which she finally arrives—that despite her embrace of herself and her powers as good, she is also subject to fate and the whims and brutality of those more powerful than she—finally made the book into something more than just a serial retelling of the deeds of heroes.
I also have to say that the language of the book was beautifully simple but evocative and musical, and while there were a few overwrought passages, there were also many phrases that I enjoyed reading over several times as I passed them in the narrative.
I would by all means recommend assaying Circe to anyone with even a faint interest in the subject matter (and by all means pick up her earlier book, The Song of Achilles); but for a story that deals in a much more original manner with the whims of the gods, you could also try The Just City, by Jo Walton. Walton takes the basic natures and legends of a few of the gods and applies a walloping serving of “what if?” to them with amazing results. On the other hand, if you want other personalized treatments of Greek legends and philosophy that are classic, beautifully written and timeless, read the works of Mary Renault: The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, The Mask of Apollo, The Last of the Wine. I have enjoyed all her books several times over.
This is the time of year when I look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and ponder which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads, where I record my reading, conveniently keeps track of statistics for those who set a reading goal, so before I get to the specifics, here are some of mine:
I read 41,346 pages across 113 books.
My shortest book was an e-book-only novella (71 pages) by Sharon Bolton, while my longest was a reread of a Diana Gabaldon book (928 pages) in preparation for the next season of Outlander on TV. The average length of book I read was 365 pages.
The most popular book I read this year was (surprisingly) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (which I read for high school book club), while the least popular (though one of the most useful to me) was the “textbook” (Reading Still Matters, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross) that I assigned to my readers’ advisory students in the masters program at UCLA. And the highest rated book that I read, according to Goodreads, was The Empty Grave, a young adult horror novel that is the final chapter of the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, a wonderfully entertaining series for 8th grade and up.
One of my favorite books of the year, but not one I would consider a “best book,” would be Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was a long-anticipated fifth in her beloved Queen’s Thief series (beloved by me, though apparently unknown to far too many people); and it had her typical intricate yet understated plotting and humor that made me appreciate it throughout and also at the end. But for most people, it would probably be far too subtle to consider as a “best book,” and it needs to be viewed within its setting as part of a series to give the full effect. If you are, however, looking for a good and also untypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief (the first book) and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and finally, Thick as Thieves. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.
Tess is a slow, compelling, character-driven fantasy, so if you are impatient for breathless action, it may not be for you. But I found the writing, the characters, and the story all to be completely gripping. Tess’s transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother, was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment.
Defy the Stars was entertaining from start to finish. I loved the characters—Noemi is so idealistic, stern, determined, and committed, but with a squishy interior that occasionally surfaces. Abel is, well, a ROBOT—this is my favorite robot book since the Lije Bailey/Daneel Olivaw pair-up in Isaac Asimov’s old mystery series. As with Daneel, Abel turns out to be so much more, mostly because his creator, Burton Mansfield, gave him enough agency to continue developing on his own. But Noemi is really the catalyst who brings him to his ultimate personhood. What I especially liked about this book is that it gave you a glimpse into possible worlds that could have been colonized from Earth, and how they evolved differently depending on the expectations and ideals of their colonizers. This isn’t just space opera; it also goes into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and is thought-provoking in all areas.
One of my faves that I would also consider a “best book” was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Her quirky character Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and Eleanor’s metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this was the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence. I have always believed re-reading potential is the true test of a good book, and as soon as I finished this one, I wanted to go back and read it again to feel the emotions brought forth in me by the story.
In the mystery category, I thoroughly enjoyed the reliable offerings from among my list of favorites: Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Crais, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Sharon Bolton, and Craig Johnson; but the most anticipated and most enjoyed one had to be Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. I was completely enthralled by everything about the book: The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosted up the energy exponentially. I was thrilled that the book picked up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin married the detestable Matthew Cunliffe. When she returns to work as Cormoran’s partner, he labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, giving the reader a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation as we find out where their personal choices will lead them.
I have already mentioned, in a recent post, my favorite fantasy of this year, Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor; if you have, in your past, been prejudiced against books because they were given a “young adult” categorization, please let go of that long enough to pick up and read Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares. You won’t be sorry. I will add to the best fantasy category another, completely different offering: Vengeful, the long-awaited sequel to Vicious by V. E. Schwab.
As usual, being the bibliophile that I am, I managed to find a few new novels based on reading and bookstores to add to my list, including The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, and The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. I think the last would be my favorite of these.
Please feel free to respond with your comments on any of my favorites, and share your own—if I receive enough responses, I will publish an end-of-the-year book bonanza from readers, full of ideas for January catch-up!
I hereby nominate Laini Taylor as best fantasy writer of the year. I was going to say for best young adult fantasy, but there is no need to make that distinction: Muse of Nightmares, the sequel to last year’s Strange the Dreamer, is the quintessential fantasy that everyone else wishes he or she had written, and everyone who loves high fantasy will want to read.
When Strange the Dreamer came out in 2017 and I read it, I declared it my best book of 2017, saying this was the book I had been waiting for Taylor to write. If you would like to read the entire review, go here to the young adult blog of Burbank Public Library, for which I lately wrote and edited. The essence of that book was Lazlo Strange, the foundling librarian’s assistant with his head full of stories, and he continues near the center of this book, but his tale is expanded to embrace all those—humans, gods, and monsters—he has encountered along his way, across the great desert Elmuthaleth to the city now known as Weep, cowering in the shadow of a giant metal seraph with nightmares at its heart.
Muse of Nightmares picks up almost exactly where Strange the Dreamer left off, although it begins by introducing two new characters (one of whom we will discover that we already knew), and it proceeds to both fulfill and exponentially advance my opinion of Laini Taylor’s skills—as a lyrical and expressive writer, as a masterful storyteller, as an imaginative genius. Lush language carries you into the hearts of her characters, where you discover complexities of emotion and conflicts of conscience not often found in any story, particularly in a genre that follows specific tropes and often fails to deviate much from them. This is truly sophisticated fiction, dealing with large issues, and yet it also manages to be a blue whale of a good story, with so much content, so many conflicts and twists, and such gripping love for and between its characters that you simply can’t conceive of it ending!
It does, as all stories must, but the author is charitable to both her characters and her readers by putting out there the possibility that somewhere, between worlds, we may encounter Lazlo and Sarai, Minya, Feral and Ruby (the “gods”) and Thyon, Calixte, Tzara, Suheyla, and Ruza (the “humans”) yet again.
Do yourself a favor: Read these books.
Are you a person who enjoys reading about reading? Who loves it when a book has an author as its character, is set in a bookstore or a library, or involves you in some magical aspect of story? If so, here is an eclectic annotated list for you. Some are written for teens, some appear in sci fi or mystery, and some in general adult fiction, but all are great reads for readers:
The Telling, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The planet Aka used to be a backward, rural, but culturally rich world. But once it came into contact with the Hainish civilization, abrupt changes were made by its ruling faction to transform it into a technologically advanced model society. Sutty, an official observer from Earth, has been dispatched to see if the disconnect has been too great. She learns of a group of outcasts living in the back country who still believe in the old ways and practice a lost religion called the Telling, and seeks them out, at some personal risk to both herself and them, to discover what this society is missing. (Science Fiction)
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This is the story of foster child Liesel Meminger, who is living just outside of Munich during World War II. Liesel steals books (thus the name) and–once she learns to read–shares them with her stepfather and also with the Jewish man hiding in their basement. The novel is narrated by Death. The language, the imagery, the story, the unusual point of view are all stellar. I’m not sure why this was pigeon-holed as a teen book, because it’s a universally appealing story. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Thirteenth Tale,
by Diane Satterfield
Biographer Margaret Lea lives above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. One day she receives a letter from one of Britain’s premier novelists. Vida Winter is gravely ill, and wants to tell her life story before it’s too late, and she has selected Margaret to do so. Margaret is puzzled and intrigued (she has never met the author, nor has she read her novels), and agrees to meet with her. Winter finally shares the dark family secrets she has long kept hidden, and Margaret becomes immersed in her story, which is a true gothic tale complete with a madwoman hidden in the attic, illegitimate children, and some ghosts. (Adult Fiction)
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly
David’s mother has died, and the 12-year-old has only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him, leading him through a magical gateway to a series of familiar, yet slightly skewed versions of classic fairy tales and aiding him to come to terms with his loss and his new life. (Adult Fiction or sometimes shelved as Young Adult)
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son in post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona, falls in love with a book, only to discover that someone is systematically destroying all other works by this author. A combination of detective story, fantasy, and gothic horror. (Adult Fiction)
The Eyre Affair,
by Jasper Fforde
In an alternate-history version of London in 1985, Special Operative Thursday Next is tasked by the Special Operations Network with preventing the kidnapping of literary characters from books. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of the book by that name, Thursday is determined to prevent the trauma experienced by its fond readers. (If you like this one, there are many more in the series.) (Adult Mystery)
Inkheart (plus sequels Inkspell, Inkdeath),
by Cornelia Funke
Meggie’s father, who repairs and binds books for a living, has an unusual gift that became a curse in their lives: He can “read” characters out of books. But when he is reading a book to young Meggie, some characters escape into their world and her mother gets sucked into the story! Now it’s time for Mo and Meggie to change the course of that story, send the book’s evil ruler back into his book and maybe retrieve the person dear to them both…. (Children’s Fiction)
Not as directly reader-related, but with twisted versions of fairy tales interspersed throughout its exciting contents is Cornelia Funke’s “Mirrorworld” series that starts with the book Reckless. Again, this series was billed and sold as a series for children and teens, but it’s really a powerful and sophisticated fantasy about an alternate world that will appeal to all ages. There are three books, and more to come, according to Cornelia! (usually shelved as Young Adult Fiction, but…)
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
The historical saga of how a book–the Sarajevo Haggadah–came to be, and its storied history down through five centuries, written from the point of view of a curmudgeonly rare book conservator. Inspired by a true story, and beautifully written. (Adult Fiction)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Clay Jannon, a website designer who has lost his job as a result of the dot-com disaster, finds part-time employment on the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore. But soon the strange goings-on at the store have Clay and his friends speculating about how the place stays in business; there are plenty of customers, but none of them ever seems to buy anything, and Clay is forbidden from opening any of the dusty manuscripts they periodically arrive to peruse. But when he gets bored and curious… (Adult Fiction)
Ink and Bone,
by Rachel Caine
This series is set in an alternate world, in which the Great Library at Alexandria never burned down. Centuries later, having achieved a status not unlike the Vatican in contemporary life, the Great Library and its rulers control the flow of knowledge to the masses. Paradoxically, although anyone can order up any of the greatest works of history from the library (via alchemy), personal ownership of books is forbidden. Jess Brightwell’s family are black market book dealers, but Jess decides he wants to play it straight by entering the service of the Library. Or does he? The sequels are Paper and Fire, and Ash and Quill. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Fikry, the owner of Island Books on Alice Island (think Martha’s Vineyard) is in a bad way: His beloved wife has just died, sales are dismal, and someone has just stolen his rare edition of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. But then an unexpected discovery—an important “package” abandoned in his bookstore—changes his perspective on everything. (Adult Fiction)
There are probably dozens more books about books, reading, and writing; when I discover them, I’ll share!