I read that John Scalzi’s Red Shirts (Tom Doherty Associates, 2012) has won this year’s Hugo award for best novel. I was quite surprised. Not that RS is a bad book, but I found it just ordinary. I mean, the whole, entire concept hinges on a nerdy, Trekie trope, and the plot is based on the schlocky writing in popular TV. Who cares? Well, Hugo-ians do, obviously. Anyway, my basic point is that there are plenty of better novels out there.
Cases in point, several good recent “fantasy” novels, fairy tales set in essentially contemporary life. Blurb writers like to mention similarity to Harry Potter or Tolkien or whatever. That is absurd. These stories are, and of right ought to be, completely original visions.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Random House, 2011)
EM was clearly influenced by immersive theater, which is on display throughout the story. Of course, it is easier to imagine and even to describe such wonderful experiences, than to actually deliver them (and a lot of magic doesn’t hurt). But if this book doesn’t make you want to enchant your everyday world, then nothing will.
One of the things I liked best is how well the immersive experience is described, subtly portraying the wonder of the experience, while giving detailed descriptions of the actual effect. In many cases, I can almost imagine not just experiencing the show, but actually constructing the wonders myself (with enough skilled help from my friends). I loved this feeling of things so enchanting, just out of my reach, so close that, if I just exert myself to the limit, I might be able to make it myself.
I might add is that the magic (enchantment? Illusion? manipulation?) described is psychological and physical—and very hard work. Not much mystical claptrap, and a lot of hard study and learned skill. This has an effect: you get the feeling that you, too, can do it, if you try hard and pay attention.
Finally, I have to note that the enchantment is very social. A circus is a public theatrical display, and it is also a closely knit group of collaborators, united by love, friendship, and desire to create wonders. This story will inspire you to create your own “circus”, make life beautiful together, and, if necessary, run away to chase your destiny.
A really fine book. (better than Red Shirts by far.)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow and Company, 2013).
Neil Gaiman is past master at this sort of fairy tale. His recent Ocean the End of the Lane is one of a long line of beautiful stories (e.g., American Gods (2001), Stardust (1999), Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett!) (1990) etc.). The Ocean is a fairy tale set in the 20th century, that unfolds as the protagonist recalls a frightening childhood memory.
As in any good tale, there is menace and wonder, and in the end, loss. The boy has grown to be a man, and we see hints that his magical experience has touched his life and made him a sad, but apparently creative individual.
Wonderfully written, the horror is balanced with humanity, hope, and beauty.
(Everything by Gaiman is better the Red Shirts.)
Lexicon by Max Barry (Penguin, 2013)
Max Barry’s latest fantasy is rather odd, but it kind of works.
For some reason writers seem to be obsessed with the power of words and books (See Jasper Fforde for another extreme case.) What could possibly explain it? 🙂
This story involves the persuasive power of words, in this case, literally and extremely powerful. As in, the right word can take command of a person’s entire will, so that they will do whatever you tell them to.
The concept makes little sense to a psychologist (because behavior is neither rational nor controlled by verbal imagination), but I guess it is a logical extension of some theories of language (in which language is the foundation of all thought and action).
Of course, we don’t all know about this fabulous, semimagical linguistic technology because it is controlled by a secret cabal (who can keep it secret via mind controlling secret words…) New members of the secret elite are trained up at academies, where they learn to control their abilities and assimilate to the values of the ruthless overlords.
Naturally, there are rifts and troubles, not to mention rebellious youths.
The story involves a couple of youngsters, trying to find a calm and decent life, with some safety and love, to boot. Can’t go wrong with “boy meets girl”, can you?
I liked Jennifer Government (2003) better, but this is not a bad book. (Certainly better than Red Shirts.)