Epic & Intimate: The Inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Toni Morrison

Two of my favorite fiction authors are J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. Besides both being British, their works are worlds apart, literally – one wrote epic, sprawling stories of the battle between good and evil, while the other wrote of small town families, romance, and culture in the Regency era. If Tolkien’s heroes failed, death and darkness would sweep across the land. If Austen’s heroes failed, a lady would be single at thirty. (The horror!)

As different as they are, I had a desire to blend the best of both genres. I didn’t think it’d be the most marketable book, but then, I also thought no one else would write this. That concept sparked the genesis of The Vermilion Riddle. I wanted an epic fantasy that was also character-driven and intimate. I love how Austen deftly explored familial and romantic relationships in the framework of her society, and I was curious to see how that would unfold in the context of a traditional fantasy. I shamelessly drew influence from the Regency era for parts of my story’s culture, simply because it’s got that quaint, cozy vibe, stored inside a broad, sweeping world. 

This is a snippet of what I wrote in my original query letter for The Vermilion Riddle: 

“While the novel evokes elements of classic fantasy—quests, duels, and the battle of good versus evil—it thrives on character exploration. The plot hums to the beat of a cosmic conflict and climax, though the struggles within a family—between fathers and sons, brothers by blood (and not), husband and wife—forms its core melody.”

When it came to the characters and relationships in the story, three questions framed my writing. 

What makes a strong, relatable, and feminine heroine?

What happens to brothers who are pitted against each other ideologically?

What does a love story that happens after marriage look like?

I did not know, concretely, the answer to any of these when I began, and Riddle was going to be my way of exploring them. In retrospect, I was in over my head. I’m not sure if I ever found totally satisfactory answers, but as I worked on the novel over the years, I felt the story mature quietly alongside of me. There were nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from life and other people that made their way into the story. There were also surprising insights that emerged from the characters as I was writing.

In the end, I wanted to write characters who, though born into another world, were achingly human. Though they chase ancient secrets and face the fury of the faerie-kind, they aren’t wrapped in an air of mythology that makes them feel far removed from us. They are the sort of people who could be legends – but a legend is usually formed in retrospect. They are like Merry and Pippin, hobbits who felt like useless baggage for much of their journey before they were hailed as heroes.

That’s what I strived for, at least – a story that’s epic yet intimate, that’s far-flung and yet close to home.

There was an alien wildness to it, as of a completely foreign world, but it was not without a touch of familiarity. It stirred up a strange mixture of nostalgia and mystery within her.

“Does this feel far from home?” Arthur asked softly.

“Yes,” she replied quietly, “and yet, no.”

The Vermilion Riddle

Photo by Sven Fischer on Unsplash.

Old-Fashioned Fantasy

I was a complete bookworm growing up, and I think being an only child fed that. I was shy, I had plenty of time, and I buried myself in stories. My parents would take me to libraries and bookshops where we could buy an entire bag of books for $5, which was a dream. I’m pretty sure I got mounds of obscure books no one has heard of. And while I happily read almost anything in my early years, I’ve forgotten most of them. There are just a few books that truly gripped me, sank into my soul, and made stories more than just a pleasurable way to pass the time.

It’s special to me that my first novel is a fantasy, since that’s the genre that hooked me on reading. I don’t read fantasy novels predominantly anymore – and some of my friends are surprised to know that I haven’t read some of the most popular contemporary fantasy authors, like Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin. Maybe it’s heretical for me to say, but I attempted The Way of Kings and Game of Thrones, but dropped them both. (I might give the former another chance, though). From the bits I read, I can’t deny that the world-building in both is stunning. But that’s never been the thing I loved most about fantasy.

The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books to capture my imagination. I didn’t knock on the back of my closet, hoping to find Narnia, simply because C.S. Lewis built an amazing world. Rather, it was because he peopled it with unforgettable characters. I remember how Aslan’s sacrifice struck me in the heart, how I wished for a friend like Lucy, how I hated but then grew to love Eustace, and how I adored Reepicheep and Puddleglum for their nobility and spunk. The world of Narnia gave them a place to come to life and flourish, but it was always the characters I loved most, imbued with such heart and personality.

Not surprisingly, The Lord of the Rings was my next great love (or obsession). My mom wanted to see the first film because she heard it was a classic, while I wondered how a story about jewelry could be anything but a snoozefest. I walked out of the theater totally enthralled, and hunted down the books so I could read them before the next movies came out. Undoubtedly, Tolkien created a rich world with different cultures, languages, and landscapes. He was a genre master. Peter S. Beagle called him a “colonizer of dreams.” As much as I would love to live in Rivendell or the Shire, it’s not the places themselves that inspired me most. It was the story of little hobbits shaking the fortresses of the mighty, a man of exile rising from the ashes to be king, and an unloved son who still loved his people to the bitter end.

Some might say these stories are old-fashioned. People are not so simple, so black-and-white. We love to explore characters who are gray, toeing the moral line. There’s a trend in contemporary fantasy towards dystopia, and morally questionable heroes. Fewer stories today make people say, “I want to live there with those people!” And they don’t all need to. But those are the books that won me over, and that’s the spirit I hope I capture in The Vermilion Riddle. 

I have some of those gray characters, and I try to dig into some of those hard questions about justice and revenge. The story is told from two characters’ point-of-views, and one of them is certainly not a hero. But by and large, The Vermilion Riddle is classic fantasy in its themes and morality.

You might call it old-fashioned. But like Phil Coulson tells Captain America: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash.

A Quiet, Creative Journey: Part II

Over two years, I wrote one of my more transparent posts about my writing journey. Forgive me for momentarily quoting myself:

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

Well, I didn’t end up with an agent for my novel, but I did sign a contract with a publisher! Thanks to the wonderful team at Mount Zion Ridge Press, my novel, The Vermilion Riddle, will be releasing in February 2022.

I’m amazed and grateful. It’s every writer’s dream come true, to imagine holding a copy of my book in my hands – and having it available for anyone to order. I also feel the weight of responsibility, thinking of putting my words into print. It really is Providence that I came across Mount Zion Ridge Press, a Christian publisher with a biblical worldview. I’m thrilled I get to work with them in editing my novel and making it ready for the world.

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

So, what’s next? Probably to the horror of many introverted writers, publishing involves a lot of marketing. I’m looking into starting a newsletter, setting up a Facebook page, and yes, writing more on Pen and Fire. I’ll be working on manuscript revisions over the next few months with my editor too. She’s been a real gift to me already, and I can’t wait to learn more from working with an industry professional.

Also, if you like what you’ve seen of my writing, if you enjoy classical character-driven fantasy, if you’re my friend, or if you want to help out a stranger on the Internet – I have an opportunity for you to get involved! I’ll be looking to build a “street team” of early readers who can commit to reading and reviewing my book before release. You can also help me promote and spread the word to your social circles. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

Watch this space for more updates soon on my publishing journey and The Vermilion Riddle!

S.D.G.

Made for Fans: A Reflection on Endgame and The Last Jedi

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If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, stop reading. Spoilers will follow!

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I don’t read the comics, but I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They built something magical over the last ten years, with a cast of oddball characters and films that crossed genres from space opera to spy thriller to high school dramas. The stories may continue indefinitely, but the curtains are closing on what (I predict) is the best run the MCU will have. I believe there’s plenty of potential to take existing and new characters in exciting directions, but the original cast of Avengers, helmed by Iron Man and Captain America, will be a tough one to top.

I went to see Endgame opening weekend, excited and somewhat surprised by how gushing the early reviews were. The expectations on this film were unbelievably high, and it had the difficult job of picking up after Infinity War’s mic drop and wrapping up the arcs of core characters. The opening sequence [spoilers are legitimately ahead so abort now], where Thor kills Thanos and there’s a five year time jump, reminded me of The Last Jedi in the subversion of expectations. (I could hear Luke’s voice: “This isn’t going to go the way you think.”) It felt like a concerted effort to make viewers realize this isn’t the movie they thought it would be. So, why was Endgame incredibly well-received, while The Last Jedi garnered so much backlash from fans (though critics applauded it as a brilliant film)?

Fan service? Pandering to the masses?

I don’t mean it as a negative thing. I loved Endgame. (But then, I’m a huge fan, and maybe it’s because I was pandered to…) While Endgame kicked off with an unlikely opening and came with its share of surprises, it undeniably was packed with throwbacks to fan favorites and easter eggs. They may or may not have really served the plot, but they certainly got cheers. There was a lot of speculation that they would employ time travel, which they did, and the time heist was a really fun romp, if you don’t think too hard about the logic. It did its job for the story (get the stones, reverse Thanos’ snap), but it definitely felt like a highlight reel of MCU’s Best Moments. Maybe minus Thor: Dark World. My favorite was Cap’s “hail hydra” in the elevator scene, reminiscent of Winter Soldier. Classic.

Endgame had it’s truly spectacular moments: when Cap gets Thor’s hammer, when the portals opened (Sam’s “on your left” was perfect) and everyone and their mother reappeared, and when Iron Man re-delivered his classic line before the snap. As apprehensive as I was about how they would close Tony and Steve’s stories, I thought the film did them both justice. In many ways, the two leading characters have had opposite arcs. Tony began as an egotistical, genius, playboy billionaire, and he ends with the greatest act of self-sacrifice. His off-script reveal of “I am Iron Man” at a press conference becomes a hero’s anthem. Steve began as a selfless soldier, a mascot of American ideal, and ran the serious risk of being a boring goody-two-shoes. His character arc has been one of my favorite parts of the Avengers’ stories. The core of who he is, selfless and noble, remains steadfast (and I love how they highlight that through his ability to wield Mjolnir). But he grows to be more than the face of a country or system that created him. When his convictions ran against the grain, he didn’t back down. His grand finale was a deeply personal choice, for himself rather than for the world. Just as “I am Iron Man” hearkened back to Iron Man 1, Steve’s ending closed the circle on Captain America 1. He’s a man of his word – and he made it back for his dance with Peggy.

However, Endgame was not the strongest Marvel movie in terms of story. It took a hit from having to close out many loose ends. In comparison, Infinity War pulled an even more massive cast together with a tighter plot. Endgame felt like it had multiple “starts” and multiple “endings.” Perhaps that was necessary and unavoidable, but it lacked the relentless forward drive of Infinity War and the narrative strength some of the best MCU films have brought, like Winter Soldier or Civil War. The core threading of the story was the time heist, which was more revisiting old turf than breaking new ground.

Unlike Endgame, The Last Jedi did no fan service. Or, if they tried to, it failed terribly. Star Wars fan were turned off, and a petition to remake and discount this as canon gathered steam (some people, like Steve and Nat, need to get a life). But I would argue, with general critical backing, that Last Jedi was a well-done story. The backlash wasn’t against a weak plot, but unmet expectations – Luke Skywalker wasn’t the hero we all wanted; Rey wasn’t a Skywalker, Solo, Kenobi, et al.; and Snoke was suddenly killed in the middle act of a trilogy. Personally, I loved the subverting of expectations: it’s a clever turn when you’re making a film that has every wild variation of Internet theories. People thought The Force Awakens was too similar to the original, but now they complain Last Jedi is not true to the spirit of Star Wars. You can’t have it both ways. Why not takes Star Wars down a new path?

Maybe it’s just me, but if you tell a solid story, I won’t complain because the characters didn’t become what I wanted. Luke is one of my favorite characters, and while I would’ve loved to see him bust off his island and take down the First Order, I believed in the direction they took his character. The nephew he trained turned into a monster, bringing back the shadow of Darth Vader. While The Force Awakens introduces Kylo Ren as the scion of the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, Last Jedi really explores the darkness that perpetually haunts the family, including Luke. In the originals, he was a hero, but he was also a whiny, impulsive farmboy. Now, he’s a legend to the next generation, but Last Jedi shows Rey and us that he’s human, and legends do not always match reality. This is a strange (maybe a stretch) comparison, but it reminds me of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. People hated what Harper Lee did to Atticus. While Mockingbird made Atticus a nigh untouchable hero, this second book’s protagonist was Scout, and she has to mature and learn that her heroes are fallible. Same goes for Rey in Last Jedi. It’s on her to pick up the mantel now.

The Last Jedi was an impressive follow-on to the first film. It pulls the mask back and digs hard into the characters. The backdrop of the film, like every Star Wars story, is still this fight between the good guys and bad guys. But this one begins to explore those shades of grey. The old Jedi Order is gone, and Luke has no interest in reviving it. Whether or not Kylo will ultimately have a redemption arc, the exploration of the light tempting someone in the dark is more nuanced in his character than it was in Vader’s. And the connection between him and Rey was one of the highlights of the film. Do you really care that they took some liberties with “the Force” to add this to the story? Last Jedi made some audacious moves in how it handled Star Wars. I’m ready to sacrifice some technicalities of Force powers to indulge a better plot and characters.

There’s not much of a thesis to all this – it’s just a reflection on some big films, a minor (major?) geek-fest, and an informal exploration of the intriguing parallels between and vastly different reactions to Endgame and Last Jedi.  Endgame is smart on its formula. It makes a decided effort to be unpredictable while giving fans what they want. The great thing about most Marvel movies is they have a keen sense of self-awareness – while the heist plot has its holes, they make fun of time travel movies enough that you cut them some slack. It’s like saying, “Don’t take this too seriously. Just laugh with us and accept it.” So we do.

Thanks for the great ride, Disney. Let’s hope you close out Star War IX strong too.

 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

A Quiet, Creative Journey

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Happy 2019! I know I’ve done a dismal job of blogging regularly, which I will try to improve upon. (I know what Yoda says about trying, but I have commitment issues and a day job). I did a fair amount of story writing last year but most of it was offline, and I prefer to use this space for actual writing instead of updates on what I’m writing. Unless something huge happens, i.e. I’m going to publish, I’m joining the Avengers, etc. However, since I’ve been quiet around here for awhile and we’re at the start of another year, I thought it’d be fitting to share a few highlights and reflections on the journey.

So, the highlights:

My science fiction / space opera novella, Pilot Tide, was a finalist in Rooglewood’s Five Poisoned Apples Snow White retelling contest. Even though I didn’t win, I got some great feedback from the judges, and it was just a fun story to write. I’m grateful to these contests for pushing me to create, with a deadline and a word limit. I’m also keeping an eye out for what I can do with this piece, because I don’t want it to die on my hard drive.

I published my first-ever piece in print and received an author payment for it! (Never mind that the $$ was about the cost of a salad where I live, and I promptly spent it plus some on buying print copies). While I prefer novels, I’ve come across some impressive flash fiction and I wanted to try my hand at it. I wish I discovered Splickety earlier; I just snuck into their last issue here. But it’s been reborn as Havok, an online flash fiction zine with a seasonal themes and a daily story. Check them out, especially if you like speculative fiction.

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

My current project is expanding my Beauty and the Beast novella retelling, a sci-fi political drama, into a novel. It’s turning out to be a pretty unabashed mashup of things I love, i.e. literary references, Mission Impossible-esque suspense scenes, sarcastic androids, lots of Chinese food, the enemies-to-friends-and-maybe-more trope, and space. I feel like I’m just having a personal nerd-fest writing this.

All in all, some of my key takeaways:

Half the battle of writing is perseverance. I made a resolution in 2018 to finish that novel after tinkering with it for a few years. I’m done now. It may still not see the light of day, but at least now, there’s a non-zero probability it might. I write very slowly, and it can be hard to see the glorious end (it felt that way a few chapters in, at the halfway mark, and even coming to the final chapter). But every bit is progress. I learned to think of each chapter as a meaningful vignette that could stand on its own: each one needed to have its own kind of impact, whether it was in quiet character development or high-stakes action. In that way, each chapter felt like the birth of a mini-story rather than a mere tick mark in a long slog to the finish line.

The discipline of writing demands balance. As much as I joke that I’d throw in the towel on my current career if I could publish a bestseller, I don’t think I would. I’d go crazy writing full-time. I write in spurts – most recently, I spent an afternoon at the library, lost in a short story I was working on. If someone stole my stuff, I may not have noticed. Then, I go a few weeks without time or motivation to write. And I’m grateful that I can’t sit around, paralyzed, waiting for inspiration to strike. I need to go to work and be productive. I enjoy writing as side pursuit, where it’s one, but not the only, outlet for creative energy. Also, I have found that as much as good books have taught me about sharp writing and human hearts, I have learned more through experiencing life in the world – through soul-baring hours of conversation, tasting foreign cultures, navigating office politics. More than handbook theories, a real, earthy zest for life gives a writer a fuller voice and better stories.

Everyone says writers need thick skin because you’ll get a lot of rejections. Honestly, I think stepping out your front door in our crazy world requires thick skin. But point taken. Rejection always stings, but I probably haven’t felt that to its greatest extent because 1) I haven’t submitted that much writing to that many places, and 2) I’m not depending on this to pay any bills. It’s less the rejections, and more my limitations, that have been teaching me humility. It takes maturity and plain life experience to be capable of writing certain topics well. When I was working on my fantasy novel, there were many moments I felt like I was writing out of my depth, wrestling with how to handle certain themes or relationships and do them justice. Give me twenty more years of life on earth and I could probably do this better. A realistic acknowledgment of what I’m capable of and not is humbling. Though I would never have the audacity to say (or believe!) that I have some story or idea inside me (an average, twenty-something girl who used to win a lot at Never Have I Ever) that is genius, I find my inherent pride grasping for that greatness.

But for the most part, I’d be pretty happy if I wrote something enjoyable and not cringe-worthy. Plus points if it makes you think a bit or inspires you a smidgen. I’m not going to be Tolkien, or Lewis, or Jane Austen. Even a hundred years won’t fix that, and that’s totally fine.

In the end, I write for the thrill of it. A few years ago, I wrote this in my journal: “I once used words to soothe my loneliness. I once used words to prove my worth. Today, I want to use words to set the world ablaze with the glory of eternal things.”

Okay, I occasionally get overly dramatic.

But I still resonate with that. I have learned that our employment of words is a stewardship. Like an adept swordsman can use his skill to either cut down or defend the weak, a wordsmith wields similar power. Words weave stories, and of the many reasons I am convinced about the truth of the Gospel of Christ, one of the main ones is the power of story. We did not come from a vacuum, sprung into a meaningless existence. God has made us for Himself, and the stories we tell, though tarnished by our sinfulness and framed in the context of the Curse, still echo His eternal story: creation, fall, redemption, renewal. Some of our stories are more original than others, but they are ultimately all remixes. Only God creates ex nihilo, and we are imaging his inexhaustible creativity in our finite imaginations, building from the dirt and words and reality He has given to us.

So what’s your story?

 

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Canary in the Media Mine

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Is it irony or self-awareness that much of Silicon Valley is enamored with a show about techno-paranoia? The genius of Black Mirror lies in its presentation of dystopias that are terrifyingly close to reality. Each episode combines technology that’s almost arrived with the dark tendencies of human nature to produce a shocking world, but one it seems we’re on the cusp of. I just did a google search of the show, and the first headline read, “Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ episode is about to become reality in China.” Black Mirror is like a canary in the media mine, signaling the dangers of where technology could lead society before it descends upon us.

I’ve only watched a few episodes, and I don’t go around recommending it. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t exaggerate when I say many of the episodes are chock full of immorality and baldly disturbing. It’s also not what I’d call entertaining. But it is thought-provoking.

The episodes take a familiar, relatable premise (like social media ratings, video game escapism, online dating) down dark and twisted paths. This is what could happen… and all things considered, its creative and believable. While most critics applaud the show for cleverly exposing the danger of technology misuse, I think Black Mirror does more than that, whether intentionally or not. More than pointing out how social media or memory scanners could wreak havoc, it exposes the darkness of the human heart. Technology is just an enabler.

Take the Nosedive episode. Lacie lives in a world where people rate each other based on each interaction they have. Your average rating affects your job, ability to buy a home, and could even send you to jail if you drop too low. Talk about incentive to practice fake smiling and friendliness all the time (which she does). Lacie is obsessed with getting her rating up to move into her dream home, but a series of unfortunate events send her rating spiraling down. It’s a messed up world that doesn’t feel too far away, with rating Uber/Lyft drivers, pandering for Likes and Follows on Instagram … who’s to say ‘social credit’ won’t take a more prominent role in a society dominated by social media?

But behind this world is the same reality of human nature. There is nothing new under the sun. We’ve always wanted to be liked by others, to be on the highest rung of the social ladder. Read Jane Austen! No one had a rating associated with their name, but people were fundamentally the same. There’s a public face you present to garner favor, especially among the elite. Women weren’t chasing 5/5 stars on an app, but they were chasing the wealthiest man, the most luxurious lifestyle, admiration from others, ultimately for the same purposes. What Black Mirror did was recognize that innate nature, and placed it in a new infrastructure enabled by technology.

One more example: the Crocodile episode (this one is really bleak and violent). In her young and stupid days, Mia helps her friend Rob cover up a hit-and-run where he was behind the wheel. Years later, Rob wants to confess, but Mia has a successful career and family, and she doesn’t want to dig up that past – so she kills Rob. Then she witnesses a roadside accident (a self-driving pizza truck hits someone). An insurance agent comes knocking with a device that can replay memories, but that means exposing her murder of Rob … which leads her to kill the insurance agent, and then the insurance agent’s family.

(I told you it’s disturbing.)

Crocodile addresses a regular theme in Black Mirror: the invasion of privacy. Technology has turned everyone’s eyes into potential surveillance cameras that can be replayed. It’s meant to be used for good, but this episode shows a case where it goes extremely poorly as it pushes Mia to kill more and more in order to cover up her earlier crimes. But again, the fundamental issue isn’t with the Recaller technology. Mia is hellbent on protecting her self-interest at any cost to others. This is the darkness of the human heart. Sure, the technology exacerbated the situation, but the point is, her capacity for murder out of self-protection existed long before she was triggered.

We do face unique challenges today with the advancement of technology. Its moving at a pace where policies can’t keep up, and they often come retroactively and always imperfectly. There is a legitimate fear about what our tech can do in the wrong hands. But the reality is, no one is trustworthy. We’re all fallen people. Ironically, in a time where the culture denies original sin and validates self-worth and individual goodness, a show like Black Mirror isn’t just sounding a warning about technology, but signaling the sinfulness of our own hearts.

 

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

Battle for Humanity: WWII Historical Fiction

I’ve always considered myself a fantasy/sci-fi buff, but I’m beginning to think I jumped on that bandwagon too hastily. Speculative fiction still makes up a large chunk of my all-time favorite books, but its a very particular brand of the genre. I was all in with classic fantasy since Narnia and Lord of the Rings shaped my love for reading, but I’ve come across few fantasy novels since then that have captivated me. Many feel like duller versions of Tolkien and Lewis, recycled with weirder names. My sci-fi fascination started with Star Wars, which was film-based, and that primarily led me to read…Star Wars novels. An embarrassing number of them. I began to realize the hardcore fans of these genres geeked out about things like intricate magical systems, crazy planetary environments, or midichlorian counts (which is from Star Wars, and I didn’t really care about them). I just loved the characters and the heart, but I don’t want to slog through pages about a world’s terrain.

On the flip side, I always thought historical fiction was boring. Real world, no thanks. But after finishing my latest read, I realized how many of these books I’ve come to love, especially in the last few years. More specifically, a common thread emerged: I kept stumbling across great World War II historical fiction without even looking for them.

Here are five I recommend, in no particular order:

  • The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
    Two sisters fight for their family and country in Nazi-occupied France. Isabelle is fiery, made for the Resistance. Vianne thinks she’s fragile, but she’s made from the fire.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
    A blind French girl and a German boy each try to survive the war. On different sides, their stories eventually collide.
  • The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
    Death narrates this story about a girl in Germany who loves books so much she steals them.
  • Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
    Two British girls, best friends and soldiers, crash land in France. One is captured by the Nazis, and both will go to any length to save each other.
  • From Sand and Ash, by Amy Harmon
    It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers: Angelo and Eva were raised together as family, but he will become a priest, and she is wanted Jewish woman.

Each of these stories has the things I love about fantasy/sci-fi: characters I care about, a lot of heart, good fighting evil in the face of terrible odds, adventure, suspense, and fabulous writing. Even more, none of these books conclude with a pretty bow and happily ever after. They don’t conclude in despair, but they certainly are not sorrow-free. They look at WWII through various angles, but the war is integral to each story. The stakes are high, and the losses tug at your heart, especially when you remember the reality of this devastation isn’t so far behind us.

I think there are many reasons WWII produces such compelling stories, not least of them being that many are based on real people and heroes that emerged. (I used to have a bias against biographies as boring too, but there are some excellent ones coming from this era). There have been many wars fought, even since then. But WWII stands out not only in its scale, but the mostly universal agreement that it was not just a war fought for resources or politics, but a war fought against evil. Sure, there was nationalism and politics at work on the global level, but there were ordinary people risking their lives for others, doing what was right in spite of the consequences. And we recognize how pivotal the outcome of the war was. If you’re familiar with The Man in the High Castle (either Phillip Dick’s weird book or Amazon’s equally-bleak-but-less-weird show), it depicts an alternate history, where the Axis powers won WWII. It’s a world of shadows and fear, where the Nazi flag flies over America, and you can be shot on spot for being the wrong race or saying the wrong thing.

I find that these stories, maybe in an unconscious way, stand in defiance against the relativistic culture today. How do we have the moral authority to call the Nazi regime evil? Tolerance is a pretty weak flag to wave in decrying such hatred. There must be an absolute standard of good and evil—else if each of us can have our own equally valid truths, how can anyone claim higher moral ground? There must be inviolable dignity to each human life, which is why genocide is such an atrocity. We cannot imbue value into human life just by claiming it, and there’s no reason to believe we have any if we’re just evolved, accidental atoms.

There are complicated people in these books. A German soldier who is kind to his country’s enemies, a Catholic priest who falls in love, and otherwise gentle women who take life to protect another. I find myself more drawn to them than the unblemished good guys of fantasyland. Not because I disbelieve in objective morality, but because they reflect the reality of our broken world and broken humanity. We are made in the image of God, with eternity on our hearts, and an understanding of justice and goodness imprinted on our conscience. But we have fallen far from Eden. In every great character, there is real weakness and flaw, and yet also a grasping for virtue—to lay down their life for another, to die for a worthy cause, or to shelter an orphan. In this tension and collision, we find a picture of the Fall, of Redemption, and the New Creation we long for.

Know of any other great WWII reads (or any great reads)? I’m always open to recommendations!

Photo by Jacob Valerio on Unsplash

The Victim-Villain

“Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” —Picasso

Note: I’m not always on top of pop culture, but in case you’re even more behind than me, this post does feature spoilers about The Last Jedi, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, and Harry Potter. (The last two probably aren’t worth mentioning, but I sometimes pick up a series years later…)

I googled “greatest villains” and, unsurprisingly, came up with few attractive results. Hollywood isn’t casting many classically handsome men or supermodels into these roles. Our villains are often caricatures, humanity’s worst infused into a single individual. The more cruel and vile, the more memorable. This is especially the case in fantasy and science fiction, so the bad guy can be set up against the protagonist in the representative clash between good and evil. There was nothing redeemable in Sauron or Palpatine, making them an easy rallying point for the forces of darkness.

But it feels like our stories are shifting away from such clear paradigms. I’m a big Star Wars fan, and one who loved The Last Jedi (but we can debate that another time). Take Kylo Ren as an example. I did not like him in his debut appearance in The Force Awakens—whiny, uncontrolled, wannabe Darth Vader who turned to the Dark Side because his father was a letdown and he couldn’t get his family history straight. He felt like a weak imitation of Vader, an all-time classic villain. But then The Last Jedi happened, and his character became compelling. He’s still a megalomaniac murderer, but you learn his story and see flashes of humanity, something notably absent with Vader until the very end. Instead of wanting to see Kylo destroyed, I wanted to see him redeemed.

He’s not the only villain that’s shy of pure evil. We are seeing the lines blurred more and more. Fictional villains are a reflection of our times, and there’s a common thread defining those from the postmodern era.

The 21st century villain is conflicted, damaged, and sympathetic—to an extent. Mostly, he is victim of his circumstances. He is made into who he is because of external influences, not inherent wickedness.

Kylo was unwillingly burdened with his famous bloodline, and to top it all off, his uncle almost tried to kill him. Rey captures his victimhood when she confronts Luke with the haunting question: “Did you do it? Did you create Kylo Ren?”

I wouldn’t call Severus Snape a straight out villain, but he is morally ambiguous. And perhaps you can blame it on his rough past: unhappy home life, unpopular at school, and the love of his life marries his childhood enemy.

Then you have Grant Ward from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Ouch. I did not take his Hydra reveal well. After he’s exposed, we catch a glimpse of the events that shaped him. His mentor Garrett gave him a second chance at life and molded him into a cold double agent. Garrett brokered an irrevocable loyalty in his protege. Ward isn’t without feelings for the S.H.I.E.L.D team he betrays, and he doesn’t genuinely believe in Hydra’s mission, but like he tells Raina, “I owe Garrett everything.” I give credit to Marvel—he may be the most complex villain I’ve seen them create, even though I can’t forgive them for it.

Drew Taylor’s review of Maleficent sums up this phenomenon: “In 2014, the Mistress of All Evil is just another victim.”

I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I appreciate the complexity of character and depth it gives to the story. Snape is my favorite Harry Potter character, but that doesn’t mean I endorse him as any paragon of virtue. The stakes are higher when I feel a stir of sympathy for the villain—I’ll be hooked and even more invested in the outcome. I’m all for giving the bad guy a compelling, believable backstory because people aren’t just monsters for the sake of being monsters. The Joker aside, most people have deeper motives than wanting to watch the world burn.

At the same time, the tragic villain trend may be a reflection and a reinforcement of our culture’s softening towards calling evil evil. Certainly, people are complex and flawed, and our stories should explore that. There are perplexing moral dilemmas and our characters should wrestle with them—they can’t all be swept away by a cliche. But perhaps we are also seeing the line between right and wrong, good and evil, blurring and fading from the collective conscience.

The “gray areas” are ripe playgrounds for storytelling, but there is no gray without the black and white.

For a postmodern generation, the phenomenon makes sense. Our culture is sweeping away belief in objective truth, so who is to say what the authority is on right and wrong? The loudest voice, a temporary cultural consensus? Morality does not fit consistently into a postmodern framework, and that becomes evident in our stories. The lines may blur, but we are unable to escape some imprint of the cosmic battle between good and evil raging around us.

And even if you cling to the refrain that society is the monster and all of us victims, evil shouldn’t find excuses. So I say to the postmodern villain: give us your sob story, let us sympathize, but bear the responsibility of your choices. You may not be heartless, but there’s nothing redemptive in your victimhood.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Inspiration 101

“Oh Captain my captain!”

I watched Dead Poet’s Society a few days ago for the second time, and it was even better than I remembered. Robin Williams was gold as Mr. Keating, and I didn’t fully appreciate before what a stellar supporting cast he had (Ethan Hawke? Josh Charles? well, I had no idea who these people were when I watched it in high school). The story builds up to a tragedy, but it is not without humor and triumph. It is innocent, but not naïve; philosophical, but accessible; wise, but not preachy.

It made me wonder about the stories that inspire us. What springboards something from unremarkable to unforgettable? I thought it was one of those hazy, hard-to-define things but I wanted to pinpoint a few key elements. You could say some stories just have it, a mysterious, magical X factor, but crafting a good tale isn’t like waving a wand. So I thought through my favorite books and films and came away with some common themes.

A hero who overcomes what we cannot

The stories that take a step beyond the plane of reality give themselves the liberty to create a larger-than-life protagonist: someone who can fight the battles and lead the charges that ordinary people can only dream of. They stand against seemingly insurmountable odds, and they sometimes stand alone (or at least vastly outnumbered). Basically, every superhero movie or fantasy novel where good defeats evil in a glorious spectacle.

They are the characters we will never be, but they move us with their valor and nobility. We may not have their abilities, but we can aspire to live with the same spirit.

A hero who overcomes a relatable weakness

I think there’s a large class of people that we’d look down on in the streets, but we’d love if we found them between the pages of a book.

While we’d all like to be crushing villains and taking names, most of us are fighting smaller, invisible battles each day. We’re frail, breakable, and often barely holding things together. When we don’t know someone’s heart, it’s easy to judge by appearance. That’s the wonderful thing about stories—they teach us what is often hidden behind facades in real life. They make us cheer for the poor, geeky outcast who, let’s be honest, not many of us would have befriended in real life. They make us fall in love with a man who few would probably tolerate the company of (yes, you, Mr. Darcy).

Awkwardness. Fear of what people think. Anger over irrational issues. Relationship problems. When we find characters beating the challenges we face ourselves, it inspires us to keep fighting too.

A vision of the future that is better than today’s reality

Hope and hopelessness, the two opposite ends of the spectrum, are both capable of instigating reckless actions. Our society is familiar with the latter. Desperate men with nothing to lose can do an extraordinary amount of damage.

But hope can lead to reckless living too—in a good way. Paul was utterly sold out for Christ because he believed in the deepest part of him that his present suffering could not compare to the glories to come. In fiction, this may be best seen in fantasy or sci-fi. Heroes who refuse to live under a shadow of evil or fear, who will give their all for the sake of a brighter future.

Hope can make humanity rise above a bleak reality.

Style

Style without substance is meaningless. But substance without style can range from boring to terrible. Style binds good substance together and makes it shine.

There are stories with all the “right” elements jammed in but executed poorly. Not going to name names, but we all know the ones that had so much potential in character or premise—and they flopped.

And there are some stories that are made great by their stylistic choices. If The Book Thief were narrated by anyone else, it would not be as brilliant. Probably still a decent story, but not stunning or truly set apart. Every single human being has many ordinary stories they can tell. Only a few become classics, and while it’s most often what you have to say, how you say it can also set the literary world spinning.

So…lights! Pens! Action! What inspires you? That, to me, is one of the great purposes of art and storytelling. We don’t create fiction in a vacuum: we create to reflect reality and inspire people to live more boldly and compassionately.

Carpe diem!

The Insatiable Search for Story

Epic film trailers have been exploding onto the Internet all year, from Jurassic Park to Avengers to Star Wars. I am as stoked as the next gullible fan, prepared to throw my money at these shameless, endless franchises, unless Rotten Tomatoes convinces me otherwise. It got me to thinking—we keep trying to tell bigger tales of wild future concepts, mind-bending thrillers, and edgy what-if scenarios. Why are we constantly seeking more?

Of course, there is the constant criticism of our digital, attention deficit generation. Without explosions, firefights, or eye-popping visuals, you can’t hold an audience in 2015—and sadly, that line of thought turns the art of storytelling into a soulless machine. The same goes for literature (or what passes for literature), as lengthy prose is tossed in favor of quick action. We are the generation of instant gratification.

But we are still story lovers. In an era of fads and viral trends, good stories manage to cut through the noise and endure. Writers continue to find ways to spin up new and better tales, and readers continue to hunt for the next best thing. Though inundated with flashy, sensory material, we learn to strip away the packaging and find the heartbeat. Why are our souls seared with a hunger for story?

We crave closure.

A common complaint I see in book reviews are about loose ends. “The author never explained…” or “But what happened to…?” We love a good resolution. Often, that means a cheerful ending, but not always; there are the tragedies that resolve more beautifully than a trite happily ever after. Perhaps the death of a character was made of the stuff of legends—honorable, symbolic, and sacrificial. It was meaningful, or it achieved a greater end that justified the loss. In essence, it brought closure to the story, or at least one chapter of a greater tale.

Our imperfect world rarely offers the luxury of closure, even in great lives. I recently read Unbroken, the remarkable biography of Louie Zamperini. But even in his stunning story arc, there are numerous “loose ends:” men who met senseless deaths in the war and redemption that did not reach full-circle for all. As much as I loved his tale, I wished a different conclusion for some of the characters.

Closure is not the norm for true stories, yet we long for it, and have made it an integral part of storytelling.

We are made in the image of a Creator.

To tell a story is to create. Based on our knowledge, experiences, and observations, we weave elements together to produce something new. In one way, stories are the seed of countless creations, the motivation to action. A single dream grows into a new technology. A single tragedy sparks a revolution.

God is the first Creator, and the first Storyteller. When we look at the course of human history, fraught as it is with strife and sorrow, we see the nature of creating and imagining shine through different cultures and continents, embedded in our humanity. We simply can’t stop making things and telling stories as we find beauty beyond the brokenness.

We are finite, seeking the infinite.

No manmade story can capture all the emotions and complexities of life. We applaud works of literature when they excel in one area—Lord of the Rings for its sweeping imagination, Anna Karenina for its human insight, Sherlock Holmes for its clever wit—but we can’t form an intelligent worldview based on a singular human narrative.

All inspiration and stories are imaging God’s intricate creation and immeasurable story that extends beyond time. We can’t capture the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the temporal. But we can, and we will, keep telling stories to kingdom come because there are always unexplored angles, unanswered questions, and a universe still waiting in the wings for its final resolution.