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My Survey of Necromancy in Fiction

March 19, 2018

This is a version of the paper I read at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, about all the fiction I’ve read featuring necromancy, reanimation, and resurrection.

Greater Than His Nature Will Allow: A Survey of Reanimation, Resurrection, and Necromancy in Fiction since Frankenstein by Jeanne Griggs

Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, says “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Victor’s warning to other would-be creators of life is based on two suppositions less familiar to us today than they were to readers in the early nineteenth century:
–That nature itself (or a nature-creating divinity) has intentions and goals.
–That humans are made in the image of God and are to rule the rest of creation.

Victor Frankenstein feels that he should not have tried to imitate the power that only God can properly employ to create life, and the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” indicates that Victor has stolen the power to create life. Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition denigrates the reanimation Victor manages as a “slight spark of life” which can only “mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

In subsequent works of fiction, mortals who dare to attempt the god-like power of resurrection suffer similar disappointment, finding that the re-created life is a corrupted version. For instance, at the end of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story “The Monkey’s Paw,” the protagonist realizes that the reanimated body of his son cannot possibly retain anything of the person he knew and loved. And in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 story “Herbert West—Reanimator,” repeated attempts to restart bodies produce increasingly horrifying results.

In the twentieth century, stories about created beings made of flesh and bone began to move away from science fiction and towards fantasy. They are less about human ambition and the search for forbidden knowledge, and more about magic and being born with the power to raise the dead.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1968 novel A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged has ambition–he is a seeker of knowledge who is drawn in by the use of dark magic he can’t control. He is the only one with the knowledge and talent necessary to repair the damage he has inflicted by letting an undead creature into the world of the living.

The seeker of knowledge who is drawn in by dark magic he can’t control is one of the main tropes of necromancy stories, from 1818 until today. While it sometimes has to do with the intellectual temptation of talking to the dead to find out about the afterlife, it’s also the impetus for the god-like thrill of re-animating dead bodies. Over-reachers who can’t resist the temptation to prove their mastery over death include the necromancer figure in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and LOTR, Lewis in Bellairs’ The House With a Clock in its Walls, Tammy in Martinez’s Gil’s All Fright Diner, Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, the ancient Grisha named Morozova in Bardugo’s YA novel Ruin and Rising, Paulsen in Gjevre’s Requiem in La Paz, and Jamie in Stephen King’s Revival. These are traditional necromancer figures, ones who find out, one way or another, that necromancy never pays.

But starting with Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, in 2009, we begin to get more first-person accounts of necromancy. We sympathize with Johannes Cabal and find out what drives him. In more recent YA novels featuring a traditional necromancer figure we see young people who have learned how to reanimate dead bodies struggling with the ethics of using their powers. In F.M. Boughan’s Cinderella Necromancer, we see a lonely young girl trying to resist using the full extent of her newly-discovered dark power. The young necromancer Finn Gramaraye in Randy Henderson’s YA novel Finn Fancy Necromancy also wrestles with the question of whether a necromancer can ever defeat death and mentions “Monkey Paw consequences.” Even when it’s clear that necromancy doesn’t pay, these YA stories offer their young necromancers a redemption arc if they can resist the temptation to see their power as unlimited.

An enduring trope of necromancy tales is the overwhelming desire of a lover or relative to bring the dead person back to life. The father in Pet Sematary, by Stephen King, wants his wife and son back so much that he ignores the horrible way his cat came back to life, hoping against hope that it will be different with the people he loves. Andrew, in Beuhlman’s The Necromancer’s House, literally sells his soul to the devil in order to continue living with his lover Sarah and their dog after they have died. The Jinni turns aside the wish of a little boy who wants his mother back in Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, because he knows what horrors such a wish can produce.

Another major trope of necromancy stories is the puppet master, who has the power to reanimate bodies and uses it to supply more bodies for war, the purposes of another (usually a boss or ruler), or his own profit. The Death-Lord Arawn uses the power of the black cauldron, in Lloyd Alexander’s story of that name, to supply bodies for a war. Piers Anthony’s Jonathan of Xanth and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen can raise and command obedience from the dead. The Purple Emperor of Herbie Brennan’s novel is raised from the dead in order to keep the crown prince from ascending to his throne. Hades raises undead warriors to fight for his side in Riordan’s The Last Olympian.

The puppet masters in more recent fiction have a few qualms about animating their undead puppets. Although it’s Anita Blake’s job to raise the dead in Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Vampire Hunter series, she objects to removing too much of their free will. The evil necromancers in Jim Butcher’s novel Dead Beat have no qualms, but his hero Harry has plenty, being undead himself. In Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, Karou’s foster father Brimstone didn’t have too many qualms about raising the souls of his dead people so they could continue fighting a generations-long war, but when Karou becomes the resurrectionist of her people, her friend exclaims “you’re freaking Frankenstein!” and Karou indicates that her creations have free will by saying “If a human created ‘life,’ there could be no soul, only a poor benighted monster with no place in the world” whereas “I have the souls already….I’m just making the bodies.”

Related to the puppet master trope is the idea of the undead creature as a chimera, put together from parts of different bodies and also an impossible or foolish fancy. Although in Shelley’s novel Victor Frankenstein uses alchemy to create his monster, subsequent versions of the story of Frankenstein’s monster present him as a creature stitched together out of parts of different bodies (an image that gets comic treatment in the 1974 movie Young Frankenstein). The demon in Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer keeps himself alive with body parts he takes from different victims, chosen for their arms or eyes or whatever part he needs next. The Whatsitsname in Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is also made and continually re-made from parts of bodies found blown up in the streets. Maggie Stiefvater’s hero Gansey is resurrected as The Raven King in a body miraculously patched together by a combination of nature and magic. Rather than a foolish fancy, Gansey’s resurrection is a necessary part of the power balance in his world.

Lust for power drives another common type of necromancer–the seeker of forbidden knowledge who keeps seeking because he or she wants to live forever. At first, the creatures created by these seekers exhibit a lack of soul or human feeling. They have no sense of agape, or love for fellow humans, like Frankenstein’s monster who says “if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.” Stoker’s Dracula preys on humans with no sign of remorse. Vampire stories often feature creatures who have no human feeling, like the vampires in Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

Other seekers of knowledge who want to live forever and exhibit a lack of human feeling include the Dark Magician Cob in LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore, Voldemort in Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and The Elementals in Francesca Lia Block’s book of that name. This kind of knowledge-seeker can also become a creature who possesses another in order to continue his own life, like Curwen in Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Ephraim Waite in Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and the demon who possesses Kate’s first husband Eric in Kenner’s Deja Demon.

Recent vampire stories usually twist this trope, featuring undead characters who want to live forever and can do it without much loss of human feeling and with very few adverse effects, like Rice’s vampire Lestat, Betsey and her vampire and werewolf friends in Davidson’s Undead and Unwed series, and members of the Cullen family in Meyer’s Twilight series.

Recent zombie stories also feature undead characters who exhibit no loss of human feeling, often because they played no part in their own reanimation. Like the vampire stories, many of these imagine happy endings for the originally-innocent monster like Frankenstein’s. The zombies in Waters’ Generation Dead are as bewildered about why they’ve come back to life as anyone else, and they struggle in a very human way with prejudice from the living—they prefer to be called “living impaired” or “differently biotic.” Carey’s Girl with all the Gifts, who doesn’t even know she’s a zombie at the beginning of the story, turns out to be a new and hardier kind of human, and is the key to the survival of a new kind of life on earth.

The girl in Wasserman’s Skinned, who wakes up to find that a download of her brain has been installed in an artificially-made but still flesh-and-blood body, exhibits no loss of human feeling. The long-dead general in Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, whose consciousness is downloaded by the main character, Cheris, helps his flesh-and-blood host assimilate some of his knowledge.

Many cyborg, robot, and Artificial Intelligence stories also show this progression away from an emphasis on the creator’s over-reaching or the creature’s lack of soul and towards an imagined happy ending for the brave new creature; this is still explored by science fiction writers today.

Fantasy writers usually head in a different direction. One of these is an increasingly common twist on the trope of the necromancer who is drawn in by the intellectual temptation of talking to the dead. The twist is that there’s a chosen one whose communication with a dead person results in that chosen one being compelled to continue a quest. The degree to which the living retain any free will varies. The people who work as “bodies” in Murphy’s novel The Possessions take a drug to summon the spirits of the dead so their loved ones can talk to them. Their job is set up to keep the dead from taking over the bodies of the living, but it turns out that someone else’s life can start to look good after they’ve lived it for long enough. Archivist Wasp, in Kornher-Stace’s novel of that name, survives by trying to get information from “ghosts.” When she succeeds, she is able to not only lay some of those ghosts to rest, but is armed with information that frees her from her former life. Mike, in Aric Davis’ A Good and Useful Hurt, gives himself a tattoo with ink that has ashes from the body of his murdered girlfriend and is then able to find her killer. Tara, who works for a necromantic firm in Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, finds that bringing a god back to life means derailing her own career in order to see the life she has brought back to the god take hold in her city. Even the quest of Odessa, a court necromancer in the kingdom of Karthia in Marsh’s Reign of the Fallen, is to find out who has turned her undead king into a “Shade,” making him unfit to continue his rule. Occasionally the quest is continued by the dead person himself, as in Amy Plum’s Die for Me, where a hero come mysteriously and spontaneously back to life so he can continue his heroic acts, saving good people who would otherwise die before their time.

Sometimes, in 21st century fiction, resurrection goes right–or at least not as wrong as when a person tries it–because it is performed by a god. This happens in Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, Hawkin’s 2015 novel The Library at Mount Char, and Drayden’s 2017 novel The Prey of Gods.

I think the culmination of the necromancy tropes in 21st-century fiction comes with novels in which the seeker for knowledge manages to contain dark knowledge or destroy dark magic. This happens in the comic YA novels by Lish McBride, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone. The hero, Sam, doesn’t even know he is a necromancer until he is visited by a scary-looking older guy who tells him that he is. When Sam confronts his mother, he finds out that she is a witch and was afraid of his powers when he was born, afraid enough to bind them. His quest is to decide how to act once his powers can no longer be hidden from the world by his mother’s protective spells. The main thing he does in the novel is loose the spirits that the older guy, the evil necromancer Douglas, had resurrected, so they can help him rid the world of Douglas. Between pop tunes used as chapter titles, references to pop culture, and a comic perspective on young adult life, this is a new treatment of the old tropes, showing that the modern way to dispel darkness is to laugh at it and try to fix what has been previously twisted by fear.

In the sequel, Necromancing the Stone, Sam and his supernatural teen friends learn how to incorporate their powers into everyday life. When his sister begs him to resurrect their dead father, Sam explains that “it doesn’t really seem right, calling him up for no reason. Kind of, I don’t know, disrespectful.” By the end, Sam gets a tattoo to remind himself of the distinction between good and evil use of his power. In this world where magic is real, the teenagers have to learn how to use it to produce good that can replace the evil of the past. Sam is not working against Nature, but trying to restore the balance of magic in his world.

The effort to contain dark knowledge also happens, in a more serious way, in Nick Harkaway’s latest novel Gnomon, a novel about the urge to resurrect a picture of the universe that includes a particular person—a longing so intense that the person who has been left alive will try to break the rules of the universe itself. Although the effect is metaphoric in the novel, the character with the most literal urge for resurrection is Athenais Karthogonensis, a 4th-century alchemist with a dead son. She often thinks about bringing things back from the dead, once even considering it to prevent the waste of a duck she had planned to cook, thinking she could “speak to the duck and make it fresh again, though always careful not to push too hard and bring it once again to life.” The alchemy of this novel, harkening back to Victor Frankenstein’s original area of study, is based on making the metaphor of resurrection literal, as “there’s a very real chance the basic unit of our universe is information. Meaning is as fundamental as matter.” What we think we know and want individually is just one piece in the larger picture of how we can function collectively, as a society.

All of these stories of “the modern Prometheus,” after Shelley’s, have increasingly contained a degree of postmodernist play on the horrors of alchemy or magic, which were originally thought to produce only “imperfect animation.” The creation of a simulacrum of a human has spawned more simulacra in a growing body of fictional treatments. Both the creator and the creature become chimera, composed of various parts from different films, drawings, songs, stories, and novels.


Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me

March 4, 2018

While putting off writing the talk I’m supposed to give on March 15, I read Andrew Santella’s book Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me. This is a book I recommend for the pleasure of the observations and connections, not because you’ll find any specific remedies for your procrastination habits. I received an advance copy from the publisher, Dey Street Books, because I’m kind of acquainted with the author through my friendship with his wife (although I’ve never met him in person). Now that I’ve read this charming little book, I wish I was better acquainted with him; he sounds like a fun person to have a drink with in New Orleans or London while avoiding whatever pressing business might have originally taken us there.

The first chapter is about the most common reason for procrastination that I know of– perfectionism. Santella relates the story of Darwin’s protracted study of barnacles during the twenty years following his groundbreaking work on natural selection “because Darwin, having made one of the great leaps of intellectual history, did something strange. He dropped the matter.” And as we all know, “there was always one more experiment to run, one more resource to check. And even when he did publish, he insisted on calling his epochal book [The Origin of Species] ‘an abstract,’ as if to apologize in advance should anyone find it incomplete.” With this story, Santella introduces what he calls “one of the most basic rules of procrastination: ‘Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.’” Certainly almost everyone does this (and all writers, including me, confess to it, as Santella points out). His research, he says, “turned up the same figures again and again: 20 percent of us are chronic procrastinators; a third of all American undergraduates call themselves severe procrastinators; 100 minutes of every workday are dithered away by workers.”

The little jokes along the way kept me reading, like when Santella says that going to talk to the world’s foremost authority on procrastination “about my love affair with procrastination was from the beginning fraught with difficulty, like scheduling an appointment with the family physician to discuss your plan to smoke an additional two packs a day.” Or when he observes, like Walker Percy’s hero in The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett, discovers, that “choice can also be a burden that weighs heavily” and concludes that “a to-do list is a menu, and in the depths of procrastination, what I really want is for the waiter to tell me what to order.”

The many observations about the sometimes-beneficial effects of procrastination also kept me going, like that one of the members of the Lichtenbergian Society (named in honor of an 18th-century thinker who “never seemed able to focus his energies”) succeeded in writing a chapter of the Tom Jones-esque novel their namesake had planned, one that “not only imitated Fielding’s ornate Georgian prose, but also worked in lyrics from “It’s Not Unusual” by the other Tom Jones, the Welsh pop star.” That’s exactly the kind of quality content that keeps me browsing the internet when I should be writing.

Of course, then I found a silly image on a friend’s FB page and then had to write a parody of one verse of the song “I feel you, Johanna” from Sweeney Todd while putting off writing this review: 28660765_2081018382173441_7484589965412601816_n


I peel you, banana
I peel you
do they think that skin can hide you?
even now you’re in my fingers
I am in the peel beside you
buried sweetly in your yellow flesh


In one of the final chapters of Soon, Santella connects a story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s procrastination in designing Fallingwater to his subsequent commission to design the Guggenheim museum in New York City, where the exhibition space is, famously, along a spiral ramp most of the size of the entire building. “For Wright,” he says, “the spiral was an image of aspiration and transcendence. On the other hand, the ramp at the Guggenheim works just as well in the other direction. It winds down; it dwindles. Either way the path is roundabout, like the epic hero’s (or like water going down a drain.) The procrastinator’s path is never a beeline, either. You turn away from one thing and toward another, and then back again a few more times. You make only gradual progress. You trust that knowledge can be won and desire satisfied by not seeking either.”

If you have something important to do, you’ll want to go out and get a copy of this book and read it instead. It won’t focus your mind on the task at hand, but will furnish your imagination with lots of interesting ideas, maybe even one that you need to pursue immediately.


North of Santa Monica

February 22, 2018

I’ve been traveling, as I usually do in February. The great thing is that it gets me out of cold and colorless Ohio. The less great thing is that I get exposed to germs from all over the country.

IMG_1098Ron had a meeting in Santa Monica, CA so I flew out there to do some sightseeing. As I emerged from the gate at LAX, I almost literally ran into an old friend waiting on a different flight in the same terminal, which was amazing to us both. On Friday afternoon, when Ron came to meet me on the Santa Monica pier, we gazed at the Pacific, sat outside at a restaurant, and wandered from the pier back along the beach towards our hotel. We saw people doing incredible feats of strength along one stretch of beach and got so interested we had to sit for a while and watch people practicing how to balance and walk on a rope (there was more than one rope).

IMG_1128We’d been to the art museum and seen the La Brea tar pits on a previous trip, so on this trip we drove over the Palisades, through Venice Beach (we saw the canals), down to Sunset Boulevard, through Hollywood and Laurel Canyon (where Robert Heinlein once lived), and up to Mulholland drive. We stopped and looked at some of the stars and handprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and had our photo taken on the stairway in front of the theater where the Oscars ceremony is held.

We saw orange trees and houses with really big doors. In fact, we saw the neighborhood where Steve Martin lived when he made the movie LA Story, with its regularly-spaced palm trees and sprinkler-green lawns.

Here’s a poem that describes this part of the country, by Carter Revard:

North of Santa Monica

It’s midnight in a drizzling fog
on Sunset Avenue and we are walking
through the scent of orange blossoms and past
a white camellia blown down or flung by someone
onto rainblack asphalt waiting
for the gray Mercedes sedan to run over
and smash its petals and leave us walking in
the smell of Diesel exhaust with
orange-blossom bouquet.

Where the next blue morning
and the gray Pacific meet
as the Palisades fall away
two sparrowhawks are beating
their tapered wings in place, watching
for jay or chewink to stray too far
from their thorny scrub to get back—
and the female suddenly towers,
her wings half-close and she stoops like
a dropping dagger, but down
the steep slope she rockets past them and turns
again into updraft to the clifftops to hover—
as the jay peers out through thorns,
and the lines of white surf whisper in.

IMG_1185Ron flew back to Ohio on Sunday, while a friend and I spent the day in LAX waiting on a flight to Hawaii (our Hawaiian Airlines flight was scheduled to leave at 10 am, but they finally put us on a Delta flight that left at 5:30 pm). It rained hard the evening we arrived and some of the next day, but after that it was beautiful for Waikiki beach, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, and a whale-watching boat ride (during which we didn’t see any whales, so we got a coupon to go back—I think this is an excellent reason to return).

IMG_1207The friend and I flew back on Thursday night and Friday, arriving in time to get a night’s sleep before my symphony concert on Saturday. Then I got in a week of work before all four of us—Ron, Walker and I from Ohio and Eleanor from North Carolina—flew to Missouri for Ron’s mother’s birthday celebration. She turned 81 (and got to wear a sombrero).

Now we are home again, here to stay for a while. I’m hoping I can get my stopped-up ears sorted out and my conference paper written before my next trip.


Reign of the Fallen

February 20, 2018

Reign of the Fallen, by Sarah Glenn March, is about Odessa and her partner Evander, necromancers who work for the King of Karthia, a King who has been ruling while dead for many years now in what he regards as a perfect and unchanging kingdom.

When Evander is killed by a “Shade,” one of the monstrous dead whose skin has been exposed, Odessa and her new partner, Evander’s sister Meredy, must find out who is behind the plot to make the dead appear fearsome so the Karthian people will try to stop the necromancers from raising any more dead.

I enjoyed the offhand way Odessa talks about necromancy—on the very first page she observes that “King Wylding always likes a sea view when we necromancers bring him back to life.”

Much of how necromancy works in this world is described briefly and early on, in a paragraph on page five:
“Dead princes and princesses, deceased dukes and their wives, and of course, Her Majesty. All brought back by necromancers so that those who know Karthia best can continue to run it the way they always have, each one wearing a dark shroud for the protection of living and Dead alike. If a living person were to see even a sliver of a Dead one’s flesh, the Dead person would become a Shade—a monster notoriously difficult to kill.”

There is a price for bringing the dead back to life, in this world:
“Entering the realm of death demands life….Death’s touch might mean you won’t bear children. Or it might mean that any seed planted by your hand will never grow. Or that blight will strike your fields. Or you might never be able to heal from sickness, or wounds.”
Even the necromancers eventually pay a price:
Necromancers like Evander and me can walk through the Deadlands without a cost, but not many realize the price we must pay later. When we die, our spirits never reach the Deadlands. We can raise the dead time and again, but no one will be able to give us a second chance at life.”

Odessa’s grief over Evander’s death is the focus of much of the story, making her question everything she thought was true about her job. She thinks of Evander saying “what we do—brings hope” and asserts that “our magic is love triumphing over death” but she also admits that “there’s no denying our magic can be deadly.” As well-delineated as her stages of grief are, the author lost me for a minute when Odessa declares “it should have been me who was decimated by that Shade” (since the word “decimated” means to reduce by ten–as in to kill off a proportion of an army–not to eliminate).

Odessa eventually figures out the mystery, which turns out to be fairly straightforward, as one of the royal heirs is trying to stir up trouble in order to convince the people that “the necromancers’ magic is a dark magic. A corruption of the natural order. The Dead belong in the Deadlands. And Karthia belongs to the living!”

Along the way she has to confront her own uncomfortable feelings about the risks of necromancy:
“None of the Dead want to become Shades and hurt the loved ones who sacrifice so much to bring them back, but…accidents happen. Accidents that could be prevented if the Dead stayed where they belong. If I quit doing the one thing I’ve trained most of my life to do.”

I like the twists–on young adult romance, with Odessa falling in love with another girl after the death of the boy she loved, and with the evils of necromancy revealed in traditional terms but with an emphasis on its influence on progress, rather than on a magician’s disproportionate use of dark magic.


A Decade of Necromancy Never Paying (“never? well, hardly ever”)

February 3, 2018


Books with necromancy . . . on my radar from February 3, 2008 until today.

In honor of a decade of what started out as–at least mostly–silliness, I am using my extensive list of books in which necromancy doesn’t pay as the basis for a survey of books (and stories) which feature the reanimation of dead bodies following the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’ll be delivering a talk on my survey at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts on March 15.

So please let me know if you’ve read anything that’s not on my list, particularly if it’s in what I sometimes call (after Gilbert and Sullivan’s captain of the Pinafore) the “what never? well, hardly ever” category (on the list I’ve called this section “fun with necromancy, reanimation, and resurrection”).


Daughter of Smoke & Bone Series

January 29, 2018

Acting on a hot tip I got from a reader about necromancy in the Laini Taylor series that begins with Daughter of Smoke and Bone, continues with Days of Blood and Starlight, and ends with Dreams of Gods and Monsters, I thoroughly enjoyed not only a long and well-told tale but one of the few direct references to Frankenstein I’ve found in books about the literal reanimation of dead bodies (I’m always looking for more, so please comment if you know a title that’s not already on my list of books in which necromancy never pays).

Even the first sentence of the first book surprised and delighted me, reading this in January:
“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seems like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark….”

I have to admit that I was not initially charmed by the appearance of what seemed to be a teenaged main character with the strange name of “Karou,” but the story won me over almost immediately, first by rhyming the second syllable of her name with Roo so I could at least pronounce it in my head, second by revealing that she was on her way to art school and already a high school graduate, and third by introducing me to the characters who turn out to be her family by showing me the sketches she draws of them. They are fantastical beasts, and when her friend Zuzana asks how she gets the ideas for these sketches, we are let in on the first of Karou’s secrets, although like her human friend, we don’t quite believe it at first:
“’How do you make this stuff up, maniac?” Zuzana asked, all jealous wonderment.
‘Who says I do? I keep telling you, it’s all real.’
‘Uh-huh. And your hair grows out of your head that color, too.’
‘What? It totally does,’ said Karou, passing a long blue strand through her fingers.
Karou shrugged and gathered her hair back in a messy coil, stabbing a paintbrush through it to secure it at the nape of her neck. In fact, her hair did grow out of her head that color, pure as ultramarine straight from the paint tube, but that was a truth she told with a certain wry smile, as if she were being absurd. Over the years she’d found out that was all it took, that lazy smile, and she could tell the truth without risk of being believed. It was easier than keeping track of lies, and so it became part of who she was: Karou with her wry smile and crazy imagination.”

There’s a scene in my favorite TV show, Supernatural, when an author calls one of his fans and tells her that he hasn’t been writing fiction, that “it’s all real.” Her response is “I knew it!” That’s what I thought of when I found that Karou’s blue hair and monster family are real.



The world-building is good, from the very beginning. Even though the monsters are real,
“It wasn’t like in the storybooks. No witches lurked at crossroads disguised as crones, waiting to reward travelers who shared their bread. Genies didn’t burst from lamps, and talking fish didn’t bargain for their lives. In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone’s shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn’t gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn’t souls, either. It was weirder than any of that.
It was teeth.”

It’s not until halfway through the first book that we begin to find out what Brimstone does with the teeth, and then we learn, with Karou, how he uses them to bring soldiers back from the dead so they can fight again another day.
“Brimstone was a resurrectionist.
He didn’t breathe life back into the torn bodies of the battle-slain; he made bodies. This was the magic wrought in the cathedral under the earth. Out of the merest relics—teeth—Brimstone conjured new bodies in which to sleeve the souls of slain warriors. In this way, the chimaera army held up, year after year, against the superior might of the angels.”

We find out that although Karous looks human in her present form, she is a resurrected chimaera, and her people are at war with the seraph people in a war-torn parallel world called Eretz. All through the first book, Karou has been meeting up with and falling in love with Akiva, who turns out to be a seraph. So their love story is set against a Montague vs Capulet situation in the first book, continues through the second, and is finally consummated at the end of the third.

The second book focuses on what Karou has to do as she takes over Brimstone’s job as the resurrectionist, and how Akiva and her human friends Zuzana and Mik help her. It’s Zuzana who says to her:
“’Holy hell, Karou. You’re making living things. You’re freaking Frankenstein!’
Karou laughed and shook her head. ‘No, I’m not.’ She’d had ample time to consider and discard that comparison. ‘The whole point with Frankenstein is where the soul comes from.’ If a human created ‘life,’ there could be no soul, only a poor benighted monster with no place in the world—or heaven or hell, either, if you were concerned about that, which Karou was not. ‘I have the souls already.’ She pointed to the pile of thuribles. ‘I’m just making the bodies.’”

In the third book, Karou and Akiva manage to bring an end to the war between chimaera and seraph. She says to him
“We have plenty of dead between us, but the way we act, you’d think they were corpses hanging on to our ankles, rather than souls freed to the elements….They’re gone, they can’t be hurt anymore, but we drag their memory around with us, doing our worst in their name, like it’s what they’d want, for us to avenge them? I can’t speak for all the dead, but I know it’s not what I wanted for you, when I died. And I know it’s not what Brimstone wanted for me, or for Eretz.”

There are lots of interesting characters and stories and sacrifices, including how a chimaera called Ziri wore a chimaera general’s body in order to turn the tide of the war and how Eliza, the decendant of a seraph called Elazael, passes on knowledge about the universe to prevent its destruction. There’s a lot about love and war; one of my favorite parts is when magical beings come to kill Akiva because he’s been unknowingly misusing magic, but when they arrive, invisible, they pause because “he smiled as though joy itself had just cornered him in the dark,” thinking it is Karou appearing behind him.

There are a number of conclusions to the tale. At the end of the third book, when Karou and Akiva finally get to the part where they “held on to each other and didn’t let go,” we’re told:
“It was not a happy ending, but a happy middle—at last, after so many fraught beginnings. Their story would be long. Much would be written of them, some of it in verse, some sung, and some in plain prose, in volumes to be penned for the archives of cities not yet built. Against Karou’s express wish, none of it would be dull.”

An easy and fun read for winter nights, this series is full of surprises and delights.


The Lies of Locke Lamora

January 21, 2018

A paperback copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, was the perfect airplane book for me over the holidays. A complicated crime caper, it was absorbing enough and long enough (719 pages) to keep me involved without the danger that I’d run out of book before the flights were done. I liked it so much I’ve procured a copy of the sequel for my next flight.

We meet the character who calls himself “Locke Lamora” as an orphaned child in a country called Camorr. Locke has proved himself too clever to work for the “Thiefmaker” and is being sold up the chain of very organized crime in this extremely brutal world. His story is told in chapters that alternate between what happened when he first joined the group of thieves with honor who call themselves the “Gentlemen Bastards” and what is happening as they have one of their biggest marks wriggling on the hook.

Locke is both sympathetic and admirable because he makes room for himself and those he loves in a world dominated by the rich and callous. He excels at playing various roles in order to extract money from the rich and unprincipled among the upper classes of Camorr. Readers are told details that the people he mingles with wouldn’t suspect, like that “Locke didn’t find it particularly easy to eat lunch while watching a dozen swimming men being pulled apart by a Jereshti devilfish, but he decided that his master merchant of Emberlain had probably seen worse, in his many imaginary sea voyages, and he kept his true feelings far from his face.”

One of the most delicious moments is when Locke, playing the role of one of an Imperial security branch called the “Midnighters,” breaks into the home of his current mark in order to warn him about…his own theft-in-process. Locke asks the mark to play along, explaining that it’s been impossible to catch the thieves because the other noble people who were robbed have been too embarrassed to admit what happened. He explains:
“Her ladyship the Dona Rosalina de Marre lost ten thousand crowns four years ago, in exchange for titles to upriver orchards that don’t exist….Don and Dona Feluccia lost twice as much two years ago. They thought they were financing a coup in Talisham that would have made the city a family estate….Last year…Don Javarriz paid fifteen thousand full crowns to a soothsayer who claimed to be able to restore the old man’s firstborn to life.”
You’d think the promise of necromancy would be a clue, wouldn’t you? But the mark, a lord called Salvara, is completely taken in.

Some of the seeming digressions, like an explanation of the results of burning “wraithstone,” on living creatures, turn out to be more important than readers suspect, at first. It’s more than just further evidence of the brutality of this society that results in us over-hearing Locke being told that “once, in the time of the Therin Throne, the process was used to punish criminals, but it has been centuries since any civilized Therin city-state allowed the use of Wraithstone on men and women. A society that still hangs children for petty theft and feeds prisoners to sea-creatures finds the results too disquieting to bear.”

Locke faces down other thieves, magicians, and all the assembled nobles of his society, although not without his own losses along the way.

The worldbuilding is detailed and interesting, revealing more than is needed for this particular story. There are tantalizing hints about an earlier society called the Eldren who left behind mysterious buildings filled with mysterious substances like “Elderglass” which is “proof against all human arts.”

And the cleverness of the story extends to humor, like at the end of a tense scene where one of the characters we care about seems to be in danger from a fencing teacher, who then turns around and informs him that
“those prancing little pants-wetters come here to learn the colorful and gentlemanly art of fencing, with its many sporting limitations and its proscriptions against dishonorable engagements.
You, on the other hand…you are going to learn how to kill men with a sword.’”

Readers get to learn all the complicated secrets and intrigues of Locke’s schemes, except for one final secret which Locke whispers to his friend Jean at the end, but no one else gets to hear.

There is a sequel, but this book has an absolutely smashing and satisfying ending all by itself, and my bet is that we don’t get to learn Locke’s final secret in the next one, either.

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