Dread Nation: The Civil War Zombie Novel You’ve Been Waiting For

Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is the story of Jane McKeene, a seventeen-year-old who attends the premiere ladies’ school in all of Maryland, Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls. Young women go there to learn proper tea service and the most efficient way to separate a zombie’s head from its body. It is set in the decades after the Civil War, which ended in a very different way in this alternate history. At Gettysburg, slain soldiers rose up and began eating the living, so both sides banded together to repel the zombie threat. Humanity lives in a handful of fortified cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. The West is wild and open, but dangerously unprotected. The Lost States of the South are, well, lost. The only way to live there is in a bunker. Congress signed the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, which made it mandatory for Native and African Americans to attend zombie-slaying schools and hold the line against the undead, continuing America’s history of forcing marginalized groups to perform vital nation-building services. I read it because N.K. Jemisin (who wrote the best epic fantasy of the decade) recommended it repeatedly, and because I have a weakness for postbellum alt-history zombie yarns.

If that’s all the description you need to pick up the book, you can get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Dread-Nation-Justina-Ireland-ebook/dp/B071RQX7W9/

seriously a good sci-fi book y'all
She kills zombies with sickles. With sickles! Get this book.

Slow* Zombies, Fast Pacing

Ireland’s pacing is top-notch. There’s nothing on this story but lean muscle. Each location, each character is described with only the words necessary to generate clear, vivid immersion. The narratives moves forward smoothly, impelled by alternating between the type of emotional involvement that YA does particularly well — the character you love is in a bad spot, is facing injustice or danger and you won’t be satisfied until you see how she gets out of it — and spare, bright action scenes like this one:

By the time I get to the girls I have a stitch in my side and my feet are screaming, but I push it all aside. I pick my way down the wall, jumping too early and dropping a sickle, nearly losing my balance when I hit the bottom. I grab my fallen weapon and pick my first target, a Negro girl wearing clothing that looks eerily like mine, and leap, sickle swinging to take the thing down.

Here’s the thing. If these were my sickles, my beloved, sharp, well-weighted combat sickles, they would’ve gone through the shambler’s neck like a hot knife through lard. But these are not my sickles. So the blade gets stuck halfway, the beast snapping its teeth at me and clawing at my arms as it tries to get free.

I place my foot behind the shambler’s and use my sickle to push it backward. Once it’s down I use a mule kick against the curved edge to force the blade through. The head goes rolling off down into the culvert and the body goes still.

Ireland somehow avoids breaking the sense of urgency and peril in the scene, even as the viewpoint character takes a paragraph to talk to herself about her sickles. Not quite sure how that magic works, but it does. The action is always satisfying, and each of Jane’s actions builds who she is.

* the relative speed of a zombie depends on how recently they turned — the newer, the faster

The Wind-Up Theory of Character Creation

Ireland builds her characters using minimal description. She gives an introductory sliver and then sets the character going. The clockwork engine of the narrative itself gives depth to the characters as they interact with each other. There’s the main character, Jane, who just wants to get home to protect her family. There’s her beautiful frenemy, Katherine, a fellow student at Miss Preston’s, whose dream is completing her education and becoming an Attendant (lady’s maid/zombie killer for the rich). There’s Jackson, the smuggler and once-sweetheart of Jane, who just wants to find out why his sister disappeared. There’s Gideon, the head scientist of a Midwest enclave who wants to use his knowledge to help humanity survive. Ireland introduces a character, gives a light description and an overriding motivation, and then, through interaction with each other and the narrative, who they are deepens, grows and changes. An example is the description of the white supremacist pastor who serves as the main antagonist of the book:

“The old man still smiles, thin red lips stretched garishly over large front teeth. His eyes are watery, the brown washed out to the color of a penny, his hair completely snow white and thinning. He looks like a walking skeleton, sun bleached and pale…”

There’s not a lot of description after this first introduction, but his actions throughout the book build every noxious layer of him.

It’s good to see Katherine and Jane, who start out as enemies, grow closer as they deal with the same difficulties. What’s great though is the book’s treatment of that required emotional geometry of the YA novel, the Love Triangle. It’s hilariously underplayed here. Jane basically looks at Jackson and Gideon every once in a while, thinks “they look good…” and then gets on with her life. She’s interested, and both boys are nice in their own way, but she’s got things to do. Very healthy approach compared to the general “OK sure, I have to save the world, but does he like me though?”

Original Sin

The moral shape of the book is impressive. It does not shy away from the founding sins of our nation, i.e. that most people who wrote the Constitution to ensure their own freedom thought owning people was acceptable. Even post-slavery, America is still built on the exploitation of marginalized groups. Ireland puts these concerns front and center, with “scientific” discussions from certain characters about polygenesis (the idea, current in the 1800s, that different races had different species of origin, a way to promote Othering and justify white supremacy). The main antagonist is a virulent racist. The two-tier racial system of zombie fighting, in which POCs are legally obligated to kill zombies to keep everyone else safe is most troubling, because it wouldn’t take much modification to make it work today. All it would take is a.) a zombie uprising, b.) the racial bias inherent in our legal system, and c.) a “Fight the Dead” program for convicted felons, because the 13th amendment has a hell of a loophole:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Fun, Not Fluff

Dread Nation has all the explosive, page-turning action inherent in a zombie novel, a spare but powerful style, and realistic interactions between vivid characters. It’s a great book — fun without being fluff. The foundation of its world and the stakes of its narrative are too heavy for that.

The problem with J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring sitting on a shelf
So great, and so unopened.

Tolkien is the single most influential fantasy writer in history, but I’m struggling with my re-read of Lord of the Rings

Few authors are as impressive as J.R.R. Tolkien, and few literary feats are as influential as The Lord of the Rings and its extensive legendarium. In the first half of the 20th century, Tolkien built a cohesive, powerful lore that would determine the shape of fantasy writing for decades. Fantasy without Tolkien is like astronomy without the solar system. There are other stars, like Dunsany, the Brothers Grimm, and the Arabian Nights, but the foundation and vantage point of modern fantasy would be annihilated. That being said, there are definite problems in LOTR that are keeping me from completing a successful reread.

Hobbits and MacGuffins

First off, everything in LOTR is subjugated to the Quest, to taking a MacGuffin of Power to a Place of Significance (credit for that phrasing to N.K. Jemisin). It’s a great quest, a beautiful quest. No quest greater. The problem is, once the ultimate outcome of the singular driving force of the books is known (they melt the One Ring, hooray!), a lot of the page-turning juice evaporates from the story. As Frodo evades Nazgûl, orcs, and barrow-wights, the certainty of his mission’s ultimate success makes the prospect of him becoming an abrupt damp spot somewhere in Eregion much less concerning, especially when I can remember every betrayal and obstacle along the way. No future readthrough of LOTR will ever be as exciting as the journey I took in 7th grade.

Right, Wrong, and Nothing in Between

Also, the morality of the world is so stark it’s barren. The characters range from demonic malefactor to angelic savior. Anyone between those two extremes is either an upstanding and respectable servant of good or a servile and contemptible thrall to evil — no one has complex motivations. For comparison, Voldemort is one of the most cartoonishly villainous antagonists in the history of the written word, but even Harry Potter had people like Snape and Draco. The first repents and becomes a double agent, and the second is just a particularly virulent bully who gets in way over his head. Neither is a gleeful servant of evil. LOTR’s absence of moral nuance leads to an empathic flatness — it’s hard to gain purchase on anything emotionally interesting. Not to mention this all-or-nothing black-or-white approach to right and wrong facilitates orcing, the problematic classification of a race as less-than-human and deserving of genocide. N.K. Jemisin discusses it succinctly here (she is the current apex fantasy writer, and fingers crossed that The Stone Sky wins her a third Hugo in a row). The presence of an entire underclass that deserves to be murdered in LOTR sours the whole narrative.

Who Run the World?

Finally, there are almost no women of significance. Margaret Atwood sums up the third problem well:

In Tolkien, there are hardly any women at all, only two, but three if you count the spider, which I do. With a name like Shelob you really can’t miss it.

If your first impulse is to say “But there are four women — you’re forgetting Éowyn!” you’re missing the point. The principal cast of characters is overwhelmingly male, so much so that their quest becomes kind of a stag party, which leaves the book with all the interpersonal depth of Hot Tub Time Machine. One of the major beauties of literature is how it explores the struggles and complexities of being human, and that’s hard to access fully if the main narrative is basically a bunch of dudes on a camping trip.

The good outweighs the bad, but not for me, not right now

Lord of the Rings is glorious, and always will be. I can still see, clear and entire, Fangorn Forest, the Mines of Moria, and the white towers of Gondor. I can smell the ale spilled on the floor of the Green Dragon at Bree and feel the bite of the cold wind on Weathertop. Middle-earth has been paying rent in my brain since I was in middle school. It smashed its way in through the sheer weight of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, the thick, heavy bones that support everything he wrote. Tolkien’s masterpiece is a wonder. It is irreplaceable and irreplicable, but the MacGuffin-based plot, the simplistic morality, and the lack of interpersonal texture are all making my 3rd readthrough difficult.

 

Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty’s Spaceship Murder Mystery Book, Is Incredible

This Nebula Award nominee disorients and terrifies from the start and only tightens the screws from there

Your eyes pop open, and you’re locked in a pod with no memory of having entered it. You don’t know how to get out. You start remembering — you’re a member of a small crew on an interstellar ship. Your last memory is moving into your quarters and attending the pre-launch festivities. When you finally struggle free of the synth-amneo fluid cradling you in your pod (no small feat in zero-g), you see your corpse floating in front of you, among the rest of your slaughtered crew. And your (dead) body is decades older than you remember it being.

Body floating in space
It’s not clear from the cover exactly what happened, but it’s safe to assume it’s pretty bad

That’s how Six Wakes starts, bombarding the reader with particle after particle of WTF until the narrative splits entirely from the mundane world. It’s the story of six clones selected to tend an interstellar ship carrying thousands of frozen people to an Earth-like planet. Cryo-sleep is fine for the humans, but clones (which are, legally, a different species) can just regenerate themselves endlessly and run maintenance for the hundreds of years it will take their less durable counterparts to get from point A to point B. Once you legally become a clone, you can maintain a “mind map,” basically a terabytes-big thumb drive that holds an imprint of everything you know and are. When you die, your mind map is loaded into your new brain, and you wake up as a 20-year-old. Of course, you are sterilized by law, as you are considered your own offspring. You have to maintain a mind map, which is subject to search and seizure by the authorities at any time. If you kill yourself, you’ll never be resurrected, so even if you’re practically immortal, you still have to deal with your 80s every time.

The problem in Six Wakes is that the crew wakes up to see their old bodies strewn gruesomely across the cloning bay, with no memory of how it happened. The terror is deep and weird from page 1 — the crew knows they were murdered, but have no idea how it happened.

A ship whose habitable space is fairly small, the grimness that comes from being a fresh murder scene, and the fear of not knowing what happened aren’t even the main source of dread. The big problem, the terrifying problem, is that you’re certain one of the people you’re looking at killed you.

As the characters attempt to figure out what happened, they start learning more about each other. The most interesting part of the book, aside from the high concept of cloning, is this narrative trick of having the primary action happen in the most claustrophobic place, trapped on a ship with [a] murderer[s], but having each of the six main characters’ backgrounds happen all over a wide-open far future world, ranging from a jail cell in Asia to a hacking lab on the Luna colony.

In the primary “oh no we’re trapped on a murdership” narrative, the story terrifies and creates constant pressure. The secondary narrative, the six backstories that are key to figuring out what happened, expands and deepens the world by exploring how each multi-century old clone became who they are.

As more facts about each clone are slotted into place, the shape of their predicament becomes more and more clear — the deep dive into the psyche of each character builds the map of what happened directly prior to their emergency resurrection. Each step in the spare, high-tension environment of the ship propels the story forward, and each revelation of a character’s past lends the narrative a depth and majesty. It’s a welcome contrast, like rich cream poured over an acidic key lime pie — both are good alone, but together they’re perfect.

This is a murder mystery action thriller, with a heaping helping of “look at all this cool tech” thrown in. The magic of it is that the very basis of the mystery (oh no we died we better find out who killed us) brings up such profound questions of identity, of personhood, that the glorious pulpiness of fleeing a murderer is layered over the granite bedrock of serious philosophical enquiry — when I say “I”, who do I mean? What makes a person a person, and what can unmake them?

The novel is so good from the very start. I flipped through the first few pages in a bookstore months ago and immediately put it back, thinking it had to be a trick — no way can the rest of the book maintain that level of greatness. I picked it up when I saw it was nominated for a Nebula — it does deliver on the promise of the first five pages. There are a few things to nitpick (one specific part of the resolution, involving saliva, broke suspension of disbelief for me), but Mur Lafferty is a powerful, imaginative author. Any writer who can build worlds as deep and rich as she can, who can craft a story that delights with its inventiveness and terrifies with its revelations, is one who deserves rapt attention. I am definitely snapping up whatever book she puts out next.

Five Bite-Sized Suggestions on Where to Get Started Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

You should read everything Le Guin ever wrote, but here are some quick options

My literary hero, Ursula K. Le Guin, creator of worlds, challenger of the pompous and complacent, inspirer of generations of writers from Salman Rushdie to Neil Gaiman to N.K. Jemisin, died. I never met her, never saw her read, never wrote her an email, but she changed my life. No other author can be as lyrical without becoming enamored of their own lyricism, as straightforward and clear without being blunt and empty. If you are lucky enough to read her, she will change your brain. Bite-sized options to follow, but here are her most important books:

  • The Dispossessed, set on two moons stuck in mutual orbit — one lush capitalist, the other desert-anarchist. It is an honest exploration of anarcho-syndicalism and capitalism, both their flaws and benefits.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness explores a world where gender doesn’t exist — the entire population is androgynous, going into kemmer (basically “heat”) once a month, with an equal chance of becoming male or female before reverting back to androgynes unless, of course, there’s a pregnancy. It’s taken for granted today that gender is a fluid, mostly societally-determined construct, but a half-century ago, Le Guin was already writing lines like “[t]he king was pregnant.”
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, aside from having the most satisfying approach to magic across all modern fantasy, is a beautiful fable on the importance of accepting change and seeking balance. Anyone who dismisses it as a children’s book (or at least only a children’s book) does themselves a grave disservice.
Four of Ursula Le Guin's books, across time
I love how Le Guin’s book covers track the changing perceptions of the wider literary world — from ultra-pulpy to super-artsy

These three are her heavy-hitters, the books that redefined what two genres and literature as a whole could do, and if you want to immediately dive into the deep waters of this literary Titan, you should get those first. However, the good news about a writer with a 60-year long career is that she wrote a lot. There are multiple smaller works for those who want to spend half an hour getting their toes wet instead. The five suggestions that follow will take between 10 and 30 minutes of your time.

Read everything, but start here

  1. “The Word of Unbinding” https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/
    Here is the first glimmer of the Earthsea stories that would later reshape fantasy. It’s an incredibly simple, incredibly deep tale. It is the story of a wizard trapped by the minions of a dark, magic-wielding warlord, and his multiple attempts at escape, until he sees there is only one way to end the conflict. I write about it in more detail here.
  2. “Semley’s Necklace” https://www.amazon.com/Semleys-Necklace-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01NCJ1O13/
    This is the first entry in the Hainish cycle, a loosely connected series of short stories and novels that share a universe in which the ancient, highly advanced humanoid inhabitants of the planet Hain-Davenant seed multiple colony worlds (including Earth) with genetically modified versions of themselves. Their galactic Empire collapses and leaves their client worlds to evolve on their own for millennia, before a new, more democratic “League of Worlds” rises from the ashes of the fallen Hainish people. It solves the Star Trek problem (wherein every alien species is actually just a human in funny makeup) by giving all different planets common ancestry. “Semley’s Necklace” concerns the inhabitant of one of these now-backwards planets seeking to recover an important heirloom from a museum in which a League anthropologist has placed it. It follows so perfectly the fantasy convention of leaving home, changing yourself, and coming back to a changed world, but the setting is science fiction, with spaceships, lightspeed, and galactic governance. The melding of science fiction with a fantasy feel is made possible by Clarke’s Third Law, which states that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This interplay between the fantasy perspective (for the main character, a rube princess from a backwater world) and the science-fiction perspective (for the reader, who recognizes all the technology and conventions of SF) is delicious, and is a good example of how Le Guin uses the conventions of the field in which she works, but also reshapes them. To give a hint of this dynamic, here’s the opening paragraph:

    How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?–planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god. Unreason darkens that gap of time bridged by our lightspeed ships, and in the darkness uncertainty and disproportion grow like weeds.

  3. “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas” https://www.amazon.com/Ones-Who-Walk-Away-Omelas-ebook/dp/B01N0PZ35J/
    This story, also known as “The One You Read in High School,” is a perfect little allegory. Le Guin describes in broad strokes the happy city of Omelas in her characteristic bright and shining prose, but also explores, in prose no less evocative, the dark bargain at the center of this perfect place. It is a wonderful answer to the moral absurdity of Utilitarianism, and an important story for everyone who lives in our current society, where most of us enjoy cheap shoes and laptops (like the one I’m currently typing on) but try as hard as we can not to think of who’s making the shoes and circuit boards.
  1. Book Reviews
    Ursula Le Guin at rostrum
    She stopped writing fiction later in life, but stayed active in other ways. Credit: Photos © 2014 Jack Liu

    Le Guin stopped writing books later in life, but she didn’t stop writing about them. If you only want to spend a few minutes getting acquainted with her analytical flair, she wrote a lot of reviews. There’s Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (not effusively positive, but he said he’d rather be chided by Le Guin than worshipped by another reviewer), China Mieville’s Three Moments of an Explosion, and Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights, just to get you started. Her opinion of these works, informed by decades of reading and writing, are some of the best examples of modern book reviews. They aren’t simple vehicles for front-cover blurbs — they fairly weigh the good and the bad of each with a clarity of prose and depth of understanding that is a trademark of everything Le Guin did.

  2. Commentary
    Ursula K. Le Guin was a lot of things, but she was never silent or out of touch. Throughout her life, she wrote about art, about politics, about people. Her fiction is the biggest gift she left behind, but it’s not the only one. My favorite is when she took umbrage at a book review that was dismissive of genre fiction and wrote a short pulp pastiche, “On Serious Literature.” Another in the same vein is when Important Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro worried that readers of his most recent novel, which uses the tropes of fantasy other authors spent decades refining, would “be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Her response is a delightful, bristling defence of genre. Even after the National Book Awards honored her for lifetime achievement, even after the Library of America printed her books while she was still alive (an honor shared by only one other author, Philip Roth), she was still going to bat for SFF. Her perception of the book was not kind — as fantasy, it was a failure. Her last line throws shade as only an 80+ year old grandma could, enough to blot out the sun:

    I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

    She also commented on current events. In one letter to the editor at The Oregonian (imagine receiving a letter to the editor and realizing it’s from Le Guin), she attacked the concept of Trumpian “alternative facts.” In another, she took issue with the newspaper’s sympathetic coverage of the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Her comments apply to the equally confusing sympathetic coverage outlets like The New York Times keep giving to white nationalists:

    “Instead of parroting the meaningless rants of a flock of Right-Winged Loonybirds infesting the refuge, why doesn’t The Oregonian talk to the people who live there?”

Finally, there’s her National Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. Maybe some people there expected a little old lady to deliver gratitude-filled pablum, but that’s not what they got. At an event partially sponsored by Amazon, with Amazon representatives in the audience, she unleashed a Jeremiad against “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.” She said, “[w]e live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” You should really watch the whole thing below:

Now cracks a noble heart

Le Guin is the greatest American writer of the last century. In these five suggestions, sadly too meager to get a full idea of the colossus that was Ursula K. Le Guin, there are hints of her vivid, crystalline prose and depth of feeling, of her incisive intellect, and of her unerring morality. She was a gift, a node of sanity in a world of increasing confusion, and she is irreplaceable.

If you want to go deeper, I suggest (in addition to The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and A Wizard of Earthsea) her short story collections, The Found and the Lost and The Unreal and the Real. Myself, I will soon be enjoying her definitive Library of America collection of science-fiction, The Hainish Novels and Stories.

Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is the literary equivalent of going to the gym

It’s easy to make excuses not to do it, you wonder halfway through why you’re doing this to yourself, but then you feel great for the rest of the day

I did something I haven’t done in a while. I read an extreme academic heavyweight, To the Lighthouse. I bought it eleven years ago for 2€30 in a used bookshop in Angers, France, and it’s been following me, unread, from apartment to apartment, through degree after degree, through breaking up, getting back together, and getting married — the beautiful smooth blue pebbles on its cover a soft presence in the back of my life. Driven by the English major’s vague guilt at not having read all of the Canon, the recommendation of a friend, and the glowing praise of the greatest living American writer, I finally tackled it.

Woolf's book in front of a picture of lots of books
Prettiest book I own, and I didn’t open it for a over a decade.

It is the story of the Ramsay family, their hangers-on, and the time they spend at a beach house on the Isle of Skye. You can pick it up on Amazon for convenience, but if you have the time, I recommend supporting an independent bookstore.

Each page was a struggle. This is the kind of book for which critical praise exists — if I hadn’t taken it on faith that this book was great, I probably wouldn’t have gotten past p. 50. Each sentence is so incredibly dense, sometimes German in its refusal to resolve until the final word. Very little happens. There are heaping piles of interiority. But it’s so good. The language is perfect and sure. Woolf’s understanding of the inner processes and concerns of her characters is powerful. The flow from perspective to perspective is effortless, a smooth stone skipping across a clear stream.

Mrs. Ramsay is the dominating voice of the first section of the book, and Woolf’s expert use of stream-of-consciousness means I know Mrs. Ramsay better than I know many of my actual friends. Nearly everything in the book is stream-of-consciousness, happening in the moment, inside this or that character’s head. One example is from the onset of night, when Mrs. Ramsay is finally freed from all the emotional work of being the matriarch, the social center of the entire extended household:

For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

Woolf had so little space (225 pages), and for many characters could only give slivers, but the artistry of it is that those slivers were everything — I barely read anything about James and Cam (youngest son and daughter of the Ramsay clan) but have such a powerful understanding of who they are because the small pieces of them I was given were so perfectly selected as to sketch an entire human being.

BIG spoiler coming up, but I mean, there’s barely any plot, so

And Mrs. Ramsay — oh Mrs. Ramsay. Kind matriarch, wants the best for everyone. When she dies, it is sudden and unexplained. The way the book treats her death closely mirrors actual familial loss. Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, will, and body fill the first section of the book. In the last section, she’s just gone. Absent, with her friends and family wandering around trying to see the shape of their lives now that she’s not in it. The vacuum left by her loss pulls at everything that happens for the rest of the book. Lily Briscoe, a family friend, stands on the lawn of the beach house and thinks of Mrs. Ramsay:

To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have — to want and want — how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! … [s]uddenly, the empty drawing-room steps … the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness.

That is what grief is. To want and want and not to have. The physical hollowness of loss. All the pieces of your life swirling around a center that is no longer there. My mom died last summer, and this is how I felt. This is how I will always feel. And Virginia Woolf is good enough to capture this piece of universal human psychology in a century-old book.

I am a huge partisan of action, of Things Happening in Books. Literature was invented for story-telling, not to impress your graduate advisor, and when authors forget that, the result is the most boring book ever written. However, when a practitioner of interiority literature is as impressive as Woolf, when her insight pierces to the center of all human thought and action, the absence of a car chase or two barely matters. The things that happen in our skulls are events, after all, and an author capable of accurately capturing what makes us us is a gift.

Oathbringer is the best action fantasy of the year

The latest entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series cements his reputation as the king of high-octane fantasy

There are three reasons to read Brandon Sanderson: the size and originality of the worlds he builds, the scientific rigor of his magic systems, and the river-in-flood irresistibility of his action sequences. The Stormlight Archive, his projected ten-volume magnum opus, is magnificently ambitious (ten volumes, ~1200 words each, should be done when I’m in my 50s), and coming later in his career than his wildly popular Mistborn series, it’s more sophisticated. The writing is smoother, the action is tighter, and the actionless parts are more interesting. He’s better at making characters you really care about, and the mythology of the world they live in approaches many actual religions in complexity.

In Oathbringer, the ancient evil that has haunted Roshar for millennia returns. The Everstorm has raged across the continent, transforming parshmen, an enslaved humanoid species, into a standing army bent on the eradication of humanity. The Knights Radiant, an ancient order gifted with magical powers for the defense of human civilization, have begun to return. Normal people manifest powers seemingly at random, and the ex-general Dalinar, the former soldier Kaladin, and the noblewoman Shallan Davar are frantically trying to collect these new Knights and to forge the countries and kingdoms of the world into an organization that can resist annihilation.

Oathbringer is a glorious mess. Glorious is a well-earned adjective, and mess might be unfair. It’s got all the goodies people expect from Sanderson, but it does stumble a bit. It’s so much slower than the previous entries. Many sections are overdescribed (not to Robert Jordan levels). For example, there’s an entire chapter about a soldier making soup. His comrades are training in the background, and the frame serves as a window into the bonds among the group. At the end of the chapter, you know more about the characters and the world. It’s worthwhile, but it’s really hard to forget that you just read an entire chapter about making soup. There’s also only one mega-climax at the very end of the book (instead of a series of smaller, but still epic, conflicts throughout the book, like midseason cliffhangers). There is action, and there are fights, but they feel more like skirmishes, scraps unworthy of the explosive finale. Finally, the amazing powers Kaladin and the other Knights Radiant began to master at the end of Vol 2, Words of Radiance, are used for mundane tasks for a lot of the book. There are exceptions, but Kaladin mainly uses his powers to fly from point A to point B. Compared to the very first pages of the very first book, where the Assassin in White uses his powers to engage in one of the most impressive fight scenes in all of fantasy literature, it pales. The finale more than makes up for it, but that doesn’t change that for most of the book, Kaladin’s Windrunner powers were basically a supernatural Greyhound bus.

This book is still great, and you should buy it now. Sanderson deepens the mythos he set out in the first two books, and each new facet adds more beauty and interest to the gem-like clarity of what he’s built. Sanderson has such an innate sense of place that what he describes is tangible. Mystical mountain keeps, overcrowded markets, barren wastes, all of it is there as a solid presence, not just a series of descriptions. Also, when the hundred-page climax comes, it is jaw-droppingly good.

This review ended up being more negative than I expected — I loved this book. I read it in three days. I guess the bad is sticking out here because Sanderson so reliably delivers greatness that it’s become background — invisible because it’s expected — and the less-great stands out because it’s so rare. I think Sanderson’s ambition is behind a lot of the issues I had with the book, but it’s also what makes it the greatest action-centered fantasy currently being written. There’s so much happening that sheer inertia makes the story hard to steer — it takes a lot to get anything moving in a different direction. Sanderson is a man dragging a boulder uphill. He might stumble, he might be a little red in the face, but he still gets it to the top, and when it rolls down the other side, it crushes everything in its path. The final battle of this book is mind-blowing. Everything that felt a bit awkward as it was moved into place throughout the rest of the narrative is exactly where it needs to be by the end, and it’s amazing because there is so much dovetailing so perfectly.

Why You Need to Read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage Immediately

Kindle photo of La Belle Sauvage

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.

You can get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Book-Dust-Belle-Sauvage/dp/0375815309.

Pullman’s granite-solid sense of place

 

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.