The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – Jemison

In the acknowledgments of a different book, N.K. Jemison says a writer needs readers who will grab other readers “by the arm and say… read this book right now.”

Okay. If you are a fantasy buff, read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms right now. There is a depth to the world, to how she has thought about it, that is rare in fantasy. She has a big rep these days, and this book supports that. Yes, she has mysteries that are not easily solved. Yes, she has character conflict that is believable and leaves you cheering for the heroes, hissing at the bad guys, and not always knowing which is who. But what I like about this book best is the vulnerability of nearly everyone, even the villains, to their own brokenness. How they are doing the best they can with what they have, and sometimes that’s not much.

I like hope, and sometimes that’s in short supply here, but it never vanishes entirely. That last reliance on goodness, at the end of the tale? It matters, and she displays a sensitivity about using it that gladdens my heart.

It’s a different world, not a cliched one, and that’s pretty fun as well. I am looking forward to reading her next book.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my fantasy series, Saga of Sinnesemota, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara as they brave a deadly jungle to hunt the Labyrinth, a magical Artifact that may help reestablish an empire of peace in a world at war. You can find it, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in the series, on Amazon. See if you like them.

Related blogs:

The Broken Kingdoms – Jemison

A Guile Of Dragons – Enge

Things Fall Apart – Achebe

Advertisements

Our Man In Havana – Greene

Graham Greene wrote two separate sorts of novels. First, his potboilers, “entertainments” I believe he called them, popular and fast-paced. Then his serious work, the novels for which he was supposed to hope to receive a Nobel.

Our Man In Havana is an entertainment, and therefore I can heartily recommend it to you. For some reason serious fiction must always be desperately bleak, and no one took that adage more seriously than Greene. Lord Almighty his serious stuff is depressing. Great writing, sure, but I think I would have to say I am done with them.

This book is deft, sure, and swift; fun, yes, but with a snarling edge of danger for the characters. Greene does not treat his characters with kid gloves. The hero, Wormold, is as typically befuddled and feckless as a usual Greene hero, but turns that to cunning. His sweet innocent daughter knows far more about life than he, his secretary is blatantly smarter, but his enemies have no idea how to take him, and he uses that fact to great effect.

The story is set in Cuba, and one could take a master class from Greene on how to filter in just enough background detail, just enough characterization, just enough atmosphere. I can’t say it’s believable, but like much great comedy, it’s not supposed to be. Very dry humor, with a sharp edge. Not for everyone, and I didn’t at all care for the casual racism evident here and there, but even the ending was well worked out.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my fantasy series, Saga of Sinnesemota, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara as they brave a deadly jungle to hunt the Labyrinth, a magical Artifact that may help reestablish an empire of peace in a world at war. You can find it, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in the series, on Amazon. See if you like them.

Related blogs:

Tom Brown’s Schooldays – Hughes

The Song Of The Lark – Cather

The Power & The Glory – Greene

The Mongrel Mage – Modesitt

L.E. Modesitt has a very different feel about his writing than other fantasy novelists, and The Mongrel Mage is no exception. Here the hero, Beltur, is driven from his home by the unexpected hatred of the local government for his uncle and himself, and must make his way alone in the world after the bad guys kill his uncle, who sacrifices himself to save Beltur from the ambush.

Typical of Modesitt, his hero Beltur must learn magic largely on his own, he must practice constantly to get better, and overusing magic can destroy his ability, or even kill him. So we get a steady diet of the hero figuring out how magic works. Quite methodical. The trick Modesitt uses to keep this from being dreadfully dull is to constantly pose mysteries based on physical evidence. For instance: “Beltur was having problems with what Kaerylt had said. He could certainly see that the growers could afford brick and tile, but… ‘How do the poorer families afford brick and tile?’ / ‘The growers pay for them.’ / ‘But why?'” Such little mysteries abound on nearly every page, and one character is constantly explaining to another how things work, and why, and who is involved. Since people’s lives are always dependent in one way or another on such puzzles, the reader stays engaged.

Among other techniques Modesitt employs: he often (always?) has a betrayal somewhere, a big suspense builder, salts in a reasonable number of battle scenes, and ups the ante regularly to keep us readers happy. In this book he starts us with that initial mystery — why was Beltur attacked — and reminds us of it occasionally to keep us intrigued.

Not many authors in fantasy are more productive than L.E. Modesitt. He has a straightforward style, both in prose and plot, that seems to make it easy to write engaging stories without any need for complex rewrites or major angst. The stories entertain, the characters are believable and sincere, the bad guys well-motivated. A solid, skilled writer.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my mystical fantasy series, Saga of Sinnesemota. This story follows my hero, Rev, and his fiancée, Stara, as they brave a mysterious jungle to retrieve a magical Artifact, the Labyrinth, that may help them to reestablish an empire of peace in a world at war. You can find it, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in the series, on Amazon. See if you like them.

Related blogs:

Children Of Earth And Sky – Kay

The Broken Kingdoms – Jemison

Harry Potter – Rowling

Children Of Earth And Sky – Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay writes wonderful, thoughtful, and entertaining fantasies that mix history, adventure and a sort of spiritual mystery into a very satisfying brew. In Children Of Earth And Sky, an epic fantasy novel about lands that parallel Venice, the nations of the Adriatic, and the Ottoman Empire shortly after the fall of Constantinople, we can see some of how he does this.

Kay does not write taut, fast-paced action adventures where we plunge headlong from cliffhanger to disaster, though he is very good at keeping our attention through more subtle tricks of suspense. He works primarily through character, and the inherent tensions in people who are mostly strangers getting to know each other. A scene where a young man is interested in a strange, dangerous young woman: “Danica Gradek kissed really well, it turned out… He wasn’t sure, remembering the moment, if it had been passion, or triumph, or the anger everyone said was in her, but he’d wanted more… ‘Good lad,’ she said, stepping back. / Lad? That he didn’t like. ‘You’ll warn the captains?’ / ‘Of course,’ she said. / It never occurred to him she might be lying.”

There is the essence of Kay in those few lines. Uncertainty of the future, a hope for some connection, naiveté and a twist unforeseen. Kay is generous with words, using a conversational style: note that ‘it turned out.’ He bounces easily from point of view to point of view, then out to the omniscient narrator, who is himself ignorant of much, if a bit more than the characters, anyway.

Perhaps what keeps us glued to the story as much as anything is the inherent humility in Kay’s tone. There is so much we do not know, he assures us over and over. We see only a few things limned in light where all else in the caverns of our world is darkness. It’s enjoyable to read someone who commands such a voice. And this book is Kay at the top of his game.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

P.S. Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my mystical fantasy series, Saga of Sinnesemota, is available for pre-order, and will appear August 7, 2018. This latest novel follows my hero, Rev, and his fiancée, Stara, as they plunge into the dangers of a mysterious jungle hiding the power of an ancient magical Artifact, the Labyrinth. You can find this tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in the series, on Amazon. Call of the Labyrinth is also available in trade paperback. See if you like them.

Related blogs:

The Broken Kingdoms – Jemison

Od Magic – Patricia McKillip

Harry Potter – Rowling

Tom Brown’s Schooldays – Hughes

I read somewhere that this book influenced J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I read somewhere else that it was the classic representation of public school education in England in the 19th century. You read enough such accolades, and you think, okay, let me try this. Well, despite all the manly praise and effulgences, it turns out to be a pretty entertaining book. Tom Brown is a sweet young thing of maybe 10 years, who quickly grows to be a self-centered lazy terror in school, then is challenged to grow beyond that by rendering service to another.

He has a series of adventures, none of them fantastical or beyond belief, which gives the whole a needed grounding. You end up liking the little brat, as much for his ability to look beyond himself as for his enthusiasm for breaking rules. These are not gentle little creatures he grows up with, either, and the author does not have any sort of rose-colored glasses on. Because of that, we come to believe in the characters, their natural growth, their standing up to bullies, their small descents into thoughtless ways, but always with a desire to live up to their school.

It is possible to see how this would have influenced Rowling, more in the atmosphere of school than any particulars of the plot, but I’d say it was pretty deep background, for all of that.

It’s definitely more of a YA book than a deep a sober treatise, but it very much kept me turning the pages.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, battles to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten him and his people. You can find these ebooks on Amazon.

Related blogs:

The Song Of The Lark – Cather

Od Magic – Patricia McKillip

Harry Potter – Rowling

The Broken Kingdoms – Jemison

The first draw about The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemison, is the feverish creativity of the place. Our hero, Oree, is a blind woman who has the ability to see godlings (the offspring of gods and humans). Well, since someone starts to murder godlings in her neighborhood, she gets involved in the troubles, and has a heck of a time keeping from becoming a target of the various heavies looking to take advantage. A wonderful premise.

Jemison does a masterful job of drawing a sympathetic and believable character in Oree. We root for her almost immediately, and her troubles become our own. Always most satisfying. Another fine quality in Jemison’s writing is her ear for the apt phrase. Early on, Oree, narrating in first person, tells us, “I am, you see, a woman plagued by gods.” We enjoy the line, roll it around on our tongues, and read on for more.

One of the great troubles with most writing, in my opinion, is the inability to keep raising the stakes throughout a story, without either letting things go flat, as the tension drains out, or goofing up with the hero and making her unsympathetic. Cruel, or something. Jemison avoids these traps as well, first by masterfully holding back information at first, and then revealing what is going on bit by bit, and second by bringing in more and more powerful characters, who have their own depths and foibles. They aren’t always sympathetic, but our hero has compassion for them, and that draws us along and makes us like her even more. Great work.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, battles to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten him and his people. You can find these ebooks on Amazon.

Related blogs:

A Guile Of Dragons – Enge

Od Magic – Patricia McKillip

Journey To The West – Wu

The Song Of The Lark – Cather

The Song of the Lark is a big, sprawling story of a girl from an immigrant family launching into the world, helped by mentors but ultimately making her own way. It’s Cather’s paean to America as the home of immigrants, empowered by them, enriched and made whole, of worth as a nation because it accepts immigrants as its strength.

This story does meander. Cather’s strength is not tight plotting, and suspenseful conflict. Instead, her characters set out on life journeys, and she shows us how those lives develop in realistic ways. Thea, the heroine here, must live within the strictures that any poor immigrant family dealt with on the western frontier. Hard work, sudden violence, uncertain rewards. She has a dream of music, and this dream is dubious at best. We meet other characters whose dreams founder, other musicians, even. The reason this book is so successful is perhaps due to that very uncertainty. We are not guaranteed the heroine will succeed. As other heroines in Cather tales do not necessarily succeed.

Cather’s greatest strengths are her ability to capture the beauty of the commonplace, to give us spiritual understanding of a shack, or a dusty ravine, and her delineation of character. No one I have read does those things better. If the pace is slow, well, sit back and enjoy the show. I myself have learned that every novel has its limitations, so we must choose the works that suit our own loves, and glory in what is good. With Cather, there is much of that.

Cather plies her themes here: the outsider making her way; the ignorance and moral strengths of the rural world versus the sophistication, artistic depths, and moral emptiness of the civilized world; and rapid change as the frontier vanishes and the old pioneer stock gives way to the lesser, more grasping younger generations. But she also plays against those ideas. Thea certainly works as hard as any pioneer — she is a pioneer in the world of culture, coming from the empty prairie. And yes, we need each other, we need help and guidance, but Thea is ultimately a loner: we feel that for her, marriage can only interfere with her greater journey. It’s another danger to be avoided if possible. The complexity raised by such muddling makes this book especially satisfying. A great book.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in my mystical fantasy series. A young and somewhat disreputable hero battles to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people, and flaws in his own character that undermine his attempts. You can find these ebooks on Amazon.

Related blogs:

The Last Chronicle of Barset – Trollope

Charlotte’s Web – White

Dear Life – Munro

The Last Chronicle of Barset – Trollope

The greatest strength Trollope shows as a writer, evidenced here in The Last Chronicle of Barset maybe as well as anywhere, is his ability to reveal the most subtle complexities of emotion and motivation. I cannot imagine any other writer able to render the central character of this book, Josiah Crawley, so that we might believe him to be real, and yet upon reading of the man, we not only absolutely believe in him but realize we have known very similar such stiff-necked, pig-headed fools ourselves.

For instance, though at one point Mr. Crawley is accused of theft, “Mr. Crawley had declared to Mr. Robarts that he would summon no legal aid to his assistance at the coming trial.” Trollope paints a portrait of a man who has no money for a lawyer, and anyway does not believe any preacher should rely on the profane world in moral matters, and furthermore will not accept financial assistance offered by those around him, and finally, is too proud to accept such help. And yet he twists in the wind, as he realizes what being found guilty will do to his family. It is these sorts of dilemmas Trollope explores so beautifully.

So we love Crawley for his honesty, and his endeavoring to do right, and yet we have to agree with everyone in the universe around him that he is completely wrong-headed, and in fact does grievous damage to the very ones he loves the most. His pride in his humility gets in the way of his seeing the truth. And maybe that very summation explains why it is so beyond most writers to attempt such a character sketch. Trollope can think up such people, whom most of us cannot.

One instructive thing about this book is a paradox at its heart: how powerful the plotting is when it involves the contest of wills between characters — those conflicts being at the heart and soul of what draws us along as readers. Will Mrs. Proudie prevail? Will Mrs. Crawley get her husband to stand up for her? And yet the larger plotting, the grand fabric of the tale, is almost casually tossed off, several large resolutions happening in simple, deus-ex-machina fashion. And we don’t care, because none of that was really to the point anyway… the larger plot problems having nothing to do with the delineation of character which is at the heart of why we read.

I love Trollope. I don’t know that I would agree this is his greatest work, as he himself seems to have thought. But it is very worth reading, for the deep enjoyment of the thing at the very least.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in my mystical fantasy series. A young and somewhat disreputable hero battles to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people, and flaws in his own character that undermine his attempts. You can find these ebooks on Amazon.

Related blogs:

Barchester Towers – Trollope

Charlotte’s Web – White

Picture Of Dorian Gray – Wilde

Barchester Towers – Trollope

Here’s a secret – I’ve reached the point where a big part of the fun of reading books is blogging them afterwards. Especially when they are great ones, like Barchester Towers. On the surface, this book is a tough sell for a modern reader — a novel, second in the series, about a political squabble among clergy in small town England in the mid-19th century? And the only answer to ‘why should I read it?’ can be: but it’s good. No, it’s really good!

And why is it good? The conflict between characters, of course. Trollope sets us up with a big-city cleric getting the local bishops’ seat that the son of the old bishop was hoping to attain. And the new bishop is a total wimp, who lets his wife run his work life. But he has a kind of slimy assistant who wants to run things instead. Two dogs, one bone conflict, absolutely classic.

At one point, Trollope, in an aside to the reader, says a novel must have a male and a female good angel as characters, and male and female devil characters. He really does just lay it out for the reader, and we love him for it. Trollope also has a trick I can’t think of any other writer using: he will deliberately remove some uncertainty. The “good angel” woman in this book is a widow with a wealthy income, quite naive. And one of the devils decides to woo her for her income. Trollope tells us right away that this devil will never marry her. Giving away the tension, the reader might think. But of course there are other jerks also after her, and a good angel the reader is rooting for, and Trollope gives nothing away around these characters. We remain intrigued, with the salting of a belief that we have inside information. It lures us and seals us to this book. Love the trick, myself.

For me, Barchester Towers is one of the all-time-great books. You should know, I have read four Trollope novels now, and loved them all. Which does imply I’ll be back to try another soon!

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, battles to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these ebooks on Amazon.

Related blogs:

Charlotte’s Web – White

Picture Of Dorian Gray – Wilde

Dear Life – Munro

 

A Guile Of Dragons – Enge

What I may admire most about James Enge’s novel, A Guile Of Dragons, is his skill in luring us into the early scenes with entertaining hooks. “The Two Powers hated everything, each other most of all,” the book begins. And in the first paragraph of Chapter Two: “Nimue… had learned that she was pregnant by Merlin Ambrosius, and she was just deciding to expose the child as soon as it was born.” The author quickly asks us to sympathize for a young woman in a tight spot. “She… had to face… the disaster… and be driven away like a thieving servant.”

It is a wonderful talent to be able to create gripping first sentences. Chapter Three: “Nimue tried to escape from Earno fifteen times on the ride…” And I found myself just kicking back and enjoying the show. This book is a fast-paced, fun adventure, with lively, well-drawn characters and many tight spots to be gotten out of. The ideas are original, the world entertaining, and the stakes high enough to keep me interested.

I like that the sentences were not too dense, and that the background was rich, but not overdrawn. Such balancing can be tricky, in my experience.

A Guile Of Dragons is more an action-adventure fantasy than a deep meditation on being and purpose, at least in the first book of the series. If you like that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you might like. ;->

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, battles to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these ebooks on Amazon.

Related blogs:

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? – Dick

Animal Farm – Orwell

Od Magic – Patricia McKillip