This summer has been very productive for my fiction reading backlog. Here are just some of the things I have read since Memorial Day. 1
I picked up The Name of the Wind on a whim while cruising through the bookstore. I was glad I did. This book tells a classic story– a precocious young wizard learns to use his powers, building toward being the most important person in the world. The book is framed around an innkeeper and his apprentice who are more than they seem. When a man claiming to be the most famous storyteller in the land enters the inn, we learn that our innkeeper has past filled with spectacular exploits that our bard wants to record. Lucky for our reader, Kvothe, in addition to be a warrior-wizard of extraordinary talent, is a narcissist who decides to tell his whole story just this once to this most famous of all chroniclers. 2 Although I have spoken to several folks who found Kvothe to be utterly unlikeable because of both his sly form of arrogance and Rothfuss’s decision to seemingly make Kvothe worthy of such high self-worth, I loved this book.
In this first book of the The Kingkiller Chronicle (as these things tend to be named), we learn all about Kvothe’s formative years. We spend substantial time exploring dark times in Kvothe’s life when he endures tragedy, trauma, and horrible poverty before finally beginning to learn how to truly use his talents. It is a fair critique that Kvothe seems almost “too good”, but much of the story is about how skill, luck, and folly all contribute to his success and fame, much of which is based on exaggerated tellings of true events.
If you are a fan of this sort of fantasy, with magic, destiny, love, power, and coming of age, I recommend picking up this book. Rothfuss has a gift. The sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear is already available, and I will certainly be reading it before the end of the summer.
Endymion and The Rise of Endymion are the must anticipated (15 years ago) follow up to Dan Simmons’s brilliant Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion. I strongly recommend the originals, which is one of the greatest tales in all of science fiction. I also recommend creating some distance between reading each set of books. Six years separate the publishing of these duologies. Each story is so rich, I think it is hard to appreciate if you read all four books in one go. Yet, the narrative is so compelling it might be hard to resist. I waited about one year between reading the original Cantos and this follow up and I was glad I did.
Set 272 years after the events of the original books, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion serve as crucial stories that satisfyingly close loops I did not even realize were open at the end of the originals. What was once a glimpse at future worlds and great cosmic powers now unfurl as major players, their primary motivations unveiled.
These books are so entwined with the original that I will not say anything about its plot so that there are no spoilers. What I can offer is the following. Whereas books 1 and 2 play with story structure to captivating effect, these books do not. Instead, we are treated to a uniquely omniscient narrator, who is both truly omniscient and integral to the events of the story. How he gains this omniscience is a major plot point that’s pulled off effortlessly. The first two books are framed as an epic poem, known as the Hyperion Cantos, written by one of the major characters in those events. Another thing we learn is the original Cantos is not entirely reliable. Their author, who as not omniscient, had to fill in some blanks to complete the story, and also failed to understand some of the “heady” aspects of what happened and was sloppy in their explanations. Thus, we are treated both to key future events and simultaneously charged with a new reading of the original novels as written by a less than reliable narrator. What is true and what is not will all be told in this excellent follow up.
A word to the wise– Simmons may feel a bit “mushy” in his message for some “hard” science fiction readers. I think there is both profound depth and beautiful presentation of ideas, both complex enough to “earn” this treatment and some simpler than the story seems to warrant.
The Rook is a fantastically fun debut novel3 written by an Australian bureaucrat. I learned about this book from one of my favorite podcasts, The Incomparable. Episode 128: Bureaucracy was Her Superpower is an excellent discussion that you should listen to after reading this book. I feel the hosts of that show captured perfectly what made this book great– it was completely honest and fair to its reader.
It is not giving anything away to say that The Rook centers around a Myfanwy (mispronounced even by the main character as Miffany, like Tiffany with an M) who suddenly becomes aware of her troublesome surroundings but with complete amnesia. It would be easy to dismiss the memory loss as a trite plot driver, used as a cheap way to trick our characters and readers. But O’Malley is brilliant in his use of Myfanwy’s memory loss. This book does not lie to its reader or its characters. Memory loss does not conceal some simple literary irony. Instead, it serves to create a fascinating experience for a reader who learns to understand and love a character as she creates, understands, and learns to love herself.
Myfanwy is not just an ordinary young woman with memory loss. She’s a high ranking official in what can best be described as the British X-Men who run MI-5. And she knew her memory loss was imminent. As such, she prepared letters for her future, new self to learn all about her life and her attempts to uncover the plot that would lead to her own memory loss. Again, the letters could be seen as cheap opportunities for exposition and to create false tension, but O’Malley never holds too tight to their use as a structure. We read more letters at the beginning of the story, and fewer later on as the reader is availed of facts and back story as they become relevant, without a poorly orchestrated attempt to withhold information from the main character. Instead of assuming Myfanwy is reading along with us, we easily slip into an understanding that shortly after our story begins, Myfanwy actually takes the time to read all the letters and we, thankfully, are not dragged along for the ride blow by blow.
The Rook manages to tread space in both story and structure that should feel wholly unoriginal and formulaic but never becoming either. The powers of the various individuals are fascinating, original, and consequential. The structure of the book is additive, but the plot itself is not dependent on its machinations.
Most of all, The Rook is completely fun and totally satisfying. That’s not something we say often in a post-Sopranos, post-Batman Begins world.
Speaking of delightful, Neil Gaiman is at his best with The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Gaiman is the master of childhood, which is where I think he draws his power as a fantasy writer. He is able to so capture the imagination of a child in beautiful prose it is as thought I am transformed into an 8-year old boy reading by flashlight in bed late at night, anxious and frightened.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a beautiful, dark fairy tale. Our narrator has recently experienced a loss in the family that has affected him profoundly, such that he is driven to detour back to the home he grew up in. Most of us can appreciate how deep sadness can drive us toward spending some time alone in a nostalgic place, both mentally and physically, as we work through our feelings.
There, we are greeted with the resurfacing of memories from childhood when events most unnatural conspired to do harm against him and his family.
I really don’t want to say much from this book except that it is heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that only someone like Gaiman can manage. This is a book that should be read in just one or two sittings. It is profoundly satisfying for anyone who loves to read books that transform who and where they are. Gaiman achieves this completely.
Joe Hill is a master of his craft. Over Memorial Day weekend there was a great Comixology sale that dramatically reduced the price of getting in on Locke and Key and I jumped right on board.
I have rarely cared so much for a set of characters, regardless of the medium.
Our main characters, the Locke family (three young children and their mother), are faced with tragedy in the very first panels of Welcome to Lovecraft, the opening volume of this six-part series. I think what makes Locke and Key unique is rather than use tragedy simply as the opportunity to produce heroism, our protagonists are faced with real, long lasting, deep, and horrifying consequences.
All the while, we are thrust into the fascinating world of Key House, the Locke family home where our main characters’ father grew up. Key House is home to magical keys each of which can open one locked door. Step through that door, and there are fantastical consequences like dying, becoming a spirit free to float around the house until your spirit returns through the door. One door might bring great strength, another flight.
It is not surprising that the tragedy that drives the Locke family back to Key House is deeply connected to the mysterious home’s history, and the very source of its magic. What is brilliant is how Joe Hill quietly reveals the greater plot through the every day misadventures of children who are dealing with a massive life change. These characters are rich, their world is fully realized, and the story is quite compelling. A must read.
Don’t believe me? The Incomparable strikes again with a great episode on the first volume of Locke and Key.