The Departure From Normality

Two weeks ago, life was normal. Back then you could go to the theater, or set up camp in a Starbucks with a laptop and a latte, or go to the store with breezy confidence of finding toilet paper. The churches were open. Remember that?

Now we are all waiting for a return to normalcy. Even if you’re lucky enough to have both your health and your finances sound, even if your own life has changed only in altered routines and negligible inconveniences – even so, you want that return. There is an uneasy uncertainty in the atmosphere, a question waiting for an answer. We move about life with a wary eye on the news, on the world, watching for the answer to appear. How bad will it be?

These are interesting days. People will write books about them. But it’s the duller days you want to live in, the tranquil epochs between history’s watersheds. What makes good reading, after it’s all done, is not what makes a good life in the moment. The same paradox is at work in our stories. The sort of stories we want to read or watch are not the sort we actually want to live.

There are exceptions, I know. The adventures are thick with danger and privation, but some people really would take them anyway; the romances are fraught with painful drama, but some people really would live them. Still, I am sure that the idea of such things is more appealing than the fact of them. The things that make stories good – danger, difficulties, villains, misfortune, loss – are the things that make life bad. Our lives are a quest for well-being and happiness. Who really wants the apocalypse or the crisis, the danger or the pain?

Some people want to be heroes, a noble impulse. But if heroes are to be admired, the necessity of heroism is to be avoided. Nobody needs to be a hero when things are going well. The first suggestion of anything that would require heroism – whether personal tragedy or public calamity – sets us longing for what we call normal life. We would rather be happy.

In the wake of World War I, and the Spanish influenza, Warren Harding campaigned for president under the slogan ‘Return to Normalcy’. (We’ve had about a century of nitpicking over whether normalcy is, in fact, a word, but Harding indelibly marked American culture and got to be president in the bargain, so the win to him.) Harding declared that America needed healing instead of heroics, restoration instead of revolution, and the dispassionate instead of the dramatic. He won in a landslide. And what, after all, is the purpose of any heroics or revolution except to protect, save, or make better normal life? The purpose of the stories is not, perhaps, much different.

As we wait for the return of normalcy, we are spending more time with our stories than ever. Never before has binge-watching felt like a contribution to society. And you know something? It helps. So may your stories be exciting, and your life tranquil, and may interesting days soon pass.

Not Always Popular

Today we are going to discuss three distinctly Christian subgenres of speculative fiction and why they are not always popular with Christian readers of speculative fiction – such as myself, and possibly you. Feel free to share.

First, a disclaimer is in order. I am not, in principle, opposed to any of these genres, and as a reader I have at least dabbled in all of them. I am certain that each one boasts some truly fine books. I am not saying that there is anything inherently inferior about such stories – let alone inherently wrong. It’s simply that I – playing the odds of what I am most likely to enjoy – don’t choose to read them anymore.

And now, enough disclaiming and onto the point. The three distinctly Christian subgenres are …

The End Times. Again: some fine books belong to each of these categories. Evan Angler’s excellent (and sadly discontinued) Swipe series is a shining illustration of the point. In the main, however, I don’t enjoy novels about the End Times. On the one hand, I find it dreary to read about relentless loss, tribulation, and cataclysm, culminating in the Anti-Christ’s conquest of the entire Earth; on the other hand, I find it predictable. It’s just mapping Revelation prophecies to the inevitable conclusion. I loved Angler’s End Times series, but I wasn’t sure it was an End Times series until the second book. Until then, I thought it might have been a dystopia flavored by apocalyptic prophecy – and hoped that it was.

The Nephilim. My instinctive response to the Nephilim subgenre is neutrality. I am not offended by the angel/human concept, and if you recast the essential idea in a sci-fi form – members of an incorporeal species assume physical bodies to interact with humanity, and interact to the point of reproducing – it’s actually pretty intriguing. (Question: In such a scenario, would the offspring really be hybrid? Because for reproduction to be possible, wouldn’t the assumed bodies have to be genetically human, perhaps with minor variations from the norm …?)

But – and how can I put this kindly? – novels about the Nephilim often take an extreme left turn into strangeness. UFOs, Roswell, tinfoil government conspiracies, monsters, aliens – sometimes all in the same book (I know – I read it). It’s all too much. The Nephilim subgenre also gives too much play to false readings of Scripture: one, that it was because of the Nephilim that God sent the Flood; two, that the Nephilim are somehow connected to the End Times. (In a cheap intellectual sleight of hand, some quote Jesus, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man” – leaving off the rest of the passage, where Christ explains in what way the days of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah, and it isn’t the Nephilim.)

Angels v. Demons. I don’t question the poetic triumph of Paradise Lost, or the shrewd, sharp effectiveness of The Screwtape Letters. And it isn’t only the classics. This Present Darkness was one of my first loves in Christian speculative fiction. But over the years I cooled toward stories that give center stage to angels and demons. I admit, the last couple books I read in the genre did much of the cooling. Yet I think it is a general – not, of course, a universal – weakness of such stories to make angels too … human. I want a bit of grandeur or otherworldliness, a flavor of heaven or hell. It’s a tall order, and harder the larger the role. Even now, I think that angels (good and bad) can be well-used in fantastic fiction – but especially in roles that are somewhat marginal, or mysterious.

In my earlier years of reading, I wandered through these subgenres and ended at the conclusion that they are Not My Thing. It’s curious how easily they overlap. Somewhere, I know, they have converged entirely into an End Times novel where the Nephilim fight with demons against angels …

Another Few Highlights

A few months ago I highlighted those books that, in my two years reviewing for Lorehaven Magazine, were most memorable. These highlights were mostly flash reviews with a slight turn of book recommendation, if you want to take them that way (I disclaim). I decided to reprise the idea and broaden it – not highlights of Lorehaven books, or explicitly Christian books, or even necessarily books. These are highlights – flash reviews, book recommendations if you want them – of speculative fiction. There is no unifying theme to the stories chosen except that I, personally, liked them. 

“Bobok“, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Last year, in one of my sporadic efforts to become well-read, I read a collection of Dostoyevsky’s short stories. I would have read one of his novels, but they all seemed to be a minimum of 600 pages, and I didn’t have that kind of commitment. In “Bobok”, a man lingers in a graveyard after a funeral and overhears the corpses’ conversation. It’s hinted that the man is a drunk, and possibly a lunatic (I mean, even before the eavesdropping on the dead begins). But he might have really heard it, and it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is the conversation. This short story is horror, but of a different flavor than its bare premise suggests. Although not overtly religious, “Bobok” possesses a spiritual horror, less from death than from what death unveils.

Night of the Living Dead Christian, by Matt Mikalatos. Reading the title, it’s a parody. Reading the book, it’s really more of an allegory – but a hilarious one. Humor and profundity mix easily in this book. The struggle between humanity and monsters is internalized, fought in the human heart even more than out in the world. The idea is true, and serious, and Mikalatos achieves poignancy with it. But more often than serious, the book is funny. How would you think an android, a mad scientist, and a purportedly-but-not-really normal person would go about hunting a werewolf? Well – do you know how impossible it is these days to find silver bullets?

“Leaf By Niggle”, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This short story is an absolute masterpiece. Broadly allegorical of Death’s journey and Life’s purpose, it summons up those deep, half-formed longings sometimes stirred by nature or art. The style is light, with a leavening of humor, and still cuts straight and true to the most momentous ideas. I have rarely seen any story deal so wonderfully with Heaven. There is something gentle about this story and the mercy it finds for people like, well, most of us: not heroic, and not villainous, sometimes trying and too often not. “Leaf By Niggle” is one of Tolkien’s obscure works, but there is no reason for it.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton. I suppose you could call this a detective novel because, after all, it is. I’m still including it. It’s the sort of witty, merry romp that defines Chesterton – serious about everything and somehow always having a good time. The narrative is thickly veined with the philosophical, occasionally mystical excursions Chesterton never could resist. In the last act, it curves into speculative fiction. The ambiguous ending is a small part of that; most of it is the mystery of the man called Sunday – the mystery not only of who he is, but what he is (“I am the Sabbath,” he tells an interrogator. “I am the peace of God”).

What the People Want

You have to take success where it comes, even if it happens to come on Netflix. That can be a little galling if what you really wanted was success on the silver screen, all across the United States. I learned that from Martin Scorsese, who has received a great deal of acclaim for The Irishman but wanted, in addition, a good, long theater run.

There was no room for him in the theater. This, at least, is Scorsese’s read on the situation. As he explained,

[T]he fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.

And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.

Scorsese is making two points here. Both are interesting; one is correct. He is saying, first of all, that franchise movies are not overwhelming our theaters because that is simply what people want. This statement rides on the implicit belief that the public taste is broader than that, that people can – and would, if Hollywood chose to offer them – enjoy films that break the ascendant formulas.

That belief does Scorsese credit. In the first place, it’s a compliment to his audience. In the second, it lays hands on a critical truth. Hollywood makes so much of its franchises and its formulas because they’re safe, not because they’re all the movie-going public wants. The studios are gambling millions on every film; naturally they are averse to unique formulations that have not been tested against public taste. But people are ready to enjoy, and to pay for, more than the current fads.

Still, it must be granted that the franchises and formulas are safe because people really do like them. Here we reach Scorsese’s second point. Scorsese argues that people want franchise films because they are given franchise films. No doubt Hollywood does help to create the demand it supplies. No doubt it doesn’t do so to the extent that Scorsese suggests. It is, as the cliche goes, a free country. The paying public is constantly allowing movies to hit the theater and flop. Why not the movies that so grieve cultured filmmakers?

Because people want those movies. At least, they want that sort of movie, and they will forgive failures in art to get it. This is a truth that critics, and artists with the souls of critics, have a tendency to miss: In terms of enjoyment, type matters as much as quality. If it’s comedy you want, then even bad comedy will do more for you than tragedy. The popularity of the franchise doesn’t prove that the movies are good. It doesn’t even prove that the public thinks the movies are good. But it does prove that the public wants them.

It is very profitable to find what people want and sell it to them. The whole aim of the franchise is to give the people what they want, and it hits the mark more often than not. Scorsese is wrong to believe that Hollywood creates the demand by supplying it. But he is right to believe that people want more than the franchise and the well-tried formula, that there is space yet for the different and bold. The public always holds surprises. You never know what people might like, or love, and even – for that is the way of things – turn into a new franchise.

A Cheerful Holiday

The New Year is a cheerful holiday. It’s more trifling, perhaps, than the sacred holidays and even weighty days of remembrance like Memorial Day and July Fourth. But if more trifling, it’s also lighter, and that also has its charm. The turn of the year is a hopeful time, turning people to the future, to dreams and wishes and resolutions. The New Year is so cheerful it is, in fact, almost sad. We are a little too eager to sweep up the old year and discard it.

Some more eager than others, of course. Still, no one’s happiness is so pure as to entirely exclude relief. Welcome the New Year, and good riddance to the old. Everyone likes New Year’s because the New Year is about change, and we could all use some of that.

The celebration of New Year’s is more free-form than that of other major holidays – and, let us add, more voluntary (another reason for its popularity!). Our society has only a few broadly established traditions. There is, of course, the ball drop in Times Square, which has a rich history and symbolism and, anyway, it’s sort of fun to watch heavy, glittering objects fall. We have our one certified New Year’s song, “Auld Lang Syne”. Admittedly, no one understands more than two lines of the song, and sometimes one suspects that there are only two lines. Nevertheless, it’s nostalgic.

Even more universal: New Year’s resolutions. I am firmly opposed to breaking New Year’s resolutions, which is why I never make them. And I already think of things I ought to do and then don’t do them, so it doesn’t really seem necessary as a holiday tradition. Many people do make New Year’s resolutions, though. Sometimes the same ones, year after year, because the idea is good even if the flesh is weak. New Year’s resolutions come from that sense of change, that same stirring of hope, that makes the holiday so attractive. In this manifestation, though, it is change from ourselves and even change of ourselves. Here is another truth we edge up to on New Year’s: We could all be better, all try harder.

We probably won’t, of course. That’s another truth we come up against, usually shortly after the New Year. But every holiday consists at least half in remembering, in certain realities brought to celebration and thus, perforce, to mind. And for all we know – for, though the world is old, it is still a place of miracle and wonder – we may even keep those New Year’s resolutions.

So Happy New Year. I hope that 2019 was good to you, and 2020 will be even better. I hope that you will have the change you want, and the change that you need, and that your heart will be refreshed as the new year brings us that much closer to the day when everything will be new.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

– Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows”

The All-Time Great

The western world has been determinedly turning out pop-culture Christmas stories for a solid 150 years. There is the classic It’s A Wonderful Life, the overrated Frosty the Snowman, and the classically overrated Gift of the Magi. But the best of them all – possibly even the first of them all – is A Christmas Carol. Its greatness is made of many parts; I will here name five of them.

The characters. Ebenezer Scrooge is immortal. Dickens sketches his portrait in sharp, strong strokes – the covetous old sinner – and embellishes it with detail and variegated colors. He’s triumphantly awful in the beginning, in an entertaining sort of way; his sympathetic side emerges as soon as the spirits do, because it is rather gaming of Scrooge to debate the ghost of Jacob Marley over whether it actually exists, and you must admire anyone who responds to a haunting with personal insults (“There is more of gravy than of the grave about you!”). The rest of the story effectively shows his souring and then his softening.

Other characters occupy their own territory in civilizational memory. Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future are chillingly evocative, and if Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim live under the accusation of being saccharine, they still live.

The writing. There are excellent film versions of A Christmas Carol, by which I primarily mean the one with George C. Scott. But the narrative and description of the written story are a delight that cannot be replicated in any movie. Dickens’ story breathes with color, wit, and feeling; he could – and did – describe an apple and give it character. If you can read Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Future without your blood being a little chilled, you were cold-blooded to begin with. If you can read his descriptions of food without getting hungry, you’re not even alive.

The supernatural character of the story. Technically, only Marley was a ghost. The other three were spirits. Still, the Ghost of Christmas Future is as harrowing an apparition as old Marley. A Christmas Carol is captivating in part because it seamlessly weaves Christmas story with ghost story, sentiment with horror. The story aims for the heart. It makes no qualms about playing on the nerves as well. A Christmas Carol creates, for its stage, a nexus of the spirit world and the world as humanity has made it – and it is unforgettable.

The sentiment. A Christmas Carol beats with sentiment – richly, warmly human sentiment. It ranges without shame from lunges at primal human sympathies to refined elocution. Tiny Tim is the height of the first; the second is scattered throughout the text, one of my favorite examples being the Ghost’s rebuke to Scrooge’s dismissal of the poor as surplus population: “Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

To be fair to Dickens, his sentiment was not entirely without a sterner note. Marley strikingly refused Scrooge’s plea for comfort: “I have none to give. It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”

Which is the sort of thing that really lets you know where you are in life.

The joy. I’ve written before how Scrooge’s cold heart is manifested in his joyless life, and his return to human sympathies is a return to fun. Scrooge is recalled to charity; he is also recalled to joy. One of the charms of A Christmas Carol is how innocently and wholeheartedly it rejoices in the material pleasures of Christmas. There is nothing ascetic or gloomy about its view. The story makes no difference between goodness and happiness, between high sentiment and simple pleasure. They flow simply, naturally together – and that is wonderfully attractive.

Frozen II: They Tried

Given Frozen‘s smashing success, and Disney’s philosophy regarding capitalization of past successes, Frozen II was almost a mathematical inevitability. Now the deed’s done and the movie’s out. The good news is, they tried.

Frozen II strikes out into new territory. It expands its world with history and with mythology, though with the inadvertent effect of making Arendelle look … small. (It is a question for political scientists: Can it be a kingdom if it can all fit on a cliff?) Frozen II wisely preserves Anna’s and Elsa’s gains. Their relationship, though not entirely seamless, is fully restored. Even their parents – who, with such loving intentions, almost destroyed their daughter in the first movie – are softened in this second telling with the emphasis that they really did love. In this way, Frozen II provides a welcome kind of catharsis for its predecessor.

At the same time, it moves the characters onward from their ending-places of the last film. The movie’s first song invokes a theme of change and the whole story plays out in deep autumn, the imagery of change. The autumn setting also allows a refreshed, brighter palette beyond the white and blue that dominated the first film. Indeed, the film’s strongest element is its visual artistry. So much of the movie – from the fall grandeur to the exploding magic of Ahtohallan – is a pleasure to behold. Other sequences stand out for their excellence – Elsa’s unburial of Ahtohallan‘s secrets, Olaf’s hilarious retelling of Frozen, Anna’s moment of resolution in crisis.

There is real merit in these scattered elements of Frozen II. But the story never unites them into a comprehensible whole. (Fair warning: From here on in, this review is replete with spoilers – but you don’t care, do you?) Magic heaves through the story, but there is no making sense of its operations. The magic slingshots, at the convenience of plot, from being wild and heedless, like a force of nature, to being focused and merciful, like a benevolent deity. This incoherence muddles the whole story. If Ahtohallan calls Elsa, why does it attempt to kill her for answering the call? If the Enchanted Forest hates the dam to the point of destroying Arendelle, why does it never have a go at destroying the dam itself? How does a person become a spirit?

The movie makes a great point of uncovering a painful family secret. The pain is largely mitigated, however, by two factors: (1) The secret principally involves dead people nobody cares about; (2) It is inexplicable. The skeleton in the royal closet is that Elsa’s grandfather treacherously gave unto the Enchanted Forest people … a dam. As treacherous gifts go, this lacks imagination; not a lot of subtlety is possible with a dam. And this wasn’t some cheap, logs-on-rocks dam. It was a stone behemoth. It was the Hoover Dam of vaguely magical, vaguely Scandinavian kingdoms. Its nature as a dam was exceedingly obvious. It should not have taken any strenuous mental exertion to forecast the result of the dam being a dam. Yet only by magic and near-death is the shocking secret exposed: The dam was a Trojan horse in that it blocked the water. I thought about this too long, and now it’s funny.

But Frozen II was made for children, and no doubt they like it better than I do. Frozen II has flares of creativity and even a kind of emotional wisdom. Its confused plot and incoherent mythology leave it uneven. Taken altogether (as all things must be), the movie is all right. Probably it is even good, if you spare it close examination and just enjoy it.

The Least Dangerous Men

Today’s subject is ghost stories, because ’tis the season.

Ghost stories would, under modern classification, be sorted into horror. But they inhabit the outer fringes of that category and have a stronghold in more reputable categories (see: Hamlet and A Christmas Carol). There is nothing niche about the ghost story. Ghosts are immemorial and omnipresent in human stories, older than writing and haunting every culture. They make the flesh crawl, whether you believe in them or not.

One peculiar aspect to the phenomenon of ghost stories is how little they have to do with the next world. As a matter of pure logic, ghost stories imply an immortality of the soul, even if a kind of immortality that no one wants. But immortality is for the living, and ghosts are nothing but dead. Ghost stories offer no glimpse of the other side. It is, after all, the special tragedy of ghosts that they don’t make it to the other side but linger, without point or place, on this one.

The potency of ghost stories comes from how simply, but powerfully, they play on human instincts about death. People enjoy ghost stories because (this is the kind of creatures we are) people are afraid of ghosts. And it’s a singular kind of fear, half nerves and half spiritual. C.S. Lewis defined the fear perfectly in The Problem of Pain – the strange fear we have of dead men who are, as he points out, “assuredly the least dangerous kind of men”:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told, “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread.

In Miracles, Lewis digs into the source, and meaning, of our fear of the dead:

It is idle to say that we dislike corpses because we are afraid of ghosts. You might say with equal truth that we fear ghosts because we dislike corpses – for the ghost owes much of its horror to the associated ideas of pallor, decay, coffins, shrouds, and worms. In reality we hate the division which makes possible the conception of either corpse or ghost. Because the thing ought not to be divided, each of the halves into which it falls by division is detestable. … [O]nce accept the Christian doctrine that man was originally a unity and that the present division is unnatural, and all the phenomena fall into place.

The existence of ghost stories tells us nothing about ourselves except that we have noticed that we die and wondered if something might survive. It is our reaction to ghost stories that is revelatory. It is the shudder, the flesh-crawling horror. It is the dread and the sense of the uncanny that show how instinctually and how inexplicably we feel about death, about the broken unity of a human being.

It’s not all grimness. Even ghost stories have their happy endings, or at least their hopeful ones – when the ghost is able to leave this world, to finally travel to the other side. And that also tells us something of ourselves, doesn’t it?

Four Classes

At the beginning of the summer, I was looking for a book of fairy tales to read, ideally one that included stories on which no Disney film has been based. I found Gertrude Landa’s Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, and I was enchanted.

This collection is charmingly fanciful, and at times playfully absurd. It is, moreover, unique in the different flavors of fairy tale it offers. The book is admirably broad-minded in its inspiration, drawing from Scripture and history and legend. I am going to briefly sum up the four classes of fairy tale in this book, prefaced by two observations. One of these is positive, and the other less so.

One, the book is unusually effective in merging religion with stories. I have tried to cipher out why the book succeeds as it does, and I think the fairy-tale form has a great deal to do with it. As fairy tales, these stories shrug off the burdens of detail and solemnity. They respect religion, yet treat it with lightness and frankness. This is certainly not the only way to treat religion, and probably not the best way, but it is an enjoyable way. Now, the second and negative observation: There is moral dissonance in the casual acceptance of slavery sometimes glimpsed in this book. It’s jarring, and in the most flagrant instance downright chilling.

And onto the four classes:

Secular. Although most of the fairy tales in this collection are religious to some degree, a minority makes nothing of religion, one way or another. Among these are some of the more lackluster offerings, such as “The Red Slipper” and “Abi Fressah’s Feast”. But this minority also includes the superior “The Princess in the Tower”, which is at once the most democratic and most effectively humorous tale in the collection.

Biblical. I use here a narrow definition to cover only those stories directly based on biblical narrative. Of course, directly based can still be loosely based, as many a Hollywood film has demonstrated. These are not Sunday-school stories. They only involve Sunday-school characters, drawing them out from the Bible and into a world of fancy. Thus Pharaoh suffers somewhat whimsically in “The Higgledy-Piggledy Palace” and David rides a unicorn in “From Shepherd-Boy to King”. Minor figures in Scripture are granted starring roles, though not to any glory. In “The Paradise in the Sea”, Hiram grows convinced of his own immortality – and deity.

Religious. Truthfully, most of the book could come under this heading. I use it in order to group the fairy tales that invoke religion without pirating the Bible. A representative example of this is the prophesying rabbi of “King for Three Days”. “The Rabbi’s Bogey-Man” is a more compelling instance, and the most imaginative is found in the synagogue in the heart of Ergetz, the land of demons, djinns, and fairies – for, it is explained, they also have all manner of religions. This tale, “The Fairy Princess of Ergetz”, is the best in the category and possibly the best in the book. In all these stories, there is no self-consciousness about religion, no sense of argument or defense. It simply is, like the sky.

Historical. A handful of the fairy tales play out in quasi-historical settings. “The Palace in the Clouds” occurs somewhat vaguely in Assyria; “The Pope’s Game of Chess” occurs much more definitely in Germany. But not too definitely. These are still fairy tales, and history is a source of invention rather than strict facts. “King Alexander’s Adventures” is the most striking example of the historical fairy tale, not least because in it, history so dizzingly meets religion and myth.

A Few Highlights

So you all know about Lorehaven, right? Great.

I began writing reviews for Lorehaven about two years ago. Lorehaven reviews are most often short, no more than 150 words, and their purpose is to help you know whether the book in question is the sort of thing you would like. Whether it is the sort of thing we would like is not of great interest. The necessary brevity, together with the desired objectivity, encourages a straightforward treatment: summary, strengths, weaknesses, conclusion – and no more than two or three sentences for each.

But I’ve been reflecting on the books I have had the opportunity to read and the privilege to review. I am going to highlight just a few, those that remain most vivid in my mind after the time that has passed. A couple of these overlap with genres, or subgenres, I don’t normally favor. This demonstrates that although the disadvantage of assigned books is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself, the advantage is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself.

The Red Rider, by Randall Allen Dunn. I am going to state right at the beginning that this one was too strong for my tastes. Yet it was striking, and memorable even after two years. This comes, I think, from three qualities: one, its perfect meshing of the fairy tale of Red Riding Hood with the legend of werewolves; two, its dark, dreamlike atmosphere – as if it is taking place not in our world but a worse version of it; three, the almost bizarre appropriateness of its horror elements. “Little Red Riding Hood” always was ghastly, you know.

Nick Newton Is Not a Genius, by S.E.M. Ishida. This brief novel is, technically, for children, and I won’t be backward in admitting that it matches its intended readers with a certain simplicity. But it is colorful and creative and utterly charming. Even the simplicity is played into a virtue. This world of robots and whimsy would not be nearly as much as fun if we had to enter it with the deadly seriousness of adults.

Journey Into Legend, by Henry Schreiner. This one is a throwback, and not only because it contains college students who write actual letters. The narrative – presented through diaries, letters, and other documents, its fantastical element fortified with science – is reminiscent of the great Victorian-era forays into science fiction. It’s magical realism, old-school.

Launch, by Jason Joyner. Have you ever noticed that if you squint, certain biblical figures – say, Elijah or Samson – might be superheroes, only with more religion and less spandex? This novel takes that idea out for a spin and proves it to be a lot of fun. It is also strikingly successful in creating, without artificiality or strain, the youthful, contemporaneous world of its teenage protagonists.

To Ashes We Run, by Just B. Jordan. The two greatest strengths of this novel – and you should understand that by greatest strengths, I mean the things that most appealed to me personally – are the world-building and the characters. I always find special appeal in fantasy worlds that can combine genuine mythos with a realistic consideration of politics and culture. I find even more appeal in any novel that feels, and causes me to feel, the lives and personalities of its characters.