Monday, January 7, 2019

You Haven't Lived Until You've Read These Books

A few weeks ago, I finally read The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare after having successfully TBR-ed it for nearly ten years! This was after yet another student recommended it to me. Now teenagers often and easily talk in superlatives, yet this one clung to my mind like a fly in a web. She said: you haven't lived until you've read this series. Coming from a 10 year old, this statement earns a massive eye roll, yet... it got me thinking. Which books, to me, deserve this tag?

This post needs multiple disclaimers. First: Such lists are incredibly personal and there are many books I like simply because of my context, the memories that go hand in hand with reading them, the discussions they have led me to. I've tried to remain objective, here, and base my choices on ideas espoused within the books. It's been grueling, but these are big words to live up to. Each of these books has meant a lot to me, and I do hope that you discover a gem for yourself. Some day, I'll write a Part 2. For now - 


1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A part-sermon part-fantasy, this is my favourite book. I have never found it difficult to name one favourite book, because this has had a profound impact on the way I look at life, since the age of around twelve, when I read it. It's the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with nothing for company but the vast waters of the Pacific ocean... and, a tiger. A survival's tale which seems like an adventure but has terror brewing beneath the surface. It explores themes of spirituality, grief, dealing with crisis. It opens your mind to accepting abstract uncertainty, making you truly open-minded, and moreover, shows you that you have the power to write your own story, for better or for worse.

Favourite quote: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

2. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin 

A mind-bending science fiction tale of a human emissary to a planet where gender is not fixed for any individual; rather can be chosen and changed at will. Mating only happens at a certain time and it is then that different genders are taken on. To them, humans are a perversion, retaining their genders forever. Our protagonist, the emissary, must reconcile with these differences on his mission to establish diplomatic relations with this planet. The book puts a new turn on the psychology of identity, and how we see us and others in the context of gender. Gives you a new perspective altogether on humans; perhaps controversial, but definitely one that demands introspection.

Favourite quote: “A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

3. Ransom by David Malouf 

Myths have power, but this retelling shows you that the true power of story lies in the detail. A fragment of an incident transformed into a novella, Ransom describes an incident in the Trojan war - the moment when King Priam begs Achilles for his son Hector's body, and the war is momentarily put on hold for his funeral. Many life stories build up to this uncanny display of humanity.

The strange meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, at the centre of an unending war, is a beautiful study of men turned to figureheads at the hands of politics and war, and a mortal ambition to achieve immortality.

Favourite quote: We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us — with all of us, every one — and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another’s losses.

4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 

A neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer writes about death and what it means to be alive. We watch the irony unfold as someone who sees death on a daily basis ponders his own mortality. Through this memoir, born before his diagnosis, Kalanithi attempts to find the meaning of life. He discusses the point where philosophy and science intersect, as a man who intimately knows and loves both. He talks about the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. In a lucid and intellectual manner, this remarkable book says all the things we are afraid to think, and does so with a cutting clinical brilliance that only a doctor could manage. 

Favourite quote: Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

5. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, who received a letter from 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was a poet himself. He'd sent Rilke one of his poems to critique. Rilke refused, giving the young poet his first lesson, that a good poet does not base his poetry one someone else's appraisal. A short correspondence followed. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters sent by Rilke to Kappus. It is about everything and nothing, life advice from an old soul. A book I think is just mandatory to be read at a young age, but of course, even later in life, as you begin to identify more with the writer than the intended audience. 

Favourite quote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Which books would you qualify this way?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On silence and cacophonies, the changing face of horror and watching A Quiet Place

A lot of people are talking about Bird Box being similar to A Quiet Place. Now I haven't Bird Box, but this discussion was my excuse to return to the latter. I unearthed this post that I had written on  A Quiet Place. This post has been sitting in my drafts for a while now, let's drag it to the light of day...

One of the problems of watching a horror movie with friends, for me, has been that whole approach people have these days; of sitting on the edge of your seats, waiting to be scared. It's strange that a horror movie is judged by how many scenes make you jump - I've never heard of people watching a drama-tragedy and saying, "Well it was good, but it didn't make me cry enough." Even comedies are judged by more than the number of laughs they provide. Why then this narrow expectation of a genre that  deals with an intense primal emotion? There is more to fear than that. There has to be! 

Even so, most popular horror in television and cinema is awfully formulaic. Story, character and emotions are beside the point. What matters is how suddenly that chalky white face shows up on the screen or how the slimy hands grip the heroine from inside the mirror or the blood spatters and violence. The essence of the genre is lost in cheap tricks and manufactured thrills.

Horror can be more than ghosts. Think of Carrie. Late 70s, teenage girl, abused and bullied, gets supernatural powers and wreaks revenge...?  Many people would even reject labeling this as horror! But what do you find terrifying - a walking doll? Or how easily we inflict casual pain on fellow humans out of sheer spite? Who can forget that iconic scene from Carrie where the bucket of pig's blood is upturned on a girl's head; who could deny being scared by her disintegration? Carrie is torture, if you give in to the singular demand made by good movies and THINK about it. 




A Quiet Place is like that. It demands that you to think; and look beyond the regular and mundane expectations from a horror movie. It's not a study in jump-scares but rather a slow, psychological torture. The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world where alien monsters with hypersensitive hearing have wiped out the society. They attack at the slightest hint of a man-made sound and the only way to survive is to be totally and utterly silent. It is bang in the middle of this invasion that the movie begins. We meet a family, the only survivors in a deserted town; a couple and their three kids. They try to survive in this place while struggling to establish contact with the outside world. 

I'm a generally quiet person, but I can't imagine having to live without sound, without the comfort of my own voice - I realised as I watched this movie that I may not even be able to think properly if I didn't know what I sounded like. A new perspective on the word luxury, and privilege. One of the children in the surviving family in the movie is congenitally deaf and that gives her an excellent chance; the intrinsic formula of the world hasn't changed for her. The family in turn has the advantage of being fluent in sign language and that is one reason they stay connected through the events.  

A Quiet Place is certain of its scope - it's not an action movie or an alien invasion kind of sci-fi story. Where did the creatures come from, why is the Abbott family the only ones alive, what happened to the rest of the world - these are questions the movie will not attempt to answer. It has a narrower scope, in that it doesn't deal with politics or the anthropology of an apocalypse; rather uses that plot device to delve into our psychology. The Quiet Place takes you out of your daily comforts and plants you into a world that has unfair demands and constant threats. It's a movie about confronting the odds and facing fear.  It's about love ties and loyalties being tested. It's about the value of the smallest things we take for granted - simple things really, like a baby's laugh or a favourite piece of music.

Watching A Quiet Place in the cinemas enhanced the haunting effect the movie had on me. I'd never realised before just how noisy cinema halls are. People whooping, laughing, commenting; the odd mobile phone ringing, and god forbid, popcorn. Have you ever noticed how loud popcorn is? Everyone in the audience was utterly silent as we watched A Quiet Place. The movie was stripped of all noise and suddenly, like the characters and creatures of this world, we were also hypersensitive to noise. And that was the biggest show-stopping surprise the movie had to offer! 

Not only did it capture real horror, but it juxtaposed itself against regular thrills by taking away the one thing that the horror genre loves to exploit: sound effects. Horror as we know it now is all about sound. We all know and hate the anxiety-inducing murmur in a suspenseful scene, building up to a bang when a monster appears to scare us. Pennywise the Clown is made tenfold scarier by that raspy voice; I have goosebumps just typing about it. A quick search reveals many web pages about audio tricks  used in horror to scare the daylights out of you. And yet, A Quiet Place had nothing. And somehow, that was freakier than any sound effect. 

Reading Challenges for 2019

I have not been reading as much as I would like to ever since I got a job and got burdened with the pressure of becoming a proper adult. Even so, I made progress this year and forced myself to read not only 48 books, but a wide range of books. However, what I did not manage was to write the reviews for most of these books on the blog. I do want to focus on writing in 2019, among other things. I am not sure how much of that writing would be on the blog.

Even so, I have realised that something like a reading challenge (the Goodreads one in case of 2018) motivate me to make time for my favourite hobby. With this in mind, I've decided to sign up for some interesting reading challenges.

1. The 2019 Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight! The idea is to write at least ten bookish discussion posts on this blog.

2. Books 'n' Tunes Challenge - a fun little idea where you read books which match with songs or song titles.

3. Dancing with Fantasy and Sci-Fi Challenge - This reading challenge consists of 3 sections. Fantasy, Sci-Fi and General for a total of 52 prompts which comes down to about 1 book a week. I'm not sure if I'll attempt all three sections, perhaps only the first.

4. 2019 Retellings Challenge - I'm going for the 'Silent Assassin' category, which is to read 5 books. There's a bingo of course, so it'll be a fun way to introduce myself to books I wouldn't have otherwise read.

Even so, feels nice and comforting to make reading goals; nearly as much as it would to scramble at the last minute to finish them! If I do participate in any more event type of things, I'll add them to the list. Happy New Year!  

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Publishing a review that has been lounging in my drafts unnoticed:

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” 

Had you met me three years ago, you would have found me at the height of my Trojan War obsession. That was the time I devoured The Iliad and many retellings and novelettes based on the myths. The Odyssey did not capture my attention quite as much as the other Homeric epic, but I did read it, for the great beauty of verse that only the Robert Fitzgerald translation can offer.

I lost much of that rapture for these stories sometime in the last three years, and it was invigorating to revisit them with The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Ever since I finished reading it last night, I have been thinking about it - enough to burst into pressing soliloquies (speaking to myself, much like writing, helps me think) in the confines of my four walls. It's a cleverly written book, quite a Odysseus-like trickster in plot and wordsmithery.

The Penelopiad is the story of Odysseus and his wife Penelope through her eyes, instead of his. But get this - the story is set in present-day, when the Penelope has been dead for thousands of years and speaks to us from beyond the River Styx, from the netherworld of Hades. She has spent her time reassessing the events that took place before and following the now mythical Trojan War and she wants to get word out of what really happened: her defense. You see, Homer's Odyssey ends with great bloodshed, and among the dead are twelve of Penelope's maids, whose death Atwood feels was most unfair and offensive, and the one tragedy in the Odyssey that has gone ignored for too long.

The Odyssey begins after the Fall of Troy, when the Greeks have set sail for home. In the Odyssey, while Odysseus is on his way back to his land, Ithaca, his wife Penelope is coaxed by many suitors, young princes who wish to take advantage of the lonely woman and the treasures of the empire. Upon Odysseus's return, the suitors have gone too far, and raided the palace for food and spoils and have raped the maids and even tried to force themselves upon Penelope. He enters the palace disguised as a beggar, unbeknownst to even Penelope, outwits the suitors and wins her hand in marriage. He then orders them all to be killed. And, Penelope's maids, whom he believes to have been traitors in cahoots with the suitors, are hanged by Odysseus's son Telemachus, a meer teen at the time of these events.

These maids of Penelope sing of their plight and fling accusations at the heroes of the book, the author and history for forgetting about them. It is a tricky book, and the running chorus of the maids, which forms a large part of the book, is only one of its tricks. The maids sing their chorus in myriad forms - a folk song, ballad, iambic verse and so on. They say: 

we danced in air
our bare feet twitched 
it was not fair 
with every goddess, queen, and bitch 
from there to here you scratched your itch 
we did much less 
than what you did 
you judged us bad

With the Penelopiad, Atwood tries to add to the Homeric epics what time and the bard failed: women characters with some semblance of agency. In the original Iliad, Penelope waits and even her smallest attempts at cleverness fail - she does not recognize Odysseus, her own husband whom she's been awaiting, when he enters their palace. In this book, she does, but for reasons critical to Atwood's twist ending, chooses not to reveal this information. In Atwood's story, Penelope is not simply waiting, you see, but plotting her own way out of her dilemma. She's sent out search parties for Odysseus and has instructed her maids to work for her. It is unbeknownst to her that the maids are brutally murdered by Odysseus - and even now, centuries later, Penelope sits in the netherworld and repents for his actions. The maids still haunt her. 

This is one of the many misconceptions explained by Penelope of history as we know it. The other major discrepancy in historical writing is the innocence of Helen. In an at once dry, bitter and biting tone, Atwood's Penelope characterises Helen of Troy as a woman who uses her beauty to get away with anything. Helen is Penelope's cousin and in appearance, her complete opposite, strikingly attractive. Penelope also considers her vain and seeking the attention that men give her, basking in the wars she causes. Her unfairly strong condemnation of Helen is possibly her way of acquiring narrative justice, but also seems to show this spirit of feminine rivalry that Helen may have caused in the wake of her decisions. The epics only talk of the effect on men of Helen's beauty, we can only yet imagine the female perspective. Atwood has strong opinions on female relations. Even so, the flow of double-standards from Penelope's tongue is unpalatable. It surprises me that a book that heavily addresses the vulnerability of women in the time of men and gods has no sympathy for Helen. 

Another problem with the book is that I somehow don't buy it - while the epics do lack with women with any kind of active power, Penelope is one of the stronger prominent characters of Homer. I do not believe she needed an update. That said, The Penelopiad is somehow brilliantly written. The wry sarcastic sort of voice that I have somehow begun to associate with Atwood (though I've barely read two or three of her books) is interesting. It frequently elicited chuckles from me. And it definitely made me marvel at Atwood's clever use of narrative techniques. Would like to see the play some day!

All in all, an interesting book, but not nearly my favourite in the Canongate Myths series. I somewhere that Atwood was originally working on a retelling of the Norse myths for the same series. Glad she did not take it up. This is provided in the series by A.S. Byatt's retelling of the Norse apocalypse in the most brilliant and underrated book titled Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. A real treasure, that book is! My favourite myth retold though is not a Canongate book, but is Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, a retelling of Psyche and Cupid, from the point of view of Psyche's sister - a haunting tale. What about you? Any retellings of myths or fairy tales that you would recommend?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Synopsis: Two men find themselves on the banks of the river Seine one late night in Paris. Both are contemplating suicide, when they cross paths. One, Henry James, is a writer who has often faced depression and whose moderate success in writing has added to his melancholy. The second is an Englishman, who has realised that he may be fictional… Sherlock Holmes.

Neither succeeds in their goal of suicide as a mystery takes the unlikely pair to America – to find the real reason behind the supposed suicide of Clover Adams, the wife of one Henry Adams, historian and a friend of Henry James. This leads them to a maze of secrets and scandals within the high society. From Henry Adams and John Hey to a young Theodore Roosevelt, the narrative is rich with characters plucked out of history’s pages.

Even as James reluctantly allows Holmes to research his group of friends, he discovers that something sinister is brewing inside the mind of Sherlock Holmes – something that makes him question his very existence.

My Thoughts: The book is a bag of tricks. It aims to thrill, please, shock, astonish, but above all… it aims to puzzle. It wants you to scratch your head and wonder… in that sense alone, it is a successful mystery. The puzzle, though, of “How did Clover Adams die?” is the least important bit of the book. As is the case with, “Why is Sherlock Holmes in America?” The biggest mystery of the book that will have you scratching your chins is… “Is Sherlock Holmes fictional?” Wait, did I just say that? Is it possible then that Holmes is real? The book will turn the definition of “real” on its head. If all goes well, you'll find yourself chuckling at the existential meta-fiction Simmons has spun.

In what is perhaps the best and most self-aware conversation I have read in years, writer Henry James and a certain other literary figure chat about authors “losing” their characters and fiction taking on a life of its own even as it is being written. Simmons makes you understand what makes fiction so compelling and how stories are a blend of events woven together - so that they never start or end but are constantly rewritten from different contexts. He also presents the idea of an author playing god, and suffering the consequences of that self-granted sense of entitlement to play with people's stories.

"But we're God to the world and characters we create, James. And we plot against them all the time. We kill them off, maul and scare them, make them lose their hopes and dearest loves. We conspire against our characters daily... Don't you see, James? You and I are only minor characters in this story about the Great Detective. Our little lives and endings mean nothing to the God-Writer, whoever the sonofabitch might be."

I've not read many Sherlock Holmes spin-offs to compare and contrast; but I appreciate the point of view that is not as stifled as Watson's. James makes a refreshingly different foil to the detective. He packs more emotional insight into the story than any original Sherlock Holmes narrative. He is also not fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories - this addition compels Simmons to build a wonderful bridge between fantasy and reality.

Holmes tells us his versions of Watson's writings (the idea being that Watson likes to tidy up the narrative, remove inconsistencies and unpalatable oddities making the stories far more simpler than the original cases solved by them.) It's the stories of Sherlock Holmes taken a notch darker; delicious, if anything. There is a point in the story when James and Holmes sit crouched in a dark corner of a graveyard, each ruminating in his own way on death and personal loss, that sent chills down my spine.

We go into great depth about what makes America tick and James's national identity crisis. We look at James's minor literary successes and major literary plans, and watch through Simmons's lens as he plans to write The Turn of the Screw, a standout moment for me as that is literally the only novel I have read by James. This book functions as a kind of skewed biography of Henry James; I don't know how much was real but I do want to know more. The narrator appears often in first person, offering his view on the writing and nature of the book. He is cocky and seems to be having a great time telling the story - I wonder if that is Simmons himself, thoroughly enjoying his writing of the book.

America was a nation that refused to grow up. It was a perpetual baby, a vast, pink, fleshy toddler, now in possession of some terrible weapons it did not know how to hold properly, much less use properly.

A promising mystery, historical drama and a damn well written book... pick it up!
Finally, a review for the R.I.P. Challenge, just in the nick of time. Might even write one more before the end of the month! 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Books by my Favourite Authors I Still Haven't Read


This list includes book I've been meaning to pick up, books I have no intention of reading, and books that I'll eventually get around to reading. This does not (I repeat, does not) make me any less of a fan, mind you. (Sorry.)

1. Pelican Brief by John Grisham - I have wanted to read this book for an eternity. I was on high school when I first picked it up, but for some reason or the other, had to return it to the library. This topic is a happy reminder to pick it up. 

2. The Dark Tower series by Stephen King - The other day a certain someone told me I'm not a true SK fan until I read his "magnum opus." Naturally, I bristled. I like King for his characters, naturally, but I am somehow more drawn to horror.

3. Sandman by Neil Gaiman - My book club had a Gaiman-themed meetup once and that was the first time my curiosity about Sandman was piqued. Otherwise, I really don't consider myself a graphic novels-person. Appreciate the art, can't get into the read. 

4.  Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) - When I saw the topic, I thought to myself, surely there must be some Cormoran Strike novel out that I haven't read yet. Somehow these books never produced that urgency in me to pick up and read them. I will eventually read it. Meanwhile, desperately awaiting the Fantastic Beasts movie.

5. The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter - I have read about 35 of Pratchett's Discworld books (of around 50.) I read some non-Discworld stories before his death, including the beloved Good Omens. I do plan on finishing the series, am slowly relishing it. But now, since we lost him, I just can't bring myself to read a collaboration with another author.. in fact, part of which was published posthumously... there's something unsettling about it.

6. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain - This is a little silly of me. I love Mark Twain, have read quite a few of his books. I also enjoyed The Adventures of Huck Finn.. I just think I've crossed the window of life when I would have actually appreciated this book. There are other books by Twain I have yet to read, which I would like to (like Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc), and I don't see myself ever going back to Tom Sawyer.

7. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I keep meaning to pick this up. I love Ishiguro's style. I think his Englishness makes his Japanese-ness a tad less incomprehensible for me.. I'm more suited to his style of writing than any proper Japanese translation for instance. I would highly recommend An Artist of the Floating World to get a good taste of this mixed style I'm talking about... and Nocturnes (short story collection) for a snippet.

8. Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft - This one makes me laugh! I have no clue how I could have read so many stories by Lovecraft and somehow missed this. I know the story, naturally. In fact, you know what, let me go read it right away. This is awfully embarrassing.

9. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury - I've read his novels, his short stories, his book on writing advice and a fantabulous review of Dandelion Wine - but I have not been able to read beyond five pages of this book. I found it a bit to esoteric and lacking in those elements that I personally admire about Bradbury, but mostly, the book left me feeling in "the wrong place, at the wrong time." Have you ever felt that about a book? You can tell it is great, but exactly how is just out of reach... like it wasn't written for this version of you.

10. The Sundial by Shirley Jackson - I am not sure I get to claim Jackson as a favourite author when I have only read two of her books (but how delicious they were.) I really want to read The Sundial... I am convinced that it will leave as great an impression on me as We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

And that's it for today. If you haven't figured out, this post is part of the Top Ten Tuesday meme. Feels good to be back to blogging! Any books by favourite authors that still haven't made it to your shelf?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

On fantasy writing, immersive worlds and reading The Belgariad by David Eddings

“But there's a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what is possible and impossible?”

There should be a word for that feeling of utter joy and sheer satisfaction that comes with discovering a new fantasy series that is just right. And I have come to realize that "my type of fantasy" lies somewhere on the edge between middle grade and young adult. No Veronica Roth, Cassandra Clare, thank you very much, but of course, nothing overly childish either - coming-of-age stories, basically. His Dark Materials, Tiffany Aching, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Earthsea... you see my point? The Belgariad fits that requirement perfectly. It also has that epic quality that makes it even more attractive.

In this post, I mostly focus on the first book, Pawn of Prophecy. This is (a) to avoid spoilers (b) because the rest of the series is one continuous story cut into parts; whereas the first book is more or less standalone. At any rate, one book was enough to have me completely head over heels. So here's what it is about. 

Story: Prologue... The world was created by seven gods. One of the gods fashioned an orb which contained a living soul. Another god, Torak, attempted to steal this Orb but ended up being destroyed by it. Belgariad was a mighty sorcerer and a disciple of the God who created the Orb. Belgarath recovered the Orb from the evil Torak and, with his daughter Polgara, Belgarath has been protecting the Orb for centuries. 

In the present day, our protagonist, a young boy named Garion, lives on a farm with his Aunt Pol. He has lost both his parents and is unsure of his family history. One day, a mysterious storyteller called Mister Wolf arrives on their farm and warns Aunt Pol of a strange, important object that has been stolen. Much to Garion's surprise, Mister Wolf whisks them away on a quest to find this stolen object. And as the journey progresses, Garion begins to realize that Aunt Pol may not be who he thinks she is... Family secrets and buried mythologies surface as Garion starts to question his own fate.

Language: This book was written in 1982, which in Fantasy years is not that long ago. Of course, it's much before books like the Bartimaeus trilogy were penned, but around the same time as Ursula K Le Guin or Philip Pullman's writing. Naturally, the writing has a bit of that oldsy style; a little wordy and solemn... slightly dated if you will. The latest trend in coming-of-age fantasy seems to be this informal banter (think Rick Riordan), smug, sarcastic, conversational, school-kid-talk. With The Belgariad, I'm glad to read another children's book that speaks of childhood without trying to sound like a child.

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor's farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.”

World Building: What makes Neil Gaiman's writing so appealing? One reason is how he gives us brief, blurry-around-the-edges glimpses into his worlds. Carefully manicured scenes which give the faintest promise of wonders hidden behind his veils. With every new page you turn, you yearn more and more for those quick looks, begging him for scraps of new detail, which he gleefully provides peppered across the story. In her own way, J.K. Rowling also does that - that's why Pottermore still works or we rush to watch Fantastic Beasts and glow warmly when Hogwarts is mentioned. They let on just enough about their world that we are convinced it's complex, without ever letting on too much. It's an accomplished story telling skill. But it's not world building.

David Eddings does the opposite. While Rowling's world seems to grow even today and she piles more details every passing year - Eddings' world is all ready when he tells us this story. Each character has a story, a motive, a place in the world, or a conflict within himself - from the smallest shadow who passes by on the street to the many kings of the empires in this land, even his gods grieve and think and second guess and love - every character matters and earns your sympathy. The history is written. It is narrated throughout the story. And the detail makes it so that the world couldn't not exist. Incredibly immersive.

Characters: The characters - the hundreds of tonnes of characters - each have a distinct personality, and with it, a voice, which has so much to do with language. Wolf is old, cheeky, wise but has grown weary with age; Pol is a formidable creature but at once also motherly, caring, hence well respected; Garion is curious, innocent and as if on principal, good. Even supporting characters like Silk and Barak ooze their own drama and charm.

Initially, Eddings makes a biased narrator and it is quite clear whom you're expected to like. This is typical in fantasy, so commonplace that they're the norm... one might even consider it wrong to expect more? The characters of The Belgariad do grow over time and by the end of the series, context will turn these caricatures drawn from Book 1 meaningless.

(Bonus:  the book is also endlessly quotable.) 

“Little jobs require little men, and it's the little jobs that keep a kingdom running.”

“Why are the people all so unhappy?" he asked Mister Wolf. "They have a stern and demanding God," Wolf replied. "Which God is that?" Garion asked. "Money," Wolf said.”

“A day in which you learn something isn't a complete loss.”