Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

“The Book of Dust – Volume One – La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman

Product Details

This book is a (sort of) prequel to Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

Pullman wrote this trilogy between 1995 and 2000. JK Rowling wrote the seven Harry Potter books between 1997 and 2007. Each series was oriented towards young people and each generated a well developed alternate (fantasy) world and world view.

People (like me) who raised kids born from, say, 1975 to 1995 were likely to find themselves immersed in one or both of these literary bonanzas and their associated alternate worlds. What began, for many families, as read aloud frenzies, later evolved into pitched battles over who got to read an eagerly awaited, newly released book first. Adults have been known to stay up until all hours with The Deathly Hallows or The Amber Spyglass.

Two copies of La Belle Sauvage (released October 19) turned up at our now all-adult Thanksgiving family gathering. Serious discussion was devoted to which alternative world is more compelling, Hogwarts or Lyra’s Oxford. Pullman beat Rowling by a narrow margin. None of us could resist the idea of having a daemon.

What’s a daemon? In Pullman’s alternate world, every human has an animal “familiar” which reflects aspects of his or her personality. In classical Greek mythology, a daemon is a “natural spirit which is less than divine”. (Loosely paraphrased from Wikipedia.) In Pullman, a child’s daemon changes animal form from moment to moment – an adult’s is fixed. A person’s daemon provides loving companionship, support, insight… To be separated from one’s daemon is unbearably painful. Pullman makes this complex conceit feel natural.

La Belle Sauvage is a fantasy/adventure story written for young adults. There is nothing condescending about it. The protagonists (a boy of 11 and a girl of 14) living in a place rather like Victorian Oxford, are drawn into adult conflicts that mix politics, religion, science and philosophy. They end up guarding a baby in the midst of a natural disaster. It’s the battle between good and evil, narrated with flair and energy. I couldn’t put it down.

Like the Harry Potter series, Pullman’s books have been labeled a “bad influence” on young minds. “Anti-religious” is one of the claims.

Read La Belle Sauvage! If you haven’t read the Dark Materials trilogy, go for it. I’m planning to order some of Pullman’s other books, and will report on them soon.

Advertisements

“Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson

Goodness, I haven’t blogged for many weeks! I’m happy to report that most of this delay resulted from good things happening in my life, like travel. Then there were some troubles, but nothing really far out of the ordinary.

BUT also, I read a book that brought me to a bemused halt! Yes, Cryptonomicon.

First, it’s huge – 900+ pages. Perfect if you are crossing Siberia by train in winter. (I wasn’t.) And it’s written in a style that mixes fact and fiction, cutting back and forth through time.

The mixture of fact and fiction makes me wonder if Stephenson wants his work to be accessible only to cognoscenti. His description of, for example, the Hindenburg explosion might be incomprehensible to many people. (And maybe I misunderstood…)

One message of the book is “war is hell”, to which I reply (as usual) “If so, why wrap it in fiction?” I was somewhat reminded of Catch 22 by  Joseph Heller, but that was more linear in narrative style.

Why did I keep reading this sprawling, often confusing novel? For the characters and their relationships. And because I’m interested in “contemporary” history, the times I (and my parents) lived through.

I have not delved into the reviews of this book. On Amazon.com alone they number 1,685, cumulatively awarding Cryptonomicon 4+ stars out of five.

I read (and blogged about) three other books by Neal Stephenson: Anathem, Snow Crash and Seven Eves. Anathem was my favorite, closely followed by Seven Eves. I will await recommendations from friends before I tackle another.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil by Gaiman

A friend handed me this book because “it’s as good as Terry Pratchett”! OK… but I’m ambivalent about Pratchett. See my eulogy, dated March 19, 2015. So where does this Gaiman novel rate on the Pratchett scale?

I would give if about at 90. Not as good as my absolute Pratchett favorites, but very good.

The plot (told entirely as a flashback): A child’s family life is disrupted by the suicide of a boarder. Strange events follow hard on – money keeps turning up – a lottery win, a found coin. Sounds good, but goes all wrong.

The child meets neighbors and they team up to wage a supernatural battle against the forces of disorder. It all makes sense when told from the eyes of the child.

I’ll take more of Gaiman with me to the beach. Perfect reading for a rainy day!

“After Alice – A Novel” by Gregory Maguire

I don’t quite know how to categorize this book. I’d be inclined to say “fan fiction” but I’m quite ignorant about that, and this book seems to be more highly regarded. A blurb on the back cover says it was reviewed in Kirkus Reviews. So I guess it is a “real novel”.

After Alice is a take on the Lewis Carroll classic – not the first I’ve read. It’s whimsical to the point of being bizarre, but so was the original.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Ada, who barely shows up in the original book. It’s clever and amusing, and the “identity” of the Jabberwocky is a surprise. What I can’t quite figure out is how Maguire came up with Siam, a boy escaped from American slavery, now cared for by a visitor to England. Scarred and traumatized, Siam decides to stay in Wonderland when Alice and Ada go back to their “regular” lives. Are all the characters in Wonderland similar displaced persons?

Maguire also wrote Wicked, a modern version of The Wizard of Oz and source for the wildly popular Broadway musical of that name, which I have not yet seen. I’ll take a look at Wicked (the book) before I decide about Gregory Maguire.

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

Published 2015. 861 pages.

SPECULATIVE FICTION is a wonderful thing! I loved this book! I liked it even better than the author’s Anathem, which I wrote about just after I began this blog (see June 27, 2013).

Science fiction is one way to describe this book, but it could also be called “social science” fiction. In particular, “anthropology fiction”. Emergence of new cultures! The clash of world views and values! And the anthropologist’s dream, contact with long isolated human groups.

Plot wise, this is fiction about disaster and survival. The plot astonished me several times. Stephenson plays around with all manner of archetypes and myths, including the Fall of Eve.

I love to read a book that makes me feel the author really enjoyed writing it. Stephenson has a goofy sense of humor. How else do you explain a character named Sonar Taxlaw? (It does make sense in the context.) He goes ahead and parodies contemporary public figures. POTUS Julia Bliss Flaherty = Hilary Clinton. Probably many other characters would be recognizable to readers more sophisticated than I.

In some ways, two thirds of the book is the set-up. If so inclined, Stephenson could have stretched this out longer than Game of Thrones.

There’s lots of biology in Seveneves, some of it fairly improbable. For example, some humans are capable of “epigenetic shifts”, that is, a change in which of their genes are expressed. Breeding humans that can swim long distances undersea and humans with intentionally “neanderthal” characteristics also seem unlikely. But it’s fiction, so why not go wild.

Stephenson invented (but did not develop) an entirely new social science called “Amistics”. It’s the study of how societies decide whether or not to adopt available new technology – honoring our plain living neighbors in Pennsylvania.

When an author creates so many characters, I have to wonder if there’s one with which he identifies. I’m betting on Tyuratum Lake, the canny bartender who sees and knows ALL.

A friend raised the issue of whether this type of literature is socially unhealthy because it leads people to believe we can irresponsibly trash the earth and then leave for space. This argument has been around for decades – nothing new. We all need to be responsible about how we choose to live. And we all need some escape literature! So why dump this guilt trip on Neal Stephenson in particular?

I enjoyed this book so much I burned through it in a week. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Sci Fi or fantasy.

“In the Balance (World War, Book One)” by Harry Turtledove

Alternative historical fiction! A new genre to explore! And what a great idea! After all, who can resist speculating on “What if the South had won the Civil War?” So I downloaded this highly recommended book. The premise is extreme – what if space aliens had invaded Earth towards the end of World War II?

I think this would have worked better without the space aliens (any universal threat would do, like an epidemic), but they allowed for an interesting line of argument, namely that a reader of science fiction might have an advantage when communicating with bug eyed monsters. Turtledove’s monsters are rather like lizards. The point, I think, is that reading sci-fi makes you mentally flexible. I agree, as long as it’s not your only reading matter.

Despite this interesting starting point, I found the book to be plodding. The characters were interesting but their dilemmas were rather predictable.

Turtledove made one joke he didn’t intend. The aliens come from a hot, dry planet, and they are headed for a military denouement with American forces in Illinois in mid-winter. Yes, winter is coming! Let’s hear it for Game Of Thrones.

I enjoyed another book series that posited a different path for WW II. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels take place in England, but after Nazi occupation during WW II. The occupation disrupted the country so extensively that Wales separated and became an independent nation. Tensions remained. This is not the theme of the books (which deal with the manipulation of time and the tribulations of heroine Thursday Next), but it provides an interesting subtext. (I think Fforde is classified as a writer of post modernist fantasy. I like him better than the other “postmodernists” I have encountered.)

I’ll read more by Harry Turtledove if I’m faced with truly challenging boredom (say a 30 hour train ride), but for now, I’m moving on to other authors.

“The Magicians: A Novel” by Lev Grossman – book AND TV series

I know I read this book many months ago, but I can’t find it in my blog. Maybe I was embarrassed about reading “junk”? Was I away on vacation? I read it on my Kindle.

“The Magicians” is like the Harry Potter books, but takes place in the USA and at the college level (graduate school in the TV series). A bright, moody young man is recruited by Brakebill’s University of Magic, an elite training ground for the magically inclined. Most of the faculty and students have read (and obsessed over) a series of books that sound just like the The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis.

I went BACK to this book after the TV series started. We watched out of curiosity, to see if the series stayed close to the books. The casting is good, but the plot diverged early and extensively. As usual for me, I prefer the books. But I’ll start watching the series again if it shows the students traveling to Antarctica as a flock of geese!

I liked The Magicians better the second time I read it, when I wasn’t hurrying along just to figure out the plot. The TV series is darker and less coherent than the book, and I lack any particular taste for the dystopian.