On the Pleasures of Re-Reading “The Lord of the Rings”

As I do every year, I’ve recently started re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Those who are familiar with my old blog no doubt know that, every December, I commit a good amount of my blog space to a discussion of Tolkien and his works, and this year is no different. So, to inaugurate my first Tolkien Appreciation Month on this author blog, I thought I’d talk about the pleasures of re-reading Tolkien.

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 9 or 10, and it proved to be one of those truly life-changing literary events. I simply couldn’t stop reading it; it seemed to exert some sort of hold on me that I couldn’t break. Full of trembling fear at the Ringwraiths, swept up in the majesty of Tolkien’s world, and moved to tears by this tale of sacrifice, I knew that here was a book that I’d return to again and again.

Part of this, I think, comes from the fact that it was my Mom who introduced me to Tolkien and that she, like so many others, had returned to it repeatedly over the years. Re-reading it with her was a way of forging bonds with her, each of us sharing our observations and thoughts about the book, as well as explaining to one another why we took pleasure in it.

In the years since, I’ve read it dozens of times, but still something keeps me coming back again and again. Sometimes, this was an external factor. When, for example, the films came out in the early 2000s, I found myself reading The Lord of the Rings on a yearly basis. While in undergrad, I also took not one but two courses on Tolkien, which encouraged yet more readings. And then there were The Hobbit films, and the release of further volumes from Christopher, notably Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin. Each one gave me a reason to return to the stories that started it all. It’s now become basically an annual ritual for me to pick up The Lord of the Rings and to give it another read.

Sometimes, I read it slowly, savoring each and every word, allowing myself to become fully immersed in the beauty of Tolkien’s language. Even a cursory reading of The Lord of The Rings reveals a man who knew how to describe landscape in a way that almost no one else in epic fantasy has come close to matching (Terry Brooks is one such). On these readings, I often allow myself to even linger over the songs (certainly one of the most divisive aspects of the book, with some fans loving and others hating them). At other times, I go at a faster pace, sometimes skipping to the parts of the book that I find the most enjoyable.

Either way, I continually and consistently find new things about the story itself, the characters, and the world that Tolkien crafted with such care. That, to me, is one of the most extraordinary things about Tolkien in general and The Lord of the Rings in particular. No matter how many times you read it nor over how many years, it can still manage to surprise you. In that sense, they are both very much like the hobbits themselves.

At the same time, there’s also something comforting about the familiar notes, about knowing what’s going to happen yet enjoying the journey anyway. I love reading the chapters that detail history (such as “The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond”). And, silly as it sounds, I still get a chill when the Ringwraiths first begin to make their appearance. And, divisive as it may be, as the years have gone by I’ve even begun to enjoy Tom Bombadil.

A lot about me has changed in the 20 years since I first read The Lord of the Rings. Still, every time I pick it up, I found myself drawn back, reminded of that sense of wonder and joy that accompanied that first reading. No matter what happens in the outside world, and no matter how dismal and depressing it may be at times, I know that there is a different sort of world awaiting me between its pages.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must rejoin Frodo and company. Cheers!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Armour” (S1, Ep. 4)

First of all, let me start off by saying…wow, what an episode! Lyra finally meets both Lee Scoresby and the formidable armored bear Iorek and, by the end of the episode, they have all begun their trek to the place known to the witches as Bolvangar, where they hope to at last find and rescue the missing children. All of that is quite a lot of action to pack into an episode, but somehow it manages to feel perfectly paced.

I’ll confess that I had some serious doubts about Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. I guess I had a certain image of him (okay, it’s Sam Elliott from the film version), and I just wasn’t sold that the man most famous for playing Alexander Hamilton could conform to what I saw in the character. Say what you will about LMM, but he does have a certain rakish charm, and that comes across in his interpretation of Lee. He’s less the crusty old western cowboy and more the rakish adventurer, and let me tell you, it works.

The real star of this episode was, of course, Iorek Byrnison, arguably one of Pullman’s finest creations. The armored bears (also known as the panserbjørne) have always been one of my favourite parts about this series, a reminder of just how strange this world is (despite its surface resemblance to our own). The animation makes him appear both visually compelling and also more than a little terrifying, and the voice adds to the overall effect. Likewise, Iorek’s nemesis Iofur (thank goodness they kept the name, rather than changing it, as they did in the film) is in many ways his polar opposite, possessed of an obsession with outward appearance that manifests as an ornate golden helmet. I will be very interested indeed to see what happens with those two as the series progresses.

This episode, I think, shows signs that the series is at last beginning to find its legs and its voice. The narrative itself took a great, strong step forward, and it definitely looks as if the conflict that’s been brewing will finally come to pass, though it remains to be seen who will be the ultimate victor between the Magisterium and those who chafe under their restrictions. At the same time, it kept enough just out of our sight to keep us wanting more. The witches, for example, have yet to make an appearance, but it appears that they will at last make their entrance in next week’s episode.

A friend of mine also pointed out that Lyra is also beginning to mature in this episode, and I agree. In fact, I think that the series’ choice to show her as a little more mature than her novel counterpart was one of the wiser creative decisions, as it shortcuts some of the more laborious parts of the novel that focus on her emotional maturation. It also helps that Dafne Keen is just so compelling as a young actress, and I’m so glad that she was chosen to bring Lyra to visual life.

Just as importantly, this episode also showed that, beneath their powerful and implacable exterior, the members of the Magisterium are as divided and dangerous to one another as they are to their enemies. Marisa Coulter has everyone, even a cardinal and the king of the bears, wrapped around her finger, and she isn’t afraid to use every tool at her disposal to get what she wants. Evil as she might be, she continues to dominate every scene in which she appears. Speaking of Mrs. Coulter…if the costume designer for this series isn’t at the very least nominated for an Emmy for their costuming of Mrs. C. during this episode, then there is truly no justice in this world. When she appears in that maroon sheath in the heart of the Magisterium, drawing every eye to herself, it’s clear that she knows exactly what it takes to get what she wants.

I continue to be very pleased with the way that HBO has chosen to adapt one of my favuorite fantasy series, and I have very high hopes for the remainder of the season and for the already-filming second one. Stay tuned for next week’s review!

Book Review: “The Ruin of Kings” (by Jenn Lyons)

As readers of this blog know, I’m always on the lookout for a new fantasy to really sink my teeth into, one that would allow me to lose myself in its world while also keeping the pace moving. I remembered seeing Jenn Lyons’ The Ruin of Kings at Barnes and Noble some time ago, but it was some time before I could actually sit down and read it, and even more time after that until I’d finished it.

The novel follows Kihrin as he struggles to come to terms with a destiny that is far grander–and far more dangerous–than he’d ever imagined. It toggles between three different timelines, as well as several characters, before they all come together in the sort of climaxes that are the hallmark of much epic fantasy. The novel ends with Kirhin fleeing into exile, while a horde of demons has been unleashed upon the land.

The Ruin of Kings has all of the ingredients that I love about epic fantasy. Kihrin is a very sympathetic hero, and there are enough side characters with their own personalities to flesh out the story. There’s an extensive cosmogony, and the world that the characters inhabit is a once beautiful, deadly, and cruel. This is the sort of novel in which you can truly lose yourself, as you become invested both in the hero’s journey and in the world in which it takes place.

What’s more, it’s told in a very lively and engaging fashion that actually had me laughing out loud a couple of times. It’s not just that Kihrin is an irreverent character–though that is true–it’s also that the other characters are as well. What’s more, there are footnotes scattered throughout, all of which come from the compiler of Kihrin’s story. While these sometimes provide useful context for what’s happening in the story, just as often they’re witty or amusing asides and commentary about what is happening. They are very amusing, but they can also be a bit distracting at times (as is often the case when people choose to use footnotes in fiction).

Much as I enjoyed this book, however, I do think that sometimes it does get a bit self-indulgent with its complexity. It can sometimes get a little bewildering trying to sort through the various social structures, magic systems, and goddesses. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many of them have very similar-sounding names, which can get a bit bewildering at times. Just as importantly, there are some aspects of the narrative itself that can get a bit bewildering, as there are quite a few twists and turns along the way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is definitely something to keep in mind as you start to read.

While some reviewers have really come down hard on the choice to have the novel toggle between three different periods of time–the time of the compiler, the frame narrative, and the time of the main action of the story–I think that this is actually one of the novel’s more interesting moves. Admittedly, it does get a bit confusing at times, trying to piece together this fragmented story, and I’m not entirely sure I understand the point of telling the story in this way.

However, since ornateness is hardly unique to Lyons (Brandon Sanderson comes to mind as someone else who gets a little indulgent in this regard), I won’t hold her to account too much. It just means that, as you read, you want to either keep a running tab of the various mentions of characters (the book contains a glossary, but sometimes it’s helpful to keep your own notes), or actually outline what’s going on. Alternatively, you can follow my method, which is to just keep moving forward and assume (rightly, I think) that the numerous conundrums will be resolved in the end.

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Ruin of Kings. By the time that the novel ended, I was left hungering for more. Lucky for me, the sequel, The Name of All Things, has already been released, so I can’t wait to devour it and report back to you on my findings.

Stay tuned!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Spies” (S1, Ep. 3)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials Lyra, having escaped from Mrs. Coulter’s clutches and those of the Gobblers, finds herself taken in by the Gyptians who, we know, are on their own mission to rescue their children. Though much remains unclear, it is becoming increasingly obvious to her that she is part of a much greater destiny than she ever suspected. Meanwhile, the Magisterium–particularly Mrs. Coulter and Boreal–continue their own investigations.

At this point, the series has begun to take some liberties with the original novel, fleshing out some of the behind-the-scenes action that we don’t get in the book. For example, in this episode we see Mrs. Coulter ransack Jordan College, under the mistaken belief that Lyra has fled back to them. And of course we also see Boreal making continued forays into our world in order to track down the man she knows as Stanislaus Grumman (known as John Parry in our world). This expanded frame allows us to get more insight into the characters and their actions, a necessary bid of expansion when you adapt a relatively slender novel into a full-fledged television series.

One of the most conspicuous expansions, however, deals with Lyra herself. Whereas in the novels it takes some time for Lyra to find out that Mrs. Coulter and Lord Azriel are her parents, here we learn that out already and, just as importantly, we find out that Ma Costa is the Gyptian nurse who protected her from the man who wanted to take her life. This important change allows us to get a firmer look into her background and how this will shape her perspective on the world and the actions that she takes as the Gyptians make their way north and she embarks on the path to her destiny. (It’s worth noting that some of this material is drawn not just from the later books of His Dark Materials but also from The Book of Dust).

Naturally, Ruth Wilson continues to captivate as Mrs. Coulter. She positively seethes with a powerful energy, and while she is capable of absolute ruthlessness (though her monkey is the more terrifying of the two), it’s equally clear that she truly loves Lyra and is torn apart by the fact that she has left her. I’ve always thought that she was one of the best things about the books, and I’m glad that the series has opted to give her quite a lot of screen time to develop her character, to show that she’s not just a faceless villain. At the same time, I also appreciate that they’re leaving just enough out of the frame, leaving her something of an enigma that will continue to draw us in (particularly as she sets out to reclaim Lyra for herself).

This episode also featured some of the best cinematography that we’ve seen so far. There were a number of shots that were truly beautiful, particularly the emotional confrontation between Ma Costa and Lyra. The way in which it was staged not only showed the exquisite scenery but also used it to show the gradual drawing back together of Lyra and Ma Costa. Speaking of…I’m a little bit in love with Anne-Marie Duff. She brings to her performance of Costa the perfect blend of vulnerability and strength and makes her a surprisingly central character to the series’ narrative.

The actions of Boreal raises some significant questions, most notably whether the series will opt to introduce Will Parry in this season, or whether it will wait until season two. In any case, bringing him into the frame, even if just by reference, ensures that his introduction won’t be nearly as jarring as it is in the books, where he suddenly becomes a main character in the second book without any warning at all.

Overall, I thought this was a fine episode. The series is finally starting to build up some momentum and I, for one, cannot wait for the chance to finally see the North and, of course, the armoured bears. While some might begrudge the series its rather slow movement, I personally find it a pleasure to let it build up slowly.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for next week’s review.

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Idea of North” (S1, Ep. 2)

Sorry that this review is a few days late. It’s been quite a week. Hopefully from here on out I’ll be able to post my reviews in a more timely fashion (no promises, though!)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials, Lyra finds that her stay in London with Mrs. Coulter is not at all what she expected it to be, particularly as her new mentor has more than a little bit of a sinister and cruel edge to her behaviour. The Gyptians continue their search for Billy Costa, and Carlo Boreal reveals that has somehow managed to find a way into our own world.

As was the case in the first episode, Ruth Wilson threatens to overshadow the proceedings. Somehow, she manages to bring together the essential contradictions at the heart of one of Pullman’s most compelling characters, at times vulnerable and at other as hard and cruel as diamonds. We also learn that she appears to have a genuine fondness for Lyra, even though this often manifests as a certain dictatorial approach to her protege. One gets the sense that there are depths to her that we have yet to see, and there’s more than a hint that she has a troubled history with Lord Azriel. Somehow, Wilson just seems to be Mrs. Coulter, and it was particularly chilling to watch the way in which she adopts the sweet persona of a genuinely caring woman, only to dispense with it as soon as she doesn’t need it any longer. (And, of course, there’s also her very sinister monkey dæmon).

That’s not to say that Lyra isn’t also compelling. I’m continually amazed at the deft casting of Dafne Keen in this role. She’s managed to make it all her own, and while this Lyra isn’t exactly as I pictured her, I to truly love the spunk and energy that Keen brings to the role. I’m very much looking forward to how she grows into the role as this season, and the series as a whole, continues.

The Magisterium, of course, continues to loom over everything. Some critics have suggested that it is ominous and menacing in the way of totalitarian organizations in a host of other fantasy series, but I actually think that this is selling the this adaptation short. True, it does handle the religious with a gentler touch than the books, but it’s still there in clearer fashion than it was in the previous film version. Time and again, we see the sign of cross hovering in the background, often looming portentously. For that matter, we also get a closer glimpse at the inner workings of this labyrinthine institution, and one gets the sense that the conflicts within the Magisterium might prove to be just as costly as its efforts outside of it.

Speaking of the Magisterium, I really like what the series has chosen to do with Boreal. In the books, he’s a rather stolid and cunning old gentleman (one can almost imagine him being played by Ian McKellen), but he’s far more of an active character in this adaptation. Here, we learn very early on that he has found a way to access our world, and it’s clear that he’s already started to hatch plots and plans there as well. I really appreciate the way that Ariyon Bakare brings a bristling, very sinister energy to the role, and I’m curious whether the series continues to set him up as one of the primary antagonists this early in the narrative.

All in all, I found this to be a very satisfying episode, one that ratcheted up the tension set up in the first one. I think that the fact that the first season is only eight episodes requires that they keep the narrative moving at a fast clip, rather than allowing us to get bogged down. At the same time, the expanded time frame enabled by television means that we get a deeper, richer look at this world and what makes it tick. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how they bring together Lyra and the Gyptians, as well as the long-awaited reveal of the armoured bear Iorek.

That’s all for today’s review. Stay tuned for my review of tomorrow night’s episode!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Lyra’s Jordan” (S1, Ep. 1)

It would be no exaggeration to say that I’ve been counting down the days until the release of the first episode of what will hopefully be HBO’s next great voyage into epic fantasy: His Dark Materials. For all that the final season of Game of Thrones left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, as a whole I’d found myself enchanted by the HBO adaptation of one of my favourite epic fantasy series, and I sincerely hoped that the new series would capture the magic of Pullman’s novels.

I was not disappointed. HBO’s His Dark Materials, having learned a few things from the previous film attempt to adapt the series, gives us a series that is a scathing indictment of dogmatic religion, as well as the mingled whimsy and danger that was always one of the most appealing things about the novels.

The first episode sets out in broad strokes the fantasy world that we’re being invited to inhabit, as well as the stakes of the conflict. Lyra is a young girl inhabiting Jordan College in Oxford, where she is treated kindly by the Scholars. However, the arrival of her uncle Lord Azriel threatens to complicate things, and she soon finds herself drawn into a prophecy of which she knows nothing, while sinister forces gather to try to destroy her.

I daresay that some people can’t help but be reminded of the previous attempt to adapt Pullman’s classic series into a visual form, the ill-fated 2007 film that, despite excellent production values and a truly star-studded cast–including an inspired choice of Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, Daniel Craig as Lord Azriel, Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek, and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby–managed to fail at the box office. While the casting of HBO’s adaptation is truly exemplary, it strikes a series of different notes. James McAvoy’s Azriel is a little more dashing than Craig’s interpretation, and Ruth Wilson’s Marisa Coulter is less of an ice queen than Kidman, though she does have a great deal of sleek menace about her. And Dafne Keen and Lewin Lloyd are truly enchanting as Lyra and her friend Roger.

Unlike the film adaptation, which shied away from the religious aspect of the narrative so thoroughly that you’d be forgiven for missing it altogether, this new version is upfront about the fact that the Magisterium is a dogmatic and almost fascist organization intent on governing its world. Though we only get tantalizing glimpses of it so far in the first episode, these glimpses–which largely take place in a vast space with domineering imagery–as well as the Master of Jordan’s fear of reprisal for heresy, suggests that we’ll be seeing a great deal more of this sprawling organization’s attempts to enforce its will.

One thing that really stuck out to me about this new adaptation was the inclusion of people of colour, including the Master of Jordan, John Faa, and numerous others. This is of a piece with a broader movement within prestige television–particularly that produced in the UK–to include diverse members of their cast. I personally think this is a very good thing indeed, and I sincerely hope that American production companies take note of how these casting choices enrich their narratives.

All in all, I felt that the first episode of this series did a fine job of explaining to the viewer what this world looks like, the characters we should care about (most of them, as it turns out), as well as the stakes of the coming conflict. Given the fact that this is a HBO/BBC production, it is of course gorgeously shot, and I was especially impressed by the way that the series depicts the dæmons (it’s not always easy to make talking animals look serious, but somehow the show pulls it off). Though of course it isn’t necessary to read the books to enjoy the television adaptation, I do think that knowing the books–and the mysteries that they reveal–does add an extra layer of pleasure to the viewing experience. I cannot wait to see what else this series has in store for us. One thing I’m really looking forward to? ARMORED BEARS.

Stay tuned!

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Blessing” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

And so we come at last to the finale of the Kushiel books (at least, those that have been written so far), in which Moirin finds herself faced with yet another challenge, this time to pursue the missing Prince Thierry to the lands known as Terra Nova, where he has disappeared into the jungle, along with several of his fellows. Throughout the book, Moirin must confront the consequences of her previous actions, and she must at last come face-to-face with her one-time lover and now enemy Raphael.

Though it ultimately does have a happy ending, there are a few sacrifices made along the way. There is, of course, Queen Jeanne, whose death in the previous novel continues to cast a long shadow. And, in this novel, we unfortunately witness the suicide of King Daniel who, falling into despair at the news of his son’s supposed death, takes his own life, leaving behind his beautiful young daughter. As a result of Daniel’s death, Moirin finds herself one of the few in the realm who genuinely has the young princess’s well-being at heart, and the scenes between them are some of the most heartwarming in the entire novel.

Of course, the central tragedy of the novel belongs to Raphael who, afflicted by his guilt over his mother and sister’s death–along with the shred of the fallen spirit Focalor that still inhabits his flesh–tries to set himself up as a god-king in Terra Nova, and it is only Moirin’s timely intervention that stops him. Raphael’s tragedy is that, ambitious and brilliant as he is, he seems unable to realize (or accept) his own limits. As a result, he continues to push at the boundaries of the possible and the acceptable, plunging so far into madness that there is ultimately no salvation for him except through death.

As with the other entries in the Kushiel series, this book probes as some of the most vexing questions with which humanity has to contend: do the gods have a purpose for us, and if so, what is it? How do we know what to do in any given circumstance? In this case, Moirin can gain only small glimpses of her destiny, granted to her by Jeanne, who has been given a slight ability to change and shape events as they transpire in the world of the living. Time and again, however, Moirin has to make her own choices and how that they do not lead her astray.

What I’ve always appreciated about this series is the way in which Carey continues, throughout its run, to expand her lens to take in almost every continent of this fictional world. In this case, she takes us to Terra Nova, most of which has obvious influences from both Aztec and Incan cultures. Given that those have always been particularly fascinating to me, I’m glad that we got to see their equivalent in this fantasy universe.

And, I’ll be honest, while at times the novel does fall a bit into the white savior narrative pattern (Carey is hardly alone in falling into this trap; see also: George RR Martin), it is refreshing to see a depiction of the ancient cultures of Mexico and South America that doesn’t simply exoticize the or focus on their blood sacrifices to the exclusion of all else. This is not to say that Carey glosses over them, however. Even Moirin, who feels a measure of revulsion at what she sees as barbarian practices, finally has to contend with the fact that there may well be times when the gods call for blood and that in such times the only things humans can do is to offer it.

And, just as importantly, she also paints us a portrait of a world in which the dark and terrible forces of colonialism were allowed to follow a different path. Thanks to the influence of those from Terre D’Ange, there is now a possibility that there can be friendly relations between the two continents. Indeed, one of the good things that Raphael does is to ensure that Old World diseases do not decimate New World populations. It’s nice to think that, in some point in the distant future in this world, there might be a more peaceful and verdant future than the one that we inhabit in ours.

Perhaps most importantly, the novel finally gives Moirin the happy ending that she’s longed for, reunited with her family in Alba yet also with one foot remaining in Terre D’Ange. As with its predecessors, this novel is very much about the power of female desire and female friendships. And, once again, it is the essential power of these things that saves Terra Nova, and perhaps the very world itself, from calamity.

As I’ve said before, I’ve been dreading reading this novel for a while, because it would mean that I’d finally come to the chronological end of the saga. Now that I’m here, I have to say that I do feel completely satisfied with the way that things have transpired, both for Moirin and for the realms of which she is a part. It’s always so nice to read a book in which the main character ends up happy, her grand destiny fulfilled. Grimdark has its place, but so do novels like these.

I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t harbor some hope that Carey will one day return to this world, perhaps with either a prequel series of a sequel. Though, as far a I know, she hasn’t said she’ll do either of those things, I continue to think about the many issues that these novels have raised. While I might have finished them, I have no doubt that these will be some of the books that I return to again and again, whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in a world of beauty and desire and of terrible destinies fulfilled.

I can offer no higher praise than that.

Book Review: “The Secret Commonwealth” (by Philip Pullman)

It’s hard to convey just how excited I was when I found out that Philip was writing a sequel to his wildly successful and influential His Dark Materials. I’d loved those books so much, and the prospect of returning to the world–to say nothing of once again following the adventures of Lyra and Pantalaimon–was almost too much.

And then La Belle Sauvage was published, and it was everything I wanted. Though set several years before the events of The Golden Compass, it was just so wonderful and enchanting to be back in the same quasi-Victorian novel of that first book, and to see the tumultuous events that led up to Lyra being granted sanctuary at Jordan College.

I absolutely loved the first book and, if possible, I loved the sequel even more.

The Secret Commonwealth takes place several years after the events of His Dark Materials. Lyra is now a student at Oxford, though she has increasingly found herself in conflict with her beloved dæmon Pantalaimon, who believes that she has lost her powers of imagination. Meanwhile, the Magisterium is up to its old tricks, with the sinister and cunning Marcel Delamare manipulating events and attempting to find Lyra. And then there is Malcolm Polstead, a Scholar at Oxford and part of a secret service organization known as Oakley Street, who attempts to both help Lyra and work against the repressions of the Magisterium.

One gets the feeling reading this book that Pullman is, to a degree, writing the story that he first envisioned when he finished The Golden Compass. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who felt that the story sort of went off the rails a bit in both The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, which are so different from the first book that it’s sometimes hard to remember you’re reading part of the same series. (Let me be clear. I LOVED those books, but they were also not at all what I thought they were going to be when I finished The Golden Compass). Here, however, we stay strictly within Lyra’s world, and I personally loved that aspect of it.

The Secret Commonwealth is a bit more sprawling than other entries in the series, and we actually get to learn a bit more about what makes the Magisterium tick, largely through the perspective of Marcel Delamare. (We also get some fascinating glimpses into his personal connections to Lyra). I actually enjoyed these parts of the book quite a lot, not just because I love it when we hear from the villains (though I love that) but also because we learn a little bit about the history of this sprawling and increasingly repressive organization.

As with His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth contends with some of the most pressing issues of our time. While, of course, much of Pullman’s biting criticism is reserved for organized religion and its dogmatism, he also gets in a few well-aimed digs at postmodernism, moral relativism, and rigid rationality. In terms of its critique of religion, Pullman has also expanded the range a bit, and the inclusion of “men from the mountains,” who happen to be from the Middle East and are repressive, dogmatic, and violent, seems sometimes to be a bit too on the nose in its correlation to certain groups in that area (their resemblance to ISIS is surely not an accident).

For all of its criticisms, however, the book is essentially an act of humanism. Pullman has a profound faith in the essential goodness of human nature, and there is no better illustration of this than the character of Lyra. Though she has grown up quite a bit from when we last saw her, there is much about her that accords with what we learned about her in His Dark Materials. She is still impulsive and brave and sometimes foolhardy, but she is also deeply sympathetic as a character, and she has a drive to be kind to others less fortunate than herself.

Yet Lyra can also be tremendously frustrating, and her growing rift with Pan is the greatest example of this. By the time that the novel takes place, she’s been falling into the trap of those new thinkers who argue either that there is no meaning to the world or that one should only use logic and reason. Though Pan tries to talk her out of this, she is so much under their sway that they end up fighting more often than not. And, as the novel makes clear, the events of the previous trilogy continue to cast a long shadow, particularly her decision to leave him beyond in the Land of the Dead.

By the end of The Secret Commonwealth we are presented with almost as many questions as we have answers. One of the narrative cruxes of the novel involves a certain variety of rose, which may provide some sort of elevated form of consciousness, and while many of the characters talk about it, it remains unclear exactly what it is or why the Magisterium wants it. We also don’t quite know much about the legendary city that Lyra seeks, except that it is supposedly the abode of dæmons who have been separated from their people. Assuredly, many of these–though probably not all–will be resolved by the end of the final volume.

All told, The Secret Commonwealth reveals that Pullman is still a master storyteller, writing at the height of his powers. I found myself absolutely enchanted by the story from the first page to the last, and as always this is a world that you can truly lose yourself in. The novel, at least for me, was a very quick read. While I wanted to take my time and savour it, I ultimately finished it far too quickly. I have a bad feeling that it’s going to be quite a while until we see the concluding volume. Sigh. Looks like it might be time to re-read the original trilogy again.

On the Pleasures of World Building

Ask any fan of epic fantasy what they enjoy most about the epic fantasy, and they will almost certainly tell you that they love seeing the way that epic fantasy authors create their own secondary worlds,

Certain fantasy authors have become famous for their ability to craft secondary worlds that have a level of depth and sophistication that are truly the envy of all of those who write in epic fantasy. Tolkien, of course, tops the list, if for no other reason than that he even provided his fictional people with a language all their own (and, of course, there is the fact that he created a fictional history that’s literally thousands of years long). Other, more recent authors have become giants in their own right. Brandon Sanderson is famous for his ability to create worlds that are as delightfully complex as our own, and George RR Martin has shown again and again that he has a very firm grasp on the convoluted histories of his own fictional world (even if he doesn’t always have the same grasp of his primary narratives, but that’s a different blog post). And of course Terry Brooks, in his sprawling Shannara series, has shown the ways in which an epic fantasy can have impacts that echo through numerous generations of a single family.

As we’ve embarked on our own epic fantasy story, we’ve found that one of the things we’ve enjoyed the most (aside from crafting our story, of course) has been the ability to create a world that’s entirely our own. From cosmology to countries, from customs to conflicts, we’ve begun putting the flesh on the bones of this sprawling secondary world (a term from Tolkien, by the way). It’s a little like being able to create your very own toy chest, with all of the attendant joys and perils.

Part of the pleasure for us comes from our love of history. The advantage of writing epic fantasy rather than historical fiction means that we can draw upon historical reality, even while we don’t have to have the same level of fidelity that a true historical novelist does (we don’t have to worry, for example, that some reader is going to criticize us for not adhering to history). At a broader level, it’s also fascinating to watch the ways that events that happened in the distant past in our created world have effects and consequences that echo down through the generations. In that sense, writing a history of your world is a little like writing actually history in that you gain a more nuanced understanding of how events and choices in one particular period can echo down the ages, changing everything that comes after that.

Another enjoyable aspect of world building is the excitement of discovery. Though of course we have a pretty extensive set of histories already built, any author will tell you that there are times when you’re writing a narrative when you accidentally find out that something happened in the past–whether that of a character of your fictional world–that totally changes how you thought about things. Just as importantly, it can sometimes radically change how you conceived of your plot and, while this is certainly a good thing a lot of the time, it can also be quite a challenge.

I guess you might say that fantasy-world building is a bit like playing God. After all, it’s entirely up to you what your world is going to look like, how its people are going to worship (assuming that you pay attention to matters of religion), how magic works (and what its history looks like), and how all of this impacts the characters that, presumably, you’ve already created. And, of course, you’ve got to make sure that your story meshes with your fictional history in a way that makes logical, organic sense. It’s all quite a lot to keep straight in your mind.

Because, of course, there are some more challenging parts of the whole world-building process. It’s very easy–for us, at least–to just sort of tumble down the wormhole. Sometimes, we get so invested in the creation of our world and all of the things about it that we forget that there’s actually a story that we’re trying to tell that’s set in this world. It’s hard to really explain this to someone who doesn’t either read or write epic fantasy, but it really is difficult sometimes to give the stories that are set in the present the love that they deserve. On the other hand, spending so much time building up a secondary world does give us opportunities to explore more stories in the future, so there’s always an upside.

Overall, world building is definitely one of the most satisfying and challenging aspects of writing epic fantasy. Just as you often find yourself both falling in love with and getting frustrated with the characters that you create, you often find your world taking on a bit of a life of its own. Sure, you may start off creating a theocracy loosely modeled on the Byzantine Empire, but soon you find elements of the Crusaders and the Templars moving in and that, in turn, begins to inflect the entire way that you had conceived of the essential conflict at the heart of the story. Sure, you start out with an empire sort of like Rome, but then it becomes a little something different, far more permissive of female empowerment than its historical predecessor. These are the sorts of changes that make world building such a pleasurable part of writing epic fantasy.

As we move forward with our series, we look forward to continuing to discover more about this world and the peoples that inhabit it. Just as importantly, we’re also looking forward to thinking about not only the past of this world, but also the future. There are so many stories that we’ve already started developing in this world, and we look forward to sharing all of them with you.

On Writing Queer Characters in Fantasy

There’s no doubt that as a genre fantasy has made some great strides in terms of representation. Even epic fantasy–notoriously conservative in its depiction of gender, sexuality, and race–has begun to catch up with the times, with women and people of color (and even some queer folks) finally staking their claims. It’s really quite refreshing to see the enormous diversity of voices that have come into their own as the genre has entered into a new phase, that it’s begun to move beyond its very Euro-centric biases.

However, to our eye it’s still pretty rare to find queer people as the heroes of their own stories. There are some recent exceptions to this rule–Tessa Gratton’s Lady Hotspur is one notable example–and of course the Kushiel books have a lot of queerness in them. However, it still seemed to us that epic fantasy needed its own queer couple to root for, a pair of heroes that were very much in love, indeed whose love would prove to be absolutely vital in their epic journey.

Thus, when we set out to write The Filliquian Chronicle, we knew from the beginning that we knew that our leads-Nicholas and Alric–were going to be lovers, and that what began as basically a one-night stand (with profound political consequences). However, as their journey has unfolded, we’ve found that simply having them engage in sexual encounters with men was not only repetitive; it also seemed like a betrayal of the religious system that we’d developed. So, with each of the books that we’re writing, we’re really asking our characters, particularly Nicholas, to think outside of the boundaries that have been imposed upon him and which he has taken to heart.

In that sense, The Filliquian Chronicle is itself a questioning not only of the ways in which people use faith to (often hypocritically) restrict and punish the expressions of healthy human desire, but also of the categories that we use when we talk about the expression of gender and sexuality. After all, the world that we’ve created doesn’t have to operate according to the same rules as ours does. Thus, in a nation like Troyeis, monogamy, even in marriage, is something of an anomaly rather than the norm. Indeed, as we’ve begun to follow Nicholas (who’s something of an ingenue), we find him experiencing the full range of human sexuality (even when he’s not comfortable doing so at first).

Indeed, it’s transpiring that, despite the many struggles Nicholas and Alric have endured and the many challenges their relationship has faced, that they do truly love one another. Though we still haven’t quite figured out the ending of the series as a whole, part of us hopes that these two characters will become the sort of figures that people can get invested in. After all, part of the reason we started writing this series was to fulfill the gaps that we sensed when we were younger fantasy aficionados yearning for queer heroes.

As we’ve begun to sketch out the later threads of our narrative, we’ve found that we need to add in more characters in order to capture the full range of human sexual and gender expression (or at least as full as we can come within the scope of one series). Indeed, when we started writing the storylines for the second major arc of our story, we found that there were a number of characters that were just clamoring to get their own voices heard. Some of these were characters that had already introduced in the first arc, but a number of others, including a young woman who is pansexual and a character that would probably identify as trans in our world, suddenly began to make appearances.

We want to emphasize, however, that we’re not interested in tokenism, and we’ve working very hard to avoid that particular fictional trap. We don’t want these characters to be defined exclusively in terms of their gender or sexuality, though of course that is a key part of who they are and we make no apologies for that fact. However, we also want our readers to see and to understand them as fully-fledged characters in their own right, with complex realities and ways of looking at the world. And, while some of them are heroes, some are decidedly not. To our mind, it’s high time that we have some unequivocally queer villains out there.

All of this, of course, is quite political, and we are very much aware of that fact. Representation matters, and it matters that our characters are queer (in all of the many ways that that word is defined). We’re almost making a concerted effort to include people of color in this world, not just as window-dressing and not just as dispensable characters. In fact, Alric is what we in our world would be called biracial, since his father is from the France-like nation of Troyeis, while his mother is from one of the southern kingdoms. What’s more, it matters that they engage in explicitly queer sex. We’ve made clear from the beginning of this process that we wanted to write an epic fantasy that was a fantasy in all the senses of the word, and we like to think that we’ve succeeded.

Are we going to get everything “right?” Almost certainly not. We understand that there are a lot of risks in including various minority groups in our fiction, precisely because, though we are queer ourselves, we recognize that there are many types of experience that we will never inhabit. However, what we hope to keep doing, as we work on The Filliquian Chronicle (as well as our various other projects), is to provide our readers, and ourselves, an opportunity to really and truly explore the world in new ways. If we happen to stumble a bit along the way, we hope to be able to make them learning experiences. And through it all we hope that you, dear readers, will enjoy reading our books as much as we enjoy writing them.