Category Archives: Musings

Review: Cold Days Holds 'Em

Cold Days by Jim Butcher - see

I’ve been reading fantasy adventure novels for a long, long time. When you read a series of books by the same author, it’s hard not to expect the stakes to get raised with each title: new thrills, new surprises, new tie-ins with earlier plots.

If you read enough books by the same author, there comes a point where you find yourself beginning to wonder if perhaps, this time, the writer is bluffing — that s/he has pushed the stakes so high (yet again) that the hand the writer’s holding — the story s/he’s written — can’t possibly support the kind of rash bet s/he’s just made. As a reader, you sigh, swearing you won’t get suckered in yet again, but hey — you’re reading this book because you want the author to win that bet. So you call the bluff. Continue reading Review: Cold Days Holds 'Em

Review: Cold Days Holds ‘Em

Cold Days by Jim Butcher - see

I’ve been reading fantasy adventure novels for a long, long time. When you read a series of books by the same author, it’s hard not to expect the stakes to get raised with each title: new thrills, new surprises, new tie-ins with earlier plots.

If you read enough books by the same author, there comes a point where you find yourself beginning to wonder if perhaps, this time, the writer is bluffing — that s/he has pushed the stakes so high (yet again) that the hand the writer’s holding — the story s/he’s written — can’t possibly support the kind of rash bet s/he’s just made. As a reader, you sigh, swearing you won’t get suckered in yet again, but hey — you’re reading this book because you want the author to win that bet. So you call the bluff. Continue reading Review: Cold Days Holds ‘Em

The End Approacheth… and Recedeth: Apocalypse as Myth

La Mojarra Inscription - Mayan Long Count Date

The world is coming to an end.

Perhaps it will be on this year’s winter solstice, when the Mayan calendar says that the current pictun or aeon will end, and the universe will be obliterated and reconstituted– as it is supposed to have been seven thousand years or so ago. (Like Hindus, Buddhists, and many physicists, the Mayans believed that history moved in cycles rather than a straight line.)

Or perhaps it will be in five billion or so years, when the sun goes nova, burning the earth to a crisp.

Or perhaps it will be some other form of metaphysical or manmade apocalypse.

What is certain is that the idea of apocalypse — the myth of the word’s end — exercises a real, enduring power over the human imagination. Not a year goes by when some would-be prophet or other begins counting down to doomsday. Continue reading The End Approacheth… and Recedeth: Apocalypse as Myth

The Power — and the Study — of Myth

Angkor Wat

In the latter half of the 20th century, mythologist Joseph Campbell’s vast body of work — from “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” in 1949 to the broadcast of “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers” just months after his passing — resuscitated interest in comparative mythology, revitalizing the study of the field that Campbell called “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”

However, that interest hasn’t necessarily translated into formal acceptance on college campuses. “Academia doesn’t seem to know what to do with mythology,” says Stephen Gerringer of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Continue reading The Power — and the Study — of Myth

Writing the Inevitable but Unexpected

A novel never sleeps.

We’re on vacation. As my family plays, I’m working on yet another round of rewrites for a young-adult novel, trying to add a scene about half of the way through.

This has had me thinking quite a bit about the idea of justification—not as in left, right, and center, but as in setting up a scene properly so that a reader neither feels as if it came out of nowhere nor as if it was far too long in coming. Getting it just right is obviously every storyteller’s goal, and one of the more challenging aspects of storytelling. Aristotle said that the end of an effective plot must be “unexpected but inevitable.” I’d say, though, that the same can be true of any good scene, and it doesn’t take a whole lot to mess it up in one direction or the other.

The reason that I’ve had this on my mind, other than my on-going story addiction/obsession, is that the last two books I’ve emerged myself in were Victoria Roth’s Divergent and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Continue reading Writing the Inevitable but Unexpected

The (Other) Little Death

Painting by Helene Steele © Helen Steele
Painting © Helene Steele

My fourteen-year-old interviewed an artist yesterday for Fastforward, the local kids’ newspaper: a wonderful painter by the name of Helen Steele. I went along as chauffeur and photographer.

Julia asked some great questions, which got Ms. Steele talking eloquently about the most interesting thing of all: her process as an artist. She talked about how she starts a painting–not the way that I’d have thought, with an image in mind, but by working with texture and color until she sees something on the canvas and then begins to work to bring it out. Fascinating.

“There comes a point in every painting, though,” Steele said, “where I have to take what I thought I was doing–the thing that I’ve been so focused on–and kill it off, let it die. And that’s usually when the painting really takes off.”

Her comment hit me between the eyes like one of the diamond pickaxes from the games of Minecraft that Julia’s friends are always talking about.

I realized that the same thing was true of just about every writing or editing project that I’ve been involved with: that at some point, I have to take the part of the book that I’ve been fussing at and obsessing over for hours or weeks or months (or, in the case of a book I finished writing recently, for four years) and kill it. Let it die.

And that made me think of the schema of the Hero’s Journey mapped out in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There’s a point in most hero tales where the hero (or heroine) has to face a death–either real or metaphoric. Harry Potter allows himself to be killed. Luke Skywalker cuts off his own head (though he thinks it’s Darth Vader’s at the time). Odysseus goes down with his ship before washing up naked on the beach to be found by Nausicaa.

It’s only after this death that the hero can reach his or her potential–can become truly a hero. The old self has to perish in order for the true self to be born.

In every creative project, there’s that moment: the pinnacle of frustration and the abyss of despair. And it’s only by letting go of the thing that we think is so important–the sequence or passage or sentence or character or scene or chapter that we’ve been banging up against that we can discover what the heart of the piece we’re working on truly is.

So, hard as it is, we have to learn to welcome that little death and learn to see it as the narrow, dark passage to the unknown, glorious fulfillment of our own creative work.

Riverrun, to a Monitor Near You — Joyce Manuscripts Now Online

A manuscript page from the "Circe" chapter of Joyce's novel <i>Ulysses</i>
The Irish National Library releases James Joyce's manuscripts online

The Irish National Library has very quietly taken advantage of the entry this year into the public domain of the works of Irish novelist James Joyce by posting its horde of rare Joyce manuscripts on its online archive.

Continue reading Riverrun, to a Monitor Near You — Joyce Manuscripts Now Online

Let the Wild Rumpus Start

Maurice Sendak, Author of Where the Wild Things Are, Dies at 83

Image © copyright 1963, Maurice Sendak

If you were to ask me what piece of literature has had the most profound impact on me, I wouldn’t have to think at all. It was Maurice Sendak’s picture-book masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are.

Continue reading Let the Wild Rumpus Start

Eragon – The Real Thing?

Last night I finished Inheritance, the fourth and final volume of Christopher Paolini’s young adult fantasy adventure series of the same name (but more commonly known by the name of the first book and main character, Eragon). I enjoyed the book—it’s fast-moving, epic, and well-written. But I find myself feeling vaguely unsatisfied, and trying to identify the source of my dissatisfaction.

Inheritance cover

The book feels very much like many other final books of epic fantasy series: an action-packed thrill ride toward a looming conclusion. It follows our protagonists (primarily Eragon, but also to a lesser extent his cousin Roran and his dragon Saphira) through a series of increasingly difficult challenges—largely pitched battles in their effort to help the Rebel Alliance, er, the Varden unseat the Big Bad Boss, the Dark Lord Voldemort, er, Sith Lord Darth Vader, er, Chuckles, the Evil Piggy, er, King Galbatorix who awaits them in his lair in the city of Urubaen.

While the structure of the plot definitely hews to the classic Hero Journey laid out by Joseph Campbell (among others—and you have to know that I think that this is a good thing!), it also contains some wonderful original elements. The whole 880-page story practically pulses with urgency as our heroes face one life-or-death struggle after another, each a bit more dire than the last.

At last, Eragon defeats Galbatorix in a satisfying and unexpected manner while Roran helps to defeat the king’s army outside. The heroes live happily ever after, though not without a few surprises: The End. Good stuff, right? So why do I feel as if I just had a sixpack of TAB?

 It isn’t Paolini’s prose style, which has grown in leaps and bounds over the eight years since the first book’s publication. (He was famously—and depressingly—fifteen when he started writing the series. Eesh.) He always had an ear for language and a sense of how to write compelling action, but now the scenes seem to be truly his own. No longer do you feel as if you can tell what he was reading the night before he wrote a particular section, as you could in the first two books. (There are scenes and tropes early in the series that are lifted past the point of homage from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Dragonriders of Pern, the Earthsea books—and those are just the ones I recognized. Heck, my daughters both still stumble over the main character’s name; half of the time, they call him Aragorn.)

The characterizations, which were always pretty good, if a bit archetypal, have gotten stronger and more complex.

But still: TAB.

Why? As someone who’s working on his own YA adventure series, not to mention someone who is kind of fascinated with narrative in and of itself, I find myself worrying at this question quite a lot. I think that there are a couple of reasons that I felt this way. Perhaps it’s a certain amount of Hero Journey overload. Mind, I just finished and enjoyed Mastiff, the finale of Tamora Pierce’s Bekka Cooper trilogy, which has a very similar structure. Still, Paolini’s book follows the outline so assiduously….

Part of it, I think, is that the battles get old. The book opens with a series of three sieges, in each of which Eragon, Saphira, Roran and Co. risk their lives, but ultimately destroy the resistance of Galbatorix’s troops. Each sequence is compelling on its own, but a sense of battle fatigue sets in. This is not lessened by the fact that Eragon and his main fighting partner, the beguiling and deadly elf princess, Anya (who definitely isn’t a Chekhov refugee—no whining here, she gets things done) so totally overmatch the human soldiers whom they are fighting. The two of them against a castle full of Galbatorix’s troops is a huge mismatch—in Eragon and Anya’s favor.

Though each of these battles serves its own narrative purpose, and though Paolini describes them well, it gets a bit old watching Aragorn crush yet another courtyard full of poor SoBs — mixed in with a number of honest to goodness villains. About halfway through the book, even Eragon bemoans the fact that he’s killed so many hundreds of Galbatorix’s troops. But it doesn’t save him or us from the tedium.

Some of the problems were unavoidable, the corners a writer paints him- or herself into by releasing the first book before the last is written. I sighed in sympathy when at the end of the first battle he finally introduced the weapon that would allow Eragon and Co. to kill Galbatorix’s dragon Shruikan. It’s cheating to introduce Chekhov’s Gun in the freaking fourth act; but I do understand that he must have figured out what needed to be introduced only after the first three books were already out. Still. When it literally galloped into the story, it felt like a bit of a Dauthdaert ex Machina.

Another problem is Galbatorix’s actions. Not his character: when we finally meet him, he’s a wonderfully compelling, apparently rational human being; it’s nice to see a Dark Lord who doesn’t advertise (except that the whole Empire is his advertisement, of course). But his behavior… He’s clearly read the Evil Overlord List, but I’m not sure how well he learned from it. He lurks in his capital, waiting for Eragon to come to him so that he can force the boy to join him when he could (we are told) easily crush the Varden and subvert Eragon’s will to his own if he wanted. It’s as if he’s played too many video games and thinks, Okay, I’m the final boss. I must stay in my throne room and wait for the hero to assail me.

The actions that he in fact does take are occasionally bizarre except insofar as they drive the plot. He risks his main surviving helpers, Eragon’s half-brother Murtagh and his dragon Thorn, to attack the heart of the Varden’s camp and kidnap the Varden’s leader, Nasuada. Why? Um… To break the spirit of Eragon and the Varden? Maybe? Actually, it just ticks them off, as Galbatorix should have known it would. (We find out that Murtagh pleaded that Nasuada not be killed. Why? Um.)

Mind, the scenes from Nasuada’s point of view are wonderfully creepy–if you can stand seeing someone tortured. Nasuada was always one of my favorite characters in the series–the only weapons she’s got are her own intelligence and resolve and she uses them well. But still, the only reason for kidnapping her seems to be….

Oh, yeah, this brings up another problem. The romantic themes. Epic fantasy tends to be a hard genre to marry well to romance. Tolkien’s love stories were awful—except for Eowyn’s crush on Aragron, which was nicely done but painful. Rowling’s books had to have a romantic element; I mean, how could you write a series about a bunch of teens whose central theme was Love (well, and Death) and not include it? And she obviously managed pretty well, but I don’t think you’ll find to many folks really got into the romance angle of the books who felt 100% satisfied with the ending of the books, no matter what their preferred pairing was.

In these books, there have been three Great Loves: Eragon and his hopeless infatuation with Anya, who considers him all but a child; Roran and Katrina, whom he pursues literally all of the way across the continent to rescue from the evil Ra’zac; and… Murtagh and Nasuada (well, four, if you include Brom and Eragon’s mom).

Where the heck did that last one come from? At first I thought Paolini was playing around with Stockholm Syndrome or something, but no: Nasuada’s inner strength shames Murtagh into becoming a better man. Feh.

And then, at the end of the books? Well, Roran and Katrina are headed home with their new baby boy to Palancar Valley. Nice, though we’ve hardly seen Katrina for the entire book, except to remind us that she’s really pregnant. But stays with the army anyway. Nasuada and Katrina? Um. Murtagh flies off, seeking to find himself again, while Nasuada settles in to the job of ruling the empire.

And Eragon and Arya? Um. Nothing. They sigh at each other a lot. They have finally said how much they want to be together. Their dragons mate, for goodness sake. And what do they do? Each follows his/her fate in an opposite direction—she to rule the elves (somehow, it was okay for her to be a dragon rider and a monarch at the same time, but it simply wasn’t possible for Eragon; while he takes the newly found cache of dragon eggs literally off the edge of the map because “there’s no place for the dragon riders to live in Alagaesia.”

Say what? This is a country that Paolini described as having huuuuuuuuge quantities of open space. Plains. Mountains. Islands. Okay, so dragons are big and require a lot of food, and nice cliffs and caves and stuff. But really? And he’s Never Coming Back. All of this because of a fortune told to him in the first book by Angela the Herbalist (one of my other favorite characters). Here’s the problem with prophecies in a serial book. If you’re going to foreshadow the ending early on, you had better work pretty damned hard to make sure that the final living out of that prophecy is both inevitable but unexpected, or it will be unsatisfying, as this was. He just… leaves.

The End.

When Frodo leaves at the end of Return of the King, it is a perfect but awful conclusion to his story. Tolkien, a veteran of World War I, knew that even the victors can’t always come home. Sam returns to the Shire and fulfills his potential: married, successful, happy. Frodo fades. But this?

I’m hoping that (as he implies) he’s going to write more here, because the characters are lovely and the world interesting, even if the main story line has been exhausted. Hey, none of Le Guin’s Earthsea books springs directly out of the others, but that does’t stop them from being a fabulous series. Because to spend 2500 pages or so building up this huge romantic tension between Eragon and Arya and resolve it with him sailing off into the sunset?

Feh. TAB.

And one other thing that bothered me, now that I’m thinking about it. Angela. There’s this enormous mystery about just who she is that’s been built up over the four books. There are some wild hints that are thrown out during Inheritance, making you wonder whether she’s mortal, let alone human…. But no. We never find out.

It's the real thingAny huge series is going to have loose ends. But this one irked me. I’m making it sound like I hated the book. I didn’t–I enjoyed it. I read the last third of it in a single sitting. I liked the book and the series. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling as if there were some very real flaws that kept it from being Diet Coke, let alone The Real Thing.

Read it? What did you think?

Love in a Time of Cholera: Why you shouldn't reread your favorite books

I’m sure you’ve had this experience: you go back to reread a book that you absolutely loved when you first read it, and… Meh.

A week ago I would have told you that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in a Time of Cholera was one of the great reading experiences of my life: a deeply romantic exploration of enduring human love. I finished rereading it for the first time in a bit over twenty years (ouch), and… Meh.

The problem for me was that, where I had been swept along by the sheer romantic ache of the central story–a couple separated in their youth who finally find love in extreme old age–on this read I found their story annoying.

The character of the woman, Fermina Daza, was still a compelling one: she’s a complex, intense, interesting woman, and you can see two men losing their hearts to her. But her husband, Dr. Urbino, only rises above being a pompous prig in her memory, and Florentino Arizo, the young man who first captured her heart, is portrayed as both an obsessive stalker and a philandering hypocrite. The recitals of the endless affairs in which he indulges while waiting for his One True Love become, after a while, numbing and–eventually–distasteful. By the time he takes his final pre-Fermina lover, a school girl trusted to his guardianship, Florentino’s right to claim any kind of moral high ground for his enduring passion for the lost love of his youth is long gone. No Joycean “scrupulous meanness” here–the two men are painted in absolute, merciless detail, and boy, they don’t come across well. At which point, I have a hard time caring about the story.

My other problem was the laxness of the narrative. I love Garcia Marquez’s audacity when it comes to narrative. In Nobody Talks to the Colonel, he writes from the point of view of an entire Caribbean nation, shifting in mid-sentence from a prostitute to a bishop to a group of school children. In the amazing Chronicle of a Death Foretold, he tells you what happened in the first few pages and then spends the rest of the book dissecting the cause. In Love in a Time of Cholera, he utilizes the same quasi-journalistic approach over and over–telling us what happened and then telling us at great length how or why it happened. After a while, I found myself wanting him just to get on with it. Also, threads drop. The opening sequence involves the aged Dr. Urbino attending to the body of a friend who has committed suicide. At the friend’s house, he discovers a letter addressed to him that contains news that shakes him to the core; it is this sense of disquiet that leads, we are given to understand, to his falling accidentally to his death. What was in the letter? We never find out. It’s never mentioned again. It doesn’t feel like a literary evocation of the unknowable. It feels like a lazy cheat.

I think I’m going back to reading young adult fantasies.