I am currently halfway through Stephen King’s The Waste Lands after mainlining The Gunslinger and Drawing of the Three during my free time earlier this week. I’m holding off on any big reviews until I’ve finished the series and can see it as a whole, because I know that the latter entries become extremely metafictional and take on something of a different tone post-accident. I will say, however, that the first three books serve as a testament to what kind of storytelling you can get away with if you write it with confidence in the characters. A recovering heroin junkie, double amputee with merged multiple personalities and a descendant of King Arthur wielding a pair of revolvers made from the melted down Excalibur had a shoot-out with a seventy foot tall cyborg bear in the post apocalyptic forests between a shore full of man-eating lobsters and a ruined city where men once tried to meld technology with magic, and I didn’t question a second of it. A big part of that is that the characters don’t question it and it’s written completely straight. I appreciate that King has deftly sidestepped my biggest problem with portal fantasy, which is that when a character encounters the other side they spend half the damn book questioning if they’re really experiencing it or trying to rationalize things. Here the characters just go with it and that lends a real weight and gravitas to even the more bizarre parts of the story.
The books so far have been like pouring high octane fuel into my creative centers. It’s unlike anything I have any desire to write myself, but it’s got a lot of elements that I enjoy and that I can pick apart and examine while I’m reading to see how adopting similar creative ideology could help with my own work. I’m also incredibly pumped for the film and have been having a laugh at how many people grumble about how Roland’s whiteness is an integral part of his character, or key to the Detta/Odetta interactions. I have absolutely been picturing him as Idris Elba without any hitches, mentally substituting in Elba’s face over remarks about how pale the gunslinger looks when sick. A little tweaking on the Detta scenes and you have something just as compelling where she confronts a black man who sides with a white man against her and she comes to hate and fear him even more than the white kid, her monologue is less about calling him a white cowboy motherfucker and more about calling him an Uncle Tom, boom. Problem solved.
Anyway, I wanted to continue making book recommendations. I realized shortly after posting the last one that I had really defaulted to male authors, and that’s a symptom of one of the truths of the publishing industry that women typically don’t get as much advertising and it’s harder to get the spotlight on their books (there are exceptions of course, particularly within YA fiction). All the books I listed are very good and I’d still recommend people read them, but to balance things out and swing the oar to the other side of the boat, here’s several woman-penned works I read over the last year or so:
First and most recent is Deathless. I’ve been a fan of Valente for some time now. The Grass-Cutting Sword and Palimpsest are two modern classics and Deathless applies the same narrative grace to one of my favorite pieces of folklore, Koschei the Deathless. It’s brilliant retelling of the story set during and immediately after the Russian Revolution and examining how the politics of the era rippled outward to hit the supernatural world and the creatures shaped by the thoughts of men. House spirits forming communities as their families are shoved into one structure, gun sprites, the minions of the tsars of life and death modeling themselves on the contemporary military and the horrors of early 20th century warfare rather than the romanticized soldiers of ages past. Being a book about Russia during one of its darkest ages, it’s pretty damn bleak and I wouldn’t recommend reading it if you struggle with depression or are already in a glum mood at all, but it’s a truly remarkable and unique book that goes on sale for kindle pretty damn often.
Next, Updraft, a very weird novel. It’s either on another world, or on ours after something terrible happened. To go below the clouds is to flirt with death, and humanity ekes out a living on enormous living bone spires that jut out of the earth far below. The air is haunted by invisible creatures with maws big enough to eat a human being whole, and traders and guardians both patrol the bone cities on winged contraptions. The laws are incredibly strict, and those who break the laws have heavy bone talismans bound to their bodies. Accrue too many of these talismans and not only can you no longer fly, but you are marked as a potential sacrifice next time the spires begin to quake and the cities are threatened; something on the ground below can only be quieted by regular human sacrifice. Throw in a ton of political intrigue between different spires and the reigning religious power, a couple of people trying to discover the secrets of the spires and the ground, a massive conspiracy stretching back generations, and fast-paced prose. It’s a real page turner and something I finished in one sitting. There’s a sequel due out soon too that I hope will continue to explore the incredibly bizarre world Wilde has put together.
On the more overtly political side of things is The Mirror Empire. It is the first part of an ongoing series and I’m struggling with how to talk it up without spoiling events from later on, but the gist of it is a disaster befalling one world and driving the inhabitants to flee to a parallel version of their home through a dimensional rift. The only problem is that to move across the rift, your twin on the other side has to be dead. To escape one doomed world the people there have to exterminate their own shadow-selves, people who can be just like them or incredibly different. That’s barely scratching the surface of the plot. The plot itself serves as a vehicle for some great concepts and characters, though. Hurley is the author of one of my favorite essays of all time, We Have Always Fought, addressing the ways that writers contribute to the oppression of women and the erasure of women from history through use of language, often without even realizing it. It was an article that got me to re-examine my own writing under a microscope and start making a more conscious effort to avoid the pit traps she mentions. I think my writing has gotten a hell of a lot better since doing so, and it was one of the key things that made me stop defaulting to males for certain roles, something I hadn’t even noticed myself doing. The Mirror Empire deals with believable matriarchies in a grimdark fantasy setting, something you don’t see very often – it’s not like the drow novels of D&D where the women are comically evil and basically just magical spider dominatrixes, instead it deals with cultures where men are subject to certain, subtle discrimination and objectification and how they deal with that. It also features genderfluid characters who literally transition back and forth between male and female characteristics, nonbinaries and a lot of other representation that somehow doesn’t show up in a genre where you theoretically could just use magic to morph back and forth at will.
Next, the Dreamblood Duology by NK Jemisin. She’s much better known for her Inheritance novels, which I took as a well-deserved barbed spear into the heart of stereotypical epic/heroic fantasy and loved on their own, but I think I like The Killing Moon even more because it stands on its own as an epic fantasy piece. It’s drenched in not just magic, but some of the most wildly creative magic I’ve read before. The language, naming conventions and descriptions are tuned so well that it feels like a historical fiction novel about a place that actually existed somewhere near but not exactly in Egypt. I’m a sucker for ancient Egypt, like many fantasy nerds before me. I’m also a sucker for dream magic, which is the result of having grown up reading a ton of Neil Gaiman’s work. This book perfectly blends the two and creates a cast of characters where there are actual shades of grey in the morality without it being crushingly depressing or bleak, and where it’s more about point of view and philosophy than some books that just try to create those grey points by having an objectively bad person do something or vice versa in a lazy attempt to make you question yourself. I do find it really funny that one of the most consistent critiques of Jemisin’s collected work is that it tends to have overt sexual elements. She… deals with works directly inspired by our ancient mythologies. Our ancient mythologies are all about fuckin’. You could summarize most of the original Greek myths upon which we have based countless fantasy tales as “unfortunately for everyone, Zeus got horny.”
Hey, backtracking briefly and speaking of crushingly depressing and bleak, here’s my token dude author Scott Hawkins with The Library at Mount Char, a modern fantasy piece I would put right between American Gods and Dreams Underfoot on my bookshelf. God, or someone very much like God is dead and his adopted demigod children have gathered together at his old library. They will have to work together to get inside and seize the powers he left behind when he (passed away? took his own life? was murdered?) but the unspoken promise between them is that by the end, only one of them will be left alive to become the new God. This a distinctly old testament take on deityhood too. It’s not pretty and the story is not for everyone. Children are burned alive in offering, there’s sexual assault, there’s a woman who learned to travel back and forth between the afterlife by being brutally murdered and brought back over and over until she could step between worlds herself. It’s an examination of how godhood, if it existed and could be attained by mortals, would change those mortals on such a fundamental level that they’d no longer be recognizable as human and would no longer adhere to morality as we know it, instead their own rules and laws that are known only to them and the things on the outside of reality looking for a way in. It’s the kind of book that probably needs a giant trigger warning slapped on the first page, but it was still amazingly written and obviously didn’t condone any of the stuff that happened inside, unlike a lot of stories that seem to revel in how dark they can become.