Books that Shaped Me, Part 11: Roman Britain Novels, By Rosemary Sutcliff

This week, we bounce back in the timeline a little to books that were first read to me and then re-read a few times on my own. I hadn’t originally thought of writing about Rosemary Sutcliff for this series, but a recent conversation with my parents reminded me of her books, and how much I enjoyed them, and how worthwhile telling people about them is.

Each of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels of Roman Britain stands alone, with small references to earlier books for the enjoyment of careful readers. They are vividly world-built in both the physical environment and the culture. Much history is mentioned, but much less is explained. Exposition stays well confined to the perspective of the characters, even when what is common knowledge for them is mysterious to the young reader. The immersion is well-maintained and the characters feel authentically of their time, never turning toward the fourth wall for historical expositions. When I first read these books, I did not approach them differently than fantasy novels. I had no other historical reference to the times they were set with which to orient myself, so the world depicted was new and strange

I have only come to love these novels more as I return with much greater historical context. I find the interplay of solid history with legend and imagination enchanting, and I appreciate the effort Sutcliff puts on depicting the culture of the past without judgment, but also without excessive bowdlerizing. These books are satisfying to an amateur student of Roman history, both in the hints of larger social and political moves that drift into the narrative, and in their joyful examination of the details of daily life, hypocausts, and bath-houses, and legion careers. Beyond those details, the novels are united by repeated themes of legacy, loyalty, and the harmony and tension of blood family and found families.

The first of the series in The Eagle of the Ninth, set in golden age of empire, after the building of Hadrian’s wall. Our adventure is the search for a lost legionary eagle, vanished along with its legion in the mists of Caledonia beyond the wall, along with the main character’s father and an entire legion. After injury derails his career in the legions, our hero finds a second path in trying to redeem his family’s, and the empire’s, failure in the north. If there is a highlight beyond the lush description and enjoyable adventure, it is the clear-eyed view of the immense privilege that even a lower-level member of the Roman aristocracy enjoys. If there is a weakness, it the sensationalized savagery of the Celts beyond the wall, but it did not jar me when I was young, and I cannot now read past the veil of nostalgia to assess how deeply problematic it may be.

The next entry in the series is The Silver Branch, set a couple hundred years later, during Carausius’ rule of a semi-independent Britain. The issue of loyalties is immediately complicated in this book, as the legionary heroes must weigh loyalty to the distant and abstract Rome with duty to the nearby Carausius, a strong and effective steward of Britain, which they love. In the end of course, the question is resolved by Carausius’ murder by his treacherous minister Allectus, but not before much plot is wrung from investigation and skullduggery. Allectus allies with the Saxons, providing the series’ first glimpse of the blonde barbarians who will be the major antagonists of the last two books. In the end Rome, in the person of Re-conquering tetrarch Constantius, returns to its position as the light of order and civilization in Britain.

Rome is represented by a literal light in The Lantern Bearers, the lighthouse kindled by our protagonist as he watches the legions sail away from Britain, forever. Immediately after that melancholy symbol of defiance, our hero is captured by Saxons who look very much like proto-Vikings and taken as a thrall. The second half of the book, after his escape back in Britain, is an Arthurian story, with Vortigern, Hengest, and Aurelius Ambrosius, the sometimes Arthur, sometimes Merlin semi-historical last of the Romans in Britain. This was my first introduction to the Arthur as bearer of the Roman flame take on that mythology, and I have continued to be partial to that spin on Arthurian legend.

The Lantern Bearers technically closes a trilogy of related works, but I will also talk about a spiritual successor that I read along with the rest and enjoyed greatly. The Shining Company is an entirely British story, after the Romans and before Anglo-Saxon and British came to mean the same thing. It is in fact an imagining of a story told in a Welsh epic, preserved in fragments, called Y Gododdin. The poem and the novel tell of a picked force of 300 warriors, gathered by the wealthy king of what is now Edinburgh, and sent into doomed battle with the expanding Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. (Fun trivia, if not a later interpolation in the manuscript, Y Gododdin contains the earliest known reference to king Arthur.) The style of The Shining Company is distinct from that of the Roman Britain novels, more lyrical, more epic, and more tragic, but it shows the same superb attention to the details of life in the past. It is particularly dear to me for portraying a world in which magic is believed in and magic is done without requiring any suspension of disbelief from the reader. Magic is done without anything necessarily fantastic occurring.

The lesson that the mundane must be explained and is worth spending exposition on no less than the fantastic is a quite important one, and that idea is perhaps the lasting legacy of these books for me. Also a deep fascination with Roman History. That may have started here too, or possible that was Asterix & Obelix. Either way, I loved Sutcliff when I was young, and I still find it worth returning.

Books that Shaped Me, Part 10: Sabriel, by Garth Nix

I bounced off Sabriel when I first encountered it, in one of many loads brought back from the library for my mother to read to me, something about it, the setting or the style or the age of the protagonist didn’t catch me just right, and we didn’t go very far. I found Sabriel again a few years later, when I was reading for myself, and it was perfect, delightfully dark and magical with a core of adventure and learning about a new world. Speaking of creepy and Garth Nix, allow me a brief digression on another of his books: Shade’s Children is genuinely terrifying and filled with vivid horror imagery. It is the only book that I clearly remember making it hard to sleep and giving me nightmares when I did. Give Shade’s Children to the young readers in your life with caution. It is not for the nervous.

Returning to Sabriel, one of the interesting things about it is that, for a moment, it seems to be a different sort of book than it is. The first chapter, discounting the prologue, suggests a magical-school kind of narrative. Our titular heroine is a prefect, with all the immediate cultural suggestions that entails, there are ivy covered buildings and illicit magic and school uniforms, but the expected structure is immediately undermined; Sabriel knows more than her teacher about magic and monsters, and the same scene that reveals that detail incites the real quest of the novel. After the initial tease, Sabriel become a journey book, an adventure of rescue of discovery, as Sabriel travels to a land she barely remembers and we, the reader, understand not at all.

Sabriel is simply full of things I loved and continue to love, so the form of the rest of this blog is going to be me talking about why those things were wonderful.

I loved Sabriel herself. Unlike very many YA heroes I have not enjoyed, she is powerful and competent and magical. Sabriel is young, and she is thrown into many situations she doesn’t know how to deal with, but she knows a great deal more about important magical workings than almost anyone else in the world. I loved then, and continue to love now, protagonists who are allowed to be powerful from the beginning of the book, not only at the end, and Sabriel’s magic and knowledge satisfied on that score.

I loved the Old Kingdom, the realm of magic and the walking dead where most of the story takes place, sealed off from the rest of the world by its ancient spell-mortared wall. In Sabriel, we meet the Old Kingdom as a ruin. Its are borderlands haunted by the dead; its remaining communities are closed in and harried into hardscrabble accommodation; its brilliant past of secret magic and grandeur is half-forgotten. But the bones remain. The Old Kingdom is one of the finest pieces of fantasy world-building I have read, because the society truly respects the magic. In a kingdom where the dead rise, unattended or at the will of a necromancer, the people have found defenses and ways to deal with the shambling corpses. The ordered magic of the Charter has a place in every community. The dead are burned. I love fantasy worldbuilding that integrates magic into the development of culture and convention, and Sabriel gave me that.

I loved the magic. There are two kinds of magic in Sabriel: Charter magic, the magic of order, healing, cleansing, and safety, and free magic, the magic of necromancy, of corruption, pain, and wild, destructive freedom. I adore the visceral feel of each. Charter magic is cool, soothing, precise and patient. Using it is like dipping into a universe of symbols that connects you to the whole of charter, a magical framework that connects all things and people bound to the charter. Free magic is hot, it burns and smells of hot metal. It is black-red flames with oily smoke. It buzzes in the head. It was so easy to feel the magic in Sabriel, more vivid than any other part of the book.

I loved the toys: the seven bells of a necromancer, Charter-spelled blades, armor of ancient porcelain-metal, forged with magic now forgotten, half-sentient gliders made from paper and magic with the personality of hawk. I enjoyed collections of carefully described magical or historically significant artifacts, and I loved it even more as a child, when I didn’t really bother with the emotional arc nonsense. Sabriel is chock full of magical toys and gewgaws and I loved them all.

I loved the Perimeter, the no-man’s land between the world where technology works and has advanced, and the regressive magic of the Old Kingdom. It is a place of the restless dead, where soldiers of an enlightened and post-superstition society must confront the reality of magic and the breakdown of their technology, where the dead rise, guns and telephones break down when the wind blows from the north, and experience soldiers wear mail over their khaki and carry a sword that only polite convention lists as a ‘bayonet’.

The world of Sabriel drew me in hard, and I have stayed invested and intrigued. The story managed to be serious, dark, dangerous, and adult, but still worked as YA, never losing a core of hopeful uncertainty/discovery, never becoming grim despite the death and danger. I read the sequels that complete Nix’s original Abhorsen trilogy, but later. I enjoyed them greatly, but I don’t count them as formative. I realized as I was writing this blog, how much the visceral description of magic in Nix’s books continues to inform my own writing. Clearly, these books have stayed with me, and I think that is very much to my benefit.

Books that Shaped Me, Part 9: Everworld, by K. A. Applegate

The Everworld series were books I certainly should not have, but did, read as child, when I between ten and twelve years old. I never read Animorphs, Applegate’s larger, better known series, but I have heard that it becomes quite heavy and dark by the end. Everworld started out dark and got rougher from there. I do not think these books belonged in the scholastic catalogue, from which I acquired all twelve as they became available.

Everworld is a story of four teenagers thrown into a magical realm by the schemes of their classmate/girlfriend/ex-girlfriend/sibling, Senna, who is a witch. Everworld, where they are sent, is the place where all the old gods and mythical heroes and monsters retreated, with a stock of mortals to serve and worship them, at the point they abandoned the ‘real’ world. Put another way, this is a world filled with sanity bending monsters that demand humans bow to them, and people with an unreconstructed dark-ages parody of a moral sense regarding violence, gender politics and slavery. The characters rubber-band between worlds as the series goes on, but the real action, in their and my minds, is in Everworld. The first book, which by publication dates I would have been 10 when I read, contains several scenes of graphic violence, including gory dismemberment and masochism, scenes of grim despair, torture, and heavily implied off-screen sexual violence. It also contained unexpected and intriguing world building, an interesting plot, and teen protagonists who I disliked with moderate intensity from the beginning.

I was not ready for these books. I will go farther and say I was unprepared (by life or by previous reading), shocked, and repulsed by them. The violence, fear, and suffering were more than enough to put me off the books, and I was made uncomfortable by a lot of what I read, but I was also uncomfortably fascinated, and it drew me back. Each time the next entry in the series appeared in the scholastic catalogue, I had to debate whether to acquire it. (When I was homeschooled, my father was registered as a teacher with scholastic. We got the catalogue each month, I circled what I wanted, the books appeared. I was given very little supervision in choosing the books.) I am not sure my parents were ever aware of the content of Everworld, or whether they would have done anything if they were. It was an internal debate, whether I wanted to continue the series each time, but each time I chose to order the books.

Reading Everworld never really stopped being frustrating, disturbing, or emotionally unpleasant, but it also continued to be fascinating and horizon-expanding. The content continued as disturbing as it began, and indeed escalated enough to keep the visceral unpleasantness fairly constant. It also continued to expose me to bits of mythology and legend that I had never seen before, and to aim at the things I was familiar with from odd angles that I had never considered. I was drawn to it the way one is drawn to peel off a scab, or to look at pornography when it is first discovered.

I was seriously unready for these books, and they were not written to ease the age-group they were marketed to into considering more adult issues. They were the literary equivalent of being thrown into the deep end of an icy pool in terms of teaching young readers how to think about the serious issues they presented. The books were full of sex: not graphic, but constant references, many of them tinged with violence. They dealt with depression, addiction, homophobia and white-supremacy, all through the lens of one character, who became depressed after a heroic sacrifice forced him to confront his own unthinking homophobia. He carried on a cross-universe bender that seems to be an acceleration of incipient alcoholism. In his real-world return segments, he discovers the copy shop he works at is run by neo-nazis, who invite him to their meetings. My hand was not held through any of this, and my articulation of what those parts of the books were about is very much hindsight. At the time, I found them uncomfortable. I did not enjoy reading them. I think this portion of Everworld is strongly implicated in an aversion to ‘real-world’ problems in fantasy that I carried for a long time, and am only now really examining and trying to discard.

The Everworld books were deeply difficult for me, and my reaction to them was complex, and is, perhaps, ongoing. I am not sure I would recommend them to anyone. I certainly would not recommend them to a precocious ten year old, but they did leave a real mark on me. The visceral imagery and emotion continues to shape how I think about horror in particular, and I remember them, much more than many books I simply enjoyed at the same time in my life. I was not looking for strange an disturbing fiction at that time in my life, but I have come to respect the value of it since, even if I am still unsure about Everworld.

Books that Shaped Me, Part 8: The Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling

We were sure to come here eventually, since I’m a longtime fantasy reader who was a child at the end of the twentieth century. I believe it is my greatest piece of fantasy-hipster cred that I first read (technically had read to me) a British copy of the correctly titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which looked very grown-up with its black and white photograph of an oncoming train on the cover) some months before the re-titled book was released in the United States. A friend of the family who visited from England knew we all loved fantasy and that I was the right age for such a thing and brought it as a gift when she visited us, before it had become apparent quite how much of thing Harry Potter was going to be on either side of the Atlantic.

Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone is, of course, very good, and that fact did not elude me or my parents as we read it for the first time. I read it myself more than once before the second book appeared, and I continued to read each entry eagerly when they came out. I wasn’t as deep into the world of Harry Potter as it was possible to be, but neither did I only dip a toe into those waters. I never attended a midnight release, or indeed any kind of release event at a bookstore. I certainly caused wands to be fabricated for my own use, but no robes or other wizardly paraphernalia from that particular universe appeared in our house or my games. (I had a lot of time for games of imagination as a child, especially when I was still home-schooled and had lonely hours to fill with nothing but a back yard and an ever growing collection of wood and plastic weaponry.)

I devoured each of the books, the first several, at least, in a day or two when it arrived. I enjoyed them, and also, at that time, voraciously reading the new Harry Potter book was an important way of performing the kind of nerd identity that I was most comfortable in. By reading them, I made public my attachment to fantasy in a way everyone else, especially other children, could recognize and accept. (I did not think of it in that way then, but I have been to college since and become far more pretentious.) Even as a read them, there were always things I disliked, the cringe-inducing awkwardness of so many of Harry’s interactions with adults, the painful stupidity of some of his choices. The opening of book 2, I remember, was particularly off-putting for me. None of this was enough push me away from the series, and I read the first four books more times than I can easily count, relishing each one, until I had more-or-less memorized each beat, and many of the individual sentences.

Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was where my relationship with the series began to change. I am given to understand that this is a relatively common experience. (That weight was long, wasn’t it?) I’m sure I read Order of the Phoenix more than once, but I don’t really remember it nearly as well as the first four. I’m not certain I read either of the last two books more than once. I had aged faster than the writing, and as I aged, I had read more and more other genre fiction books, which threw the weaknesses of Harry Potter into sharper relief. The added grimness of the latter entries did not really help with the problem of adolescence that broke my immersion in the world, it just made me enjoy reading the books less. They’re long books to spend a lot of the story arc sad.

I loved the Harry Potter books for a long time, and I enjoyed reading and talking about them, but I was only briefly a fan. When the little charity pamphlets about magical beast and the history of Quidditch gave a glimpse of the larger wizarding world, my imagination games featured a good deal of Harry Potter derived material for a while, but it didn’t go much farther than that. The real problem is that the way I enjoyed my books outside of reading them, the way I performed enjoyment of them for others, was to talk about them. Specifically, to analyze them, and Harry Potter doesn’t stand up to the deconstruction, as even its fans know. There are too many large holes in the logic of the world for it to keep its shine through deep analysis, and that gets added to the list of reasons I lost my deep love for the series. The biggest reason, though, was the end. I absolutely hate the rug-pull of Harry’s resurrection at the close. For me, it cheapened the sacrifice and left a sour taste.

If I was not really a diehard fan of Harry Potter as a child, I certainly am not one now. The books live in my memory, and the sheer number of times I read the first half of the series earns them a place in this blog series, but the greatest long-lasting impact of them on me and my reading was probably the reaction against them at the end, it’s certainly a big part of what created my current wariness of young-adult fiction and my tendency to pivot into things that are unequivocally ‘serious’ and ‘adult’ for my reading material. Thought, if you have some time, I do have some moderately detailed notes on how the series could be completely re-written to solve a lot of problems and improve the depth of the world building. … …Call me?

Books that Shaped Me, Part 7: The Discworld Novels, by Terry Pratchett

This is going to be a long one, because I have several books to talk about. Let me begin by saying that, until his sad decline in Alzheimer’s, everything Terry Pratchett wrote was smart, and much of it was not just good but great. It is the finest satire I have ever read, looking through its elegant lens at our world with a deep and bountiful heart, animated by an engine of righteous fury so elegantly described in Neil Gaiman’s essay “A Slip of the Keyboard: Terry Pratchett.” Pratchett’s anger is always aimed upward at those who deserve to have it rattling their thrones, never at anyone who will be pushed down when they need a hand to lift them. There are too many excellent Discworld books to list, so I will confine myself here to four that touched me very deeply, and that shaped my reading and my thinking early, before I could encompass the whole of the great disc and its many people.

I will begin with Small Gods. It was my first Discworld book. I will also venture to suggest that it is the correct first Discworld book, if someone is looking for an entertaining read that stands alone and does not lose savor or depth without a context to sauce it. Small Gods uses no characters, save for some of the deities, that appear elsewhere in the series, since it takes place long before most of the other novels.

A great deal of the historical, social, political, and religious references and allegories in Small Gods went far over my head when I first read it, somewhere between ten and twelve years old, but the emotional pull of the story was undeniable. I cared. I cheered and groaned and was frustrated and anxious and triumphant at the times intended. Many of the jokes were excellently simple and required nothing but an enjoyment of words or absurd images to make me laugh to myself as I read them. Now, when I come back, I know what is being winked at, what pieces of history are pilfered for their best pieces, what bits of human sin are the villains I am being taught to recognize in life.

After Small Gods, I was aware of Discworld but not drawn in. As young as I was, it had been strange and difficult enough I did not immediately look for another like it. I picked up other Pratchett books occasionally and haphazardly, reading them out of order and without understanding the larger picture of the universe. Some of the books do not really work well when read out of context. Deciphering large series was much harder before internet bibliographies so helpfully broke everything down by publication date and internal chronology.

Feet of Clay was the book that got me properly pulled into Discworld. It was the one that made me get all the rest and read them properly, over and over until I understood how they fit. It is a Sam Vimes novel (my favorite subset of the Discworld), and, for me, it begins the second act of the night watch’s narrative. Feet of Clay is a pure delight, especially for a young person just beginning to like stories that are a little darker, stories with a little teeth to them. It treats with huge and weighty questions about prejudice, about freedom and slavery and leadership, about blood and class and labor, and, as all watch books do, about justice and revenge.

Sam Vimes is character I will always love, and I first met him here: so full of righteous fury, but so wary of giving in to it, so distrustful of easy answers and fast, satisfying solutions. Sam Vimes and this book taught me about the institutional injustice of capitalism and class structure a decade before I was ready to articulate a bit of it, and it was great fun at the same time, magical and cynical and full of wit and mystery and magic.

Vimes is the hero of my very favorite Pratchett: Night Watch, which I think may be his very best novel. I read it when I was fully enfranchised in the series and the world. I had read more or less everything that was out at that point. As with most Discworld, this improved Night Watch from good to nearly perfect.

Night Watch is a novel about revolution, and how it manages to revolve without ever lifting the people at the bottom any higher. We see the particular revolution of the book from the point of view of Sam Vimes tumbled back in time, who knows just how much and how little this glorious republic will achieve. I am re-reading Night Watch now, and I am filled once again with admiration and joy and sadness at Pratchett’s poignant love for people who think they can change the way the world works, and his righteous hate for the machine that crushes the poor and the good and naïve between its gears and the people who turn those grinding wheels.

Reading Night Watch for the first time, I was most taken with Sam Vimes, his cunning and his wit and his cynical idealism, and with the glimpse inside the mind of the future patrician, Vetinari, that was offered. Reading it again, I am struck with its astounding prescience born of deep historical realism. The whole book might be meditation on recent history in Egypt and the Middle East. It was published in 2002. It is an always-relevant look at the danger of government turned against its people and the broken dreams of so many revolutions. It is angry and sad and hopeful and beautiful and true, like all of Pratchett, underneath the brightly colored shell of humor that entices you to take a look.

I don’t have an elegant transition, but I do also want to talk about one more book: Lords and Ladies, because it is a fairy story, one which I read early, and, if you have been paying any attention to my writing, you know that I spend a lot of time thinking about fairy stories. It is a witches book, the first in Pratchett’s real golden age, in my opinion. Like many witch books, it draws a lot on theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in this case. I missed those references my first time through, which is odd, since I had read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and seen it performed more than once before I read Lords and Ladies.

As a fairy story, Lords and Ladies is thoughtful and deep. It has the bones of terror that good fairy stories need, and it meditates on how stories can trick us. The glamor of fairies is built on stories of blood and ancient right and beauty and confounding style, and those stories trick us into acting against our own best interests, just like they do when ordinary people tell them for that reason. It reminds us, as good fairy stories should, that a loss of wonder in the world is a price we pay for nights that can be fearless, and it may well be a price worth paying.

I have no pithy conclusion here, except to say that discworld is brilliant and deep beneath its constant and irrepressible humor, and my young life was made much richer by reading it.

Books that Shaped Me, Part 6: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

I don’t know exactly when I read this book first. I read a lot of books in the later years of my home-schooling and the first of my traditional schooling, and the order in which I came to the next several titles in this series is lost to the mists of time. I found Lord of Light during a program of devouring all of Roger Zelazny, who I had found first through Nine Princes in Amber. Since I liked that book, I got everything the central library had of Zelazny, as was my pattern for finding new books at that stage of life. Roger Zelazny was far from the only author whose entire section I pulled from the fantasy and science fiction shelves. I was probably too young for much of the sex, politics, literary allusions, and sarcasm when I first read it, but I loved it anyway. I still love most of Zelazny, but Lord of Light is the book of his that I return to often, the one at the center of his portion of my heart.

Lord of Light is a novel intentionally based in Indian religion and mythology, drawing heavily on the iconography of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is about colonists of distant planet who have built a society that draws heavily on the iconography of Hinduism, and a revolutionary who introduces Buddhist ideas as an intentional disruption. For both Zelazny and his characters, the basis in real-world religion provides a wealth of potent imagery to pilfer and re-purpose. It was certainly brilliantly targeted for me, as child who devoured mythology in the form of modern novel adaptations, illustrated surveys of bowdlerized snippets, and eventually full texts in translation.

Lord of light filled me with a desire to read the Vedas and the Upanishads, before I actually knew what they were. I haven’t actually managed that yet. They don’t have nicely packaged popular translations the way British mythologies tend to. I think of reading them again whenever I return to Lord of Light. I’ll actually get to it one of these days, I swear.

I adored the mythic scale of the action in this book, and the intentional reference to gods and goddesses let the conflict shake the foundations of the world without seeming overdone or out of place. The characters battle over the whole world and course of its civilization, and nothing undercuts that scale. Like Tolkien, the narrative is comfortable with its own scale, with the conflict of good and evil, or perhaps beauty and ugliness. They are human characters with foibles and petty desires and memories of something ordinary, but they are also more than that. They have ascended, intentionally, to a plane beyond. They may not deserve their lofty positions, their power of the fate of so many, but they do not give the power up. They have chosen to ascend.

That’s part of what works so well in Lord of Light. The characters know they have become archetypes. They’ve adopted those roles on purpose, to reinforce their power. But even self-aware, the power narrative still controls them. This idea is never spoken aloud, but Lord of Light is suffused with the power of narrative causality. It’s characters are driven to play to type, and to pursue the arc of stories they know will end with their destruction, because that is the way the story ends. This power of the narrative to compel even self-aware actors once they enter it is a tacit demonstration of an idea I found made explicit in Terry Pratchett, and later in more than one book about fairies. I think its implicit presence here is one of the hooks that caught me deep enough not to let go.

When I first read Lord of Light, it made me feel worldly and knowing and mature. It did not make me any of those things, but it’s jaded, worldly characters and their references to history and literature and stories that I did not know, but that I was trusted, as a reader of the book to understand, made me feel like I belonged among the jaded immortals who had become the gods of their world through science and mysticism and raw ambition. It is very attractive, at thirteen, to imagine you belong in the company of living gods who have lived centuries in body after body, long enough that they no longer marvel at the wonder of a world and city shaped in their own divine image.

I do not really know if Lord of Light is a very good book. It is probably a good book if you like Roger Zelazny, which I understand to be one of those things, like marmite or black coffee, that provokes strong reactions on either side of the debate. I do know that it is a perfect book for me, then, when I was young, and now, when I am still relatively young, but understand more of the references. I return to it endlessly now because it is filled with comfortable nostalgia. It is a story made to work even when you already remember every word. I do not remember every word yet, but I may before I am done reading it. The story will still be right, proceeding with the orderly and satisfying pace of a ticking clock, or the bone-deep rightness of fairytale.

Books that Shaped Me, Part 5: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is going to be the last of these books where my memories of being read to are as vivid and extensive as memories of reading for myself. I got A Wizard of Earthsea early, long before I could understand or even notice all the things it was about. That is one of the wonderful things about A Wizard of Earthsea: it is a perfect adventure story for children, as well as a thoughtful and complex fantasy for adults.

I would like to stake out a position here and say that I have wanted to be a wizard for as long as I can remember wanting to be anything, pretty much for as long as I can remember anything. I still want to be a wizard. I am just finding compromises until I get there. When I wanted to be a wizard as a child, this book is the one I took my template from. I hear Wizard of Earthsea long before Harry Potter appeared, long before I found and read So You Want to be a Wizard. Ged was the wizard I admired, the one I imagined being.

Ged’s magic, the magic of Wizard of Earthsea is, in my mind, the perfect magic for a studious child. I loved words as a child, I loved poetry and puns and playing with language. Here was a story where just that, knowing the right words and saying them at the right time could change the world, and there were secret words that would let you turn into a bird or a dragon, or call fire out of nothing.  It is a book where knowledge is fantastic power, just perfect for a curious little boy.

More than that attraction, the magic of Wizard of Earthsea feels right in the bones. I like to think I recognized that even as a child. It follows rules, but they are shaped by the logic of story as much as anything, not pinned to an appendix that cannot be violated. The power of wizardry is properly fantastic, capable of shows and flights of fancy, of real change and terrible violence and subtle mischief. It can do almost anything, but wizards in the book do not, as a rule, do much of what they could by magic, because it costs and it is dangerous. I have become somewhat obsessed with the costs of magic as the most important part of fantasy worlbuilding lately, and I think the perfect rightness I felt in Le Guin’s exploration of that, especially in The Farthest Shore and Upon the Other Wind is a big part of that. Something feels right about Earthsea’s magic and the heavy price for that kind of power. This theme is, of course, also very welcoming to return to as an adult who writes. It’s quite affirming to read again about the awesome power words can have and the care one must take wielding them.

The world of Earthsea is of course wonderful for more than just magic. Le Guin’s world building is like a perfect ink painting, with each brushstroke suggesting a wealth of details that appear without ever being fully drawn. The Archipelago feels like a living place, and the trades and lives of the ordinary people are full and real, and the magic is folded tightly into the weft of them. The place makes sense, and you can feel it breathing, hear it chattering all around you as you read, even as the grand wizards carve their own path and only occasionally dip a toe into the lives of ordinary people. It is also inventive and grandly unlike so many other fantasy worlds. The Archipelago may not be a utopia, but its vision of society not oriented primarily around war, conquest, and monarchy sets it apart. It has the power and the realism of a society built from the bottom up, with more concern for the people of little villages and merchant crews than for warriors and kings.

If Tolkien’s world was mythic, Le Guin’s prose is the same. Her language is spare enough to make each scene iconic, close enough to make us feel the chill of rain and the warmth of a welcome fire. A Wizard of Earthsea is not a mythic story, not quite, but it makes us sure that Ged deserves myths, that he is such a hero, but still human. Le Guin gives us a giant among ordinary people, but still makes him relatable. Ged has none of the Austere distance Gandalf and Aragorn enjoy. He is flawed and uncertain and close enough to touch.

A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels are full of thoughts and questions about so many things: language, gender, religion, politics, death, property and freedom and so many more. It is possible to read them and notice none of this and still enjoy wonderful tales of adventure. They are books you can return to throughout your life, and they will grow with you, and each time they will show you something new, as much as you are ready to understand. I love them, without caveat or equivocation.

Books that Shaped me, Part 4: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

I must begin by saying that, yes, I am aware of the hateful things Card has said about LGBT people. I don’t want to endorse Card. I don’t want to recommend him. I have serious concerns about purchasing any of his work again. That said, I cannot fully reconcile those public views with the voice of his fiction, which has always, for me, seemed to speak thoughtfully to the importance of acceptance and care for others, and to be filled with homoeroticism overt enough I began to pick it up as a twelve year old. I am not telling you to read Card if you have reservations, but when I was a small boy, I knew nothing about his politics or his religion, and this book was and remains hugely important to me.

Ender’s Game is a very important book when you are boy who is often lonely, who is self-consciously intelligent, who often feels somehow out of step with other children, who has an older brother and suffers the little cruelties and abuses that come with it. That was me. It is also, of course, a wonderfully paced story, with thoughtfulness and sadness and adventure mixed in perfect amounts to keep a young person reading and still make them think and grow while they do.

I was homeschooled until the 7th grade, when I entered normal school by choice. I could have continued at home. That meant I was often alone. I had a few friends, but they went to school and so were busy all day. My parents didn’t work nine to five, but they still worked most of the time. I never became involved with homeschooling groups, so I was alone often, and sometimes I was lonely. I was always told I was smart. I excelled academically, homeschooling and after, and it was a long time before I questioned whether that was the same thing as being intelligent. I have an older brother, and sometimes we play-fought, and sometimes he pinned me, because he was older and bigger and stronger, and then it was no longer fun. I often felt like I was somehow older than my classmates once I went to school. There were jokes that seemed stupid or boring. I never really understood why they committed the petty cruelties of annoyance and isolation that children often enjoy. They seemed so uncomfortable in their own skins sometimes, so much less sure of who and what they were.

For me, Ender’s Game is about my own experience of childhood, and it taught me lessons that helped me navigate adolescence much more successfully than I otherwise would. It taught me that my academic success would be praised and rewarded by adults, but that they could have their own agendas beyond my well-being and happiness. I was lucky, and most of the adults in my life really did care about me for myself, but it was good to be careful sometimes. It taught me, very importantly, the danger of investing all my self-esteem and self-conception in my academic success. It’s not good for you, even if you keep doing well. It teaches young people the wrong lessons when they equate their value with their successes, and it is very easy to do, when you are young and intelligent and teachers tell you so.

Ender’s Game taught me that really important thing in school, no matter how well I performed, was to build friendships with my peers, to care for them, and for myself. I made it out of high school without too much damage, and there are many bits of luck behind that, but Ender’s game is surely one of them. It taught me to care for myself before I cared for my work, to build friendships and try to keep them, but that not everyone would like me, no matter what I did.

It is, of course, a beautifully written book. The questions are weighty but not distracting. The descriptions are crisp and evocative in my mind. The action is fast and flashy and tight and ugly as it should be. There is wonder and courage and victory and regret, but it is more importantly a story about my own experience, about loneliness and intelligence and trying to fit in. It told me about I boy I recognized, and about how important empathy could be, even if understanding wasn’t always enough to bridge the gap between people.


Ender’s Game is book whose protagonist I most identified with as a child. Ender’s life was different, but his experience of being young was more like mine than any other child I read. Ender’s Game was important, and it is still important. I am claiming it for quiet, awkward, intelligent children, for myself and for others. I will not give it up because the person who wrote it is a bigot. It is not only his. It is mine, and I am keeping it.

Books that Shaped me, Part 3: Diadem book 1; The Book of Names, by John Peel

The last two installments of this series have been about titans of the genre, books that have had an abiding impact on huge numbers of fantasy readers over the decades. Today we’re going to talk about a forgettable Scholastic paperback, a book I wouldn’t pull out from the shelves of a used bookstore for a closer look today, but which means as much to me as anything I’ve read. There is nothing at all that should be life-changing about the content of Diadem #1, but it changed my life as much as any other piece of writing ever has. It was the first proper book, the first book with only words and no pictures, that I read myself without help from anyone.

I have a copy of the same edition I read, which tells me that it was first published by Scholastic in August of 1997. I would have been almost exactly eight years old when I read it.

I have loved books from the time of my earliest memories, and being read to was my favorite activity when I had a parent’s full attention for any length of time, but reading on my own came only with difficulty and frustration. It is probably not true that I was struggling to finish a Dr. Seuss a few weeks before I read Diadem #1 and demanded the sequel, but I have no memories remaining of a gap between the two. I remember reading to myself instead of listening as a chore, where I was forced to push through my inadequacies for a watching parent. I remember reading The Diadem, and I remember devouring every genre book I could get my hands on. This one little paperback is the bridge in my memory between reading nothing and reading everything.

After I read it, I was off. I remember this book being hard. I may have started it two or three times before I finished, but I read the sequel in two or three days once it arrived. It was the beginning of a voracious consumption of fantasy and science fiction that had never stopped, and only slowed a little for college. I read six Diadem books, and similar things from the scholastic catalog. I read the classic science fiction on my parents’ bookshelves. I read The Hobbit and Narnia and The Lord of the Rings for myself. I read book after book from the shelves of a suburban library with a particularly large young adult section, where my mother would take me every few weeks to collect more books.

The contents of Diadem #1 are  scarcely important. It is pretty ordinary scholastic fare. Three teens, one from earth, one from a medieval world, one from a technologically advanced utopia/dystopia are drawn through onion-layers of reality toward the center from which magic emanates. There is magic, variously systematized. There is low comedy. There is an abundance of riddles for the characters and the reader to solve. The children overcome their prejudices to work together. Neither the prose nor the plot are noteworthy.

I think it was and remains important, that the book was fantasy. From the beginning, I have done the vast majority of my reading in genre fiction, only occasionally dipping a toe into historical fiction, spy novels, or mystery. Something in the wonder, in the visions of a different world made those books so much more interesting than anything set in the real world. Part of it is surely that I was homeschooled until I was thirteen. Contemporarily set books targeted at my age group sketched a set of experiences and social problems I never experienced, much better to read about far futures or magical otherworlds and have an interesting alien place to decode, instead of a boring one.


The Diadem is not a great book. It has been long enough since I read it that I am not sure if it is even good. But that’s not the point. I can a draw straight line from mastering that book, from finally forcing the words to parade in order through my eyes and sound inside my head in the September or October of 1997 to now, twenty years later, writing books that would go on the same shelves, and perhaps be read by the same children, who would have picked up The Diadem when it was new. I have spent most of my life reading fantasy, and the last three years striving to write it professionally, and The Diadem was one of the first steps on that road. I never will forget it.

Books that Shaped me, Part 2: The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

There is no work of fantasy I admire more than The Lord of the Rings, no book or series that has had a deeper effect on me. I re-read it about once a year. I realize this is not a terribly original opinion, but I am going to talk about it anyway, for the sake of completeness in this ongoing portrait of my influences. The Lord of the Rings are some of the finest books, the finest fantasies every written. They are not for everyone, perhaps, and if they’re not for you, follow your joy somewhere else, but if you tell me they are not wonderful and beautifully crafted books, I will fight you.

It’s likely I heard parts of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe before I first had The Lord of the Rings read to me, but I can’t really tell which memories are older at this point. I loved LotR from the first reading, and demanded many repetitions, and my love of the lore and deep history got The Silmarillion introduced to our house and read to me as well. (I was a very particular sort of child.) When I first tried to read it myself, it was more difficult. I bogged down in the sad half of The Two Towers once or twice before I was able to finish on my own. I don’t like reading about privation; hunger, thirst, poverty and the uncomfortablenesses that come with it are much harder for me to push through than pain, fear, or violence.

The Lord of the Rings are the only books that can consistently make me tear up. I don’t quite cry, but my eyes water, and the pressure is there in my throat. It happens particularly in Theoden’s speech before the ride of the Rohirrim. I am deeply affected by the epic, the poetic, the stories of grand heroes. The films captured the power of moments like that only in the most imperfect fragments, because they were forced to cast ordinary humans in those roles, who could never measure up the icons our minds create when we read Tolkien’s words for ourselves.

It was that mythic scope that first burned LotR into my brain, but what keeps me returning is that each part of the books is perfectly itself, somehow assembled into a harmonious whole despite the distances of size and tone that separate the pieces. The shire is pastoral and parochial and inescapably English. Bree is like the shire, but somehow different, more isolated and more open, balanced on the edge of the wide, terrible world outside the pastoral retreat. Tom Bombadil and the old forest are a fairy story that nestles comfortably in the high-fantasy landscape without sacrificing a jot of whimsy or strangeness to fit in. Their loss from the films was one of my great sadnesses, because Tom’s disconnection from the grand adventure of the ring was a beautiful perspective. Even in an epic story, it is worth showing that the whole world doesn’t bend itself toward the heroes’ plot with single-minded focus. The other great loss, the scouring of the shire, is another small perfection, the return of the heroes where they find themselves and their home changed, but where they still fit, and where their changes let them heal instead of isolating them where they once belonged. The little perfections are what make me love LotR as a work of craft, a mosaic where each tessera is perfect.

The thing that keeps me returning, that hooks deep into my heart and makes me love the books more than anything, is the deep history and the vast story. The dusty years that lie in Moria and weather the graven gates of Argonath speak to a deep longing I have never lost. I have read The Silmarillion four times myself, not counting the times it was read to me before I ever took on chapter-books (as I said, I was a very particular kind of child.) Each time I read those old stories and remind myself how LotR places a capstone on the grand stories that have already become the mythology of Middle Earth by the time Bilbo and Frodo go on their adventures, I am dumbstruck with awe at the beauty and the scale and the titanic mastery of language and storytelling that went into Tolkien’s world.


Tolkien understood mythology. He studied stories that had lasted centuries and more before he ever wrote his own, and he saw what made them last. Tolkien gave us myths, stories that are huge and personal, iconic and idiosyncratic all at once; stories that take their own grandeur seriously and sincerely. The evil is evil and we are not offered a chance to understand its perspective, to see it justify the distinction as only shades of grey. The good is good, faithful and bold and true. It does not trip itself into intolerance or incompetence by its own goodness. It burns bright in a dark world. I think Tolkien’s work will last long past whenever fantasy falls out of fashion. He built from the bones of the oldest stories we told ourselves around the fire, and the bones are strong. I will return to The Lord of the Rings until something fundamental changes about me, and I think that something fundamental will need to change about people before these stories lose their power.