Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The List (Must-Read Fantasy)

First, some quick personal stuff. Not much has happened lately, which is why I haven't been posting much. I got longer hours at the library, and I've been working a lot. Other than that, doing a little noveling, and reading a lot. Which brings us to...........

"Literature" Part 2: The List

A while ago on MH we were talking about the book Eragon. I stated my rather strong opinions on said book, which need no repitition here (*halo*); but it got me thinking about the many many better fantasy books I have read of late.

1: "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel", by Susannah Clarke

This book feels heavy when you pick it up, but start reading it and the time goes by so fast you don't realize how long you've actually spent reading--until you look up and realize it's been two weeks and you're halfway through and have no desire to do aught but read. It goes down like smooth ice cream, and other metaphors

The plot of the book is that in the early Nineteenth Century, two magicians emerge to bring magic back to England. They get involved in the Napoleonic Wars, become celebrities, quarrel, cause a schism in the magical community, etc. It's really rather hard to explain, but if Tolkien and Jane Austen wrote a novel together and it was edited by Dickens, this is what it would look like.

2: "Gardens of the Moon," and the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, by Steven Erikson

I'm not really ranking these in any order, because all of the books on the list would be tied for Number one.

Anyway, Gardens of the Moon. I thought Johnathan Strange was hard to describe, till I tried this. It has a really huge sweeping plot, lots of characters, and a world so incredibly detailed you'd swear it was real. It combines the mythic granduer of Tolkien with a gritty realism unlike anything I've seen--you feel the dirt on soldier's faces, the burning as mage-fire washes over you, the sand under your skin. I've read the first two books, the second is better than the first, and so far the third is better yet. The First one is kind of hard to get into, but after a hundred pages or so you get the hang of it. These, like the previous and most of the next, are big books. the first is 600-700 pages long, and is by far the shortest. But they're worth the read.

3: "American Gods", by Neil Gaiman

This one comes with a warning: there are some sex scenes in this book (not that that's unusual for modern books). Easily skipped, however-- at the end of most of the chapters are flashback scenes, and that's where most of it is. Either skip them altogether, or read carefully and skip when it's coming. It's not hard to predict.

This book would be the best thing I've read recently, except I read Johnathan Strange and the Malazan books. It's about Shadow, who was recently payrolled from prison. He is hired as a bodygaurd by a man named Mr. Wednesday, and is soon plunged into a world of Gods--literal Gods, the ones the American immigrants brought over from their native lands. These Gods are still lurking in the shadows, leeching off whatever belief people will give them. (Gaiman has it so that the gods exist because people believe in them, not the other way around. Terry Pratchett uses this device too.) It turns out a war is starting between these old gods, and the new ones--the things we worship today--Gods of Money, of Plastic, of News, of Stardom. There are lots of twists and turns, it's quite a fun book to read. But at the same time, it's supremely uncomfortable.

There is Christian symbolism to be found all over the place here, or at least what you could see as such. The very idea of whatever people worship becoming their gods has direct Biblical references--I should remember where exactly, but I don't.

There is one line in here that reminds me particularly of something a Lutheran might say. One of the gods is showing someone a stick that he intends to use as a spear (it's hard to explain further in breif): "This stick is a spear because it symbolizes a spear. The symbol is the thing, in this sorry world." What does this mean? (;-))

Think of Christ on the Cross, taking all our sins upon himself. He is not literally commiting every sin, yet he is bearing the responsibility for our sins. Or think of Communion: the Bread and Wine does not turn into Christ's body and blood (or it does not appear so to our eyes), yet it is Christ's body and blood.

Yeah, I may be way off here, but that's what occured to me. Maybe you should read it and find out. ;-)

4: The Artemis Fowl books, by Eoin Colfer

These books aren't too recent, at least not the first ones. The series includes: Artemis Fowl, Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, and Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception. A lot of people who are fans of the series don't even know about the fourth book.

The Fairy world, which was chased underground thousands of years ago by the rise of Man, hides from us in the Earth's center. The Fairies are always at least twenty years ahead of us in technology, and they keep constant watch to make sure we don't find out about them.

Artemis Fowl, the twelve-year-old criminal mastermind, discovers the Fairy world and even cons the Fairies out of some of their gold. This is the first of many dealings and adventures he has involving his sometime-rivals, sometimes friends. All these books are great fun. The first one is like Harry Potter mixed with Ocean's 11; the next are somewhat like this, though the plots vary enough to keep it interesting. They vary in quality, but as I said, all are fun.

5: "Abhorsen" by Garth Nix

Abhorsen is one of the best ya fantasy books I've read in a long time. It's basically epic fantasy mixed with some stuff that's more like adventure/s&s; you can see some influence from zombie stories. The plot is great (complex), and the book is well-written.

6: Newly re-issued The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and the other Conan Stories, by Robert E. Howard (Last one, I promise)

I know what you think when you see Conan the Barbarian. "Ugh, me Conan, me big dumb fantasy character as cliche as they come."

Unfortunately, this is what the character has become. Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator, died young, and other writers took over the character and hacked it up and turned it into the sad mess it is today. The first Conan stories were what a lot of good fantasy is and always has been: a mixture of action (fights and chases scenes, etc) and deeper philosophical themes and musings; in other words, literary elements.

Howard was taken with the idea of barbarism vs. civilization, a struggle he saw as eternal and inevitable. Man's true nature, he thought, was that of the barbarian: brutish, unrefined, wild enough to be like an animal, but always smarter than animals. He did not, however, hold with Noble Savage idea. As he once wrote to a friend, "[The barbarian's life] as near as I can figure it, was hard, brutish, and short." And this was Howard's conception of how life should be.

But, on the other hand, man always strives to build something bigger than himself, to make the world something better. Thus he tries to develop civilization. He builds up empires, which may flourish for a while, but which will eventually crumble. Many of Howard's stories center around this last. The story Xuthal of the Dusk is about a once-great civilization that destroyed itself through overindulgence. The Scarlet Citadel is about civilization under attack from within and without, about to crumble, barely saved by the coming of a strong barbarian leader.

It seems this theme might have some theological paralells. Barbarism is shown to be the natural state of man, similar to Original Sin. Perhaps civilization on the rise could be man's guilty conciense prodding him into an attempt to make the world a better place, but without outside help, man returns to sin, and civilization returns to barbarism. Something like that. The paralells aren't perfect, but they're their.

As for warnings, well, there is some talk of "buxom maidens" (verbatim quote), but it's not very explicit. You can see a bit of racism here, as black people tend to be dumb, evil, servants, or a combination thereof; but it seems to be more of the style of the times and the genre Howard was writing in than anything. I don't think Howard was too deeply racist--in another of his series, the Soloman Kane stories, there is a black sorceror who is almost the second hero of the series.

Some of these stories are somewhat minor, and not that great. If you don't want to wade through all of them, I recomend getting this book from the library and reading these stories: The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, (these are the two that really stick with you), The Scarlet Citadel, Xuthal of the Dusk and The Vale of Lost Women.

That'll do it for now. This list may grow, as I have a couple stacks of new (and old) fantasy books waiting to be read.

Slan agus beanacht,
(Exit, pursued by a bear)


Anan said...

It goes down like "cold wet stuphph cream!"


Anan said...

You must be *trying* to torture me!!! Greg!!!!!!!! I so want to read some fantasy but I can't!!!! ::sobs::

Ethan said...

Why not?

Sir Darth Merlin Bilbollum Finn said...

:D :D :D B) MORE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS!!!! w00t!!! Thanks! :-) :D :D :-)

Ethan said...

Sure, anytime.

natalie_eve said...

You've listed Jonathan Strange, American Gods, and Abhorsen. You appear to have the exact same taste as I do. American Gods is my number one favorite book, and the other two are up there.

Ethan said...

Cool! And you do (did) NaNoWriMo too! Wow.

Sara said...

Nice list, if you haven't already read Forever by Pete Hamill, I think you'll like it...