His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

HMDWhat if dragons and their riders formed their own corps of soldiers adjacent to the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? You get Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, the first novel of which, His Majesty’s Dragon, I have just finished reading on my Kobo.

William Laurence, a Royal Navy captain engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, captures a French ship bearing unusual cargo: a dragon’s egg. When it hatches, the creature accepts Laurence as his master, changing the captain’s life forever. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, thinking of the name of a British ship. ‘Temeraire’ means ‘bold,’ ‘reckless,’ ‘dauntless,’ and is the sort of name a navy man without experience in the Aerial Corps would bestow.

Here you see the real originality of Novik’s world: Temeraire is named after a ship, hinting that dragons take the place of ships in this alternate nineteenth-century universe. Lawrence does not become the sole, independent rider of a dragon but the captain of a dragonback crew. Temeraire truly becomes one of His Majesty’s dragons, flying alongside His Majesty’s ships, which are trying to prevent the transports for Napoleon’s army from crossing the Channel.

Laurence initially loathes the idea of becoming a member of the Aerial Corps. However, he sees that he has no choice but to join, given his profound sense of duty. It means he must forsake his promising Navy career. He will also never be able to enjoy social functions, since those in the Corps live in isolation due to the nature of their duty and are even looked upon as social outcasts. Lawrence must furthermore lose the hand of a woman he has never formally courted.

But as Temeraire grows in size from a hatchling, so does Laurence’s bond with him. Soon he learns to favour the company of his dragon over that of human society. He learns to accept his lot as Corps captain.

Mix Master and Commander with Eragon and you might think you have a good idea of Novik’s concept for this historical fantasy world. But the truth is more complicated than that; dragons are an analogue for warships and function alongside the Navy. This element of fantasy shows how similar an exchange of broadsides in a naval engagement is to dragon fire.

The Battle of the Nile
The Battle of the Nile

I was uncertain what to expect wading into His Majesty’s Dragon, but I was pleasantly surprised. The prose style alone is remarkable; Novik uses polite semicolons to render her dialogue and style into the period cadence. Temeraire is about as polite in his speech as dragons come; he is the sort of dragon to whom you could read an Isaac Newton treatise over a cup of earl grey. Temeraire is also special for another reason, an unusual feature of his that makes him feel different from other dragons. But that I leave readers to discover.

The first chapters of His Majesty’s Dragon set off at a roaring start. It was a pleasure to not only learn about the biological aspects of dragons and their military uses, but the social consequences of humans who associate themselves with the creatures. Although the middle sags, when Laurence and Temeraire must train for war and get to know about life in the Corps, it picks up at the end and introduces the sequel around a promising premise. I was personally hoping that premise would get addressed in His Majesty’s Dragon, but I suppose I would have to buy Throne of Jade to find how it plays out.

Naomi Novik, author of His Majesty's Dragon
Naomi Novik, author of His Majesty’s Dragon

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Photo Credits:

Battle of the Nile: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Nile

Book Cover: http://breadandink.com/2013/05/12/review-his-majestys-dragon-by-naomi-novik/

Naomi Novik: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Novik

The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle

Secret History of FantasyIf you’re like me, you have probably starved for an original fantasy novel. So many novels and short stories rely too heavily on The Lord of the Rings and the epic fantasy genre that spawned from it. Are there any original fantasy works that use impossible situations without having elves, orcs, and dragons run across the page? Oh, and I don’t have that much time to read.

The answer? Peter S. Beagle’s anthology of short stories The Secret History of Fantasy.

True, it has a dragon on the cover. But it is half-concealed, placed against a minimalist white page. If we were to judge a book by its cover, we might guess there is a literary sensibility that went into these selections. You’ll find big-name authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Yann Martel, Gregory Maguire, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the cover, as well as other authors with whom you may be unfamiliar, but will remember once you’ve tasted their stories.

This anthology represents the top fantasists of the field. Each story has its own original flavour of the fantastic. Who could forget the remarkably compelling mythagos of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood?” What is a mythago, you ask? It is a “myth-imago” or “myth-image,” basically a mythic archetype that runs amok in Britain’s oldest forest in Holdstock’s classic novel–here cut to the length of a short novella.

A John Howe illustration of Mythago Wood.
A John Howe illustration of Mythago Wood.

This anthology is filled with other wainscots. For example, there is Stephen King’s tale of Mrs. Todd, a lady who is obsessed with uncovering the shortest shortcuts from place to place, and ends up driving her car into another world. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” is a tale of a boy who is forbidden from eating ice cream due to his medication and forms a relationship with a girl he sees during one of this synesthetic trips.

Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, which is perhaps the most famous reworking of the classic novel The Wizard of Oz, returns with a story about the Scarecrow. Steven Millhauser’s description-heavy story of the P.T. Barnum Museum is also remarkable in how it is nothing at all like a fantasy adventure–more of a reflection on a setting’s affect on the people who visit and work there. The museum ends up becoming a metaphor for how we all encounter the fantastic, the wondrous, the inexplicable, and how we all remember our childhoods. Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi, adopts an even more alternate route and writes an experimental poem in “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company.”

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

Another brilliant feature of this anthology are the supplementary materials. Peter S. Beagle is serious about fantasy and he lets readers become serious about the genre with him. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of A Wizard of Earthsea, and David G. Hartwell, also a fantasy anthology editor, each write essays which Beagle includes in an appendix. Le Guin’s essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” describes the critical reception of fantasy up to the present day and how perceptions that fantasy should be dismissed because it is childlike and escapist have improved over the years. The roadmap to fantasy, she argues, is more inexplicable than the simplicity of Tolkien-derived drivel would suggest.

Hartwell in “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre” gives the history of how Del Rey capitalized on the Tolkien phenomenon in the late 70s and published The Sword of Shannara, the first of many Tolkien homages that sold like hotcakes.  Terry Brooks’ first novel thus helped make epic fantasy the repetitive form it eventually became. Both essays provide you with a historical perspective on the development of a genre you love to read.

The Sword of Shannara: the book the popularized the epic fantasy genre.
The Sword of Shannara: the book that popularized the epic fantasy genre.

Peter S. Beagle uses this anthology to propose that fantasy has become stilted due to the staleness of epic fantasy. The market tends to favour a 2,000-page, derivative, Tolkienesque trilogy over more experimental but well thought-out fantasy novels. He attempts to show readers the diversity of fantasy–which may be the broadest genre in the world in terms of narrative possibility. If you ask me, it is impossible not to love this anthology. I would say fantasy is more diverse today than it was 40 years ago. But I would have to agree with Beagle that it is difficult, at least for new writers, to escape the stranglehold of genre.

If it is time for a renewal in fantasy, then it will be through short stories and novels like the ones Beagle has published in The Secret History of Fantasy. There are infinite angles to a fantasy story and Secret History attempts to show us some of those doors. But, like the myriad rooms and passages located inside and underneath the Barnum Museum, you can always count on the fantasy genre being bigger and more expansive than your even imagination can acknowledge.

Peter S. Beagle
Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn and editor of The Secret History of Fantasy

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Image Credits:

The Sword of Shannara: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sword_of_Shannara

Mythago:http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/dec/24/le-guin-authors-guild-deal

Ursula K LeGuin: http://www.rc.umd.edu/person/ursula-k-le-guin

Cover: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7850063-the-secret-history-of-fantasy

Peter S. Beagle: http://www.jeancocteaucinema.com/ai1ec_event/peter-s-beagle/?instance_id=

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere

 

 

It’s an entire world just under your feet, in the vast underground networks that form the urban environment, where people who’ve fallen through the cracks of society vanish from our everyday reality.

Such is the setting of Neil Gaiman’s urban quest fantasy Neverwhere. One of his older novels, it was originally based on a 1996 TV series on BBC Two. It is now a BBC radio series, staring James MacEvoy as Richard Mayhew, Natalie Dormer as Door, and, among others, Christopher Lee as the Earl of Earl’s Court and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington. While I have only read the novel, it is a definite sign of the durability of Gaiman’s story that it has seen so many incarnations in diverse media.

Neverwhere is the journey of an Everyman Scotsman name Richard Mayhew, who finds a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. After this encounter, his normal everyday life is ruined as he loses his job, his girlfriend, and indeed his very identity. No one recognizes him in the London of this world (called London Above), and he must find a way to get his life back.

Door, the girl he finds on the sidewalk, is a resident of London Below, an alternate world that exists in the metro systems, sewers, and underground tunnels beneath London Above. Its a world of hobos, aristocrats, rat-speakers, sadistic killers, monsters, and even angels. As Richard quests to find a way out of London Below, since it is impossible to live wholly in both worlds at the same time, he becomes involved in a quest to find who is responsible for the murder of Door’s family.

Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar
Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar

The villains of Nerewhere are just as memorable as the heroes, if not more so. Mr. Croup is a wordy, fox-like assassin who tears his victims apart with his fingernails and wears a raggedy old suit. Mr. Vandemar is a wolfish sadist who picks his fingernails with a machete and doesn’t like telephones. They are like a darker, but still funny version of your typical Disney villain trio–Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with switchblades. There are other villains in the story, but they are surprises.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Neverwhere, especially after finishing a semester of university. It’s ideal reading on the metro (or the Tube, if you wish), because there can be no better place to read Neverwhere than in the underground world where it’s supposed to take place. I read most of it myself in the Montreal metro.

Which leads me to wonder. Is there a Montreal Below, as there is a Montreal Above? I guess I just assumed there could be. Perhaps there is.

Gaiman appears to have done some research into the London Underground writing his book. He talks about “ghost stations” like the British Library Station, which was walled-in a long time ago and, needless to say, is closed to commuters. There is quite a lot of history in the underground world. I would doubt that there are ghost stations in Montreal Below, but Montreal could still have an interesting subterranean civilization, if we were to imagine one developing.

The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.
The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.

All the shopping malls in the passages under the city, all crisscrossing each other like a labyrinth, might prove ample room to place a alternate world, similar to the feudal-like society Gaiman imagines in Neverwhere. Promenades de la cathédrale, where engineers built a shopping mall under Christ Church Cathedral, could be a key location in Montreal Below. Perhaps Monk, a station on the Green Line, could have a band of monks similar to the Black Friars we see in his book (a pun on Blackfriars Station). What about the dukedom of Vendôme? The barony of Jarry? La seigneurie de Plamondon? Or what about le marquis de Rosemont as the counterpart of the marquis de Carrabas, a swashbuckling character in London Below? And don’t forget the angel residing at Station St. Michel!

Such a world would be an interesting combination of a British-inspired universe with French Canadian characters and settings. Hopefully, the result of such cultural fusion would end in a little more than a Montreal Below that resides exclusively within the potholes that appear on our roads each spring! Gaiman’s underworld is a world of people who have “fallen through the cracks,” after all.

Ah, we Montrealers take every opportunity to complain about our roads!

To avoid this post becoming like an opinion article in The Gazette, let me say a few words to conclude.

Gaiman is a storyteller extraordinaire. His novel reads almost like a bedtime story, except that it’s for adults (teenagers can get away with it). It’s a brilliant combination that reminded me about the nightmares in his Sandman comics. In fact, I almost felt like I was reading a comic book or a graphic novel at a few points, without the pictures or graphics. If you have not read Neverwhere, and you’re a Gaiman fan, then it’s a novel not to be missed. It was a lot of fun. Take it on your next metro ride through the world Below.

 

Photo Credits:

Croup and Vandemar: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/neverwhere/images/819335/title/mr-croup-mr-vandemar-fanart

Montreal Metro: http://www.stm.info/english/metro/a-mapmet.htm

Neil Gaiman: http://www.myspace.com/neilgaiman1

Neverwhere cover: http://jenniferdawnbrody.com/tag/neverwhere/