MIND MELD: The Last Book That Blew Your Mind
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Every once in awhile there will be a novel or story that makes us want to rush out and tell everyone we meet “You’ve got to read this!”
Here’s what they said…
Two of them, really. The first, which I read a few weeks ago and wrote a LOOONG blog post about back then, is Jo Walton’s Among Others – for some reason it seems to speak to a lot of people about different things but it speaks to a lot of people, period, no matter what their actual backgrounds, and that is in itself remarkable. As far as I am concerned, aside from the fact that my mother was not a witch and my father was not an independentlly wealthy weakling with his own SF library, I AM Walton’s heroine, right down to being exactly the same age as described and to going to English boarding school in the same year of our lives… and sharing the same inner worlds, and even
certain opinions, to the point that this book is uncanny country for me. But it is a little bit of all things to all people. I’ve pressed it into the hands of many people, especially teens.
The second, a copy of which I got only yesterday and am halfway through already, is Catherynne Valente’s Deathless. I love this book with a great love. Valente is a fabulous storyteller, that much is a given, but the themes and the subject of this one are close to me – Russian fairy tale motifs, stuff I grew up on when I was a little girl. The difference here is that although I knew the stories of Koschei the Deathless a long, long time ago this is possibly the first time I’ve seen them braided into the contemporary Soviet “mythology”and I LOVE what the author has done with this story. She had me from practically the first sentence, but she OWNED me when she wrote about the Soviet
of the Domovoi.
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.
I struggle to articulate how awesome this novel is. In fact I feel like Ian McDonald has been writing his last three novels (River Of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House) specifically for me. It’s like he’s read my mind and filled the novel with everything I think is cool, in a style that I think is cool.
The Dervish House is near future Science Fiction and a wonderful combination of cool SF tech, a foreign, futuristic but believable setting, fantastic characters, the most perfectly placed weave of plots I’ve read for a very long time, and great language and writing style. Oh yeah, and nanobots! It’s set in Istanbul (Turkey), 16 years in the future and deals with a country on the edge of Europe, trying to be a part of the western world and yet striving to keep its Asian identity. The characters embody the complexity and diversity of Turkey, a super-power in ascendence.
It was one of those books I couldn’t put down, but then didn’t want to end. Ever since I’ve read it I’ve had the urge to read it again (but my to read pile nags at me not to do it) and I’ve been telling everyone to read it. Even non-SF fans. I think fans of thrillers will enjoy it and the writing may even pull in some literary types.
I really hope The Dervish House wins the Arthur C. Clarke Award because it deserves it.
Modern Science Fiction brilliance and destined to become a classic.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
I’d heard a lot about this YA series, but when I finally got to it, I was wildly impressed. Normally I don’t care for dystopian novels, but not only was this a rich and detailed setting, it was a realistic one. The protagonists were beautifully created, and the plot was complex with a lot of twists.
I will start by writing that reading is a real passion for me. I started reading books as soon as I was able to read and I would be happy to read anything I could get my hands on. I also had wonderful parents who never discouraged me by saying something like: “this book is not for a child- don’t read it.” Please do not misunderstand me; I was not reading improper things like erotic stuff. But I fell in love with Shakespeare’s work at the age of 8 and this is the kind of thing my parents could have discouraged me to read…
Being a passionate reader, I learned one thing: never mind how much you love a book, you can never impose to someone to read it. You can suggest the book. You can recommend it the way you recommend someone you really appreciate to a friend of yours. But the fact that you love a book, even if the book is written by the greatest writers does not mean that everybody is going to love it. I adore classic music. Unfortunately, for some reason, I have no affinity for J.S. Bach. Mind you, I will NEVER say that Bach was not a genius. But when it comes to taste, I think that everybody have their own tastes, especially in any field of art. This is maybe one of the most fascinating things in art. This is what makes the beauty of art. It is a free world. Not a dictatorship where everybody has to worship the same artwork just because they have been created by an ingenious
Now, I will try to mention a few books and some writers whom I really love, the ones who inspired me the most, the ones who impressed me. If the people who will read this are interested in exploring one or two of the things I mention, I will be happy to have initiated them in something which-I hope- they will love and enjoy as much as I do.
The things that I always loved reading above everything else were mythology and fairy tales. I started reading Greek mythology (because I am Greek so this was the most accessible thing to me) but later I discovered mythologies of every part of the world and I loved all of them. Each of them was a new, wonderful and magic world to explore. The same is true for fairy tales. But there, I have a preference: Hans Christian Andersen. I believe that Andersen’s fairy tales are one of the main reasons why I wanted to write. They are a major influence for me and never mind at what moment of my life I read them, I always enjoyed them and I was always inspired by them. The other fairy tales that really
fascinated me were the Arabian Nights. I read the integral version, which is about 2000 pages in small characters. I loved the stories so much that after I have finished them, it took me months before I was able to read and enjoy anything else. I am actually working on a project where a story based on various elements of Arabian Nights will be transposed into a manga style graphic novel. I am delighted (and I feel very lucky) to collaborate on this project with Sonia Leong, one of the most talented artists and one of the most fascinating people I know.
The other major influence for me, the writer who I admire, the one who influenced me the most are Oscar Wilde. I love everything by him. Not surprisingly, I have a slight preference for his fairy tales, but everything he wrote is a priceless treasure for me. Of course, I love Shakespeare. I think that the work that had the most impact on me was Midsummer Night’s Dream. I believe that, consciously or not, there are elements of this play in many of the things I write. I lost the count of the number of times I have read the book and I have been watching and reading it in almost every form of art it has been transposed into-from musical to theater to ballet and of course I have read many books -novels or graphic novels- inspired by this work. My preferred ones were Neil Gaiman’s story in Dream Country (in the Sandman series) and Mike Carey’s God Save the Queen, also a graphic novel.
Apart from those major influences, there are, of course many writers who have seduced me, writers whose works I love and admire. I will only quote a few of them…
I love classic literature. I love Victor Hugo- especially Notre Dame de Paris. Because the book made me cry A LOT. And also because it made me feel very strong emotions, something like flying on the back of a gargoyle above the “Cour de Miracles”, the place where dwelled the swindlers of Paris. I am a fervent admirer of Dostoievsky. When I read Crime and Punishment it made such a strong impression on me that for a few days I would do strange, upsetting dreams that included scenes of the book. I also love one of his less well known stories: The “White Nights”. And I was absolutely thrilled by The Brothers Karamazov, a book that I read when I was 14 and which I will read again when I feel ready to take all the emotion it incited in me.
I love Paradise Lost by Milton. Especially his Lucifer… an extremely inspiring character. Nothing to do with the inelegant, silly, evil demons you see in movies…
Mark Twain is one of my favorite writers. I have been reading Tom Sawyer recently and I enjoyed it as much as the first time I read it when I was a kid. I don’t think that I have ever read anything by Mark Twain that I did not like.
I admire Hemingway’s work but The Old Man and the Sea is a very important book to me. When we learned that my mother was very sick and she was going to die, I was very young. I was completely desperate, I felt lost. Then I read this book by Hemingway…Well, if the book did not solve my problems, it made me feel better. For some reason, it gave me a strength to face the sad situation I and my family were in and -I don’t really know why- it made me feel better. I believe that a book that makes a young teenager in distress feel that way is worth reading. Not (only) because Hemingway is a genius and everybody praises the book. Rather because there is a strange force in it… some kind of magic!
One (not well known) but very special book to me was Atlantide by Pierre Benoit. It’s special because when I read it (I was a child and this is definitely not a book for a child) it made such a strong impression on me that when a few days later the teacher asked us to write an essay where we were supposed to say what we were going to do later I wrote: “I want to be a writer like Pierre Benoit who wrote Atlantide.” It was a terrible essay, but it was the first time I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I was also lucky that my teacher did not know the book. I don’t know what she would have thought had she known that an 8 year old was impressed by a story about a queen who would make passionately love with a man for one night and then kill him the next morning…
I mostly read fiction. When I read non fiction books, they are not too serious. They are best seller books about the problems of rich families or crime books. Oh, I love Agatha Cristie. I don’t have any favorite book. I also love James Chase; Eve and An Ace Up My Sleeve are my favorite books by him.
But among the non fiction books, I have to mention Erich Maria Remarque. My favorite book by him is not the famous All Quiet in the Western Front. It is another book – my apologies I am not sure about the English title as I read the book translated in Greek- I believe it must be So Ends the Night. It’s a love story between a German man and a Jewish girl during the period of WWII. It is an amazing book -it shows how fascism can affect not only freedom but also the most beautiful and important things like love. I also loved Heaven Has No Favorites by the same writer. I am absolutely fascinated by Arthur Koestler; I think he is a genuine brilliant mind. I love Darkness at Noon and Spartacus but I would not suggest Koestler’s books to read for fun. They are very deep and really, really wonderful, but you have to be in the mood for this kind of book.
One of the modern writers I like most is Norwegian philosopher and novelist Jostein Gaarder. His Sophia’s World is to philosophy what Stephen Hawking’s books are to physics: both have a gift to make a very difficult field accessible to the non initiate. I loved The Solitaire’s Mystery (also by Gaarder) as much as Sophia’s World.
I am afraid that I will not be very original in my SF choices. Even though I read quite a lot of SF, Asimov’s Robots has been my favorite book for quite a while. Oh, I love Bruce Sterling, Larry Niven,… The book that really got into me is Ian Watson’s Slow Birds. It is a short story collection. It’s not hard SF. It is really beautifully written (I think that Ian Watson’s style could be compared to Oscar Wilde’s and this is a high standard for me!) and the stories are so different from each other, so beautiful, poetic, even moving. I am not sure that this book could actually be classified in SF. But this is one of my favorite books, never mind the classification.
Curiously, even though I love fiction so much, it took me quite long before I started reading contemporary fiction. I preferred classic books, fairy tales or mythology. When I first read modern fantasy, I was disappointed: almost everything was sword and sorcery. My sincere apologies to the ones who love the genre. I wrote above that when it comes to taste in art, there is not much to say… I know that there was good fantasy: I loved Franz Leber, Roger Zelazny. There is a book that Zelazny wrote in collaboration with Robert Sheckley (ooops-one of my favorite SF writers!!!). It’s called Bring me the Head of Prince Charming. It is a brilliant book. The problem is that I discovered those books LATER. The first thing I found (and it was not difficult to miss, it was omnipresent in the bookshops) was sword and sorcery. And then there was a well written fantasy, the one promoted in those books which are considered as masterpieces by the great names in fantasy field nowadays. Literary fantasy. Where there HAD to be a contact with reality. Where you had to pass clever messages to people. Where you had to justify and limit everything fictitious as though it was a poisonous snake or a scorpion and it was going to bite you. I think I have repeated enough how much I love fairy tales. For me, a fantasy book has to incite a sense of wonder, to make you dream, to take you to Dreamland. It has to make you feel like a child. This is MY idea of fantasy…please remember that I
don’t like Bach, right?
The problem was not only that I did not find fantasy books that satisfied me. I had started to write and I could find nowhere the kind of thing that would inspire me, encourage me to write. I was like Snow White lost in the forest…
Then one day, I went to a book exhibition. And there I saw a book called Dream Hunters -a book written by someone called Neil Gaiman. As soon as I opened the book, I knew that THIS was the kind of fantasy I was craving for. After this first book, I read the whole collection of the Sandman and then Neverwhere and every book by Neil Gaiman. Neverwhere is the kind of fantasy I love, the one that inspires me, the one that helps me escape from reality and then come back and be able to deal better with it. Many sincere thanks to Neil Gaiman. He saved me from a fantasy-deprivation induced depression which would have lead me to crawl to old dusty places and read fairy tales in the company of spiders and rats.
As though by magic, when I found the kind of fantasy I liked, other books followed: I discovered Tim Powers. I love everything I have read by him The Anubis Gates, The Drawing of the Dark, Last Call, The Stress of Her Regard…
I also discovered a whole new world where the kind of fantasy I loved was like a rule, even though the field did not have many rules: Comics. Not highly regarded by some of the literary world of fantasy, worshipped by teenagers, more and more appreciated by all kinds of people regardless of age or gender, comics are nevertheless a wonderful field to explore. For those who want to read fiction to have fun and dream and escape from reality in a healthy way. A heaven for the free-minded writers gifted with a rich imagination, but who don’t want to obey the rigid rules of intellectual fantasy, the ones who don’t mind about the genre dictatorship. A funny thing… comic writers might have something in common with Milton’s Lucifer: they prefer to let their imagination free, even this is done ina field that is not highly regarded by the “serious” literary circles. The rebelliousones. Those who believe it’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”.
Curiously, even though the priority of comic writers is just telling a good story, sometimes, a genuine philosophy can come out of their work. Mike Carey’s Lucifer is way closer to Milton’s philosophy than some fantasy novels in which the effort to approach Milton is praiseworthy but it misses its point. At this point, I will make an exception and warmly recommend another comic series by Mike Carey: The Unwritten. This is a wonderful story about the influence fiction can have on our lives. The plot is amazing, literature -especially fantasy- is the protagonist (even though the main character is called Tommy Taylor) and you can get whatever you feel like out of this work: You can just read a nice, extremely well-written story; you can travel between real and fantasy worlds together with the main characters. But you can think more and you can get as many clever and nuanced points of view about various issues (especially the impact of fantasy on real life) as in some of the best classic books. Mike Carey is not only a genuinely talented writer; he is also a brilliant mind.
A few more comics for those interested in the field: Fables and Proposition Player by Billy Willingham.
I wish I could write more but I think I’d rather stop here.
On the surface this is a fairly simple story of the “folk tale” variety, with magic and non-human “spirit” beings (to use an English shorthand for the more complex reality in the novel). However, Lord writes it within a second narrative layer which adds immense richness to the narration. The story is about a woman and fabulous cook named Paama who leaves her gluttonous husband to return to her parents’ village, how she comes into possession of a powerful magical tool, and what happens when the “spirit” who used to possess the Chaos Stick decides he wants it back. Meanwhile, however, the tale is narrated by a griotte, a professional storyteller who happens to be female and whose sensibilities, wisdom, and outlook inform every part of the story she tells. The narrator not only tells the story, she comments on it as well, and the entire effect is not only a joy to read but also a seemingly light but very trenchant commentary on narrative, culture, gender, cosmology, and life itself. It’s exceptionally well done.
The last “science fiction novel” that blew me a way wasn’t even science fiction: Don DeLillo’s 2010 novella Point Omega. On its face, a extended conversation about the Global War on Terror between a former war advisor and a documentary filmmaker holed up in a desert cabin, bookended by cryptic scenes in a New York gallery watching Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down into a conceptual art piece that plays over 24 hours. Point Omega blew me away as a potent and distilled example of the use of a science fictional sensibility to spelunk and illuminate the deeper territories of the now: a short novel structured as a Stapledonian haiku. Pamela Zoline meets John Le Carré? While very much grounded in the historical moment, Point Omega achieves a kind of atemporality that is uniquely science fictional, considering geopolitics and 21st century personality as subspecies of quantum physics. DeLillo depicts our existential dystopia with the barest materials, through a close examination of contemporary Americans channeling big entropy–and the role of their own will to power in accelerating it through the world. Every man a hermit, detonating nukes in the desert.
Sometimes I read genre because I find comfort and pleasure in the old tropes. Sometimes I read genre because I’m hoping that there’s something new to be found, that I’ll be surprised. When I’m really lucky, I find a book that contains both delightful familiarity and a departure from the same-old, same-old. I used up an entire Sunday that I couldn’t afford to spend reading Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path: Book 1 of The Dagger and the Coin, which charts the beginnings of a civil war in the kingdom of Antea, a war which in future volumes could potentially involve several neighboring nations…unless it’s interrupted by the apocalypse.
I love political intrigue fantasy; the icing on the cake is that this is also financial intrigue fantasy. A major plotline concerns Cithrin, a teenage ward of an international bank, who’s tasked with smuggling a local branch’s wealth out of the city of Vanai before it’s besieged. When poor weather blocks her from her destination, stranding her in Porte Oliva, and the secret of her wealth gets out, she keeps the money safe by starting her own branch of the bank.
The book also includes fully rounded characters who grow over the course of the story (not always for the better); of particular note is Geder, initially a wimpy scholar placed in a deliberately untenable position, and whose apparently innocent intellectual pursuits and gradual increase in political skill have deadly consequences. Plus, there’s great world-building and mythology, including a really creepy goddess whose devotees carry spiders in their blood that grant the ability to sift truth from falsehood as well as the power of persuasion.
Daniel Abraham is one of those fantasy writers who seems to have slipped under the radar of most readers; now’s your chance to seek him out. It’s also worth visiting his previous series, The Long Price Quartet.
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