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!

The Definitive Ranking of Every Book I Read in 2017: Part 1

Happy belated new year, everybody! I am very excited for what 2018 will bring. Whether it’s those midterm elections (vote) that will make Trump hurl another coffee machine, or writing one short story a week, or continuing my Druid candidacy, or finally getting an agent, or moving to a new place, it will be a big year for me no matter what.

Before I forge ahead, though, I’ve got to say goodbye to the year that’s gone. And what better way to do that than to survey every book I’ve read in 2017?

I kept track of them all, and it has been a great reading year: of 64 books, I only had serious issues with about nine of them. Several new ones I discovered this year have become all-time favorites. So I decided on a potentially overambitious project. I want to rank every single book I read, from my very least favorite to my absolute #1. This is going to take three posts in total, so strap in for a trilogy!

I want to thank everybody who’s recommended or lent books to me, and to say that if I rank a book you lent me low on the list, it doesn’t mean I’m any less grateful. Opinions represent me only, and aren’t intended as verdicts on the final quality of the work. Also, please disagree with me!

With that expressed, let’s get into this! Oh, and SPOILERS will be present for every book.

64. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

Where to start with this theatrical miscarriage? There was never any question that it was going last. The only uncertainty was which reason to cite first. Should I go with the fact that I’m expected to care about Amos Diggory, when much better people have moved on from their Voldemort War grief? The unbelievable idea that Voldemort would have a daughter? The relentless queerbaiting of Albus and Scorpius? The implication that despite her becoming Minister of Magic, Hermione’s life is meaningless if she doesn’t marry Ron? Or the fact that she hides a dangerous magical artifact using security her 12-year-old self could have circumvented? The trolley witch’s exploding pumpkin pasties? The line “You’re upsetting the Dementors and entirely ruining Voldemort Day”?

I think the worst thing about Cursed Child, though, is how utterly unnecessary it is. It came out in the same year as the vastly superior Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which represents the direction this franchise should be taking–stories about completely different places and times in the universe. The time-travel shenanigans only highlight the fact that the story of Harry Potter and his friends has been told. Let it rest.

63. Protector of the Small: First Test by Tamora Pierce

Oh, man. This was a severe disappointment. For years, people I love and respect have been raving about Tamora Pierce to me, and I was so excited to dive into the world of Tortall. But then I started on the story of Keladry of Mindelan, and found the setting to be empty of detail, not to mention of people who aren’t nobles or servants. The characters each had two traits, and came and went at random. Some of them were just cameos from Pierce’s other series who were there for no reason, and some of them were just there for no reason, period. The plot hardly existed: Kel has to overcome sexist objections to her training as a knight, but we are repeatedly told that her trainer Lord Wyldon isn’t really a misogynist–he just hates change. We know he’ll come around eventually, so the book just kind of sits there until he does, at which point it remembers it’s supposed to have a climax and races off to fight spider-monsters.

Maybe I’m spoiled. Coming of age with Meg Murry, Lyra Silvertongue, and Katniss Everdeen, then entering adulthood with Wonder Woman, Furiosa, and Rey, I can’t imagine the days when a little girl could find Alanna the Lioness a breath of fresh air–nor, of course, can I imagine being that little girl. I’m forced to conclude I’m not constituted to enjoy these books, which makes me sad, but I’m glad they make others happy.

62. Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel: The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

Another big YA disappointment. I was looking forward to loving these books. While Michael Scott clearly wrote them from a place of enthusiasm about the many mythologies he borrows from, he for whatever reason saddles his labor of love with twins Josh and Sophie Newman–two of the wettest blankets even in the notoriously bland world of YA protagonists. Every single character is more interesting than this pair of doofuses, so much so that Scott resorts to prophecy to keep them relevant to the story.

I just kept thinking about Dipper and Mabel Pines and how much better those twins would have done in every situation Josh and Sophie face. This book could have jumped ten places higher if Scott had focused it around Scathach instead, or just let Nicholas Flamel speak for himself. Instead of providing the audience an access point to a magical world, the Newmans drag all the magic down to their mundane level–not helped by the fact that Scott keeps the pace so relentless there’s little time to pause and marvel at anything.

61. The Circle by Dave Eggers

Eggers is desperate to be mentioned in the same breath as Orwell and Huxley. His application is The Circle, which strives to be a warning about society’s insatiable thirst for information, but winds up sounding like your dad lecturing you about the only article he’s ever read in Wired. Eggers claims, for example, that ending anonymity on the internet would end trolling behavior, a claim anybody who’s spent five minutes on Facebook could refute. He also imagines that politicians would ever consent to wear body cameras.

In short, he makes so many divine interventions to make his dystopia happen that it fails to be chilling at all. George Orwell never had to tell us how the Party gained power–we filled in the warnings ourselves.

60. The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

I used to like Bill Bryson more, but I think he used to be less of a dick. This is one of three books I listened to this year, and it was like being yelled at to get off someone’s lawn for nine hours straight. Here’s some life advice, Bill: when everybody you meet is a fuckwad, the fuckwad is you.

59. The Incarnations by Susan Barker

As you’ll see further down the list, I had a huge China phase this year. This was the biggest disappointment of that phase. It’s a fantasy-inflected tour of 1,500 years of history through the reincarnations of a Beijing cab driver, which should have been amazing, except that Barker’s view of history is so bleak and bloody it’s a wonder anyone survived to the present day. The Incarnations has got murder. It’s got rape. It’s got starvation. It’s got more rape–history was apparently entirely rape. I’d call it Whig history, except that Barker’s present sucks too. A relentlessly dark statement about nothing in particular.

58. The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

Are you tired of me saying I was disappointed by things yet? It won’t happen too many more times. Butcher wrote one of my favorite series, The Dresden Files, so to learn he was writing steampunk fantasy got me fired up. Unfortunately, it turns out Windlass was actually the first book Butcher finished, and it shows–without the fame of his other work, I don’t believe this could have found an agent.

There’s great action, and a kickass airship battle, but the plot fails to hang together, and mostly follows the protagonists as they race from crisis to crisis without making any decisions. Action alone can’t carry a book on its shoulders.

57. Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

The third book of the Leviathan trilogy, which I read and loved this year. This installment, however, failed to live up to Leviathan and Behemoth. While those kept the suspense tight by sticking to one location each, Goliath rambles from Russia to Japan to Mexico to New York, more interested in resolving the story of Alek and Deryn than in dealing with its alternate World War I. And while there’s a satisfactory ending for our star-crossed lovers, everything else feels weirdly procedural.

56. American Lightning by Howard Blum

A nonfiction book about the “Crime of the Century”–the bombing of the Los Angeles Times offices in 1910, which sparked a courtroom drama and a war between management and labor. It certainly reads like a cracking airport thriller, but at the expense of nuance, analysis, and weirdly, an index. Blum avoids taking sides to his book’s detriment, and works overtime to relate D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation into the story, probably so he could put “Hollywood” on the cover.

55. Cambridge Latin Course: Unit 1 by Stephanie Pope

I’ll go all over the place talking about how surprisingly dark and engaging the continuous storyline of my high school Latin textbooks is. The four-volume saga follows Quintus Caecilius Iucundus as everyone he loves dies in horrific and often futile ways, until he and his faithful freedman Clemens are at last able to stick it to the scheming Gaius Salvius Liberalis. But be that as it may, it’s still a textbook and not a novel, and doesn’t really deserve to be higher than this.

54. A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

I became a Verne maniac this year, reading three of his books with more to come. This one goes lowest because it was the least exciting–no wide-open vistas or daring races against time, mostly just a lot of rocks and caves and taking half the book to even get to that. However, Hans is the greatest guide of all time, despite not having the world’s most Icelandic name, and the dinosaur fight is quite cool.

53. The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

You couldn’t ask for a better setup. At the end of the 19th century, two lawless men who specialize in stealing books and publishing them in other countries face the end of their careers due to new international copyright laws. They race to Tahiti for one last score, the final book by the dying Robert Louis Stevenson. The plot is suitably inventive and involves an exciting twist and an unreliable narrator, but doesn’t quite live up to the concept’s promise, getting bogged down in philosophizing over the power of books in a way even I wasn’t prepared to follow.

52. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

We should all support non-European-inspired fantasy by non-white authors, so I don’t at all regret buying this. That said, this book was very fun, and not all that much else. It takes a risk with its unconventional protagonists, and Ahmed nails the atmosphere of bustling, brawling Dhamsawaat, but the plot is far more conventional than the rest of it would suggest.

51. Jingo by Terry Pratchett

I love all Sir Terry’s work, even his uneven early and late novels. We’ve crossed the line officially into “good but not as good as other stuff” territory, and Jingo embodies that in the Discworld canon, being a rip-roaring tale of Commander Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch that nonetheless can’t reach the heights of the other two Pratchett novels on this list. Vimes spends most of the book chasing after his Klatchian counterpart, and only gets around to really engaging with the world’s most pointless war in the last act.

50. The Quick by Lauren Owen

It’s about vampires. It is very subtly but intensely about vampires that don’t show up until over 100 pages in. This is not a problem in itself, but The Quick is so dedicated to rehabilitating the vampire mythos that it forgets to be about anything else. Laden with Gothic atmosphere and chilling villains, Owen’s novel skimps on plot in favor of aesthetic.

49. The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davies

A fun, YA-verging-on-middle-grade adventure with gorgeous illustrations and two lovable leads, which reminds me of The Edge Chronicles and doesn’t aspire to be anything more than it is. Of the series I started but didn’t finish this year, this is the only one I really want to read more of.

48. Glory Season by David Brin

This sci-fi epic is built on a highly original idea: how could a society reduce the role of men as much as possible without sacrificing genetic diversity? One answer is the world of Stratos, traversed by twins Maia and Leie over the course of several harrowing episodes. Brin gets full marks for imagination, but just as Maia has begun to expose the corruption of Stratoin society, the novel abruptly ends. Thought-provoking but disappointing.

47. Meet Me In Atlantis by Mark Adams

As an exploration of a little-known subculture, this works at least as well as Adams’s previous travelogue, Turn Left at Machu Picchu. It gets bogged down in repetition, however, especially when Adams becomes an Atlantis true believer himself and wades into the weeds of mathematical codes and ancient geographies. Interesting, but not nearly as much as it could have been.

46. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

Let’s be clear: GGK is my favorite author in the world right now. But in The Summer Tree, one of his very first books, he’s clearly still finding his feet. The first of a trilogy, the book offers a novel take on portal fantasy, with five college students from Toronto crossing into a world that is the source of all myths, and getting caught up in its intrigues and dangers–along with its uncanny reflections of their own personal tragedies.

This gains many points for the beauty of its language, but loses them for being sometimes difficult to follow and for treating its male heroes better than its females–including a gratuitous and unnecessary rape scene that would have easily placed The Summer Tree in the 20s or 30s had it been removed.

45. Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away With Murder by Gerry Spence

A chilling and necessary examination of the flaws of our justice system, written by a defense lawyer with decades of experience who’s never lost a case that went to trial. Some of Gerry Spence’s most famous clients include Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood (posthumously), and Ruby Ridge Massacre patriarch Randy Weaver.

Spence has excellent ideas about how to reform what he sees as the main flaw in American justice–the good-ol’-boy networks between judges, prosecutors, and police that lead to heinous backroom dealings. When he falters, he’s well-intentioned: he’s a storyteller in court, and he naturally wants to relate his cases with all the drama he remembers. But in making everything nail-biting, Spence often loses track of the nuances of his argument. Still, this is recommended reading for anyone looking to be further radicalized.



Check back soon for part 2!

The Strange Case of Q-Anon

Sometimes I run into something in my daily life that demands I sit down and write a blog post in one sitting. My long conversation with a stranger about sexy tractors and the Civilian Conservation Corps was one such experience. Reading the charmingly archaic Father Knox Mystery Commandments was another. Election Night 2016 was still a third.

And, most recently, there was Q-Anon.

Loyal readers of this blog (I’m pretty sure that’s a thing some humans are) will know that I am a fan of batshit conspiracy theories. Recall my road-trip reference to the Sovereign Citizen movement, a group of between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans who hold the following beliefs:

  • At some point, the system of common law set up by the Founding Fathers was secretly replaced by admiralty law;
  • Each American citizen is represented by a secret $20 million bank account whose value is derived from a lifetime of labor that could be sold to the Chinese;
  • This bank account is connected to a person’s name in all-caps, so by referring to yourself only with bizarre interposing punctuation, you can not only free yourself from Chinese value-slavery but draw real money from this bank account;
  • Any legal trouble a Sovereign Citizen faces (say, years of unpaid back taxes) can be thwarted using a secret jargon so opaque it causes actual professional lawyers to throw up their hands in surrender.

As amazing as all this sounds, the most amazing thing is that the last part sometimes works.

Q-Anon, though, is a conspiracy writ on a scale even the Sovereigns can’t touch. On one level, he, or she, or it, or they are an anonymous 4chan regular (raise your hands, all zero hundred of you surprised that 4chan is involved) claiming to be a member of Donald Trump’s inner circle, with a large Twitter following despite not having an account. On another level, Q-Anon represents a religion, and on still another, an entire parallel universe.

This New York Magazine article explains “the Storm” concisely–an important feat given that its own adherents tend to lay it out in unreadable 49-slide Powerpoints. But I’ll do my best to give my own version here.

First, you’ve got to understand that Trump and his team were never under investigation by Robert Mueller. In fact, the two men are working together. Trump–playing 4D chess as always–intentionally provoked a special counsel investigation by acting extraordinarily suspicious and publicly buddying up to Vladimir Putin.

Why would he do this, you ask? Well, he’s so bigly smart that he somehow figured out while still a presidential candidate that Obama, Clinton, and most of the Democratic party were, and are, secretly child-fucking Satanic globalists. Knowing he couldn’t call for an investigation without attracting the attention of Clinton hit squads, Trump found a workaround. A year later, his plan was so successful that scores of Democratic officials are about to be arrested in the biggest mass roundup since King Philip IV burned the Templars (this would be the Storm). Also the Clintons paid for the Las Vegas massacre for some reason. Also probably Soros.

And the evidence? It seems to boil down to the fact that Q-Anon “proved they were on Air Force One” by posting a timestamp-free photo of some islands the day Trump flew into Hong Kong. And predicted that Small Business Saturday does in fact involve the word “small.” And generally the M.O. of a conspiracy prophet: mix in just enough reality with the breadcrumbs that the completely outlandish stuff goes unnoticed. In classic doomsayer style, when Q-Anon predicted mass arrests in November that didn’t happen, they actually seemed to gain followers.

The point here is that evidence doesn’t matter when you want to believe something. In this case, the certain subset of Trump’s supporters that remain loyal to his cult of personality cannot accept that the largest criminal investigation in the history of the presidency is inching closer to the Oval Office. To deal with that, they have created an alternate universe where that isn’t true, complete with Q-Anon as a creator deity.

I am interested in these conspiracy theories not just for their own wackiness, but for what they say about being alive. The attraction of these theories comes from needing to see disparate pieces fit together–from the adrenaline rush of being one of the only people who have managed to figure out the truth. Often, they’re used to fill holes in a person’s life. How many truly happy people have you ever seen claiming the Jews control the world? They’re usually too busy beekeeping or something.

I’m sure a great number of Qanonists would consider themselves objective rationalists, unclouded by emotion or ideology. This only goes to show how the role of faith in a person’s life should not be ignored. Believe in a deity, or many, or the earth as a deity; believe in the power of science or of music; believe in principles that will make you good. Otherwise, without meaning to, you’re liable to start believing in Q-Anon.

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.

Anti-Nationalism Explored

This one’s getting political. If you don’t feel like putting that in your life today, tune back in next week, when I’ll be talking about more universal things.

I wrote this post to hopefully start a debate over a belief that’s increasingly formed a core part of my personal politics. Put simply, I don’t believe that nations have a purpose for existing. Put complicatedly, it gets…complicated. Which is why the debate.

I’d like to say this is a uniquely relevant time for me to bring this up, with North Korea posturing again, Russia annexing everybody, and nearly every country in the news competing to be the biggest shithead in the name of its own “national interest.” But the fact is, it’s not unique. Earlier in the century, the great nations had a war that killed millions because it was easier than not having a war. The attempts of awful people to build empires that inevitably collapse fills the lion’s share of our history books.

The concept of nationalism is pervasive. In the United States, look no further than the “America First” crowd on one side of our political debate, and the people on the other who are concerned that my nation’s recent executive troubles “damage our standing in the world.” The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU not only shot that territory in its own foot, but was based largely on a fear of immigrants, showing how easily nationalism climbs into bed with racism. Over in Asia, the Russians are gleefully burning their stash of global goodwill for short-term geopolitical advantages, and China continues to prop up the objectively evil North Korea because it fears a US-influenced nation directly on one of its borders.

In other words, China is influencing a country because it doesn’t want to be influenced by the influence of another country that’s been influenced by yet another country that China doesn’t like. This is without even going into the way that China and Taiwan bribe smaller nations with development projects so they can try to vote each other out of existence in the UN.

On the surface, this is all maddeningly dumb. Nobody trying to live their life cares who is influencing who, until some jackass forcibly occupies their town to prevent someone else from influencing them. Yet it’s not just the system we have and preserve through inertia: it’s the only possible consequence of a world full of nations that exist only to perpetuate themselves. And it benefits nobody but those in charge, and sometimes not even them.

Having reached this conclusion, though, I began to wonder if I was oversimplifying things. I can’t be the first person to think of this, after all. So, to ensure this is really an opinion worth holding, I want to interrogate it–starting with the definition of the term.

What is Anti-Nationalism?
As explained above, it is the idea that allegiance to a state serves no purpose, and is frequently detrimental. In other words, there is no reason to be loyal to the concept of America when that concept fails to provide any benefits.

I can remember 2001, the year it was so obvious that the 9/11 terrorists “hated our freedoms.” And 2003, when soldiers went to “fight for our freedoms” in a place that had clearly never threatened them.

The colonialism and imperialism of the west exist because of an arms race. Nobody in the 19th century seized territory in Africa or Central Asia because it would help the average person on the street. Nations grabbed land that did not belong to them, because if they didn’t, someone else would get it. Someone who would become more powerful. It all flows back to the wealthy classes in charge, filling their coffers, bolstering their legacies.

This has all been called a “Great Game.” Let me tell you about games. Games are when I sit down to play Castles of Mad King Ludwig knowing that I am not converting any of my real actual money into deutschmarks to spend on the Tasso Room. Games are when I boot up Final Fantasy VII and let Cloud Strife sustain a couple dozen shotgun blasts to the face because I’m reasonably certain he’s not alive and can’t feel pain.

Games are things we play when we want the thrill of making difficult decisions without the consequences. When I look at geopolitics, I see people who have forgotten they aren’t playing games. Influence, to me, means points for the sake of points. I can’t stand behind that.

You’re against the idea of world powers determining the destinies of less powerful states. OK, lots of people feel that way. But don’t nations provide many benefits for the people living within their borders, even without stealing resources?
Sometimes. But now we have to start asking economic questions. Specifically, is a large nation-state the ideal method of distributing resources to ensure the least inequality?

I’ve yet to see any evidence that it is. Small nations are ill-respected in the West, but that’s mostly because all the popular examples from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America were dealt an awful hand by the nation-building I described above. Far smaller communities in Europe that were spared the effects of influence–Denmark, Estonia, Luxembourg–do fine. History provides multiple examples of the same.

It’s abundantly clear that you don’t need to be large to be stable. In fact, the larger an empire, the harder its fall always seems to be. Moreover, within that empire, trying to dominate an increased amount of territory and population leads to more people falling through the cracks. As bureaucracy expands, government becomes less efficient. Meanwhile, people turn their attention away from the local affairs that actually affect them, instead getting involved in national politics that barely influence them at all but which the media covers like sporting events.

The end result is that people who resent the fact that resources have not been allocated to them elect someone to national power who claims to be able to save them all but lacks the ability to do so. When this happens, the opposition laments that nobody respects their nation anymore, a code word for more of that fucking influence. And while these sides wrangle over control of an increasingly irrelevant federal body, real problems go unsolved.

Not that the United States of America knows anything about that.

But people care deeply for the promises of their nations, not for their transient governments. People don’t love their countries because a bunch of oligarchs tell them to. A nation stands for higher ideals.
A valid point, but I want to turn it on its head, again using my own country as an example. America’s actions throughout its history do not align with the ideals it expresses. For 250 years, we have supported dictators, committed genocide on our own continent, distorted history, enriched the wealthy, and our attempts to eradicate slavery have been listless at best. Our 20th-century actions might seem heroic, but it sure is convenient how much influence they gave us by the end.

Not to mention we were willing to annihilate life on Earth because we didn’t like some other people. Let that sink in.

I’d like to propose that if a person loves America because America stands for freedom and justice, that person doesn’t need America at all. Their love of freedom and justice comes from within them. This is why a nation stands for so many different things to different people–half of us think the country’s highest calling is to accept and nurture refugees, while the other half want their homelands bombed into glass, and all those people are saluting the same flag.

It’s because people project their core beliefs onto flags. Nobody wants to die for a country–they die for something they love in their experience of being in that country, an experience that is almost always in direct conflict with that country’s geopolitical decisions. It’s why somebody who just wants everyone to be free can wind up getting shot in the desert because an old fat asshole wanted more oil. A nation is a tool for manipulation. Dulce et decorum est indeed.

This is the same way organized religions become corrupted. People believe something, and other people use that belief as a tool to gain power over them. This strikes me as the ultimate evil.

If a nation loses its standing in the world, doesn’t it also lose an opportunity to create positive change? For example, America gives out a lot of foreign aid.
Frequently in exchange for concessions, though. Nothing a nation this large does is altruistic. Besides, foreign aid in a global arms race serves the same purpose as charitable giving in a capitalist economy: a band-aid on a wound that’s already begun to fester.

Fine, but anybody can tear down the status quo. What do you offer as an alternative to the current system of nation-states? How could it possibly be less chaotic?
I realize, and admit, that my ideal world is a very long way off. It can’t be reached by burning everything down and picking the bits we like out of the ashes. The world needs to evolve.

I’m in favor of an increase in globalism, with caveats. I like globalization because it encourages actors to put the needs of the entire human race ahead of their own personal interest. Increased interconnectedness breaks down the perception of life on Earth as a zero-sum game.

In the abstract. What I don’t like about globalization is most of the ways in which it’s currently practiced–ways that fob off cheap labor on people not advanced enough to compete, thus increasing the power of the wealthy classes of the nations on top and screwing over the majorities everywhere. In my ideal form of globalization, every nation holds itself responsible for every other nation’s welfare.

That’s a first stage. Gradually, as competition for influence ends–helped greatly by a leveling-off of population simplifying resource management–borders become ever more porous. At this stage, small areas work to become sustainable using local materials as much as possible. Governments encourage collaboration on things that benefit mankind: science, medicine, art, the exploration of space, caring for the planet. Larger international aid efforts work to supply deprived areas using the infrastructure of corporations who have been brought to heel by intense international regulations. Limited free markets remain present, but safety nets are paramount.

The final phase is my ideal system: the default political organization is the autonomous region, constantly conversant with its neighbors about resources and with its global community about things that only the entire human race together can accomplish. People are interested in issues that directly affect them. People defend the things they love. Their ideals can finally align with their actions, instead of being co-opted by a state that only exists to enrich the powerful.

Isn’t this just libertarianism?
Some kinds of anti-nationalism might be, but not mine. It’s full of things libertarians hate, including taxes, regulations, social welfare, and environmental protections. The part of the government I want to eliminate is the part that seizes resources and uses that hoarding to enhance its own power.

Your vision of the future reeks of excessive optimism. What if one of your autonomous regions decides it wants to outlaw homosexuality, for example? How could you stop it?
Here we come to the first of the questions that keeps me awake when I try to piece together my personal politics. I don’t know. Without a central body enforcing law for the entire world, it’s almost impossible to put in place a system that enforces human rights.

The best argument I can make in response to this question is twofold. First, humans definitely had rights before there were nations to enforce them. In fact, national power seems to be a strong incentive to revoke human rights. Several small communities around the world have been documented by anthropologists to take transgenderism in stride, a feat of which the nominally more advanced Texas has proven incapable. Only in a large, organized state does it become an advantage to have a large group of “others” to demonize, from the Irish and Italians in the 19th century to the LGBT community today.

Once again we here see that religion is similar–the brutalities of a unified church always seem to begin at the top.

The second point of my response is that there is no system that can perfectly prevent all the darkest excesses of human nature. Large-scale democracy can become mob rule. Large-scale capitalism, oligarchy. Large-scale socialism, totalitarianism. Et cetera. But the organization of these systems along vast national lines emphasizes the bad while robbing the good of its power. A classless society naturally forms among a group of ten or twelve people, but when you try to turn all of Russia into one overnight, you get gulags.

At some point, if you want to create a society, you have to put your faith in humanity. Real humanity, not the institutions and mobs it sometimes forms. A world without countries makes it as easy as possible for kindness to shine through, but it is not utopia. Utopia is a verb, not a noun.

It’s far easier to destroy something than to build it, though. Suppose a community defies the global norm and starts conquering its neighbors, knowing they’ll be unprepared and weak. What’s to stop it from ruling the world?
Here we come to another compelling argument against anti-nationalism. It’s popularly expressed as the state’s purpose being to hold a monopoly on the use of force. Put another way, a large, organized police force binds its own power to a code of laws, thus making it unsustainable for anybody to exist outside those laws. In our hypothetical global community, that would refer to some kind of UN peacekeeping army, able to deploy around the world at a moment’s notice.

If you’re still reading at this point, you know that is antithetical to everything I’m talking about. Commanding that army would grant too much power for any one person to wield. I’m trying to purge the world of any amount of power that is so great it has to expand continually to survive.

Yet, while crime could be handled within small communities, there is still the need for a cap on aggression. In this situation, I think the best choice would be to take a page from the current march toward globalization, where an aggressive state is punished by isolation. Try to take over neighboring cities? Hope you didn’t need any trade, and that you’re cool with all your best thinkers leaving because nobody wants to talk to you. It’s an imperfect solution, but fits far better than the use of force.

My anti-nationalism is a starting point, not a complete philosophy. In the past, several times, I’ve thought I had the whole world figured out, but now I know you only discover small parts of the truth at a time. Believing you’re finished is dangerous. Just look at history.

Father Knox’s Mystery Commandments

I’m back, readers! Summer is turning into autumn in Walla Walla, and I couldn’t be more excited to enjoy being outdoors again. There’s going to be cider. There will be pumpkins. There is a high probability that blankets will be snuggled under, and the danger of looking at leaves has increased noticeably.

In addition to other life changes, that I’ll be getting to in future posts, I’m feeling excited about writing like I haven’t been in a long time. I am a writer–that’s a huge part of me–but my dedication ebbs and flows, to the point where some days I’m struggling to hit word count. But with The Clockwork Raven nearing its climax and short story ideas coming thick and fast–not to mention OryCon and NaNoWriMo right around the corner–it’s getting just friggin’ fun again.

With that in mind, I wanted to another fun writing post for you all. My inspiration came in the form of Father Ronald Knox’s dubiously famous Ten Commandments for mystery writers. Knox was a member of a writing club that counted Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers among its members, and was also a Catholic priest, which as that link points out might explain his penchant for putting universal laws in groups of ten.

The link points out that most of the commandments haven’t aged well. Now, while I don’t write mystery stories, most of my stories have some element of mystery in them: Rafter’s Rats, for example, involves Rafter following a trail of clues to discover why he was framed. I believe all protagonists are detectives, in some sense. Therefore, these laws have broad relevance, so I thought I’d tackle each one and determine how well it still takes effect in the modern age.

Let’s dive in. Read on!

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

Right out of the gate, we’ve got a very mixed bag. On the one hand, it makes sense–if the whole point of your mystery is to figure out who the criminal is.

But that’s not entirely the point of a mystery anymore. In an excellent lecture, Pillars of the Earth author Ken Follett explains how the “mystery” and “thriller” were once separate genres, with the thriller having a fairly specific definition: a protagonist learns a crucial piece of information and must take it to the proper authorities, while villains attempt to stop them. Books like The 39 Steps and The Riddle of the Sands follow this formula.

As Follett says, while British authors created both of these genres, it was an American innovation to combine them–creating the mystery-thriller, where the detective is in danger while they work to solve a crime. The driving force of these stories is suspense: will the detective solve the puzzle before his enemies take him out?

Suspense, as Hitchcock described it, and as I later described it on Reddit in an argument about the movie Sicario being garbage, relies on knowing a character is facing a threat and is running out of time to avert it. If that’s where your tension is coming from, it can actually be a boon to know who the killer is from the beginning. This is the basis of the “reverse whodunit,” also known as the “howcatchem,” an inversion that appears everywhere from Columbo to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. When we know who the villain is, we’ll squirm and clench our fists and read faster every time he’s in the room with the hero.

Not that trying to figure out clues to catch an unknown killer isn’t tremendous fun too. But #1 should not at all be an unbreakable rule. It forks the mystery into two very different kinds of stories: without the thriller aspect, a whodunit is likely to wind up classified as a “cozy mystery.”

Side note: this is why Disney needs to quit doing the secret villain thing it did in Frozen and Zootopia. It’s more fun to have an antagonist front and center from the start. Big Hero 6 and Moana did this better, I think, because there’s still an obvious villain, we just don’t know who’s behind their masks. But I’m way off-topic now.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Have you been to a bookstore in any year that begins with 201? Congratulations, you know now that frigging everything is paranormal now. Every genre has its own paranormal version, as though the designation can be mixed in like a second flavor in a milkshake. Paranormal romance. Supernatural horror. And of course, paranormal mystery.

Harry Dresden. Sookie Stackhouse. Anita Blake. These are just a few major sales juggernauts that totally fail to follow Father Knox’s second rule. However, this rule still has a place, for similar reasons to #1: you can keep it or break it, but it determines what type of story you’re telling.

In my last post, about opening lines, I discussed a sentiment that has become known as the contract with the reader. This is the idea that the opening of a story should speak truly about what kind of story is going to be told. If you’re writing a romantic comedy, don’t open on a gruesome triple homicide. Likewise, if you’re writing a dark fantasy, don’t open on a beautiful princess wishing a knight could sweep her away for a life of adventure–unless you make it clear that her wish will have grave consequences.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that the solution to your mystery can absolutely be preternatural. But you’ve gotta start with the preternatural stuff. Don’t have your detective analyzing blood spatter and running DNA tests and at last realizing the culprits were werewolves. Have her get to the crime scene, realize the murder occurred at the full moon, and summon a fairy first thing to ask it what went down.

Even if your schtick is a regular guy or girl solving magical crimes without magic, they’ve got to be aware of the magical possibility. And if the story is about the detective slowly discovering magic is real, let us discover it along with them, and make us open to believing right from the start.

3. Not more than one secret passage or room is allowable.

This one remains pretty solid. If your plot relies on the discovery of two completely separate secret passages, that means it relies on the exact same twist happening twice. And let me tell you, the whole does not equal the sum of the parts on that one.

The one case in which I think this might be acceptable is if the detective is certain there will only be one secret passage and the mystery hinges on there being exactly two. That’s a double subversion of expectations, but still hard to pull off, and will really only work once.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

To me, this one ties in very closely with #2: don’t hinge your solution on clues your reader won’t inherently understand. Like rule #2, you can break it so long as you’re upfront about it. Sci-fi murder mysteries like The Naked Sun are excellent, but if the murder was committed by means of a gravitonic hyper-compressor, I need to know how those work early and in a context unrelated to crime.

Once again, this is relevant outside of mysteries. The solution to a murder is just as much a surprise as a scene where your hero figures out a safe way to reach the bottom of the cliff and escape the villains. But if he does it with anything involving the word “quantum,” you’d better foreshadow that.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

This one seems hilariously racist, and it is, but not in the way it seems to be at first. The first decades of the 20th century were something of a golden age of Orientalism, and the “Yellow Peril” was a stock villain–think of the screaming, rag-clad “terrorist” or “insurgent” for a modern analog. Sax Rohmer led the way with his Fu Manchu stories, and others besides: if Rohmer’s on the cover, and any character from east of Norfolk shows up, you can bet money they’ve got designs on the Prime Minister’s life.

Father Knox recognized the problem of casting an entire race of humans as swarthy evildoers while getting basically nothing right about their history or culture. But his solution to the problem just made it worse: nobody from China, ever. Don’t create a Chinese character with actual feelings and motivations. Too hard.

Needless to say, rule #5 has aged the least well. If you read it as a directive to never include a foreign character whose only trait is being foreign, it holds up. If you read it literally any other way it should be tossed in the garbage along with all of Jules Verne’s opinions about Africa.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

In other words, one of my absolute favorite writing rules, which I tell to everybody: you may use coincidences to get your characters into trouble, never to get them out. If your hero is a criminal on the run, running into a detective in the bathroom of a restaurant will ratchet up the stakes. If the hero is the detective, running into the victim’s husband trying to flush bloody rags down the toilet when they hitherto hadn’t suspected him will feel cheap and lazy.

Note that negative coincidences still need to be foreshadowed–otherwise you wind up with Diabolus ex Machina. A billionaire in a helicopter showing up to save your heroine from the cliff is ridiculous. A hitherto-unmet billionaire with a grudge against her showing up to shoot at her after the real villain has fallen to their death is just as annoying. Coincidences are volatile substances and should be handled appropriately.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

Another rule in the family of 2 and 4 which can go right out the window if you pay a little attention to your contract. Get me questioning reality and mistrusting your narrator early on, just plant the slightest seed of uncertainty, and I’ll go right along with this.

Rule #7 was old even in Knox’s day. The first unreliable narrator detective novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was published in 1926 by his contemporary Agatha Christie. But, as we’ll see, it’s not the first of Knox’s commandments to be broken by a respected author–in fact, one of them was broken by a legend before the good preacher even created the list.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in ScarletThe novel introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, a pair who shattered mystery conventions right from the beginning–their “Adventures” are actually proto-mystery-thrillers where the pair are regularly threatened by the actual criminal (check out “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” to see the duo nearly get eaten by a snake).

A Study in Scarlet is notable in the Holmes canon for two things: being the first, and cutting away from the main characters halfway through to talk about evil Mormons for the rest of the book. The Mormons, victims of a certain Occidental Orientalism themselves, are cast as a sinister cult responsible for driving the culprit in the novel’s main crime to murder. More to the point, we have no idea there are any Mormons in this book until after Holmes has dragged the guilty man before Watson and the police.

The thing is, though Conan Doyle invented the detective genre by breaking rule #8, I actually think it holds up better than most of them save 3, 6, and 10. If you’ve shaken up the story with a new development, why the hell wouldn’t you tell your reader?

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

As outdated as the Aristotelian Classical Unities. Listen, Father, choosing POVs is one of my favorite parts about writing. Don’t tell me that just because my story is about figuring out who a criminal is, I have to tell it through the mind of a slightly dumber version of myself. Just have the damn detective do the narrating.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Holds up. Twins are basically the same as secret passages in the hackneyed-twists department. And it’s not like “twins” is a genre that benefits from breaking this rule. Sure, they figure in a lot of Shakespeare comedies, but he always tells us there are twins right away.

And that’s it! Reader, if you take one thing away from Father Knox, take this: there are hundreds of “rules for storytelling” out there, and almost none of them consistently apply. They may say a story needs three dramatic episodes, a climax, and a denoument–but it doesn’t always. They’ll tell you a story must be told in words, or in dactylic hexameter, or in a series of woodcuts–don’t believe them. They may say the protagonist should be a white male so the story will sell–don’t listen.

Know the rules, then break them. Strive for the reaction Beethoven must have gotten, when the choir filed in for the final movement of his Ninth Symphony: “Is that a choir? Can he do that? Is he really going for it? My God, he’s going for it!”

Good luck.

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