January 19th, 2006

Reading List: Navigating The Golden Compass

Read: Navigating the Golden Compass, ed. Glenn Yeffeth.

I guess we’ll see how long I can keep up this reviewing thing; I’ve managed to accumulate a backlog of about five books, so the reviews may get a bit shorter as we go.

After reading the His Dark Materials series I wanted more, and since there’s a very limited more (though Pullman is working on The Book of Dust, a series of related short stories) I had to turn to non-fiction. These essays on the series range from the seriously literary to the wonderfully inventive, and most of them could stand alone as thoughtful pieces of literary criticism.

A few of my favorites:

Karen Traviss explores the likely social consequences of daemons existing in our world. From gyms for daemons to daemon-based discrimination on the job, this essay ranges from the hysterical to the piercingly satirical.

Robert Metzger frames Pullman as a research scientist, and explains why the structure of the novel seems fantastic but is actually profoundly scientific.

Natasha Giardina outlines the profound differences between how our world frames the differences between adults and children, and the way that Lyra relates to the world around her. According to her, Pullman is subversive in even more ways than he seems on the surface (and there’s no shortage of those!).

And, of course, Michael Chabon’s opening essay captures the wonder and heartbreak and beauty of the series far better than I could. Hey, he’s a professional!

Reading List: The Road to the Dark Tower

Read: The Road to the Dark Tower, Ben Vincent.

This relatively uninspired book provides a guide to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, with all the usual things you’d expect: a chapter summarizing each of the seven books in the series, a chapter on influences, a chapter on the relationship of the series to King’s other work. This latter is probably the most useful piece of the book, since the Dark Tower series is highly meta-fictional and refers to many of King’s other books. However, you can find an equally good reference (if not better) on the web.

Really, The Road to the Dark Tower is workmanlike but not fantastic. The main reason to read this is if you’re a major fan of the Dark Tower series, which you should be.

I’m not kidding, by the way: I don’t care if you think Stephen King is a hack (he’s not) or burned-out (he’s not) or for the illiterate (he’s not). Yes, he’s written some crap, but The Dark Tower series is a brilliant work. As a writer, King is an extraordinary craftsman, and in this series he’s finally given himself material that lives up to his abilities. King’s skill at evoking character through concrete detail is unparalleled, as is his ability to transform the ordinary into the stuff of dreams and nightmares. In The Dark Tower he finally creates an epic, genre-spanning work that incorporates fantasy, Western, horror and more into the single best evocation of a fantastic America I’ve ever seen.

No, the series isn’t perfect. For one thing, volume one doesn’t quite manage to grab you the way the rest of the series will - bad news for new readers, who should just stick it out until volume two! But even with its flaws, the series’ stunning originality puts the competition to shame. (The books make Gaiman’s American Gods, just for example, look more than a little anemic.) King manages to create a fantastic universe that actually reflects American culture and history, without grounding his imagination completely in the modern world.

One warning, though: the series clocks in at well over two thousand pages, and dense ones. It took me almost two weeks to get through the whole thing, and I read fast! Nevertheless, King’s magnum opus is well worth the time it’ll take you to get through it. It’s definitely on my “favorite series of all time” list, and if you read it it’ll likely make it onto yours, too.

Gloria Mundi: Back Again

So, I’m in the middle of writing an extremely long post about Polaris, which I’ll probably end up splitting into two or three posts to save a) your eyes and b) my sanity.  But it reminded me that I’ve been writing so much about books that I’ve forgotten to write about games - and particularly about Gloria Mundi, our on-going epic tragedy set in ancient Rome.  There’s not too much to say on the Gloria Mundi front, except that we had a month-long break due to personal events in the lives of a number of players (one was finishing school, another was out of town, a third had night classes) and the usual holiday scheduling trouble.  Still, we met Monday night to pick up where we left off, and we fell right back into our routine of plotting and scheming.

It was really nice to get back into the story, particularly as we’d had some major plot developments just before we took a break.  The crazy ancient Tarassa came back from the dead (apparently, though there’s some doubt about exactly what is going on), Marcus was publicly defeated in ritual combat while trying to take back his family’s throne, and Aniketos has been tricked into carrying a ghostly visitor around in his head.  And wow, that sounds cheesy - but all these things are direct narrative consequences of choices the characters made years and years ago, and I swear they are totally sensible in the context of the larger tale.

What’s particularly interesting for me is that we took the game back to Gaul, where the characters began their story, after a long sojourn in Rome itself.  Many of the main characters are still in Rome, but we got a critical mass out in the west, as we’d always hoped we would.  (You offer the characters enough opportunities to go home, and eventually they will - though a couple of them had to be exiled into it!)  We’re about to begin a new story arc in which the characters get to face some of the decisions that they were victims of last time they were in Gaul.  They used to be the powerless young ones, and now they’re holding the reins of power in what promises to be a very interesting homecoming.

I think Monday’s session signaled the start of the next major segment of the game, and I’m really excited to see where it goes.  I can’t wait to watch them making others suffer what they once suffered when they were young . . . and pay for their own mistakes in coin they can’t afford to lose.

Man, I love tragedy.