I. In which, dragons
II. In which, gradeschool
I did not get into fantasy when I was a kid. For my sensitive, developing tastes, fantasy was for nerds nerdier than me. Specifically, the kind that had friends who shared their interests and who were enough unaware of their own impossibly high levels of awkwardness that they were able to safely congregate and discuss their shared passion for rolling dice and casting freeze. Dorks.
I’ve watched some Party Down lately (pour one out) and it is fair to say that the Little Tiny Baby Darby who struggles to this day to remain alive and vocal inside my heart and mind and soul saw a handsome, grown-up version of himself in Roman, the insular, desperate, sad writer of hard science fiction. For me, as for Roman, fantasy never felt serious, as a kid cutting my teeth on Arthur C. Clarke and David Brin and Larry Niven. Ignore the fact that I liked epic books featuring hyper-intelligent talking dolphins; the hypothetical science behind them trumped orcs any day.
My experience with fantasy remained limited for a long time. I read, airquotes, The Hobbit for a high school assignment, my Freshman year. I don’t remember it well. I didn’t know that books could matter in a way that they had up to that point not yet mattered. Plus it felt dull and singsongy and bleah, little tiny people looking for treasure. I didn’t even read The Lord of the Rings until after I saw all the movies, four years ago.
Fact is, I was probably enough of a social and emotional wreck growing up (why yes, I say out loud again in my head, to the popular blonde girl sitting in front of me in eighth grade religion class the one time I can recall her ever saying a word to me, that I am indeed using my free time to read a 700 page novel about a black hole falling into the earth’s core, and yes, in fact, I say to you again from the distance of decades, I will feel a horrifyingly squirmy, painful feeling in my gut 20 years later when, as a fully grown adult, this memory rushes back to the surface, unbidden and covered in razor blades, in the course of drafting a largely futile blog post about how books can hurt as much as memories do) that I suspect that if I’d started reading fantasy novels in grade school, high school, whatever, I’d probably still be trying to figure out what’s so good about penises and vaginas. I intend no offense to fantasy nerds. I believe it took me long enough as is to figure these things out. And how they related to alternate universe theories. It’s just, I mean, I know what kind of kid I was, and however cool we all are with basically whatever in our adulthood when we have all set aside our childish ways and can speak rationally to each other about most any topic under the sun (hint: we are basically not all cool at all with anything in our adulthood, and will cut your face if you think otherwise) I know that it’s probably by the grace of a few ellipses in my reading lists that I got past high school and into a semi-functional adulthood, one that does not involve Magic: The Gathering cards and being in jail.
But now I am an adult and I pay the rent and I spend a lot of time at a day job doing day job things and I am not in fact ruling the world and making the popular kids work for me the way everybody said would happen by now (the nerds, in fact, have not grown to inherit the earth, whatever the marketing literature might suggest) and now I know with a heightened sense of precision how literature can do more than entertain and enlighten–it can take us the hell out of here. And not just off this planet with cardboard-cutout friends on ships constructed from hard scientific theory, but out of this time completely, to fantastical places, in pain is noble and elf chicks are hot and dragons are cool, in a totally healthy, socially acceptable sort of way, so long as you pretty much keep that business to yourself when you’re in the wrong company, which is about a thousand percent of the rest of the people on this planet. With purposelessness, comes great purpose.
In short, me and fantasy, we’re chill, these days.
Chill enough, at least.
Depending on who’s asking.
III. In which, hurts
As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, I read and reviewed this book, Drowning Tucson, by Aaron Michael Morales. I said in my review that the book hurt, and that it’s a sort of personal hurt; I compared the book to a number of books, but I think it is, still to this day a little bit to my own surprise, The Chocolate War, a wicked young adult novel by Robert Cormier, that might be the one that ultimately most well defined this type of hurt for me. And so early in life. I talk a bit about rigged, unfair systems in my review of Drowning Tucson, the notion that there are things that must be wrong for the world to work the way it does. Which is nice and all, a nice enough depiction of the source of the pain these kinds of books wreck me with, but I’m not sure I adequately communicated the intensity of the pain that comes to me from reading these kinds of books, the feeling of wanting to throw a beautiful, brilliant book across the room and cry and scream at it like a psychopath after turning the last page, like an unwilling accomplice, the anguished feeling of being dissolved into something that can’t be true, it can’t, but maybe it is, maybe, and screw you, author, you asshole, for having the skills needed to drag me through it in such a magnificent manner, for being able to make me need to turn pages even as I hate the thought of knowing what comes next. It’s the sick feeling of having lived dangerously without ever leaving a chair, the terrifying feeling of waking up in the middle of the night and knowing the monsters are real, the gut-sucking depth of lightlessness made real, the horror of being human and knowing no way out but the worst way out there is. It is unfair. It is unfair. It is unfair.
It is unfair.
IV. In which, pop
After finishing the Morales book, and having to spend some more time with it, in order to draft that review of it—which was a hard review to write, probably the hardest review I’ve done yet, in so far as it required deeper analysis of a thing I was both a fan of and largely mortified by—there came a point shortly after when I knew I was done. The weighty stuff and me, we needed to cool off, get away from each other for a bit, attend to our separate affairs. I needed to have some fun. Or at least to find some pages of stories with which I could soak up the sweat that clung to the brow of my brain. Quick reads, long reads, whatever. Just don’t make me feel anything but pretty much okay.
So I went on a pop-lit-ish bender in the middle of this year. The problem with reading pop-ish-lit for me these days is that it seems like I’ve passed some kind of point which makes it harder and harder for me to enjoy disposable books. Like, my snappy fun books need to massage the literary-addicted portion of my brain at least a little bit. Or maybe it’s just a general reading malaise that leads me to get really bored and antsy and annoyed far too fast with any book that isn’t cooking for me past page 50; I’ve quit more books (literary or otherwise) in the last two years than I did in the previous thirty. When the going isn’t going and I stop wanting to read and I start wanting to not read, it’s all bad, all around. So it’s hard to want to read something that’s just enjoyable but not, like, in a really brain-working way; I need at least the right amount of verbal window dressing on my story to make me want to stick with it. It’s probably the sort of thing that leads fancy restaurants to do fancy versions of diner grub, like some kind of olive branch held out to ideologically simpler times or ways of life, even though we all know we can all see past the French words to the fact that you’re a still a have even as you’re eating a burger and fries.
To put it simply, it is with the greatest trepidation anymore that I attempt to give myself permission to have pure fun when I read. I felt my experiment with it this year was met with mixed results. In the end, the job got done, and it got done pretty much well enough, though I suspect in more of a remission-of-symptoms way than a cure-to-the-cause way.
There’s a couple other books involved here that I might go into in another post, but I wanted to take some time in this post to discuss my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons.
V. In which, discussed
I really do not understand my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons.
VI. In which, books
I read two dragon books this year. I liked them both, well enough, and would suggest they both contributed well to a rejuvenation of the part of my brain that wants to read good books that might wind up hurting me emotionally; it is probably terribly belittling of me to suggest these books acted as a mental vacation for me, which isn’t really what I’m trying to say, even as I’m pretty much flat out saying it? Whatever, there’s Jane Austen, and then there’s Jane Austen fan fiction, and if pointing that fact out makes me sound like a snooty jerk, then at least let me buy you a burger and a beer before you tell me so to my face.
From another perspective, both of the dragon books I read this year are the first books in their respective series—because it is intrinsic to the genre of dragon literature that dragon books exist in series form, because who wants to read just one book about a dragon when you can read multiple books about a dragon?—and both respective series are series I might continue to purchase books from with the money I earn as an adult, books which I might read in the time I spend pretending I am not an adult. Though, to be fair, it will probably not be any time soon that I return to these fantasy worlds, because if one of the books I have lined up to read between now and the end of the year completely screws me up, then I’m going to quit reading forever, because I can not handle two books like that in a single year.
The first dragon book I read this year was A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin which I am certain is bringing quite a smile to the faces of all of the dragon-book fans in this blog’s audience because HA HA HA SPOILER ALERT THERE ARE NO DRAGONS IN THIS BOOK. Well, I mean, and again, spoiler alert, there is dragon birth on the closing page, which, okay, fine, maybe the rest of the books in this series (which is not complete and according to all the Internet rumors I have read will not be complete until Cleveland gets a championship sports team around the day after never) feature dragons on every single page doing totally sweet dragon things like eating people and posing for prog-rock album covers (I really do not understand my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons) but you may continue to color me doubtful until proven otherwise.
To be fair, and to touch on two points at once, while I have just acted like a total spoiler alert jerk, which is the kind of jerk I usually do my darned best to not be, preferring instead to be the kind of jerk who splits infinitives, I think it is only fair to allow those curious readers who might use my blog to gauge whether or not a book I have read is one they might want to read a quick glimpse of the sort of thing that they would be getting themselves into with this book, as, if you are like me, and you walk into it expecting mind-numbing, pleasure-center-tickling, hardcore dragon action, you are going to need to get past your (my) (highly irrational) (and largely confusing) desire to read about flying lizards that shoot fire out of their noses, because the actual book that I actually did read was, actually, sort of a little hey-not-so-bad to bordering-on-being-kind-of-bad-ass? I mean, for a politically charged fantasy novel in which there’s pretty much little to zero sparkle magic, it engaged me, once I came back to the book after I quit it, because I did actually start reading it earlier in the year only to give up after about 200 pages, when I realized it was not in fact delivering the dragon-fueled dragon-orgy for which I felt such a (desperate and alarming) desire. But then the Morales book happened and suddenly Thrones had this shiny halo of awesome glowing around it and, well, it happened, and I mostly liked it, even if I got annoyed by it, when it made me feel things, like when that one thing happened that I’m totally not going to spoil for you but which let’s just say whoa.
The other dragon book I read, His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, had dragons in it doing cool dragon things. Pure win.
It’s a book I got interested in a while ago (incidentally, it seems like every time I look up the reference for a historical-in-my-life note on the blog, it comes up 2006; what’s up with that?) and have sort of kind of somewhat meant to get around to for a while now, and then the Morales thing happened, and I was at the book store within 12 hours buying genre books because I needed them more than a whiskey-and-heroin cocktail because life is hard.
His Majesty’s Dragon (which is kind enough to state its dragonocity right there in the title) sets a dragon story in the specific historical context of the Napoleonic Wars and it did a pretty good job of being what I wanted it to be, even if Novik has an unfortunate tendency to use the word “very” a lot, which is a terrible word to use more than once in your life, ever, historical setting or not. Also, to be fair, I could deal with moderately less chatty dragons, as everybody (nearly nobody) knows dragons are far more interesting when they are tearing people in half with their fifty-foot-long claws while standing on mountains with their wings spread wide and explosions and hot naked elf girls, but I suspect that’s the sort of thing that’s more interesting in theory than practice or maybe I’m just programmed wrong.
VII. In which, monsters
Still: the monsters are real.