Scotland: The Power of Realms

This month, A. and I had an adventure. We’ve had others together–running 30 kilometers along the Danube in Budapest, exploring the windswept coast of County Clare, searching Yellowstone for Forrest Fenn’s gold. This one was more elaborate than any before, though, and we planned it entirely on our own. And we took pictures!


A burn not far from the famous Devil’s Pulpit.

Scotland’s been lodged in both of our hearts for a while now. Hers because she spent a semester abroad in London, and while she explored extensively, wasn’t able to make it beyond Hadrian’s Wall; mine because I spent a great deal of time in Edinburgh as a child, but was too young to remember. Our plan was to spend three days hiking the West Highland Way along the shore of Loch Lomond, then another three days exploring in other places around Stirling, Argyll, and Edinburgh.

I was especially excited about walking due to my love of The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane’s ode to the power of foot travel. Carrying a copy of that book with me, I embarked on the popular WHW at the town of Milngavie, a town whose exact pronunciation we could never seem to pry out of the locals (Miln-gavy? Mul-guy? Mil-guy? Mil-gavy?).

This won’t just be a chronicle of a journey. While I walked–and while I wrote this post–I tried to understand the power that certain places can hold. What is the source of the myth of Scotland? Why do people fall in love with it, or with Italy, Japan, Ireland, or another evocative place they may never have been to? Toward the end of this post, I’ll share some of my own answers.


A. taught me to look for sleeping giants in the lines of hillsides. We decided this one is a woman tired out after a long game of fetch with her dog, lying on her back to watch the clouds. The dog is curled by her feet just out of frame to the right.

That first day, though it was walked under severe strictures of jetlag, held enough majestic sights to write this whole post. We passed a woodsman’s cabin, ruined but for its low walls, hidden in the forest on the grounds of a castle. The trail took us over stones carved with Gaelic blessings, through sheep fields, and across a hillside planted with fir and pine saplings. The seductive sent of single-malt whisky drifted over the pasture from Glengoyne Distillery. We slept under duvets that night at Kip in the Kirk, a church converted to a hostel in the national-park gateway town of Drymen (drimm-en).



The second day, we became acquainted with the highland midge. Don’t get me wrong, clouds of tiny biting insects suck, but they did occasion my discovery of the all-time greatest opening to a Wikipedia article, stating that midges are “known colloquially as ‘wee bastards.'” Let me tell you, Outlander and Braveheart do not devote nearly enough attention to midges. I want just one episode where Claire and Jamie are about to have some passionate highland sex to a soaring bagpipe soundtrack but have to stop because they’re both being bitten on their respective junks.

(Also I guess they’re in Jamaica now? What is that show even about?)


The view from Conic Hill. One of the islands hosts a nudist colony that must spend an ungodly amount on insect spray.

Over the course of the entire trip, we circumnavigated the entire loch, by means of foot, boat, and bus. We summitted Conic Hill, an edifice of 1,100 feet that provides the first great view of all 22 of Loch Lomond’s islands. We traveled by water taxi to Inversnaid, a hotel in such a beautiful spot that it inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem of the same name about “wilderness and wet”; it also once hosted Victoria. We camped in a meadow at Doune Byre and walked through the faewildest forest I’ve ever seen, and saw the isle of I Vow, where a ruined MacGregor castle has been engulfed by trees. We discovered a cave alleged to be a hideout of the legendary outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor.


A sandbar, with Eilean I Vow visible at left. The “pretty good house with gardens” of Clan MacGregor has been swallowed up by nature.

(An aside about Rob Roy: it’s easy to conflate him with the English Robin Hood, since they’re both outlaws of Britain who were written about by Sir Walter Scott. But that’s a mistake. Rob Roy is a documented historical figure whose discontent was far more rooted in the politics of his time; Robin Hood has a more timeless grievance, and may not have existed at all. That said, I hope people never stop idolizing principled brigands.)

Speaking of Rob Roy, he’s also said to have once stayed at The Drover’s, an inn founded just before Scotland’s previous parliament dissolved in 1707. It’s supposed to be haunted, and is a popular destination for paranormal hunters. I was excited to stay there, given how much I’d love to see a ghost, but we remained sadly un-haunted. I also searched around the village of Inverarnan looking for a neolithic stone circle, only to learn that they’d apparently lost it. Still, the pint was great.


The taproom at Drover’s Inn.

Now would be a great time for a word about food. A. and I walked across the Scottish landscape, but we ate our way across it too. We dined on haggis, neeps and tatties, pasties, steak and ale pie, scones, cheese toasties, and tablet; we swilled single-malts, cider, and Irn-Bru. I can now personally say three things:

1) My late grandfather’s beloved scotch is still made according to the old ways, and warms like nothing else on a rainy eve.

2) Haggis is not any weirder than any other kind of sausage. Less so, actually, since they’re honest about what’s in there.

3) Vinegar is for the fish AND the chips. It doesn’t just accidentally get on the chips. It’s part of the design.

And furthermore, isn’t it time we let go of the tired old stereotype that there’s no good food in the UK? They figured out how to use spices like a hundred years ago. Just because it doesn’t hurt to eat doesn’t mean there’s no flavor.


This archway at Dumbarton Castle is the oldest surviving part of the structure, dating to the 14th century. Wallace himself certainly passed up this staircase.

We spent the second half of the trip back in civilization, exploring castles and city streets. On day five we visited Dumbarton Castle, a fortress built into a rock in the Clyde, which boasts the longest history of any fortification in Scotland. I didn’t know before arriving that it was that Rock of the Clyde: not just a castle, but a capitol that gave its name to the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde. In its life, it’s been besieged by Vikings, imprisoned William Wallace, launched Mary, Queen of Scots, on her journey to France, possibly hosted Merlin, and stood fast against the assault of someone called “James the Fat.”

On our last full day, it was time for Edinburgh. I admit, I’d been reluctant to add this to the itinerary. No matter where I’m traveling, I like to get out of the city as soon as possible and stay there; I’ve found it can be difficult to have authentic experiences in the urban realm. I was partly proven right. The Royal Mile does kind of feel like a Scotland theme park, with its rows on rows of kiltmakers, bagpipers, and postcard shops. But there’s an undeniable thrill of being there, especially when you look up over the Princes Street Gardens and see the castle looming over you for the first time.


Edinburgh Castle, photographed while ominously veiled in fog for the start of the movie.

Another thing that makes the Royal Mile worth it–other than the meat pies, and the ascent of Arthur’s Seat, which we weren’t about to attempt on our pulverized knees–is the wealth of secret courts and hidden treasures to be found just a turn off the main road. Following one close lead us to a public garden with exotic flowers. Another led to a museum of childhood that featured an exhibit on early board games, including one about a valiant attempt by the stupidest little boy in history to reach his grandmother’s house.


Willie should never have been allowed outside.

The Writers’ Museum was my favorite, shocking nobody. It’s a barely-announced, richly-decorated shrine to three of Scotland’s great authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. My grandmother once told the story of entering a little chapel down a side street in Rome, and finding, with no signage whatsoever, an original Caravaggio. The Edinburgh equivalent of that is a house that keeps a page of Rabbie Burns’s own handwriting like it’s not a big deal or something. I stayed an hour and had to be dragged out.


Burns, Scott, and Stevenson–three titans of Scottish letters, sharing a tapestry at last. Burns once savaged critics who mocked his poetry as simplistic: “Those who think it easy to write a poem in the Scotch dialect…let them try.”

As we made to leave, while I tried to figure out just what it is that makes a country into an obsession, the Writers’ Museum gave me one decent clue. There are probably other areas of land just as small that have produced more literary heavy hitters, but none so many that I enjoy reading–not just Burns, Scott, and Stevenson, but Arthur Conan Doyle, Iain M. Banks, George MacDonald, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, Kenneth Grahame, J.K. Rowling…some of these people are more often called “British,” but only in the way tennis champion Andy Murray is British when he wins and Scottish when he loses.

Scotland has always been an alchemical lab for the West, in a way that both its fraught history and the persistent image of its citizens as ungroomed tartaned savages would belie (they’re ungroomed tartaned heroes, first of all). In the 18th century, while Scotland was losing its very national identity after the Jacobite Rebellion, James Hutton and Charles Lyell were hard at work birthing modern geology. Walter Scott was inventing the historical novel. David Hume was writing on metaphysics and Adam Smith on economics, Burns was joyfully preserving the dialect of his boyhood (here’s him making Ron Swanson cry 200 years after the fact), and James Watt was improving on the steam engine. And all this without even a parliament of their own.

Those modern white man-boys who bitch and moan about their identities being replaced could learn an awful lot here. A national identity is not a precious glass vase you have to constantly guard against destruction. It derives from the character of its people. Scotland was literally absorbed and still managed to make great strides in literature, science, philosophy, and culture; American neo-Nazis have a perfectly functioning government and bloated military and are still pissed off because they have to look at Mexican people. They are possibly the only people on Earth who would be beaten by Willie to his grandma’s house.

By the time A. and I were flying home, scratching every midge-bitten inch of skin we could reach, I did come to a conclusion about why we fixate on countries. To some people, Ireland, Scotland, India, Japan, or wherever else represent things both profound and bygone. Places where things are ancient, and people still live, however consciously, according to an ancestral code. A country of worship has to be not just old but somehow simple–a place where music is made for the sheer joy of it, where the booze is done right and everyone is friends while they drink, and there’s ancient spirits in the room with the regular spirits.

In America, everything is thirty minutes away from everything else. Interesting architecture is as common in our cities as spices at a McDonald’s. Nobody seems to like anybody else very much. This may sound overly simplistic, but I find it easy to argue that America, by design of all its radical individualism, is fundamentally a lonely place. Is it any wonder that so many of us reach out to places that think a hundred miles is a long way but a hundred years is a short time?

Moreover, how harmful is it that we should do so? Of course, it’s never a good idea to reduce someone else’s culture to a caricature, even if that caricature is a positive one. However, a minimum of study can transform a childlike reverence into a mature respect. Yes, people are living real lives in my idolized countries. But if I come with an earnest desire to celebrate what they’ve got and share in it fairly, I not only spend more money, I come away with a much more fulfilling experience than if I’d toured a land of pure fantasy.

A. and I walked the wildest side of Loch Lomond because we didn’t just want to go to Scotland, we wanted to get its dirt under our fingernails. I hope we succeeded. I for one am glad to now have a real, firm place in my memories.


The falls at Inversnaid. Said Hopkins: “What would the world be, once bereft/of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,/O let them be left, wildness and wet.”


The Definitive Ranking of Every Book I Read in 2017, Part 3

I want to start this runup to the finale with some lines from John Keats, inspired by a namesake of mine. From On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer:

“Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken…”

A good book is an unseen world. Recommending any of this top nineteen is a hill I am willing to die on. Let’s get started.

19. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

The first book in the alternate-history trilogy keeps the scope tight and engaging, avoiding the meandering pitfalls of Goliath. Deryn is a girl posing as a boy to join the Royal Air Force. Alek is a Hapsburg prince posing as a commoner to escape the conspiracy that killed his parents. As the Great War erupts between bioengineered beasts and giant robots, can their budding attraction survive in the face of all the secrets they have to keep?

The beauty of this trilogy is the world. The Darwinist/Clanker divide makes WWI make far more sense than it did in real life–still not justifiable, but understandable. And Westerfeld doesn’t skimp on the danger. This is no dulce et decorum war: you can smell the acrid smoke from the guns, can practically feel the alpine chill.

18. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Before reading this story straight through on an airplane, I had a lot of misconceptions about it. I didn’t know that Phileas Fogg, that icon of the gentleman adventurer, wasn’t suited to undertake his wager because of any love for adventure. Rather, he’s perfect for the job because he is superhumanly punctual, the kind of man who will fire a manservant for being two minutes late with the shaving water. One of the greatest globetrotting stories of all time spends most of its length concerned with timetables and train schedules.

The wonder is there, of course, largely via the audience-insert character of Jean Passepartout. But it’s also in Fogg himself: knowing nothing about what made him the way he is, we are free to invent a whole litany of past traumas and narrow escapes that made him long for a robotic familiarity in his days. By the end, his circumnavigation has succeeded in cracking his stiff upper lip, and we discover that what we thought was a grand tour was in fact the rebirth of a man’s soul.

17. Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu

It’s arbitrary to rate this with the others, because it’s not really even a book. Nor is it a poem. Lao Tzu’s words seem as natural a part of the world as the Cold Mountain poems found scrawled on rock faces: the foundation of the only religion that seems to have conjured its own scripture as a point of completion rather than beginning. His thoughts on the Tao are to be contemplated, studied, discussed, meditated upon. But you don’t exactly sit down and read this straight through. So, instead of thinking of the Tao at number 17, think of all these other books in a north-south column, and Lao Tzu way the hell off to the left.

16. Arcadia by Iain Pears

Yes, this book does have an companion app for understanding its plot. It’s not required. But it helps.

I initially picked Arcadia up because one of its lead characters is based heavily on J.R.R. Tolkien–a respected Oxford linguist and former military man building a fantasy world in his spare time. Yet the central inspiration for Pears’s sprawling novel is not The Lord of the Rings but Shakespeare’s As You Like It, with its dichotomy of the civilized nest of vipers and the pastoral Eden. Rosalind, a student of the professor, stumbles through a mysterious portal in his cellar and find that the world he created is quite real. Meanwhile, in a brutal utilitarian future, a rogue researcher sets out to correct humanity’s mistakes using a stolen time machine.

Romances! Cold war spy thrills! Fantasy journeys! Dystopian social commentary! There is so much going on in this book, and not everything works with everything else. But what does work, works well enough to turn Arcadia into a feast on basically every level I enjoy reading on. What is the purpose of science? Will Rosalind find love? Who is the mole in MI5? Why do we turn our inspirations into literature? Can the characters avert nuclear war? Should they?

I had a great reading year. Everything in the top 20 comes with my highest recommendation, and from here on it was excruciating to put things in order. Read Arcadia. Just be forewarned that this is a lot of book, and it’s all happening at once, and you’ll like some parts more than others, and miss still other parts entirely.

15. Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

The second in the trilogy is frequently the best, and that pattern holds true with Leviathan. With his characters and world firmly in place, Westerfeld is free to tell a story that breaks the boundaries of YA. Fresh off their victory in the Alps, Alek and Deryn head to Ottoman Istanbul, where the Clankers and Darwinists are competing to influence the Sultan. Confining the story to a single city keeps the tension high and surprising. The action is top-notch, the illustrations engrossing, and the plot never once flags.

Beyond that, there’s a sense of history, of the weight of the world crashing down onto these unprepared teenage characters. This is what steampunk, biopunk, and all the other punks are supposed to be. They’re not just about gluing gears on your corsets, as fun as that is. They’re about getting to a vantage point where you can look back on the truth of history. And isn’t it best to teach teens as early as possible that war is futile and stupid, using feelings they’ll identify with even if they’ve never known a soldier?

14. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

This standalone Discworld religious satire is built around the kind of concept that’s so obvious only Terry Pratchett can point it out: namely, that most people who believe in a religion don’t believe in the god or gods themselves so much as they believe in the institution constructed around them. This isn’t always a bad thing–plenty of people go to church for the community rather than the prayer–but it does grant the theological establishment a great deal of power over its flock.

Small Gods is essentially a buddy road-trip story, only the buddies are a cantankerous god trapped in the body of a turtle and the simple-minded gardener who is his last true worshiper. Through their relationship, Pratchett asks questions as large as he ever does in his whole body of satire: Why should we believe? And once we understand what we ask of our gods, how can we receive it without hurting ourselves, or others? The answer the book arrives at forms fully in the final two pages, which are by themselves enough to call this the greatest Discworld book.

Yet–spoiler alert–this is not the last time Sir Terry will show up on this list.

13. A Redtail’s Dream by Minna Sundberg

I read this in the form of a webcomic, though it’s also been published as a book. A Redtail’s Dream is to the Kalavela what The Chronicles of Prydain is to the Mabinogion, which for those of you who aren’t national-epic dweebs, means it’s modern-day fiction that uses a culture’s founding myths as its fantasy world. In this case, native Finn Sundberg has taken a dream-world of animal spirits and vast forests and dropped in loser protagonist Hannu and his loyal hound Ville. To save their village from being lost in a dream forever, the pair will have to complete a series of difficult labors.

Aside from the beauty of the art, it’s a sheer joy to see a person geeking out over their own homeland’s mythology the way people do about Harry Potter on Tumblr. Way too many people now are using mythic symbols as emblems of hate (I mean white nationalists, by the way, if any of them have read this far). By contrast, Sundberg’s is a work of love, with the tender emotions to match. A Redtail’s Dream is both possessed by its origins and transcendent, the way all the best stories are.

12. Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

The cover describes Arabella of Mars as what would happen if “Patrick O’Brien, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs got together and wrote a book to entertain Jane Austen.” With a blurb like that, it seems superfluous to say anything else. O’Brien contributed the wooden ships and iron men, Verne the wonder of an especially odd mode of transport, Burroughs brought his Martian worldbuilding, and since Austen was the beta reader, they made sure to wrap it all up with a marriage proposal.

But there’s more going on in Arabella than just a pastiche. Levine packs the tale to the gills with incident and adventure, always making sure his heroine is just barely up to the task. From the moment Arabella’s slimy cousin Simon announces his intent to murder her beloved brother, the story gathers speed like a ship headed for the stars. Other books on this list may have taught me more, but Arabella made me feel like a kid discovering books for the first time.

11. The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

As I just decided I have always said, if it can’t level a dining table, is it really a fantasy novel? I’ve found there are three things people tend to know about Williams’s seminal Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy: 1) The hero takes 200 pages to leave the castle he starts in, 2) It inspired George R.R. Martin, and 3) It’s long enough to make Robert Jordan suspicious.

#1 isn’t a problem at all, because the events catching Simon in their snare fascinate the reader as they grow worse alarmingly fast. And #3 is unfair in inviting comparisons to Jordan. While the Wheel of Time auteur infamously spent an entire book describing 35 separate POV characters doing nothing in particular, Williams never wastes a page. As a result, The Dragonbone Chair earns its doorstopping length, as does its sequel, Stone of Farewell.

As for #2: it’s a book about kings whose civil war distracts them from an enemy approaching from the north, who is strongly associated with inclement weather. The hero comes of age through traumatic experiences in an icy wasteland. There’s a dwarf, a giant tame wolf, a sword named Needle, a character who loses a hand and replaces it with a metal prosthetic, a character who starts out in a vast grassland distant from the rest of the cast…listen, all the best artists steal.

10. Stand Still, Stay Silent by Minna Sundberg

At last we come to the top 10, and a familiar face is here to greet us. It’s fitting to rate this above A Redtail’s Dream, as Stand Still, Stay Silent was always Sundberg’s dream project–she drew Redtail to see if she was capable of finishing a comic so she could do this one.

SSSS starts out with one of the most instantly intriguing premises I’ve ever had the misfortune to not come up with myself. A plague wipes out the entire human race except for the five nations of Scandinavia, who close their borders just in time. Ninety years later, the countries have each taken on their own specific characters–helped by the fact that magic is now (sort of) real for those who have returned to the worship of the Old Gods. A group of representatives for those countries is now about to be the first since the end of the world to make a journey into the “silent world” beyond their borders.

From this beginning spins a tale in which flamethrowers and armored trucks are equally at home with trolls and dream visions, which elevates the post-apocalyptic genre by focusing on what happened to the souls of all the people that died. The art is even better than Redtail, and the characters are so lovable they tinge everything with melancholy–their friendship can’t save the world, but at least it sustains them. Genuinely shocking moments mix with unexpectedly funny ones mix with awesome worldbuilding and…you know, it’s free online. Just read the damn thing.

9. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Obviously, this is one of the greatest murder mysteries ever written. Who is so jaded that they don’t feel a shiver in their soul when Sir Henry Baskerville cries, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”? I submit, though, that Conan Doyle’s crowning achievement works even better on another level: as an exploration of the power of place.

There is no way that The Hound of the Baskervilles could be set anywhere other than Dartmoor. The fog. The mires. The empty neolithic huts. The distance between human habitations. Far from a cozy pastoral, the mystery embodies the layered creepiness of the English countryside, all the more so because Holmes himself vanishes for the greater part of the action, letting us experience the fear of the more credulous Dr. Watson. Watson himself repeatedly remarks on how things that sound ridiculous in London can be believed on the moor–indeed, this fact drives the murderer’s entire scheme.

I have very little patience for writing that doesn’t acknowledge that humans live in places. Absurd minimalist landscapes or midcentury urban angst: great literature it may be, but it’s not for me. Even Sherlock Holmes, fiction’s most famous rationalist, cannot escape the truth that everything eventually derives from the trees and the rocks, the bogs and the moors.

8. Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Hambly is a jack-of-all-trades for literature that’s better than it has any right to be. Case in point: the copy of Dragonsbane I borrowed features a buxom maiden with a swath of cloth strategically covering her nipples, swooning in the clutches of a glowering dragon. Fantasy from the 1980s gets a very bad rap that mostly has to do with the cover art, but still, would you expect that a book about dragonslayers and wenches turns out to be a moving portrait of a middle-aged woman struggling with her regrets? Believe it. Dragonsbane is brilliant for the same reason Mad Max: Fury Road was such unexpected fresh air–despite the fact that the man is in the title, it’s really a story about women.

Jenny Waynest is torn between two worlds. In one she is the wife of a petty lord and mother to his children; in the other, she is a solitary magic-user who bitterly regrets the limitations on her power that result from her choice to spend part of her life with the man she loves. Forced to choose, wondering if she’s already too late to make the choice, Jenny is confronted by Zyerne, a younger, prettier mage who never gave up on attaining ultimate power. Soon enough, she is also tempted by Morkeleb, a dragon who offers her the chance to become one of his kind–yet whom her husband John is bound to seek out and kill.

It’s a speculative take on a universal problem. No man is expected to give up his dreams for a family, yet so many women are expected to make the choice. And if a woman really wants to marry and raise children–and Jenny and John’s relationship is as supportive and mature as any I’ve ever read–that doesn’t make the dichotomy any less false. The way Hambly spins her entire story from Jenny’s dilemma, picking apart and reassembling her character and still finding time for epic dragon rides, should be enough to redeem all of 80s fantasy on its own, no matter how terrible the cover art may be.

7. The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

“Introducing Investigator Yashim,” this book is subtitled, and I was very pleased to meet him. Yashim is one of the most interesting guys being written right now: a detective in the late Ottoman empire as Istanbul attempts to rapidly modernize; a eunuch who deals with his sexual frustrations by cooking elaborate meals; a charming social mingler equally at home conversing with the Sultan’s mother, a beautiful Russian aristocrat, a transgender dancer, or a common mule driver; and the kind of person who frequently finds himself in fistfights over boiling tanning vats or dramatic confrontations atop the Hagia Sophia.

In The Janissary Tree, Yashim must investigate several mysteries which all connect to the Janissary Order, a band of legendary mercenaries recently dispersed for becoming incorrigibly violent against their own people. What really makes this great historical fiction is the attention to detail, both in the characters and in the world. No fantasy writer could develop a city so full of richness and dark complexity as this one. And the mysteries hold up too!

6. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brien

Speaking of historical fiction, here’s the beginning of a series that’s often called the greatest entry in that genre. For those who didn’t have a grandfather that owned the full set of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, here’s the Star Wars crawl: it is a period of Napoleonic War. “Lucky Jack” Aubrey is a skillful and daring commander at sea and an indecisive philanderer on land. Stephen Maturin is a dashing and educated surgeon, botanist, and spy who is an utter neophyte in naval matters. The two men complete each other so well that it’s no surprise they go swiftly from duel opponents to lifelong friends by means of chamber-music jam sessions.

Master and Commander doesn’t have a traditional plot, in the sense of rising action and 3-act structure. It’s the full chronicle of Jack Aubrey’s first command, from his being promoted and posted to H.M.S. Sophie to his losing that same ship (it takes no fewer than four French warships to bring him down). Like The Janissary Tree, O’Brien’s works are victories of meticulous detail, but he goes even farther than Goodwin in successfully recreating the style and dialect of the era he writes about. Will people in the future understand that these books were being written 150 years after Lord Nelson’s death? Or, like “Ashokan Farewell, will Jack and Stephen leap back across the centuries? The Janissary Tree is great historical fiction. Master and Commander is a time machine.

5. Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology by David Hinton

A life is not that difficult to change. When I say a book changed my life, all I mean is that it had a material and lasting impact on the way I think and act. All the top 5 books of 2017 fall into this category.

In 1915, Ezra Pound, seeking to escape from the mannered poetic traditions of the previous century, discovered the poetry of Imperial China and translated a collection entitled Cathay. He was inspired by the rich minimalism of masters such as Mei Yaochen, Li Po, and Tu Fu, who could be beautiful, drunken, political, meditative, lustful, and enraged in the course of four or eight lines about birds or a lake. His famous two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro” could be read as a direct response to the Tang Dynasty.

In 1969, beat poets Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac became influenced by a mysterious figure called the Cold Mountain Poet, who famously inscribed his verse on rocks and cliff faces. Snyder translated several of his poems and published them in The Evergreen Review, and Kerouac dedicated Dharma Bums to him. Snyder and Kerouac saw in the nameless poet the figure of the archetypal American madman.

In 2010, Guy Gavriel Kay (who isn’t done around here any more than Pterry is) was so taken with the work of Li Po, the “banished immortal,” that he fictionalized him in Under Heaven as the perpetually inebriated Sima Zian. This character eventually dies in the same way Li Po was said to–drowns trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in a lake.

And so on. I could go on forever. The point is that westerners are forever discovering the genius of the classical poetic tradition of China, and that Hinton’s collection does the finest job yet of presenting it in its own right–inextricable from Buddhism and from East Asian history, yet entirely timeless–and that I started reading this book in January of 2017, and I still haven’t stopped.

4. The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

It’s a story about a rushed American discovering a slow-food paradise in backwater Spain. No, wait, it’s a story about the greatest cheesemaker of all time, who is robbed of his business and sinks so low that he contemplates murder. No, it’s the story of how that American inserted himself into that cheesemaker’s life in the attempt to write the very book we’re reading now. It’s the story of a man out of step with his time, of the pull of unknown cultures, of stories themselves.

Relating the tragedy of Ambrosio Molinos, creator of a cheese called Paramo de Guzman which was briefly enjoyed by presidents and popes, The Telling Room evolves from a travelogue into a moving examination of the difficulty of living an authentic life in the modern age. When his cheese business goes under, Ambrosio believes he was stabbed in the back by his best friend Julian. When Paterniti finally meets Julian, he discovers that the truth is far more complicated: Ambrosio’s factory simply fell victim to economic circumstances. Unable to grapple with the loss, he created a more satisfying story, one that Paterniti himself gets caught up in.

Normally, I don’t go in for stories where the author makes themselves a central character, unless I’m warned beforehand that it’s a memoir. Here, though, Paterniti’s involvement provides a great deal of the book’s pathos, as he yearns for the unattainable world of Ambrosio’s quasi-medieval Castile in much the same way Ambrosio yearns for a time when people “knew how to shit.” I closed the book with tears in my eyes, realizing that The Telling Room was never a book about cheese. It’s a book about longing. And cheese.

3. Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay

(N.B.: Guy Gavriel Kay once answered my question on Reddit, so we’re basically best friends now.)

What a difference a career makes.

The author who was still finding his feet in The Summer Tree has evolved into not only the best fantasy writer of his time but one of the best writers working in any genre. His M.O. is to take historical periods and base his secondary worlds off them–thereby obtaining a one-two punch of emotional familiarity and unpredictability. OK, says Kay, we begin in Republican Venice, or Anglo-Saxon England, or Imperial China…but you’ll never believe what happens next.

His backdrop here is based on the Byzantine Empire, from which Kay conjures Sarantium, a city so storied that merely to go there is indicative of a turning point in one’s life. In the first book of the Sarantine Mosaic duology, mosaicist Caius Crispus reached Sarantium and planned a heretical work of art even as he became enmeshed in worldly politics. Now, in the conclusion, Crispin will realize he can no longer stay isolated on his ladder while the world below succumbs to chaos.

The story that emerges is as complex and stunning as any of Crispin’s mosaics. Chariot races are elevated to mythic proportions, love affairs play out on dark streets, mechanical birds and wild boars are guides to a shadowy otherworld. This is a book that aims for nothing less than the totality of history, and doesn’t fall short of the mark. What is history but pictures on walls, knives in the dark, the screams of a crowd, a messenger getting drunk in a seaside tavern, passionate kisses, dutiful lovemaking?

There’s not a character in this book I don’t long for more time with; not an image that passes I can’t recall months later. And when old ex-presidents and heads of state die in my lifetime, I believe with all my heart that they still hear the words: Uncrown. The Lord of Emperors awaits you now.

2. Republic by Plato

There is a moment, toward the end of Plato’s account of one of the most important conversations in Western history, that veers into the unexpectedly emotional. Socrates, having finally exhausted all his debating partners, ventures forth on a long allegorical speech about a soldier chosen by the gods to return from the afterlife and report on what he found there. This soldier relates that, just before resurrection, each soul is given the chance to choose the next life it wishes to live, knowing that after choosing it will forget all about its previous life. Odysseus is last in line to choose, and happily takes the life of “a private citizen who minds his own business,” stating that he would have chosen the same if he’d gone first.

By means of this parable, Socrates intends to illustrate how the soul is capable of gradually progressing along the course of justice. Each of his friends–Glaucon and Adeimantus, Polemarchus and even Thrasymachus–has drunk of the River Lethe before, and will do so again, for a thousand years and a thousand after that. Each is capable of choosing a better life every time they pass through the underworld. These men, who one night in ancient Athens stayed up late trying to figure out the definition of justice, might be with us today, still struggling, still waiting to be reborn just that little bit better.

The Republic is the portrait of that struggle. Over its ten books, Socrates and his interlocutors create and then dissect a fictional city that will become just in a mirror of the just human soul. No detail is too small for their notice. At one point, when Adeimantus points out that Socrates has forgotten to include a role for women in his perfect city, Socrates detours for three entire books to correct his mistake. Nothing is left to conjecture, heuristic, or common sense. Socrates doesn’t want a fast answer or an easy answer. He wants the right answer.

It’s this insistence that the path of justice is never out of reach that makes the most rational book in history such a touching read. We may never know if Socrates believed the words Plato puts in his mouth. We do know that Plato believed that even the most unjust soul can begin walking the long road toward redemption. The bully, the bigot, the robber baron–they will weary of evil. When that happens, those of us who are just must take their hands, like Brutha took Vorbis’s, and lead them out of the desert.

And yet, with a year as bad as 2017 was for the world, I knew the best book I read would be something that commingles rationality with faith. To my everlasting delight, it came along.

1. Nation by Terry Pratchett

When Terry Pratchett sat down to write his first book after his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s, why didn’t he return to his familiar, beloved Discworld? Perhaps he wasn’t yet prepared to face those characters, knowing that they would slip away from him. But I prefer a somewhat happier explanation: he knew he could only grieve by way of Nation.

Nation begins as a story of loss. Mau, a boy from an alternate-universe South Pacific, loses his entire tribe to a tsunami. In the days that follow, a new tribe begins to form from castaways, including Daphne, a proper English girl longing to join the Royal Geographical Society. Mau professes to have lost faith in the gods for taking everything from him, though the truth is more complicated, particularly as they keep yelling in his ear. Just as the tribe begins to feel safe, the island draws the attention of unsavory raiders. All the while, a secret lurks below the island’s surface.

So far, so good. But why does Nation deserve the top spot?

Mau begins wanting nothing more than to survive. When he sees to his survival, he starts realizing he also needs a reason to live. Behind the keyboard, Pratchett, as well, might have wondered at the purpose of continuing in the face of everything he’d lost, everything he would still lose.

But he wrote on. He poured his rage onto the page, and when there was no more rage–right about the point when Daphne literally drags Mau from death back to life–the book finds hope beneath it. In friendship and loyalty, in faith, and in the quest for knowledge. The refusal to give up grows into the determination to live, and in so doing, we learn how the Nation formed the world around it, bound to our history in the same way its gods are bound to our physical plane.

Grieving is a hallmark of life in 2018. We might grieve for America, for the planet, for civility, for innocence. Pratchett had his entire self to grieve for, and with Nation, he didn’t just write a book. He wrote his way out of the darkness. If Mau can rebuild his tribe, if Terry Pratchett can rebuild his identity through his book, we can begin to rebuild anything we’ve lost.

Perhaps we’ll die before it’s finished. But others will take up our work.

Though Pratchett wrote several more novels between Nation and his death, it’s not hard to imagine it as his final work. I picture him typing The End, nodding contentedly, and turning to face the figure standing in the doorway of his study.


“Yes,” says Terry, standing up. “I’ve finished my work.”

And the two old friends begin to walk across the desert.


And that, at last, is my completed list! Taking stock of it has been a wonderful experience, helping me figure out what lessons I took from last year–half of my life has always come out of my books. I hope to hear from some of you with your opinions about the works I listed, and to get some of your recommendations for 2018. Farewell for now!

The Definitive Ranking of Every Book I Read in 2017: Part 2

Let’s keep this rolling! Below you’ll find the books I ranked between 44 and 20 out of 64. All of these books were, at worst, very enjoyable reads that I’d happily recommend.

44. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

A feat of storytelling to be sure. Gaiman reinvents Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya for a new generation in a way Marvel never could. Once I finished reading his mythic cycle, though, I was left with more of the feeling of a reference text than anything else, with a certainty that the Northmen believed in enormous palaces and shapeshifting gods and magical mead, and not much understanding of why.

43. My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson

I picked this up at a book sale because it reminded me of The Valley of Steel in the way it weirds America. 12-year-old Gracie and her family pack into a Winnebago and head west across a land of dragons and sasquatches in hopes of staving off her younger brother’s death. A heartbreaking final twist brings young readers face to face with things they’re only just ready to deal with, but the story leading up to it is fairly slight.

42. How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman

A short but fascinating graphic story about two guys trying to chat up girls who may or may not be a hive mind of omnipotent extraterrestrials. Or something. You know what, I’ve got no idea what happens in this comic, but I’m still thinking about it.

41. The Winter Fox by Timothy Knappman

I know what you’re asking: “Sam, did you read an entire children’s picture book in a store, just so your total number of books for the year could be a square number?” The answer is yes. I did do that. Someone stop me, I’m an absolute madman.

40. The Clockwork Raven by Samuel Chapman

Fuck you, it counts.

39. Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne

The second of three Verne books on my list this year, telling the story of three Europeans crossing the interior of Africa using technology that was cutting edge at the time. Rated higher than Journey to the Center of the Earth because it tells a more exciting story along similar beats, but rated lower than Around the World in Eighty Days because…well…”slightly less racist than it sounds” isn’t exactly the highest praise.

38. Sandman: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s comics are back, this time featuring a tetralogy of tales: a captive muse gets her revenge, cats attempt to take over the world, Shakespeare performs for an audience of Fair Folk, and an obscure superhero seeks her chance to die. Again, nothing at this point is bad, and there are worse criticisms than “doesn’t offer anything but a spectacular creepy atmosphere and wicked good artwork,” but something’s gotta be number 38.

37. Last Hours on Everest by Graham Hoyland

I have been a junkie for stories of old-timey men freezing to death since before I could read. Hoyland, who has summited the world’s highest mountain eight times, tells a story of the enduring mystery and allure of the disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, while at the same time attempting the definitive summary of the evidence in that case. Through recreations, research, and interviews, Hoyland tries to figure out whether the two made the summit before their fatal accident, thus claiming the title of first climbers from Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

It’s a riveting and personal tale that only loses some ranks for dragging when Hoyland is off the mountain and sifting through clues. Gains some ranks back for relating that George Mallory was apparently possessed of a monumental hotness that overrode sexual orientation, sort of the Idris Elba of his day.

36-31: Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour)

Having read the six comics that inspired one of my favorite movies, I can officially join the ranks of the insufferable book-was-better crowd. The thing is, though, it is better, and admitting that doesn’t have to diminish Edgar Wright’s film. Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers actually seem to enjoy each other’s company, minor characters are expanded on, and the brilliance of O’Malley’s tale of millenial angst shines through.

None of these characters really have any problems. They’re aimless, sure, and they don’t have that much money, and some of them are gay, but that’s not much of an issue in urban Canada. And yet the emotions they do feel are so real to them that they can only be expressed by means of choreographed kung-fu battles–compared by Wright to musical numbers in the way they straddle reality and fantasy. Scott and his friends are no saints, but they explain better than anyone today why things that don’t matter can matter so much.

30. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

2017 being my Chinese phase, it was inevitable that I’d get around to this sooner or later. Let’s get one thing clear: it is not a management training handbook. It is not about business or relationships. It is about leading soldiers in the Warring States Period of pre-Imperial China. If you are treating your employees the way you’d treat the marauding troops of the Duke of Qi, something in your management style is fucked up harder than Sun Tzu can repair.

29. Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers

Last November, I had the chance to visit Jeffers’s house in Carmel, near Big Sur south of Monterey Bay. I gazed at the tower where he wrote his poems, then went to the edge of the surf and read “The Torch-Bearers’ Race,” his meditation on the progress of civilization. The poem was utterly of the land, rocks writ into words.

Jeffers was an anachronism in his day: while Kerouac and Ginsburg were protesting the hypocrisies of the 1950s, he alone attempted to get to the root of modern ennui. He also wrote lengthy allegorical poems wherein a woman named California wants to have sex with a horse, but that’s the beauty–he is not about subtlety. The cliffs of Big Sur are not subtle. Why shouldn’t poetry be as big as the world? Why should we not shout at the impenetrable walls of civilization, rather than grumble under our breath like the beat poets (Gary Snyder excepted) preferred to do? Why shouldn’t we collectively rediscover Jeffers in 2018? Let’s make it happen.

28. The Starry Rift edited by Jonathan Strahan

The only anthology I read this year, representing 16 different authors as they pay homage to the golden age of sci-fi. You guessed it: time for a ranking within a ranking.

16. “Anda’s Game” by Cory Doctorow: Artlessly preachy about two completely unrelated subjects, and it’s weird that an adult man is deciding how a teenage girl feels about her body.

15. “Sundiver Day” by Kathleen Goonan: Beautifully evokes the Florida Keys setting, but chickens out at the ending, and winds up not being about much of anything.

14. “Repair Kit” by Stephen Baxter: Fun pulp sci-fi that’s about as layered as a sheet of printer paper.

13. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman: An interesting concept, but he literally wrote it on the flight he took to turn it in.

12. “An Honest Day’s Work” by Margo Lanagan: Riveting in its idea, but it’s a scene-setting, not a story.

11. “Cheats” by Gwyneth Jones: A moving exploration of disability and escapism that requires a bit too much explanation to be truly heartbreaking.

10. “Ass-Hat Magic Spider” by Scott Westerfeld: A short, sweet, emotional tale of the future.

9. “Incomers” by Paul McAuley: Youthful idiocy runs headlong into adult reality, but it’s still optimistic in the end.

8. “Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome” by Tricia Sullivan: A vacant-lot fistfight has intergalactic consequences in this brutal send-up of drone warfare.

7. “Infestation” by Garth Nix: How do you make vampires work as sci-fi instead of fantasy? Evidently, you gotta be Garth Nix.

6. “Lost Continent” by Greg Egan: The refugee experience in time instead of space. An object lesson in the power of speculative fiction to employ metaphors nobody else gets to use.

5. “Pinocchio” by Walter Jon Williams: Predicted Jake Paul several years beforehand, though this character is quite a bit more sympathetic.

4. “The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” by Alastair Reynolds: It’s pretty gross. It’s also suspenseful and morally complicated and a damn good miniature space opera.

3. “The Dismantled Invention of Fate” by Jeffrey Ford: Science fiction without the science, with the beauty, with extra mind-bending. A love letter to what the genre can be when it doesn’t have to be “hard.”

2. “The Surfer” by Kelly Link: On the one hand, it’s a kid playing soccer in an airplane hangar and never going to space. On the other, it’s about everything we desperately want when we read science fiction. Majestic.

1. “The Dust Assassin” by Ian McDonald: Tragic, vivid, imaginative, sweeping. A short story should not be able to hold this much. Whole series of novels manage less.

27. Vox by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

I’ve written about my love for The Edge Chronicles before, and Vox, the sixth installment and second in the Rook Trilogy, is the best of the lot. It’s got atmosphere, a twisty plot, action, a dark original world, and intrigue. Its politics are far more complicated than any other middle-grade adventure, but the motivations are still easy to keep straight. There’s nothing special in the prose, and it’s got some unfortunate representation issues, but I’ll go on forever about how underrated this whole series is.

26. Natural Grace by William Dietrich

This was the first book I read for my candidacy in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. The author, who usually writes historical thrillers, has a regular column in the Seattle Times where he argues that we should preserve animals, plants, and wild phenomena “not necessarily because they are important, but because they are interesting.” Each chapter is adapted from a column and concerns a topic in Pacific Northwest ecology such as deer, alder trees, or snow. It’s not the deepest nature writing ever, but it’s entertaining, informative, and passionate.

25. The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb

Here is a fascinating and unexpected book of nonfiction. Building on years of research and miles of cycling tours of Europe, Robb advances a revisionist historical theory that would call to mind Gavin Menzies if Gavin Menzies was correct about literally anything. His assertion: in ancient times, when nothing was old except for Stonehenge, an inter-tribal coalition of Druidic priests used their skill in astronomy and geometry to create the first map of Europe, long before the Romans stormed in.

To prove this, he visits towns and temples and travels roads, revealing how they were intentionally built to make the earth mirror the mythic world of the sky. His revelations, contrary to the established idea that every pre-Roman civilization north of the Alps spent its days clubbing itself in the face like a Far Side caveman, have been favored with a measured reaction of “Huge, if true.” Which was really the best he was going to get.

If Robb makes one error, it’s that his assumption that the Druids were a Europe-wide organized group that superseded national boundaries rests on shaky evidence. It’s clear that something big was done, but who did it remains an open question.

24-20. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy)

As a child, the target audience for Lemony Snicket’s campily grim series, I couldn’t get into it for two reasons: first, my brother and cousin spent several months bizarrely obsessed with imitating Vice Principal Nero, and second, I took the warnings to stop reading too seriously. The book said “go read something else,” and I said “OK,” and put it down.

Picking them up again in time for the excellent new TV series, I got a much better sense of their intelligence. First of all, they’re not actually all that dark. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny endure all manner of tribulations, true, but they’re rarely in physical danger. The fact that every adult is either a befuddled moron or a member of a sinister shadow society just mirrors the worldview of the average child (and most young adults).

Further, the five books that I read take excellent care to teach lessons we too often leave children to figure out on their own. Not just the definitions of difficult words, but also truths that are at once harsh and comforting to understand. Plenty of books and movies tell kids to be themselves and live life to the fullest. Not enough teach them that they shouldn’t believe everything they read, that people who try to hurt them are doing it because they themselves are upset, or how important it is to know how to cook. They’re going to learn those things anyway. Better that it happen this way.



Check back in a little while for my top 19 books of 2017!

A Twist is Not a Story

You heard me.

In On Writing, Stephen King described a class he taught where a student turned in a short story. The story was about a suburban father who loses touch with his daughter after she makes several bad decisions. Years later, the father’s marriage disintegrates, and he visits an escort for comfort. They do the deed in the dark, and only in the harsh light of morning does he realize the prostitute was his own daughter.

You’d expect this to be the beginning of the story, wouldn’t you? But nope. As King relates, the story ended here, right at the most critical moment for the characters.

Here’s another example. At last month’s OryCon, I attended a critique session, where a writer read a sci-fi story about a family moving to a mysterious island they bought for an abnormally cheap rent. The island is infested with wolf-like monsters that scare the family into leaving. In the last paragraph, through an awkward perspective shift, the monsters are revealed to be aliens, tricking humans into provisioning the island with food they can then use for the voyage back to their home planet.

That is a fascinating concept, yet the whole story was wasted in revealing it.

I could go on and on. Every story idea ever conceived by M. Night Shyamalan, O. Henry, or another one of those initials guys also falls into this category, but that would just be belaboring the point. A thing I should probably get to.

The point being this: when you end your story with a big reveal you spent the whole thing building up to, you commit two critical mistakes. You elevate yourself above the reader, and you rob your characters of a better story.

I mentioned in my post about the 10 commandments of mystery writing that the reader should have all the same clues that the character does, but that’s not the whole story. There also need to be enough clues laid out that the reader can solve the mystery without the benefit of authorial intervention that the character enjoys.

More than that, though, it should be fulfilling, not condescending. If the whole point of your story is to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes, it winds up like one of those riddles meant to keep people distracted on long car trips. You know the ones: those awful “lateral thinking” puzzles that are just one sentence about a guy committing suicide, from which you are somehow supposed to derive a convoluted backstory about naval service, cannibalism, or the mafia when many easier answers are readily available.

Back to my two examples. I don’t want the story to end when the father realizes his horrible mistake. Show him fleeing the bedroom. Show me how they both individually deal with their guilt. That’s how a character is revealed–until then, they’re ciphers.

In the sci-fi story, let the alien scheme mean something. Let the family’s child stumble on the truth and have his world inverted by interacting with the starfarers. Let them come into conflict and find a solution.

A great idea for a twist, in summary, is only the beginning of a great idea for a story. Not the end.

In case this hasn’t made it clear, in the wake of completing The Clockwork Raven, I am focusing on short stories. I finally have a Duotrope subscription and have gotten three new ones on paper already. More posts to come!

I’m gonna talk about The Edge Chronicles because you can’t stop me

A. is fond of saying that I have never lost interest in anything; I just accumulate interests on top of my old ones. She’s largely correct, as usual. Eight years elapsed between my initial realization that Pirates of the Caribbean was badass and my actually learning to use a sword. I played pretend as a child and I play pretend as an adult.

However, some of my fascinations do occasionally go dormant, only to explode forth again with all their old force. Such was the case when, at the end of August, I visited the beachside town of Lincoln City, OR, with friends. Exploring the village, we happened upon a bookshop filled with World War II aviation parts and books that taught the secrets of craps, along with literal magic.

I am convinced this bookstore was larger on the inside and would be a blank wall if I went back today. But I’m on a tangent. The point is, I picked up a copy of a book called Vox, and, reading it through, was reminded of a greatness I hadn’t thought about in a while. Though it sounds like an anarchist manifesto, Vox is actually an installment in a British children’s series called The Edge Chronicles, a weird, wonderful, vividly illustrated family saga that has had more of an influence on my fiction-writing life than anything between The Amber Spyglass and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

A quick introduction before I start fanboying, which, just to be clear, is all I’m going to do in this post. The Edge Chronicles is a series written by Paul Stewart and illustrated by Chris Riddell, currently consisting of 12 main books and a couple spin-offs, all set in the eponymous Edge fantasy world and all revolving around a member or associate of the Verginix-Barkwater dynasty. The Edge is what it sounds like: a stone overhang the size of Russia upon which a whole civilization thrives.

Most of it is taken up by the Deepwoods, a forest so uncharted and densely primeval that the characters treat it like an ocean. Clinging to the edges of the Edge are the Twilight Woods, a hazy faerieland that makes you simultaneously immortal and insane; the Thorn Forests, which have a bunch of thorns; Riverrise, the closest thing to a sacred religious site the world possesses; and Undertown, a wretched hive of crime and disgusting beer whose citizens gaze up at lofty Sanctaphrax, a city of feuding college professors built atop a gigantic floating rock chained to the very tip of the Edge.

Populating these memorable places are innumerable races of goblins, trolls, trogs, telepathic waifs, birdlike shrykes, and the humanesque fourthlings. Not to mention enough hideous and terrifying creatures to fill a new edition of the Monster Manual. Presiding over all is the Gloamglozer, a demonic entity with a surprising origin who casts a long shadow even over books it doesn’t appear in.

You’ve probably gathered from reading this far that the Edge is not a happy place. In fact, if you meet a fan of the Chronicles, they’ll likely tell you two things: first, that Chris Riddell’s illustrations are amazing, and second, that for books which present themselves as middle grade to young adult, things get dark. Slavery and racism are prominent themes. Villains are analogous in both ideology and action to everyone from Joseph McCarthy to Jeffrey Dahmer. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself as the hero, you’re as likely to be eaten by a tree as you are to have your marriage fail over several agonizing decades.

The darkness is not, however, of the grim variety. The people of the Edge are constantly striving to make something better out of their fallen world. There are the sky pirates, who sail over the Deepwoods conducting illegal trade under the noses of the plutocratic Leaguesmen. Librarian Knights protect scrolls of ancient knowledge deep in the sewers of Undertown, while the Freegladers unite to create a new society based on harmony, honest work, and the wisdom of sages who sleep in giant cocoons that give them prophetic dreams.

The reason you may not have heard of these books is that they are far more popular in the United Kingdom, and never made their way across the Atlantic–likely owing to the lack of movie adaptations or any real media presence beyond idiosyncratically-covered book installments. That doesn’t make me too sad, though. While pretty much everyone loves Harry Potter, meeting another Edge fan is like finding another member of a secret society. Both of us always get excited. And though there may never be Edge movies, at least there will also never be Edge memes.

Without further ado, unless you consider this entire post to be ado, I want to dive into a few of the deeper reasons that The Edge Chronicles continues to inspire my own worldbuilding.

1. There is a massive amount of sheer imagination on display…

Fantasy literature, along with all genre fiction, often gets accused of being derivative. In some cases, this has merit–witness the genre of time-travelling Viking Navy SEAL romance I was just informed exists, and the absolute flood of Tolkien imitators that bubbled up after The Lord of the Rings became an unexpected smash hit, most of which are justifiably forgotten today.

But then there are the other cases. People talk about the need for “innovation” in literature, a term I really don’t like, since it makes the sacred act of storytelling sound like whatever wrist-mounted-heart-monitor-cum-government-listening-device the jagoffs in Silicon Valley have decided we need this week. I prefer “imagination,” or what the fantasy-ranter Limyaael calls “go out and make stuff.”

To me, telling a truly creative story has almost exactly the same steps as a child would follow to come up with something they thought was cool. No considerations of genre or market success or snarky trope-hunting–use influences, of course, but just to feed your own ideas. It’s how I tried to make the settings for The Valley of Steel, The Glass Thief, and Rafter’s Rats, and is very clearly how Stewart and Riddell worked as well.

Frequently, Riddell, the illustrator, would have the ideas first: he’d sketch something awesome, and then Stewart would work it into the story. Pirate ships that fly around using temperature-sensitive rocks, gigantic hovering worms, floating lake towns and beehive cities, storms that blow in from the endless void of “open sky” and generate the material the economy is based on…it’s about as far from a Tolkien clone as fantasy gets. And while there are many ways to get away from Tolkien–China Mieville, Susanna Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, and George Lucas are all equally distant fantasists along wildly divergent paths–there’s no denying the unique power of the Edge.

2. …But the stories and world are also grounded and familiar.

With a world this overstuffed with imaginative detail, new dangers arise. Stories told in the Edge might easily overshoot the mark of fairy-tale resonance and wind up in Wonderland territory, where everything is goofily absurd and none of it really matters. The first volume, Beyond the Deepwoods, shows signs of falling into this trap. But soon the creators’ careful hands imbue everything with weight.

First and foremost, there’s the internal consistency. The Edge doesn’t have a “magic system” so much as it has alternative science, but it always works the way it’s meant to and never twists to accommodate the story. Flight-rocks always rise when cooled and fall when heated–The Winter Knights uses this as the basis for the entire plot, as an eternal winter threatens to rip Sanctaphrax free from the Edge. Stormphrax is lighter than air in light and astoundingly heavy in total darkness. Oakelves never move their nests, Woodtrolls never stray from the path, and a sky pirate’s talent is always inversely proportional to the coolness of his name.

Second, there’s the way that consistency evolves over time while maintaining its core. Take stormphrax: initially it’s used for two purposes, purifying water and weighing down the Sanctaphrax rock. In this first age, airship captains go “stormchasing,” to pluck it directly from the hearts of storms before it sinks into the ground and is lost. Nine books later, when Xanth Filatine (more on him later) invents a method of using it to power airships, far more is required, but the storms that produce it have stopped coming. But technology has marched on, and miners now dig through the ground under the Twilight Woods, retrieving stormphrax once thought lost with the help of powerful lanterns. In fact, the hero of The Immortals starts out doing this job.

But most of all, the grounding of the Edge comes from its characters. These books are no didactic fables telling morality stories at children. They’re about real people that dream and suffer and fall short and keep striving. Quint and Maris have a storybook romance, but when they’re forced to abandon their son in the Deepwoods, their marriage can’t survive the strain. Their son Twig falls in love as well, but when Maugin is stranded at Riverrise, Twig spends decades trying desperately to return–eventually having a child with another woman, one he apparently also loves. Cowlquape Pentaphraxis spends much of his life imprisoned for doing the right thing. Xanth Filatine’s attempts to reform lead him to face bigotry from the otherwise progressive Freegladers. And so on.

The Edge Chronicles books are not as interested in dealing directly with everyday unhappiness the way Lemony Snicket’s books for the same age group are. But they still are books for children where bad things happen to good people, then good things happen to bad people, then good things finally happen to the good people, but not always the good things they wanted. At the core of this world of flying knights and shapeshifting demons and endless meteorological feuds is a vein of pure humanity.

3. The characters are not just realistic, they’re interesting.

Xanth Filatine is a character in the trilogy of novels starring Rook Barkwater, a dark age of the Edge that begins with the Gloamglozer-induced stone sickness and ends with the establishment of the Free Glades. Raised as a true believer in the autocratic Guardians of Night, Xanth is sent to the Librarian Knights as a spy, but begins to see things from their point of view. His turn to the side of good takes time, though, with many false starts and secret angsts.

It’s a character arc that could be called the Prince Zuko Special, complete with Rook and Magda as Aang and Katara, Orbix Xaxis as Fire Lord Ozai, and Cowlquape as Iroh–though the first book to feature Xanth, The Last of the Sky Pirates, came out in 2002, and Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired in 2005…not making any claims, just saying that inspiration comes from all kinds of places.

The point is that all the things that made Zuko so compelling are realized in Xanth as well–most prominently, the chance for any villain to become good again. Redemption has a far deeper attraction to most people than revenge. In Freeglader, when he struggles to purge the evil from his soul, Xanth easily steals the middle part of the novel from Rook.

On the other side of the villain coin, let’s look at Vox Verlix. A young bully turned genius civil engineer, he builds the Second Age of Flight out of whole cloth, so absorbed in his ambitious projects that he ignores their consequences. As a result, slavery and bloodshed come to rule Undertown, and Vox himself winds up a powerless prisoner, gradually becoming poisoned with the evil he previously only committed by accident.

There are so many questions to ask about Vox: Does his brilliance give him a free pass to ignore the implications of his work, turning the Tower of Night into a nuclear weapons allegory? Does he squander his own shot at redemption because he doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong? Does his accidentally helping the Edge in the long term justify unleashing the Dark Maelstrom? Does he betray the Librarian Knights because being constantly betrayed himself has taught him he has no choice but to strike first?

If there’s a central theme to the villains in The Edge Chronicles, it’s this: those who are single-mindedly devoted to their grand projects inevitably fall to darkness. Those who take life as it comes, who study the world and try to excel at their small tasks, always become the heroes. On the Edge, great good is only accomplished by acts of love, on the large and the small scale.

And why do I keep bringing up villains? Both because the series has an amazing rogues’ gallery and because…well, I love Harry Potter, but despite directly stating that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” the story goes out of its way to disprove that. Compare a character like Vox, Quove Lentis, Amberfuce, even the Gloamglozer, to Voldemort or Umbridge. The latter look like mindless hate sinks and killing machines. Anyone the heroes don’t like turns out to be on the side of the Wizard Nazis, even the random executioner from Prizoner of Azkaban, who for that book at least was really just doing his job.

Morality doesn’t always come in complex forms in young adult literature. The Edge Chronicles just isn’t interested in drawing hard glowing lines.

4. The vastly epic scope is everything I love about books.

Earlier, I called The Edge Chronicles a family saga, and that’s truly what it is to me. Earliest in the chronology, in The Curse of the Gloamglozer, a teenage Quint is still dealing with the grief of losing his entire family save his father in a tragic fire, and is thrust into the alien world of Sanctaphrax with only the aloof Maris as an ally.

The books sweep through their adventures and romance, through Quint’s father’s death in an Ahab-like quest for revenge, through the birth and abandonment of their son Twig, through Twig’s own coming-of-age and his vastly altering the Edge to create the world in which his grandson Rook must survive.

In The Immortals, 500 years later, we are recognizably in the same world, but everything has gone through everything it possibly can. It’s got by far the widest scope of any young-adult or middle-grade series I know of, and if there’s another, I would love for somebody to tell me. This is what I mean when I say these books have inspired me: not just in my worldbuilding, but also in my ambition. They’re how I learned to take my characters to the end of the world and the end of their wits.

5. They are not perfect.

By no means am I saying The Edge Chronicles is a flawless work. I can point out many flaws. The main characters of each story tend to be the least interesting, with Quint, Twig, Rook, and Nate being far more compelling once they become supporting characters than as somewhat bland protagonists.

Furthermore, representation is a problem: the women of the Edge don’t get nearly as much of a chance to tell their own stories than the men, and Stewart and Riddell have an unfortunate tendency to reinforce the trope that beauty equals goodness. I really wish, for example, that Vox would quit going out of its way to remind me how fat the title character is.

But that’s all parcelled up with everything else. Among young-adult serial fiction, The Edge Chronicles may not be as universally beloved as Harry Potter or as mythically resonant as The Chronicles of Prydain or The Dark is Rising. Its language and humor don’t sparkle like A Series of Unfortunate Events, and its social commentary isn’t as direct as that of The Hunger Games. It may not be as relatable to the target audience as Pendragon or Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

For me, though, the flaws of The Edge Chronicles are first and foremost an expression of its grand scale and massive imaginative force–and are second a product of it aiming for a different target than any of the ones I mentioned above. No matter where I am, in the world or in my life, reading Stormchaser or Clash of the Sky Galleons reminds me of what it was like to be young and dreaming without limits. They mix in darkness, on human and social scales, in order to both help us understand it and to reassure us it can be overcome.

A sky pirate, say these books, is not just something you shouldn’t let the world tell you not to be. Fighting to salvage the good in the world is the sky pirate way. Don’t give in to the temptation to ride out on crusades–instead, shelter and protect knowledge, love the people beside you, respect everyone. There are far worse legends to teach with, far worse worlds to tell them in.

My Two Main Projects

Hi, everyone! If you’re new to my blog, this is a brief announcement to let you know that while it’s still active, much of my writing effort these days is going toward two web serials that will be updated a lot more frequently. They are:

The Clockwork Raven: For ten years, Karla and Kio have known nothing but Nashido, the castle floating thousands of feet in the air that keeps them alive with a combination of unreliable machinery and unfathomable magic. All that keeps them going is a promise that one day they will help each other reach the surface. But when a winged monster attacks their home and Kio discovers the spells that keep Nashido aloft are fading, the two must face how little they know about their home…or each other.

The Clockwork Raven is a story of survival, clockpunk castles, flying continents, skeletal dragons, robots, aircraft engineering, and friendship against all odds that I’ve pitched as Studio Ghibli adapting The Martian. Read from the start here or check out the whole blog here.

Also features intermittent illustrations by Grace Pyles!

The Glass Thief: When Staever and his gang of lobster thieves hijack a land vessel hauling precious glass to the wealthy center of the Eye, they don’t expect to discover an ancient key that could hold the power to save their dying seaside city.

Staever knows the lobsters of the Eye must make a pilgrimage back to the homeland they lost centuries ago, but his only allies are his mother and an out-of-favor governor, and his chances of saving his people are slim at best. Yet if there’s one thing Staever and his gang can do, it’s think on their feet–and although he’s in the crosshairs of a conniving politician and his brutal enforcer, this thief’s day may be about to dawn…

Sweeping from a high desert, across a barren wasteland spanned by graceful bridges, and into the swamps and forests of a land known only to legend, The Glass Thief is a tale of treason, swashbuckling adventure, despicable villains, romance, humor, and the power of history. By the end, a continent—and a world—will be forever changed.

Read the first chapter here, or check out the whole story here.

A new full-length post coming soon! I’m thinking it’ll be about worldbuilding for fun and profit.

Sam’s Guide to Opening Sentences

Hi, everyone! Today’s topic is an important one for writers: it’s my take on how to handle that all-important first sentence.

The opening line of your story or novel carries a staggering amount of weight. If the importance in hooking your reader decays exponentially with each sentence, the first sentence is the asymptote: the point where hook significance leaps so high that the first officer on a sci-fi show would say readings were “off the scale.”

Or “over 9000!” if you prefer. The point is, it’s a big deal, and everyone has a different way of going about writing a first sentence. I’m not claiming this one is the only correct way–just that it’s mine, and since some people have told me I’m good at this, I hope it can help you with your own writing.

Here’s my method. A perfect opening sentence needs to do two things: introduce the mood of your story, and contain a mystery that invites readers into your story. A good opening sentence needs to do at least one of the two.

I’ll start with mystery, since that’s actually the simpler and less important of the two, though its immediate effect on the reader is more noticeable. To explain this, I like an example that I read somewhere else a while ago–I don’t remember where, but if anybody recognizes this, please let me know so I can credit them.

Anyway, take a look at the following first line:

Thirty minutes before the state championship, Johnny, our starting quarterback, walked into the locker room and announced he had quit the team.

The Johnny example has a major flaw, which I’ll discuss when I get to mood. This is by no means a perfect opener–it’s a teaching tool.

For now, take a moment to think about the amount of information crammed into this one sentence. There’s a quarterback, so we know it’s football, a sport played mostly in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. There’s a state championship, not a bowl game, so it’s probably high school football, an activity most consequential in rural areas of the American Midwest. Since Johnny is the starter, we know that he’s likely been thrust into a lot of adulation and responsibility at a time when he’s still maturing. And don’t overlook that sneaky pronoun “our,” revealing that this story has a first-person narrator.

Density by way of implication is one method you can use to entice your reader. Lots of people like to illustrate this with the famous six-word story–“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”–attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but I prefer Fredric Brown’s entry for the shortest horror story ever written: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room; there was a knock at the door.”

The main focus here, though, is the question: why has Johnny quit the team? We want to read on just to find that out. The fundamental trick of advertising is to convince somebody they have a need they didn’t have previously, and then fill that need. We as writers can hijack that trick for a less evil purpose. Don’t beg the reader to read on past your first sentence–convince them they would be ill-served not to.

Suppose Johnny’s tale is a short story in a cross-genre anthology, and you have no idea what category his motive will fall into. Has Johnny’s doctor diagnosed him with repetitive concussions, setting up a confrontation with his football-loving father? Is a psychopathic fan of the opposing team holding Johnny’s girlfriend hostage? Has Johnny made a pact with a Faerie Queen to trade away his football skills in exchange for a cure to his rare late-onset genetic disease? How will that affect the playoffs?

The most important part of this first component of a perfect opener is that your mystery be original. There are a lot of cliche opening lines that may have been mysterious once, but now just look stale–unless a new twist is placed on them.

For example, one of my pet peeves of amateur fantasy openings is to start in the middle of a chase scene. Inevitably, the character will be some manner of child, they will be exhausted but have to keep running, and whatever is chasing them will not be shown. A similarly common start is to have a more battle-hardened character fighting a bunch of faceless enemies.

This does not make me want to keep reading because I’ve been given no reason to invest myself. Specifically, there’s no mystery here. The author is expecting me to want to know why their protagonist is being chased, but hasn’t given me anything to grab onto. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix: give the runner a mysterious object they must protect with their life despite being obviously unqualified. Or start a few minutes earlier and make it clear their village was doing something offbeat that caused it to be attacked. Or have them investigating an interesting spot in the woods, but get chased, making them unable to finish…

…you get the idea. Simple additions can make this generic opening scene a hundred times more compelling. And the key element is an interesting, unresolved mystery. It doesn’t even have to be the central mystery of your story, either.

For a more complex example: opening with a character waking up is considered the mortal sin of introductions. It’s extremely hard to improve this, since it’s hard to imagine a note of less tension or interest to begin on. Everyone is at their least interesting right after waking up. Plus, even if they wake up in an unfamiliar situation, we know it will take them several boring pages to figure out what’s going on.

It’s best to go the Metamorphosis route: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” That’s a rule. If you must start the story with your character waking up, make sure he’s a cockroach, or something of similar mysterious weight, by the end of that sentence.

Let’s return briefly to Johnny to introduce the other half of my idea of a perfect opening line. His decision in the example to quit the team raises a lot of questions, but there’s one thing it fails to do: give us an idea of what kind of story we’re about to read. Is it going to be a comedy of errors or a family tragedy, a grounded coming-of-age tale or an urban fantasy saga? This is where relying solely on the mystery falls short–it fails to promise anything to the reader, other than that something good will happen if they read on.

This promise will not carry weight with everyone. Therefore, we need to ensure the perfect opener also conveys a sense of mood.

I’m going to start this one with some examples of real opening lines that I love. Several of these are illustrated in this awesome imgur post you should check out.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –George Orwell, 1984

The idea that clocks can strike thirteen is not all that mysterious to us now, but Orwell’s classic introduction doesn’t hinge on an inviting mystery. Rather, it’s telling us about the world we’ve entered: a dark and bizarre place where everything we’ve come to find comforting and familiar is subverted just enough to be terrifying.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.” –Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

Another two examples of openers that are famous because they introduce the world of the story. Note from these that having a “world” does not mean you have built a setting from scratch for a sci-fi or fantasy story, or that you’ve exhaustively researched a bygone setting to write historical fiction. Every story has a world. Austen’s is a claustrophobic nebula of balls and drawing rooms; Fleming’s is a warped take on our own where exotic locales are easily accessible yet filled with danger, and final departure lounges are interesting. You cannot tell a full story without defining the parameters of its world.

Once you’ve defined this, the trick is to illustrate it in the very first sentence. I like to think of opening sentences as an Invocation of the Muse–that first line of an ancient epic poem where the poet would ask for divine aid in telling the story. By doing this, Homer or whoever could immediately signal that he was about to tell a tale so monumentally epic that he literally couldn’t finish it without the intervention of a minor deity.

Then he tells you the ending, and it just makes you want to listen more. That’s how well this works.

No matter what your world, you need a signal just like the invocation to the muse–one that implies, but doesn’t necessarily tell, the whole story. If your novel is about fantastic adventure lurking just behind the confines of the everyday, why not do what J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and start your story by declaring two characters perfectly normal, thus conveying that many things around them probably aren’t? If your story is about the turmoil within a narrator’s head, why not have him spend the very first page reacting with hostility to the reader’s perceived interest, like J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye?

This is the deft balancing act that a perfect opening line needs to pull off. If the mystery is a hook to be set, the mood is a line to be reeled in (note: the author knows nothing about fishing).

I try to use this method, but I don’t believe in my own ability to be a perfect example of this opinion. That said, I’d like to share the opening line of Rafter’s Rats, and I hope some of my loyal readers can critique how well I’ve managed to practice what I preach.

In the ninetieth summer of Pale, the year of the Green Fever, two women in veils came to put the mark on my door.

I’ve attempted to meld mood and mystery, so hopefully this line can stand as a mechanical example of the technique, if it’s definitely not a paragon.

Also, just for fun, here are my top five favorite opening lines ever, in no particular order:

1. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2. “This is my favorite book in the world, though I have never read it.” –William Goldman, The Princess Bride

3. “All children, except one, grow up.” –J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

4. “In my family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” –Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It

5. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” –J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone





Vikings Raid New York! Or, Topics in Non-Euclidean Marlinspiking

Hello from Yonkers, everyone! I’m excited to be based for a few days in Walla Walla’s East Coast sister city in being more famous for having a goofy name than for being a city. I sailed here aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, where against all odds, I am treated as a member of the crew. In the last month I have seen, done, and learned so many things that if I tried to just vomit them out this post would be a bigger mess than my SAT essay (side note for any high-school-aged readers: the SAT essay is graded using the reverse of Godwin’s Law. Hitler it up, even if the topic is cell biology). So I’m going to organize this update on my maritime activities via the time-tested method of the Good, the Bad, and the Environmental Humanities.

What? That’s a real movie. Clint Eastwood as Henry David Thoreau is a cultural icon. Who can forget that famous scene where he mows down the huckleberry collectors while Emerson quips one-liners? Classic stuff.

Anyhow, I’m about to get kicked out of a library, so let’s get started.

The Good: I should probably explain that title. It’s referring to Draken Harald Harfagre, a replica Viking ship that made a transatlantic journey from Norway through conditions so hazardous the crew were ordered to sleep in their survival suits. For reference, these are the poofy full-body flotation devices you wear to stay alive until somebody’s Coast Guard notices you. Draken (as we call it) has a checkered reputation on Clearwater, as having only one square sail, and a 9th-century steering mechanism largely dependent on a large Swede probably named Gunnar, is objectively funny. That said, I did volunteer to crew for them before landing the Clearwater gig, largely out of my love for replica voyages kicked off by Tim Severin’s Brendan Voyage. And it was thrilling to throw up our full sail and try to photobomb their press junket off the Manhattan coast, as we did a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if we actually made it into any of their publicity, but I got some fantastic pictures.


This is my favorite, with the Freedom Tower in the background. I like it as a reminder that history never leaves us: that 800s ships look over the same Atlantic as 2000s skyscrapers.

As for the other part of the title, it came up as part of a discussion of how many coils of line should be hung from certain parts of the rigging, but honestly, I don’t quite know what it means. I think I’m just going to let it exist as an inside joke with just me. Everyone should have at least one of those.

The Bad: It’s been a long road to dredging up my old knowledge from my Corwith Cramer trip around the Lesser Antilles back in 2013, and honestly, I overestimated the strength of that foundation from the beginning. Before boarding Clearwater, I may have known what a ballantine and a beam reach were, and why it’s important to swab the deck with saltwater. But knowing the steps for an arrest in countertime doesn’t mean you can pull one off in a pitched battle against a deranged clown with a weed whacker. It’s all in the muscle memory, the ability to act without thinking, and I have never been good at that.

Nor am I great at details. The fact is that the ideal sailor is an extremely meticulous, detail-oriented person, who can’t look at something without thinking of a way to make it better, prettier, more functional. And I’m…not. I can be a details person when it comes to my writing–no way around it if I want to be able to pick my crutch words out of a manuscript–but it’s not my strong suit in other areas. Just look at my attitude toward cleanliness. Past a certain reasonable point when all the big blemishes are gone, I’m constitutionally incapable of being dissatisfied with an object’s cleanliness. I am like the man from a groaningly dated stand-up act. I cannot see dirt.

(I also frequently leave the toilet seat up. This is another mistake that’s worse if you make it on a boat.)

In the long run, being forced to learn the processes of sail-raising and striking, to practice the skill of moving onto the next step as the previous one wraps up, is going to be good for me. Especially if I plan to skipper my own small boat someday. But I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t taken a toll. For a week or two, it seemed like I couldn’t go fifteen minutes without making some obvious mistake. When I got a handle on those, more things cropped up. Honestly, the only thing that kept me from despairing about ever being a real sailor was getting to know some of the “real sailors” and discovering they have the same problems. Sailing is like anything else in life: anybody who claims to have all the answers is lying. Even the mates forget things, and no captain can demand the current change course.

Good: Working with students has been the best part of the job, other than the astounding views, which I’ll get to in a bit. Clearwater spends the majority of its time on the water taking students out sailing to teach them lessons about the Hudson River–students from 4th grade to college, but mostly on the younger side. The lessons take the form of stations, usually five to a sail, preceded by all the kids helping us raise the 3,000-pound mainsail together. The passengers get to touch a fish and help steer the boat, but my favorite station to teach is often history, which happens belowdecks with the aid of a box of artifacts and a stained-glass history of the river valley. There are so many great stories, from George Washington’s enormous Tyrion Lannister chain to the English leveraging their dubious territorial claim to turn New Amsterdam into New York without firing a shot. Runner-up stations are water quality, which allows me to explain that the murky waters of the Hudson are actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and art, because in internet parlance I am Hudson River School trash.

Bad: Really really am not going to miss sharing a cabin with between seven and twelve other unwashed people, one of whom has to climb over my bunk to get into his. Or having people literally underfoot when I’m doing the dishes. Or being that people. Or having to keep my backpacks on my bunk when I’m not sleeping in it. By now you’ve probably gathered that I enjoy having my own space. While this is nothing I didn’t expect, it’s not exactly a perk of the job. Granted, though, it’s not hard to find moments to myself–whether on my days off, which each take place in a different river town, or on the transits, when nothing immediately needs to be done.

Good: This is an absolutely beautiful part of the country. Just like Cape Cod, I’m pretty good at winding up in these places. Just a shot I took recently off of Poughkeepsie:


And one of Beacon, current home port of the Black Squirrel, a little south:


It’s not hard to see why this estuary inspired so many people to take up arms in its defense. Even though this isn’t my native land, I’m proud to be one of them.

The Environmental Humanities: On that note, though, one last complicating thought. It’s critical to educate the younger generation early, so they learn why it’s not acceptable to use a river as a garbage can for sinister acronyms like PCBs. That said, I can’t help but feel like we’re taking something from the Hudson in our fight to defend it. Lots of the rhetoric aboard Clearwater treats the river like a babe in the woods, helpless without the altruism of humans. I myself talk like this to students all the time. But in the old days of the Lenape Algonquins, when the Hudson was called Muhheakantuck (loosely, “the river that flows two ways”), it might have been a god. The body and presence of a divine, not just its metaphorical home.

How do I respect something like this in the modern era? Does it make any sense to treat the Hudson as an object of as much respect and even fear as love? After all, it’s no grandfatherly Old Man River, delighted when its children come to visit–its currents and winds have as much power over human life as in the old days.

Like with sailing skills, or non-Euclidean deck arrangements, I have no easy answers here. Perhaps I’m working too hard to drag consciousness out of the landscape, and I should sit back and let it develop in its own time. In all things I ask for patience.

King Lear and the Two Strings: Lotta eye-gouging in this one

Spoilers for both works in the title. Assuming “all but two people die” even counts as a spoiler when it comes to Shakespearean tragedy.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook noting that I had seen two disparate shows two weekend nights in a row: the new stop-motion movie Kubo and the Two Strings on Saturday, and a production of King Lear on Sunday. The latter was in doubt: I waited too long to get the tickets, and saw it on the last night, from an obstructed-view seat. It didn’t matter much, as longtime readers will know I’m enough of a Shakespeare groupie that I’d have seen it if I had to wear a gorilla suit the whole three hours.

Both amazed me. Kubo cemented Laika’s serious claim to being the American Studio Ghibli–not only do their original stories, characters, and visuals shine, but they are funded by the CEO of Nike, who has given creative control to his son, Travis Knight. This means they’ll never have to be saddled with a parent company who will force them to churn out endless sequels to properties that were once charming and original (not that this has happened to any other animation studios we know whose names rhyme with “Blixar”). One could call this blatant nepotism, but I really want few things more than for all the most talented artists in the world to inherit huge sums of money so they can do whatever they want. I’m glad it happened at least once.

(Seriously, though, if Pixar tries to make WALL-E 2, I will…not see it and move on with my life like an adult. But I won’t be happy.)

As for Lear, it was performed in an actual real convent, staged with a pre-Christian Celtic aesthetic–stone tables, furs and leather, knots, and selection from Adrian von Ziegler’s celtic YouTube videos, which have been pretty constant writing companions for me. Lear himself talked a little fast, but Edmund was a timelessly sardonic nihilist, and Goneril was surprisingly sympathetic. Really, I was lucky. Nobody ever seems to do Lear. Not that I wouldn’t rather have been in Walla Walla for Whitman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this was a close second.

As great as both were, they couldn’t be more different…or so I thought at first. Is this more than just a random confluence? Is it actually possible to link a modern fairy tale about a boy coming to terms with loss to a bloody tragedy where everyone murders everyone and achieves pretty much nothing?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try! I love being able to talk about this stuff without having to follow MLA format or really cite anything or avoid using contractions.

I noticed the one strong connection fairly quickly: eyes. Both the movie and the play feature the gouging out of a character’s eyes as prominent plot points. Kubo wears a patch to cover the eye stolen by his grandfather, the Moon King, who seeks to steal the other one. In King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester has his eyes torn out by the brutal Cornwall, when he’s discovered to be still loyal to Lear. So let’s use eye removal as our basis.

What does the loss of eyes symbolize in each of these works? In King Lear, Gloucester is vulnerable to deception while he still has his sight: he falls for Edmund’s tricks and banishes his non-evil son Edgar. Only once he loses his eyes does he see the truth, even though he’s now dependent on others to survive. His blindness is retribution, a symbolic punishment for accepting Edmund’s blinkers–but it also makes him more complete, Tiresias-style. The only problem with this is that Lear doesn’t present a world of karmic justice. Bad things happen to good people, and also to bad people, but not soon enough. And his new knowledge isn’t enough to keep him from dying of grief when Cordelia’s French army is destroyed.

Then what does it accomplish to take Gloucester’s eyes? “Nothing” is a reasonable answer. Shakespeare has a lot to say about “nothing” in Lear, and I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about vaginas this time. But it’s not totally accurate. Blindness serves one function: separating the Earl from his earthly concerns. He’s not trying that hard to rectify his mistake in disowning Edgar. He’s more interested in dying.

This meshes well with Kubo, where the Moon King’s dialogue reveals why he wants Kubo’s eyes so badly: he wants his grandson to take his rightful place in the sky beside him, as an immortal celestial being. In other words, he wants to free Kubo of his humanity, but Kubo will never consent to this. He’s a storyteller, who makes his living being human. This informs a central concern of the movie–why do we need stories so badly? Why do we keep telling them after they’ve all been told?

If Kubo became perfect, he would lose his identity. Because of his job as a street performer, he’s acutely aware that stories are how we interact with the world: we can’t find objective truth through our senses, so everything must be, in a way, composed.

And this works on a larger scale than the senses, as well. Kubo, like I said above, is about dealing with loss. At the beginning of the movie, he can’t move on from losing his father because the story isn’t finished. Completing the tale completes him as well, and it’s for that reason that he will never move beyond stories. Any one of us who has grieved will know that “closure” is as important in our lives as it is in our movies.

Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragic theater is to grant the viewer catharsis, a cleansing of the emotions. King Lear, despite the way we keep revisiting it in the hope that Cordelia maybe won’t die this time, is a finished story for the same reason. It sucks, but it’s over, and now something new can take its place. Edgar probably will be a decent king.

Now we’ve got two stories where the loss of the eyes represents the failure of something to end the way it should. But here’s the kicker: while it doesn’t end well for Gloucester, it does for us. He doesn’t get to repent his mistakes, but isn’t there something redemptive in the way we keep telling these peoples’ stories? Gloucester, and Regan and Goneril and for that matter Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard II (yep, I like Richard II, because I am a filthy hipster) die without quite understanding why. But we know. And we save them by allowing them to save us.

The real kicker for me is that we could reverse these stories and the cumulative effect would still be the same. If Lear ended happily, as it did for several centuries, and Kubo ended up forcibly turned into a moon spirit without recognizing his Monkey and Beetle as his parents, we could still learn from the pairing about how stories can save us. But only–only–if the story was respected. In my eyes (heh) Edgar is the most important character in King Lear because he survives to bear witness. He alone makes it all not futile. A tragic Kubo would require a survivor: some other child stepping into the village square, proclaiming: if you must blink, do it now.

Gods, I love that phrase. Keep your eyes open, you who watch. Don’t pretend this story isn’t about you. It is. Everything is.

Well, there’s a few pages of rambling for you, but I had fun. Good luck to all the Whitties (and Kaeldra) starting school this week. I miss you all, and think of you often.

Darth Vader is Not a Squid: Writing lessons from a truly awful Star Wars novelization

George Lucas, why do you frustrate me so? Why must you be so good at imagining things but so bad at writing them?

99 percent of the time, I prefer a mediocre writer with a great imagination to a beautiful prose stylist with nothing to say. This is why I became one of the few people to unironically enjoy the Star Wars prequels. But this prose is beyond mediocre–it is, in fact, so bad I think we can learn something from it. Ordinarily, I would feel bad about spending an entire post trashing someone else’s writing; that’s why I took down my review of The Book of Strange New Things (though it’s still available on request, if you feel like 2,000 words of mostly unfunny vitriol would brighten your day).

But Mr. Lucas is a Kennedy Center honoree, so I feel like he can take the hits. Without further ado, I’ll start.

Not everyone knows that Lucas wrote companion novels to all three original trilogy films. I didn’t until a few weeks ago, when A. brought this Amazon page for the Episode IV novel to my attention and told me to read the sample pages until the introduction of Darth Vader. I did, and was not disappointed. In the name of being constructive, I’d like to offer up some of the early mistakes of this book, along with the lessons they can teach writers–and genre writers in particular.

I apologize–that was definitely another paragraph of ado. There really won’t be any more this time, I promise. Let’s begin…

It was a vast, shining globe and it cast a light of lambent topaz

…and let’s stop right there. Pack it up. Good run, blog post.

Seriously, lambent topaz? Why would you put that in the first line of your book, when reader attachment is most tenuous? To be fair, it means what it’s supposed to mean–glowing yellow–but it’s such an unnecessary complication of that simple idea. Now, I don’t believe words need to always be the simplest possible, but there’s a time and a place for saying “lambent” instead of “bright” and it’s not the exposition.

Yet both massive G1 and G2 stars orbited a common center with peculiar regularity

Amazingly, we haven’t made it through the next paragraph before George runs into the opposite problem. Having started too literary, he’s now not literary enough. When you’re writing genre fiction, it’s never a good idea to use too many words your reader won’t have an immediate mental picture for: this is why people get exasperated with fantasy novels that lard on too many made-up words right at the start. Unless it’s crucial to the plot that we know the designations of Tatooine’s suns, don’t bother naming them.

And it’s not crucial to the plot. Remember that famous scene where Luke Skywalker outwits the stormtroopers by correctly naming the categories of his home stars? Yeah, neither do I.

Long streaks of intense energy slid close past its hull, a multihued storm of destruction like a school of rainbow remoras fighting to attach themselves to a larger, unwilling host.

After a pretty good introduction to the rebel cruiser, Lucas demonstrates another rule: when employing a simile, make sure the thing you’re comparing the event to actually resembles it somehow. I’m trying to play this scene out using sea creatures instead of spaceships, and I can’t find any way it makes sense. Are the remoras getting…fired from somewhere? If they miss the whale, why can’t they turn around? This is not the kind of thing I should be thinking on the first page. Any literary device should involve me more deeply in the action, not forcibly jerk me out of it.

Gemlike fragments of metal and plastic

What’s the deal with gems, George? You sound like Christopher Paolini. You do not wanna sound like Christopher Paolini.

a lumbering Imperial cruiser, its massive outline bristling cactuslike with dozens of heavy weapons emplacements.

Fear the Imperial Space Cactus!

In the absolute cold of space, the cruiser snuggled up alongside its wounded prey.

Fear the Imperial Snuggle Cruiser!

All gods, this paragraph just keeps topping itself. Seriously, this is crucial for all writers to remember: words have connotations. I posted more than a year ago about the magic that occurs when you describe aid to the poor as “welfare”–the listener’s mental image changes completely. “Snuggle” is another such word. If you employ it, I am going to think of a kitten curling around a consenting teddy bear, not the forcible capture of a spaceship.

Artoo Deetoo or See Threepio

Wait, what? Has anybody else in the history of Star Wars ever written these names this way? Are they like this all the way through the screenplay, too? No writing lesson here, I’m just confused.

while Threepio might have sniffed disdainfully at the suggestion, they were in fact equal in everything save loquacity.

The writing advice “show, don’t tell” is thrown about a lot, and it’s often misunderstood. As Ursula K. Le Guin points out, her students are often so intent on following this “rule” that they become terrified of all exposition. There is absolutely a place for telling, and it doesn’t need to stop your readers in their tracks–I love writing exposition, and I know a lot of people who love reading it.

Right here, however, we have a textbook case of when “show, don’t tell” should be followed. The information here would be conveyed in short order if Lucas had just let C3P0 and R2-D2 (because those are their names, god damn it) act, and I’d be much more invested. When characters do things, I get a starting point to identify with them. This just sounds like a case study.

Accompanying the last attack was a persistent deep hum which even the loudest explosion had not been able to drown out. Then for no apparent reason, the basso thrumming abruptly ceased

The basso thrum is introduced, and then immediately cancelled in the next sentence. Right here, I’m beginning to see the common thread that unites all these complaints: so much is unnecessary. The adverbs, the weird similes, the hamfisted characterization. The solution for all is so simple–cut the crap and tell the story. It’s as though the fact that the tale is on paper means it has to take three times as long to tell. If you were telling a funny story to your friends at a party, would you stop every three words to compare something to a cactus?

A small band of humans suddenly appeared, rifles held at the ready.

There are exceptions to Lucas’s habit of always saying too much–namely, these weird moments where he doesn’t say enough. I have no idea where these people came from. Since it’s a sci-fi setting, it’s not impossible they teleported into the corridor. Call that your lesson from this sentence: even if you’re not writing a play, direction matters. Always be mindful of space.

“Quick–this way!” Threepio ordered, intending to retreat from the Imperials.

Oh, really? He intended to retreat? He wasn’t planning to, I don’t know, snuggle them? It might work.

Screams of injured and dying humans–a peculiarly unrobotic sound, Threepio thought

Next time you watch a Star Wars movie, you’ll have the pleasure of knowing C3P0 is constantly thinking the most obvious thought possible. “Master Luke, this sand on Tatooine is nothing like water!” “Oh, dear! Obi-Wan Kenobi, now dead, is very much not alive!”

Two meters tall. Bipedal. Flowing black robes trailing from the figure and a face forever masked by a functional if bizarre black metal breath screen

There you have it, folks. Straight from the horse’s mouth: Darth Vader is bipedal.

Now, I’m aware there’s a substantial fan community that contests Darth Vader is a squid, and always has been, even in his days as Anakin Skywalker. I hate to disappoint the folks over at the r/squidvader subreddit, but it’s time to pack it in. He’s bipedal. Not a squid.

This provides a chance to talk about an important concept in genre fiction. It goes by a few names, but I keep it simple: it’s the like-earth-but-different rule. Basically, when reading about a constructed world, people will assume that everything there is like the real world unless the author explicitly tells them something is not. If George Lucas had started things off by explaining everyone was a quadriped, then it would make sense for him to highlight Darth Vader walking upright, because it deviates from the new baseline he’d have established. But everyone’s pretty much been bipedal so far (except R2-D2, but kinda him, even) so saying it just sounds goofy.

Much more of this book is available in the Amazon preview, but I’m going to stop here, because I fear I’ll start repeating myself. Instead, I want to end with this video, which demonstrates how much clearer everything could have been. It’s the same scene, but I guarantee any one of you watching could retell it without all the extra words and frippery its own creator found necessary.

The tale comes first. Then the telling. See for yourself.