Standard Hero Behavior
by John David Anderson
Recommended Ages: 12+
Mason Quayle has the bad luck to be a bard in a land without heroes. It has been years since the city of Darlington, formerly known as Highsmith, has needed heroes to defend it against orcs, goblins, trolls, and the like. Or rather, it has only needed one hero: the Duke in whose honor the town was renamed. In return for crippling taxes, Duke Darlinger sallies forth every month or so, and comes back boasting of great deeds done in defense of his people.
The Duke already has a bard. So young Mason, whose father left Highsmith years ago with the last party of heroes, has nothing to do but mooch up and down the street lined with the abandoned mansions of bygone heroes, listen to his mother tell tales of his father's heroism, and compose ditties in honor of paying customers' daring deeds, such as shooing away a chipmunk. Things are even worse for Mason's best friend Cowel, whose blacksmith uncle is no longer needed to make armor and weapons, and whose career as a plume salesman is hampered by a shortage of helmets to stick plumes in. So even with the safety and security the Duke has brought to the town, life has become desperate for Mason and his mother, Cowel and his uncle, and others. They barely earn enough money to pay the Duke's taxes. Starvation approaches.
Finally Mason becomes so desperate that he risks his mother's disgust and decides to beg the Duke for a job. But he arrives at the castle just as the Duke finds out that a certain ogre chieftain, whom he has been paying off to leave Darlington alone, has been killed in a coup. The new chieftain demands more money than the Duke can possibly pay to continue the arrangement which has, without any heroism whatsoever, kept the town safe all these years. Someone needs to go out into the world and bring back as many heroes as possible, and with only three days left before the deadline. It's not going to be the Duke who goes, because he's a quivering wreck. That leaves Mason, mounted on a mild-mannered horse, accompanied by his friend Cowel, and guided by the wisdom of his father's magnum opus: an unfinished book titled Quayle's Guide to Adventure for the Unadventurous.
Mason does find some heroes, but he is disappointed to find how little they live up to his father's description of "Standard Hero Behavior." Some of them seem just plain useless, like the deadly swordsman who can only fight while he is sound asleep, but who cannot control when he sleeps or wakes. Some of them have settled down and sworn off the hero business. And some of the greatest heroes seem to have risked everything on one last, stupendously dangerous quest—and never returned. Mason and Cowel follow in their footsteps, meeting lots of interesting people, getting into numerous scrapes, and making discoveries that, at least in Mason's case, change everything he thought he knew about his father.
This 2007 adventure is, to-date, the only book published by its Indianapolis-based author. Nevertheless, it is an assured piece of writing, with endearing characters, memorably original fantasy concepts, warmth, romance, danger, sorrow, and a hearty helping of humor. The scene in which Mason consults a fortuneteller made me laugh so hard that I felt compelled to share it. (My mother has probably realized that I only call when I want to read aloud to someone.) And while a little sadness tinges the happy ending, there is one way author Anderson can turn some of that sadness into joy: Keep writing!
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+
In the first sentence of this book, Harry Dresden answers the phone and hears his half-vampire ex-girlfriend Susan say, "They've taken our daughter." Harry could well ask, "What daughter?" But he hardly needs to ask who took her. Susan has spent the past several years harassing the Red Court of vampires as a member of the Fellowship of St. Giles, an organization of half-turned, semi-immortal vigilantes whose super-strength and endless anger make the Irish Republican Army look like a knitting circle. Their energies are focused on Latin America, where the vampires—descended from the false gods of a Mayan blood cult—herd humans like cattle and maintain a reign of terror that puts the drug cartels in the shade. And Harry being Harry—a wizard, a private investigator, and an instinctive protector of women and children besides—he's not going to sit still and let the Reds have their way with his Maggie. Even if he hasn't met her yet.
But to save one girl from a literal army of monsters, including some of the most ancient powers of evil in this world, is going to take more than the power wielded by one wizard—even one as extraordinarily strong, brave, and lucky as Dresden. Harry will need to plead for help from pretty much every muscle he knows. Some of them will turn him down. He will learn who his true friends are. And he will go ahead, knowing that he may lose some of them in an all but hopeless attack on the heart of Red Court power. But once he learns that the vampires mean to sacrifice his daughter in a ritual to unleash deadly power, the odds no longer matter.
True to the book's title, Dresden's lifestyle and career undergo some major changes in this book. Since the beginning of this series, twelve books ago, he has had the same apartment, the same office, the same car. This is the installment in which he loses them all. His staff, his rod, almost everything he owns, even his cat, are no longer with him by the end of this book. He loses almost everything, and risks losing everyone. And above all, he could lose himself: for he can only succeed in his mission to save Maggie by making a Faustian bargain with the Queen of Air and Darkness.
Part of what makes this book especially thrilling, even by the usual standards of The Dresden Files, is the clear and present danger that everything and everyone in the series could change or go away forever. There is no safety net of a winning formula that will be back to normal at the start of the next book. In fact (not that I want to spoil the ending) you could turn the last page of this novel wondering whether there could be a next book. Be not afraid, however: a thirteenth book, Ghost Story, has been released; a fourteenth, Cold Days, is rumored to be in the works; and author Jim Butcher has said he has plans for a total of some twenty books in the series.
Far from the Madding Crowd
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 13+
Published in 1874 as an anonymous serial in a literary magazine, this was not Hardy's first novel, but it was the one whose success enabled him to pursue a full-time writing career. It is also the first book to take place in Hardy's imaginary county of Wessex, somewhere in the southwest of England. Its tale of a five-sided love triangle in a pastoral setting gave English lit some of its most enduring characters, and they apparently served as a template for the celebrated characters in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. It is a novel whose poetic diction and psychological depth qualify it as a great work of literature. Yet at the same time, its vivid depiction of setting and people, its dry humor and eye-moistening melodrama, its hints of classic tragedy and its daringly sympathetic depiction of a strong woman ahead of her time, and the agonizingly delayed fulfillment of the romantic promise hinted at in the first few pages, make it so much fun to read that you won't be put off by its literary merit.
Who are the sides of the love-pentangle I mentioned above? The most important two are Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak. We first meet them when the former is a beautiful, vain, strong-minded maid of 20 years, living with her aunt without a penny to her name; while the latter is a 28-year-old shepherd, just getting started as an independent farmer. After the girl saves the shepherd from being stifled to death, Farmer Oak decides to ask her to marry him. In one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever written, Bathsheba turns him down on the grounds that she is too wild, too independent, and never wants to be subject to a husband if she can help it. Oak accepts this with a good-natured stoicism that will surely go to your heart.
After some further reversals, Oak finds himself working as a shepherd on the farm inherited by Bathsheba. Now she is the independent one, and he is only a hired laborer. A lesser man would be embittered by this, but Oak proves himself one of the strongest, kindest, and most selflessly faithful heroes in ink. And this is in spite of Bathsheba being courted by a taciturn neighboring farmer named Boldwood (side 3), previously a confirmed bachelor whose peaceful existence is upended by a facetious valentine Bathsheba impulsively sends him. Boldwood conceives a passion for Bathsheba, a passion in every sense of the word: tormenting the man, body and soul, until it builds to an obsession and, inevitably, wreaks great destruction.
Side 4 of the love pentagon is a young sergeant in the army named Francis Troy, whose dashing looks and spirits captivate Bathsheba in a way no other man does. He, meanwhile, is so taken by her beauty that he jilts the love of his life (Side 5), a servant girl in Bathsheba's household named Fanny Robin. Actually you don't see a great deal of Fanny in the book, but she comes to the most pathetic end, and her death serves as the trigger for everything that happens in the final act of the book. The Troys' marriage falls apart. Her husband's presumed (but unproven) death leaves Bathsheba in miserable uncertainty. Boldwood's importunity becomes unbearable, forcing Bathsheba into a dilemma from which there seems to be no escape. Jealousy, rage, violence, and insanity complete the tragic tableau. And yet, all along, Gabriel Oak's self-denying faithfulness remains a constant. Or does it? One last test remains before the end.
The drama of all this is so compelling, and the way the people and places are described is so vivid and beautiful, that this does not seem at all like a long book. In fact, the characters—both major and minor—are drawn with such clarity that you may feel you know them personally, and care about them, and miss them when you close the book. It's the stuff that addictions are made of. So if you follow my recommendation and enjoy this book, you may feel a craving for more Hardy. To help you choose what to read next, other popular titles by this author include: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure.
Chasing the Moon
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 14+
Diana thinks she's found the perfect apartment. It's already furnished, exactly to her taste. Whatever she wants to eat magically materializes in the refrigerator. Plus, as long as she lives in it, she will neither age nor die. The part where it's all too good to be true is that she can never leave the apartment unless she opens a closet containing an otherworldly monster named Vom the Hungering, whose appetite is endless. Being eaten by Vom is the only way she can die. And taking that chance is the only way she can get out of the apartment.
It seems obvious at the outset that this is going to be a short novel. And it is rather short, but not for the obvious reason. Quite early in it, Diana does let Vom out—but instead of him eating her then and there, they work out an arrangement for living together as roommates. This turns out to be the first test of Diana's aptitude as a "warden" in an apartment building that bridges the space between realities where things are disturbingly different from back home. And it is the beginning of Diana's struggle to keep her world (and ours) from being torn to shreds by a plague of bizarre visitors from other dimensions, beings who so belong elsewhere that their presence bends our reality to the breaking point.
Some of those threats from beyond end up as additional roommates as Diana's apartment becomes more and more a refuge for misplaced monsters. There's the giant purple hedgehog who constantly spawns clones of himself, all different sizes; when stressed, he can quickly fill a room to the point of mutually assured suffocation. Then there's the giant, floating, tentacle-fringed eyeball who can shoot death rays out of his pupil. They aren't the only strange folks in the building either. The couple in Apartment 3 takes turns appearing in the form of a giant batlike creature. The stud in Apartment 2 lives in terror of the alien puppy-thing that sits guard outside his door. The building super, a hairy number named West, enlists Diana's aid in fixing the boiler to delay a future plague of giant insects who live backward in time. And there's also an apartment in which, from time to time, a bucket of fried chicken needs to be thrown into a bottomless pit in order to keep gravity online.
All this is disturbing enough, but as you learn long before Diana does, there's an even bigger threat to the way things in our world are supposed to work. A huge tentacly creature out of Norse mythology is trying to devour the moon. When it does, it could bring the end of the world. And nobody seems to want that more than a shapechanging cult of six-legged werewolves who worship a mild-mannered fellow named Calvin, who has been trapped on Earth for thousands of years. When Calvin decides it's time to go, the human race's time may be up. It depends on how he decides to go... and that depends, somewhat, on Diana.
When you've been reviewing the kind of books I have for as long as I have, you learn to take a weird opening sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter in stride. But nothing prepared me for the weirdness of the beginning of this book. It was so shockingly, disorientingly weird that I thought twice about continuing to read it. After a couple of chapters, however, I was so immersed in the book's steady procession of insane surprises and surprising insanities that I began to accept them as normal, textural features of a whimsical, chaotic world. Not that I was ever comfortable with them. I reckon this book hasn't done its job if it hasn't disturbed you with its dark, apocalyptic, yet at the same time zany worldview. It almost takes part in the Dadaist aesthetic, portraying our universe as a thin film of reality among an infinitely thick bundle of realities: a reality in which all meaning is essentially illusory, which is always in grave danger of being destroyed, and which only seems to be governed by consistent laws because of its (reality's) elastic way of snapping back to its original shape whenever something from outside stretches it. There are actually people who believe the laws of nature, as we know it, rest on such a flimsy foundation—and if their inner life is haunted by figments like the beings in this novel, I pity them.