Today's recommendations are by David Lomax. David Lomax is an English teacher who's dreamed of writing since he was eight. His first novel, Backward Glass, has just come out from Flux books.
- I love to recommend books. I often tell people that I was bitten by a radioactive book when I was eight and my one resulting super-power is that of book recommendation. Tell me two books you've enjoyed and I'll tell you the next one you'll love.
There are, however, some recommendations that I give out very sparingly. It's not because the books aren't great – they really are. In part it's because they require a little more patience than some I might more readily suggest, but mostly it's the very personal nature of the books. Some stories just become so much a part of your emotional DNA, of who you become, that you can't take a chance on having them not hit the target with someone.
The first like that for me is Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. I don't usually read books more than once – there's just too much tempting new stuff out there waiting for me, far more than I'll ever read in this tiny lifetime. Lord Foul's Bane, however, I've read four times. And as I write this, I'm really tempted to embark on a fifth.
But it's not for everyone. This novel, the first of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, is the story of a shattered man, a novelist suffering from leprosy whose disease has isolated him from his whole world, cost him his family and community, and who, at the start of the novel, is thrust into a fantastic landscape known as “the Land” where everyone looks upon him as a long-sought savior. The contrast of Covenant's ruthless self-hatred and dogged disbelief is the central motif of the novel. Covenant believes that to surrender to this fantasy that he believes his brain is constructing would be to give in to his leprosy. He is strong, bitter, bloody-minded and, to me, utterly, utterly real.
Still, one angry man doesn't make for a good book. As I said, it's the contrast that's so important here. The Land is vibrant and populated with Donaldson's powerful imagination. As a reader, you keep wanting to shake Covenant. I can see it's real, and I'm just reading about it in a book. What's wrong with you?
This book, and its sequels, are filled with equal measures of heroic courage and bitter rejection. I read it at fifteen – an age the author has opined on his website is too young for this harrowing story – and I guess the conflicts and landscapes of this novel just got so deep inside me that they'll never leave.
But as I said, I don't recommend it to everyone. I learned long ago that Covenant can be wearing on some people. He's stubborn to the point of mental illness, but to me, even though I might not want to live next door to the guy, he's just completely real.
Donaldson was a bestseller back in the seventies, lifted on the tide of Tolkien popularity, but his fame has since subsided. I think there are several factors behind this slump. For one thing, he didn't cave in to the temptation to just do the same thing over and over again. He's written an excellent series of mystery novels and a space-opera epic as well as a few stunningly good novellas. His output also slowed considerably. The first Covenant novel came out in 1977 and by 1983, there were six of them. In six years. During which period, he also penned his first mystery novel. The next twenty years only yielded a further ten novels. In the last decade, he has returned to Thomas Covenant, but it takes him an agonizing three years per book, a long time to bite my nails.
But the major reason I think Donaldson doesn't have a wider readership is that he's difficult. His characters are frustrating in their stubborn refusal to be anyone other than who they are and in their sometimes almost impenetrably tragic motivations and decisions. In the last few years when I've been in the middle of one of the long arguments over what sacrifice must be made in order to save the Land, I often look up from a page and try to imagine who else could be reading this but me. Who else would have the patience with these confounded characters and their terrible, stubborn choices?
I don't know. But I sure am glad there are others, because I love those books.
- Another recommendation I give out rarely is, in many ways, a much easier book to enjoy, though perhaps a harder one to get through. Silverlock by John Myers Myers is a rollicking adventure set in “The Commonwealth of Letters” where the protagonist, in the novel's most lean and economical passage, is marooned in the first chapter, a chapter which begins with the killer first line, “If I had cared to live, I would have died...”
Silverlock is a joy for two reasons. First of all, it's utterly filled with life and joy and energy. Even at its serious points, and there are those, the novel is still possessed of a bouncy energy that carries me along every time I read it (only three times so far – but as I said before, this is from someone who almost never re-reads). The protagonist, A. Clarence Shandon, who quickly gets renamed as the title character, is a bit of a downer, but everyone he meets is a lot more fun than he is, and he eventually joins in.
But just as much as Silverlock's energy, it's the second pleasure that often brings it down almost unbidden from my bookshelf and into my hand. Silverlock is a literary guessing game, a Trivial Pursuit whose hidden clues were written by someone smarter and more devious than anyone I've encountered, and who never wrote an answer key. Everyone and everything in the Republic of Letters is a character, incident or location from literature. Some are obvious. We meet Robin Hood, Don Quixote, Puck, Job and Beowulf. Others I have yet to figure out – yes, I've yielded to temptation and looked at the Wikipedia page, but it isn't exhaustive either.
What's fun about the whole thing is that Myers doesn't just put these characters in for a quick name-check. They all feel totally right – the right characters in the right place.
So why am I reluctant to recommend this boisterous guessing game of an adventure? It's mostly the prose, to tell you the truth. I find it hard to describe how unmusical and off-putting Myers' tone is. His characters speak in what is to my ear the most unnaturally stilted manners. Let me give an example from Silverlock's meeting with Hamlet, a character who is, let's face it, famous for the beauty of the ways in which he describes his dilemmas. Not so in this novel:
“Have you any idea who committed the crime – killing your father, that is?”Now, perhaps it's unfair to judge this novel by the prose it puts into Hamlet's mouth. After all, we can't help but contrast that with Shakespeare's “What a piece of work is a man?” But the truth about this novel I love is that its prose is often wooden and into the mouths of some of literature's greatest characters, it puts rather folksy and mundane mid-twentieth-century idiomatic speech. It's a choppy, disconcerting read. But at the same time, it's full of a love of life, literature and adventure. I pick very carefully the people I give it to.
“A most exact and certain one,” he nodded.
“Has anything been done about it?”
“There has not been and will not be,” he told me in a suddenly quiet voice. “He will not be brought to book, because I have knowledge only, not proof. And as for taking justice into my own hands?” he broke off to give a sickly smile. “Look at me sir. I am an assembly of so many parts, and cannot form a quorum to pass a resolution. I have an intellect to plan an action with any man in the land; I am as big as you and stronger, I should say; I am accounted a soldier who does not shrink from the battlefield. And with all this, I cannot bring myself to go to the man who murdered my father and kill him where he lies sleeping beside my mother. Oh, Christ and my God!”
And with that ejaculation, at once hopeless prayer and bitter oath, he became as impotent to speak as he claimed he was to act.
- So that's two somewhat older books. My last came out earlier this year. Barth Anderson's The Book of Seven Hands is a “SideQuest” set in the shared universe of The Foreworld Saga created by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and others. Despite my admiration for both of those writers, I'm kind of cool these days on shared world stuff, so I hadn't picked up any Foreworld books when Anderson's came out. Thing is, not only is Barth a pal, I really enjoyed his first two novels The Patron Saint of Plagues and The Magician and the Fool, and I read that you didn't need to know any convoluted continuity, so I downloaded this one the day it came out and read it the following Sunday.
Turned out that was a fitting day for it. I remember Sunday afternoons as a kid watching the old adventure serials re-running on WIVB out of Buffalo (“We're FOUR Buffalo!” -- love that Roman numeral joke). This novella (Kindle puts it at 122 pages) recalls all the swashbuckling, swordfighting bravado of those serials and puts in a very modern gender-bending sucker-punch right in the middle of the action. The story of expert duelists Basilio and Alejo and their quest to recover an ancient fighting manual and have it translated by the legendary alchemist Paracelsus is both down-to-dust gritty and rolling-barrel high adventure. I just couldn't put it down, and now, months later, I get a good smile when I think of the heady taste of this story's rapid shocks and – how did Othello say it? -- “hairbreadth scapes i'th' imminent deadly breech.” If you like adventure, but wince at the old-fashioned tropes and attitudes of Zorro and the Musketeers, this book is totally for you. It's fresh and new while carrying the flavour of a Sunday morning black-and-white afternoon glued to the tube.
Stay tuned for the next post where we get reading recommendations from Gail Carriger!