Friday, September 18, 2015

Top 10 Fantasy Books

Once again, it's time to see what my Top 10 favorites in a category are. This time it's (big surprise) fantasy novels!

As usual, these are in no particular order and may be subject to change at any given moment. (Favorites are rarely forever, and change as we do.)

The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis

I'm going to do my best to limit myself to one book per series. The Horse and His Boy has been my favorite book in the Narnia series since I first read them in middle school. For some reason, I have always felt drawn to Shasta's story, his journey and adventures, and especially his encounter with Aslan. I think that Aslan's words in this book, more than any other, have been the ones that resonate with my soul. While my favorite Narnia books may change order from time to time, this one always rises to the top.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

I'd put all of Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium on here, but as I said I'm trying to stick to one book per series. Also, I have read this one more than either The Hobbit or The Silmarillion (probably more than both combined). There's a little bit of everything to love in Tolkien. While I haven't quite reached the point of rereading it every year, every few years I get the urge to make the journey to Mount Doom once again, and the road goes ever on. With my reread of The Silmarillion fresh on my mind, now is probably a good time to start. There are a lot of references and bare implications in LotR that make more sense in light of the Sil. All the references to Beren and Luthien, Elbereth, and even the histories of Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman become much clearer in the wake of this big book of backstory. I'm always eager to visit these old friends and see what about me has changed since I last walked the lonely roads and thoroughfares of the Shire, Gondor, and beyond.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

The second book in Turner's The Queen's Thief series (or the Attolia series), this marks the beginning of Eugenides' true growth as a character for me. He moves from being simply a smart aleck to someone with a great deal of heart and hurt, and watching him become the person he needs to be in order to save his home is beyond beautiful.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

There's something special about a book that follows a bunch of rabbits in modern England and simultaneously makes them relatable but refrains from making them stand-ins for humanity. Dandelion's stories from the rabbits' mythology and folklore mesmerize me, and I loved watching Hazel grow into a leader as the book progressed.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Let's face it. I can't not include this book because it is one of the best books about magic and society that exists. Now that I've seen the BBC adaptation (it was almost perfect in every way), I have to reiterate that this book is fantastic in the sense of content and quality. While it moves slowly through the plot, it's no worse than Dickens and often a bit funnier. Its story is one which invites you to meditate on the subtext and look at what the characters don't say as much as what they do. It is resplendent with symbolism and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy or historical drama.

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

This version (the original, almost stand-alone version, as contrasted with the shorter, altered version included in The Once and Future King) is what Disney based their loosely adapted film upon and what sparked my interest in King Arthur and the stories around him.

Really, my fascination has almost always been with Merlin, the wizard who tutors Arthur and guides him toward his destiny as king; but Arthur is just as often a background figure in Arthurian stories as he is a main character, so I don't feel bad about that.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

This isn't a lot of people's favorite in the series. Most days, it isn't mine either, but I'm including it here because it does such a fine job of bringing the story full circle and tying up (sometimes satisfactorily, sometimes not) the many plot threads Rowling had woven throughout the previous six books. It has some of my favorite scenes and lines in the entire series, including the quote that serves as this blog's theme.

The Bartimaeus trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate) by Jonathan Stroud

I know, I said I was only picking one book per series. Unfortunately, I can't pick just one of these three. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but as a whole it's one of the best fantasy stories I have ever read. The character arcs of the three main characters (Bartimaeus, Nathaniel, and Kitty) are simply astounding. Stroud begins with the simple premise that the ruling class of magicians from the old stories is not so much a stratum of benevolent guardians as it is a corrupt coalition of power-hungry individuals, and the story follows that premise as a young boy (Nathaniel) is swept up into this glamorous world of power and intrigue. The witty, sarcastic, and sometimes heartfelt narration from Bartimaeus makes this world come alive.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

The first in Nix's Old Kingdom series, this book follows the story of a girl named Sabriel as she tries to fulfill her father's role as the Abhorsen, a necromancer of a different sort. Instead of summoning and enslaving the dead, Sabriel, her father, and their ancestors use magic bells to keep the dead in the grave. The concept alone drew me into the book, but Nix's keen writing made me stay. His characters are real, complicated people who sometimes want nothing more than survival, but who feel the call to do more with their lives. While his recent prequel, Clariel, didn't quite live up to my expectations, everything else that I've read in this series* has delighted me.

*Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, "The Creature in the Case" (in Across the Wall)

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

If there's anything a book-lover loves more than books, it's a book about books. While the idea of being transported into a book isn't the newest idea (The Neverending Story did that in the '60s), Inkheart has a personal power to it. The fact that Meggie and her father are at risk because of Mo's affinity for books makes the tragedies they fight through that much more meaningful.

This series also includes one of my favorite characters ever, Dustfinger, whose journey toward redemption is one of the most satisfying things in literature.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I won't let myself include honorable mentions because the post would go on for pages.

Let me know in the comments if I missed any of your favorites.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Subversion in Fiction

Currently Reading: Ladyhawke by Joan D. Vinge
                              The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (reread)
                              Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Currently Writing: Merlin Book 2
                             Wizard of Oz retelling (outlining and prewriting)

When I was in grad school, one of the major topics we discussed in any given writing class was the idea of transgression or subversion -- working against or around the status quo. The discussion always made authors who transgressed against the commonly held ideas of society seem like the cool, rebellious kids at school that everyone wants to be acknowledged by.

Except I never did.

Maybe I'm the odd man out on this one, but I never saw the appeal in what appeared to me to be stirring up controversy for the sake of controversy (or sales, in  some cases). It's just not how I think or operate. Oftentimes "transgressive" literature wasn't written for that reason, but because there was something in society which the author believed needed to change. Unfortunately, a lot of the discussions never focused on that, choosing instead to celebrate transgression and subversion for their own sakes.

However, I'm coming to the realization that subversion isn't always about throwing liberal sexuality or Communism or any other idea you want into a story because it rubs against the grain of society. Sometimes it's simply writing something unexpected to keep the story real, true, and fresh. This is especially true in genre fiction, where each genre has its own tropes and stereotypes that are at once expected and apprehended (in the sense of anxiety rather than capture). An author might choose to take one of those standards (like the Chosen One) and give it a little twist. He or she might make the story do something unexpected.

G.R.R. Martin does this in A Game of Thrones by killing the ostensible main character. Brandon Sanderson does it in his Mistborn series by turning any number of fantasy tropes on their heads, from the evil overlord to the chosen one.

For a Christian writer, perhaps the transgression appears in the form of a character who keeps to their moral convictions in a world surrounding them with other options. Perhaps the subversion of their genre tropes comes in the form of a conversion scene, but maybe it comes by not having a conversion scene where one is expected.

For NaNoWriMo this year, I'm planning to write a retelling of The Wizard of Oz. One of the themes in the original is the self-sufficiency of the main characters, the fact that each already has what they were looking for. That's something I can subvert. The Wizard, who in the early chapters is spoken of as a stand-in for God, is revealed to be a charlatan, a poor sort of god if such a thing exists in the world of Oz. This, too, presents itself as a target for subversion.

Because, as scary as this is, the idea of Frank Morgan being a god in any sense is scarier.