Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Lately fantasy series have gotten a bit of a bad reputation.  Too many writers drag them out, volume after volume with no resolution in sight, until the audience gives up.  Maybe that's why trilogies are so popular.  With a trilogy, you at least know an ending is going to happen. 

Me, I've always felt the strongest series form is five books.  There's plenty of room to deepen characters and explore themes, but the ending still happens before the audience has time to get board and leave.  Best of all, there's less chance of falling into `middle book' syndrome, where the middle book feels as if it only exists to hold the beginning and ending apart.

The strength of the series is its interconnected nature.  In the Prydain Chronicles, some of the individual books are a little weak.  In book one, for example, the hero is knocked out for the climax.  Later, as the books build on each other, you realize that this ending is actually good in the thematic sense.  Taran has to be humbled before he can become a hero.  If he'd been part of that early battle his pride would have been harder to overcome.  The theme of heroism through humility is examined over and over in ways that would never be possible if Lloyd Alexander had only written a single volume.

A series also allows for amazing plot twists because the author can lay the groundwork for them through several volumes.  Emily Rodda's Deltora Quest books are a lovely example of this.  She slowly introduces allies and possible enemies over several volumes.  Actions constantly need reinterpreted from book to book.  Her main characters go from almost strangers to a close-knit team in a very believable fashion because you can see the gradual change as it happens.  This is another case where one book just wouldn't have the depth that a series is able to display.

A series is a tricky thing.  The length means there's more room for mistakes, but with careful handling, the series gives a sense of depth that no single volume will ever be able to match.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mid-grade Allegory

The other day while I was checking my e-mail a thing popped up saying that several people, whose names I didn't recognize, wanted to connect to my yahoo account so we could chat.  I took the `no' option but it occurred to me that those people might have found me through this blog.  If someone wants to contact me please either leave a message in the blog comments, or mention blogger in the tag-line of any e-mails you send.  I'm too paranoid about computer viruses to answer if I don't know where you're coming from.

And now on to a real topic.

I've had my eye on Lian Tanner's Museum of Thieves for some time now, so when I saw a copy at my local Border's going out of busyness sale I snatched it up.  The book is wonderfully inventive.  The author take an abstract idea -that modern parents are overprotective- and makes it concrete.  In the city of Jewel, children are chained by the wrist to their parents or guardian until they come of age. 

The book reminded me of Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember.  Both take an abstract idea and turn it into something that can be seen and touched.  In other words- allegory.  I started a mental list of mid-grade allegories that I've read over the years.  There's Norton Juster's Phantom Tollbooth, Carol Kendall's Gammage Cup, David Ive's Monsieur Eek.  It's almost enough, I think, to count as its own sub-genre.

There's always a danger of making allegories so obvious that they become anvilicious (to use a TV. Tropes term) but when done right, a touch of allegory can make some really innovative fantasy.  

Because the author is trying to turn the abstract concrete, he or she can use surreal situations and have them fit the context of the story.  (Remember the spooky faceless man in Phantom Tollbooth?  Or the staircase to infinity?)  Everything in an allegory is literal.  Juster's watchdog is a dog with a watch in his back.  Tanner's children are literally chained to their parents.  DuPrau's city is very much in the dark. 

Another power of allegory is that the author builds their story around a theme.  He or she can explore an idea from every possible angle and in that way bring new perspective to the reader's attention.  For example, in Museum of Thieves, everyone is overprotective because if their child gets hurt they get thrown in jail for being bad parents.  The adult in Jewel have also grown up chained to a parent or guardian so they are overly willing to look to authority for protection and easily give way to fear.  

Different angles.

I've been enjoying the (slight, nearly unnoticed) rise of allegories in mid-grade fiction.  They're so different from everything else, and that I find incredibly refreshing.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Good and Evil

I don't read much urban fantasy but I am rather fond of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, an adult fantasy/mystery series about a wizard gumshoe who is periodically called on to save Chicago and sometimes the world from the forces of evil.   Not long ago I checked out his website and was reading through his older blogs when I came across one where he'd posted some of the critical reviews he'd gotten over the years.  One of the reviewers said something that really caught my attention.  He said "why not actually make the demons good and the angels evil" as a way of adding interest. 

There is a trend in literature lately to do just that.  I think there are several reasons: 1) writers want a plot twist that will surprise their readers, and 2) it's considered avante-garde. 

The problem here is that good and evil aren't just words, they're actions.  If you write a story about an evil angel, it isn't an angel anymore.  The creature is, in fact, a demon in disguise.  It's the same as if you write a story about a policeman who works for the mob.  He may have the uniform, but he's not representing the law. 

I like stories where the author messes with appearances; kind goblins, or evil princesses.  I think they're an important reminder not to judge things by their surface.  But I think it's also important not to say that good is evil, and evil is good.  

Disclaimer: I should add here that while I enjoy reading fantasy, I would never want to endorse anyone playing with magic in real life! I believe in literal angels and demons, and if a person plays with magic they risk getting the attention of demons, who like to disguise themselves as a) harmless spirits or b) angels. Please stay safe, people!


Monday, September 5, 2011

A head's up

As you may have noticed, my posting has become irregular.  A little thing called life keeps getting in the way of the whole `regularly scheduled'.  So... while I'll continue to try and post once a week, I no longer have a set day, at least not until things become a little less hectic (Whenever that happens.)  Sorry for the inconvenience.