The joy of reading strange new worlds.

The intention of fiction is to transport the reader to another world, a one that simply can’t exist in our real lives. Even contemporary or literary fiction exists in a fantastical bubble where lives and events follow narrative plot structures and (usually) the conclusion brings about some form of ending to the story. It is the simple joy of reading these tales that draws readers back to imagined worlds, or persuades them to open a new book in the hope of discovering a strange and new world.

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Consider genre fiction. There are many familiar worlds and locations to excite the imagination. From Narnia to Middle Earth, Hogwarts to Wonderland, these are familiar places. It is easy to find wonder in these safe and classical fantasy worlds. Strange forests inhabited by giant spiders, uncharted waters with lurking monsters and mystic misty mountains abound. The same is true for science fiction: Ringworld, Iain M Bank’s Culture universe, William Gibson’s cyber-punk future, and Wells’ far future of Morlocks and Eloi are amongst many imaginations worth repeated visitations.

Recently, and perhaps not coincidently, worlds familiar to our own yet unconventionally different from the classics have begun to emerge. These are new places in which to find pleasure, explore and to get lost in. Fresh and intriguing fantasy realms and potential futures. These are books so terrific that they stay with you long after the characters’ stories have concluded. You want the book to end so you can find out what happens but you never want to finish it! You won’t find the traditional tropes of genre fiction here.

Day FourSarah Lotz has created something exciting and innovative in her books The Three and Day Four. This is a universe very much like our own. It is familiar, yet just a degree or two off-centre. Events and people seem to be plausible. We have an evangelical cult and a spooky Japanese forest for example (The Three), and the cruise ship and the beach they find (Day Four) which are unsettling indeed. The fantastical elements don’t contain the ghosts of horror novels but the situations the characters find themselves in send shivers down your spine. There are no space ships but despite Lotz’s universe being just like our own, feels alien. Not in the way a traditional invasion story might feel, but something less tangible. In both novels, it is the pay-off in the endings that make the Lotz world such a fascinating place to visit.

The Golem and the DjinniWe think we know all about Golems and Djinns, but nothing can prepare you for the pure pleasure to be attained in Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. Published in 2013 and criminally under-read, it features both a 19th century New York where magic is real and a distinct, evocative Arabian imagination-scape. This isn’t the magic of traditional fantasy. There are no wizards with staffs and long, grey beards or teenagers with wands. This is an ancient magic. Real and steeped in tradition. The reader sees these versions of our world through the lonely eyes of Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni). These are characters of ancient civilisations. Whereas Middle Earth has a written history, The Golem and the Jinni has real mythology. It is hard not to read this in sepia imagination and, perhaps, some inherited understanding. Wecker portrays her world in such a way that despite the loneliness and tragedy, it’s a place you love to visit.

A different kind of Arabian fantasy is portrayed in G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. The fictional Middle-EasternAlif ‘City’ is a gateway, between the world that we think we know and the world of Islamic supernatural creatures and myths. The magic in Wilson’s story is almost that of technology. Imagine William Gibson’s Neuromancer with primeval spirits and vengeful jinn calling the shots. It is a blending of genres. You don’t readily find science fiction in fantasy novels and you rarely get wondrous mythological creatures in near-future cyberpunk. The journey through the City’s streets and alleys engenders a desire to visit somewhere like Cairo that you can almost taste the desert dust in your throat as you romp through the adventure.

You might say that Wilson’s is a new kind of urban fantasy, whereas Kate Griffin’s is a fresh take The Minority Councilon classic urban fantasy. Her Matthew Swift books (Madness of Angels, etc) are pure magic for anyone who has even lived in a dark and sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s walked home alone at night and heard that indescribably noise from just around the corner. Swift, the Midnight Mayor, uses the magic of the electric blue angels to conjure strange creatures and fight unearthly foes. Some of the expected elements are present and correct. Swift casts spells and recites chants. Monsters come and go. However, these are monsters made of grease and broken machines. These are spells made of the names and history and the very foundations of London. Stephen King’s Dark Tower and JRR Tolkien’s Barad-dûr and Orthanc are replaced with the likes of London’s iconic Centre Point and the Shard. If you are familiar with the reality of living in a dense urban landscape, visiting Griffin’s London is a rare and rewarding treat.

Station Eleven proof.inddA final nod in the direction of science fiction. Emily St. John Mandel is the recent winner of the Arthur C Clarke award for her brilliant Station Eleven. On the face of it, a post-apocalyptic journey with a rag-tag bunch of Shakespearian actors might not seem like a joyful read. While the characters are captivating and are enjoyable company to keep, it is the pre- and post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes that are fresh. You might be familiar with the idea of survivors carving niches for themselves in the remains of dying cities, but maybe not in the remnants of an average no-name airport close to the Great Lakes where a museum of relics crops up. Imagine a fantasy with a travelling troupe of mysterious performers or a magical dust-bowl Carnivàle and transport it to a world where the majority of humanity has died. These scenes are interspersed with (amongst others) live revolving around a theatre in Toronto. The juxtaposition works! While not as bleak as some (The Road for example) Mandel’s worlds have depth and realism not often found in this genre.

Finding yourself in one of these worlds and universes and others just like them, brought into being by such talent and imagination, is a rare gift and should be appreciated for what it is. Our real world can be tough to live in, and these escapes provide the highest of rewards. They educate and inform as well as entertain of course, but their primary purpose is pleasure. These fantasy and science fiction worlds don’t have wizards and aliens, mysterious apocalyptic diseases or quests for the magic MacGuffin, and are all the better for it. Joy is an apparent simple emotion but the enjoyment gained from these books, and others, is not readily quantifiable. It is easy to pick up a book and find yourself lost. And smiling.

Image credit: The Fire Dragon CC BY 2.0 by johanferreira15


The Joy of Reading The Golem and The Djinni

The Golem and the DjinniThis is not a review. This is not a critical analysis. This won’t have a plot outline or a critique of the writing; either its style, content or factual accuracy. It isn’t an examination of the themes or a plea for anyone else to read this book. There are dozens of great reviews of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Djinni out there. Go find some.

This is a celebration of reading really good book, one that speaks to its reader in a multitude of ways. I remember reading a few reviews and recommendations late last year and my curiosity was piqued. I like a bit of mythological fantasy and I enjoy simple but effective story-telling. So I put my reservation in at the library and waited. Or rather I didn’t. I simply ploughed on through the other books in my reading pile. In the last few months I’ve really got my reading mojo back thanks to Adam Roberts, Pierce Brown, Adam Christopher, Graham Joyce, Lauren Beukes, Neil Gaiman and others. The Golem and The Djinni crept to the front of the pile and I picked it up on 8 February. My edition was 486 pages long. I usually read between 200 and 300 pages of fiction a week. I also read comics and I’ve also got a non-fiction on the go at all times (in this case Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright). I finished The Golem and The Djinni on 17 February, reading all 486 pages in 9 days, not picking up Going Clear at all during this time, and only reading one comic.

Which is odd. Because The Golem and The Djinni is definitely a book to take your time over and savour. It is a book that you want to consume and digest. But also a book you want to keep reading -– all the time. Cliché’s are thus because they are true. For me, this was unputdownable (except when I was asleep). I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. I couldn’t wait until my lunch hour to get some reading in. I was annoyed when I had other things to do which blocked my path to the book.

Why did The Golem and The Djinni work for me? There are several reasons. First, the elegant writing. Then there are the interesting characters. No card-board cut-outs but well rounded characters, each with traits you can sympathise with, and all with many shades of grey. There are important texts and subtexts within the story. It is proper character driven narrative; simple but effective storytelling. Wecker doesn’t over-complicate things, despite a wealth of protagonists, each with a back-story and a fitting climax (except one, which I won’t spoil). The narrative takes its time. As it should. What you take from it is that she not only understands how it feels to be certain ways, to react to certain stimuli, and she understands how to put that understanding into a novel. Into a meaningful story. She has taken rivers of silk and weaved them into wonder; the ocean of a climax when they all come together in the end.

The Golem and The Djinni is about immigration and mythology, cultural clashes and acceptance. But it is also about conformity and choice within society. About fulfilling roles, especially those gender-specific ones. It is about fitting in when you don’t, about personal freedoms shackled by responsibility. Loneliness. Finding the other misfit and connecting because of your differences. Yet still feeling alone. The Golem is better in most ways than all those around her, yet must act less so. I feel many of these things that Wecker writes about and it is a joy to read them told with such thought-provoking characters and in an interesting universe, without laboured world-building. It is a book about what it means to live, to exist, to be a human. In some ways, this is a science fiction novel without the science fiction; they have themes in common – understanding humanity and its place in the world. The Golem and The Djinni is a book, a novel, a story that felt like it was written just for me (and I’m confident that others who have enjoyed it felt a similar personal connection), and that is the sign of a really good book.

The fantasy elements are neither here nor there in terms of the enjoyment. They are part of the narrative and they are devices that I particularly enjoy. That’s just a thing. But it’s the little touches that enhance my enjoyment – such as the fairy-tale animals The Djinni creates, or the imagery of the desert palace brought to the imagination with Wecker’s deft touch.

“A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction; the feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted; exultation of spirit; gladness, delight.” OED, 2014

Pleasure – to be gained in immersing yourself in Wecker’s world, and journeying along with the protagonists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Satisfaction – Wecker doesn’t let you down in terms of narrative, prose or character. The mythology fits with the story of immigration in America at the end of the 19th Century. The story satisfies with almost every aspect of its construction.

Delighted – to read such a well-written and entertaining book that also spoke to me personally.

Exultation of spirit – sometimes, and especially when I’ve read a boring or badly written or un-engaging book, I feel flat. What’s the point of all this fiction and storytelling malarkey? What’s the point of wasting hours on someone else’s poorly thought attempts at creativity? On the other-hand, when reading something like this, feelings of inspiration and positivity abound (even though the subtexts within the story generally reflect my negative view of society).

Glad – that I read The Golem and The Djinni and that it was written.

I wouldn’t say, however, that it was a brilliant book. It is not the book I expected. I thought it would be more of a straight forward urban fantasy. However… [Spoiler alert]. Now. I enjoyed the coda, and it made sense in terms of the story. However, it remained a fiction and produced the ending that the characters perhaps deserved. It wasn’t the one I wanted, me being me. I would have preferred an emotional wallop in the climax. I was hoping for something along the lines of the climax of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, when Will and Lyra realise that they must separate. But maybe that wasn’t what was required to conclude the story? What I took from this book is a great story minus the heart-wrench of reality (although it does mean that the main protagonist’s stories continue, either written or not). A personal shame, because The Golem and The Djinni is ‘only’ a really great book and a great read. But what a joy to read. And this is why I read. To enjoy a story and to take a deeper understanding of myself from it.