So You Don’t Like Fantasy

[This post was originally published at Megan Groom’s blog, https://bit.ly/2HVe5NU.]

I don’t like grenache single-varietal wines. There’s just something about the taste. Unless it’s a well made, carefully husbanded grenache that is bold and fruit-forward, and then I love it. I think the same concept applies to any genre of fiction. The genre doesn’t matter, as long as the writing is good, the characters compelling, and the story engaging.

I am, as you may have already discerned, a fantasy author (also a wine drinker). When people ask me what I do, I tell them I write fantasy novels. This will often result in a studied effort to avoid rolling their eyes, and a polite, “I don’t read fantasy. Sorry.”

My theory is that they just haven’t discovered the fantasy writer or the type of fantasy that they like. Many people were drawn to fantasy after reading “Lord of the Rings.” I think an equal number of people were turned off by it. (Hence the parody, “Bored of the Rings.”) But there are many different types of fantasy, often bearing no resemblance to other fantasies other than being pigeonholed in the fantasy genre. Let’s take a look at some of the fantasy out there that shatters expectations and stereotypes.

The “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. “Outlander” begins when a young Englishwoman, Claire, steps through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and is transported into the 18th century, where she falls in love with a braw young Scot who is not her husband. The series follows Claire and Jamie and their family through many years and adventures, switching back and forth between the present day and the historical past. Although clearly fantasy, “Outlander” is also romance, adventure, and well-researched historical fiction. It doesn’t easily fit any particular genre—but it’s labeled “fantasy.” The characters could be people you know—flawed in some ways, but worth knowing.

“In Pursuit of the Green Lion,” “A Vision of Light,” and other novels by Judith Merkle Riley. Riley’s fantasy novels are also historically based, and several reflect the author’s interest in alchemy and how it was practiced. I found these novels to be full of drama and adventure, but despite some nasty characters, they also left me feeling good in the end. Some of her stories are set in medieval times, some in the Renaissance, and the historical research is excellent. She has a lovely, subtle sense of humor as well.

Neil Gaiman is, of course, in a class by himself. Gaiman has the career I would have picked out for myself, had I been bolder and smarter. He writes short stories, poetry, novels, and screenplays as well as graphic novels. He travels all over the world dressed in a black leather jacket, black T-shirt, and black jeans, to the adoration of the masses. I could skip the all-black dude-clothes, but the rest would be nice. Gaiman’s work is extraordinarily varied. “American Gods” and “Anansi Boys” are both about Old World gods transplanted to America, and having to deal with powerful New World gods—such as Media. If you’ve been following the TV series of “American Gods,” it’s a good sample of what Gaiman does. One of my favorites in his oeuvre is a children’s book, “The Graveyard Book,” but I don’t recommend reading it to a young child. It’s about a boy who, as a toddler, escapes being murdered by a serial killer, though his family is massacred. He winds up in a graveyard, where he is cared for and raised by the ghosts that “live” there. The story gets pretty hairy at times, and I would recommend not giving it to anyone under, say, 12, and then only if they are not the nervous type. Gaiman’s other children’s books, like “Coraline” or “The Wolves in the Walls,” have a dark edge that many kids enjoy, but “The Graveyard Book” is much darker, though highly entertaining. Gaiman reads many of his own audiobooks, and he is great at it. I would listen to him reading the NYC telephone book, if it still exists.

If you think epic fantasy might appeal to you, there’s always “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin. GOT is more epic than most epic fantasy ever dreams of being. His story involves hundreds of characters, all of their stories revolving around a power clash between the various kingdoms of his invented world—and a more serious threat from the supernatural, which most in his world do not believe is real. If you enjoy long, involved stories with plenty of action, adventure, blood and guts, GOT might be your cup of tea. It literally has everything—wars, intrigue, treachery, incest, romance, bravery, murder, tragedy, family issues, war, politics, magic, comedy, and, of course, dragons.

Diana Wynn Jones is someone I need to read more of. She has written several children’s stories as well as adult fantasies. She wrote “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which was made into an anime movie that has quite a cult following. Her stories take place in invented worlds where magic is a natural phenomenon, like vision or touch, and treated as such. She makes these worlds seem real while we are visiting, which is the mark of a truly good writer. If there is such a thing as a “cozy” fantasy, Jones writes them.

Fantasy writers like to talk about “creating magical systems.” If you incorporate magic into a story, you can’t have your characters solving all their problems by waving a wand or reciting a spell—that would be boring. So you have to come up with a system that has rules and limitations. The maestro of magical systems is Brandon Sanderson. One of his more memorable series is the “Mistborn” trilogy. Set in a created world, certain individuals (the “mistborn”) are born with the power to ingest different metals, each of which gives the wielder specific supernatural powers. (I can’t remember what this ability is called at the moment.) The world is threatened with unexplained phenomena, people are dying, and those in power are helpless to combat the evil. It is the mistborn that discover the source of the threat and how to combat it. It’s epic fantasy, but the heroes aren’t the guys in the tin suits this time. Sanderson’s work is so well respected that he was selected to finish Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series when the author died.

For those who enjoy fast-paced action and intrigue, you might like the work of Ryan Attard, who writes adventure fantasies full of snark and martial arts. Both are equally enjoyable. Attard is an incredibly prolific young writer who lives on the island of Malta. In the time I have known him, Ryan has pumped out something like fifteen novels, while I have produced two and a half. He is a martial arts practitioner, and can take you out with his hands, feet, or katana—your choice—and he incorporates this expertise into his work. I haven’t read all his books, but he has a devoted following. Try the “Legacy” or “Nemesis” series.

There are even humorous fantasies. The British writers Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett come to mind. I think Pratchett uses his bizarre fantasy creation, the Discworld and its assorted improbable inhabitants, to make insightful observations of our world, right here and now. I have written about Sir Terry before, I think he’s beyond brilliant as well as funny, and I’ll leave it there—other than to say I think “Monstrous Regiment” is his best work.

Tom Holt sets his fantasies in modern-day London, where there are discrete firms run by vampires and goblins, and law firms headed by werewolves. His hapless hero finds himself working for one such firm in his first book in the J.W. Wells & Co. Series, “The Portable Door.” It’s a lovely combination of the fantastic bounded only by the restrictions of the utterly mundane.

I have to mention one more humorous fantasy, “The Scriptlings,” by Sorin Suciu. Suciu is a programmer, and he envisions a magic system based on the way computers are programmed. If you’re a bit engineerish, you will find the in-jokes delicious. I am not a programmer, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

So please. Don’t lump all fantasy novels into the bag labeled, “Books I Don’t Like.” Fantasy can be everything from high tragedy to low humor, family drama to twinkly comedy, with themes as broad and varied as any other genre. The really wonderful thing about fantasy is that there are no limits. Fantasy authors don’t have to conform to the laws of nature or science. They can go where their dreams take them, and it can be quite the journey.

So I think I’ll go read “A Natural History of Dragons,” by Marie Brennan. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll have a gorgeous glass of Denner grenache. Because Denner knows how to make great grenache. And some fantasy writers know how to craft excellent literature.

Review: “The Book of Lost Things”

 

“The Book of Lost Things,” by John Connolly, is a fairy story about fairy stories—and not the kind that necessarily turn out happily ever after. More the Grimm kind, where virtue isn’t always rewarded, but evil is always savagely punished. It shows again that fairy stories are primordial, ancient, bred in the bone.

David, our protagonist, is a 10-year-old English boy who loses his beloved mother in the opening days of WWII. His father and he do as well as they can together, but then David’s father marries Rose and they have a baby boy, Georgie. None of this goes down well with David, who is grieving, angry, jealous, resentful and lonely. He also starts seeing strange things like a crooked old man lurking in his brother’s room, and begins having fits.

The one solace David finds in his new situation is the books in his room. They are fairy stories, but different from the ones he has read before—darker and more disturbing. He asks Rose about them, and she tells him they belonged to a great uncle who had loved the books, but he and a young female relative had disappeared one day and were never seen again.

One night David is awakened by his mother’s voice calling him. He knows his mother is dead, but his desire that this not be true is so powerful that he wanders into a neglected sunken garden. The voice seems to be issuing from a hole beneath a great tree there. As David hesitates, he hears the screaming of a bomber overhead, disabled, on fire, and heading right for him. He dives into the hole beneath the tree and discovers himself in a strange land as the bomber crashes through and David’s escape route is blocked. Just to let you know that the story to come will not be about sweet little creatures with butterfly wings, the pilot’s head bounces by David after the crash, blackened and bloody.

David soon discovers that a great evil is growing in this new land. A wolf army is gathering, led by the Loup, half man, half wolf. The Crooked Man is here as well, and seems to want something from David. The dangers here are genuine and they are deadly. The author doesn’t flinch at detailed descriptions of some truly grotesque and bloody deaths.

Amid the growing darkness, David also meets some good people who help him. One of them tells him to seek out the king of this land because he has “The Book of Lost Things” that will help David to return home. “The Book of Lost Things” doesn’t help him to find his home, but it does clear up the central mysteries of the story, pointing David to the truth of the Crooked Man and his agenda.

David proves he is brave, loyal, and resourceful. He discovers that not everything is what it seems, and learns to be discriminating about whom he trusts—a single misstep could be fatal. In the process, he solves the mystery of what happened to Rose’s great-uncle and his young relative, and of course realizes his mistake in rejecting Rose and Georgie. By the time David finds the way home, we feel he has earned his return many times over.

The book follows David’s life after this event. It was not a life free from pain or unhappiness, but he finds love, comfort and a purpose in life. At the end—I’ll let you read the book to find out what happens at the very end. Like a good fairy story, the end wraps everything up in a most satisfactory way.

I would have to say that ‘The Book of Lost Things” is not for the faint of heart. Although the protagonist is a child and the source material is fairy stories, it is definitely not a children’s tale. I might even hesitate to recommend it to a teenager, particularly if they were going through a Goth phase. There is a lot of violence, a pervasive sense of creeping evil, and many adult themes. I would have to say that it cleaves to the original tenor of the ancient stories, though. The old fairy tales are dark and primeval. They have nothing to do with living happily ever after or marrying the prince. They teach us to beware the evil in the dark and the forces we do not comprehend. “The Book of Lost Things” is that kind of fairy tale.

Review: “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”

I like fairy tales. I also like fairy tales re-imagined, but not all of them. For instance, I hated Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked.” I thought it disrespected Baum’s innocent vision of Oz, though obviously I am in the minority, and Gregory McGuire is now a rich man. On the other hand, I loved McGuire’s “Lost,” which skillfully weaves together Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shades of Jack the Ripper, and some other goodies into a gripping ghost story.

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” by Fredrik Backman, is a rare jewel. It is a fairy story that combines several related fairy stories and reveals the truth behind them. And it’s completely original, in that it doesn’t rehash older source material. (Not that I’m saying it’s wrong to rehash source material. What would we do without it?)

Elsa, our protagonist, is seven years old and precocious, but I am happy to say she is precocious in a believable, seven-year-old way. Her grandmother is a character, to put it mildly. Among other things, Elsa’s grandmother has taught her a secret language and told her stories of the several kingdoms of the Land of Almost-Awake. Her grandmother is her super-hero, and Elsa adores her. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend, because Elsa doesn’t think much of the kids at school who don’t understand great literature. Like “Harry Potter.” And Marvel Comics.

Elsa, her mother, her grandmother, and her stepfather live in a kind of a boarding house. Some of the tenants are very much in full view, like Britt-Marie, who bosses everyone around about signs in the laundry room and strollers in the stairwell. Others are never seen, including the mysterious “Our Friend,” as Granny refers to him. Elsa’s mother works all the time, her remarried father is not a strong presence, and she resents her stepfather. Her grandmother is her rock.

And then Granny dies. But before she does, she asks Elsa to deliver a letter. Elsa does, and sets off a chain of events that reveal the true nature both of Granny’s stories and of the people in Elsa’s life. Bit by bit, she comes to understand who these people are and how they came to be who they are. She also discovers her grandmother’s hidden connection to every soul in the boarding house.

Elsa eventually discovers a mother who loves her unconditionally, a stepfather who’s actually okay, and a father who turns out to be important after all. She even makes a friend. She learns some things about adults that in the end, she knows she just has to forgive.

While the protagonist of “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” is a child, this is not a children’s story. The heartache and sadness are all-too-poignant, and the adults’ stories are, well, adult. The story is about a child finding her way through the complexities of life by relying on herself and her memories of her grandmother. She learns the truth behind the tales, and adult truth is sometimes difficult and scary.

Fortunately, there is enough humor in Elsa’s take on things that the book never becomes dreary—and I was pleased that the humor never condescended, even though the lead character is a child.

I had a hard time deciding whether to categorize “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” as a fantasy or mainstream, even though the only fantasy elements in the story are Granny’s stories. It’s a fairy tale, but although it has a happy ending, it is a realistic ending. Granny doesn’t come back to life. Britt-Marie was never a princess. “Our Friend” is not really a wurse from the Land of Almost-Awake. And yet, the fantasy carries the story. Read it and decide for yourself.

 

Review: “Fishing for Stars” by Bryce Courtney

Spoiler Alert: This review is for “Fishing for Stars,” by Bryce Courtnay. It is a sequel to “The Persimmon Tree.” I will be discussing elements of both books. If you haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree,” I highly recommend that you do. And then skip “Fishing for Stars.”

“The Persimmon Tree” is how I discovered writer Bruce Courtnay. Born in South Africa, he had a notable career in advertising before retiring, moving to Australia and becoming a highly successful novelist. “The Persimmon Tree” was a complete surprise to me. It is the story of a young boy, Nick Duncan, and Anna Till, his first love, and it opens at the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in WWII.

Nick escapes on a sailboat that belonged to Anna’s father and after run-ins with the Japanese, winds up in Australia, now of combat age. He has an affair with an older woman, Marg Hamilton, fights at Guadalcanal with the Americans, and much later, rediscovers his lost Anna.

Anna’s story is weirder and more harrowing. She is forced to become a “comfort woman” by a high-ranking Japanese officer, Konoi Akira, forcibly addicted to heroin to keep her under control, and trained in the art of kinbaku, a ritualized form of rope bondage and sexual torture. This is why the officer wanted her—to perform kinbaku on him.

Long story short, Nick finds Anna (still addicted) running a kinbaku house in Australia, and decides to take her for a heroin-free cruise on her father’s former sailing ship, in an effort to help her go cold turkey. (Not Anna’s idea, by the way.) They sail into the sunset at the end of “The Persimmon Tree,” leaving us hopeful for their future.

Though I read this book years ago, it made a huge impression on me. It was tightly plotted and pulled me right through the story without a pause. I cared about the characters and rooted for Anna and Nick’s happy reunion.

I subsequently read Courtnay’s magnificent “Potato Factory” historical trilogy based on the life of Ikey Solomon, the model for Dickens’ Fagan character in “Oliver Twist,” plus several other tales. I enjoyed every one of them, even the last one he wrote, “Jack of Diamonds.” I didn’t think it was his best, but he was dying of stomach cancer while writing it, so I thought he deserved a pass.

Which made reading “Fishing for Stars” all the more dismaying. It is, in my opinion, a hot mess. Anna did not respond well to the amateur intervention and stays addicted. She has morphed into a skilled businesswoman with an insatiable appetite for more. Mostly more money, and she isn’t overly choosy how she makes it. She and Nick are lovers, but she won’t allow any touching below the waist as she suffers from vaginismus—a painful cramping of the vaginal muscles. She believes her power lies in preserving her virginity.

Nick admits to being completely satisfied by Anna’s sexual ministrations, but he chunters on ad nauseum about his “need to possess her fully” for YEARS. If I were Anna, I would have dumped him.

Marg Hamilton, the woman with whom he has an affair in his youth, reappears, newly widowed. After several years, she consents to sleep with him again. (I don’t know any men that patient. Do you?) Marg has become a green activist in direct opposition to most of Anna’s commercial activities. The two women call each other “the green bitch” and “Princess Plunder,” and settle down to really despising each other’s guts.

The first third of the book sets the scene and fills in the background for those who haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree.” Not brilliant, but readable. The second part of the story is an action-filled, well-plotted visit to Japan, where Anna confronts her old nemesis Konoi Akira. We get into Yakuza, the Shield Society, kidnapping, Manga porn, murder and mayhem, and it’s all pretty interesting.

The third part of the book is about Marg and her conservation efforts. It is essentially a long and tedious history of the Green political movement in Tasmania and I almost gave up.

In the end, Marg screws Anna (metaphorically), and Anna screws Marg. Nick spends the whole book as a sort of pingpong ball being batted between these two women.

I have always admired Courtnay’s portrayals of women. They are always three-dimensional, strong portraits, contrasting dramatically with the way men often write female characters. However, the way Marg and Anna are written in “Fishing for Stars” turns them into two equally unpleasant viragos—an impression heightened by the narrator, Humphrey Bower. (I listened to the audiobook.) Bower—who is brilliant at accents, from southern Black American to Japanese­—plays Marg as an unusually sniffy school librarian, and Anna as a bitch.

In the final analysis, “Fishing for Stars” is a bad book by a good author, and a very disappointing finale to the characters I loved in “The Persimmon Tree.” I strongly encourage you to read Courtnay’s other work, in particular “The Persimmon Tree,” “The Potato Factory Trilogy,” and “Brother Fish.” You won’t be disappointed.

Review: “Doc” by Maria Doria Russell

I first encountered Mary Doria Russell when I read  “The Sparrow.” It is one of the most memorable books I have ever read. Beautifully written, it is a science fiction story on the surface; a Jesuit priest who is part of a mission to a planet inhabited by intelligent beings finds himself weirdly seduced by an alien culture and eventually agrees to something he has no way of comprehending. The result is catastrophic for him, both physically and spiritually. He is accused of murdering one of the aliens under very sketchy circumstances and is returned in disgrace to Rome. The book is a meditation on how we view and deal with the “other,” and how actions can be viewed through many different lenses, some distorting one way, some another.

So when my husband recommended “Doc,” I was eager to read it. Apparently Russell is as versatile a writer as Jane Smiley, because “Doc” is as different from “The Sparrow” as can be imagined. It’s a fictionalized version of the life of Doc Holliday, the famous gambler and gunslinger of Dodge City, Tombstone, and the shootout at the OK Corral.

“Doc” is as beautifully written as “The Sparrow,” and in some ways as evocative and touching. Russell did her research, reading autobiographies and biographies of the principals and bit players alike, mining contemporary newspaper accounts and the penny dreadfuls, and the surviving letters that passed between Doc and his family and friends.

What emerges is a very different man than the legend of the pitiless gunslinger. Doc acquired his nickname because he was a trained and licensed dentist. Hailing from an aristocratic Georgian family, John Henry Holliday was a well-educated Southern gentleman with rarified tastes in music, art and literature. He also had tuberculosis, contracted from his mother, whom he nursed until her death. He became ill at the age of 22 and died at the age of 38. “Doc” takes us up to the age of 28, when he was still living in Dodge City and before the famous shootout.

The book is an exploration of the man’s friendship with the Earp brothers, the woman who shared his life and bed, Kate Horony, and others, showing him to be a true friend and a kind man who stuck with his profession as much and as long as he could, until the disease destroyed his ability to continue. He gambled to earn money, and spent it lavishly on his friends. Waging what he knew was a losing battle, Holliday stayed true to his upbringing. The stories about the men he had gunned down turn out to be primarily fictions, perpetuated by post mortem accounts penned by people who badly needed money.

I was also fascinated by Kate Horony, his off-and-on lover. Kate Horony was a well-ridden prostitute, a stereotypical figure in Old West literature.

Except Mary Catherine Horony started life as the daughter of a Hungarian-born physician. When Dr. Horony and his wife died within a month of one another in 1867, Kate and her younger sister were left to the care of a lawyer, who seemed not to have cared very much. Kate ran away at the age of 28 and probably became a prostitute shortly thereafter, there being few other positions for women on their own at the time.

Curiously, Russell perpetuates the myth that Kate was the daughter of Hungarian aristocracy, ruined by the fall of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Russell attributed to her a facility in many languages and an appreciation of music, art, and the finer things that would have appealed to Doc Holliday’s refined tastes. Maybe Russell knows something I don’t know, or perhaps she just liked the way Kate’s mythic past fit so neatly into Doc’s actual history that she couldn’t resist.

I found myself really caring about the characters in “Doc,” especially Doc himself and Wyatt Earp, so I was all the more startled and displeased by the way the book ended. Chronologically, the story ends before the shootout in Tombstone. After a lyric, heart-wrenching scene where Doc plays the piano for the first time in years, Russell suddenly switches from telling the story from within the characters’ points of view to a summary of what happened to each of the principals in later life. I found this sudden switch from intimate to remote to be abrupt and almost hasty, as though the author couldn’t be bothered with telling the tale to its natural conclusion.

I understand that a sequel is on the way that finishes out Doc’s miserable, pain-racked life to the end. This is no excuse for dumping the reader by the side of the road and telling him that he has to catch another bus. Will I read the sequel? I might, but I ached for Doc’s suffering so completely throughout the first book, I may have to skip Russell’s no-doubt skillful portrayal of his anguished and impoverished death.

Fans of Amelia Peabody, Rejoice!

I first encountered the Amelia Peabody mystery series immediately after my father died in a car crash. My mother was alone in a rented condo in Laguna Beach, CA. I flew to John Wayne Airport in Orange County after she called me with the news. I drove around lost in the dark for a few hours (this was pre-GPS), before I finally found the condo and my frail, shocked mother.

By the time we wept with each other and had a glass of wine, it was 3:30 am. Mom went off to bed. I tried but failed to sleep, so I rifled the condo’s bookshelves for something to read. There were several paperbacks left by former occupants, and I selected a book with the intriguing title of “The Mummy Case” by Elizabeth Peters.

And promptly fell in love. The doughty heroine of this mystery series is Amelia Peabody, a no-nonsense Victorian lady who inherits enough money from her father to set off on a grand tour of Europe and North Africa. In Egypt, she encounters a rude, abrasive, black-haired archeologist named Emerson who tends to bellow at her with rage at every turn. So naturally, they fall in love. (I have read everything Peters has written, under her two pseudonyms and her real name, Barbara Mertz, and I can always identify the romantic male lead by his rudeness and irascibility. This is a forgivable foible in my opinion.) I discovered later that Mertz was an Egyptologist, accounting for her extensive knowledge of archeology and ancient Egyptian history.

The mystery was well plotted, but more than that, I adored the humor and Amelia’s unique personality. Peters pokes gentle fun at Victorian conventions. Amelia is prone to admiring Emerson’s “sapphirine orbs” and “manly physique.” At all other times, she is practical, down-to-earth and prepared for anything. Another bow to Victoriana is Sethos, the “Master Criminal” who haunts their archeological adventures—but nurses an unquenchable tendress for Amelia.

Loving the series and its distinctive voice, I was skeptical and a bit afraid to read “The Painted Queen.” Peters died in 2013, leaving a partially finished manuscript and notes for this novel. Her close friend and fellow writer and archeologist, Joan Hess, finished the book. Attempts to continue an author’s work as a franchise—álà the “Dune” series—usually disappoint. I doubted the book would succeed and satisfy.

I am so happy to tell you I was wrong. “The Painted Queen” is faithful to its author’s original vision and style. There were very few false notes. The main one is Emerson’s rather too-frequent declarations of undying passion to Amelia. Not that Emerson never does this, but he usually restricts himself to once or twice per book.

The plot centers on the spectacular and famous painted bust of Nefertiti that was discovered in the ruins of Amarna, site of Pharoah Ankhenaton’s capitol city. The bust was spirited out of Egypt by German archeologists and now resides in Berlin, but this story centers on skullduggery aimed at stealing the statue prior to its removal from Egypt—all fictional, of course.

I chose to listen to an audiobook version of the novel. Barbara Rosenblat, my favorite voice for Amelia, narrates this book. Rosenblat’s raspy tones suit Amelia’s brisk personality, and she handles the humor with subtle slyness. Rosenblat (who is American) employs a British accent with ease and her other accents—she is required to handle German, Arabic, and French voices—seem spot-on to me, though I have no real idea what an Egyptian Arab accent sounds like, outside of Omar Sharif. She delivers a sweet, melodic voice for young women and gruff male voices that are equally convincing.

All our favorite characters come together to tell the tale—including Master Criminal Sethos. There are kidnappings, murders, disguises, poison, hallucinogenic drugs, mistaken identities, and misdirections of all sorts as our heroes and heroines battle to save the bust from the clutches of the villains, dodging assassins as they go. It’s a satisfying adventure that wraps up every plot thread, with the exception of one. Ramses and Nefret, whom faithful readers will know are destined for each other but forever being torn apart—are now both free and obviously interested in one another, but they are not united by the end of the story. I believe there may be yet another Amelia Peabody tale in the future.

Given the deft, note-perfect character of “The Painted Queen,” I am very much looking forward to it.

Authors with Feet of Clay and the Wings of Angels

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This is what White meant by a “mad, marigold eye.”

Most of the books I read are fiction. I’m a writer, I love stories­—it’s natural. And while I have read much of the world’s greatest English literature (I always score well on that annual list the BBC publishes of the 100 best books in the English language), the vast majority of what I read is brain candy. Fluff. Genre books.

Mind you, I am in no way putting these books down. I read them. I pay good money for them. I like them. I write them.

But once in a while, I pick up something that breaks this pattern. Last week, I re-read “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy, and found it lyrical, funny, and tragic all at once. (In marked contrast to my experience of reading it in high school Honors English class.) This week, I finished reading a book loaned to me by my oldest friend, “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald. There was no question this was going to be an excellent book, as it is a New York Times bestseller and winner of the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize.

However, the book was, on the surface, about training a goshawk. I probably wouldn’t have read it if my friend hadn’t said, “There’s a lot in there about T.H. White, and I know how much you like him.”

Macdonald describes T.H. White as “an unpopular author,” which shocked me, but I suppose she is right; I just have difficulty accepting that an author whose writing is so beautiful could have fallen from favor. White is the author of two of my favorite works, “The Once and Future King,” (actually five books), an epic fantasy about King Arthur, and “Mistress Masham’s Respose,” one of my childhood favorites about a lonely little girl who stumbles upon a lost colony of Lilliputians (literal Lilliputians, brought to England by Gulliver).

White’s writing is so incandescently lovely that it makes me weep. His descriptions of the English rural countryside are so evocative that as a child, I felt I knew that landscape intimately, though I had never been within five thousand miles of the place. And I remembered one powerful scene in “The Sword in the Stone” (the first of the books of “The Once and Future King), in which the young Arthur is changed by Merlin into a small hunting hawk and placed in the mews of Sir Ector’s castle. Arthur is subjected to an ordeal by the other hawks; he must stand within striking distance of Colonel Cully, a mad old goshawk, until the hawk bells are rung three times by the other birds. If he survives, he is admitted into their company. That scene is only one of many White crafted to show how Merlin educated Arthur into kingship, but it stuck with me, particularly the description of Cully’s “mad, marigold eye.”

Macdonald had read “The Goshawk,” as well as much of White’s other work, and knew more about him as a person than I did. She was obsessed with hawks and hawking from an early age, read medieval books on hawking, hung out with austringers (people who train hawks), flew them herself. She had always been intrigued by the idea of training a goshawk—maybe because White had attempted to do this himself as a young man, and failed, ultimately losing his hawk to the wild.

Different people respond to grief in different ways. When Macdonald’s beloved father died, she decided that she would acquire and train a young goshawk. Perhaps White’s account of his epic battle with his goshawk was at the bottom of it; she needed a battle to take her mind off sorrow.

Macdonald interweaves her story of acquiring and training Mabel, her goshawk, with accounts from White’s life and work. Her writing is nearly as luminous as White’s, evoking the landscape, the life of the young hawk, the tragedy of White’s life tied up with the tragedy of her father’s death.

All I can say is that the reader descends into madness with the writer and emerges with her, not unscathed. Macdonald emerges with the scars of Mabel’s talons in her flesh, but the wounds of her father’s death healed.

However, I was left with more knowledge—and less—than I wanted about T.H. White. I know that some people want to know everything there is to know about favorite authors. Not me. I much prefer to listen to the author’s voice through his or her work, and accept that as the reality the author meant for me to experience. I fell in love with many an author, only to find on reading a biography that the adored one had feet of clay and was only a weak human being after all. Like the rest of us.

For example, my mother, sister and I loved Gerald Durrell, the British author of “My Family and Other Animals” and other books detailing his love for animals and adventures as an animal collector for zoos, and later, for his own zoo on the island of Jersey. He was a funny and evocative writer and once wrote me a personal note when I sent him a letter at age 10 asking about how he became a naturalist. I was delighted to find his biography some years after his death. But when I read it, I discovered that he (like most of his talented family) was a hopeless alcoholic with a violent temper who died of liver disease. I was happier with the sunny, charming animal lover of Durrell’s books.

I had always seen White as sort of a God-like figure, someone full of age and wisdom and kindness who saw the foibles of mankind with a clear and compassionate eye. He may have been so, but he was also an alcoholic who despised himself for his homosexuality and sadism. He grew up in a family so deranged that when his mother lavished affection on her pet dogs, his father had them shot. He thought his father would shoot him some day, and his mother was cold and remote. Then, of course, they sent him to an English boarding school, where the milk of human kindness was not only spared, but completely missing.

White became a schoolmaster at another prestigious public school, but it is notable that although his sexual fantasies focused on beating adolescent boys, he never did so. He eventually fled to a cottage in the woods and decided to raise a young goshawk in the medieval manner, opening a pitched battle between man and bird. This experience informed much of his later writings, but “The Goshawk” wasn’t published until much later, because White knew how badly he had failed in training his hawk.

I am considering whether or not to read an autobiography of White. I’m not disappointed in him, more sorry that he endured so much pain. I think it’s incredibly brave that he tried so hard not to inflict pain because he knew he enjoyed doing so. I will definitely seek out and read more of White’s work. Human nature may be sad and disappointing at times, but I have never been disappointed in the writing of Terrance Hanbury White.

Oh, and I’ll also read anything else Helen Macdonald decides to write.

Book Reviewer Blogger Liis Pallas Reviews “The Obsidian Mirror”

Liis Pallas reviews “The Obsidian mirror”–and I am thrilled!

Cover to Cover

Environmental issues, power-play, ancient Mayan gods, a Coyotl (yes, Coyotl) that turns into a drop-dead-gorgeous young man, a green being of mannegishi, vodun (no, not voodoo), and a bit of reality- admit it- it sparked some interest in you!

from Goodreads

A few days ago I published an interview K.D. was so very kind to tackle.

You know what? It feels strange how some times you read a book, or watch a film, on a serious issue (such as environmental problems, a nuclear power plant worry, fracking causing earthquakes, rubbish in the vast oceans, etc) and when we read about these issues in books, or see them in the movies, we tend to take them as someone’s brain-children, or brain-babies. But I really am humbled and in awe and in the process of having my faith restored because people notice! Authors notice the issues, the global issues that should…

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Book Clubs Take Note: Discount Offer on “The Obsidian Mirror”

Chaco #1

Chaco #1

I am offering a special discount on “The Obsidian Mirror” to book clubs while supplies last. Book clubs get a 28% discount to $9.49 ($5 off retail!) plus shipping (retail price is $14.49).

The conditions:

  • Book clubs only;
  • Minimum order of five paperback copies;
  • All books shipped to a single address;
  • Single payment through PayPal for all books shipped to a given book club.

Here are some of the reviews so far:

“Native American mythology is often understated and you can never find enough of it in Fantasy Literature. But don’t worry, K.D. Keenan is here to fix that with The Obsidian Mirror.

What makes the author so special? Well, let’s just say that her best childhood friend was a Native American skull, which she received when she turned six. Show me a better qualification and I’ll eat it! And before you ask, yes, she did return the skull to its proper place when she got old enough to know better.

The story turned out so well and it is so rich in detail that one can almost suspect the author learned more than a few tales from said skull. Add a little bit of Voodoo to the mix and you are well on your way to an all-star American pantheon, echoing Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in a most interesting manner.

Oh, and for all that the author won’t admit it, The Obsidian Mirror has tons of humor. This is skillfully done, with the jokes lurking in the backdrop, tiptoeing behind the text and seldom breaking the surface of the mirror. More often than not you will recognise the joke the same way scientists recognise dark matter – by its effect on the surroundings rather than by its blatant presence.”—Sorin Sociu, author of “The Scriptlings”

“A riveting blend of ancient myth and modern intrigue. Supernatural thrills, corporate espionage and great characters make for a thrill-ride read!”—Gail Z. Martin, author of “Reign of Ash”

“Any fan of mythology and good old fantasy will greatly enjoy this novel. Keenan manages to hook the reader from page one, throwing in some unusual characters (and tropes), mixing it up with a villain that has a brand new bag of toys. I won’t spoil – but it is a new take on the whole good vs evil fight. I love the fact that Keenan picked Meso-American mythology – and rocked the world with it. She clearly knows her stuff and has the potential to take on seasoned authors with her mastery of language and modern twists on some of the most awesome fictional gods around. Looking forward to the sequel.”—Ryan Attard, author of “Firstborn”

“I really enjoyed this book! K. D. Keenan wrote fantasy and characters that were enjoyable! Fred, Chaco, Clancy, Kaylee, and Sierra were my favorites! It has humor, conspiracy, good and evil. K.D. Keenan has a vivid imagination with her characters all through the end. So descriptive in forming a man from a coyote! It’s a great story that kept me hanging on the edge to see who was going to be saved! Her writing has an easy flow, that made me go chapter to chapter! I look forward to her next book!”—Dora E. Gil

“What a wonderful book! I loved reading every minute of it and I am hoping that there will be a sequel soon. There was never a lull or moment’s boredom in the story. It was fascinating learning about the ancient American myths and folklore. The author did an excellent job blending the ancient folklore it into a plausible contemporary setting. The story was so well crafted and the characters albeit mythical came to life and they were so believable. A good read is so hard to find and I am thrilled when I find it.”—J.B. Dow

“’The Obsidian Mirror’ is an urban fantasy based on New World mythologies and legends. It’s an action-packed page-turner, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are plenty of tense moments and some really evil bad guys, but it’s all enlivened by the author’s ability to weave humor throughout the drama.

I enjoyed the well-rounded characters—especially Fred, who’s a mannegishi (sort of a Native American leprechaun). Fred’s a greedy, irresponsible little thief, but you’ll wind up loving his brand of goofy innocence. Chaco, another supernatural character, is another of my favorites. Chaco is kind of a lech, but he’s so cheerful and good-natured that he never offends.
The action mostly takes place in modern-day Silicon Valley, and at the heart of the story is how an evil Aztec/Mayan god takes advantage of modern technology to execute his dark plans. For those familiar with Silicon Valley or Northern California, you will recognize the locale and the culture of the Valley. If you aren’t familiar with this area, take my word for it—the local color is dead-on accurate.

There’s a friendship that forms among three secondary female characters that I particularly enjoyed. None of the three are acquainted before the story begins, but as it unfolds, they form a sort of sisterhood that I found very appealing. I found myself believing in their role in the story and cheering them on.

I truly enjoyed reading this book. It has basically everything I love in a story: characters I care about, action, drama and humor, all tied up with creative storytelling that has enough unexpected twists and turns to keep me interested—and make me genuinely sorry when the story ends. I hope there’s a sequel.”—Linda M. Duyanovich

Interested? Contact me at kdkeenan@theobsidianmirror.net. You can read the first chapter here.

 

Looking Back: “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

A_Canticle_For_LebowitzI have decided to write a few book reviews from time to time. I don’t intend to turn this into a book review blog, but I’d like to be able to set down my musings on random books as the fancy strikes me.

I recently re-read (listened to an audiobook version of) “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller. I read it as a teenager, but I’ve noticed I get a lot more out of everything I read now than I did when my system was awash with raging hormones. (For example, I discovered that Thomas Hardy, far from being an incredible drag, was a funny, vivid and poignant writer.)

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” has been called a classic of science fiction. It’s also a classic in post-apocalyptic fiction, equal to George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” (which has held up remarkably well), “The Death of Grass” by John Christopher or “Malevil” by French writer Robert Merle. It has all the elements I look for in a great read: well-delineated characters, drama, mystery, humor and sorrow.

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” was published in 1960, at the height of the terror of nuclear annihilation. I remember “duck and cover” quite well; while crouching under my desk in my middle-school classroom, I was fairly certain that a blackout curtain and a wooden desk were not going to preserve me from frying to a crisp if an atomic bomb landed on, say, Los Angeles. At the time, nuclear catastrophe was a chill breath on the back of everyone’s vulnerable neck.

Miller’s opus opens after a nuclear apocalypse has literally bombed all of mankind back to the Stone Age. There’s a backlash against science, knowledge, and everything associated with the catastrophe buy anti-intellectuals who proudly call themselves “Simpletons.” Those perceived as intellectuals or scientists are murdered. Books are burned. Mankind descends into another Dark Age. Mutated humans, called “Children of the Pope,” are more or less accepted, because there are so many of them.

But there is one beacon of intellectual light left in the world: the Catholic Church, which resumes its ancient tradition of preserving past knowledge. The story opens with Brother Francis, a young postulant in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, somewhere in the Southwestern desert of the United States. Leibowitz was one of the scientists murdered by the Simpletons, and after his martyrdom, miracles are said to have happened under Leibowitz’s aegis. The monks of the monastery want to canonize Leibowitz as a saint, but there hasn’t been enough evidence of his sanctity to satisfy New Rome. Brother Francis stumbles upon a cache of ancient papers, some of which appear to be pre-apocalyptic shopping lists—but others are blueprints. It becomes obvious to the reader (but not to the monks) that Leibowitz was an engineer, a designer of electronic circuits.

Poor Brother Francis meets his end as the first section of the book closes, having delivered his copy of one of the blueprints (suitably adorned with fanciful illuminations) to the Pope in New Rome.

The second section of the book takes place a few centuries later. An esteemed scholar visits the abbey to study the Leibowitzian relics and is able to tease out some of the technology from the ancient manuscripts. Technology is clearly in a renaissance as one of the monks has succeeded in building a generator to power an arc light. The scholar departs to New Rome to share his new-found insights and to recommend the canonization of Leibowitz.

The third section takes us another six or seven centuries into the future. Technology—much of it based on the study of old documents like the Leibowitzian relics—has developed to the point where space flight is practical. But nuclear weapons have been reinvented, as well—in all likelihood directly due to the knowledge preserved by the Order of St. Leibowitz—and nuclear war is imminent. The last abbot of the order perishes after an atomic blast brings his church down in ruins as he tries to save the consecrated hosts. But a ship commissioned by the Order launches into space, looking for a new home for humanity.

Well, sure, we destroy ourselves all over again, but maybe that rocket ship full of devout Catholics will colonize a new world that will never see an atomic mushroom cloud. Yet the reader is left with the impression that the human race is ultimately doomed to repeat its worst mistakes.

Sadly, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” was the only novel published during Miller’s lifetime. His last work, a follow-up novel called “St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman,” was published after his suicide in 1996. He must have seen that his ability to continue was in doubt, because he asked author Terry Bisson to finish it for him if he were unable to do so. Bisson did finish the book after Miller’s suicide. It’s thought that Miller’s traumatic experiences in WWII—including the bombing of an ancient abbey at Monte Casino—contributed to his depression and eventual suicide. That may be the case, but it also contributed to the creation of a science fiction masterpiece. Some people write to exorcise their demons, but even St. Leibowitz couldn’t exorcise the dark demons of Walter M. Miller’s haunted spirit.