Picking up a fantasy book is an investment, one that may or may not pay off, but usually requires putting lots of time into reading very large books and then even more time waiting for the next book in the series to come along and continue the story. However, there are occasionally exceptions that break this paradigm and offer a fantasy experience in a single volume. Books like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char are oddities of the fantasy world that are both wildly popular and without sequels. Reading either of these books is an experience of becoming quickly immersed and attacked only to be confronted with a letting go that isn’t normally required at the end of a fantasy book.
World building is about making the setting of a book seem just as believable and consistent as the real world that readers are moving away from. The Night Circus and The Library at Mount Char both abut the real world, with characters moving between the reality readers will recognize and something much more unique that the author has constructed. This actually changes very little of what is required to make the world believable. Instead of worrying about geography between cities these authors must create a sense of space inside a building like in The Library at Mount Char or a feeling of connection through a sprawling city of tents in The Night Circus. The consistency of these details is much easier to maintain over a single book than a multi book series which is ones of the great benefits of single book works. And a single book is certainly enough time for a reader to fall in love with a world. Ultimately these authors are very successful, they draw readers in an create worlds that are memorable, believable and very consistent.
For a reader who enjoys fantasy and tends to read a great deal of it these kinds of stand-alone books can be a shock to the system. There is an immediate urge to find the next book, if not in that series than in that world, but that book ends up being absent and you feel stranded in the real world since the prospect of future escapism to that particular local has been ripped away. Readers of fantasy are used to epic sagas that take potential decades (and possibly multiple authors) to complete like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or George R.R. Martin’s as yet uncompleted Saga of Ice and Fire. There are also authors like R.A. Salvatore who create immense worlds that unrelated stories can take place in while still providing the enjoyment of that particular fictional universe. Even stories that are fantasy only in the loosest sense like Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone are expanded to a series where the mechanics of magic and other strange happenings are consistent with that first book. If fantasy is about heading into a different world than stand alone fantasy places tight restrictions on what is possible because in the end there is a limit on what you can fit into a single physical book.
In this way stand alone books are also a commentary on the author and the world building process. It isn’t necessarily that the author is lazy or unwilling to put the work into world building, The Night Circus and Library at Mount Char both contain incredibly compelling settings and magic as established earlier, so the choice to abandon those worlds is actually impressive. Hawkins hasn’t published anything since Library at Mount Char but Erin Morgenstern actually has a new book coming in November of 2019. World building once is hard, so it is unsurprising that most writers of fantasy spread that development over a whole collection of books rather than starting from scratch for each project, but Erin Morgenstern has done just that. She has left the much beloved world of the circus and has instead started building anew. The book isn’t out yet so it is impossible to say how close it will be to the world of her first novel but the simple choice not to write a sequel says something interesting about Morgenstern as a write. Just as the reader reaction will say something about what people look for when they become invested in a given author’s creation.
The value of reading fantasy fiction is often debated but regardless of what is decided in that discussion of value there are general things that most fantasy readers expect from the worlds that they enter. Singular fantasy books move against the grain of these expectations and show how fantasy cn be successful even without the promise of multivolume series of epic novels. Books like The Night Circus or The Library at Mount Char demonstrate the depth which is possible even within a single book. The worlds in these books are still incredibly enjoyable despite the fact that there are no follow ups, but the stand-alone nature of their stories leaves the reader with a great sense of loss at the end. The sense of loss reinforces the idea that reading fantasy is a form of escape, but the popularity of Morgenstern and Hawkins work shows that singular fantasy fiction offers an experience that is enjoyable on its own.
P.S. I am about to post this and was googling to check spelling on Scott Hawkins’ name only to discover that at some point while I wasn’t looking (ie this summer) his website got updated and apparently, he to might have another book coming. It isn’t a direct sequel to Library at Mount Char so I think this post still stands but maybe not with the kind of strength the idea had when I originally started writing this post.
Novels that also serves as religious commentary have a long history and a continuing relevance in a world where religious extremism or intolerance are growing problems. However, the strength of these books, whether they be reflections of history or a fictional construction that mirrors the real world, lies in their believability and internal consistency. When that element of consistency is lacking the characters come across as flat and their faith as patronizing. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a masterpiece of early American fiction that captures a journey that is heart wrenchingly plausible. In contrast Samantha Shannon’s recent fantasy novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree has characters who abandon their beliefs at a moments notice making them feel contrived and sometimes frustrating. Reading these novels sets up a stark dichotomy of what a success representation of religion looks like and why these narratives are compelling.
There is a wide range in the level of restriction in any given religion or religious community but in both Hawthorne’s and Shannon’s novels the religious attitudes are conservative and fairly extreme in their reaction to different beliefs. Hawthorne is drawing from historical Puritan communities in late 17th century Massachusetts and as such doesn’t have as much work to do in his world building because his audience is already familiar with both Christianity and the extreme interpretations that the Puritans favoured. Shannon on the other hand is working within a fantasy world and, although there are strong similarities with Christianity, she has to build a religious world that is believable to her readers. For the most part this is fairly well done, her characters call on religious figures in normal conversation and show clear aversion to any form of ‘otherness’. Some of this may be that the reader is filling her constructed faith in with elements that are familiar from the real world, but there has also clearly been attention paid to the norms of Virtudom and their relationship to the world outside.
Despite extreme environments, both historical and fictional, there is change that occurs as new theology is developed and the old becomes less relevant. This is where Shannon’s construction falls apart as unlike the consistently fanatical figures of Hawthorne’s characters the supposed faithful of The Priory of the Orange Tree are quick to let go of their beliefs when an alternative is presented. In the Scarlet Letter it is only Hester’s belief that manifests meaningful change over the course of the novel, and it is a change that only happens when she is forced away from her previous beliefs. She becomes more liberal because her options are either to change or to accept herself and her daughter as products of sin that are headed for damnation. This is not an abandonment of Christianity; it is just a softening of her Puritan beliefs to adapt to the situation. It is this kind of transformation that Shannon was probably trying to achieve but her characters lack the motivation arcs that make Hawthorne’s characters so successful. Meg, Loth, and other characters who are initially presented as faithful followers of the Saint are willing to accept the validity of the alternate history that Ead presents even before there is any indication that this is going to be vital to the world’s survival. These are not characters that are being in anyway victimized by their faith, which is the impetus that makes Hester’s transformation believable, which makes their change feel arbitrary and hard to invest in.
Individual spiritual change is often contrasted with larger societal change on that front, or lack there of. It is actually a lack of change that feels more realistic when reading about extreme religious communities because of how firmly held the beliefs tend to be. Hawthorne constructs this fairly successfully in The Scarlet Letter as it is small moments of ‘mercy’ that represent the extent of the change characters are capable of. These are moments like allowing Hester to keep her child or her estranges husband’s moment of calm after Dimmesdale’s death. For a modern reader these are basic acts of common decency but with the context of the historical setting Hawthorne is creating it is realistic and powerful. Shannon also seems to realize that full scale conversions of entire nations would be unbelievable and jarring for a reader but there are still moments when the realism of a religious nation is pushed. History is full of moments where interfaith cooperation could have saved millions of lives, such as the Crusades which seem to inform parts of Shannon’s novel, but unwillingness to accept religious difference resulted in even greater violence. This however is not the world that is reflected in The Priory of the Orange Tree where alliances are made with relative ease and only minor backlash. It is not that the politics of Virtuedom and Seikii are boring to read, this is the climactic part of the novel and is executed well in other ways. Rather, the quick cooperation by not just individuals, but nations of differing faiths makes a truly immersive experience impossible to achieve.
The ways in which Shannon’s novel fall flat or the rigid puritan world that is maintained through A Scarlet Letter are not arguments that extremely strict religious communities are impossible to change or interact positively with. Instead the reading experience of these books shows demonstrates that questions of religion are complicated and difficult to handle even in fiction. By thinking about what makes representations of religion in fiction effective some of the real world challenges of inter-faith communication are made clear. Fictional worlds are made believable by their internal consistency and any discussion of religion is shaped by a willingness to consider complexity.
In the grand scheme of the universe humans are very small and probably lacking any degree of importance – a fact that humanity has been aware of and sought to minimize through an understanding of the world we exist in. The works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth look back on a concept developed by Immanuel Kant out of even earlier models: the idea of sublime beauty in ideas or places that are terrifying in scope but also ultimately positive to experience. For the Romantic poets this was a notion that was heavily connected to nature and the place of humans as simply an observe in a natural world that they cannot change but much more recently the sublime seems to appear in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar film. These are artistic explorations of the natural world and of philosophical ideal that can be simultaneously frightening and inspiring.
The idea of the sublime is traced back to the Greek philosophical tradition but the concept as it is used today in philosophy originates with Immanuel Kant. He built on the work of earlier philosophers who viewed the sublime as a general kind of terrifying beauty and developed the sublime into something that is tied to the cerebral rather than the physical world. However, throughout these developments the central themes remained the same – the world is frightening but also aesthetically impressive. As with many important and enduring philosophical concepts the sublime seeped into the artistic tradition. The early English Romantic poets explicitly aligned themselves with exploring the concept of the sublime while later poets and artists of other disciplines show strong influences from the philosophical tradition without explicit ties.
Representations of the sublime in art is much more closely relate to the natural world than it is to the largely theoretical sublime that Kant wrote about. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were close friends and collaborated over a shared fascination with the sublime. Wordsworth was captivated by nature, its seeming infinite complexity or beauty while Coleridge stayed closer to Kant’s conception of the sublime with a focus on bleak landscapes like deserts or oceans. It is Coleridge’s approach that is most closely related to Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar which released in 2014, 180 years after Coleridge’s death. Nolan films are always masterfully created which supports the kind of terrible beauty that is showcased in the movie. It is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the science of the universe and both the characters and the audience are both in awe of and frighten by the uncaring universe that is revealed.
There is a continuity in the natural world that is fascinating to the Romantic poets. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner has repeating lines throughout of the sun rising and setting over the drifting ship. While some of Wordsworth later works grapple with his sense that there is a part of the natural world that he is consistently just a few moments too late to see. There is a sense that time, and nature are moving on without the observer and that feeling comes through in Interstellar as well because the characters are constantly trying to manipulate space-time phenomena to their advantage. Much of the plot of Interstellar hinges not just on human created technology but also on the potentially overwhelming inner workings of the universe. Where cryo-sleep and years of space travel can make the protagonists a mere seven minutes late to stage a rescue operation on a distant water world.
Even separated by several centuries the Romantic Poets and Nolan seem to share a fascination with the uncaring world around them. They both seek to represent their view of the world to an audience and they have arguably succeeded. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner in particular is a poem that most English students will encounter and Interstellar is quickly becoming a gateway for young people into the sciences. This may not indicate that wider society is suddenly going to start having intellectual discussions about the nature of beauty and the sublime but it does show that the central principle remains solid: we are fascinated by the awe inspiring power of the universe and all the ways it doesn’t care if we die.
Looking into the overwhelming power of the natural world, or the natural universe, is an exercise in willpower and sometimes fear. In Interstellar, the characters are not scared by what they don’t know, they are confronting the terrors of a universe that is uncaring of human concerns forcing humans to just try and find a way to continue along inside of it. This is the same essential problem that the early romantic poets are exploring, nature exists in its own terms and especially at the time of writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth there was very little humans could do to try and tame it. However, those poets as well as modern creators like Christopher Nolan capture the concept of the sublime, a world that is enormous, terrifying and beyond our control but also ultimately beautiful and worth examining.
Reading Shakespeare is often one of the most reviled parts of high school English for the average student while beyond the walls of the classroom there is still a large theatre community that is built around keeping Shakespeare’s plays alive. William Shakespeare died in 1616 so his plays are far from recent which raises questions about the place they should have in contemporary culture both as a piece of history and as works still relevant to people’s lives. By considering the many versions of Shakespeare that have appeared in modern times that debate can be seen and the implications of changing the great playwright’s work can be considered.
No Fear Shakespeare and it many competitors are targeted at the apparently suffering high school students who are being forcible pulled through a study of one play or another. They attempt to make the experience of reading Shakespeare less taxing by moving the original Elizabethan English into more modern language. However, this often goes beyond just defining a word or two that has fallen out of common usage, instead there is an entire modern version of the text that is created. These versions usually lack the beautiful iambic pentameter of the original and many of Shakespeare’s hilarious and surprisingly juvenile jokes are also lost. For some students this might be the only way they are going to make it through a Shakespeare play, in which cased No Fear Shakespeare can be a fantastic tool for academic success, but the prevalence of full translations creates a general negative attitude about Shakespeare. There is an increasing feeling that Shakespeare is impossible to read in its original form and many students no longer bother to try since it is so easy to access modern translations.
The theater world is also very much aware of the challenge that modern audiences have with understanding and enjoying Shakespeare. However, they have moved in a slightly different direction with stage adaptations that take place in modern, or at least slightly more recent, times. For example in the 2018 summer season at the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario, Robert Lepage staged a modernized version of Coriolanus that included an iPhone texting scene that always drew many laughs from the audience. In versions like this the language of the play is largely if not entirely unchanged, but the setting and costuming is shifted forward in time. This can draw attention to particular themes or make the story seem more accessible since the modern context is so different from the one Shakespeare wrote in. Despite the many advantages of modernization there can also be real challenges associated with a Shakespeare play that has been taken out of its original framing. In the case of Lepage’s Coriolanus the modernization actually made several elements of the play more difficult to understand. Coriolanus is one of the Roman plays and features the rather unique political structure of Republican Rome, many of the positions that are central to the text haven’t existed in over a thousand years so the late 20th century setting that Lepage chose couldn’t account for these figures. Watching the play without a clear understanding of Shakespeare’s original would have been extremely challenging as the relationships between various characters is not at all clear in the modern adaptation. Modernizing Shakespeare on the stage revolves around a similar concern for accessibility that leads to translations while presenting a different set of problems.
There is a third option that exists somewhat outside of the dichotomy presented by translation or adaptation which is simply to write an entirely new creation that comments on the original. This is what Aime Cesaire undertook when he wrote Une Tempete which rather than just being a version of Shakespeare’s original that was staged in such a way that it emphasizes the discussion of colonialism is a completely new text that shows the story from another perspective. Rather than playing second fiddle to Prospero’s revenge quest, Ariel and Caliban are at the center of Une Tempete using discussions of race and colonization that are explicit rather than implied. It isn’t just the text of the play that is changed, Cesaire’s suggested staging as shown through additional scenes at the beginning and end of the play incorporate the culture of the African Diaspora through traditional masks, drawing attention to the vibrant cultures that Shakespeare’s work and colonialism in general are painting over. Even though the plot follows that of Shakespeare’s Tempest in many ways it is hard to read this play as simply a version or adaptation of the original as it has its own unique tone, meaning and emotion.
There are academics who spend their careers researching Shakespeare, his plays, and their place in society but that research is most often quite distance from the average person as they encounter Shakespeare. Whether in a high school classroom, on a stage or in more hidden forms that defy easy categorization – like Hamlet in the Lion King – these encounters are a point of contact between Shakespeare’s past and our present. Translations and modernizations attempt to force a connection between the audience and the text with some argument of relevance, while works like Cesaire’s show the gaps or failings of the original. However, if there is some relevance to be had perhaps there should be more faith placed in the audience to find it, or in new creators to come up and build their own work on the base that Shakespeare built.
Names and naming are a fascination in literature in general, and fantasy in particular but sometimes the lack of naming can convey an even stronger message bout the characters. Some names have symbolism or convey inherent character traits such as the JK Rowling’s incredibly literal Wolf-Wolf in Remus Lupin while other characters remain largely nameless like C.S Lewis’s White Witch who’s first name is rarely mentioned. Religious allegory is another place in which names serve a very particular purpose and the characters are identified by the singular trait that they represent in the story. Both allegory and science fiction rely heavily on symbolism and the way the reader engages with the created worlds of the texts which makes the role of naming clearer than it is in other genres. Examining the way characters are identified in the John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress and Jeff VanderMeer’s science fiction The Southern Reach Trilogy shows how the namelessness of a character can communicate their journey to the reader.
These are characters that are one dimensional and who’s entire being can be summed up in the singular word that serves to identify them. They rely on the reader’s preconceived notions that accompany the identify whether that be a trait like Virtue or Christian like in The Pilgrim’s Progress or professions like the biologist or surveyor in The Southern Reach Trilogy. These characters do not expand beyond the singular characteristics identified by their title and the reader may find it harder to attach a personality to their existent ideas attached to that title. Namelessness restricts the ways in which a character can grow and the ability of the reader to connect with that character which is often used intentionally by the author to further thematic aspects of their work.
Reading the Southern Reach Trilogy the reader finds themselves searching for names that just do not appear. The Biologist is not really a person, her story isn’t even happening in real time and it isn’t until she is replaced by a more complex creature that Ghost Bird begins to truly function as a name that is associated with a particular person. She is separate from the biologist of the first novel and the other characters view her as a distinct being. The biologist on the other hand is trapped nameless in her journals and remains in that state even as she transitions into the creature that is identified as a monster who was once the biologist. She is a watcher of nature as identified by her title but she is no more than that even as the plot advances around her.
Ghost Bird and the biologist have very linear trajectories in relation to their names but there are other more complex uses of naming in VanderMeer’s trilogy. Control’s journey from namelessness is a complete circle, he begins as Control and he ends as Control but much his arc revolves around this transition. The second book of the trilogy, the first in which he appears, is his progression from the brainwashed Control through his fight back to the moment where he ultimately reclaims his name while standing in the wilderness with the also recently named Ghost Bird. However, the complexity and self determination that Control gains when he takes back John Rodriguez is quickly lost as he is consumed by Area X. His departure as Control is in fact what brings Area X into a new, perhaps more stable state, and just as the allegorical figures in The Pilgrim’s Progress live into their identifiers so to does Control.
Contrary to the audience of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the readers of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress the challenges of reading an allegory would be familiar as it was a key part of the Christian tradition. This means that for the original readers of the story there would be no search for other names or characters in the same way that the modern readers of VanderMeer’s work do. There is also no expectation of growth in an allegorical text like Bunyan’s. Christian’s journey is not one to acquire a name like Ghost Bird but rather he is simply growing into the title he begins the story with. The name is true of villainous figures in the text like Formalist or Hypocrisy, the identifiers assure the reader of exactly what kind of behavior to expect. Where VanderMeer uses namelessness to show character journey Bunyan – and allegory in general – use namelessness to create static characters who do not develop.
The decisions that authors make about what to call their characters is central to how the reader with interact with those creations. Ghost Bird grows on the reader as she develops beyond the biologist and earns a name of her own while Christian’s journey into his faith feels inevitable and probably comforting to Bunyan’s original readers. When names come full circle like with Control it is a demonstration of how closely tied naming, even of fictional characters, is to a sense of identity. Allegory as utilized by writers of the past uses identifiers rather than names to show a character claiming of the traits that tied to that word while restricting their ability to develop beyond that trait. In modern fiction however, those who are nameless are without depth or identity, while the journey into a name is a journey of growth into person hood.
Fictional characters can be just as annoying as regular people, and because a lot of fiction is constructed in such a way that the reader is stuck in the head of the narrator or protagonist these characters can almost be more aggravating than people in the real world. Authors must balance the creation of an entire fictional mind with the minds of their readers because if the gap between the reader’s knowledge and the characters is too large reading can become ponderous and unpleasant. Characters with eccentric interests or mind altering conditions make achieving this balance even more difficult as the reader is less likely to have an understanding of reality that lines up with the mind of narrator. In novels, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Mark Haddon and Reif Larsen respectively construct texts that draw the reader into the far-left field that is their narrator’s minds.
The narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime poses a very particular challenge to readers – Christopher lives with autism. He has a deep and abiding love of routine, the neighbour’s dog, math and prime numbers in particular. Most readers are likely not as reliant on routines nor are they likely to be fascinated by the intricacies of pure math principles but Haddon manages to make reading about them far from frustrating. He captures the earnestness of Christopher’s enjoyment of all these things in a way that is compelling to the reader even if the reader wouldn’t normally be interested in any of the areas that Christopher fixates on. The reader isn’t expected to come in with an outlook that lines up with Christopher’s, rather they become caught up in his mind because the author does not try and rationalize those interests to the perspective of a neurotypical person. Routine, the neighbour’s dog, and prime numbers are integral to the book because they are integral to Christopher who the reader inhabits.
T.S. has a very different experience with others than Christopher does. While Christopher is incapable of understanding the way, others operate because of his disability, T.S. knows that most people do not think the way he does and do not have same values. At times T.S. tries to justify his goals or couch his interests in such a way that they are more appealing for those around him which serves to better connect the reader to his love of maps. This is further supported by Larsen’s inclusion of relevant maps in the margins of the text, T.S. understands his world through mapping them and rather than just expecting the reader to accept that Larsen presents the maps in real time so that the reader can have the visceral experience of how their narrator’s mind works. Just as T.S. relies on his maps to process the world the reader begins to rely on the maps to process the mind of T.S.
Despite their opposing strategies, both Haddon and Larsen ultimately fall back on the strength of writing that is internally consistent. The earnestness of Christopher or the awareness of T.S. only work because at no point in their respective novels do those characteristics break. The reader is sucked into the worlds of these two characters because the incredibly even construction of the point of view characters doesn’t offer any alternate ways to view the events of the story. There are no gaps that remind the reader of the potentially absurd conclusions or values of the point of view character. Instead the reader is swept up in the perspective of the protagonist even though those characters are fixated on subjects the reader would normally find far from fascinating.
The creation of narrators that are eccentric but still accessible or enjoyable to a general readership can be done through any number of methods so long as the writing is consistent. Reading a narrator that is inconsistent is frustrating and draw attention to the unrelatable parts of their experience while characters whose perspective is even throughout the text helps draw the reader into the perspective of that character. Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet are built around point of view characters that could easily become very alienating for the reader but instead these authors construct and characters that are earnest or aware in a consistent way that draws the reader into their minds. There is a joy of being lost in the worlds of a character and both Mark Haddon and Reif Larsen succeed in creating that experience.
Book recommendations can be difficult even when the story that is being explained is relatively simple or familiar. However, some stories are beyond what can be easily described in a blurb while trying to recommend the book to a friend because they are simply too strange to be explained. Novels, Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman both fall into this category but they handle their own strangeness in very different ways. The former leans into its own strangeness while the latter creates an environment that feels oddly close to normalcy – demonstrating the ways that genre is constructed.
As magic is not a reality of the world that readers live in speculative fiction in any of its many varieties must occur in a world that is not our own. However, there is a large difference in the experience that results from reading about from an entirely created world like Middle Earth rather than one that exists in parallel to that of the reader like in Harry Potter. Welcome to Night Vale and The Tiny Wife are both set in magical realities that run parallel to the reader’s real world. The young people of Night Vale occasionally try to escape into the wider world, and Carlos the scientist comes from a place that is implied to operate exactly in the way that the real world does. In The Tiny Wife the characters don’t go to some different place but rather magic intrudes on them in the real world after a robbery at a bank that causes the book’s namesake woman to start shrinking while other experience all sorts of magical afflictions. These are both stories that contain a great deal of strangeness, in fact the strangeness of Night Vale is actually far more consistent and explainable by the end of the novel than the magic of The Tiny Wife, but The Tiny Wife is set much closer to the world of the reader in a way that is quite typical of magic realism.
In both novels there is a character who is new to this strange world, someone who can appreciate the bizarreness of what is going on. In Welcome to Night Vale that character exists at the periphery of the story and is viewed through the lens of the characters for which all of this is normal. Carlos the scientist pops up periodically to remind the reader that the real world is out there, and to assure them that someone else thinks this is really weird too. Carlos is curious but also frustrated by the lack of scientific reality within Night Vale and his appearances break any sense of status quo that the reader may have been developing. He is an intruder in the same way that the reader is an intruder to the strange happenings of Night Vale.
Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife also employs an outside character in the form of the husband who is also the narrator of the story. However, the husband’s place as both spectator to the strangeness and narrator for the reader is done in such a way to make his shrinking wife seem as normal as possible. Both the narrator and his wife acknowledge that the shrinking is quite out of the ordinary and attempt to work with the other magically affected characters in the story to find a solution but they at no point exhibit the extreme confusion, anger or curious mania that Carlos demonstrates as he confronts Night Vale. The husband may be an observer to the strangeness that has enveloped his wife in the same way that Carlos spectates the happenings of Night Vale but Kaufman’s narrator is calm and adaptable in a way that normalizes the magic of the novel for the reader. That normalcy is central to the creation of magic realism and Kaufman is very effective in his usage of the husband as an interloper to the magical in order to reinforce the reader’s view of the fantasy elements in contrast to the way Carlos plays up the reader’s perception of the bizarre event in Night Vale.
The challenge of wrapping up a novel that contains magic or strangeness of any kind seems to lie in degree to which the oddities need to be explained away to the reader. Fink and Cranor leave the strangeness very much intact: yes, the mystery of Troy has been solved but there are no implications that Night Vale will suddenly become some normal town where everything is exactly as one would expect if you drove in from our world. This is fairly typical of a lot of genre writing because part of the joy of reading these types of stories is escaping out of what is normal, and it is comforting to know that the more exciting world continues even as the story ends. The Tiny Wife on the other hand is magic realism and at the end of the novel Kaufman shows the way back to the true normal of the real world. The tiny wife begins to grow and although not everything is fixed there is a sense that the strange events of the novel are just a blip in the road which are being corrected. Both conclusions are satisfying endings to the stories that are portrayed in the two novels but there is a distinct difference to how the authors choose to leave their created worlds for the reader.
Trying to explain either of these novels to someone else is going to inevitably make them sound incredibly strange – probably in very similar ways – but the actual tone of these stories is vastly different. Welcome to Night Vale leans into its on campy sci-fi/horror feel while The Tiny Wife manages to slip subtly into normalcy. This is the dividing line between magic realism and other forms of genre writing, they are constructed in different ways which shape the reading experience of the audience. Neither is necessarily better than the other, but they require divergent strategies for handling similar elements which create parallels that are strange to think about in their own way as well.
Disclaimer: I loved reading this book, I think it was really well done and wanted to write about it. I am a nonbinary identifying queer person so there are aspects of this book that I find incredibly relatable. That being said, I would also like to state that I am a white Canadian and I acknowledge that there are so many parts of the First Nations experience that are beyond what I can comprehend. Reading Jonny Appleseed showed me even more ways in which I need to try and be aware of my position of privilege and ways in which I can better respect First Nations culture.
There are books that are defined by their sexual content, whether that be those that are slammed as being bad erotica or those that are censored because they show sex in a way some faction of society has decided is offensive. But not all books that have adult themes are using sex in the same way and that is often clear through the reading experience. Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel Jonny Appleseed is a book that definitely includes sex, and probably will be absent from some libraries because of it, but there is an intentional feel to the sexual content, and it is that distinction that in many ways makes describing the book challenging. The experience of one person reading the book is not going to be same as the next and though that is true of most literature people tend to be more sensitive to it because it includes sex. However, reading and then talking about Jonny Appleseed creates challenges around how we discuss sex in literature and how it can contribute to the larger themes of the text.
There is undoubtedly a lot of sex in Jonny Appleseed, and probably more than there is in most books outside the romance genre, but all of the explicit scenes feel like they are contributing to the larger themes of the novel. I found the sexual content in the novel far from erotic, they were simply a part of Jonny’s life in the same way that smoking out the window with the bird was. As a nonbinary person some of the experiences of being at odds with how others view the body is familiar and reading the narrator’s experiences with what is probably dysphoria made me more aware of the how uncomfortable I sometimes find myself in my own skin. It is from that place of understanding of the physical sensations of dysphoria that I was able to try and wrap my head around the importance of the politics of the indigenous body. This isn’t an understanding where I would claim to have any deep knowledge of that experience but it was eye opening to an aspect of my privilege as a white person that I previously hadn’t been particularly cognizant of. These issues might not have been as striking if they had been described in an abstract sort of way but the physical act of sex that the character is engaged in forces the reader to confront his experiences through the first-person narration.
Talking about a book like Jonny Appleseed often becomes a very challenging experience and while I tried to discuss the potential of the book for use in the classroom with my mother who is a high school teacher, I was surprised by how uncomfortable I was. I believe strongly in open information being the best way to handle sex education and I have been part of organizations that seek to further that goal, so I also have previous experience around how conversations about sex sometimes go. Despite this I still found myself throwing in numerous warnings about the adult content in the book, not trigger warnings – although some of the scenes of dubious consent might benefit from trigger warnings for certain audiences – but just general warnings of the ‘hey there is sex in this’ sort. Really what I wanted to communicate was how effective I thought the book was and that it would be an ideal book for grade twelve students, especially in a small town where so many people lack exposure to or context for first nations issues. But what ended up happening was I buffered by opinion with warnings that were mostly unnecessary. This is one of the fundamental challenges of books that utilize sexual content and it is very much a challenge that arises out of problematic cultural stigmas around sex which are only amplified by the other political issues in Jonny Appleseed.
Joshua Whitehead’s use and inclusion of sex in Jonny Appleseed is incredibly effective and the impact of Jonny as a character would have been far less vivid without it. The intense physicality of these moments provides a perfect contrast for his inner experience of both queerness and first nations identity that may not have come through in the same way if conveyed in more PG ways. Since the impact of the sexual contact on the larger themes of the novel is quite visceral while reading the novel consideration should be given to how we discuss books like Jonny Appleseed so that the themes can be the focus rather than warnings about the sex.
(And yes I see the irony that this is the conclusion of a post that focuses on the sex in the book)
The cliché that love is blind is most often applied to romantic relationships where love is enough to mask the flaws of one person. However, in the case of the mother-daughter relationships in the short fiction of authors like Sarah Meehan Sirk and Jamaica Kincaid love is blind the sense that very particular outpourings of maternal love ignore the needs of the daughter it is directed at. The mothers in “Ozk” and “Girl”, by Sirk and Kincaid respectively, are very different and in many ways are direct contrasts of each other but the authors construct them in similar ways. Ultimately these are stories that capture mothers that love their daughters deeply, but their personal experiences render them unable to express that love in a way that is clear to their daughters.
The maternal figures in Sirk and Kincaid’s stories is a contrast between too much attention and not enough. The narrator of “Ozk” talks about the emptiness of her childhood and her feeling of obligation to care for her mother as she became more wrapped up in her work. The titular girl of Kincaid’s work is also being faced with obligation, but this time it’s the obligation to live up to the expectations that her mother is so forcefully explaining. The mother rails on her daughter about becoming a slut, a woman who is too worldly for her own good, but her advice is tinged with lessons that hint at her mother having the kind of past she is warning her daughter against as she explains how have a relationship or how to abort a pregnancy. The mother of Kincaid’s story is ultra focused on her daughter and the potential pitfalls of womanhood because she wants her daughter to become the kind of woman that the baker lets near the bread. In contrast the mother in Sirk’s “Ozk” is absent and Margaret, the daughter, feels as if she did not really know her mother and her mother did not really know her. Whereas the mother in Kincaid’s story assumes her daughter could not do anything on her own Ozk’s mother figure assumes that her daughter will be entirely independent. However, Margaret’s mother’s love does come through in the final moments of the text with the realization that Dr. Claire Gardiner’s scientific discovery that was the source of their distant relationship was ultimately named for her daughter.
Voice and narration are central to how both Sirk and Kincaid construct the mother-daughter relationships as the balance of lines between the two figures mirrors the kind of relationship that they have. In “Girl” the daughter speaks only twice, in order to quietly protest the assumptions that her mother is making – both times to little affect. The long ranting speech of the mother with only small interjections of the daughter creates the oppressive feel of their relationship while also capturing the one sidedness of their interactions. Sirk’s story is longer but in the present of the story Margaret’s mother has already descended into some sort of debilitating mental illness and is unable to speak for herself. It is a reversal of “Girl” and this time the daughter is describing her mother in her own voice. Margaret’s mother speaks in flashbacks to the child Margaret but interacts with the narrator in the present of the story only through the written caption at the very end of the story. It is a story told in the voice of the daughter but the mother ultimately gets the final word.
As a result. the use of voice is also a window into the daughter’s understanding of their mother. In “Ozk” the daughter is left to figure out everything on her own, her mother is absent, and she lives with the understanding that she was unloved, or at the very least only secondary to her mother’s work. However, she at least has the ability to expand upon that understanding, she has a kind of agency that the daughter in “Girl” lacks. That daughter is also in a situation where her mother’s love is perhaps not obvious, but her lack of understanding is shown by her silence. The lack of voice in “Girl” mirrors her lack of connection to her mother’s love where Margaret’s distant mother is shown through the absence of the mother’s speech in Margaret’s narration. These are also relationships that are not fixed through the kind of open communication that is generally considered healthy or productive. Instead the reader must look inside the relentless rant of Kincaid’s writing to see the mother’s concern for her daughter surviving in a difficult world and read into the final note from Sirk’s mother character to find her love for her daughter.
These are stories that are focused on the dysfunctional relationships between mothers and daughters, yet they are both stories with mothers who seem to truly love their daughters. “Girl” and “Ozk” are stories from the perspective of girls as they look at the women who put so much into raising them, and even though these are not the close loving relationships that are held up as the ideal these are still mothers who love their daughters. The ranting of “Girl” has a single outpouring of angry lessons learned and then forced out while “Ozk” contains a pervasive silence in the place of a mother that tries to honor her daughter through success. The perspective characters of these short stories catch glimpses of their mother’s love, but it is a blind kind of love that can’t listen to the experiences of the daughters. Kincaid and Sirk raise questions around womanhood, success, and parenting through these dysfunctional relationships that show a mother’s love attempting to raise a daughter into a world that teaches hard lessons of its own.
An element of the past is often central to fantasy texts, they are set in worlds where characters fight with swords rather than guns and cell phones are more impossible than magic, but the degree of history that slips in shifts a great deal with the author. Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay is praised for his fantasy novels and one of the unique elements of these books are the degree to which they are steeped in the history of our world. This is a world building choice that gives Kay’s novels a distinctly different feel to the more traditional fantasy works of Lewis, Tolkien, or Martin. This difference sets Kay’s work apart from much of the contemporary fantasy scene but it is an incredibly effective way to address history in a way that is appealing and accessible to a different kind of reader.
Despite being categorized as a fantasy book, those who are familiar with European history will immediately recognize the setting of Kay’s most recent work – A Brightness Long Ago – as being set in Renaissance Italy. Perhaps most obvious is Seressa whose canal’s and business economy match almost exactly with the vision of Venice that most readers would come to the text with. Even the major event which the book revolves around, the fall of Sarantium, is clearly the Kay’s parallel to the fall of Constantinople. Kay isn’t trying to hide the historical basis for what he is writing about, he leans into the style that he has been using since the publication of A Song for Arbonne in 1992 and even includes what amounts to a works cited at the end of the book. A Brightness Long Ago, like the novels that proceeded it, draw in a reader who already loves history with the joys of trying to match figures and families in the book to their historical equivalents while Kay’s fantasy setting creates the kind of immersive veneer that makes the history compelling in a way that no textbook ever could.
Kay never claims to be writing an accurate history and it allows him to write characters who are entirely a part of their world rather than having the kind of distance that historical writing requires. Books that seek to be factual and educational are written with a kind of distance, they describe the beliefs of the Ancient Greeks without really believing in the Greek pantheon and come with the implication of misplaced faith that comes with describing what is now a long dead religion. Even historical fiction novels are written with a kind of awareness of the reader, the characters do really believe in the world their story takes place in, but the books often feel like the are turned towards a voyeuristic reader who wants to look back on history. By setting his novels in a fantasy world Kay removes that pressure, he writes about Christianity or Islam without really writing about those faiths and it makes the character’s faith feel more real because they simply run in parallel with the religion’s the reader knows. History is close enough to Kay’s fantasy that it is recognizable but not so close that it entirely breaks the immersion of the world, rather it makes the world feel deeper and more complex with what the reader brings to the story.
The immersive fantasy experience actually brings the reader closer to what they are reading than a pure history would. There are many people who would never pick up a book about the minor conflicts of city states in the Italian Renaissance but will find the Folco vs Monticola conflict in A Brightness Long Ago compelling. Kay’s fantasy captures the best aspects of history, the intrigues and the power and the devastating power of a single event like the fall of Constantinople without getting caught up in the details of dates, geographies and armies that people often find off putting about history. However, it is a not a patronizing oversimplification that simply assumes people are too stupid to understand history, Kay’s world is masterfully constructed around the historical fact so that history buffs are also caught up in the push towards the climatic fall of Sarantium that their history knowledge told them was inevitable from the beginning of the novel. It is hard for a modern reader to feel the shock waves that the fall of Constantinople sent through Europe but A Brightness Long Ago places them in a world that hasn’t felt that shock wave yet and then lets them feel it happen. This is a kind of closeness that isn’t possible with history but seems inescapable when reading Kay’s work.
A Brightness Long Ago is the most recent of Kay’s novel’s and is perhaps the ideal book to use for this analysis because it is set in a fantasy of Europe with its own version of Christianity, but Kay’s other works carry the same historical weight. The (unfortunately) less recognizable histories of the Near and Far East are present in his earlier novels and immerse the reader in a kind of history they may not be nearly as familiar with. The historical parallels are just as close in these books, but it is certainly a different kind of immersive atmosphere is certainly different and might offer an even more valuable experience than reading the easily identifiable history of Europe. A Brightness Long Ago is a gateway into history, but it will hopefully also be a gateway into Kay’s previous books for new readers to expand their historical horizons beyond what a single story can contain.