December 03, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part VI


Till We Have Faces (C. S. Lewis) - This is the timeless tale of two mortal princesses — one beautiful and one unattractive — and of the struggle between sacred and profane love. A reworking of the classical Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, it is the story of Orual, Psyche's embittered and ugly older sister, who possessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual's frustrations, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development. Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, Orual's struggles are illuminated as she learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods "till we have faces" and sincerity in our souls and selves.

C. S. Lewis wrote a lot of great books, and of course The Chronicles of Narnia were the favorites of my younger days and still rank very highly. Nevertheless, I consider this to be the best book Lewis ever wrote. It has a level of depth and maturity that his other fiction doesn't, and there is the added bonus of an extremely absorbing narrative which is naturally absent from his nonfiction theological works.

I've read this book three times now, always for a class, but always with great pleasure: first in about 9th grade (I think), second for the Inklings course I took during the fall of my sophomore year at LeTourneau, and most recently for a presentation and paper for my C. S. Lewis class. Each reading has provided me with a new angle of approach, and I am sure that they are many left to discover. Orual's story in part one is as exciting and suspenseful as anyone could wish for, and her epiphany in part two is one of Lewis's most emotionally and spiritually impacting passages, no matter how many times you've already read it.


Mila 18 (Leon Uris) - It was a time of crisis, a time of tragedy--and a time of transcendent courage and determination. This novel is set in the midst of the uprising that defied Nazi tyranny, as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto boldly met Wehrmacht tanks with homemade weapons and bare fists in a heroic effort to counter continued deportations to death camps.

I first discovered Leon Uris when I read Exodus, his novel of the tumultuous founding of the nation of Israel. After that I couldn't get enough of his historical fiction for awhile. I read Armageddon (The Berlin Airlift), Mitla Pass (The Six-Day War), QB VII (A British court case related to Nazi war crimes), and Mila 18 (The Warsaw Ghetto during World War II). Uris has a fascinating manner of making his fictional characters completely genuine by not only developing their personalities and personal histories, but giving them a fleshed-out past that goes back for generations. It is not uncommon for the story to digress for 50 to 100 pages while we get a fascinating and compelling account of the lives of the main characters' parents and grandparents. This is particularly important because his best work is centered around the Jews, where heritage is crucial. Leon Uris, even before Fiddler on the Roof introduced me to Jewish life in tsarist Russia, pogroms and all.

Mila 18 is an astoundingly moving read, where we know from the outset that most or all of the characters are doomed. It may be morbid of me (although I don't think that's it), but I never get tired of stories which treat on the contrasting depravity of Nazi Germany and the courage and fortitude of their victims during the Holocaust.


The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) - In these connected, chronological short stories are recorded the chronicles of Earth's settlement of the fourth world from the sun. Mars is a place of hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earthman conquers Mars . . . and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

Who cares if Bradbury writes of breathable air on Mars, an enormous and ancient telepathic civilization, or colonizing another planet beginning before the year 2000? That The Martian Chronicles has left the realm of science fiction and entered the realm of pure fantasy after several decades does not detract from the rich, deep quality of Bradbury's prose, or the power and fascination of his short stories. Fahrenheit 451 is the Bradbury book that everyone reads, but his best work, I think, is in his collections of short stories, most notably this one, The October Country and The Illustrated Man (not to ignore his beautiful novel Something Wicked This Way Comes).

Anyway, returning to the work at hand, the stories in this book embrace a broad range. There are funny stories, tragic stories, mystery and suspense stories, just plain weird stories . . . etc. The total effect produces a very satisfying and memorable experience, and I have revisited and even retold individual favorites from the collection a number of times.


A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin) - Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. Sparrowhawk becomes apprentice to a Master Wizard; but impatience to learn faster takes him far from home to Roke Island, where he enters the School for Wizards. As a student of magic, Sparrowhawk exceeds his years in accomplishment, but pride and jealousy drive the boy to try certain dangerous powers too soon. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.

I am quoted as having once said: "There are women who can write [high fantasy] and I'm sure I can think of one if I sit here long enough." The quote arose from a discussion of a particularly horrible fantasy short story I had been reading, by a female author, in which the main character (among other things) wandered around firing a longbow "from the hip." That's still one of the most asinine things I've ever seen in print, but it doesn't forgive the fact that I sat there for quite some time and didn't immediately come up with Ursula K. LeGuin, a shining beacon of the genre.

I snagged A Wizard of Earthsea on a whim from a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore in Antigua, Guatemala for Q19 (slightly less than $3 at the time), and proceeded to devour it that afternoon. The style and flow of LeGuin's writing is indescribably serene and beautiful. The world of her Earthsea series is a fascinating one, consisting of the Archipelago, hundreds of islands of all sizes scattered across thousands of miles and populated by all manner of peoples and cultures (and some dragons). There are no epic journeys by land in Earthsea, for there are no land masses large enough. Virtually all travel is by sea.

The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea also captivated me. I was often frustrated during The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings because Gandalf appears out of nowhere with no background or history, and often wanders away on dark and mysterious errands which the reader isn't allowed to know about. LeGuin's book is the exact opposite of this. The entire story follows the wizard character through his early life and training and on to his first great quest: to track and defeat the shadow he himself unleashed.

And this is only the first of six Earthsea books (although two had not yet been published when I discovered the series). LeGuin's other work is worth checking out as well, although I haven't read nearly all of it. Some of her books can be a bit hard to find, and others I just haven't gotten around to reading yet. Her science fiction is excellent, and her book Rocannon's World is a close second behind A Wizard of Earthsea.


The Icarus Hunt (Timothy Zahn) - Independent space shipper (smuggler) Jordan McKell accepts a contract to deliver a sealed cargo to Earth aboard a ship of unknown origin and dubious quality. After the suspicious death of a crew member and several attempts to "acquire" his cargo, McKell realizes that he has become the center of a conspiracy that pits him against the powerful race of aliens who control galactic trade and aspire to much more. With everyone in the galaxy looking for the Icarus, and an unknown saboteur amongst the crew, McKell begins to suspect that whatever he is caring may have the power to change the course of human history.

The Icarus Hunt is my self-indulgent (okay, who am I kidding? the whole list is self-indulgent) nod in the direction of pulpy, action-packed, contemporary science fiction. I read it during the first summer (of two) that I spent in Colorado Springs with my good friend Andy Winger . . . in fact, we read it concurrently, a chunk at a time, and had a grand time trying to figure out all of its twists and turns along the way.

Timothy Zahn is a fantastic author, and I first discovered him through the Star Wars books he had written (five at the time, if memory serves). I have since read eight or nine of his non-Star Wars books, with a few more waiting in the wings. No other sci-fi author that I have encountered has come up with more different original ideas than Zahn has. Almost every one of his books begins from scratch with a new vision of the galaxy. Once it was a world where all humans had extraordinary telekinetic powers . . . until the age of 12. Another time it was a black hole which emitted quantum particles that compel people to act ethically. A third book has humans as the late-comers to interstellar travel relegated to colonizing the few low-resource planets left . . . only to find themselves in possession of one that contains priceless ancient technologies buried beneath its surface.

But I digress. The Icarus Hunt is by far my favorite of Zahn's books, obviously, and I've made a number of people read it since I first completed it. Intricate plot twists fly successively thicker and faster as the story builds to a fever pitch, culminating in a climax which does not disappoint. With all this going for it, plus excellent characters and fun writing, this book was a must for my list.

To be continued . . .

Posted by Jared at December 3, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack