The first entry in The Book of Dust returns to one of the most solidly realized worlds in fiction
La Belle Sauvage is a wonderful, waterlogged fever dream built on the bones of a palpable reality. Readers who were transported by the original His Dark Materials trilogy should read it, without a doubt.
Pullman’s most impressive talent is how painstakingly he can build a place without letting boredom seep into the details. The first half of the book is an introduction to the world of Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent if unassuming 11-year-old, an innkeeper’s son who does odd jobs for the nuns across the river just outside Oxford. Pullman describes anbaric cars, naphtha lamps, and Protestant nunneries who serve Geneva instead of Rome, all those little pieces of difference from His Dark Materials that add up to a jarringly strange and exciting world. He also describes Yorkshire pudding, kitchen chores, school lessons, and reading — the standard building blocks of normal life.
For a good chunk of the book, Malcolm’s life is slow and sedate, but the things he does and where he goes are so powerfully described that it’s not boring, and suspense is always hissing at the edges of the narrative, whispering here and there like a fire just starting up — there’s no blaze yet, but the heat is there, and the first questing tongues of flame are licking the edges of the logs.
Without imagination, literature is nothing
The sheer joy of Pullman’s imagination is in full force here. The strength of his fantasy is its matter-of-factness. He grounds the fantastic so deeply in the everyday and uses it so sparingly that when it hits, it’s got the brightness of the strange but the weight of normalcy. The main action of the narrative is fleeing down the Thames in a canoe to bring Lyra to safety. Within a pile of mundane concerns — evasion of pursuers, feeding and changing the baby, protection against the weather — suddenly Malcolm and company meet a minor river-god who allows them to pass, or a child-sick faerie queen who attempts to steal Lyra. There’s the general background radiation of the bizarre — daemons, an ascendant and monstrous Church, alternative terminology (anbaric instead of electric, naphtha instead of oil lamps) — but outbreaks of the truly weird are rare, thus more powerful and believable. Pullman does not abuse the suspension of disbelief, so he can go farther when he invokes it.
Without realism, fantasy is nothing
The greatest feature of Pullman novels is that he treats children as children — that is, as complete people capable of experiencing pain, loss, courage and fear. Kids in The Book of Dust have to deal with the Real World, just like kids here do. When Malcolm is being pursued by someone who would hurt him, he beats him to death with a paddle, he feels each horrifying, grisly stroke, and he watches the blood pool out of his victim’s head. By contrast, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most courageous thing the Pevensies do is follow Aslan around until he pounces on the White Witch for them. Narnia is about the complete abdication of personal responsibility to a higher power, and The Book of Dust is about the terrifying responsibility of making human decisions in an inhuman world. There’s actual gristle in the challenges Pullman’s pint-sized protagonists face, and the solid reality of his characters’ struggles makes this an appealing book for readers of any age or genre affiliation.
The progenitor of fantasy literature writes with more creativity and style than his legions of imitators
Lord Dunsany is the grandfather of modern fantasy fiction. Tolkien set the world on fire with fantasy, but he used Dunsany’s torch. The 18th Baron of Dunsany launched his literary career in 1904 with The Gods of Pegāna, in which he constructs an entire cosmogony from whole cloth — a literary first for what is now almost required for any epic fantasy. For those who want their foundational fantasy texts a bit lighter, we’re looking at “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” today, one of Dunsany’s many short stories.
Dunsany uses a well-worn fantasy narrative, but stuffs it with invention
The actual narrative structure of the story is exceedingly simple. Man’s village is threatened. Man attains magic sword. Man hits bad things with magic sword until bad things are gone. The framework is not much, but what Dunsany hangs on it, the sheer inventiveness and substance of the world he drapes around the cheap coat rack of the narrative is what makes him a foundational author. Let’s start with that magic sword: Leothric doesn’t just yank it out of a rock like some idiot. No, he has to fight “the dragon-crocodile who haunts the Northern marshes” and is made entirely of metal, and who has in “the midst of his back, over his spine…a narrow strip of unearthly steel. This strip of steel is Sacnoth, and it may be neither cleft nor molten, and there is nothing in the world that may avail to break it, nor even leave a scratch upon its surface.”
The hero of the story, Leothric, kills the beast and then gets the invincible sword Sacnoth by chucking the body into a furnace until the rest of the dragon-crocodile’s body melts away from it. If you know of a cooler way for a hero to get his magic sword, please comment with it.
Sword won, Leothric heads to his foeman’s castle. He enters the castle, goes from room to room, sees weird things, vanquishes weird things, and then meets with the evil wizard who is creating problems for his village. It’s not in the quality of the plot the Dunsany gets you, it’s in the depth of his world and the strangeness with which he populates it. His vision is potent, and his language delivers it undiluted to his readers.
Any nincompoop can stick a sword in a dragon. Leothric does it with style
What follows is just one example of Leothric’s trials inside The Fortress Unvanquishable:
Outside he felt the night air on his face, and found that he stood upon a narrow way between two abysses. To left and right of him, as far as he could see, the walls of the fortress ended in a profound precipice, though the roof still stretched above him; and before him lay the two abysses full of stars, for they cut their way through the whole Earth and revealed the under sky; and threading its course between them went the way, and it sloped upward and its sides were sheer.
Upon this narrow way over an endless abyss inside a castle Leothric meets and must slay the dragon Thok:
And he smote deep with Sacnoth, and Thok tumbled into the abyss, screaming, and his limbs made a whirring in the darkness as he fell, and he fell till his scream sounded no louder than a whistle and then could be heard no more. Once or twice Leothric saw a star blink for an instant and reappear again, and this momentary eclipse of a few stars was all that remained in the world of the body of Thok.
This one scene can stand in for what Dunsany accomplishes in his entire body of work. Any hero can slay a dragon, but Leothric enters a room in a castle that inexplicably contains an abyss, whose only light is that which comes from the stars on the other side of a depthless hole in the Earth. He kills the dragon, and its corpse tumbles through the endless dark, blocking starlight as it falls. The imagery is deep and rich enough to to make its reality rock-solid, and the contrast between the solidity of his description and the strangeness of what he describes is the key to the delight Dunsany manufactures in each story.
Jemisin brings it to a close with The Stone Sky and demonstrates exactly why the previous two books needed Hugo Awards
N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is a masterful finish to the most groundbreaking (ha) series of the past decade. Seriously — you can argue about all-time greats, but this is hands-down the most impressive post-millennial series I’ve completed. The world she builds, the characters she creates and how she makes them interact, and the falling-free man-the-ground-sure-is-coming-up-fast gravity of her plotting all combine and balance each other to make this book a place you want to be, filled with people you care about, moving through a plot that satisfies and builds anticipation in alternating cycles until the final payoff. After turning the last page, I felt like I’d been evicted. It was a physical place, with such weight that it left an emptiness behind. The last time I experienced that was 19 years ago in 7th grade, having finished reading about Frodo going off to the Grey Havens. I’d spent a month somewhere, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to be there anymore. Jemisin’s world-building alone is Tolkien-level, but she isn’t heavily indebted to him, as a lot of contemporary fantasy is. This is a can’t-miss series for the vivid and original worldbuilding alone, but there’s so much more to recommend it.
If you want to get a small taste before you commit, Jemisin wrote a short story set in the same world a while ago (available in text and audio for free, because Clarkesworld is awesome):
You can’t have epic fantasy without a map, so where are we?
The Stillness is a single supercontinent that is supernormally tectonically active, criss-crossed with rift lines and volcanoes, all floating precariously atop the anger of the Earth. The extreme inhospitability of this world leads to something called Fifth Seasons, where seismic events create winter conditions for at least six months due to ash blocking the Sun, but they can last for years and have much more interesting effects, such as during the Fungus Season, where extended darkness occurring during monsoon season created a crop-destroying fungal bloom over 20% of the continent, or the Season of Yellow Seas, in which an unknown bacterial agent toxified the seas, causing decades of famine in communities which relied on fishing for sustenance.
The most essential people, without whom humanity would have succumbed to ash and darkness generations ago, are the orogenes, too despised to belong to any caste, but too useful to exterminate. They can perform orogeny, the etymology of which makes me twitch in pleasure. Oros is Greek for mountain, so orogenyis mountain-making, and sweet sassy molassey, that’s exactly what they can do! Magic in this fantasy epic is the manipulation of the heat and kinetic energy of the overactive Earth in a way that allows orogenes to explode volcanoes, raise islands, and create city-slaying earthquakes. It’s this last feature that makes the “orogenically-afflicted” into feared pariahs.
Being feared might kill you, but being feared and useful will lead to the subjugation of your people and an endless cycle of generational misery. Government-trained orogenes who pit their will and power against the fury of the Earth are the only reason humanity is still alive. Untrained orogenes are slaughtered. Trained orogenes who are disobedient are disciplined. If they don’t improve, they are slaughtered. A caste called Guardians does all the disciplining and slaughtering — one example is that, without exception, Guardians break the hands of young orogenes. If they have enough control to keep from causing an earthquake in their fear and pain, their reward is the setting of the bones in their hand. If they don’t have that control, the Guardian kills them. This dichotomy continues throughout their lives — stay useful and be allowed to serve; cease being useful and die.
The solidity and originality of Jemisin’s magic system, the immediacy of danger in the Stillness, and the intricacies of the society that lives there all contribute to making this world feel real. The last bit that does it is a trick used to great effect by Tolkien (and Jemisin): have your story take place on the surface of a depthless past. Most stories evaporate when you shut the book because their thread of narrative is all they have — in LOTR and The Broken Earth, so much happens off-screen that what’s on screen feels much more textured and deep. Stuff has been happening in the Stillness for millennia, and you can feel it. Each chapter ends with a sample from a historical text. Sometimes it’s simple survival stonelore:
Set a flexible central beam at the heart of all structures. Trust wood, trust stone, but metal rusts.
–Tablet Three, “Structures,” verse one
Other times, it’s heftier:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the physical integrity of the Stillness–for the obvious interest of long-term survival. Maintenance of this land is peculiarly dependent upon seismic equilibrium and by an imperious law of nature, none but the orogenic can establish such. A blow at their bondage is a blow at the very planet. We rule, therefore, that though they bear some resemblance to we of good and wholesome lineage, and through they must be managed with kind hand to the benefit of both bond and free, any degree of orogenic ability must be assumed to negate its corresponding personhood. They are rightfully to be held and regarded as an inferior and dependent species.
–The Second Yumenescene Lore Council’s Declaration on the Rights of the Orogenically Afflicted
Each time, it helps build a larger world for the single narrative to live in. The second example is especially effective because it mirrors reality so well. With a few changes here and there, it could pass for what was written not so long ago in the United States: the specious stuff used to justify slavery in the antebellum South — why, this is for their own good! Why, the good of Society must be our primary concern!
OK, so the world is great, but what’s actually happening in it? (Spoilers Follow)
In The Broken Earth series, the main plot is that a massive, continent-spanning rift has opened, setting off the Season to end all Seasons. Ash starts falling from the sky, raiders start riding across the landscape, and people buckle down and hope. By the time The Stone Sky opens, Essun, a mother searching for her daughter, is helping the community of Castrima migrate to a better location in the hopes of surviving. She’s also committed to appeasing the Earth (who is sentient — I don’t have time to explain, just read the books) by bringing back the moon, whereas her nihilist daughter is planning to use her powers to slam the Moon into the Earth, ending the old bastard once and for all.
This untenable situation — a mother desperately trying to find her daughter and redemption for the awful decisions of her past, a daughter currently making awful decisions in reaction to her mother’s, the overwhelming knowledge that if they could just get together and talk it would all be okay OH MY GOD WHY AREN’T THEY TOGETHER YET IF ONLY THEY’D TALK IT WOULD ALL BE BETTER.
The twin motivators — Essun and Nassun have to meet again! and How the hell will they pull this off? Are they going to be able to catch the moon? — keep the pages turning fast and without fatigue. It’s easy to get lost in a world that’s so big when you are deeply invested in what happens to the characters and how the fuck-up of this civilization will be put right.
The amount of information Jemisin gives us about the world in the finale is another reason to keep turning pages. The stone eaters are what? Orogeny was designed? By whom? In addition to creating the forward impulsion of Nassun/Essun // Apocalypse/Peace, Jemisin uses the third installment of her series to answer every single question we have about it, mostly through the flashback chapters about Syl Anagist, an ancient solarpunk city that spanned the world. It gives complete explanations for why the Earth is so angry, why some inhabitants of the stillness have superpowers, and what the hell stone eaters are. Nevermind the explanation of mysteries that have been following us the entire series: it’s a joy to explore the ancient city with Jemisin at the helm. Full of arrogance, far too satisfied with their own power, true, but look at all the cool stuff they had. Another benefit is that it takes this already fully-fleshed-out world, a world you’ve lived in for days (or weeks or years, depending on when you read the books), and makes it just the remnant of a 40,000-year-old far-future society, further increasing the depth and breadth of the world Jemisin built. The resolution in the novel is not just the resolution of two humans, mother and daughter, but of a 40,000-year-long war between humanity and the Earth. Epic doesn’t begin to describe it. The story itself is super cool, but another really interesting thing Jemisin does is make all her main characters awful people. No, seriously.
Oh man these people make bad choices, but who are we to judge?
Jemisin doesn’t shy away from making her characters awful people, and it makes them much more believable. Awful people is maybe too harsh, but they do make awful decisions. Essun, the main character who has been searching for her daughter since Book 1, raised her daughter Nassun in such desperation and fear that she only ever trained her, only ever showed disappointment in weakness, because weakness meant death. Her love was the desperate love of the hunted — never free from the harsh drumbeat survive survive survive. Both mother and daughter are powerful orogenes, in grave danger if they ever reveal what they are. Essun even breaks her daughter’s hand in a horrifying parallel to what her Guardian did to her. It is a cruel torture, but it does ensure the victim has control. Without control, Nassun would be found out and killed. Essun does what is necessary to make sure her daughter lives, to the exclusion of everything that Nassun might see as love. She’s not a bad person. She’s a great mother in one very specific way, and a terrible one in another.
Nassun, ten years old, ripped from her home by a horror she can barely understand, stumbles through a destroyed world until she meets Schaffa, an ex-Guardian seeking redemption. She’s either physically or emotionally estranged from her entire family, and Schaffa (more on him later) gives her the unconditional love she’s craving so desperately. She falls deep into this dependent love, and it leads her to make some problematic decisions. When Schaffa brings her to a Fulcrum (a branch of the organization that sanctions orogenes) she literally kills every single one because, having figured out her mother is a trained orogene, she blames them for making her mother so cold and unfeeling. She goes on to ever-increasing acts of genocide, infected by the absolute nihilism of a ten-year-old who has lost everything she ever cared about. By the end of the book, she is willing to end the world to end its pain, an ambition beyond all but the most accomplished supervillains, but the magic of Jemisin’s writing is you understand exactly how she got there and are reluctant to pass judgment.
The dominant relationship in The Stone Sky is a bizarre cross-time triangle between Essun, Nassun, and Schaffa. Schaffa is the Guardian who broke Essun’s hand, who tortured her for her own good, who hunted her when she ran away. It is horrifying to watch Nassun fall deeply in daughterly love with her mother’s tormentor. The years (ahem, spoiler centuries) he spent instilling dependent love in others as a Guardian makes it a hard habit to break. Here’s the thing though: as toxic as his love is, and as dangerous as he is, he truly does love his charges, at least by his own lights. That makes it so much creepier.
You understand each and every character, from the most saintly to the most despicable, what their motivations are, and what they’ve done. My favorite quote about literature is George Saunders’ about fiction being an empathy-generating machine, and Jemisin’s machine is ticking over nicely. I might be horrified by some characters’ actions, but I understand why they did them, and that’s a luxury most readers don’t enjoy.
Go get The Stone Sky, and get it now (or the whole series, if you’re behind)
There is so much I couldn’t say here. I try to keep these under 1500 words, and I’m over 2,000 right now, but there’s so much greatness in these books that, if I tried to explore it all the result would be unreadable. The balanced, clear writing? How Jemisin pays attention to racial differences in a way that most fantasy doesn’t (most fantasy just assumes everyone’s white)? How badass the fight scenes are? Exactly what Guardians are and where they get their power? How orogeny is actually just magic and much more than rock-throwing? How freaking cool stone eaters are? This work is too big, too expansive, to discuss everything that’s in it in a single blog post, and my inability to discuss it comprehensively is the single greatest indicator of it being literally epic, as in “heroic or grand in scale or character” dictionary-level epic. It’s too big to talk about. I can’t share it with you here. You only have one option. Go read it!
I just read one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s first short stories, and it was so perfect it completely derailed my original plans for this post. I have to write this love letter to my favorite author. No one alive comes close to her flawless creation of whole worlds from a handful of sentences, and no one has a deeper speculative-anthropological interest in what humanity is and should be.
I don’t remember the first time I read one of her books — it happened in that post-high-school flurry of absolutely unbound devouring, where you’re no longer reading what you feel you “have to” to be taken seriously, but what you want to — the rubber-band snapping of freedom is disorienting, but it’s wonderful to no longer have to pretend you understand Gravity’s Rainbow at 17 years old.
In that frenzy of consumption, something of hers was tossed in, but where she really grabbed me and never let go was with The Dispossessed. A piece of Science Fiction so perfectly balanced, so perfectly human, serious without confusing being serious with being boring and grim, that I have never forgotten it. It fairly and clearly represents the benefits and flaws of a capitalist and anarchist society (two different planets locked in co-orbital positions, one desert-anarchist, the other lush-capitalist). Capitalism is not all subjugation of the poor (although that is an unavoidable side-effect, if not a planned feature), and anarchism is not all lighting fires and throwing stones — all anarchy means is the absence of hierarchical power structures. UKL shows there’s beauty and flaws in both systems because both systems are run by inherently fallible people.
Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards
She’s a bona fide hero. If you need proof, here’s her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:
In a room filled with book publishers, at an event sponsored by Amazon, she took the industry to task for “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant” and said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, but so did the divine right of kings.”
That was UKL the doyenne of American SF. This story is from Ursula K. Le Guin, the barely-published writer, and she already had the magic.
The Word of Unbinding: a ten-minute story packed with everything Ursula K. Le Guin would become
In The Word of Unbinding, we already see all the elements that make UKL who she is as an author. Language as simple and clear as a forest stream. The ability to plant twenty words, step back, and watch them grow into an entire vivid world. A focus on the importance of balance, acceptance, and doing the right, the human thing. Before going further, please read the story. It’s two dollars and will take you ten minutes. It is without a doubt the most worthwhile thing you will do today — doubtless more worthwhile than reading this blog.
The Word of Unbinding is an exceedingly simple story. A wizard is trapped in a dark well, guarded by strange creatures and magics, and he tries and fails to escape until there is only one way out. Like all of UKL’s writing, it is simple and straightforward, but so incredibly dense. Not in the James Joyce/Thomas Pynchon sense, but in the sense that each word is so carefully chosen and placed it’s like setting stone on stone. Here’s the first line:
Where was he? The floor was hard and slimy, the air black and stinking, and that was all there was.
She accomplishes everything she needs to in twenty words. The protagonist is lost and confused, something bad has happened to him, bad air, hard floor, and that’s it. Before there’s any chance of remotely understanding what’s going on, there’s a rock-solid sense of where the story is. Next step is explaining who the protagonist, Festin, is:
Lately, in these lone years in the middle of his life, he had been burdened with a sense of waste, of unspent strength; so, needing to learn patience, he had left the villages and gone to converse with trees, especially oaks, chestnuts, and the grey alders whose roots are in profound communication with running water. It had been six months since he had spoken to a human being. He had been busy with essentials, casting no spells and bothering no one.
UKL’s conception of how magic works and what its practitioners should be is the most compelling in all of literature. This isn’t clear from the excerpt, but her system is almost entirely based on naming. Everything in existence has a True Name, and innate power wedded to study and discovery of these names gives a wizard their abilities: just like a writer, they use language to call forth miracles, to change the reality around them. What is clear from the excerpt is what a wizard should be: Festin has not cast a spell in half a year. Magic is not about fireballs and parlor tricks, but about balance. Each and every wizard has a responsibility to maintain and protect that balance — that is what makes them a wizard. The upsetting of that balance is the source of evil, in this story as elsewhere in Earthsea (UKL’s fantasy territory).
A wizard reaver named Voll goes from island to island, destroying towns and enslaving people, disrupting the natural order. He seals the protagonist in a dark well-tomb. Festin, confident in his power, attempts to escape repeatedly. First as a creeping mist, then as simple air, then as a falcon, then as a trout. He is successively foiled with a blast of hot air, a storm wind, an arrow, and a fisherman’s net. Broken, cold, and kept on the edge of death, he begins wondering why his enemy will not kill him. After due consideration, he takes the last path out of his situation — the word of unbinding:
So Festin made his choice. His last thought was, If I am wrong, men will think I was a coward. But he did not linger on this thought. Turning his head a little to the side, he closed his eyes, took a last deep breath, and whispered the word of unbinding, which is only spoken once.
Festin, seeing his situation and a possible way to restore balance, makes the human (in its least cynical definition) decision and accepts the change required to set things right. Once in the land of the dead, a land of hard obsidian lava flows, black grass, and unmoving stars, he discovers Voll is long dead but has somehow returned to the world. He chases his enemy back to his corpse, forces him to re-enter it, and then sits vigil at the point of origin for the imbalance, guarding against further upset.
Festin saves the world through acceptance of the most human fact there is: all will die and turn to dust. If he had attempted to avoid what must be, he would have remained trapped and ineffective, unable to bring battle to Voll on any plane that mattered.
Cultivating imbalance for personal gain unerringly leads to evil and is set right through courageous acceptance of what must be.
This story floored me not simply because it was so perfect, so small yet so powerful, but because this is one of the first things UKL ever published, and she was already a master. She further developed her talent over a decades-long career, but everything she needed was already there: the power and clarity of her language, the strength of her perception of the world she’s creating, and the strong philosophical attachment to balance. Not to mention it’s a super fun wizard adventure story, written 53 years ago and still wonderful and fresh today.