literature

We Need to Talk About Dan

If you’re a writer, critic or just a general cultural pundit, there are certain literary truths that you must accept… or else.  Joyce was the greatest writer of the 20th century.  Postmodernism isn’t stupid, it’s just that billions of people don’t get it.  Rhyming poetry died with the dinosaurs.

And Dan Brown in history’s worst writer.  He makes Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James look, respectively, like Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Since Classically Educated makes no pretense of being anything but unabashedly elitist, I suppose one would expect us join the choir in denouncing Brown’s crimes against literature.  One would be wrong.  We’re here to say reasonably nice things about his books.

Ah, I hear people say, a guilty pleasure.  Er, no.  Elitists don’t do guilt.  We do pleasure and leave the guilt to the hand-wringing middle classes and insecure academics.  I’m not looking to be forgiven for enjoying the Robert Langdon novels, but to try to analyze why I (and a lot of other people) enjoy them, despite the criticism of the limitations of the writing – which, to be fair, are pretty reasonable.  There is a bit of lazy writing in there.

So, having recently read two of his more recent Langdon novels, The Lost Symbol and Inferno, I thought it was time to bite the bullet and discuss why I’m still reading these.

For starters, I’ll tell you about my introduction to Dan Brown.  Like everyone else on the planet, my first contact with him came through The Da Vinci Code.  I had badly miscalculated the number of books I needed to take with me on a trip to the Middle East in 2005 and found myself flying back to Argentina via Spain with precisely zero things to read.  The one book that every single bookstore in the world–even in Spain–had on hand at that time was Brown’s, in English, in mass market paperback.  I picked it up with some trepidation.

I was immediately hooked, read the thing without stopping (and made demonic at the nice people whose attempts to give me airplane food were interrupting my reading) and put it down wanting more.  I don’t remember exactly, but I probably bought Angels and Demons immediately after the jet lag wore off.

Not once did I stop to criticize the prose.  Stuff which, if discovered in my own writing would have made me blanche and question my right to continue living flew right by.

Why?

Your mileage may vary, but I think it was two things.

The first factor is an old cliché: pacing and suspense (yes, I know they’re two different things, but they work best when they work together).  Simply stated, these novels keep you turning the pages because you want to know what happens next.  Will the characters make it, what is the solution to this or that riddle, etc.  There are things that keep you hooked both emotionally and intellectually.

Even better, is the fact that the pacing doesn’t bore you or make you wait.  It gives the solution within a few pages, but by the time you have it, Brown has introduced another question or risk or riddle for you to agonize over.  He does this extremely deftly, which ensures that absolutely no one (except perhaps a critic paid to look pretentious) is thinking about the man’s prose.

The second factor is the spectacular use of every conspiracy theory known to man.  Brown does his research on them.  Like the people trying to convince us that aliens have already landed and are in control, he uses just enough evidence to make a convincing, seemingly watertight, case, and leaves the deeper research–the stuff that puts the rest in context and makes it much less sinister–out.  So his books have whatever it is that attracts humans to conspiracy theories.

Umberto Eco famously said that Dan Brown was one of his characters.  He was, of course, referring to Casaubon in Foucalt’s Pendulum.  We’ve spoken glowingly about that book here, mainly because all good elitists are either skeptics when it comes to conspiracy theories or members of the Illuminati pretending to be skeptics.

What he meant by that was that Brown seems to have read all the same books that Eco did, but Brown took them seriously while Eco has them in his famous collection of fakes and lies.  He did clarify later that Brown was only using the same material for a different purpose and that he, Eco, had no evidence that Brown was a believer, but the glee he showed when throwing out the initial phrase means that we’ll take it as the true meaning.

I will postulate that Brown doesn’t use the old writings as a true believer does, but uses them as a good writer does – with the bottom line in mind.  Cynicism aside for a second, the bottom line in this case isn’t money (OK it isn’t only money) but readability and page-turningness.  In the case of his first two books, he realized that people love to read about dark plots within and around the Catholic Church and the New Testament.

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

For The Last Symbol, he spread his wings a bit and went after the Freemasons, which had the added benefit that he was able to set his novel in Washington DC, a place as rich in symbolism as any renaissance town – remember that Langdon solves these things in large part by interpreting symbols.

Inferno Dan Brown

After that, he asked himself “What group of conspiracy theorists am I missing?” and decided to write Inferno, set it in Florence (another good choice) and write about a guy developing a super-germ to wipe out humanity.  Also, he makes a brave choice with the ending…  something that shows that story, to him, is more important than just printing unlimited amounts of money.

I still haven’t read Origin, but, so far, and to his everlasting credit, Brown has resisted the temptation to complete his conspiracy bingo card by adding aliens to the mix.  There’s only so much we can defend here after all.

In the end, the books are widely read because of their strengths, not despite their weaknesses.  In this context the weaknesses (aka uninspired writing), to a reader, become invisible.  The story takes over and pulls you along, not accepting any excuses.

There.  A critical apologism of Dan Brown and a call for his work to be appreciated.  For my next trick, I may need to find arguments to show that  Hitler was actually a perfectly nice guy if you got to know him or that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was well-intended but got a little out of hand.

Nah, that sounds like a lot of work; I’ll probably just do another movie review.  Everyone likes those.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 200 stories published in seven languages (mostly in English).  His latest novel, Incursion, sets new standards in throwing characters under the bus.  His characters start the book thinking they’re on a suicide mission… and then it gets worse.

 

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Shared-World Anthologies – One Writer’s Experience

This week, I’ll be looking at the very different experiences I’ve had in publishing my short work.  Time permitting, I’ll do a post on Friday about a more typical antho (if not Firday, then next week for sure), but today, I’ll be discussing a pretty specific and unusual market type: the shared-world antho.

Like many readers, I was originally introduced to the concept of a shared world by the Thieves’ World anthos in the 1980s (they might have been created earlier, but I was reading in the 80s).   Memory is a bit fuzzy, but I was probably drawn to them because Robert Asprin‘s name was on the cover and I had just discovered his Myth books.

They were delightful books which I devoured (I was about twelve at the time and they were perfect).  Looking for more of the same, I came across the Heroes In Hell Series. And I saw something interesting:  many of the writers in both series were the same.  Strange.

Years later, I was invited by a friend to take part in a volume of the Sha’Daa series, edited by Michael H. Hanson  and Edward F. McKeon.  The basic premise is that, once every ten thousand years, the Sha’Daa – a demonic invasion of Earth – occurs.  And it’s due soon…  I was stunned and delighted, because I’d been watching from the sidelines as these books attained a bigger and bigger readership.  I didn’t take very long to give them a resounding “Yes”.

When I asked why he’d thought of me, my friend said the following: “I asked around and people like working with you because you deliver clean, quality prose on time.”  So yeah, I’m a hack, but it may be the nicest thing anyone has said of me as a writer.  Professionalism is something I value and, it appears, so do others.  It gave me my first Inkling of why so many writers were the same people across those eighties anthos: evidently, they played well with others, got things in on time and didn’t try to blow up the sandbox.

Next, of course, I had to produce a decent story.  Flop-sweat time! Not only did I have to produce a decent story on command, but it needed to fit.  Luckily, I had reviewed one of the first two books for SFReader so I knew what I was getting into.  I also read the other volume and took copious notes on what worked well and what had already been done.

Sha Daa Pawns Cover

Then I sat down to write my own tale for Sha’Daa Pawns.  I wanted to do something different that fit the dark spirit of this amazing series well.  I set my own tale, Blood Stone in an African diamond mine, a milieu which I’d never really seen explored in speculative form.

When they accepted my piece with some minimal edits, I was delighted.  When they showed me the cover I was stunned.  And then they invited me back for the next one: Facets… which made the whole process and insecurity start over.  They wanted this one to be in epistolary/documentary text form, a style I’d always shied away from but, for reasons having to do with the structure of the planned book, fit perfectly.

When someone says “epistolary” I immediately think two things: Dracula and Victorian era.  So I went in that direction style-wise (albeit I made the setting a bit more modern) and, to my surprise, the story came together really well.  I managed to tell the tale I wanted seamlessly without stretching the form past its breaking point (or at least past the point where the reader would break, which would have been worse).

Sha'daa Facets Cover

The entire experience was different from anything else I’ve ever done in publishing.  Sometimes a detail had to be changed to fit another story.  At other times, the editors would ask you to change a little thing here or there to avoid a demonic apocalypse (always a danger in this series).  I recommend it to everyone.  The dynamic will certainly help you grow.

Once the stories were published (a couple of years apart) and I received my copies, I realized that this series is going from strength to strength.  My thoughts on these volumes pretty much reinforced the initial impression of the one I’d reviewed back when I was an impartial observer: the author lineup is strong, the action is excellent and I feel honored to be among them – and each of them had to play nice with others to earn their place there.  Cool to see, and I can only imagine what the editors went through to create those.

So, for the writers who have asked me how to get into the shared-world antho business, that’s the answer: be easy to work with, deliver your edits on time, and word will get around.  Oh, and write the best stories you can, too.

If you happen to hear of one of these being formed, write an author or editor already on the team who’s worked with you before.  You never know what might result!

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Incursion: Shock Marines, was released in September.  He recommends that you read it before something else comes out and he has to change this signature.  If that happens, you might miss it and you do not want that to happen (he says to trust him on this)!

What Happens When the Writer Dies?

A friend of mine who is also an excellent writer once told me that he doesn’t read doorstop fantasy series until they are complete.  The reason is that he is always afraid that the writer will die in the middle of it and leave him hanging.

As a writer myself, I begged to differ.  Everyone knows that we’re made of better stuff than that, and no self-respecting author would ever allow his body to fail in the middle of a series.  Priorities are priorities: readers come first, natural law a distant second.

Then, in 2007, Robert Jordan died–way too young–leaving us with The Wheel of Time three quarters of the way done.

A quick note about The Wheel of Time.  Nowadays, everyone and his kid sister like to brag about their knowledge regarding Game of Thrones.  But the show, and the series of books that it was drawn from, would have had a much more difficult path to publication and popularity if Wheel of Time hadn’t been a smash runaway bestseller.  Robert Jordan followed in the footsteps of some writers (Terry Brooks comes to mind) but the huge success of his saga opened up the doorstop fantasy sub category (for more on it, here’s my take on The Runelords, another series that likely owes its existence to Jordan).

But, despite his importance, tragedy struck and readers wondered what would happen next?

It’s a difficult decision for a publisher to make.  In some cases such as Robert Ludlum, and now Tom Clancy, the publisher simply keeps using the writer’s name and hopes no one reads the obituaries.  The real writer’s name is often featured in smaller letters saying something like “with Edward Edwardsson” (of course for sales like that, I’d gladly write a techno-thriller…).

Other publishers openly admit that their guy is gone and get another name author to wrap things up.  Think of And Another Thing by Eion Colfer.  It’s a good book, it’s a funny book. And no one is pretending the humor is anything like what Douglas Adams would have produced.  It isn’t.  But that doesn’t make it bad.

The publishers of the Wheel of Time decided to go with a more Robert Ludlum-esque approach.  They signed up-and-coming writer Brandon Sanderson, locked him in a room with Jordan’s copious notes and outlines and told him to write the last three books in the series in such a way that everyone would think Robert Jordan did it (OK, I’m not sure if they locked him in a room for the time it took him to write three humungous novels.  If they did, that had better have been one hell of an advance!).

Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson  A memory of light Brandon Sanderson

To Sanderson’s credit, he pulled the magic trick off without a hitch, and the concluding books are just as good as the preceding volumes.

This was a rare case where a tragedy was good for all the survivors.  Tor got the sales they were probably counting on from this series.  Readers got the conclusion they wanted to the series.  And Sanderson became a household name among fantasy readers (I will admit to having asked who he was when I first heard the news).  In a limited sense, even Jordan came out ahead (I assume he would rather not have died, of course): his vision and notes were used to create the final product, and his style was respected.

All of which doesn’t leave me feeling relaxed. A major problem I have is that I’m in the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire, and at the rate they’re being written, I certainly hope George RR Martin has the immortality thing figured out…

 

Gustavo Bondoni, apart from blogging, also writes.  His latest novel, Incursion, is a fun romp about what happens when a suicide mission gets really complicated.

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction, Part 3

In our last post in this series, we bemoaned how the science fiction pendulum has swung all the way from being a genre best suited as entertainment to being a showcase for postmodernist and politicized literary experimentation.  We illustrated this final point by reviewing a pair of Gardner Dozois Year’s Best collections.

Either end of the pendulum represents a sad state of affairs, so it was nice to be able to end the piece on a positive note, noting that the latest one I’d read when the piece was written showed a bit of a return to balance (I’ve since read another, and this trend looks to be continuing, but I’ll have to do a complete piece on that one later).

However, although Gardner Dozois is the best measuring stick for the current state of the genre, and the tastemaker for the more academic side of the SFF world, he is not the only person putting together Year’s Best collections.

Years Best SF 6 - Hartwell

David G. Hartwell’s (1941-2016) long-running series of Year’s Best Books is the one I’d recommend for people who like a little more balance between fun in SF and the ever-present identity politics of the genre.  They are also a place where people who still think of Science Fiction as the “literature of ideas” can find solace in a world where much of the widely-recognized SF has become character-based to the point where the science fiction is almost secondary.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but a change of pace is welcome.

The two most recent Hartwell’s I’ve read are number 6 and number 16.  Number 16 was co-edited by Kathryn Cramer.  As these are annual, there are 10 years between them… and other than the names active in each (there’s a Waldrop story in number 6!) there is very little difference in the tone of the stories.  They are both well-written and fun, without espousing one political view over the other (compare that to Dozois, who goes from slightly left-leaning to extremely left-leaning and then dials it back somewhat in the same time period), which is refreshing in these polarized times.

Year's Best SF 16 - Hartwell Cramer

The death of David Hartwell is, to me, a terrible blow to science fiction.  Not only because of his even keel in selecting the best stories regardless of political preference as the genre navigates strange philosophical waters, but also because he was the founder of the New York Review of Science Fiction (where I’ve published a couple or articles but, sadly, they were published after Hartwell’s death).  He, and this series, will be sorely missed.

I wish Cramer had continued the series (I assume she is as good as Hartwell at choosing great stories), but sadly, I can’t find any beyond #18, which is already some years old.

Here at Classically Educated, we promise to scour the Year’s Best shelves to see if we can find another series which keeps this particular flame alive.  In times where political fanatics poison everything from daily life to Facebook feeds, finding someone who leaves politics aside (to the point where I can’t tell whether Hartwell leaned left or right, which, to me is a sign of greatness in a writer or editor) when editing an anthology is a refreshing breath of fresh air.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He writes in many genres, so if you prefer a good supernatural love story to straight science fiction you might enjoy Pacific Wind.

 

The Door into Lovecraft

If you are anything at all like me, you’re surrounded by people who revere H.P. Lovecraft as a master of the weird fiction genre.  But also, if you’re like me, you grew up reading modern writers – or at least writers that were still alive in the eighties, such as Asimov, Heinlein or Robert Asprin, to name a few genre figures I recall from my early days of reading science fiction and fantasy.

Astounding Lovecraft cover

Every once in a while, an essay (generally found in one of Asimov’s collections) mentioned this legendary “Golden Era” from whence all that is good in the genre originated, but the publications mentioned therein where antediluvian.  There were a bunch of new books being published every year by great authors (Thieves World!).  Why waste time on the older stuff.

Well, there are various good reasons to do so.  For starters, Asimov was right when he gushed about the era.  If you enjoy can-do attitudes and heroes willing to overcome whatever an unfriendly universe can throw their way, then the Golden Age is a good place to start.  If you want to see everything from the limits of space travel to the boundaries of mental capacity explored through a scientific lens and with innocent joy, this is the era to go.  Admittedly, if literary experimentation or diversity are the main things you look for in your fiction, then this is probably not the right era for you. These are straightforward stories written to entertain, and they do that job well.

So it was with those expectations that I picked up my first Lovecraft, a Del Rey paperback of The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories.

I found it interesting, but not the mind-blowing experience that the Lovecraft fans had led me to expect.

Why?  Well, in these tales, Lovecraft does what so many editors who rejected him criticized him for: writes in a forced archaic tone which helps create atmosphere and add to the dread, but also slows down the reader – which, come to think of it, was likely also intentional.

I left off of Lovecraft to read more pressing matters after that, but, thanks to Easton Press and their now-discontinued Horror Classics series, I ran into the man again.

Easton Press - HP Lovecraft - At the Mountains of Madness

And this time I got the message.

The book Easton Press selected was At the Mountains of Madness.  It has become the book that I send people who ask me: “What’s all the fuss about Lovecraft, anyway?”

The reason for this is that this one is told by a modern-day (remember it was written in 1931) explorer in his own colloquial voice, but it still combines many of the elements found in his other tales, including Shoggoths, the hint of the old ones, Miskatonic University and namless fear leading to madness.  It’s all there, but it’s also readable.  Those who wish to explore further can do so in his other work.

Plus, if you want to know where writers and filmmakers who placed their horror stories in the wasteland of Antartica got their inspiration, you need look no further.

As an added bonus, this one is short enough to read quickly – and he street cred that having read Lovecraft brings among SFF fans is priceless!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His best-known novel is probably Siege, and that’s likely why it’s the one being adapted into a graphic novel.

On the Importance of Choosing a Good Magic System

Last week we discussed a series of fantasy books that, despite having a pretty standard “new age and elves” style magic system, is still beautiful and memorable because of the way characters and prose wove together to make a completely different kind of magic.

But what if you are not a supreme prose stylist, but simply an excellent writer attempting to give the world a rollicking good yarn?  Unless you do something different, of course, your books are very unlikely to ever see the light of day, and sometimes, if they do, they won’t make a huge impression.

A good way to make sure you leave a mark is via the magic system.  Make the rules of the magic strange, different excessively arcane, and then figure out all the ramifications… and you’re likely to have a brilliant story waiting to get out.

runelords cover David farland

David Farland’s (real name, Dave Wolverton) The Runelords is probably the best example of  a hugely imaginative magic system with serious consequences for all involved that I’ve come across in a lifetime of reading big fantasy series.

In short (and attempting not to give spoilers), each Runelord (generally, albeit not always of noble birth) can take “endowments” of different characteristics from people willing to give them.  This makes them stronger in that particular characteristic.   The downside is that the person who donates the ability loses that quality.  So giving an endowment of brawn leaves you weak as a babe, one of sight blind as a bat, etc.

You can give the strangest things, and all are useful.  Grace, for example. Or – and this one has drastic consequences – metabolism.

A lot of the politics of the series revolve around how to accumulate endowments, and how to protect those who’ve given the endowments from being massacred by people who don’t particularly want their rivals to have that power.

It makes for a nicely convoluted political backdrop to a “journey of the hero” plot with some truly alien bad guys getting tossed in once the foundations are laid.

This isn’t necessarily my favorite fantasy doorstop series (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that that one is probably The Wheel of Time endless descriptions of ladies’ blouses and all), but I wholeheartedly recommend this one not only to readers who are looking for some fantasy fun, but also to other writers.  It’s a masterful example of using your magic system to shape the life and politics of a secondary world.

And as the original 4 book series (which I’ve recently finished) advances, the consequences of the magic system grow ever deeper.

Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story Writer.  His latest novel is Incursion: Shock Marines.

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.

The End of Deverry

Most of the huge, sprawling Heroic fantasy series I’ve read deal with a single set of characters and follow them through the conclusion of a single crisis (or perhaps more than one if the author made a lot of money and decided to keep writing).

That makes a lot of sense.  After all, it’s the formula that Papa Tolkien set out for everyone when he invented the sub-genre  (fortunately, I have not yet succumbed to writing one of these, or else I wouldn’t be that smug!).  Look at The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth, or the Belgariad and Malloreon.  All of these now-classic series used the formula, and all of them have at least one title with the word “bestseller” in the blurb.

Terry Brooks took the idea one step further by simply having several different generations of his characters have essentially the same adventures over and over again (he does it really well, too.  I for one, can see what he’s doing and still buy his books).

Perhaps the only contemporary writer to vary the formula (albeit only slightly) and be a huge commercial success is George R. R. Martin, and I will be very interested in seeing how the newer generations of my writing peers respond to his lead.  I expect quite a bit of the sincerest form of flattery, to be honest.

But for a twist that really twists, I would recommend a dark horse that most people haven’t heard of.  Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle, which I’ve recently, with my reading of The Silver Mage, completed.

The Silver Mage by Katharine Kerr Cover

A quick note on this.  Finishing the Deverry cycle, though rewarding, was like losing an old friend.  It ran from 1986 to 2009, and I joined the party in about 1991 or so.  Fifteen books later, I’m done.  A bittersweet moment.

But back to why it’s special.  Kerr does something that few other fantasists (I can’t think of another who has an epic series doing this) do: she uses the same characters over and over in different time frames, but they are reincarnated.  So things that happen to one guy might lead to terrible revenge or good karma for the same soul (but a different character) a thousand years later.  And since the timelines are all woven together, different time periods occur in different books, so you might have a chapter that takes place two hundred years before the one preceeding it.

The magic, of course, is in the fact that it all winds up making sense in the end.  As a writer, all I can do is tip my hat with respect and say “better her than me.”

Another thing that recommends this series is the writing style.  It’s a bit dreamy, a little literary and very feminine.  Fortunately, however, there is enough good, old-fashioned sword- and catapult- driven mayhem to keep genre fans happy. There are also dragons That is a good thing.  The balance of the two elements is well-managed and effective.

Perfect?  I suppose not.  Though I enjoyed these, they might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  The character set can feel a little new-agey (that cover above should be a dead giveaway…). There are, fortunately, no unicorns that I can recall, but the elves all live in the west and the magic system is more seventies crystals than magic swords.  I also had one good friend tell me they abandoned the series when one of the human characters became a dragon.  I didn’t love that twist, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me, and I read on until the end.

NOTE: After I posed this, Katharine Kerr herself (wow!) clarified the origins of the magic system in the comments.  It’s much more complex and nuanced than I had originally assumed so I urge you to have a look in the comments for the real story.

Anyway, if you do pick it up, drop me a line.  In the meantime, consider this post my farewell to an old friend.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. 

Classics Can Be Entertainment, Too

Quite often, when we read a classic, we use phrases such as “It was a difficult book to read, but it had such depth that it was worth it.”  The problem often seems to be that archaic language combined with sentence and paragraph structures that are no longer in fashion, as well as the fact that some of the contemporary references are obscure to modern readers make it difficult to enjoy the flow of the narrative first time around.

Many scholars approve of this.  If the classics are available to all, they think, then anyone can read them.  While we’re often in complete agreement with this point of view (we like our elitism) it’s also nice when a classic is accessible to all.

The Three Musketeers Engraving

One such work is The Three Musketeers.  It’s one classic book where watching the film becomes completely unnecessary to modern readers, as the text itself is nonstop action and adventure, wrapped in the respectability that comes with reading a 19th century novel.  And it’s French, too.  It’s the perfect way to pretend to be an intellectual without having to suffer through something like Middlemarch.  It’s not one of those books you read just to say you’ve done it.

The reasons for this are twofold…  Let’s start with the least obvious.

If you’re reading the book in English, then you’re reading a translation from the original French.  While translations can be much more tortuous than the original (read Chapman’s Homer if you don’t believe me), as the world advances, translators have realized (thank whatever deity you happen to worship) that a translation is not an opportunity for them to dazzle us with their writing but a chance to make the authors intent shine through.

That means translated books are often written in cleaner language than the original, and also in more modern form (especially if the translation is relatively new), both of which make the original more accessible.

The Three Musketeers First Edition Title Page

I think one of the great beneficiaries of this trend is Borges.  In the original Spanish, you don’t just have to deal with the difficult ideas that old Jorge Luis liked to play with, but also the intentionally erudite language he employed.  The English translations I’ve seen of his work are much more accessible.

I don’t know enough French to be able to say whether the same thing has happened to Dumas, but based on my English-language reading, I think it’s likely.

The second reason is the obvious one.  The story actually has a plot in which interesting things happen.  While introspection and character growth are very rewarding, they do not make for entertainment.  The Three Musketeers shows a lot of character traits, and even traces their evolution, but it doesn’t sacrifice a roaring good tale to do so.  Instead, it weaves these details into the tapestry of the plot.

In fact, a surprising number of the great classics–those anointed by the classicists of the prewar eras as opposed to the unfortunate and blinkered modernists, and their ridiculous postmodernist successors–seem to adhere to this formula, which begs the question: will some of the existential books we are supposed to revere today still receive any sort of recognition in fifty years time?

I doubt it.  But one thing I’m sure of is that generations of readers will be enjoying The Three Musketeers and that Hollywood will be cranking out reboots of the story every couple of years or so (happily, Brian Adams should be retired by then).

Provincial Life and My Difference of Opinion with Virginia Woolf

Middlemarch First Edition

I find Virginia Woolf to be remarkably clear-headed.  Her A Room of One’s Own is one of the few pieces of purely feminist (or purely political, for that matter) writing that I’ve ever read which feels that it was written by someone who was intelligent and thoughtful first and foremost, as opposed to someone defined by their agenda.  It is not only readable, but actually brilliant.

Unfortunately, when it comes to George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, I find myself disagreeing with Woolf violently–which is bad because I’m pretty sure most people will come down on Woolf’s side in any argument, and also because she has been dead for ages, and I can’t actually discuss it with her.

Woolf, as some of you might know, probably gave the most famous review of Middlemarch when she expressed the opinion that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”  Writing from the vantage point of 1902, that is very dismissive of everyone from Austen to Thackarey (and let’s not forget the Bell brothers).

Such a ringing endorsement made Middlemarch a must-read.  So read it I did.  And it fell reasonably flat (which is what all the other critics were saying, but I went and believed Woolf!).

Yes, it is for grown-ups.  Of that, there is little doubt.  But it is not for every grown-up.  It is for those men and women whom earlier generations referred to as “Serious-minded”, which seems to mean earnest people obsessed with important issues and for whom smiling was something of a lost art.  Humor, of course, is for children and the unwashed masses.

A Room Of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf, First edition Cover

In that light, Middlemarch works very well.  It plods along logically and earnestly, eventually becoming a character study of many of the types of people you would have found in the English countryside in the late 19th century.  It’s not bad, but one can’t help feel that it would have benefited from having Jane Austen edit it.  Better still, Thackeray whose character studies as much more biting.  No, wait…  Best of all would have been Oscar Wilde.

What I’m trying to say here is that the book is too lineal and earnest for its own good.  Real grown-ups, no matter what Virginia Woolf said, are people who appreciate humor as well as obligation, people who understand that a good life life contains levity as well as grey porridge.

Perhaps the lucid Woolf of A Room of One’s Own wasn’t the real one.  Perhaps she really was as humorless and agenda driven as so many others before and after her have been when they dedicated their lives to a particular cause.

But I choose to believe not.

So the only thing left to do is to read To The Lighthouse, I guess.  That should settle the matter pretty definitively, and show once again how little provocation is required for me to pick up a random classic book.