Notes from the Easy Chair
I tend to keep two or three books in my reading rotation at any given time, unless I happen to have picked up one of those stay-up-all-night-to-finish titles (you know the ones). Lately, I’ve been juggling a few cross-genre titles, including several from a handful of late, great British authors and one from a new young American fantasy writer.
First up is Strangers and Pilgrims, an outstanding new omnibus collection of supernatural fiction by Walter de la Mare. Published by one of my favorite specialty publishers, Tartarus Press in the UK, it’s a beautiful monster of a book at 500+ pages, and is not to be missed if you are a fan of ghost stories or supernatural fiction in general, especially by the early masters of the genre.
Second is Thermopylae: Battle for the West by popular historian Ernle Bradford. I’ve been fascinated by ancient history since childhood (yes, that long ago), particularly Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire. After reading Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 last year, I had the urge to go back and take a longer, deeper look into the epic but hopeless battle for the Hot Gates in 480 BC that has been widely considered ever since as a turning point in the development of Western civilization. Bradford’s book, first published in 1980, takes a detailed look at the events leading up to and throughout Persian king Xerxes’ ultimately doomed campaign against the West, as well as the aftermath of that campaign. Highly recommended, particularly if ancient Greek history is your thing.
The next book is Summer Lightning, the latest in the seemingly endless flow of P.G. Wodehouse titles that make their way into my rotation. The prolific author, considered by many to be the greatest British comic writer ever, may be best known for his Wooster and Jeeves stories. As good as they are, my own favorites are his stories about Blandings Castle and its colorful cast of characters, of which Summer Lightning is the third novel in the series, and the fourth book chronologically (the preceding title was a short story collection). Some Wodehouse critics claim that he merely tells the same story over and over. Sure, there are similarities – the stories are typically light, humourous, period pieces dealing with the foibles of a revolving group of characters in a more or less constant group of settings. But does this make them any less enjoyable? Hardly – in fact, each book let’s the reader visit once again with comfortable and quirky old friends. And that’s a good thing indeed. If you don’t know Wodehouse (pronounced “wood-house”), I encouraged you to become acquainted.
Finally, we have dragons – but more on that in a minute. I read a lot of fantasy in the early days, including all of the old masters, along with many of the more modern ones. Still, I haven’t read much pure fantasy in a long time. This is due in large part to my current preferences in fiction literature. But the fact remains that the book racks at the chain book stores these days are overflowing with new science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles, much of it less than satisfactory. Still, there are terrific new authors working in the field, while many old favorites are still writing. What’s more, many of the classics are being reprinted again.
Now, back to those dragons. Among those terrific new writers is Naomi Novik. Her Temeraire tetralogy of historical fantasies involves the unlikely combination of dragons and the Napoleonic Wars! I bought the first novel, His Majesty’s Dragon, for my wife, and decided to start reading it myself last night. When dragons are handled well – Ursula LeGuin comes to mind – they can make for great stories. However, they’ve been overused and abused by lesser authors so often that although I had read much of the hype online regarding these books, I was still skeptical. Much has already been written elsewhere about the Temeraire saga, but for now I’ll simply say that fifty pages in Novik had me. First, she’s a fine writer, which was a pleasure to learn for myself. Second, she tells a good story. And third, she has – thus far at least – avoided most of the typical dragon cliches. As many others have noted, Novik is more fond of semicolons than any other author I can think of, and she has yet to totally convince me that these dragons are the real deal. Still, I’m hooked now, and will report further here after I have finished the series.