Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Book Hungry
September 2007

Stardust by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess
Vertigo, 1997, Softcover, 212 pp, $19.99

So. Great movie out, I figure people'll want to know whether the book is worth reading too.

(Y'know, it really, really is.)

First things first, though: if at all possible, do yourself a favor and skip the uber-cheesy "Now a Major Motion Picture!" version of the book with the cornball photo-cover and tragically distinct lack of internal illustrations. The original collection of this serialized-illustrated-novella-distributed-in-comicbook-format is so the way to go. It's full full full of amazing paintings and sketches by our boy Charles Vess, merely one of the best fantasy artists around.

(Admittedly, he does tend to draw some rather odd-lookin' faces every now and again, but I'm sure you'll forgive him simply because the rest of his art is so friggin' excellent. I'm a not-terrible painter myself, and I get nauseatingly jealous of the guy; I'm never sure whether to curse him or bless him. Totally confusing.)

Anyway, I'm sure you all know the story by now: Tristran is a goofy but well-meaning young man trying to win the heart of a girl who is, quite simply, a spoiled ol' witch-with-a-B. In the manner of well-meaning but incurably naive young men, Tristran doesn't seem to notice this rather crucial bit of information, and sets off from the Village of Wall to venture deep into the heart of Faerie in order to return with a piece of a fallen star and prove that he really is a worthwhile sort of chap to get hitched to.

The problem, of course, is that in the land of Faerie, stars aren't just stars -- they're people. Beautiful young women, in this case. (Terrible predicament, that.)

Naturally, there are all manner of weird Gaiman-y subplots and characters; the bickering princes who need the amulet the star wears in order to gain the throne, the witches that want the star for themselves in order to use its power to keep their youth, the little man Tristran meets in the forest who appears homespun but is really quite wise, the Tori Amos-like Nymph tree, etc. etc. (I wish there had been more time in the movie for some of these guys, but the movie worked just as well without them, which left space for De Niro in drag -- always a good time.)

However, the real fun of the book comes from the way it subverts the usual fairy-tale conventions while simultaneously being a really good example of the genre. This has the potential be rife with cliche, but as always, Gaiman brings his charmingly skewed view to things. Vess, too, is at the top of his form, with meticulously-detailed illustrations that perfectly capture and build upon the silly-yet-serious mood of the story. (Alan Lee and Brian and Wendy Froud are listed in the dedication, as well they should be.)

And in the end, it's secretly a wise little nugget of a story about how we can fall in love with the wrong person and never know it until someone shows us the error of our ways.

See the movie, use it as an excuse to read the book (I know I did!), compare/contrast, and have your day brightened considerably.

Jumper: Griffin's Story by Steven Gould
Tor Books, 2007, Hardcover, 286 pp, $24.95

Get your high-speed shutters ready, people -- this book is blindingly fast.

Griffin is born with the rather mysterious ability to jump -- teleport -- anywhere he's been. Thing is, there are a bunch of scary people called paladins who are killing Jumpers, and they're quickly triangulating his position. The book is basically one long globe-trotting thrillride, and simply a hell of a lot of fun.

What really makes the book work is this weird combination of giddy exuberance and smart-mouthed humor mixed with real pathos and drama.

We tag along with Griff as his whirlwind life leads him on a constant stream of adventure: he narrowly escapes death a couple times in the first few chapters and does so pretty much continuously throughout the book. He's taken in by benevolent Mexicans, travels to practically every continent, builds a secret underground lair called The Hole, has cheerful (and then some not so cheerful) sex, and draws pictures of all the famous landmarks wherever he jumps. As the body-count of Griff's friends and family pile up, though, he gradually turns darker and darker, until the book becomes an exercise in Vengeance of the Just. Despite the humor interspersed throughout, by the end of the book there are some tough moral problems that need working out, and it builds to a truly tragic climax that forces Griff to understand, to know exactly where the blame for all the violence lies on him and where it is upon those who hunt him.

And it works. Gould is a complete master at making even the absurd premise completely real. He fills the book with such quirky charm that it was simply impossible to put down. His writing is terse and no-nonsense, and there was never any problem with suspension of belief, because all the characters were smart and behaved in believable ways.

In fact, the only real flaw I can see in the book is the completely maddening lack of an explanation given as to the motivation of the paladins. Because I'm not really sure what Gould was trying to say (or even whether or not the whole thing was just him giving up on trying to make the plot make sense) this is probably heading merrily into speculation-land, but in any case, what I think he might have been trying to get at was this:

The paladins would presumably not attack Griff and his family and people like him for no reason. Perhaps in the distant past, they felt like they were wronged by Jumpers, and so they feel justified even when they kill them as children. In turn, the Jumpers retaliate in kind, as evidenced by Griff's evolution from innocent kid to vigilante-justice-man. It ends up being a sort of political commentary on what happens when people refuse to communicate with each other and so exacerbate volatile situations and provoke others into irreversible violence.

Or not. I don't really mind, in the end, if there was no grand "meaning." Look, the book isn't going to revolutionize the field of science fiction, but y'know, I read the thing in one sitting and enjoyed every minute of it. That counts for a lot.

The Princess and the Hound by Mette Ivie Harrison
EOS, 2007, Hardcover, 410 pp, $17.99

The title and dustjacket art for this book are deeply misleading. You'd think it was one of those terrible, patronizing, books "for girls," pandering to the silly stereotype that girls only like stories with horsies and doggies and damsels in distress and boys can't handle anything with a whiff of emotional nuance.

Instead, it's one of the most affecting coming-of-age novels I've ever read.

Indeed, the misdirection goes further. Rather than focusing solely on the Princess and the Hound, the book actually belongs to Prince George, the young man who comes to love them both:

In Kendel, the people with Animal Magic are feared and hated for their mystical brotherhood with the beasts in the wood. Prince George, like his mother before him, is forced into keeping his own Animal Magic hidden from the very people he will one day rule.

He tells no one of his secret -- until he meets Beatrice, the Princess of a rival kingdom and the one he has been betrothed to in order to keep the peace. She is a strange girl, seemingly cold and unsentimental, accompanied always by her gentle-yet-wild dog Marit -- and perhaps she is the one girl George could hope to marry for love as well as duty.

When George's father takes ill, a twisted web of dark magic and revenge is revealed, and George and Beatrice -- and Marit -- are drawn together in strange and moving ways.

This is a book about the ties that bind -- friends, lovers, families. I saw almost every plot twist coming, but this means that I'm a decent guesser, not that the book is somehow cliche or predictable. It doesn't matter, as the book doesn't rely on gimmicks or trickery. Instead, its power lies in the complexity and honesty of the web of subtle relationships Harrison builds up. The fantasy world is woven into the background and is used mostly as an unusual setting; we're not in Tolkien-land, with endless genealogies and mythologies -- everything is strictly related to the plot. It's not a particularly interesting world in itself, because that's not the point. It's there to provide the characters with the necessary distance from our present-day that they are free to be earnest in their nobility.

And noble they are. George is amazingly human, flawed while remaining strong -- if he cannot be honest and good, or at least attempt to be, he cannot remain himself. And yet he cannot see this about his own character, how he gradually becomes a worthy man. He is what he chooses to make himself into, and I'm awed and inspired by his goodness. His greatness.

In particular, I'm struck by the reverence he shows for the process of reconciliation. So much fiction relies on an us-against-them morality that it's become truly refreshing to read something more honest and ambiguous. George tries his level best to find solutions that are fair to all sides -- not cynically, to gain favor, but because that is the only way he knows how to remain himself, remain honest and honorable in his own eyes. We have to try for genuine goodness even when -- especially when -- no one else is watching.

And true to real life, to the ways that humans band together to invent language so that they might transmit experience, George learns how to be great by remembering the tales his mother told when she was alive, for there is a gentle wisdom to be found in the telling of stories, in the generation-spanning tools made of sound that she uses to teach him how to live. We hear them too: there is pain and death and longing and sorrow, yes, but the moral universe feels . . . right. It rings true, and while I read the stories within stories, I simply felt good. The worlds of words felt ancient and deep.

Harrison's writing itself is restrained, and yet there is a surging undercurrent of passion underneath it all. The language of the story is so bleakly, heartbreakingly plain that I'm afraid some people will miss how beautiful and elegant it is in the sheer simplicity and clarity of prose.

For this is a dark love story that explores hard questions, and it deserves to be read almost especially by the people who mistakenly think that they will find nothing of value in it.

The young lovers are chaste and their relationship muted by their tragic circumstances, but it's all the more romantic and even almost erotic for all that. They are as children yet, and then suddenly grown, on that cusp between innocence and adult responsibility. They learn to truly love each other only after their commitment is assured, pulling close and then apart again, a tension and spark that is true and painful as life. There is a sadness to their relationship, that glorious melancholia of two hearts struggling to find a way to comfort each other, to find the ache inside and hold it tight to soothe it. There is pain in the joy and joy in the pain, for they lose and gain friends because of their love. We see the tangible warmth between them that they shroud modestly in elegant words, to be unlaced and revealed only by the most tender of touches. Love is an action, a belief, a choice, not just a mindlessly empty lust-induced chemical haze released at the culmination of a chase.

And even the romance is not the end, for the story is trying to explicate the exact differences between many types of relationships. It all comes to a head when the Princess asks George to tell her, to explain to her why he is different from the King.

For above all, this story is about fathers. In this day when even the idea of fatherhood is often seen as something irrelevant, to be cast aside as if it were not really necessary, this story shows the difference a good father can make in the life of his child. It also shows the hidden agony of parenthood that children never recognize, the terrible ways in which fathers can hurt their children even when they mean to love them most. How profoundly a father's love or lack thereof can shape a child's world. The awe-fear-love-hate roiling mix of emotions that surge through a girlchild as she watches her father intently, minutely, learning from his every movement, and judging his judgment by her own high standards.

No wonder Harrison dedicated the book to her own father.

He should be proud. The book is wise and deep, full of everything from subtle political games -- who has authority, why and how is it bestowed, what is moral for a leader to do -- to the big themes like prejudice and discrimination. It's done quietly, though, in the margins, less showy, more effective. The teens who read this will carry it in their memories as a profoundly life-shaping story to cling to even when they're not aware of it. The shape of it will stay with them, the choices they remember themselves making when they were immersed in these characters of goodwill trying to do good work in the world, who care so deeply about what is right that they learn to live with the consequences of their actions even when they don't turn out as planned.

I know my life is better for having read it, anyway.


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