Some of the best novel series understand that, in order to keep a fictional world interesting, they need to change or play with the genre in some way. A novel is never just science-fiction, it can be a mystery set in a science-fiction universe. Or the first novel can be hard science-fiction, where the second brings fantasy elements into the mix. With The Outlaw and the Upstart King, Rod Duncan’s follow up to last year’s steampunk adventure The Queen of all Crows, he takes readers away from his sci-fi Victorian setting and to somewhere new. The setting of this second novel resembles a more medieval, violent Arthurian wilderness with none of the first novel’s trappings of setting.
Not everyone reads books for romance or adventure. For every book with happy events and writing that makes you feel good, there are five more than plumb the depths of depravity. The horror stories, the mystery tales. These are the books one reads when they want to examine the darkness that can exist out there in the unknown. We read mysteries because we do not want to know everything, and we read horror because we want to be scared. These genres are often paired together in an unholy matrimony of darkness, decay, and eldritch scares. Horror and mystery combine perfectly for the simple reason that we do not know everything.
There are two Italies. There is the Italy seen by tourists on their trips to Rome, Venice, Florence, and the other northern cities. Then there is the Italy of the south. The old Italy, where modernity has not quite wormed its way throughout the towns and cities. Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia. This is the Italy most people never see, an Italy which you rarely see in movies and books. This is the only Italy, and the only part of the world, where you can see trulli, the conical houses unique to Puglia. Walking through the endless vineyards and olive groves, one never knows when they might stumble upon a crumbling, forgotten trullo. A piece of history. This an Italy which is steadily disappearing, and this is the Italy Francesco Dimitri shows in The Book of Hidden Things.
It is no secret that the United States of America is in a state of political and social turmoil, and has been in turmoil for the last 685 days. Elections have yielded unpredictable results; laws are being passed, rolled back, declared unconstitutional, or misinterpreted. Misunderstanding and misplaced anger are high and aimed at undeserving groups. Modern-day Nazis and white supremacists gathered en masse and walked through major cities. For a while, our world seemed to become worse. But, in the midst of the chaos, voices could be heard. Women stood up and declared, “Me Too.” Men and women alike huddled in front of computer screens, enraptured by The Handmaid’s Tale. Men and women gained the courage to stand up, let their voices be heard, and tell their stories. Sometimes it was about them, and sometimes it was about their characters.
The law of the United States of America is a fascinating beast. It shapes so much of our daily lives behind the scenes. Labor laws dictate how much workers may be paid and how often they may take a meal break. Financial laws are meant to ensure proper practices by the banks and large corporations. Criminal laws inform us what actions are illegal and what actions are perfectly accepted. However, the law is not always moral or proper. Laws exist criminalizing things which should be allowed, and actions which should be illegal are legal. Not too long ago, Canada legalized marijuana nation-wide, repealing laws whose original aid in racist paranoia. In the Unites States, it is still legal to secretly record conversations in most states. The legal thriller genre looks at the often-times ridiculousness of the law and uses it for inspiration.
Detective fiction is one of those genres most readers believe to be a modern invention, beginning with the Victorian publication of Sherlock Holmes. And, while Mr. Holmes certainly deserves credit for taking the genre mainstream, it’s origins may be found in much older stories. Chinese detective fiction may be traced back to the thirteenth century, while another detective story may be found in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Solving a mystery, collecting the clues, and trying to guess the ending is an unending fascination. Today, detective fiction is more popular than ever. There is an innate desire to solve the mystery before anyone else in every reader on this planet.
Science-fiction is everywhere, and one of the most present variations is that of military science-fiction. The audience can always tell when a story inhabits this genre. If it is a book, it is told in first-person. There will be several main characters, usually male of varying ethnicities, whose bond is like a brotherhood. There will be one female character, initially looked at with distrust, but eventually accepted as an equal with the original group. The genre is concerned with the role of the military. It will ultimately decide that force is not the right way forward, but force is required on occasion. The best of these stories will take all of what makes it military science-fiction and transcend them in some way. Most stories will not accomplish this. Most stories will be perfectly content to use the same, time-tested formula and craft and experience that is primarily fun to read.
Once upon a time, the stories we told were different. Meant to frighten children and teach important life lessons, these stories took on the shape of fairy tales. Stories warning us away from the monsters in the woods or training us to be wary of strangers riding into town with ill intent. These stories flourished in the darker reaches of Europe, where civilization was small and the lands were relatively lawless. But then, something happened. Time progressed, civilization grew. Suddenly, the forests were not quite so dark. The wolves were tamed and caged. The strangers could be identified with a picture or a fingerprint. Fairy tales faded and became sanitized, even if their essence remains relevant to this day.
The Witcher world, created by Andrzej Sapkowski, spans two collections of short stories, a five novel series, and a trilogy of video games. To even the most avid reader and gamer, this is a lot of story to consume. The series follows Geralt of Rivia. Geralt is a witcher, a type of human mutant, enhanced through magic and medicine to fight the monsters that plague the continent on which the tales take place. He is friends with a world-renowned poet and bar, the lover of a powerful sorceress, and adopted father of a princess without a kingdom.
There is a commonly agreed upon structure to modern storytelling. We learn about it in class and see it in books and movies, even if we do not understand how it works. First, we meet the characters. Stakes are established. There is a plot, driven by the wants of the various characters coming into conflict. The characters meet, exchange dialogue, and oppose one another. Most of the time, someone comes out on top, their wants overpowering the wants of their antagonist. Very rarely do stories stray from this template. In film we call in the three-act structure. Occasionally there are creators who do everything in their power to break tradition and give us something truly unique. Usually, those creators do not find an audience. Usually.