"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Friday, January 7, 2011

Literature for the fantasy-prone, part 2 (book reviews)

[Click here for Part 1, on the Matter of Britain and other fantasy-related digressions - including a similar theme of cultural diversity to Island of Ghosts, reviewed below) and here for other fantasy-themed posts.] Time for another break with "reality."

John Perkins writes, in his visionary editorial on dreaming big in the new year, "there is a true difference between dreams (things we want to materialize in the physical world) and fantasies (things we like to imagine but would not want materialized)." However, this distinction doesn't always apply to literature, which mixes up these boundaries. (For one thing, "fantasy" in this context is usually just a merchandising term imposed by publishers.) An occasional trip into (literary) fantasy territory often reveals clues about how to deal with the real and earnest side of life; that probably goes directly to the function of myth in the human psyche, because the best literary fantasy draws on the mysteries of myth.

Here's another roundup of "fantasy" novels that go directly to questions of reality and possibility and the courage to negotiate the present and future. First, a fine book that's basically historical fiction, but weaves in some fantasy elements--and offers a character who finds his way through:

cover, first edition
Island of Ghosts by Gillian Bradshaw (1998)
Making good use of the classic storytelling elements of fantasy and legend, Bradshaw creates, here, a believable ancient world populated by compelling characters. As the story opens, it's clear that cultural diversity in 2nd Century Britain is posing some serious operational challenges for the Roman Empire: Picts raid the northern borders, while outlawed Druid sects (even as they feud among themselves) forge subversive alliances with the Picts, as well as with their fellow outlaws-in-religion, the Christians. Meanwhile, Roman administrators have married into local families of questionable loyalty; and the occupying army itself consists of units drawn from some of the Empire's farthest reaches--and they don't get along with one another.

Into this volatile situation, the Empire sends 8000 fierce and unpredictable barbarians from a far land. Proud and independent, these Sarmatian horse soldiers have pledged their service and loyalty to the Empire in a recent peace settlement, but they have no idea what it actually means to submit to Roman military discipline. It falls upon a prince named Ariantes to find a route through this treacherous political territory and bring his troops to safety in their new lives as Roman soldiers in a strange land.

cover, Tor edition (1999)
The tale of how noble and clever Ariantes becomes "Romanized" while remaining true to his Sarmatian values is fascinating enough in itself, while the background story of warfare, treachery, and romance in brutal and distant lands should appeal to fans of swashbuckling adventure. In writing about Sarmatians, about whom little is known, the author has much latitude in creating fictional history while, as a classics scholar, she commands a richness of detail that brings the known facts vividly to life.

(adapted from my review in SLJ

Here's another good review of this one, and some more raves...

"A vivid, atmospheric work." --Publishers Weekly

"A historical novel of extraordinary depth and passion." --Booklist
I was surprised to see that Gillian Bradshaw also writes science fiction, and her science is said to be as credible as her history. Somehow I've missed her SF entirely, and hope to find some now. Another writer who does both fantasy and science fiction well is Diane Duane, below.

cover of first volume of "Young Wizards"
Young Wizards series by Diane Duane
Lately, I've been re-reading a delightful YA series I'd first gobbled up while working in a public library run by malevolent entities (spiriting the books home for a little sanity fix after another harrowing day in an insane work environment) -- and now I'm catching up on additional volumes published after that. It's Diane Duane's wonderful "Young Wizards" tales.

Published for the YA (young adults) market over 1983-2010 (I hope this indicates there will be even more!), these are also fine reading for adults who like this sort of thing (my older brother, in fact, recommended them to me most recently, calling my attention to the recent volumes in an excellent audio version), and actually they deal with some quite serious issues - ocean pollution, cancer, entropy in the universe and life's struggle in the face of it. Not to mention trips across galaxies, Christ-like sacrifice, and talking cats... there is no end to Duane's invention, in this modern urban world co-existing with our own.

One premise of this series is that wizards have their greatest power at the beginning of its awakening, while they're still very young, and then the powers wane with maturity, so their initiation challenges are ones far beyond what the adults can handle. And these quests are often fatal for the novice wizards, with the result that there are far fewer "senior" wizards than one might expect--and their work seems mostly to be to mentor the young ones in their growth and support them in their mad dashes into unknown worlds and great dangers. This is a very clear statement of an assumption often found in  YA fiction, that it's up to the young to fix things because we adults obviously aren't doing it, and probably can't. This kind of story might be very good for the self-esteem of YA readers faced with the daunting problems they see in the world, encouraging them to take action while they still can.

His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
In their mixture of light and dark, humor and seriousness, Duane's wizards stories also remind of me of Philip Pullman's classic series, His Dark Materials, another fantasy world whose urgency and wisdom just blew me away. Check out the Wikipedia article for an excellent summary of what it's about, including this observation: "The trilogy functions in part as a retelling and inversion of John Milton's epic Paradise Lost; with Pullman commending humanity for what Milton saw as its most tragic failing." Yes! Figures - despite my professors' best efforts throughout my English Major career, I never developed an appreciation for Paradise Lost. More than that, I hated it. Thank you, Philip Pullman, for turning things around so they could be seen truly. And for doing it so well. As Wikipedia reports, "the trilogy as a whole took third place in the BBC's Big Read poll in 2003." It's as well loved as it should be!

poster for film based on Northern Lights
  The first volume, published in the US as The Golden Compass (and in Britain as Northern Lights), was adapted tolerably well as a film in 2007 but I think you really have to read the books to get the full impact of this powerful morality tale. The movie necessarily leaves a lot out, all of which is fabulous writing.

Some librarians (mostly ones in thrall to religion, I suspect) continue to argue passionately that His Dark Materials should not be a YA series at all, that it's "too adult;" and when the film was released there was quite a ruckus over that too. Christian fundamentalists considered the whole thing the devil's work because Pullman quite effectively skewers organized religion and calls into question everything about its (still too infrequently questioned) "divine" authority in the world. Of course, this is exactly what I love about the books because for me, Pullman presents the truth about how religion enslaves us, in a way as compelling in its depiction of good and evil in our time as anything Tolkein wrote in his. In fact, when I first read this trilogy, I thought it was the Lord of the Rings for my time, just as LOTR was the classic fantasy for the WWII generation (and the world that followed WWII).

But more than that, of course, Tolkein's and Pullman's trilogies transcend their own historical periods because their message is mythical and universal.

Not least, all of the books reviewed, above, have strong female characters who either lead the action, or play a pivotal part in it.

One more work I must mention, in this roundup of fantasy literature that I actually like -- more, that I think is important -- is a two-volume set about cats that is anything but light. Rather, it's dark, outstandingly moral and impassioned. This is The Wild Road and the conclusion to that tale, The Golden Cat, by Gabriele King (a pair of writers, actually - Jane Johnson and M. John Harrison). These books have really stuck with me, too. I was lucky enough to be able to review these when they came out.

The Wild Road by Gabriel King (1998)
This book promises readers a fine fantasy, but delivers much more -- an epic and emotionally powerful story of animals, humans, and the ethics of their coexistence.

A frame tale relates the spiritual traditions of cats and the history of their relationship with humans. The Wild Road of the title is a dimension containing the memories of all animals that have gone before. An evil sorcerer has tortured cats for many lifetimes in a quest to harness the power of the Wild Road and now, as a modern scientist, he is on the verge of succeeding.

With a masterful use of language and plotting, King gradually reveals the true identity of the sorcerer and the great humor, love, and resilience of the small creatures destined to oppose him. Descriptions of felines suffering in human hands are graphic and horrible, but true to life; this is a war, the reader knows. Yet readers will find comfort in the wisdom the characters gain and the joy they find in life despite the evil they must fight.

Like J. R. R. Tolkien, King creates humble and ordinary beings who undergo great trials, find extraordinary courage, and fight the good fight against impossible odds. Like Richard Adams, King breathes life into a rich and varied cast of creatures who talk, yet remain true to their animal natures. For those who have appreciated other books that evoke a greater universe than that described by consensual reality, The Wild Road should be equally well loved and remembered.

The Golden Cat by Gabriel King (1999)
In King's The Wild Road (Ballantine, 1998), an ancient, wild reality was introduced that coexisted with that of humans, and animals spoke yet remained true to their natures. There, several small but valiant creatures--cats, aided by a ragtag assortment of others sharing their mission--successfully opposed a mortal threat to their world's existence in the person of the Alchemist, an evil scientist who caused suffering among animals.

In this sequel featuring characters that will be remembered from the first book--Tag, Sealink, Cy, the King and Queen, and the other survivors of that epic battle-- find their world threatened once more: the Alchemist is not dead after all, and his power is increasing. The first signs of trouble are the disappearance of two very special kittens, one of whom might be the Golden Cat, and several ghastly disruptions of life along the Wild Road. Soon, the cats find new allies, reunite with old ones, and voyage afar as they plunge into fabulous new adventures in their quest to oppose the greatest of evils.

This is a dark fantasy--perhaps even darker than The Wild Road--and its depiction of cruelty to animals may be disturbing to many readers. But for those who can handle that, King's stories offer solace and inspiration in the end. This is a harrowing tale, but one spun from poetry, beauty, strength, and love.

(adapted from my reviews in SLJ

And for something else with a memorable cat, but much less grim, if equally satirical - and very delightful and slyly hilarious - I've also been discovering Terry Pratchett in the past year - via some fabulous audio versions of several of his books. No time to write more now, but don't miss The Amazing Maurice, for starters! I don't know why I took so long to start reading Pratchett; just my usual avoidance of fantasy, probably, because I usually can't get through it, and I needed a recommendation from someone whose taste I trusted (in this case, again, my brother).

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