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Archive for August, 2009

Let’s talk about great Fantasy

To begin, Guy Gavriel Kay‘s Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy comprising The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road.

Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien in compiling The Silmarillion, so he learned from the best. (On occasion when I have said this I have been corrected that this only proves Kay learned from the canon. I stand by my assertion.) The Tapestry demonstrates in every particular how deeply Kay loves stories and storytelling: it honors chivalric romances as well as modern coming-of-age novels while being in its essence high fantasy at its most wrenching.

The Tapestry‘s central metaphor is of the worlds/worlds’ stories brought together thread by thread as if on a loom worked by God (the Weaver).  This is–surely by design–not unlike the Silmarillion‘s song of creation. Following the metaphor, all things/events/people are unified in meaning, but the meaning is literally an added dimension, not something individuals can experience. 

The later books in the Tapestry draw heavily on Arthurian stories, but the overall structure is that of a portal fantasy. Five young Canadians, grad students, are drawn into Fionavar, First of All Worlds (this is a Capitalization Kind of Tale), to address a need. There is some minor back-and-forth between worlds, but mainly we’re in a romanticized late-Middle Ages type world where magic, Fate, gods, elves, dwarves, giants, &c. are closer to the surface–okay, right out there–than your average Earther experiences.

And it’s beautiful. The writing, the story, the world: all of it. Spectacular imagery dances through my mind as I write this–I am nearly reeling with it–but I do not want even to try to express Kay’s creations in my own words. So I’ll try to replicate for you my first experience with The Summer Tree. I found the book on the shelves of my local Borders and opened it by happenstance to one of the two passages in the whole book (by my calculation) that just absolutely brains the reader like a psychotropic 2×4. I offer to you the other such passage.

My father says the Tapestry was written for people in their twenties; the central characters’ stage in life is one manifestation, but, more than that, there’s a particular young and all-or-nothing energy to the writing. I am already beyond dealing with suchlike. I will perhaps never reread again the books of the Tapestry, after three times or so through over the course of my teens and early twenties.  I would love to reread them, yet by now I know too well: the foreshadowing is too intense to bear.  I feel the weight of the entire trilogy on my back in every scene. Again, I am certain that the books were expertly crafted to produce just this effect–Kay, I imagine, sees them as a whole.

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Catan in cupcake form

Everyone loves Catan. Especially when it’s made of sugar.

Catan in cupcake form

Click the picture for a full-resolution version. It’s entirely edible, down to the fondant rocks and robber. Most impressive. This birthday cake (actually, 19 cupcakes) was made by housemates Cassia and Kim for our friend Tony’s birthday. I believe that the inspiration came from Cupcakes of Catan.

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Let’s talk about Great Sci Fi II

Today’s topic being Roger Zelazny‘s Lord of Light.

I’m going according to my own personal order of precedence: Lord of Light is in my opinion perhaps not the best, but certainly the coolest, thing next to Dune.  It’s by far the best of the few Zelazny works I have read (although “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is similar enough), and top-drawer among far-reaching, ambitious science fiction.

Lord of Light takes place on a colony world that has all but forgotten the existence of “vanished Urath”–but much of culture we would recognize does persist. Specifically, the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism. The technology that (long before the era of the story) has set the plot in motion is a “reincarnation” device that allows rich or powerful enough people to transfer to new bodies, but as a technology this barely plays a part. The real kick-start to the story is that those who control this technology have by now lived long enough to have discovered and developed within themselves certain psychic abilities … and that they declare themselves the gods of the planet, based on the Hindu pantheon. They are opposed by an original settler of the world, Sam, who plays out the Buddha’s role, speaking for the oppressed against the status quo.

I read Lord of Light long before I knew anything significant about Eastern religions, and it blew my mind. I have since studied Hinduism academically, and Lord of Light loses nothing with increased familiarity. I referred earlier to this book as being simply cool. Read this:

Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe….

It’s all the better when I tell you that this, my favorite speech in the novel, comes from Yama, the Deathgod. But then it’s better still when you reflect that this is not inconsistent with the teachings of all sorts of religious cosmologies. There is a natural law, which one can access by digging deep enough within oneself. Or, in slightly more Hindu terms, the universe is one. It gives me courage.

Courage, however, is not why I read Lord of Light. There’s a couple of awesomely written scenes. There’s some wry characters. There’s some to be learned, and far more to consider. And, as in many of my favorites, there are no easy answers.

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