Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Although I was only able to read the very beginning of Warbreaker, I was very much impressed with both the writing and the story. In the first ten pages of the novel the concept of “Breath,” its implications and benefits, and even what it felt and looked like were all addressed in a way the was both interesting and informative of the plot. Having read a lot of manga, I’m very much used to stories simply being interrupted for a straightforward explanation of certain rules or powers that operate in the world the author is describing. It may be for this reason that Warbreaker impressed be so much; I was not taken out of the story at all, rather I was brought into the story more with the explanations of “Breath” and the various “heightening”. What really drew me in at the end of the prologue was the talking sword, Nightblood. A brief foreshadowing of the dangers of Nightblood was made early on in the prologue, however by no stretch of the imagination was I expecting a talking, killing sword.
I was also very pleased to see that only two main characters were introduced. One issue I often have with sci-fi and fantasy novels is that too many characters and concepts are introduced too quickly and I’m left struggling to keep up with each character and his or her place in the story. In Warbreaker, to start with, we were given one character, Vasher, the good guy. We were left with him until we understood him and his personality and then we were introduced to Vahr, the bad guy. I often find that simple, clear characters make for much more interesting stories and Warbreaker seems to be no exception.
I’ll be very interested to see where this story goes, and even more so to find out why it is completely free and so readily available online. One thing I noticed was that this version of Warbreaker was 6.1, which implies a fairly great deal of updates. It maybe not be on the level of Tolkien’s work but at the very least, Warbreaker seems like a great read.

What the Moon Brings

After reading Lovecraft’s What the Moon Brings I was more confused than anything else. The dreamy abstract way the story is written makes it very hard to distinguish between what is meant to be taken literally and what is meant to be taken figuratively. There is very little initial setup of plot or character; we don’t know who the protagonist is, where he is specifically, or what he is doing there. The only information available are the little tidbits of information described amid Lovecraft’s long, surreal descriptions of mood and scenery.
While this makes reading What the Moon Brings difficult, it also helps heighten the feeling of suspense that the story gives. Because we don’t know exactly what’s going on, we don’t know exactly where the story’s going and so every advancement of the plot comes as a surprise. References are made to a garden, a stream, and later a sea, and a “city of the dead.” It’s not clear if the story’s protagonist really sees these things or if they are all part of some sort of fantastic allegory. It’s not until the very end when the protagonist glimpses the horrible monster rising from the see and throws himself into the city that we can really be sure anything is actually happening.
As a story, I didn’t enjoy What the Moon Brings very much, however, the writing was fun by itself. It would be very difficult and probably incredibly frustrating to read more than a few pages of any story written this way, however it would be interesting to see this surreal style of writing used for poetry or some other more abstract literary art form.
I also enjoyed Lovecraft’s surreal descriptions; even if they weren’t particularly helpful in grounding me within the scene, they were interesting to read, and really set the mood of the story. Hearing these verbally narrated would be an interesting experience simply because the voice of narrator would have such a huge effect on how the descriptions were perceived by the audience. I imagine it would feel similar to listening to a dictation of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe: creepy but satisfying.

Anansi Boys

Having grown up listening to “Anansi the Spider” tails from friends and relatives in Ghana Africa, being introduced to Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys was a nice surprise. “Anansi the Spider” stories, much like Anansi boys, generally follow the same basic premise; something happens to “Anansi the Spider” and he must use his quick-wit and storytelling ability to get himself out of a jam. What makes “Anasi the Spider” stories so fun is that no matter what the circumstances, he always comes out on top. Anansi Boys seemed to follow a similar pattern. Events in the novel start failry normally and then eventually spiral out of control, almost beyond the point of believability. We are left wondering how Charlie will ever get back in control of his life. In the end, however, not only does he get “back in control,” but he “wins.” At the end of Charlie’s journey, he comes out on top rather than just breaking even. I think that’s an important distinction to make between an Anasi style story and a more traditional western story where the main character finds a way to “not fail,” and lives “hapilly ever after,” but doesn’t necessarily “win.”
Knowing that Anansi and his friends will always come out on top can make his stories predictable, but also very entertaining. In the same way we know that Bugs Bunny will always be victorious, we know that Anansi will always defeat his enemies. Because Anansi Boys is a full novel and not just another “Anansi the Spider” story we don’t know for a fact that Charlie will win, but when he does it not only doesn’t feel all that surprising but it feels right.
Another interesting thing that Anansi Boys shares with “Anansi the Spider” storys is the presence of animal gods and animal god magic. Magic as a plot device, is not often seen is western storytelling the way it is used here; rather than having magic exist as an entity that is part of the world the story takes place in, magic is part of a world that is almost outside the story. Magic in Harry Potter, for example, doesn’t move the plot along the same way that it doesn’t in Anansi Boys.

Vampires: I am Legend

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is easily one of the most interesting short stories I have ever read. Both conceptually and character-wise it is original and had the rare effect of really making me think. The story is based around protagonist Robert Neville who is the last remaining human on an earth populated with what appear to be vampires. Robert must survive – find food, keep up his shelter, and fend of creatures of the night – every day, alone. The way this idea is executed is a large part of what makes Matheson’s story so poignant: a massive amount of time is spent simply describing the daily events of Robert Neville’s life and how he feels about them. Because of the attention that is given to Robert Neville’s feelings in particular, the stress that he feels about being alone and in constant danger really comes through.
We believe Robert Neville is really alone because he is not simply brave in the face of danger; he often has to resort to heavy drinking simply to get through the night, and most of “battles” against the infected “vampires” he fights while terrified for his life.
The way the arc of the story is set up is another important part of what makes I am Legend such an interesting read. We spend the bulk of the story simply following Robert keeping himself alive. We are forced to empathize with him and even to root for him as he struggles for survival. Then our entire perception of Robert and his world is completely turned on its head at the very end of the story. It’s revealed that the many of the “vampires,” the monsters Neville has been hunting are working collaboratively to create a new, structured civilization. Suddenly rather than being the last real human fighting for survival, Robert is an unwelcome stranger tearing away at a newly forming society. We’ve spent pages and pages rooting for him, only to find out that not only was he wrong, but so were we. And as he is more or less, politely asked to die, we’re left wondering if maybe somewhere we went wrong as well. It’s hard to argue with a story that makes you think like that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Spiritual Education: Harry Potter Prequel

It's hard to describe the feeling of nostalgia I got after reading J.K. Rowling's "prequel" to the Harry Potter series, but a good place to start might well be spiritual. After having read all of the Harry Potter books the world, in a sense, exists within my head. If asked, I could pick out any character or any place and explain them to a person who was not familiar with the series. What makes the world so appealing is not only its size, but its believability. Each characters personality is developed in its own unique way as the series progresses. Environments change and grow just as they would in real life, and new characters are introduced into the world as old ones leave. Reading a prequel to all this is like being given a back-stage pass to the world of Harry Potter; J.K. Rowling is going into even more detail and adding to her world in a way that makes it even more interesting. Its really hard to ask for more than that.
Two of my favorite characters, Sirius Black and James Potter, are illustrated in a way that they never were in the actual books. Rather then hearing about discussed by another character or having them described from another character’s perspective, the two are shown in their youth, acting as they would have then. For any Harry Potter fan this is an incredible experience; we are forced, after all, to spend seven novels wondering what James, Sirius, and the gang were like when they were younger. Not knowing who they were specifically ads a lot to the novels themselves, and allows us to sympathize with the characters, specifically Harry Potter, a lot more. Still, there is always the nagging sensation that we are missing out on another story that must be incredibly interesting. J.K. Rowling is giving us that story with the Harry Potter Prequel.
If I had a single complaint about the Prequel it would be that the fact that it even exits, ruins a little bit of the magic of Harry Potter’s world. We no longer will wonder what it would have been like to see James or Sirius in their youth, and on that level we will no longer be able to Sympathies with Harry. Still, I think the prequel would be very enjoyable for any devout Harry Potter fan. Its just a shame it was never finished.

Heroic Journey: Troll Bridge

I thoroughly enjoyed Terry Pratchett's Troll. Bridge As soon as I began the story and was introduced to the main character, "Cohen The Barbarian," and his horse, I thought of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; as it turned out, I wasn't too far off. Pratchett's numerous plays on the idea of "slaying the savage beast," and "hero's of old" reminded me a lot of Cervantes' famous novel. What really sold me to Troll Bridge, however was the way the characters developed through their dialogue. By the end of the story, I had a very specific sense of who the characters were: a old-time hero longing wistfully, though not naively for the good old days, and a old-fashioned troll wondering what happened to tradition. This idea of the two seasoned old men wallowing in their own nostalgia is incredibly funny by itself, but when it’s spliced with Trolls and Barbarians it jumps to a whole new level of hilarity.
Troll Bridge makes you think, but then takes the edge off by making you laugh. As the reader, we are invited to root for Cohen to “defeat a troll” and feel that he proved himself to his father. Our desire to see him win is heightened even more by the fact that he is near the end of his life. Then, when we finally meet a troll, the author points to us and says, “just kidding!” We find out the troll is actually just another person with normal thoughts and feelings, worries, joys, and even a wife and children. It’s at this point we realize the troll probably isn’t going to be “defeated” and we’re simply along for the ride while the author plays out his even more. The troll not only isn’t a vicious bloodthirsty monster, but is actually flattered to even be in the presence of Cohen. Rather than wanting to fight, he is eager to be defeated in hopes that it will bring fame to his bridge. We even find out the Troll and his wife have a dynamic set up that is similar to Cohen and his horse: the Troll is stuck in his old ways while his wife is eager to leave them behind and embrace a more practical life. These kinds of character setups nearly always make for very funny stores and Terry Pratchett’s Troll Bridge is no exception.

J-Horror: The Werewolf

I was pleasantly surprised by Angela Carter's The Werewolf; it was much different than I expected, both in story and in writing style. I was expecting a standard wolf-man type story from The Werewolf because of its fairly generic sounding title, but I'd heard the name "Angela Carter" before and was curious to see what made her such an interesting author. What impressed me initially about her short story was the concise but mysterious way in which it was written. Nearly everything in The Werewolf is described in short, rather harsh sentences, each written in the present tense. This gives the whole story a feeling of immediacy that makes every twist feel much more abrupt and heightens the
What I found interesting about The Werewolf's story was the combination of witches and wolf-people. When I first read the line about the wolves, the vampires, and the witch, I assumed they were all separate entities, and when the "good child" was attacked by the wolf I wasn't particularly surprised. But when the grandma turned out to be the wolf and a witch, I was a little stunned, which I always a nice feeling when reading horror.
If I had a single complaint about the Werewolf it would be that it is very short. We are given a rather abstract plot, an unexpected twist is set up, and this twist is executed nicely in the ending. But afterwards we are left with very little. I would be eager to know, for example, the story of what happened to the little girl after her grandma was driven away, and even more excited if I was given a little more detail about how she felt about the whole affair. The plot seems like it’s more of an engine to move the story into its suspenseful parts then a catalyst for character development. This probably has a lot to do with the kind of story Carter was writing: it was a short story and needed to be pithy and clear. It still would have been nice, however, to get more of the girl, and of her world before the story ended.