Last week, I promised a little more about the value of the adventure as a narrative. Adventure is an ancient genre, a story-telling style that has existed since long before pen was put to paper, or chisel to stone. Why has this type of story persisted, even through the twentieth century when traditional tales were so strongly challenged? What does adventure offer the listener or reader?
First, there’s the narrative cohesion of an adventure story. In general, adventures follow the pattern of this happened, and then this, and then this…Of course, the straight sequence is interrupted frequently with danger. Typically, the adventurer went on a journey – but, oh no! the sky fell down – then the dragon put the sky back, so it was ok, and the journey continued – but oh no! the dragon decided to eat the adventurer – then a magical bird flew at the dragon, so it was ok, and the journey continued – but oh no! a hunter’s arrow struck the magical bird – then the bird turned into a dragon and rescued the adventurer from the hunter, so it was ok, and the journey continued … And so on. There are many ancient examples, and plenty of modern ones. Think of Andy Weir’s The Martian, where Mark Watney regularly evades death with wit and sass, and a sprinkling of stretched science. We all love the adventure narrative, and recognise it from many of our culturally-loved stories, from Robin Hood to Indiana Jones to James Bond to Harry Potter and beyond (yes, notice that the adventurer is traditionally male). The examples are truly countless. We love a story that goes: first this, then that, then this, then that… I contend that one of the interesting and maybe difficult aspects of GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones series is that, even though he uses the adventure structure, he regularly subverts the adventurer story with random deaths. Otherwise Ned Stark would still be alive in Book 2.
So, we ask, its structural predictability is the only reason adventure remains so popular? No. The second, and perhaps more fundamental reason, is that adventure stories affirm life. The hero continues to expose him (or her)self to risk, and in general, overcomes the great adversary – Death – by courage or wit or skill or magical/divine assistance. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum explained that, in classical Greek literature (think those enduring adventures, The Iliad and The Odyssey), the very fact that human life is fragile makes it beautiful and beloved of the gods, whose immortality seems coarse by comparison. This is a concept that recurs in some modern fantasy stories, for example the excellent Folk of the Air series by Holly Black, where mortals live in the timeless courts of faerie.
The third reason that adventure (in its many incarnations across genres) remains popular is that such stories indicate that humans can do something: they can take action which brings about a real effect in the physical world. Such reassurance is welcome in dark times, when people may feel that they are helpless against larger forces. This has always been true. Classical adventure contended that action can stave off Death many times before the inevitable end. With the rise of the novel, not only death but all manner of enemies could be defeated time and time again – fires and floods, plagues and poverty, assassins, ghouls, organised crime, unjust political systems…
Arguably, the Great War marked a turning point in our reception of the adventurer as a hero in high literature. Demonstrably, courage was seen to have no power over death (this has always been the case, but somehow centuries of readers missed this in The Iliad and its like). More introspective, thoughtful stories appeared, where the struggle involved inner demons and existential or even nihilistic considerations. Adventure stories, once the heart of classical culture, were consigned to popular fiction – genre fiction – rather than high literature. That fits with the notion that ‘science fiction’ and its brethren are ‘lowbrow’ and of lesser value than post-modern novels of introspection.
I disagree. I think all stories have their place, their function, their readers. There is no single right way. Adventure continues as a mainstay of storytelling, its traditional male hero now, thankfully, often reinvigorated with heroes of various genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, species, and intergalactic origins.
You will have noticed that this is not your regular ‘Last Word of the Week’ fix. As December draws to a close and everyone gets busy with end-of-year tasks and (for the lucky ones) holiday preparations, we’re putting LWOTW away for this year. In its place, I thought I’d give you a quick overview of my ten top reads of 2018. My aim was to read 60 books this year, but I am currently at 75 and hope to get a couple more in before 2019. Books are addictive, yes?
Not all of these books were published this year, but with TBR lists growing faster than I can read, it’s not always easy to keep up.
1. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
My best read of the year. First published in 2014, this book was recommended to me by word of mouth from a trusted friend. I found it to be: Wonderful. Uplifting. Thoughtful. Perceptive. Clever. Kind. Worrying. Sad.
It’s a perfectly comprehensible tale of the advent of the apocalyptic virus and the world inherited by the survivors. There is a large cast of characters, and at times it seems they have no connection, but their lives do intersect – as all of ours do, in truth. The hope and desolation of this novel will stay with me for a long time.
I’m so glad I read it.
2. Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers
This is an amazing book, and I loved every minute of it. It’s my first Becky Chambers and now I have to read more. It’s rare and wonderful when fantastic books — and I mean fantastic in the sense of books that aspire to a different realism — speak to the reader in her own life. This book does.
Here are my three top quotes:
“Yet it was a quiet grief, an everyday grief, a heaviness and a lightness all at once.”
“That’s how we’ll survive, even if not all of us do.”
“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.”
I loved the cast of diverse characters and the plot threads that connected them all. I loved the worlds and the perspectives, and the clarity of this story. I was a little impatient with teenager Kip, but hey, that’s what teenagers are for! The alien viewpoints were also fascinating.
One of the best reads of 2018, for sure.
3. La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman
I am glad that I waited a bit to read this wonderful book, because now (I hope) I will manage the wait for the next of the trilogy. I confess guiltily that it’s my first Philip Pullman (he’s been on my TBR list for a long time) and I’m hooked. I could tell by the first page that this was exquisite, assured writing backed by a huge, compassionate, intelligent imagination.
The characterisation is masterly and Pullman doesn’t offer any short cuts or quick fixes to the dire circumstances of living in the time of a totalitarian government. I am in love with the daemons too. More please! Oxford forever.
4. From the Wreck, Jane Rawson
I really loved this extraordinary book. The dovetailing of historical family story plus alien lifeform may not be for everyone, but it really is worth trying. Some of the sentences will stay with you for a long time, even if you’re not entranced by the combination of alien and history. Personally, I LOVED it.
I don’t do spoilers if I can help it, so I won’t go into detail. I just want to say that this book makes the reader ask all the important questions. As in, what is life all about? What is our place in the universe? Are we the cosmic specks we sometimes feel? What about love and care for others? How do we take care of ourselves and our loved ones in the face of the vast majesty of life?
5. Winter, Ali Smith
I fell in love with this book, after being a little puzzled at the start. Don’t get too caught up in the whys and wherefores in the beginning. A floating head? Why not? All will become clear. I soon got into the swing of things and enjoyed every nuance. Essential reading for the Christmas holidays – thoughtful and compassionate, interesting and tender.
6. Den of Wolves, Juliet Marillier
I very much enjoyed this third book in the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy – all of which I have now read. However it is so neatly written that it would stand alone. Very good consistency of characterisation, and the ending wasn’t squibbed. Loved it!
I pick up every Marillier book I see and have had some glorious times reading her wonderful, rich, insightful prose. This is the type of fantasy that resonates across the ages.
7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
I absolutely loved this book from the very first line. Neil Gaiman’s writing is exquisite. Everything he writes about magical events seems so right that it sinks in. Of course the world is as he says it is.
You will love the Hempstocks and you will also be able to use ‘Ursula Monckton’ as an epithet for any annoying person you know!
8. The Orchard Underground, Mat Larkin
First up: I knew this guy in a former life, so I had some trepidation reading Mat Larkin’s debut middle grade novel. What if I didn’t like it? What could I say? I planned some soothing platitudes in advance, crossed my fingers and eyes, and started to read…
Well, all my planning was a waste of time. The Underground Orchard is seriously good. It’s smart, funny, accessible, well-structured and a wonderful read. I’m SO sorry that I didn’t get to read books like this when I was in middle school. Sure, I made a heroine out of Mary Grant Bruce’s Norah of Billabong (who could ride horses, muster cattle, AND cook!), but where was Attica Stone, with her confidence, succinct way with wirds, love of strong black coffee, and refusal to give up?
You’ll love Pri Kohli and his quirky way of talking, and his world-view completely immersed in the town of Dunn’s Orchard. You will meet the amazing Attica Stone, and the wonderful Slotcar character (who reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series). Pri’s parents – it’s nice to have a middle-grade protagonist with parents, just for a change 🙂 – are doing their best to stay cool while he navigates the craziness of the Razz Wood and does his best to save his town – or the wood – or the orchard – or his friends – or … but no spoilers here.
Read it. Read it to yourself, read it aloud to others. Nobody needs a backup plan with this excellent offering. I have my fingers crossed that Mat has more adventures planned for Pri, Attica and co.
9. The Cruel Prince, Holly Black
This novel has given me much to think about. I am so enthusiastic at the brilliant writing and the neat characterisation, but the plot is pretty dark. It’s my first Holly Black, and perhaps I need to read one or two more to delve a bit deeper. I wrote a blog about it, which you can read here — warning, *spoilers*.
That said, I’ve rated this book 5 stars on Goodreads, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s like George RR Martin, Juliet Marillier, and Paula Hawkins got together to write a completely captivating dark thriller set in Faerie.
By the way, I adore the cover.
I think if you love GOT, you will love this. So that’s most people!
10. Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills
I devoured this fascinating book, and I’m still thinking about it. That’s a sign that it has some important things to say, I think. There are also many phrases that I noted as worth re-reading, and adding to my list of cool things written by excellent authors.
The story in this novel is like a cracked mirror – there are shards of time and we don’t always exactly know where or rather when we are – but every piece shines with reflections of reality that we almost recognise, but of course everything looks different now that reality has been broken apart and reassembled.
This novel charts the dystopian future of a careless Australia, where the environmental damage is so gross that there is no future to be had. The wondrous, worrying dreams of local girl Samandra (Sam) are dismissed as, Cassandra-like, she debates how much to tell the people around her, people who prefer not to believe. Her mother Ivy in particular is determined to be head-in-the-sand, spending years trying to have Sam’s migraines diagnosed correctly. The resulting pronouncement of ‘dyschronia’ never quite settles the question, for Ivy, of whether Sam is truly foreseeing the future or just dreaming vividly and strangely. The entrepreneur Ed (who is meant to be charming, but I have pre-raised hackles about this kind of guy) is a credible saviour-cum-villain, or is it villain-cum-saviour, of the town. Sam’s best friend Jill is probably the most likeable of all the characters. I loved the device of the ‘chorus’ of locals whose comments intersperse Sam’s dreams and Sam’s story.
Equally prescient of a dire future and nostalgic of the simple ignorance of the past, this elegant story of loss and the inevitability of bad choices deserves an enduring place among the best Australian books of recent years.
So that’s it for another year! I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings in terms of new, re-discovered, and old books. Then of course there’s my TBR pile waiting patiently.
Maybe that should be ‘dangerous reality’. I’ve just finished reading Holly Black’s excellent fantasy novel The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1). I’ve rated it 5 stars on Goodreads, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s like George RR Martin, Juliet Marillier, and Paula Hawkins got together to write a completely captivating dark thriller set in Faerie.
By the way, I LOVE the cover.
I became totally absorbed by this story, but also increasingly troubled. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m wondering if it’s the reflections of domestic violence that are worrying me? Let’s look at the story line:
Our protagonist Jude is kidnapped and taken to Faerie by a violent redcap general called Madoc. Madoc was married to Jude’s mother – she left him, taking their child. So Madoc murders both Jude’s mother and her new partner (Jude’s father), reclaims his own daughter, and takes Jude and her twin for good measure. The three girls are brought up in the dangerous, deceitful Faerie court.
So that’s problematic – being brought up by the man who killed your parents because your mother was once married to him, and failed to make a complete escape.
Then Jude, as a teenager, is bullied and despised by the Faerie court, in particular the friends of the beatutiful and very cruel Prince Cardan (who rips off a fairy’s wing the first time we meet him, for not a good enough reason). The bullying is vicious and relentless, and Jude is effectively isolated from any help – even her twin Taryn betrays her.
I was hoping against hope that this wouldn’t turn out to be a story where the girl falls for the violent, abusive love interest, who, you know, really loves her underneath it all. However as we discover that Cardan himself has been abused, I’m suspecting that he is being transformed from perpetrator to victim and that they may end up as a pair.