Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Book Report: Fiction for Fantasy Lovers

I felt like yesterday was a mostly wasted day, but although I didn't have the focus for writing, I did manage to tick a number of things off the to-do list, so I did accomplish things. Today, though, I need to really dive in.

But I have done some reading recently. Last week's book was Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. One of the blurbs on the back compared it to The Night Circus, but I'm not sure how apt that is. Then again, it did have a similar feel. I would say that while this isn't technically a fantasy novel, it reads like one. Maybe you could call it literary fiction for fantasy fans.

It's about a young, unemployed graphic designer in San Francisco. He's out walking around the city to force himself to get off the Internet occasionally when he comes across an odd little bookstore with a help-wanted sign in the window. The front of the store seems like a typical small used bookstore, but then there are the shelves in the back, which go up three stories, reached by a ladder. One of the job requirements is the ability to climb a ladder. He ends up taking the job as the night clerk and finds that it's not really a typical bookstore. The books on those tall shelves don't seem to have any record of existence -- he can't find an Amazon listing or Library of Congress listing. The people who get those books don't buy them, but rather check them out. He's expected to keep a detailed log of who comes in and gets which book. Partially out of boredom, he sets out to solve the mystery of the store, which leads to him going on a quest with his girlfriend who works at Google, his best friend from sixth grade who's now a software mogul, and his roommate, who makes props for ILM.

This is one of those books that's hard to talk about because it's hard to put into words what was fun about it. In spite of the very modern references, it feels like a traditional fantasy novel in the way the odd group of characters comes together to achieve something. There's something of a page-turning thriller about it. I think it would appeal to fantasy fans because it's one of those "these are our people" books. The main character and his best friend bonded in sixth grade because they were both fans of a fantasy trilogy of the sort that was pretty popular in the early 80s -- you know, the Shannara kind of thing. How many of us have had that experience, of meeting someone and knowing you'll like them because they have the same appreciation you do for something you love? I think half my college friendships were formed based on the books we saw on each other's shelves in our dorm rooms. I didn't have time to read much for fun in college, but I brought certain books to display just for that purpose.

That fantasy series in the book is important enough to the characters and to the story for there to be snippets of it, and that got me in the mood for reading that sort of thing. After soliciting recommendations on Facebook and getting feedback from people ranging from high school friends to college friends to current friends and fans, I checked an omnibus edition of The Belgariad by David Eddings out of the library. I don't think I've read it, though parts of it seem familiar. I don't know if I tried to read it before and failed, if I've maybe read an excerpt somewhere or if it's just that I've read a lot of that kind of book, so it feels familiar. I've made it through the first book, and it does have those classic elements. We have the Farm Boy of Destiny, the Wise Old Man Who's More than He Appears, the Wise Woman Who's More than She Appears, the honest Man of the People, the Thief, and the Warrior Barbarian in our questing party. The business really has changed over the years, though. I can't imagine getting away with starting a novel with a long infodump prologue telling us the backstory, or spending a good part of the first couple of chapters with characters telling each other about their land's history and legends. I'm glad I'm reading this in an omnibus because I think I would have been angry if I reached the end of the first book and realized that was it (that may be what happened -- I might have read the first one and was angry enough not to look for more). Still, there's something very satisfying about reading something in the classic form, even if I allow myself to mentally snark at the cliches while reminding myself that this was written before all these things became so cliched. Writing a fantasy in the classic form is on my literary bucket list, though I'd have to do it in a more contemporary style (no backstory infodumps!).

Oh, one more thing about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: This will only work with the paper version of the book, and I don't know if it will work with the paperback, but I had to move the hardcover I got from the library off my nightstand after I turned out the light. The cover design looks pretty simple, just a graphic representation of bookshelves and the title that looks like it's hand-written. But turn out the lights and see what happens.

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