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Tag: fantasy

On fantasy writing, immersive worlds and reading The Belgariad by David Eddings

“But there’s a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what is possible and impossible?”
There should be a word for that feeling of utter joy and sheer satisfaction that comes with discovering a new fantasy series that is just right. And I have come to realize that “my type of fantasy” lies somewhere on the edge between middle grade and young adult. No Veronica Roth, Cassandra Clare, thank you very much, but of course, nothing overly childish either – coming-of-age stories, basically. His Dark Materials, Tiffany Aching, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Earthsea… you see my point? The Belgariad fits that requirement perfectly. It also has that epic quality that makes it even more attractive.
In this post, I mostly focus on the first book, Pawn of Prophecy. This is (a) to avoid spoilers (b) because the rest of the series is one continuous story cut into parts; whereas the first book is more or less standalone. At any rate, one book was enough to have me completely head over heels. So here’s what it is about. 
Story: Prologue… The world was created by seven gods. One of the gods fashioned an orb which contained a living soul. Another god, Torak, attempted to steal this Orb but ended up being destroyed by it. Belgariad was a mighty sorcerer and a disciple of the God who created the Orb. Belgarath recovered the Orb from the evil Torak and, with his daughter Polgara, Belgarath has been protecting the Orb for centuries. 
In the present day, our protagonist, a young boy named Garion, lives on a farm with his Aunt Pol. He has lost both his parents and is unsure of his family history. One day, a mysterious storyteller called Mister Wolf arrives on their farm and warns Aunt Pol of a strange, important object that has been stolen. Much to Garion’s surprise, Mister Wolf whisks them away on a quest to find this stolen object. And as the journey progresses, Garion begins to realize that Aunt Pol may not be who he thinks she is… Family secrets and buried mythologies surface as Garion starts to question his own fate.
Language: This book was written in 1982, which in Fantasy years is not that long ago. Of course, it’s much before books like the Bartimaeus trilogy were penned, but around the same time as Ursula K Le Guin or Philip Pullman’s writing. Naturally, the writing has a bit of that oldsy style; a little wordy and solemn… slightly dated if you will. The latest trend in coming-of-age fantasy seems to be this informal banter (think Rick Riordan), smug, sarcastic, conversational, school-kid-talk. With The Belgariad, I’m glad to read another children’s book that speaks of childhood without trying to sound like a child.
“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.”

World Building: What makes Neil Gaiman’s writing so appealing? One reason is how he gives us brief, blurry-around-the-edges glimpses into his worlds. Carefully manicured scenes which give the faintest promise of wonders hidden behind his veils. With every new page you turn, you yearn more and more for those quick looks, begging him for scraps of new detail, which he gleefully provides peppered across the story. In her own way, J.K. Rowling also does that – that’s why Pottermore still works or we rush to watch Fantastic Beasts and glow warmly when Hogwarts is mentioned. They let on just enough about their world that we are convinced it’s complex, without ever letting on too much. It’s an accomplished story telling skill. But it’s not world building.

David Eddings does the opposite. While Rowling’s world seems to grow even today and she piles more details every passing year – Eddings’ world is all ready when he tells us this story. Each character has a story, a motive, a place in the world, or a conflict within himself – from the smallest shadow who passes by on the street to the many kings of the empires in this land, even his gods grieve and think and second guess and love – every character matters and earns your sympathy. The history is written. It is narrated throughout the story. And the detail makes it so that the world couldn’t not exist. Incredibly immersive.

Characters: The characters – the hundreds of tonnes of characters – each have a distinct personality, and with it, a voice,
which has so much to do with language. Wolf is old, cheeky, wise
but has grown weary with age; Pol is a formidable creature but at once also
motherly, caring, hence well respected; Garion is curious, innocent and
as if on principal, good. Even supporting characters like Silk and Barak
ooze their own drama and charm.

Initially, Eddings makes a biased narrator and it is quite clear whom you’re expected to like. This is typical in fantasy, so commonplace
that they’re the norm… one might even consider it wrong to expect
more? The characters of The Belgariad do grow over time and by the end
of the series, context will turn these caricatures drawn from Book 1
meaningless.

(Bonus:  the book is also endlessly quotable.) 

“Little jobs require little men, and it’s the little jobs that keep a kingdom running.”


“Why are the people all so unhappy?” he asked Mister Wolf. “They have a stern and demanding God,” Wolf replied. “Which God is that?” Garion asked. “Money,” Wolf said.”


“A day in which you learn something isn’t a complete loss.”

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Not so much a review as an organised rant.

THE WORLD: Shelved as ‘science fantasy’, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is the first installment in the series that is built on the premise that humans have so ravaged the world that Father Earth wants revenge. There is only one continent left now called the Stillness which frequently suffers severe unpredictable climate changes – called the ‘fifth season.’ Every fifth season wipes out populations and communities. 
The population is also altered now. Alongside humans are beings called orogenes, who have the ability to harness the power of the earth,
feel shifts in stone and hear vibrations of the ground. And to control the orogenes from harming humans, we have the Guardians, who have been charged with taking care of the orogenes. The Stillness is a ravaged world, made savage through its suffering. Not unlike our world, it uses blind violence to get what it wants.

THE STORY: The book introduces us to three women, at different points in time. Essun, addressed simply as “you”, is the woman of the present day, an orogene who takes us through the latest fifth season that has hit the world. Hiding amongst the humans of a small village, Essun has constructed a lie. She is married and has two children, seemingly happy, except her husband doesn’t know that Essun and their children are orogenes.

One day, a giant rift hits the ground, signalling the start of yet another Season, and demolishes many communities in the Stillness. But this is not the greatest of Essun’s troubles. For the same day, she comes home to find her husband and daughter missing and her little boy strangled to death. And that can only mean one thing: their secret is out. Essun can sense that her daughter is still alive somewhere, a mother’s instinct, and she sets out to find her husband and daughter and avenge her son’s death. But Father Earth has other plans for Essun.

The plot is complicated and the timelines could get confusing. But it will keep on the edge of your seat, that’s for sure.

THEMES: This book and the rest of the trilogy is very intelligently crafted. I had asked friends to recommend books that were ‘unputdownable’ and this series was one of the suggestions. I don’t usually read series especially when I haven’t heard of them, but man, I’m so glad I read this. While I have only spoken about one story here, it is the series I wholeheartedly recommend. It is so well bound together that I cannot think of one book without its companions, an infinity gently split into three narratives. The series is about so many things, it’s about everything – family, life, death, love, forgiveness, kindness, race, politics, discrimination, war, survival, hatred, fear – from bare human emotions to grand worldwide conflicts. And it is about time, and how it affects everything in the most epic proportions…

THE CHARACTERS: It is through Essun’s eyes that we experience this world throughout the series, told largely in second-person perspective. She is a beautiful character and the best thing about this book for me – many fantasy stories today showcase powerful and flawless heroines that seem to exist to make a stand. (Two years ago, I had many speculative fiction magazines reject my first story, The Dew Eagle, because the main character, a tribal woman, didn’t seem strong enough, whatever that means.) Essun is strong. She is also flawed, and not always aware of her shortcomings – her temper, her ideas of motherhood, her selfish pursuits. She is not always in control, of herself or her surroundings. And  the story demands that you relate to her, identify with her, because she is ‘you.’

The Broken Earth Trilogy is reminiscent of Earthsea in its conspicuous lack of whitewashing. The characters, spread across different communities in the Stillness, are of different race, colour and sexuality – Jemisin takes great care in describing the characters as both individuals and representatives of their creed. And she tackles the prejudices present in the characters carefully as well – giving us a truly well-rounded believable world, not without its faults, but overall, understandably so. Perhaps the biggest achievement for Jemisin is that you cannot characterize any of her characters as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’; that kind of black-and-white judgment absent in her writing. Our characters range from prudent and self important, to impulsive and lacking in faith – and they’re all simply trying to survive, one way or the other. This is not a moral story, not a preaching session. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Any lessons are for you to deduce.

QUOTES: At this juncture, my own words fail me and I resort to good ol’ fashioned quotage:
“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine. But this is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. For the last time.”


“But human beings, too, are ephemeral things in the planetary scale. The number of things that they do not notice are literally astronomical.”

“Life cannot exist without the Earth.Yet there is a not-unsubstantiated chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth. We’ve come close a few times. That can’t happen. We cannot be permitted to win.”

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

“…where’s the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it?”

Un Lun Dun. Say it quickly, in one go. UnLunDun. Does it make sense? That’s it. UnLondon. Un-London. Un Lun Dun is a Young Adult Fantasy book by China Mieville, an English writer of weird fantasy.

Un Lun Dun is set in the fantasy world of UnLondon, a city which lies on the brink of London, formed out of the debris of the city, where anything or anyone that is obsolete within London is transported and takes on a life of its own. Every city in the world has one such Un-city or abcity. Paris has Parisn’t, Rome has Romeless and Helsinki has Helsunki. An UnSun shaped like a loop shines its light on UnLondon and at night, the white Loon smiles down on the abcity. Cutting the city cleanly in two parts, the Smeath flows through UnLondon, and its skyline is dotted by many iconic structures, the best amongst them perhaps the Webminster Abbey. It’s a treat for any London-lover and a testament to the bizarreness of the city.
Zanna is a young girl living in London. She’s been having some weird experiences lately, strange people recognize her on the street, animals seem to be staring at her funny and once, her friend Deeba saw a cloud shaped like Zanna’s face. Following her around, whispered in corners and graffiti-ed on walls is a word – “choisi” or “Schwazzy” – French for chosen” as she is called. That’s what she is – the chosen one, but chosen for what? Zanna travels to UnLondon to find out what destiny has in store for her, and she takes her friend Deeba along with her on what turns out to be the most twisted adventure ever.

The Smog has started to take over the city of UnLondon. It is a shapeless entity comprising all the smoke and pollution emitted across the twin abcities of London and UnLondon. It’s a sentient smog, and it is angry, hidden away after being vanquished from London by what was rumoured to be a band of magicians. The Smog is now secretly planning to overthrow the existing powers in UnLondon and take over the world. A prophecy in UnLondon says that no one can stop the Smog, except the chosen one. But when Zanna reaches UnLondon, the UnLonders hopes wane, because the Chosen One is just a clueless young girl, easily squashed by the mighty Smog. What will happen when the Smog defeats Zanna?

Un Lun Dun is a Young-Adult book through and through. It is fast, it is witty in that dry teenagerey way and it has a lot of excitement without the need for explanation and a healthy dose of puns and wordsmithery. It is a plot-driven book which works because its characters are utterly likeable. The main character, Deeba, initially thought to be a sidekick of the chosen one, comes through to be our hero of the book. The book keeps surprising you at every turn of events – the story is nowhere near linear… halfway through the book, you wonder what could happen next, because the resolution seems right around the corner. And bang, you end up in the middle of an all new adventure before you can bid goodbye to the first. An excellent quick read for the bored you.

It is an emotional ride as well, the book takes on all your typical fantasy tropes – hero, sidekick, destiny, prophecies, Chosen Ones and tasks and treasures – and turns them on their head. He surprises you with a depth that you unfairly would not expect from a children’s book. It talks about family also, and friends, and how fickle relationships can be. It shows you the practical problems of being a hero in a fantasy story and in the most fascinating way, shows you how the problems can be done away with. The book knows when not to tug at your heart strings also, and prefers sweet subtleties over maudlin displays. It’s quite an experience, one I would rather not spoil with over-analysis. I recommend this book heartily to lovers of fantasy, magic, urban fantasy, alternate worlds..

Un Lun Dun has the most ridiculous cast of characters – a book of prophecies which is quite opinionated indeed, Propheseers who read the book and generally philosophize on people’s destinies, a man who can control umbrellas, a half-ghost half-human boy, a milk carton which has a life of its own, and armed dustbins called the Binja who are a security force. Some people populating UnLondon are those who were of no use to London, and slipped through the worlds – they are as M.O.I.L, that is, Mostly Obsolete in London…which is why UnLondon has, among its residents, quite a large population of bus conductors and librarians!
A few months ago, I was on a trip to London and got lost underground on the very first day, stranded at Leicester Square with a suitcase and painfully without my passport, money or travel card. It was one of the craziest nights, I ended up in the control room with a bunch of guards trying to call different stations on the Piccadilly line to find my mother, who happened to be on the tube! It was a very Neverwhere thing to happen. I hadn’t read Un Lun Dun at the time, but that night I was pretty much M.O.I.L. myself… mostly obsolete. I just wish I could have ended up in UnLondon. Now that would have been something.

Buy this book on Amazon!

On ageing in fantasy and reading The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

(Oh, sweet fantasy, how I have missed you.)

“She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free. What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it.”

Having taken a long hiatus from this blog, it’s weird to jump back into book-blogging, but a lot has happened that I want to write about, and a lot of reading has filled me with reviewer-ly inspiration. Before I begin, I have yet to read the final installment of the Earthsea books, the one titled The Other Wind, and I would appreciate staying spoiler-free. The Earthsea Cycle is a series of four (actually, six) books set in an alternate universe called Earthsea. It consists of a vast archipelago and the boundless sea surrounding it, is culturally quite unlike our world and is filled with magic.
Each of the four main books is a coming-of-age tale and the creation story of its hero. The first book is entitled The Wizard of Earthsea and it tells us about the tumultuous childhood of one of the greatest wizards of all time, a boy named Ged. The second book follows Ged on an adventure which introduces us to Le Guin’s second hero, a woman named Tenar. In what is perhaps the greatest fantasy book I have read, Le Guin brings out the darker sides of magic and the role women and witches play in fantasy through the character of Tenar. The third book is a prince’s journey, a story which deals with death, the history of war and chivalry. And the fourth book, a rather more mature tale, follows a young abused child and is an examination of feminism and patriarchy. The Earthsea books taken together are brilliant for many reasons – the extent of racial diversity, an entire cast of coloured characters is the most significantly noticeable. Over the course of the series, Le Guin also consciously makes feminism one of the prominent themes, scrutinizes gender roles and identities, and creates brilliant women characters. But my favourite thing in her books is something I had mentioned in initial musings in a Goodreads review – how gracefully all her characters age. Woven into all the books in the Earthsea cycle is the theme of age. 
Ageing is something I find sorely missing in fantasy tales. Nearly all of my favourite fantasy comprises coming of age stories – be it series like Harry Potter, the Bartimaeus trilogy, His Dark Materials, and even standalone books like Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. However, very few of them follow the main characters through into their adulthood. Some take a big leap into the future, like the Harry Potter series, but fail to show the many little middles which make up a life. We have immortality, and with it, characters opting out of immortality in order to live their short lives, but we don’t see them in action. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series ends not with a wizened old slayer, but a sprightly twenty-something with a whole future ahead of her. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the older children just disappear. Even Peter Pan, which is about (not) growing up, doesn’t really do more than bring out the contrasts between youth and adulthood. 
Fantasy tends to deal with the big facts of life – birth, death, love, evil; it’s quite surprising then that it neglects to write about growing old. But the process is important. It’s a fact of matter. People age. Wizards grow old, as do witches, and the growth changes them, like it changes us. The boy is not the wobbly old man he grew up into, and though knowing the boy will help you understand the man, there is so much more to him. It is when you’re growing up that life reveals to you just how wily it can be; which maybe why teenagers are so difficult, and the twenties are depressing times. 
People around me are always telling me how they don’t recognize themselves anymore, or how choices made three years ago fail to make sense now. Or how you’d never imagined growing up that you’d end up this way but it’s so obvious now that you are. I wish more stories evoked that feeling, and brought out the sheer normalcy of change. And the change only accelerates with time. I’m nothing like the girl who started this blog six years ago, I’m unimaginably altered. I lose interest in many book characters because they have failed to alter in that way, because they seem a little too similar. I mean, is reality always as neat as Rowling writes it. Does a boy good at Herbology become a professor of Herbology? And all those high school couples make it, and all their children are good friends, and life is wrapped up in glitter-paper with a big fat pink bow on it. 
It often wonder about all the young adult heroes from stories I have liked, whatever happened to Lyra Belaqua after the events of His Dark Materials? Can I have a new book with her all grown up? And one with her as an old woman too? I can think of only one other example of such an ageing main character, and that is Christopher Chant from the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. Yet no one has done it quite so substantially as Le Guin. I feel this theme might have been explored a lot more with superheroes. (Edit: I found a song and a kind of review of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the first two seconds of Googling, so there ought to be more.) In the Earthsea books, life, real bloody fleshy life, happens between two books. In every consecutive book, Ged has grown years older. And through the series, we learn about the years between the books only through how different he has become.
It’s a hook, a big beautiful hook. Once you get a taste of her style, wanting to find out what the characters will be like later becomes a very good reason to read the next book in the series. I went on an Earthsea spree, buying Kindle editions to save delivery time, though I don’t actually own a Kindle, and hence had to read on the cloud reader. Couple the maturity of her writing (the pet themes of sex and feminism, identity and bravery) with her vivid wordsmithery, add into the mix this trick, and you have a very clever set of books. Do read the series, especially if you love fantasy, but even otherwise. 

On Children’s Books, February Reads and Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt*

*Not in that order.


Tuck Everlasting: I had always thought that a film whose crowning glory is its beautiful narration must have been a really good book. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt has been on my to-read list for a long time, ever since happy afternoons spent watching the feel-good movie. (I will never get over how pretty Alexis Bledel looks in the movie.) Tuck Everlasting is a strange tale about immortality and its consequences.

The Foster House is a towering structure that lies at the edge of a forest, and the beginnings of a small village. The only important family in the village, the Fosters own the forest. It’s a mysterious wood that people would rather stay away from, anyway. The Fosters are a very proper family, and Winifred Foster is a lonely child. A ten-year-old who is not even allowed to play in peace in her own front yard, Winnie decides one day to run away from home. 
In the forest, Winnie meets a handsome young boy. He’s sitting beside a spring drinking water, when she comes across him. Thirsty herself, Winnie tries to drink from the spring. But he forbids her. His mother arrives after him, and before she knows it, Winnie finds herself kidnapped by the strangest family – who call themselves the Tucks.
The Tucks tell Winnie a story – about a spring that gives eternal life to the drinker and a curse that entraps those who drink from it. The Tucks claim to be over a hundred years old. And now that Winifred knows their secret, they refuse to let her go. And as strange as this story is, here’s the oddest part of the affair – it is with the Tucks that Winnie feels the most comforted, and she has no wish to return home. But the Tucks don’t know that they are being followed and Winnie has no clue what life has in store for her if she’s found.

Like the movie, it is a feel-good story, quite easy to devour in a single sitting. It is a neatly wrapped story, with a tidy bow atop. Thing resolve marvellously at  the end, so much so that you almost wonder, was there any conflict at all?

On Children’s Book Choices – Children these days have a much more vibrant choice of books to read than I did. Now I don’t know if this is city-, country- or simply individual-specific; but I have a feeling there did not use to be quite as many books about rat-burgers or underpants back in the day. When I recommend books to children, I try to find a balance between the whimsy and the “life lesson” for lack of a better word. Recommendations that have worked wonders so far include Lemony Snicket, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling (need I even say?) And as a teacher, trying to justify my choices, I think that what ties these together that each of these books, though child-like and playful and fun, introduce a new string of thought to the reader’s mind – have a deeper theme, a message, an idea, a perspective.

And Tuck Everlasting does that beautifully. The other day, I was discussing with a few of my classes whether it makes sense to them that books like Harry Potter are banned in certain schools either because they promote witchcraft (which, not being Christians ourselves, we can be coolly objective about) or because they have themes a bit too adult for a young age. The responses were varied – one child said there was no need to expose children to things beyond their understanding as misunderstanding are worse than naivete. Another was convinced that anything that will be discovered eventually, may be discovered from a safe source right now.

The conversation – stemming from our read of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – took a turn to the topic of death, and consequently, immortality. When did my dear children first become aware of the concept of death? I made it a point not to come out and say this in so many words, of course, because there are still some faces in the class with that touch of rare innocence that can be so easily lost. And yet, it was a discussion worth the effort, for it brought out precious perspectives… is there a right age to find out about death? Would you tell your kid sister about it? Can you imagine what Dumbledore meant when he said… “To a well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”?

The kids discussed the pros and cons of immortality and that is when I found myself talking about Tuck Everlasting. I think books are the perfect window to the unknown, or to that which cannot be well grappled with. They do not rush you into anything, like a movie, which can surprise you and cannot be unseen. You can set your own pace with a book and choose your takeaway. Tuck Everlasting would be a beautiful book to recommend a child who has just discovered mortality. I want to try and procure the book for our school library. Here’s an excerpt:

“Dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”


One adorable response to the question of the desirability of immortality – maybe if you’re a vampire, it will be cool, because then you won’t be so depressed that everyone you used to know is now dead. Because you will be evil. (Well, if only it were that simple, said Spike, Angel, Stefan, Bill and what’s-his-shiny-face.)

February Reads: I did not read the planned four books, but have still somehow had an eventful two months of the new year. Apart from Americanah, which I reviewed, I have read Tuck Everlasting, Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett, A Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket and came across and fell in love with The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. Currently immersed in two books – Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Many reviews coming up, soon I hope. 

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

SO I have no intention of ever reading the Game of Thrones books; not out of a sense of I’m-too-good-for-it, but rather, Who-has-the-time? But I was curious about Martin’s style, so I have been meaning to get this book for a while now. Fevre Dream is a vampire story, which is much more up my alley than chain-mail-clad sword-brandishing fantasy, anyway. Written in 1982, this book is what one might call steampunk science fiction.
Summary: It is the story of a steamboat captain named Abner Marsh who is commissioned to construct a new boat by Joshua York, a strange beautiful gentleman and businessman who wishes to be his partner. The magnificent new steamboat is called the Fevre Dream and it is Abner Marsh’s dream to make it the fastest running vessel on the Mississippi. Part of Abner Marsh’s contract with York is to stay out of his away, no questions asked about York’s nocturnal habits or the strange company he keeps. Abner Marsh is more than eager to accept York’s conditions for the chance to captain his dream boat. That is, until he begins to discover a strange pattern to York’s secrets. A rumour floats upstream… vampire.
Meanwhile, in a small settlement along the Mississippi lies a haunted house. A house inhabited by such monsters that no slave is ready to work there, no guest returns alive. The property is run by Damien Julian, who calls himself the bloodmaster of his clan. As the neighbouring town turns against the demonic presence in their house, the ancient Damien Julian sends out his clan to find accommodation elsewhere. And a couple of them just happen to board the Fevre Dream.
“The very one, Abner. An astounding man. I had the good
fortune to meet him once. Our steamboat put me in mind of a poem he once
wrote.” York began to recite.

She walks in Beauty,
like the night
Of cloudless climes
and starry skies;
And all that’s best of
dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and
her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that
tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy
day denies.

“What shall we name
her?” York asked, his eyes still fixed on the boat, and a slight smile on his
face. Does the poem suggest anything? I had in mind something like Dark Lady,
or—”

“I had somethin’ in mind myself,” Marsh said. “We’re Fevre
River Packets, after all, and this boat is all I ever dreamed come true.” He
lifted his hickory stick and pointed at the wheelhouse. “We’ll put it right
there, big blue and silver letters, real fancy. Fevre Dream.” He smiled.

For a moment, something strange and haunted moved in Joshua
York’s gray eyes. Then it was gone as swiftly as it had come. “Fevre Dream,” he
said. “Don’t you think that choice a bit… oh, ominous? It suggests
sickness to me, fever and death and twisted visions. Dreams that… dreams
that should not be dreamed, Abner.”
My thoughts: To me, a well written speculative fiction contributes to the existing lore, offers an alternate. (To me, for instance, the ‘vampires don’t come out in the sun as they sparkle and stand out’ bit of the Twilight series is the least of its faults because of its sheer innovation. Did anyone ever even consider that the sun did not in fact harm vampires directly but made them more conspicuous?) In this aspect of lore-feeding, Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin fares rather excellently. The vampires of Fevre Dream are not supernatural, but rather a distinct race – humanoid yet different. A race afflicted by a thirst which might just find itself a cure in science.
The popular vampire myth is steeped in Christian ritual. The vampire is a reanimated corpse that rests in its coffin, leaves it at dusk, can be repelled with the cross, may not enter a church, gets burnt by holy water. Take all that away and what is left may not be a vampire at all. Hindu mythology speaks of batlike demon creatures but they bear only a vague resemblance to our walking dead. Like all recent vampire mythology, Martin’s story is a fight of good versus evil. It is also very Christian, but in a different way. Martin tells the story of Joshua York as a messiah come to free the vampires of their curse, the Pale King come to lead them to a newer tomorrow.
On a more meta-level, Martin’s story is a fight between the popular contemporary myth and the old darker one. I have heard of Martin writing morally ambiguous characters. Here, however, there is a clear black and white, which serves its (unintended?) purpose. On the one hand, you have Joshua York, beautiful and alluring, leading a civilized life and on the other, Damien Julian, blood master, a frightening creature wrought with pure evil and destruction. The vampire myth has adapted itself to the needs and likes of every generation and Martin’s story tests our allegiance. It does not leave you with a satisfying ending, but rather, drags you along till you make a choice – which is more enduring? The tragic prince-turned-Beast or the terrible monster? I chose the latter. Abner March, loyal to the end, remained alongside the beautiful and tragic Joshua York; the perfect friendship.
Fevre Dream is engaging; a surprise, for its size is tremendous. Martin’s lengthy descriptions of characters and their physical appearances bored me. Literary references abound, with Shelley and Byron being particular favourites of Joshua York. But the atmosphere of steamboat racing, breaking the chains of slavery, bubbling invention is a fantastic capture. The writing loses its way sometimes, gives in to gimmickry, but on the whole, it pulls you in. I have been chewing on this review for a long time, and one thing is clear, the book has left an imprint on my thoughts, if not always a positive one. 
Accidentally slitting my hand on a knife yesterday may have played a major part in pushing my opinion in favour of Martin’s book; the uncaring spillage of blood in modern vampire stories, its supposed beauty, now brings a particularly bitter taste, and having a young man or woman lust sacrificially after the metaphorical knife seems plainly objectionable. Dracula makes more sense than Prince Lestat, and Fevre Dream lets you pit one against the other.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

About the series: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett is the fortieth book in the Discworld series (yes, four-zero-eth) and the third installment in a mini-series that describes a period of industrial revolution on the Discworld. 
For those of you who don’t know, Discworld is a long series of books set on a strange planet swimming through space, comprising a giant turtle carrying on its back four elephants who balance on their heads a magical disc. Discworld inhabited by characters at once like and wholly different from those who people our Earth. It is a humorous retelling of life with a few basic rules changed. The Discworld series has over fifty books, with miniseries dedicated to certain characters.
The Industrial Revolution series of the Discworld stars a scoundrel and thief named Moist von Lipwig who ends up at the centre of many new developments in technology. In the first book, Going Postal, Discworld gets a Post Office. The second book Making Money is all about the first mint and introduction of money to the Disc. Raising Steam, the third and unfortunately, the last in the series is about the invention of…. the steam engine. 

My thoughts: A long time ago, I had listened to a short clip of an interview by Terry Pratchett where he talks about his fascination with the Victorian delight in technology. Here is a link to the video. ”Once upon a time, people wrote poems about technology and communications… I wanted to get the feel of the world where the technology was so new and light and wonderful, that people really cared about it,” says Pratchett. 

Raising Steam is all about the spirit of invention, the curiosity and unending effort that drive innovation, its maddening, sometimes silly allure. It is also about the rejection faced by those at the head of change. The modernity embraced by the story and its characters, however, is not restricted to invention, and in a charming way, Raising Steam is also a modern claim on equality between the sexes, between castes and between species. If all this were not enough, it is a heady mixture of wise and sidesplittingly funny. 
When the first engine is built by a young self-made engineer Dick Simnel, it is initially eyed with suspicion. Soon however, it finds its happy audience in Ankh Morpork, a city of entrepreneurs. The engineer wins over investors and lawyers. And it is then that the Patrician of Ankh Morpork assigns the job of ensuring the railway brings profits beyond measure to his city to none other than Moist von Lipwig, reformed crook, fairly decent guy and now Head of the Post Office and Royal Bank.
It is the age of reform in every sense. Non-human species like trolls, goblins and vampires are increasingly letting go of their old binding traditions to become members of Ankh Morporkian society. But not everyone is quite so flexible. Trouble is brewing in the court of the Low King of dwarves. The Low King is modern for his position. But certain dwarf clans stand stubbornly in the way of change, ready to hunt down any of their own who yearn for it. The new railway becomes the perfect target for these anti-progress forces and it is up to Moist von Lipwig to guard the railway against the attack of the dwarves. Meanwhile, the Low King has a special secret to guard…
Select quotes: ”Sometimes, Mister Lipwig, the young you that you lost many years ago comes back and taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘This is the moment when civilization does not matter, when rules no longer hold sway. You have given the world all you can give and now it’s the time just for you, the chance to go for broke in the last hurrah. Hurrah!”
.
“The train is the future; bringing people close together. Think about it. People run to see the train go past. Why? Because it’s heading to the future or coming from the past. Personally, I very much want the future and I want to see to it that dwarves are part of that future, if it’s not too late.”
.
“Moist knew about the zeitgeist, he tasted it in the wind, and sometimes it allowed him to play with it. He understood it, and now it hinted at speed, escape, something wonderfully new, the very bones of the land awakening, and suddenly it seemed to cry out for motion, new horizons, faraway places, anywhere that is not here! No doubt about it, the railway was going to turn coal into gold.”
Afterthought: This is a strange, in fact bizarre… ridiculous, comparison to draw but the topic of Raising Steam kept making me think back to nearly twelve years ago, when I had read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which was similar only in its supreme thrust on the industrial revolution through the construction of the railway. And I once again found myself realising how over-the-top, self-indulgent, threadbare the book had been (even apart from the whole matter of its philosophy), doubling with laughter at how I went through a phase where that felt like good writing. Today, I find, simplicity is the best and hardest to achieve. 

Why You Must Read the Death miniseries from Discworld by Terry Pratchett

This post is part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I reread the books. That counts!
What do you do when your favourite author dies? When you’re done crying, if ever, you read. You read their books. The ones you’ve read before and any you may not have. You devour every word, like it’s their last, because it’s their last. And then you spread the word. Nothing I write will suffice to express my immense admiration for Sir Terry Pratchett. I am relatively new to the Discworld series, but I love it and I do believe it is the greatest and most self-aware fantasy writing out there. All I can do is try to explain just why and hope that my gushing recommendation makes you finally add the books to your shelf, or revisit them. I couldn’t possibly cover everything I have to say about a forty book series in one post, so I will start with five of my favourite books within it, and my favourite character.

Every time I find someone raving about the character of Death from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I kind of want to roll my eyes at them and tell them about Death of the Discworld. He looks much like our Grim Reaper, clad in a black robe and carrying a scythe. He talks in CAPS with a voice which you hear directly in your head and which sounds like two concrete blocks rubbing together. Death of the Discworld rides a horse named Binky, rather preferring it to the usual fiery steed that keeps setting his robe on fire and lives in an endless all-black dimension called Death’s Domain in a black Victorian-looking house with a black garden.

Death has the most interesting story arc. Death, you must understand, is not cruel, only good at his job – he does no killing, we do it. Life ends, he is simply in charge of ‘what comes after.’ As an immortal outside observer, Death is fascinated by humans, puzzled by their stupidity and their intense grit in spite of it. Often out of concern for their well-being, or sometimes simply curiosity, Death attempts to imitate humans, without really understanding them. Needless to say, this leads to to all sorts of disasters which make the five-part miniseries centred on Death. Pratchett spins marvellous stories around ridiculous what if-scenarios.

In Mort, Death takes on a human apprentice, in Reaper Man Death gets fired for having developed too much of a personality and ends up working on a farm instead. Soul Music introduces us to Death’s granddaughter, a most amusing girl, who reappears in later books; also, Death rides a motorbike. In Hogfather, when Discworld’s Santa Claus goes missing, a curious and worried Death takes his place, to make one incredibly innovative story. In Thief of Time, Time has been kidnapped and Death recruits his granddaughter to rescue it. 

Through the course of five brilliant books, you watch Death learn ever more about humans and grow to sympathise with them. People often talk about Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams in the same breath, I have likely done this too, but all they have in common is they both ingeniously churn humour out of genre fiction. Adams fuels his stories with one-liners and quips of such outrage, that it doesn’t matter when he leaves the plot unattended to spiral off in mindless directions – in fact, if anything, it only reinforces the self-fulfilling farce, that nothing goes according to plan, that plans don’t matter. Whereas, Terry Pratchett clearly cares about the craft of his stories as much as the message he sends through them. And this is because he does not write simply a zany story of a universe, or a planet, even one as extraordinary as the Discworld – which is a turte swimming through space with four elephants on its back who carry a magical disc-shaped world on their backs. Pratchett’s books are about the many endearing oddballs living on the strange planet. Discworld is about people and making a difference; it is not Adams’s clever exercise in futility. You can see this in the attention and respect Pratchett gives his version of Death. Discworld arises out of passion, not cynicism. It is satire, biting social critique, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of hope. This is its greatest achievement.
I wanted to make this a clear three-reasons sort of post, but when it comes to the Discworld series, I can’t help but ramble on. Anyway, here, as succinctly as I can put them, are three reasons you must read the Death miniseries of the Discworld. Terry Pratchett was a man who redefined death, in more ways than you could imagine, which makes Mort as good a place as any to start reading the Discworld series.
1. Death will make you laugh.

THAT’S MORTALS FOR YOU, Death continued. THEY’VE ONLY GOT A FEW YEARS IN THIS WORLD AND THEY SPEND THEM ALL IN MAKING THINGS COMPLICATED FOR THEMSELVES. FASCINATING. 

2. Death will make you think.

“You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.



(…) TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET, Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point-

MY POINT EXACTLY.



3. Death will never get old (or, you know, irrelevant.) 

Well, of course not. DEATH IS WHOEVER DOES DEATH’S JOB. 
Did I mention Death likes cats? Seriously, read the books. Any Discworld fans here (hopeful voice) who agree? If you loved Terry Pratchett, and haven’t already read this article, you should – There is no Past Tense of Terry Pratchett by Scott Lynch.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

People where you live, the little prince said, grow five thousand roses in one garden… Yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose… It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.

For years I was convinced I had read this story and did not like it one bit. As it turns out, the story I had been thinking of was The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde, which I do find unpardonably boring. The moment I realized The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a novella, described by many as a children’s fantasy that serves as an adult’s spiritual fable, I wanted to pick it up. This was about a year ago. I read it today as the first book for my favourite not-challenge, Once Upon a Time, an annual event in its ninth year, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.

Summary: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth where he meets our narrator, a pilot crash-landed in the middle of an endless dessert. 

My thoughts: The Goodreads reviews of this book all seem to have one word in common, “metaphor.” I hate to be redundant and talk about what a wonderful allegory The Little Prince presents. Most of you have probably read this book and already know all about it. And every new reader of the book will eventually end up on the author’s life story, to make sense of the allusions and connect the metaphorical autobiographical dots.  I would recommend you this book mostly because almost everyone who reads it finds in it something to love. It is precious, and honestly, a chunk of its charm lies in its slim size. It demands little of your time, give it that. The thing that I truly like about this book is its sincere duality, of both intention and style.
My fascination with children’s books fascinates me. I assume that the fact that children’s books can be enjoyed by adults is uncontested. According to this article in The Guardian,
“One explanation may be the way in which they (children’s books) are read. They become part of our emotional autobiographies, acquiring associations and memories, more like music than prose.  Another explanation may lie in the fact that children’s books are designed with re-reading in mind. For all children’s writers are conscious that our books may be re-read by children themselves.”

I thought that reading The Little Prince would be like getting wholly engrossed in a Roald Dahl book at twenty or delightedly revisiting one of my childhood favourite Enid Blyton stories. It was nothing like that. It may be difficult to write children’s books that would give pleasure to grown-ups too. Authors like Neil Gaiman are good at that sort of thing.
The Little Prince on the other hand is something entirely else. It is not a simple children’s book that adults would enjoy as well. What makes The Little Prince unique is that it contains in its pages two different stories at once – one for children and another for grown-ups. It reminds me of my experience reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, a series of books so adult in its themes and messages, it made me wonder what I would have made of it as a kid. And yet, I am sure, had I read the series when I was twelve, I would have found lovely treasures in the books quite separate from the ones my adult-self found.
I don’t know what little-Priya would have made of The Little Prince. Young-me would likely have loved the illustrations, thrilled at the absurd planets, their whimsical inhabitants and the talking foxes, enjoyed the reaffirmation of the importance of being a child. Meanwhile, on the other side of time, today, catching my eye are little fractions of well-composed truth in the writing, like reaching success by “the inspiring force of urgent necessity.” I shake my head at the many droll depictions of empty human life. I mull over coming-of-age, the loss of innocence and our place in the great big picture. I contemplate the futility of that exact train of thought… and with the very same logical disinterest the book mocks, find myself dissecting those pesky metaphors!
The book never sounds overtly preachy, that helps. The narrator in his straightforward manner rarely expresses his opinions on the lessons the little prince teaches him. The book remains staunchly bizarre, surreal, to its very end. The original French must be beautifully written, I am guessing, from the admirably seamless translation by Katherine Woods. I should learn French. Out of curiosity, how exactly do you pronounce the author’s name? Now that I have read him, it may be time to stop calling him MumbledeMumble-Mumble.
I am happy to have finally read the book. That said, I will not read the book again. I doubt that there is any new insight to be gained from another read, which I must say, is not true of Philip Pullman and his complex constructions. I do however see myself revisiting nice passages, and forcing the book on all my future young-acquaintances, if only as guinea-pigs to satisfy my curiosity about how a child would react to the incongruously dark ending.

Re-reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman

My plan was to finish reading this during the R.I.P. Challenge, but these days I suffer from no time. It took me over a month to read the book, but what a month.


“Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.” 
Summary: Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
My thoughts: When I first read American Gods, it was all new to me. The word I
used to describe the book was fascinating. That’s not the right word to
describe the book. Gaiman is fascinating. As are The Graveyard Book, Coraline,
Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. American Gods is disturbing, strange, real and not fascinating. I did
like the book then, but not as I should have, because it is a book that would
not make complete sense if it were new to you, or you new to it.

Some would say Gaiman’s writing is an acquired taste – but I don’t
agree with that either. Though loaded with allusions in this book, his writing style is basically direct. His snippets of insight into people and places are universally relatable. But a reader of American Gods should have a knowledge of mythology and
appreciation of storytelling. You can’t afford to be world-weary, rather be world-wise. You cannot be hesitant in your approach to
it and you cannot expect to fall in love with it. American Gods shouldn’t be
your first taste of its genre of dark, bleak humour and whatever you call it. It is a book better read slowly than devoured and best enjoyed on a
second or third reading.

The old gods in American Gods are delightful. Wednesday (think Woden’s Day) is your typical high-minded deity: cruel, careless and vindictive, not to mention, nosy. He loves his power and his care for people holds only so far as it is reciprocated. The old gods are only impressions of their original versions worshipped across the world, carried to the shores of America through half-remembered tales and customs of their native people. So they all have a bit of America in them, from their people slowly merging with the new world. Wednesday, Low-key, Nancy, Jacquel and Ibis, for instance, make wonderful retold approaches to the old Norse and African biggies. And there are so many smaller gods, smaller myths, every character has a purpose (a counterpart) and I can’t even imagine what treasure chests of knowledge Gaiman’s mind must hold. The new Gods are, well, they are perfect mirrors of the new world, not altogether pleasant.
But more than the gods, American Gods is about people. American Gods is about belief, and how limiting it could be. It also attempts to show the power of stories. Stories are alive, they change as the tellers grow, and the world changes too. Gaiman tells us some of these stories, some old tales of the gods who then travelled across the world with their believers. It’s when it talks about belief and stories that American Gods reminds me of Terry Pratchett and his books that do an infinitely better job portraying the ideas – like Small Gods and Hogfather, and even Good Omens for that matter.


“This is the only country in the world,” said Wednesday, into the stillness, “that worries about what it is.”
“What?”

“The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.” 

American Gods is a nostalgic look at America, which is a character all by itself. The mixing of religions and the alienation, the insiders and the misfits, the otherworldliness, the disconnectedness in geography and culture, everything that comes under Americana, is built with mastery. It is about the absurd beauty of myths, about nightmares and dreams taking flesh and blood form, about the horrors that unarguably pour out of our own minds. It deals with death in a manner no book I have ever read has. The book is cold and blunt and emotional at the same time. It’s very essence lies in its secrets; it has more than one thing to say and you can be never be quite sure of them all. It is perfect, almost.
Why? Ok, the thing that makes me not like American Gods is that it is too commercialized, sensationalized. The subtlety that Gaiman is capable of is absent. It isn’t simply the
emphasis on “anything can happen” that makes Gaiman put it all out there – the loud, brazen, dirty seems at times like a
deliberate genre-defining kind of addition, and that’s where American Gods gets on
my nerves. It reads attention-seeking in parts, and by extension, dishonest. The climax,
as with so many books of this great a scope, is a little disappointing. Not
because it isn’t a resolution I wanted, it is. But the writing loses its
lucidity, its clarity towards the end and the finale is a rushed affair.

I’ve been told I should read his novella The Monarch of the Glen, from Fragile Things, to get closure for Shadow. Maybe I will. Meanwhile, now that I am done ranting, I would love to know what you make of this book. Some books are meant to be reread. Do you agree?