The Farthest Shore: Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin

 

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Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is rebirth. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? –What is it but death—death without rebirth?

-Ursula K. Le Guin

There is a lot one could write about Ursula K. Le Guin. She was a trailblazer in so many aspects of her life. She was a woman science fiction and fantasy author in the sixties when the genres were dominated by male voices. She was a feminist, an activist, a philosopher. She wrote deep thoughtful books in ways that were both accessible and engaging. You could spend pages diving into any one of her novels or causes and only scratch the surface on her impact on literature and culture more broadly. But, today I want to talk about what Ms. Le Guin meant to me, because even though I never met her, she is one of the few authors I feel a personal connection with.

Deep relationships are formed over many years. The first time I read about Frodo and Sam, a boy of ten sitting with my father’s red leather-bound copy of The Lord of the Rings splayed enormously in my lap, they were just characters in a story. By the time I was fifteen, I read the stories, not to see how they ended, but to spend time with old friends. Every time I got to the end and Sam said, “Well, I’m back,” I knew that was just his way of saying good-bye.

Some books take longer for me to connect to, and some image-2will always remain remote. I could read Elric’s saga a thousand times and never find peace with his strange otherness. This separation between reader and subject is not uncommon. In most fantasy, strange creatures abide in strange worlds: orcs and elves and dwarves live in places where dragons fly and vast armies battle and mountains of doom smoke ominously. The Earthsea Trilogy is different. Great deeds are hinted at, but the real focus of the books is on the same struggles that regular people have to deal with every day: paying for your mistakes, discovering your place in the world and learning that it may shift underneath you at any moment, facing your own mortality.

I picked up my brother’s copy of A Wizard of Earthsea when I was eleven. It was a tumultuous time for me. My parents had just separated. After spending my elementary years in public school and attending church only on Christmas and Easter, I found myself enrolled in a Catholic private school where church and belief were mandatory. I was struggling in ways that were disorienting. Never having been in the principal’s office, I spent my first several months of school in constant trouble. It was nothing that legions of middle school kids haven’t faced before, but it was all new to me and seemed insurmountable. This was my life when I met Ged. I identified with him immediately. His joy in magic. His restlessness. His feelings of inadequacy. His need to prove himself. This was not some ancient wise man I could never aspire to be, like a Gandalf, but a young man who went to school and made mistakes and got in trouble. He was me, and he lived in a world and faced problems I could identify with.

If stories about young wizards going to school sounds familiar—cough, Harry Potter, cough—you can thank Ged, or more appropriately, Le Guin. Before she burst on scene with A Wizard of Earthsea, mages were almost universally old white men with beards and heroes were larger than life. Her works opened the door to fantasy heroes of any gender, any age, any color, and just as flawed, and weak, and, yes, mortal as we are. In fact, mortality is a theme that is woven through many of Le Guin’s books. We are introduced to that shadowed world and its low stone wall early in A Wizard of Earthsea, and we learn quickly that there are places even mages cannot go. In The Tombs of Atuan she tells us that there are beings that cannot die, but neither can they live. This idea, that death is necessary to the existence of life, is the theme at the heart of the last book in the Earthsea Trilogy: The Farthest Shore. It was a hard lesson to learn when I was young and very much frightened by the idea that our time on this Earth was limited, and I imagine it is a truth that will be harder to accept as I grow older and that end comes nearer. There is a Paul Simon verse from his song The Leaves That Are Green that runs around my head every time someone I feel a connection to dies:

Hello, Hello, Hello, Good-bye,

Good-bye, Good-bye, Good-bye,

That’s all there is.

And the leaves that are green turned to brown,

And they wither with the wind,

And they crumble in your hand.

In its brutal succinctness, it may be one of the most image-3despairing bits of poetry ever written. We are born, we connect ourselves to other people, and then they are taken away from us one by one. We lost Richard Adams in 2016, and I couldn’t help but be sad for Hazel and Pipkin, and all the rabbits of Watership Down. This summer, while I was in London, Michael Bond passed, and it seemed inconceivable that Paddington Bear’s creator was no longer with us. Now, I must say good-bye to Ms. Le Guin, the author that created one of my oldest and best friends. It would be easy to despair. Yet, in one of those strange coincidences that makes you wonder if serendipity and fate are not long-lost siblings, I have been reading the Earthsea Triology with my eleven-year-old for the past couple of months. We were about half-way through The Farthest Shore when we heard the news about Le Guin’s passing. That night we read the following passage:

I, who am old, who have done what I must do, who stand in the daylight facing my own death, the end of all possibility, I know that there is only one power that is real and worth the having. And that is the power, not to take, but to accept.

There is no way I could have said it better. Rest in peace, Ms. Le Guin. You will be missed. Now, I need to go and spend time with my old friend Ged. I understand that he and Tenar have some unfinished business to attend to on Gont. Some advice old friend, I think she’s a keeper!

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My First Princess

leiadeathstarShe was my first princess, and she is still the image I carry in my mind when the word princess arises in any context. The year was 1977 and I was eight when Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was released. I watched in awe as Princess Leia and Luke and Han and Chewie zoomed across the big screen. A few years later when The Empire Strikes Back was released I would learn that my heroes could be cut and they could bleed and they could lose, but in that first movie they seemed indestructible. Darth Vader couldn’t catch them. The trash compactor couldn’t smash them. No matter how many blasters were aimed at R2D2 none of them would ever hit him. And the Death Star… well let’s just say it was no match for my heroes.

94b47cde0eAs a little boy I identified with Luke—even though I really wished I could be as cool as Han. And, of course, I fell in love with Leia, and by extension, Carrie Fisher. She was beautiful to be sure, but she was far more than just beautiful. She was tough and sharp-tongued and quick-witted. She was a rebel bad-ass who could take it and dish it out with the best of them, and was also more than a fair-shot with a blaster. She survived the worst torture that Vader and that sinister, floating, needle-carrying bot could dish out, and still didn’t give up the location of the rebel base. She watched her planet get blown from existence and still did not break. Even after what must had been a soul-shattering experience she was game enough to carry-on. It was she, not Han or Luke, that led them to escape through the trash chute, and it was she that ultimately brought them and the plans to the rebels giving the galaxy that “one-in-a-million” chance to defeat the Empire. In other words, she was an ideal princess for a new age.

89013How appropriately ironic that this princess of mine would—Sleeping Beauty-like–slumber for thirty-two years only to awake again in the aptly named Force Awakens episode of the Star Wars saga to thrill us once more. And, if she was less prone to wise-cracks and swinging across chasms, then so was I. She may have been sadder and wiser, but she was still my princess, and every time she was on screen I was reveled in her presence there. I also knew more about her. From her many autobiographical books like Wishful Drinking, and semi-autobiographical books like Postcards From the Edge, I knew that Fisher herself embodied many of the traits I admired in Leia. As Brian Jay Jones wrote in his new biography, George Lucas: A Life, “Fisher had a wicked sense of humor and a foul mouth — fueled at times by a drug habit she managed to keep mostly hidden — and she had no trouble at all playing a tough-talking princess.” If anything, the knowledge that she, like so many, had struggled to find their place in the world, only helped to make her more real, and more identifiable.

carrie-fisher-in-star-warsToday my princess left this world. Like all great fairytale characters she will live on forever in the stories she left behind, and she will continue to bring joy to millions, but knowing this doesn’t make today feel any better. She was my princess, and I will miss her. Rest in Peace, Carrie. Wherever you are may you live happily ever after, and may the force be with you—always.

Into the Heart of the Dark Lord

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There are times that the inspiration of a story can be traced to a single point in time. Stephanie Meyer has revealed that her Twilight series was born from a dream in which she saw a person in a meadow who was “fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire.” Frankenstein is said to have resulted from a ghost story challenge among friends that itself arose from the boredom brought on by the extended winter of 1816. Most famously, Tolkien’s entire pantheon apparently sprung from a single sentence that popped into his head one day while grading English papers: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Unfortunately, I have no pithy way of explaining the germinating idea for my forthcoming fantasy novel The Dark Lord, because the novel itself is a kind of aggregation of a lifetime of influences.

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I was born into the world of the late-1960’s, and came of age as fantasy fiction (heralded by Tolkien’s works) emerged from the shadows and went mainstream. In my youth I marveled every time I read the slogan “Frodo lives” on the wall of a bathroom stall, and wondered why someone wouldn’t know that, but also how mean it was to give the ending away. From my earliest reading memories I can recall coveting my father’s beautiful green and red leather-bound Houghton Mifflin editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and though I know there are those that think it is sacrilege to actually read these volumes, from age 9 or 10 onward (as soon as my parents thought me responsible enough not to destroy them) my summer ritual involved reading both volumes cover to cover before school began again in the fall. And, Tolkien was just a gateway to an amazing run of fantasy literature authors like Le Guin, Pratchett, Eddings, Donaldson, Moorcock, McCaffery, Brooks, Jordan, Anthony, and so on that spanned my formative years.

An obsession with fantasy literature led me, as it did many children in the late 70’s and early 80’s, into the world of Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying. These games opened up another layer of fantasy culture to me. I would rush to the hobby shops each month (when I had a little money to spend) to find new supplements and adventures to buy (or at least covet). I thumbed through every issue of Dragon Magazine I could get my hands on trying to learn about the latest spells and the newest (and sometimes silliest) monsters until they literally disintegrated from over use. I went through reams of graph paper and graphite pencils designing my own nefarious dungeons and adventures, most of which never went off exactly the way I’d planned. And my friends and I spent late nights surrounded by well-worn dice simultaneously laughing over the preposterous situation presented by the module we were being run through, and simultaneously terrified that we wouldn’t survive it.

All of these influences over all those years went into writing The Dark Lord. The novel is my ode to the genre that has given me so much joy over the years, and springs from all those observations and questions any avid consumer of fantasy culture from the past forty years is bound to ask:

9aba1349ef67c173ec309480e38d64b4“Why does every world seem to have elves, and why are they always so much cooler than everyone else?”

“Why do dwarfs tend to drink so much? Is it an inherited trait, and if so should we try and get them some help?”

“Why don’t they print book covers like this anymore?”687474703a2f2f75706c6f61642e77696b696d656469612e6f72672f77696b6970656469612f656e2f632f63332f436f6e616e5f7468655f416476656e74757265722e6a7067

“Why are there so many underground tunnel systems of such immense complexity, and why are they so often filled with vicious monsters or diabolical traps or both?”

“Why must our heroes always have to venture through those aforementioned vast underground complexes to get whatever it is they are looking for, and why don’t the aforementioned monsters, being as greedy and seemingly amoral as they are, never seem to grab whatever it is the heroes are trying to get first?”

“Whatever you want to call him, her or it, whether that be Sauron or Torak or the Dark One or Lord Foul or Voldemort, who are these villains? What are their motives? Why do they so often like to live in tall dark towers and breed orcs or goblins or the like?”

And, of course the ultimate question, “Do they think they’re evil?”

With respect to this last question, I turn back to my earliest roots. Most people would consider Sauron to be a being of pure evil, but Tolkien himself did not. In his letters to his son the author wrote:

In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any ‘rational being’ is wholly evil. Satan fell. In my myth Morgoth fell before Creation of the physical world. In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.

In The Dark Lord I try to ask and answer as many of these questions as I can. And, I also ask a new question: What if Tolkien is right and all of it, all the bizarre magical rules and weird creatures, all the strange quests and legendary weapons with funny names, what if all the evil and strife suffered by all the inhabitants of all those imaginary worlds was less the result of a sociopathic mastermind, and more the product of someone trying to do the right thing very badly. Oh, and what if his name was Avery, and when he wasn’t terrorizing worlds he lived in a dorm with his best friend Eldrin (who is an elf, and really cool and beautiful… of course).

What is The Dark Lord?

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Fear The Dark Lord!

In less than a month, the ebook of The Dark Lord will be available (November 1st to be exact!) We are very excited, but we’ve also realized that other than the cover reveal, we haven’t posted much about it. Time to start fixing that…

The Dark Lord is the first of a new series where we have fun with epic fantasy, much in the way The Charming Tales twist fairy tales in amusing ways. It’s part Lord of the Rings, part Dungeons & Dragons, a touch of World of Warcraft, a hint of Magic: The Gathering, and a wee pinch of Amber, just for good measure. Oh, and college, because what better place for fantasy than a university?

Our protagonist, Avery, is a grad student at the mystical Mysterium University (worthy of its own blog post) attempting to complete his dissertation. He wants to take the sub-world of Trelari, a dimension of lesser reality and ‘innoculate’ it from the forces of evil. In order to do so, he uses himself as a vaccine. He becomes The Dark Lord, and unites all the powers of darkness. This inspires the forces of good to unite to oppose him and allows the Heroes of the Age to assemble and ‘defeat’ him. Good triumphs over evil and all is right with the world. Avery returns home and looks forward to his graduate degree. Life is good.

Until Avery succumbs to temptation and allows an undergrad to steal Trelari’s Key to Reality. When she enters the sub-world, Avery has to follow. His only true ally is his roommate Eldrin, and without the Key to Reality, he has to unite with the heroes who opposed him when he was The Dark Lord.

It’s a more serious novel than The Charming Tales, although it’s filled with some amusing characters including a Semi-Lich and the Master of Dungeons. There are also possibly gelatinous polygons. If you ever played fantasy roleplaying games or read epic fantasy, we hope that you’ll give the novel a try. You will laugh and probably reminisce quite a bit as you catch our references.

 

Once Upon a Time with… Liana Brooks!

decoherence-1Hi everyone! Today we have a special guest, Liana Brooks, author of the Time & Shadows trilogy. She’s one of our fellow Harper Voyager Impulse authors, and her third book, DECOHERENCE, was released today (September 13, 2016) – please note the amazing cover to the left. Liana is a California native living in Alaska, and we hear she has a really big dog.

So, let’s get started. What’s your “Once Upon a Time”? Tell us about your beginning as an author. Where did you live and what inspired you to write?

Once upon a time, there was a strange, fair-haired child living just north of the Mexican border. Her family spoke Spanish, and they loved to read. They read the strange little girl books by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. They filled her head with dragons and heroines.

Day by day, the strange little girl grew darker, and taller, and stranger. Until at last she was a dark-haired teenager living high in the Rocky Mountains, wearing flannel and a chain, and filling notebooks with stories about fiery queens who tamed dragons and spaceships. Continue reading