Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
August 2014

PRESCRIPTION: Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
SYMPTOMS: Epic fantasy, multiple perspectives, warfare, political intrigue, medieval, dragons
DOSAGE: (out of five)

I guess you could say I'm late to the game. I grew up reading Hobb, Rawn, and Williams, and although I consider epic fantasy to be my bread-and-butter, my staple, my favorite genre, I avoided A Song of Ice and Fire until well after the HBO series came out. I've been burned before by unfinished epic fantasy (Rawn's unfinished Exiles trilogy was my first adult epic fantasy. I still want to know about Collan), so Game of Thrones sat, spine un-cracked, upon my shelf.

Then I got spoiled by cakepops. No, seriously. Google "cakepops + game of thrones" and you'll see what I mean. Lest I be further spoiled by trendy desserts, I applied myself to the 800 page behemoth. The following review contains no spoilers. Just don't google cakepops.

The writing doesn't draw attention to itself, though still manages to be both clear and engaging and even in a multiple-perspective, limited third-person point-of-view, each of the five-plus character voices is unique and recognizable. Though the prose itself is lucid, Martin's forté is clearly characterization. Despite an immense cast that runs the gamut on age, encompasses both men and women, and includes characters on every side of the multiple conflicts, each character reads realistically. They are rich enough that their places in the narrative aren't always predictable.

For example, a character I felt certain was the brainless Goyle behind the series's Malfoy expressed his own form of protectiveness over someone his liege threatened, and though he had no POV chapters of his own, there was enough to his brief appearances to make me question my original feelings on him. That seems to be the beauty of Martin's character arcs. Those first impressions of characters shift throughout the novel as the threats of war and political intrigue hone them into sharper, truer versions of themselves. It's what every ensemble cast of characters should be.

The book has been criticized for its brutality, but that very brutality is what makes it such a compelling read. At any moment, a favorite character could be killed, or could lose a loved one in a horrible way, and anyone who has spent time with their noses in history books can see the verisimilitude of warring eras. Other criticisms fall in the treatment of women, which again bears a strong resemblance to actual history, and didn't bother me because the women themselves were given voice and depth, treated as humans bound by their culture just the same as the men.

I haven't read many fantasy books with such subtle magic, though magical threats exist from the first page and the skeletons of dragons, long extinct, haunt the halls and dreams of many characters. Clairvoyant dreams and direwolf companions (dare I say familiars?) weave an undercurrent of mysticism through the pages. It isn't until the final third of the book that magic becomes overt, and comes at a price.

Finally, I can say for a surety: Game of Thrones. I get it.

PRESCRIPTION: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
SYMPTOMS: Magic or no magic?, lovable main character, modern setting, hackers, programmers, quest for immortality, old meets new, fontophiles
DOSAGE: (out of five)

Some books are meant to be deep, immersive experiences that transport readers to another world, grip them by the imaginations, and refuse to let go (see Game of Thrones). Other books are meant to be a ripping good time. When I picked up Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, I imagined it would be a sort of adult version of Inkheart, a fantasy for book-lovers about book-lovers, more of the former than the latter. From the first few pages, however, I realized I was in for more of the latter.

Clay is a recently-unemployed, disillusioned graphic designer in San Francisco who takes a third-shift job at a quirky 24-hour bookstore to make ends meet. But he finds more on the three-story ladder in the stacks than copies of his childhood favorite, The Dragonsong Chronicles. Clay's employer, Mr. Penumbra, has forbidden him to open the collection of ancient-looking tomes at the back of the shop, or check them out to anyone but a series of strange "Club" members. Spurred on by curiosity about the bookstore's harried and mysterious clientele, Clay quickly breaks the no-reading rule and discovers the books to be written in cipher, with no apparent clues to the subject of the club's obsession. On the impulsive decision to update the store's database, Clay inputs all the books into a data-visualization program, accidentally solving the first part of the mystery and earning his place as part of the cult. What follows is an adventure that threatens to do what many people dream about: unravel the secrets of the past with the technology of the present.

Clay is an engaging main character who has a distinct voice and, despite his penchant for illegal downloads, seems like a genuinely good person. The secondary characters include his Google-employee girlfriend, his best friend and dungeon master, Neel (who, hilariously, made his fortune developing game software to accurately simulate the visual movement of boobs), and the rather wizardy Mr. Penumbra himself. Though the side characters are not quite as three-dimensional as Clay's data-visualization, they provide a great cross-section of the brainy and nerdy segment of the Millennial population that resonated strongly with at least my experience.

That resonance is probably what made me love this book so much. Sloan's ability to capture the modern experience really grounded the arcane elements of the story. From the description of Clay's job-search criteria gradually eroding from "a company with a mission" to, simply, a company that was "not evil" to the feeling of entering an utterly darkened chamber, the book is littered with touchstones of familiarity. Though some readers have complained that the references to Google and other social media will date the book, I believe these points will help the book stand against time.

Two issues kept this book from being five stars for me: the plot is rooted more in concept than driven by character, and the magical elements are teased and, eventually, dead-end. I believed the book would have some sort of magical realism the whole way through, which is why I still add it to a review of fantasy books, but, in the end, I was as disappointed by the end of the illusion as some of the side characters.

Despite its dubious categorization as magical realism, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the work of Lev Grossman or is looking for a twenty-something John Green hero with a fixation on fonts and a willingness to describe his group of friends in terms of a Dungeons and Dragons party.

Read more by Lauren Harris


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