Guest Post: An Introduction to Fantasy Novels

Another guest post this week, this time by my friend Word Nerd. She’s going to introduce us to science fiction and fantasy, genres I do read, but not as much as historical fiction. For my fellow historical fiction readers, this should help you dip into a new genre. Enjoy! Next week, my post on helping a fellow writer love writing itself, rather than the idea of being a Writer.

When Word Nerd was younger, there was really only one section of the library she frequented: Fantasy. And sci-fi as an after thought.

Then, with the coming of oodles of college reading, her interest in massive fantasy series started to wane some. It was too hard to remember all the rules of magic for every last world and the Elven dialects and gosh, weren’t mysteries fun to read too?

Since then, Word Nerd still likes to hit the fantasy section of libraries and bookstores, but she’s developed tough standards for what to pick up from those shelves. Here are some tested tips.

First, the conventions and the masters. No, not the conventions like Gencon where people dress up like wookies. The conventions of the genres.

The world of fantasy fiction is full of conventions. Take for example the following: Elves are not short, in fact they are tall and lithe and graceful; the use of apostrophes in names is considered acceptable; the book will likely contain a 1) map, 2) glossary and 3) cast of characters; the protagonist is often the recipient or subject of a prophecy, or an orphan, or a misplaced member of the royal family and if they are really lucky, all three.

The only way to really learn the conventions is to read the books and just begin to accept them. The way to learn the conventions is to start with the masters. Tolkien. Donaldson. McCaffery. Brooks. Weis and Hickman. Zelazny. Why these folks? Well, guys like Tolkien pioneered the genre, guys like Brooks borrowed from it, Donaldson gave it a new spin and McCaffery and Weis/Hickman made an empire of it. Also, many of these books have survived from the explosion of fantasy books in the 1970s and early 1980s (and earlier for some of them.) Many of these are the authors Word Nerd cut her bibliophile teeth on during her middle and high school years.

Second, find the books that break the conventions.

The “rules” get old. Every fantasy world does not need humans, elves, dwarves and dragons. Or glossaries.

Word Nerd hit this realization some time likely in college, getting fed up with how many fantasy books all seemed the same. After this, she became a much more selective reader. If a book starts with a character on a journey at the beginning, that’s a good caution sign. So is the glossary in the back, because it tends to mean that the world in the book/series is complicated and very different from earth as we know it.

Good fantasy is often like good, classic sci-fi. It doesn’t have to be a huge stretch to get from what we know of earth to get to the society in the fantasy world. Maybe it’s just a take on feudalism. Maybe it’s only a step further to believe that some people can telepathically communicate with animals; just look at the Dog Whisperer and go from there.

Third, be ready to commit for the long haul.

Much fantasy is written as a series. Rule of thumb, three to six books is an excellent number for a series. Some people (Steven Brust, Jim Butcher and Terry Pratchett for example) can keep a series going longer than that. At some point, most long series suffer a severe drop in quality. Nevertheless, be ready for the long haul because the books are often 600+ pages for just one book in a series. With this commitment, Word Nerd has also developed a strategy of waiting until all books in a series have been released before starting to read it. This way, once invested in the world, she doesn’t have to wait for years before the next one comes out, forgetting in the mean time, all the set-up for that land.

Many fantasy books have good emotional pay-offs in the end, with just as much impact as any “literary” fiction novel.

Read any that are sure-fire winners? Want to know some worthwhile titles? Post a comment.

Book: The Time-Traveler’s Wife

Title: The Time-Traveler’s Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Genre: Fiction, Science-Fiction
Length: 518 pgs

Summary: This is the story of Clare and Henry. Henry time-travels, but not because he wants to, and he has no control of when or where he may end up, or how long he will be there. Clare, like the rest of us, lives each day, in and out, with none of the hiccups that Henry suffers from, and with the task of waiting for Henry to come back.

pg 19 – Henry: I draw her to me. We kiss. It’s a very…compatible kiss, a kiss born of long association, and I wonder just exactly what we’ve been doing in this meadow of Clare’s, but I push the thought away.

pg 25 – Henry: It would fill me with a feeling, a feeling I later tried to duplicate with alcohol and finally found again with Clare, a feeling of unity, oblivion, mindlessness in the best sense of the word.

pg 104 – Henry: When Clare draws she looks as though the world has fallen away, leaving only her and the object of her scrutiny. This is why I love to be drawn by Clare: when she looks at me with that kind of attention, I feel that I am everything to her.

pg 274 – Clare: The compelling thing about making art–or making anything, I suppose–is the moment when the vaporous, insubstantial idea becomes a solid there , a thing, a substance in a world of substances. Circe, Numbug, Artemis, Athena, all the old sorceresses: they must have known the feeling as they transformed mere men into fabulous creatures, stole the secrets of the magicians, disposed armies: ah, look, there it is, the new thing.

Why should you read this book?
This book has been on my To Be Read list since I first heard about it early last year. This book is tragic. And beautiful. For once, a story told from two perspectives where it was the right choice to make. I don’t even know how to talk about this book, really, seeing how I just finished it.

If you like the tv series Dr Who, you’re going to like this book. (Maybe not the Dr Who/Rose-shippers, a la Doomsday episode.) If you like the movie versions of The Time Machine, you might like this book, but let me tell you, they are not a quarter as gritty and heartbreaking as this book is, and not a quarter as determined as the characters are to be happy in the here and now, never taking anything for granted.

Writers, read this book for an entirely new take on the old story of time-travel, second-chances, and waiting to find The One, for the absolute organic and painful quality of their lives, for a devoted love story, and for a great example of contemporary fiction. This book is what I’m sure Emerson would call a “creative read,” because it demands so much from you, the Reader. If you need a book to completely engross you (and if you don’t mind crude language or sometime-explicit scenes), this may be the book for you.

Book: Never Let Me Go

never_let_me_golargeTitle: Never Let Me Go
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Fiction
Length: 288 pgs

Summary: Kathy grew up in the sheltered, English countryside at the Hailsham boarding school, where the students were raised to believe they were special. Only in her teens does Hailsham reveal how special the students are. Kathy’s narrative slowly reveals from hindsight how a simple deception defines her life.

pg 195 – But I didn’t say or do anything. It was partly, I suppose, that I was so floored by the fact that Ruth would come out with such a trick. I remember a huge tiredness coming over me, a kind of lethargy in the face of the tangled mess before me. It was like being given a maths problem when your brain’s exhausted, and you know there’s some far-off solution, but you can’t work up the energy even to give it a go.

pg 208 – Sometimes I get so immersed in my own company, if I unexpectedly run into someone I know, it’s a bit of a shock and takes me a while to adjust.

Why should you read this book?
This story is intense, subtle, delicate. Its characters are flawed, obsessively so. The overlying plot is science fiction, but without the hopeful ending we expect from genre fiction. Definitely a literary piece, I’m debating whether I actually liked it. For you writers, however, read this for a good example of a first-person narration where the narrator is sensitive, passive, and suspicious without really knowing why. There is no real oppressor or antagonist, reflecting life. If you liked Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I did, then you will definitely like this book.

August 2010 Update

This book is now being made into a movie, which looks breathtaking: Never Let me Go theatrical trailer

Book: Hurricane Moon

Title: Hurricane Moon
Author: Alexis Glynn Latner
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 397 pgs

Summary: It is the late 21st Century. Catharin, an idealistic astronaut-physician, is part of the crew of Aeon, a starship sent out to find a new Earth. She wants to help society start anew, now that medicine has solved all major problems; molecular biologist Joe Devreze, however, just wants to run away from Earth, for reasons Catharin can’t figure out. Everything goes awry when Aeon reaches a double-planet system: one dubbed Planet Green is covered with vegetation, the other, Planet Blue, is consistently covered with hurricanes. As Catharin and Joe start to settle into Planet Green, Catharin discovers problems with their DNA… to the point where they might be the last humans in the universe. Can she trust Joe, and his shady motives, to save humanity? And just how much attention should Catharin pay to her subconscious warnings that Planet Blue is more than just a watery moon?

pg 118 – To Catharin’s consternation, Miguel laughed like a carefree man. “Oh, but we need [Joe]. Most certainly, we need him. You see, the gods who are creator and creatrix, especially of small worlds, always take themselves too seriously, and they want their work to be perfect. But evil spirits appear and they start spoiling things, and the gods would give up and throw the world away and start over, if they could. Fortunately, in almost every creation myth, soon there also comes the trickster god. His name is Coyote, or Pan, or Raven. He does absurd and mischievous things that annoy the creator gods. He saves the world, too.”

pg 198 – Maya had glittering green eyes and long dark hair with auburn highlights, and a willful attractiveness that Joe sensed as tangibly as feeling wind or heat.

pg 234 – What the hell had he been doing those years? Working. Walking. Inventing. Suddenly Joe thought about fairy tales, the ones about changelings who grow up to find out that they have no soul. It was an uncomfortable thought.

pg 256 – “Catharin is a cool customer,” Joe said to Wing.

“She’s like a violin. Quiet and tightly strung.”

“D’you suppose she ever lets her hair down?”

Wing answered with a promptness suggesting he’d reflected on this topic before. “I think her nickname, Cat, is apt, Joe. I think she has the soul of a tiger.”

pg 329 – “Luna is hundreds of light-years away, but her influence is woven throughout our evolution, our bodies,” said Sam. “We women are joined to the powers of life and change and birth. Birth scares the men. That’s why WE scare them. But change doesn’t have to scare US.”

Why should you read this book?
This may not be the most unique ideas, that in the future Earth falls to ruin and we send our best out in the universe to find a new Earth, but this is definitely the best-executed idea that I’ve read in a while. Much of the story rotates around the biology and evolution of people and their environment; much speculation is made about why there is a Planet Blue and a Planet Green, and we never really know if it’s the truth, only that this is what the characters have decided must have happened. I loved the science behind it all, mainly because I used to be obsessed with the moon (I kind of still am) and how it affects us daily. The characters react as you expect people to react to something so foreign as two Earth-sized planets on spin-lock around each other.

Latner does a wonderful job of making you feel scientific by the end of the book. She explains without making you feel stupid, and so you know what these highly-scientific characters are doing without getting into unnecessary details. Her use of tension is subtle, but effective: I jumped twice and even yelped once when I was reading and a friend called out to me as he walked past. That hardly ever happens to me (I read so much that I’m almost jaded sometimes). A unique book with a good execution, and even with some romance, this book was entertaining and even informative.

Book: The Glass Harmonica

Title: The Glass Harmonica
Author: Louise Marley
Genre: Paranormal Historical Fiction
Length: 369 pgs

Summary: The year is 2018 and Erin is the premiere virtuosa on the glass harmonica, an instrument that, over the centuries, has been known to make its player and select members of the audience go mad. Though she publicly denies these rumors, secretly she is terrified they are true once she starts to see visions of a girl who does not exist.

The year is 1761 and Eilish Eam, an Irish orphan, has been plucked from her unlucky existence to play Benjamin Franklin’s new invention: the glass armonica.

pg 116 – It was the terror that lurked in [Erin’s] nightmares, that stalked her when she was weakest, most vulnerably. It was the fear that made her snap answers to stupid questions, made her impatient and angry at the probing and pushing of interviewers and reporters and historians. She was afraid. She wasn’t afraid of her wraith, of ghosts or visions or manifestations. What she feared was that, like her predecessors, like the ancestral virtuosi who had first played her precious and mystical instrument, her nerves were breaking down. She was afraid she was going mad.

Why should you read this book?
This book is well-written: all the characters have backstories and motivations, and the setting is fully realized. Despite this, I felt no connection with the characters. I read the entire book, but I never felt drawn to the story, wondering what would happen next. And I should have, because this was an interesting idea. As a musician, I loved the history of the glass harmonica; as a historian, I thought Marley’s depiction of Benjamin Franklin was great; as a scientist, I loved the idea of applying music to neuro-therapy. As a writer, I thought something was lacking, which may be because the back cover copy made the story seem more action-oriented, a time-travel similar to The Lake House (which defies so many laws of physics and time-travel, even).

A pleasant read, the one thing that really annoyed me was Marley’s use of “’twas” and “’tis,” beyond the 1761 dialogue. For example: Eilish pushed the basket again, trying to make her two seed coins clink together. Talk brought no food. ‘Twas money she needed. In my opinion, Marley should have stuck with a first-person narrative for the 1761 story, and third-person for the 2018, if she wanted to write like that. But then, another reader will find it charming, and think I’m crazy for not liking it. Such a subjective profession this is…