Tag Archives: fantasy

Fantastic Fantasists

In some previous stage of my theological thinking, I conceived of the spiritual realm as an arena essentially separate from the materiality of daily life. More recently, influenced by the writings of N.T. Wright among others, I have come to realize the significance of the existing Creation as part of God’s eternal grand design.

The new creation, Wright stresses, is not something that is “up there” or “out there.” It commenced here on Earth with Christ’s resurrection and will be fulfilled, here on Earth, at his return. The kingdom of heaven is not so much “other” as “more”—an unseen that includes and extends beyond observable reality.

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Fantasy in the Heartland: Lepunia, Kingdom of the Gallopers, by Kevin T. Ford

Lepunia will catch you up, carry you away, and set you down—right back in Kansas. But conveyed from a rabbit’s-eye view, it might as well be Oz. It was with some surprise that I realized, on reflection, that no magic takes place in these pages. None but that conjured by Ford’s lyrical descriptions. One part Narnia and one part Little House on the Prairie, Lepunia offers up an enchanted middle America peopled with rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, owls, prairie dogs, ferrets, and more. Cottonwoods, hills, lakes, and burrows become ancestral palaces and legendary landmarks, skillfully rendered in Michael Genova’s lavish sketches and eye-catching cover art.

In this first book of a planned trilogy, the curtain rises on the eve of Founding Day in the township of Lepunia (from the Latin lepus—hare). The festival marks not only the anniversary of the settlement but graduation from the academy for jackrabbit friends Lily, Fluff, and Jackson. Lily hopes to be admitted to the artists’ guild. Fluff expects to follow his father’s profession of baker. And the dearest desire of fleet-footed Jackson is induction into the Gallopers, an elite guard of jackrabbits tasked with defending the kingdom and conveying messages to its farthest reaches.

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A Wealth of Wit in a Straw House

Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue enthralled me when, early in 2021, I happened upon his meandering boyhood memoir of faith and family history. (Click here for that review.) Personal connections with the Persian speaking world heightened my interest in his account of his mother’s conversion to Christianity and their subsequent flight to the West. But more than regional interest engaged me.

Nayeri’s prose disclosed hope and humor in the grimmest of circumstances. My husband had just been diagnosed with cancer, and the pandemic was still in full force. Upon reading the final page of Everything Sad—the same day I started it—I went searching for more of Nayer’s work.

But aside from a few early reader chapter books, I found only the 2011 edition of Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow. Alas for me, I dismissed the collection of four novellas as unpromising, based on the spurious statistic of Amazon reviews (a mere twenty-five). But when Candlewick re-released the title in 2022 I decided it might merit further investigation. It did—and does.

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A Winter’s Promise, by Christelle Dabos

Two days after Christmas found me in a decided post-holiday slump. Inclement weather had foiled our holiday travel plans (along with those of half of North America), and we were home alone with a stretch of gray, unplanned days before us. Independent sources had recently recommended The Mirror Visitor Quartet to both my daughter and me. Since A Winter’s Promise offered the–well, promising–prospect of light, atmospheric, wintry fantasy, I ventured in.

The opening pages checked all a book-lover’s boxes: A young woman emerges from a wardrobe (well, a mirror in a wardrobe) into an archive housed in a bad-tempered old building. For added enchantment, the heroine, Ophelia, is a museum curator and wears a scarf possessed of its own animating spirit.

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The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The movie version of The Neverending Story was first introduced to me in the late 1980s by Anja, the German exchange student who lived with us during my junior year in high school. I didn’t realize at the time–though I should have–that the book behind the movie was originally written in German. And it wasn’t until my South African mom friend gave copies of the book to our mother-daughter book club this past Christmas that I acquainted myself with Ende’s now-classic 1979 work.

Confession: I didn’t love this book, though not for any easily identifiable reason. I didn’t find it objectionable. I simply suspect that, like Geoge MacDonald’s Phantastes, the somewhat meandering and seemingly haphazard nature of the narrative (particularly in part II) didn’t hold my interest.

However, I did love the discussion Ende’s novel engendered in our mother-daughter book club. The layered symbolism, moral dilemmas, and sometimes puzzling plot provide much to ponder, question, and debate. Given that The Neverending Story originated in the land of philosophers and fairytales, its success on these points isn’t too surprising.

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Winter Reading Roundup, Part III: Influential Firsts

Phantastes, by George MacDonald

The influence of this Scottish author and minister is most famously cited in connection with C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction. But George MacDonald (1824-1905) is often described as the father of modern fantasy and credited with inspiring a host of other early- and mid-twentieth century authors.

I have blogged elsewhere about the suitability of fairy stories for winter reading (click here for the post). December seemed a good time to commence my long-intended re-reading of MacDonald’s classic. When I first read Phantastes some thirty years ago, it left me, in the main, puzzled. Last fall I waded through The Faerie Queen (or rather, let all sixty hours of the audiobook wash over me). Despite my lamentable inattention to Spenser’s meandering masterpiece, familiarity with The Faerie Queen did enhance my appreciation for MacDonald’s imagery and the protagonist’s journey through faerieland.

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D, by Michel Faber

The hidden-picture nature of this engaging middle-grade novel accounts for some portion of its appeal: Can you spot the echoes of Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Lewis Carroll, and J.K. Rowling? (Not to mention a host of others with whom I’m likely unacquainted. Literary influences cited by the author alerted me to The Wonderful O, by James Thurber, which I plan to investigate soon.)

D’s protagonist, Dhikhilo, is the adopted daughter of a British couple who make limited appearances in the narrative. The fact that Dhikhilo is born in Somaliland and the presence of immigrants and travelers in her seaside town introduce a diversity theme that carries over into the fantasy realm of Liminus.

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The Rosemary Tree, by Elizabeth Goudge

Several years ago my daughter and I read Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946), said to be a childhood favorite of Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Goudge’s mix of whimsy, fantasy, and light-handed moralism intrigued me, as did her blend of Catholic and pagan imagery (not unlike C.S. Lewis’s employment of Greek mythology in The Chronicles of Narnia). Seeking more, I discovered Goudge (1900-1984) had written almost twenty adult novels, in addition to short stories and children’s books.

I decided on The Rosemary Tree (1954), a novel set in post-WWII England. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the protagonist is a mild-mannered minister–a kindhearted soul who doesn’t quite have a handle on family life. When a native son, back from the war, wanders onto the scene, John befriends him. Before long we learn this lost soul was once engaged to John’s wife.

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Once Upon a River, Part II: Reading in the Dark Season

You will never read a book about perfect people in a perfect world. If you happen to stumble upon and launch into such a book, I predict you will put it down by chapter 2, if not before.

But why, exactly, is that? If we long for world peace, why don’t we enjoy reading about it?

A thorough investigation of that question could fill volumes and venture into the realms of psychology, philosophy, and myth, among others. But one accessible explanation is that we need characters we can relate to. And none of us is perfect.

Certain masterpieces shock us with unapologetic images of human nature at its worst. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , William Golding’s Pincher Martin, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor come to mind. The latter wrote that to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

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Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, Part I

Fiction is my first love. Duty, however, seems to dictate my reading more often than preference. So when the opportunity to curl up with a work of fiction arises, the question of what to read is critical.

Not short story; I want the immersive experience of a novel. Not escapism; it’s like being given a satin sheet when I need a down blanket. But neither do I crave a burlap bag of rocks—nor even marble busts. One year I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in mid-winter. It’s a masterpiece. But I didn’t read the sequel, and since then I have carefully culled my cold-season reading to exclude war, politics, family drama, and apocalypse. Admittedly, that narrows the options considerably. But with millions of books in print, one must narrow the options or drown in the literary flood.

I began Once Upon a River, on the recommendation of my author aunt, in late August. The first chapters unsettled me. Not because the content was disturbing. But because the prose was too transporting, the river too alluring, and, above all, the characters too captivating.

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