fantasy

Ongoing – and still going well

A Kingdom Besieged - Raymond E. Feist

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I’d recently read At the Gates of Darkness by Raymond E. Feist.  Well, as befits a series that I enjoy quite a bit, I followed that up by reading the next installment of the long running Riftwar saga:  A Kingdom Besieged.

After a series has been going on for so long, the enemies tend to get more and more dire, and this one is no exception.  Our mortal heroes find themselves having to face enemies on an ever more cosmic and incomprehensible scale.

And yet, this series doesn’t suffer from this excess.  I think that’s mainly because Feist has a deft hand when it comes to making the enormous extremely personal and keeping the characters’ style of conflict resolution constant, irreverent and always entertaining.  That, more than any big concepts is what has made this series a steady mega-selling winner for all of its history.

This is like the perfect antidote to things like A Fire Upon the Deep, which we looked at last week.  Yes, the Vinge has a huge edge when it comes to originality. In fact, Feist re-uses concepts from every great fantasist ever, from Tolkien to Lovecraft, but even though his work is not in the least original, it is still much, much better.  Yes, I know A Fire Upon the Deep is reaching classic status, but I would argue that Feist’s long-running series deserves it just as much, if not more, than the Vinge.

Anyway, if you haven’t already done so, pick up a copy of Magician, the first book in this series.  You’ll be taken on one hell of a ride.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad.  You can check out the Kindle version here and the paperback here.

 

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The Bookends of Doom

The Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis

It’s been popular in the past couple of decades to attack The Chronicles of Narnia for its excessive use of Christian messaging.  This is jus one unfortunate side effect of a culture that politicizes everything in the most infantile of ways, meaning that whatever is on the “wrong” side of the political divide must be attacked.  Cue the Marching Morons obeying the dictates of their political-dogma-spewing overlords.

Even though I’m an atheist and should have been shocked (shocked, I tell you!!) at anything which hints at preaching, I decided to read the books anyway.  Why?  Various reasons.  First off, I was lucky enough to have been a kid in a time when good books were just good books and not symbols of protest, so all the later mud-slinging really made no impression on me.  Secondly, generations of children have loved these, and I thought it would be nice to see what all the fuss was about.

Thirdly, I remembered having read, at least partially, one or two of the books when I was a little too young to appreciate them, and wanted to complete that reading.

Most importantly, perhaps, I hate having important gaps in my reading.  By important, I mean books that have stood the test of time, not books that are faddish today – I won’t be running to buy any recent Hugo-award winners unless they are still beloved in twenty years’ time.  But Narnia?  Yes, a must read for anyone who with the maturity to leave political silliness aside.

So… How did they hold up?

In order to answer that question, I need to talk about the order in which the Narnia series was composed vs. the order in which it was meant to be read.  The first four books written (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair) follow the adventures of two brothers and two sisters who initially discover the land of Narnia and have adventures there.  These are the solid core of the series and each is enjoyable and beautiful.

Is there Christian messaging in this core?  Yes, there is, but it’s pretty light, and any intelligent child, anywhere on the political / faith spectrum, will be the better for being exposed to it and getting to think about things.  Plus, they’ll enjoy these books enormously.

Then came The Horse and his Boy, which, in reading order, slots between Wardrobe and Caspian.  This one is a good little adventure as well, although it doesn’t really do much for the central story except to set up the final book.

The last two books to be written were where C.S. Lewis made his big mistake.  The Magician’s Nephew was written to be the first in the series in reading order, and The Last Battle, as its name indicates, was meant to close the series out.

These are the only ones that fall flat, for several reasons, but mostly because Lewis was attempting to make his message (and yes, it is a very traditional Christian message) obvious to everyone.  They are just there, in fact, for that reason, and the adventures are relegated to a secondary role–the books suffer for it.

Are these two unreadable?  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  They just aren’t up to the spectacularly high level of the others.

I would recommend that anyone interested in this series read the first four (or five if you can’t get enough of it) books as written and ignore the rest.  And I recommend it to anyone at all.  If an atheist can enjoy it, so can you.

Just stay away from the last two books written.  They… don’t help.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fantasy novel The Malakiad is not a Christian novel. In fact, it offends every religion from ancient Greece onwards, and it offends atheists and the politically correct, as well.  In fact, if you are not offended by it, Gustavo will be extremely upset.  You can check it out here (ebook) and here (paperback).

Continuing Brian Jacques

The Legend of Luke - Brian Jacques

Though he died recently, Brian Jacques’ books continue to bring pleasure to millions of youngsters (and not-so-youngsters).  I picked the first of these up while perusing a bookstore in Punta del Este, Uruguay as a teenager, and have since been entertained by them at every turn.

Jacques is a writer in the old style.  His children’s books in include the death of cute, furry and beloved characters, so you never know who will come out of it alive.

The latest one I’ve read is part of his Redwall series titled The Legend of Luke.  This is a high-seas swashbuckler, with evil pirates, noble adventurers and tremendous sacrifice which does exactly what I’ve grown to expect from Jacques.  Namely, that is to transport you to a bucolic world of pastoral innocence that, for reasons known only to the bad guys, it terrorized by one scourge or another.

For the time it takes you to read this, you are taken to a land where good and evil are clear cut and food is the most important thing in the universe (anyone who’s read Jacques will know what I mean).

This one follows young Martin the Warrior as he sets out to find out the truth about his father, the great Luke.  What he discovers is both inspiring and poignant, but the knowledge isn’t quite as important as the friends he makes along the way.

It’s another good one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s own foray into fantasy novelling doesn’t contain talking rabbits, but it does have a pink sea serpent and a mummified evil penguin, which he insists is even better… you can check it out here (paperback / Kindle).

Modernizing the Disc

Terry Pratchett with OBE

One of the amazing things about Sir Terry Pratchett (lost, perhaps in the enormous litany of other amazing things about the man) is how open he was to allowing his greatest creation to change.

Pratchett’s Discworld is one of the most beloved fantasy worlds ever imagined.  It’s right up there with Middle-Earth and Hogwarts, and yet it goes about the task quite differently.

In Tolkien and Rowling’s world, the universe achieved perfection centuries or eons before the events that unfold in the books.  The characters are usually struggling to keep a way of life alive or–in the case of Tolkien–to return things to the state in which they were back in the good old days.  In both cases, evil is personified in the entity that wants to change it, to shatter that way of life.   In fact, though both Voldemort and Sauron (or Morgoth in the earlier mythology) are evil in other, more obvious ways, their true crime is to try to break the idyll.  It’s a pattern that writers in the literary genre use as well, though in the cases of Waugh, Bassani and Ishiguro they don’t bother to disguise the true nature of the evil.

Readers, of course, can identify and respond to the sense that all times in the past were better.

Pratchett, on the hand accepted none of the wallowing.  The Discworld might be sitting on a giant turtle, perched on the back of four elephants, but it is more flexible and realistic than most other fantasy worlds, because it changes.  And while I have an image of serious writers thinking about how serious issues in our world would be reflected in other places, I have an equally vivid image of Pratchett sitting around and saying… “I wonder how the nutjobs on the Disc would react to suddenly having guns?  Ooh, that could be fun to write.”

He wrote about guns.  He wrote about race relations.  He wrote about rock music.  He wrote about gender (quite a lot, actually).

And he didn’t do it as standalones that wouldn’t affect his other work, either; every single one of these issues changed the Discworld on a fundamental level, and Pratchett reflected that in later works.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

The deepest change of all comes in Raising Steam, sadly the very last Pratchett book I will be reading for the first time.  In this one, he brings the Industrial Revolution to the Disc.  Everyone reading will know that the bucolic, strangely provincial life of even the most sophisticated Ankh-Morporkers are going to change forever, the lifestyle of the previous dozens of books will die away, blown through the desert by the winds of change.

And yet, you find yourself cheering the train-building heroes on.  Let them win, let them burn everything down and change it.  And lift a hat to a man whose courage, not just his talent, will be missed more than almost any other’s.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He doesn’t have any bestselling fantasy worlds to burn down, but if you like anachronism in service of comedy in your fantasy, he recommends the hotel credit card scene in his book The Malakiad.  Kindle / Paperback.

An Eclectic Review Publication

From the Earth to the Moon - Swimsuit scene

Anyone truly fascinated by literature, as I am, will, at some point (probably sooner than later) spend a certain amount of time reading critical work.  In my own case, it just felt like a natural progression from reading a lot to learning about the writing. Heck, I’ve even discussed some of these reads here on CE.

Likewise, the leap from reading criticism to writing it felt natural.  Although I still write a lot more fiction than criticism (what I do here on CE isn’t real criticism, it’s more an exercise in exteriorizing my own feelings about books without spoiling them for others).

The first inkling I had that my critical thoughts might be worthwhile to others was when I sent The New York Review of Science Fiction an article about the relative merits of science fiction in the West and behind the Iron Curtain in the sixties and seventies… and it was published.

The best part of that was that I received a short subscription to the magazine.  I downloaded the PDFs, printed them out… and was amazed.

The New York Review of Science Fiction logo

Here was no-holds-barred criticism about… everything and anything under the genre sun (suns?), some of it extremely tenuously linked to the genre, but all of it thoughtful.  The depth of scholarly musings on subjects that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me was simply stunning, and the concentration with which these publications had to be read surprised me.

I subsequently published another piece there, and received another subscription, so let me use those as an example of the kind of thing you’ll find there (the samples are from December 2016 and August 2017).

Apart from my own piece (about SFF in Brazil), you’ll find an analysis of Gregory Benford’s fiction looking at from a pure definition standpoint, as well as a scholarly search for the true origins of a vegetable caterpillar found in Ripley’s… and several literary examples thereof.  And these are just the cover stories of one of the issues!

The rabbit hole gets deeper, the scholarship becomes more specialized and you often find yourself reading about books you’re not familiar with… and writers you haven’t even heard of.

Sound like a recipe for boredom?

It isn’t.  Or at least it isn’t to me.  To me it’s the distilled essence of why I read in the SFF genre in the first place, a celebration of blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality as well as those between different literary genres.

I also understand why no less than the late, great Gardner Dozois always mentioned this publication in his annual Summation… and why he never failed to add the word “quirky” to his description.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novella Branch is both quirky and thought-provoking.  You can check it out here.

It’s Like a Harry Potter Book Where Everybody Dies

The Call - Peadar Ó Guilín

The title of this post is taken directly from a 2017 interview with author Peadar Ó Guilín, and the book he is describing is his own YA fantasy novel, The Call.

Now, I’d never normally use the writer’s own self-promoting words to describe a book but this time it just felt right.  This book does give one a sense of the community building and adolescent bonding from the Rowling books… but in a much, much darker world.

Despite not reading all that much in the YA genre, I’m no stranger to Peadar’s writing.  Some years ago, I had read his novel The Inferior, and had found it to be brilliant, possibly even miscast as YA, because it had, in my opinion, a much broader appeal…  But it should have given me fair warning: Ó Guilín does not pull his punches when he creates a world.  The starting conditions from The Inferior were, to put it lightly, stark.  The brilliance came from building a sympathetic storyline and lovable character born of the starkness.

If anything, the world of The Call is even darker.  Its protagonists are surrounded by enemies they can’t fight or even see most of the time… but when they do, it’s alone, without friends, on the enemy’s turf, on the enemy’s terms.  Most will die… and this is what is expected.  Survival comes out of ensuring that the number of dead is as small as possible.

I don’t want to give spoilers here, so I’ll limit myself to saying that the academy setting of the novel does make it much more similar to the Harry Potter books than Peadar’s earlier works, and it also makes it much more YA in feel.  This one is definitely, squarely aimed at the target and, from watching the adolescents I know (my wife has a couple of older kids from an earlier marriage), this is exactly the kind of book they can sink their teeth into.

YA dark fantasy is hard to do, but Peadar manages to create the perfect sense of dread and doom, a fear that sticks with you.  And he does it without resorting to any cheap tricks–you come away frightened because the situation is so awful, not because someone sticks an eyeball on a pencil.

And yet, as with The Inferior, the characters attempt to bring brightness to the dark world, even playing against a stacked deck.

So this is a winner (as evidenced by the award nominations it has received), and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  In fact, it’s so well done that I’d say only young adults should read it.  We older adults are not prepared to see kids struggling against such horrific odds.  And I hear the sequel is ever darker… gulp!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is a comic fantasy tale set in Ancient Greece, The Malakiad.

The First Love Never Dies Away Completely

When it comes to reading, the writers most responsible for my passion are probably Enid Blyton and the composite figure who went by the name of Franklin W. Dixon.  As a seven- to nine-year-old living in Zürich, a place where it got dark at a ridiculously early hour in winter, I would voraciously devour any age-appropriate mystery books in the school library – see number 5 on this list.

Interestingly enough, I also had my first brush with science fiction and fantasy literature by reading The White Mountains… but it didn’t seem to have stuck.

Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin

I owe my love of the SFF genre, and my writing career, to someone unexpected: Robert Asprin.  He was quite big in the 1980s, and one day, randomly waiting for my mother to finish buying stuff at a Kroger at age ten or eleven, I picked up Another Fine Myth from the rack, probably because I liked the cover of the Ace paperback.

I was hooked.

Forever.

Yes, this isn’t mainstream fantasy.  It’s the equivalent of H2G2 for fantasy.  But, they are still the benchmark for laugh out loud comedy in the genre.  Just as the H2G2 books haven’t been surpassed by anyone for sheer comedy in SF, these are still the benchmark for fantasy (I’m also a huge Discworld fan, but those usually put the story before the comedy and just feel a bit less jokey to me).

Such is the power of those early Asprin books that I am still reading them today.  Asprin died in 2008, the year Myth-Fortunes (the latest one I’ve read) was published, so I’m assuming that this collaboration with Jody-Lynn Nye was the last he participated in.

Myth Fortunes by Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye

To be completely honest, the final few books in the series have lost a little of Asprin’s original silliness; I suppose dilution is unavoidable when working with a collaborator.  On the plus side, without Nye, one can never be certain that the new myth books would have been written t all.  Asprin certainly had a long period when he wasn’t writing any more of them.

I’m just thankful we have the new Myths at all.  The cast of characters certainly doesn’t miss out by being less comedic, and the storyline–probably due to Nye’s influence–has taken some very interesting and unexpected turns.

I rate the early ones better, of course, but that might be just because Asprin had a blank canvas to work from, and he could put his characters in whatever situation he felt like without going against a firmly established vein.  The structure of the later books, and fully rounded characters puts a few constraints on doing that in the current iterations.

That doesn’t mean the new ones are bad; they aren’t.  In fact, they’re very good.  And Myth-Fortunes is a solid effort that appears to put many of the story arcs on new tracks… so now I need to read the next one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a short story writer and novelist.  His comic fantasy book The Malakiad isn’t as well known as Asprin’s, but he thinks it’s just as good (and he loves the cover).  Check out the print version here, and the Kindle ebook over here.

Advancing the Middle-Earth Story

The War of the Ring - JRR Tolkien - Christopher Tolkien

I’ve been reading the History of Middle-Earth series for a few years now – and have recently read The War of the Ring.  As I mentioned before, it’s a fascinating look into the thinking and process that went into the most influential modern fantasy work.

Today, everyone in the fantasy genre is defined by Tolkien.  Most obvious are books like the Wheel of Time or the Shannara series which in greater or lesser measure build on the Tolkien formula (the Brooks books do so more transparently, but almost every quest-based, journey-of-the-hero fantasy series does so in greater or lesser measure).

The rest of the genre, of course, is desperately trying to break away from the Tolkien tradition.  They hate high fantasy with a passion, either for silly “political” reasons (it is western-based and non-inclusive) or for more understandable artistic reasons; when a writer says they dislike the subgenre because the characters, far from acting like real people, fit into the roles that legend assigns them, makes a valid point.  But even those who break with the tradition do so self-consciously, always trying to define the exact limits of the shadow of the colossus they’re trying to escape.

And for people outside the genre, fantasy is essentially synonymous with Tolkien.

Yeah, I think understanding what went into creating this giant is worthwhile.  But more than just an academic pursuit for writers, it’s also a fascinating one.

As I mentioned earlier, the true, grinding world-building went into the Silmarillion.  This project was Tolkien’s passion, a labor of love that he knew would likely never see the light of day.  Dismayed as he was by the lack of an English mythology (Romans and 1066 saw to its destruction), he set out to create one from scratch.

From short texts and poems set in this mythology grew the story and world that we love today… but it grew in layers that would make an onion feel inadequate.  A lot of the fun of the History of ME books comes precisely from reading Christopher Tolkien’s descriptions of the scraps of paper his father used to compose the original drafts.  One comes to have a great admiration for the editor’s work in this case.  Actually it became the world we met in The Silmarillion.

So when he decided to write a children’s book, The Hobbit, he simply (what a deceptive word, that “simply”) layered it over what he’d already spent decades building.

And LotR built on that, another layer to the cake.

This particular installment deals with the destruction of Isengard, and comes, as should be evident, at a time when many of the bones of the mythology were already in place.  It is in near-final form, and reads very smoothly, unlike some of the early texts which were intentionally written in an archaic style.  As always, the true fanatics will love mining the text for differences with the final version while less-obsessed readers will enjoy revisiting the world and reading about how Tolkien built his masterpiece, as revealed by Christopher.

I can’t really recommend this series to everyone, of course.  But I will happily do so to writers who enjoy a window into another writer’s craft and also to OCD fanatics.  It is an effort, but it does have its rewards.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His novel The Malakiad, far from trying to escape Tolkien’s shadow, would likely make Tolkien attempt to disavow the fantasy genre.  Also, it’s a very funny book.  You can check it out here.

Like George R. R. Martin but with Rabbits

Yet another fantasy series gets discussed today, and yet another series that I’ve been bringing along since early adolescence.

As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy in English living in Buenos Aires as a teen, there wasn’t always as much variety as you might expect from a typical bookstore in the US.  There were usually a few books in English, and, if one was lucky, one or two would be genre books.

That situation was exacerbated when on summer holiday in Uruguay. Punta del Este in the early nineties was the place to be in you liked electronic music or enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the highest element of the upper crust, but it wasn’t exactly a bibliophile’s paradise.  I guess no place on Earth is perfect.

But there was a bookstore, and over the years I bought a number of books there that I might not have purchased if there had been a better selection.  Sometimes they were real turkeys (Spinrad’s Russian Spring comes to mind), and sometimes they were the beginning of a lifelong read (it was here that I first encountered the Deverry series).

Marlfox by Brian Jacques

The last genre book sitting on the shelf that summer was a strange item which had a mouse with a sword on its cover: Brian Jacques Mossflower.  I had serious misgivings about this thing… it wasn’t really the kind of book I would normally have approached.  Despite being about 400 pages long, it seemed more like something for kids than for a teen who didn’t know enough about the world to understand that he wasn’t cool and worldly.

So I read it and… It wasn’t half bad.  In fact, I found it spectacularly refreshing.  You see, Jacques, liberated by the fact that his characters were assorted rodents and other small mammals, massacred more of his dramatis personae than anyone I had been exposed to at the time.  Only recently did George R. R. Martin dare to do it at the same scale with human characters.

Well, maybe not at the same scale.  Martin is in a league of his own regarding character killing (although he seems to have calmed down remarkably in recent books) but Jacques is by no means sugar coated.  While you could pretty much bet that the young mouse who found an ancient sword somewhere was going to survive and thrive, some of the other good guys were usually toast.  And Jacques also took time to build up the motivations and personalities of the bad guys so that, when they inevitably perished in the epic bloodbath that ends each book, one would feel for them.

Since then, this series has been on the changeup / back burner list.  I buy the next installment every once in a while and end up reading one of these every couple of years or so.  I’ve gotten as far as Marlfox, which is pretty much par for the course: a fun read which doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, but which entertains with action and suspense.  Perfect for when you’ve been reading the classics and need a break.

Also, nice wholesome old-school violence for those who think their pre-teens and young teens are getting a little obsessed with vampire sex.  Young readers need balance, after all.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest novel is a fantasy romp set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.

Action Packed Medieval Fantasy

There are a lot of fantasy series out there, and I seem to be reading each and every single one of them.  Each has something that makes them attractive – my writeups tend to focus on what that is, and I’ve enjoyed each in its own way.

Perhaps the nicest thing about a series is that sense of being reunited with old friends when you crack a new book open.  It’s a comfortable feeling, perfect for readers who don’t always want to be challenged, and who enjoy stories that take a loooong while to tell.

At the Gates of Darkness by Raymond E. Feist

Of course, some of these series demand more from the reader, while some give more pure entertainment and joy.  Topping the list for the second quality is Raymond E. Feist’s long-running Riftwar series.

I started reading these books when I was about fourteen years old… and have loved them ever since.  They are among the few thick books that require almost no effort from the reader.  They grab you by the arm and take you for a ride.   Time flies by almost imperceptibly, and so do the books themselves.

Critics, of course, will say that the reason for this is twofold.  First, that I am an uncritical reader and, secondly, that Feist is not a good writer.

They are wrong, as critics usually are, especially postmodern critics, on both counts.  I am a very discerning reader who reads widely across a number of genres (just flip through the posts on this site for random examples).  The problem is that I define a good book as one that does what it sets out to do and does it well.  Critics define it as a book that meets their particular literary / political / sociological pet peeve.  This is why critics are made fun of.

The other place they are wrong is in calling Feist a bad writer for his smooth, fast-paced, uncluttered, prose.  Every time I read a critic bashing a writer for transparency, I always suspect that this is a critic who tried to write clearly and failed.  This wouldn’t surprise me in the least.  As a writer, I have nothing but respect for my peers who can drag you along almost against your will.  The men and women who cause you to finish a book before you realize it are masters of the craft–even if their chosen milieu is more popular fiction than high literary expression.

So, if you’d like a good ride, you can do much worse than to pick up a Feist volume (my advice–start with Magician.  The one pictured above just happens to be the most recent one I’ve read).  And then turn off your inner critic and enjoy the journey.

 

Gustavo Bondoni also writes fantasy.  His book The Malakiad was published in 2018.  It’s both funny and poignant.  OK.  It’s not poignant, but it is funny as hell, as befits a book whose main character is called Kopulus.