That Crucial Subtitle: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday

For God speaks in one way,

And in two, though man does not perceive it.

In a dream, in a vision of the night,

When deep sleep falls on men,

While they slumber on their beds,

Then he opens the ears of men

And terrifies them with warnings . . .[1]

It perplexed G. K. Chesterton no end that nobody seemed to notice The Man Who Was Thursday’s subtitle: “A Nightmare.”  It especially bemused him because, as he said in his introduction to a 1926 stage adaptation of Thursday, “that sub-title is perhaps the only true and reliable statement in the book.”

Like so many statements Chesterton uttered, his statement about Thursday’s subtitle at first looks like hyperbole but, on closer inspection, turns out to be unvarnished truth.  “Nightmare” may not be a literary genre unto itself, but in Thursday Chesterton almost made it one.  The particular kind of nightmare Chesterton wrote in Thursday’s pages was the kind where the ground constantly shifts underfoot, where the vivid scenery never stays put – where little, if anything, is as it appears.  Reading Thursday is a little like walking through a house that’s equal parts madhouse, haunted house, and fun house.

The deceptive appearances and is-it-a-dream sleight of hand start on Thursday’s first page, with Chesterton’s description of Thursday’s opening set, a fictional bohemian London suburb called Saffron Park:

The place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as a deception but rather as a dream. Even if the people were not “artists,” the whole was nevertheless artistic.

After Saffron Park Thursday moves rapidly through a succession of bizarre sets, the speed of each succession heightening the story’s nightmarish quality.  A small dive that serves lobster and fine French champagne becomes a well-guarded underground bunker.  A fine morning for an al fresco breakfast on a balcony overlooking Leicester Square gives way to a wild afternoon chase through snowy London streets.  Whenever Chesterton has finished painting one scene he discards it and moves on to the next, and temporally, the sequence of the scenes makes no sense.

While the vivid scenes — by turns gloriously beautiful and utterly frightening — shift with an unnatural, unnerving rapidity, the story’s unlikely hero and title character, Gabriel Syme, gives the story some measure of consistency and coherence.  A self-styled “poet of law,” Syme is a bird so improbable that the story’s villain, Lucian Gregory, calls him a “contradiction in terms.”  Yet even for his general honesty and wholehearted embrace of his strange, paradoxical identity, Syme is not who he appears.  A “very mild-looking mortal” with “meek blue eyes,” who endures his adversary Gregory’s outbursts “with a certain submissive solemnity,” Syme is less meek than he looks.  From the beginning to the end of his wild adventures he proves to be a character of notable vigor and courage.  His courage holds him to his course in places where he can see no path before him, and allows him to face many terrors, even those that threaten to paralyze him by being so vastly inflated by his own poetic imagination:

 Utterly devoid of fear in physical dangers, he was a great deal too sensitive to the smell of spiritual evil. . . . . [L]ittle unmeaning things peeped out at him almost pruriently, and [had] given him a sense of drawing nearer and nearer to the headquarters of hell.

Syme’s mission is to infiltrate the Supreme Anarchist Council, which comprises seven members, each bearing the name of one of the days of the week, and each presenting to Syme a unique, vivid terror.  Each Councilman almost appears normal, but each has one unnerving feature – looking “as men of fashion and presence . . . with the additional twist given in a false and curved mirror.” To take three examples: Monday has an “even and classic face” with the “nightmare touch that his smile suddenly [goes] wrong,” all “on one side, going up in the right cheek and down in the left.”  Friday is one Professor de Worms, a man “in the last dissolution of senile decay,” such that Syme cannot “help thinking that whenever the man move[s] a leg or arm might fall off.”  Saturday is a medical doctor named Bull, in whom Syme sees “nothing whatever odd . . . except that he [wears] a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles.”  The dark glasses take away “the key of the face.”  Because the enigma gives Syme’s imagination an open field in which to run wild, he fancies Dr. Bull the wickedest man on the Council.

Reviewing Thursday is a tricky task because suspense is important to the reader’s enjoyment of it.  So I have probably said about as much as can be said without stepping on Chesterton’s revelations and punchlines.  As in every nightmare, in Thursday the revelations come fast and furious – and, as in God’s climactic speech to Job, the punchlines come in gigantesque word-pictures rather than straight answers.  It isn’t giving away too much, though, to add that by story’s end, we find that Syme’s quest, like everything else in the story, has shifted: from a poet of law’s quest to defeat anarchy to a philosopher’s quest to learn the nature of reality.  That quest is bound up with getting an answer to one question: Who, or what, is Sunday?

By the time Sunday answers the question, it’s clear that Chesterton himself, no less than Syme, Syme’s friends, and the book’s readers, is following the bewildering parade of gaudy pictures, rather than leading it.

[1] Job 33:14-16 (ESV).

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Naming Characters

This month, I am going to pay homage to Diana Wynne Jones, the author of such fabulous works as Howl’s Moving Castle and The Dark Lord of Derkholm, two excellent fantasy novels that are humorous, clever, and endearing.

As a sort of companion (but not reallyto The Dark Lord of Derkholm, Jones also put together a Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which is supposedly meant for tourists visiting the stereotypical Fantasyland and going on a prearranged adventure.  It painfully and revealingly (and alphabetically) defines any and every term you could possibly wish to know about in your average fantasy kingdom.  irish castle dun luce

While not every fantasy novel uses these clichés, it is very fun to think back on your readings and note those stories and books that do ascribe to the occasional somewhat overdone story element.  And, of course, there are lessons here to be learned for any future fantasy writing that you might do.

The cliché that I want to look at today is naming characters, something that I’ve thought about and written about before. Jones’s description is terrifyingly apt when it comes to many fantasy novels:

Names are very potent in Fantasyland.  People with no Names always get killed (unless they are powerfully EVIL and have a Name That Must Not Be Spoken, in which case they get killed anyway, but a lot later).  Of those who have Names, almost nobody tells anyone else what their Name really is, for fear of its being used in a spell to enslave them.  Magic Users have to be particularly careful of this.  But Mercenaries also tend to call themselves things like Bald Eagle and Silversword, presumably for the same reason (or maybe because their true Names are Joe Coward and Jill Doe). Missing Heirs are always called Names like Triggs and Dumpling: when they find their Names are really Prince Tornalorn or Princess Diore, they stop being Missing. This shows how important Names can be. Average Folk, Sages, and some Tourists, however, adopt the expedient of cutting out half their Names and filling the gaps with apostrophes, as in Ka’a Orto’o.  Then, unless you know what was in the gap, you can’t enslave them.  This is the true reason why so many Names in Fantasyland contain apostrophes.

Many folk – Elves and Demons particularly – are given hugely long Names so that they can be conveniently shortened in this way.  Demons, indeed, would have a bad time otherwise.  As soon as a Magic User learns a Demon’s Name, that Demon has to do anything the Magic User wants.

On some Tours the same prudent coyness applies to Magic Objects.  The exceptions are Swords, who seem very proud of being known to be really Excalibur or Widowmaker.

There are a few key points that Jones lays out here for our guidance.  First of all, the no-name characters.  Is she right about this?  Isn’t it a bit of a death warrant to be nameless in a battle or on any sort of expedition?  Many an author has realized that killing off a few nameless villagers or soldiers can add a pretty useful bit of angst to a scene.  Of course, this cliché can be wielded with great cunningosity simply by giving a character a name in order to lull the reader into a false sense of security and then immediately killing him/her (the character, that is, not the reader as this would be rather difficult and very frightening).

The nameless villain also probably sounded strangely familiar.  In case you were wondering, the Tough Guide was published before the first Harry Potter book was released.  Make what you will of that.  Authors like Rowling have proved their willingness and ableness to take clichés like this and make them overdone to the point of being funny.  However, there is always that novel where the author means Every. Single. Word.welsh sign

The idea of secret names is very familiar.  To have a name be something powerful and mysterious and to distinguish something’s True Name from its mere “name” in any given language has been used and reused.  It’s not necessarily a bad idea.  We have to admit, it sounds very cool.  But again, overdone can feel a tad melodramatic.  One book I know of that embraces this name-magic fully is Eragon and it is no joke, that’s for sure.

castel coch red castleMy particular favorite in Jones’s treatise on Names is her bit about the apostrophes.  Oh, apostrophes, why?  It is so tempting to throw in a few apostrophes to make a name look exotic, foreign, perhaps mimicking something Middle Eastern.  It’s a very cool idea, but I find myself mentally stuttering when they are used too often.  Every apostrophe becomes a full stop in the word and the flow is horribly interrupted.  Jones’s explanation for this (that these are just shortened full names being masked or conveniently abbreviated) is  brilliant, in my opinion, but not an excuse to indulge in this too freely.

So what do you think about naming characters.  Have you seen any of these used in a novel?  Did they work or did they feel cliché?  Have you used any of them?  Do you REPENT?

Fantasyland is tough, but at least it comes with a guidebook.

The Glittering Facets of Political Intrigue: Emerald House Rising, by Peg Kerr

After a slight deviation from my usual book reviews this month to exalt literary food with Brian Jacques, I want to finish the month with one last lesser-known favorite of mine.  Fantasy novels with a dash of political intrigue are some of the best.  When the author also manages to create a unique system of magic to go with the inventive political system, one begins to feel positively optimistic about the chances of enjoying the story.  Emerald House Rising manages to hit several high notes with its magic, political goings on, and characters, particularly since Peg Kerr interweaves all three with a common theme: gemstones.

The story centers around the young woman Jena who is an aspiring gemcutter, although in this particular world, joining a professional Guild can be very difficult for a woman.  Her love for her craft is significant throughout the story and through all the magical and political complications that she is embroiled in, she never leaves it behind.  A meeting with a strange nobleman wearing an even stranger ring is the first in a series of unexpected turns in Jena’s life, and she discovers that she is an adept, able to use magic.

Kerr’s magic is interesting, perhaps because it is only somewhat defined, and that’s okay. In her world, magic is all about possibilities.  If something is possible, an adept can weave magic into the fabric of reality and bring it about.  Of course, magic is also about the impossible, so things like shape-shifting and teleportation can be used, but the central idea of magic is shaping reality through possible occurrences and possible outcomes.  This can be a bit dangerous when the inexperienced Jena imagines overly drastic outcomes to get herself out of tight situations.  But as Jena learns to use her gift, she also hones her skill fashioning gemstones because an uncut gem is nothing but possibilities and magic can be tied to jewelry in several unexpected ways.

The plot of the story extends beyond Jena’s personal struggles to the kingdom’s political unrest.  In keeping with the overarching theme, Kerr creates an imaginative government system of ruling Houses each represented by a gem.  The head of this Diadem is the Diamond.  Succession in the Houses comes by birth, but rather than the Diamond’s heir being a birthright, the heir to the Diamond comes from one of the other members of the Diadem.  Each year, the heir changes to a new House so that each of the ruling families has an equal chance of producing the next Diamond.  However, as with any governmental system, a villain attempts to manipulate the system and trouble ensues. The Emerald House dies out.  The Diamond is old and bedridden and suspicions of an evil enchantment (magic is frowned upon by most members of society) are spreading.  The Ruby, who is currently the heir to the Diamond, is unknowingly tangled in an ambitious schemer’s plot.  And Jena Gemcutter stumbles right into the middle of all of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book for several reasons.  Jena is a likable, resilient young woman whose ambitions in her trade are not simply erased because she is also able to use magic.  She integrates her love of her craft into her newly growing love of magic.  This is representative of Kerr’s book as a whole: the magic, the plot, and the characters are all carefully brought together by the single image of a multi-faceted, brilliantly cut gemstone.

As Christmas approaches, I hope you will have time to read and enjoy a few new books.  Perhaps Emerald House Rising will be one of them!

Matching Wits With a Goblin King: The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare Dunkle

In keeping with the main theme for this month, I am reviewing another lesser known fantasy novel that more people should read.  Really.  You should read it.

Last week, I focused on pure fantasy, a story in another world with its own magical system and culture.  This week, my chosen novel is much closer to home.

Fairytales hold a certain fascination for authors who want material for telling stories.  Telling old stories in a new way has been popular for a very long time, of course, but lately, it seems like there are more versions of Cinderella and Snow White than we could ever possibly need. Ever.

One storyline that has come up a few times in various stories and poems is the goblin and the princess, or some variation thereof.  George MacDonald’s book, of course, uses this motif.  The story comes in many forms, but the general idea is that goblins or something similarly wicked living under ground come out at night and try to steal away a child from its parents or a girl for a bride.  One of two endings is expected: either the child/girl is rescued by someone cleverer than the goblins or, in a darker turn of events, the goblins succeed and their quarry is never seen or heard from again.  While not speaking of goblins in this case, I always think of Yeats’s Stolen Child:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

The dark, unsettling fear of something out in the darkness in the forests and under the hills that can simply creep out and steal the unsuspecting, whether by force and trickery, has haunted more than one culture and inspired more than one story. The Hollow Kingdom is exactly that sort of book, with goblins hunting in the darkness and a heroine trying desperately to outwit them, but this tale is delightfully unexpected in its outcome.

Kate and her sister Emily move in with their great-aunts on family land after the death of their father.  Their uncle, who is in charge of Kate’s inheritance until she comes of age, is an unpleasant individual and their aunts are very mild mannered, but Kate and Emily settle in as well as they can and try to make a life at Hallow Hill.  When strange things start happening and the goblins begin to appear when the sun goes down, Kate discovers that unless she is very, very clever, she will be claimed as a bride for the goblin king, Marak, and locked in his kingdom underground for the rest of her life.

The story that follows is filled with bizarre magic, and, with the trap closing inexorably around her, Kate fights blindly against an enemy she does not understand.  Her only hope is to convince her uncle that goblins are real, but her uncle has an agenda of his own.  And besides, what rational person believes in goblins?

Dunkle draws on old stories to create an ancient world under the wild hills of the 19th century British countryside, and she fills the woods and hollows with goblin magic.  Once Kate is in the goblin king’s sights, she becomes increasingly entangled in his world and out of step with her own.  The landscape above the goblin kingdom becomes only slightly less surreal than the world beneath.

Hollow hills, perhaps?

My favorite thing about this story is not necessarily that it is an unexpected take on the goblin-stealing-girl storyline.  I love the characters.  Kate is plucky and generally a sensible girl.  Her sister Emily is far too curious and fearless for her own good and finds the goblins more interesting than frightening.  Throughout the story, the strange, magical creatures Dunkle introduces as secondary characters are what make the story truly engaging.  Even the doors have character (read it to find out what I mean).

Retelling old tales is not a bad thing, if it’s done well.  Old motifs can be reworked in an endless number of ways.  What makes a book stand out is when it takes a good, old story and leads its readers on a very different road.

Don’t step out the door when the sun goes down…

A Book to Share: Resenting the Hero by Moira Moore

Last month I wandered a little aimlessly through some lovely pictures and quotes.  It was fun, but now I’m going to get down to some book business.  For this month, I’m doing book reviews.  I like reviewing books that are either new or at least new discoveries for me, but recently I’ve been rereading some old favorites of mine and I realized that some of my favorite books are one that many people have never even heard of.

And that is just beyond tragic.

So this month, you will learn about four very diverse and enjoyable fantasy novels that I particularly enjoy and hopefully you will be able to add at least one new favorite to your collection as well.

I actually used to work at a bookstore.  It was a delightful time for discovering books because as I was shelving copies, I would often find myself scanning the backs of ones that had a title or cover that caught my attention.  One such book that I had never heard of nor seen before was Resenting the Hero by Moira Moore.  I took a risk, bought the book, and proceeded to thoroughly enjoy it from cover to cover.

Part of what drew me to the book was the caption: She wanted someone reliable. Instead she got him!

The premise of the book is this: We are introduced to a world that seems purely fantastical, but the narrator gives a hint of a story that perhaps the inhabitants of this world were brought from Earth on spaceships and subsequently abandoned because the environment was too temperamental for the space-faring colonists.  Those who stayed behind settled into a somewhat medieval style of living and their origins faded into a sort of legend of star-born ancestors.  At any rate, that doesn’t really affect the story but it was a fun little hint from the author.

This story is more preoccupied with their present conditions.  Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, and everything in between very regularly and suddenly assault the towns and cities of this world.  Their salvation, for some time, has come in the unexpected form of people who are born with the ability to channel the forces of the storms and calm them.  They call these people Sources.  However, the energy from the storms kills the Sources, until other people were discovered who were born with the skill to shield the Sources’ bodies from the energy.  They are called, unsurprisingly, Shields.

Our story follows one particular Shield named Dunleavy Mallorough.  Lee is a sensible, well-trained, even-keeled Shield who is graduating from Shield Academy and awaiting her chance to be bonded to a Source and sent off in a Pair to help protect a town somewhere from the elements.  Because Shields and Sources only work well when they form an odd, instantaneous sort of bond with each other, she has the pleasure of standing in line while available Sources walk past and make eye contact.  If one of them is her Source, they will both know immediately.

Of course, it’s just Lee’s luck that she is chosen by the last Source she expects to be chosen by.  Lord Shintaro Karish is her polar opposite: a flamboyant, charming aristocrat with more gossip attached to his name than Lee can fathom.  The fact that he’s also a very good Source is secondary to the fact that she finds him extraordinarily annoying.

They are assigned to one of the most dangerous cities in the realm, are immediately embroiled in a massive plot by a mysterious villain, and, throughout it all, have to learn to be partners.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book is the viewpoint of Lee, the stolid and sardonic heroine who just wants to be given a job so that she can do it and do it well.  She doesn’t want fame and glory; she doesn’t want surprises; and she definitely didn’t want to be paired with someone like Karish.

At the same time, the dynamic between the two main characters is extremely endearing.  Karish is not nearly as irritating as Lee rather mulishly imagines him to be, and he does his best to win Lee’s respect and trust.

I am not the sort of person who loves clever world-building.  Characters matter more for me, and these characters were lovable.  However, the system of magic was very interesting and creative in the book as well, for those who do like good twists in a stereotypical fantasy world.  Sources and Shields as pairs who must guard their world from natural forces are not really magicians.  What they do is more instinctive.  What Lee and Karish learn is that there is more to Source and Shield magic than what they originally thought, and that’s when the political games begin, although those are more significant in the later books.

While I enjoyed this first book more than the three that have come after it, I did enjoy its sequels as well.  However, the first book does stand by itself and is definitely worth a read if you enjoy light, engaging fantasy with a bit of clever humor.