Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Report: Fantasy and Nostalgia

Today is the day I get ready to travel for Thanksgiving. Laundry is already in progress, and then I have to figure out what to bring. At least this year we don't seem to have major climate shifts in the forecast, unlike some years when it's 75 degrees on Wednesday, then there's snow or ice on Thanksgiving day, or else it's in the 40s on Wednesday, but warming to the 70s or 80s before I return home. I should be able to bring just one jacket instead of needing several different kinds of coats. It complicates packing when you need both shorts and sweatshirts. I likely will not be online the rest of the week, so I'll take this opportunity to say Happy Thanksgiving!

I actually have some recent reading to talk about, so it's time for a book report!

First, there's Cold Magic by Kate Elliott. I'd heard of this as a steampunky sort of thing, but the steampunk-like elements are pretty minor (the fact of airships plays a major role, but we don't actually encounter them). It's really more of an alternate history Victorian story, but I think all Victorian-like settings these days get called steampunk. Whatever you call it, I really enjoyed this book. The alternate history is REALLY alternate, not just Victorian London with zombies. There's an entirely different history that leads to an entirely different population in what we think of as England, and there's even some different geography (Great Britain is part of the continent, not an island). There are elements of fairy folklore, and there's a wonderful romance woven throughout. Cat is an orphaned young woman living with her aunt, uncle and cousins and attending college when a Cold Mage shows up with a contract that demands the oldest girl in the house be married to him. That would be Cat. Next thing she knows, she's off on a cross-country adventure with an arrogant mage who's part of a movement to sabotage industrialization and technology so the mages can maintain their power. And then when they reach their destination, things get much worse for Cat -- and for her husband. I was furiously turning pages on this one, and now I desperately want to get my hands on the sequel. In addition to hitting a lot of my fantasy buttons, it's also a good example of the kind of romantic story I enjoy, where the relationship grows through the things they experience together.

And then I read Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, which is a fantasy classic I hadn't read before. It's based on the old ballad about a woman who has to rescue her lover from the fairies, but it's set at a Minnesota college in the early 1970s. Although it's a fantasy, the fantasy elements are very subtle until near the end of the book, and it takes a long time for them to show up and for us -- and the heroine -- to be sure they're supernatural. I may have to re-read it because I suspect that more fantasy elements will become more obvious now that I've read the end and know what's going on. Mostly, though, this is a book about college life. Although it follows the heroine through all four years, the most detail is lavished on the freshman year, getting into the way groups of friends fall together and the way patterns and habits develop. It reminded me so much of my own college years that I practically ached with nostalgia. I don't know if I've ever had another time in my life when I made friends so quickly and easily. It seemed like you could just fall in with a group of people, and then suddenly it was like you'd known them all your life. The book got into those standing appointments for group dinners in the dining hall, the late-night study hall conversations, the midnight movies at the campus theater and all those other things I remember from my college years. The only difference was that in the book the heroine had far more masculine attention than I got. Guys just weren't interested in me my freshman year (well, really, ever, but I did have a boyfriend for part of my sophomore year), unless they were extremely subtle about showing it and/or I was extremely dense about noticing it (both of which were possible). I do know that my initial group of friends turned out to involve one frenemy who claimed she was going to help me learn to attract guys, but then every time I designated a target, she went after him herself, even though she had a boyfriend back home. I don't know how far it went with any of them, but she did manage to wrap them around her little finger so they noticed no one but her, and I'm very sure none of them had any interest in me. I ended up switching groups and falling in with the geeks around Halloween, and I was much happier. There were some couples pairing off in our group, but for the most part, we ran as a general herd instead of a group of pairs. I guess another difference was that in the book most of her friends were classics or English majors and went around quoting Shakespeare all the time, while my friends were mostly engineering and computer science majors who went around quoting Monty Python, Star Trek and Star Wars all the time.

It's hard to separate my feelings for the book itself from all this nostalgia, so I can't say how much I enjoyed it because of the book itself and how much was that I was enjoying the nostalgia. As I said, I may have to read it again to focus more on the story instead of getting caught up in misty, watercolored memories triggered by events in the book that reminded me of my college years.

Now off to go to useful things.

1 comment:

Nolly said...

I first read Tam Lin in 11th grade -- one of my friends discovered it, and several of us read it. For us, it was a glimpse of a could-be future, a look into what our next few years might be, and we loved it and quoted it. Of course, real college, for them most part, was more Python and less Shakespeeare for us as well, at various schools, but it definitely worked for us without the nostalgia factor.