The Poison of Ideology in A Song of Ice and Fire

A Song of Ice and Fire and its amazingly popular Game of Thrones adaptation is many things. It’s a brilliant example of detailed, appealing, and evocative fantasy world-building. It’s a deconstruction of fantasy, adding a sobering dose of Medieval History-based realism to make us realize that a land of kings, knights, peasants, and dragons probably wouldn’t be as full of sword-swinging fun as we imagine. It’s an adventure tale, which actually does have a decent amount of sword-swinging fun – though it forces us to reckon with the consequences of violence, even cool violence involving magic Valyrian Steel swords and dragon flame. But, even though it takes place in a magical world not our own, A Song of Ice and Fire is also a cold and insightful commentary and condemnation of the modern age. Namely, this story of dragons, Children of the Forest, giants, and White Walkers has plenty to say about our current geopolitical situation and values. Does sound that like fantasy? Well, it all comes down to Game of Thrones giving different characters and factions ideologies, which almost always lead to pain and bloodshed – something anyone who reads a modern newspaper is familiar with. (By the way, I am going to spoil everything in the books and the show and do a tiny bit of speculation too, so be forewarned.)


A perfect example is everyone’s favorite sleazy schemer – Peytr Baelish AKA Littlefinger. He’s the manipulative, lusting, wife-pushing, brothel-owning, back-stabbing slimeball that we all love to hate. But here’s the thing about Littlefinger: if Westeros’s history is going to follow the history of Western Europe (and Western Civilization), he’s the one who is going to win the Game of Thrones long term. Or at least, his ideology will. Littlefinger is all about capitalism, and he’s a Noveau Riche merchant who is all about the capitalist drive to earn and earn big. He came from an extremely poor semi-noble house and turned himself into a major power by hard work and careful investments, until he’s one of the most powerful men in the Seven Kingdoms. He’s practically a Horatio Alger character or a Republican Presidential Candidate. However, his unrequited love for Catelyn Stark makes him more like Jay Gatsby, another capitalist with a big secret. Around the time of the Renaissance, Littlefinger’s types – merchants and businessmen – started amassing power, and business is, arguably, the major force of power in the world today. So a quick peek at Westeros 2015 would reveal that the Iron Throne is little more than a ceremonial piece of furniture while Baelish Incorporated runs the world. Now, watching the show (and knowing anything about history) proves that feudalism sucks. Generations of peasants suffer and die while monsters like Joffrey take the throne because they have the right bloodline (or not…). But Littlefinger’s capitalism is duplicitous, corrupting, and driven by greed. It’s not much better from feudalism, and that’s because Littlefinger is defined by an ideology.


Throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, devotion to an ideology – almost any ideology – is a recipe for disaster, bloodshed, and murder. This makes the most sense to readers and viewers when it concerns ideologies we don’t like. Tywin Lannister’s all about preserving the family name – something a modern person doesn’t care too much about – and we’re not that surprised when it leads to Red Weddings, Tyrion’s Kangaroo Court, and other nastiness. Religious ideology gets the same treatment. Fanatic devotion to the New Gods leads to the Faith Militant, while worship of the Lord of Light leads to burning people alive. As a secular reader who has seen ISIS and the Westerboro Baptist Church in our time (and plenty of other nasty examples of fanaticism gone wrong in Medieval History), that ideology leading to violence and pain makes sense and isn’t too surprising.


But George R.R. Martin is never about playing to a reader’s comfort zone. There are factions that have ideologies which are sympathetic to modern readers – and they cause as much problems as the Lannisters and the Faith Militant. First up is the Brotherhood Without Banners – the People’s Resistance of Westeros, who are all about protecting the smallfolk from the horrors of war and getting revenge on the odious Freys. This ragtag bunch of Robin Hoods are a loveable gang of guerilla heroes. They’re all about feeding the poor, redistributing wealth, and murdering Freys. Sign me up, I said! But then you get to the part about Lady Stoneheart – a vengeance-crazed zombie ghost leading the Brotherhood on a mission of vengeance. Well, said I, they’re only paying back the Freys for the Red Wedding. They still sound good to me! But the revolutionary furor and quest for vengeance of the Brotherhood Without Banners soon leads to some of the most sympathetic and beloved characters in the books – Brienne and Pod (not Pod!) being fitted for nooses. That’s when I realized that the Brotherhood Without Banners, like an actual revolutionary army fighting for a specific ideology, is an inherently violent force. The show doesn’t really have this happening with Brienne and Pod (though it still might), but they do sell the sympathetic Gendry to Melisandre in exchange for weapons, which goes to show that they might not be the Robin Hood heroes after all.


Stannis Baratheon is another example. To a modern reader, he’s somewhat sympathetic, especially compared to his rival. He is the rightful king after all (for whatever that’s worth), but he’s also tough but fair and believes in justice and the rule of law. We love all those things! It’s no wonder Stannis has so many fans. But once again, Martin points out that Stannis’s ideology – the rule of law whatever the cost – is going to lead to suffering. In this case, it’s poor Shireen who pays the price, which will probably make everyone rooting for Stannis want to change their minds. It certainly did so for me.


Ideology in Westeros causes problems because ideology in the real world, particularly when Martin was writing A Song of Ice and Fire, causes problems. The War on Terror, the Cold War, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and loads of other nasty fights are about many things, but they’re primarily a clash of different ideologies. Soon as people start fighting for a Cause, they are willing to accept collateral damage in exchange for victory, and whether drones or dragons are involved, that’s going to lead to innocent people dying.


That’s why the truly sympathetic characters in Game of Thrones are the peacemakers – like good, old Jon Snow. I initially wasn’t that interested in Jon Snow’s adventures at the Wall. It seemed unconnected from everything else, far away from colorful, witty characters like Tyrion. But after Jon becomes Lord Commander and realizes the threat of the White Walkers, he understands that it’s time to put differences aside and come together for a better future. The Wildings and the Night’s Watch are two groups defined by their mutually hostile ideologies, but Jon Snow recognizes that they need to stop killing each other and come to some sort of agreement. There’s no White Walkers about to swarm over the war-torn areas in our world, so we don’t exactly have a common foe to unite against, but just stopping relentless killing is a goal any reader can get behind. Sadly, Jon Snow ends up being the Yitzhak Rabin of Westeros in more ways than one – ending up murdered by fanatical Night’s Watch men driven by ideology, who chant ‘For the Watch,’ as they drive their daggers home. The show’s upcoming season finale might have something similar (but don’t be too worried – remember that Red Priests like Melisandre can bring people back to life and there’s all sorts of mystic mumbo-jumbo around Jon).


Assigning modern metaphors to works of fiction is always a dicey proposition and A Song of Ice and Fire is a lot more than just a sad commentary on our times. But I do think that when we see horrific ideological acts every day in the newspaper, it makes sense that we’d look for them in our fantasy books and TV shows too. Maybe that’s why Game of Thrones holds the charm it does – or maybe it’s just the dragons.

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Norse Saga-O-Rama Day 2

It’s a new day and a new opportunity to learn about some great Norse Sagas. All of these were big influences on The Saga of Egil the Scarred and helped me formulate some of my ideas about the mindset of Vikings and the feel of the Viking Age. I have to extend that caveat about these sagas not being exactly historically accurate (my stories certainly aren’t, either), but they are great reads nonetheless and I do hope you check them out, whether you’re a fan of books about swords, someone who wants to put images of battleaxes and trolls in your mind during blistering Heavy Metal songs, or just someone who wants to read about an interesting time and place in history. Fill your drinking horn with mead and let the Saga-O-Rama begin!
King Harald’s Saga
While Vikings can sometimes be characterized as a fun-loving bunch, enjoying their exploring, murdering, and robbing as they cruise freely around Europe and the world, there is also a deep sort of sadness in the Norse culture. Maybe it comes from living in frozen Scandinavia or maybe it’s just a hallmark of a violent age, but the Norse seem very interested in dying and defeat. Even their Gods, bold warriors like Thor and Tyr, have Ragnorak – and their dooms – waiting for them. Thanks to Odin’s gift of prophecy, they know exactly what’s going to happen and how they’re all going to die. That’s more than a little depressing and it ties into Viking History as well, particularly the real life Ragnorak that was the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which is largely credited for ending the Viking Age. That battle is recounted in the saga of King Harald Hardrada, a king of Norway who met his end there. King Harald had a very interesting career before that, traveling around the world, hanging out with the Kievan Rus, and serving in the Varangian Guard, and that’s all ably recounted in his saga – but Stamford Bridge is the part that makes it all worth reading. Basically, there was a three-way battle for control of England between the native Saxons, King Harald’s Norse, and William the Conqueror’s Normans. Given that we’re not all wearing horned helmets, you can probably guess who won. King Harald’s men showed up and the Saxons ambushed them while they were changing into their armor, leading to their defeat. King Harald takes an arrow to the throat right away and dies. One nameless Berserker does go onto the bridge and personally hold off the entire Saxon army for a while – the sort of feat that sounds too amazing to be true, but actually happened – and the Saxons get crushed by the Normans a little later. The Normans are actually descendants of the Norse themselves (Northman=Norman), so the Vikings do sort of win, after all – but they still lose, and King Harald’s Saga is a fine way to read about it.
The Prose Edda
One thing that makes the Viking culture so amazing is their mythology. You’ve got cool gods with names and gimmicks (Odin has one eye and ravens, Thor’s got a hammer and rides a chariot pulled by giant goats), fantastic monsters like Frost Giants and trolls, and an awesome ending that puts the Book of Revelations to shame. The Four Horsemen are nothing compared to a giant wolf with a mouth so big that it reaches from the earth to the roof of the sky. Norse mythology is also weird. There’s cross-dressing, Odin plucking out his eye, the dead sailing to Ragnorak on a ship made from the fingernails of dead men, and plenty of evocative imagery. It’s no wonder that Wagner, Tolkien, and Marvel Comics went to the Norse well over and over again. The Prose Edda is the primary source for all those stories. It’s got the creation myth, a great mix of tales about the Gods, and ends, naturally, with Ragnorak. Neat little poems find their way inside too, so this written copy of oral tradition is certainly mandatory reading for anyone interested in Norse myth.
The Vinland Saga
Another cool element of the Viking milieu is just how well-traveled they were. Vikings could hang out in Scandinavia and Northern Europe or they could swing over to modern-day Spain, visit the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East, go to Byzantium, or – at least in one case – head to North America. The story of the Viking settlement in North America or Vinland is an interesting tale of culture clash, hundreds of years before Columbus. Lief Erikson, a famed Viking explorer, goes from Iceland to North America – christened Vinland because of the many vines – and tries to make a colony. At first, everything in Vinland is great, but the Norse soon realize that it has its own residents. The Native Americans, who are called Skraelings, are sort of mythical monsters in the Vinland Saga. They have bizarre catapult weapons and some are one-legged pogo-stick monsters. Peace breaks down and soon the Norse find themselves trapped between the freezing cold and the threat of Skraeling attack. Soon, they start fighting amongst each other. In this chaos, the character of Freydis Eriskdottir rises to prominence. The Viking treatment of women is interesting and Freydis is a good example. She has a great deal of agency and is a warrior and hero, but also becomes power-hungry and paranoid. I would say that she is what would today be called an anti-hero, even though the saga’s writers treat her as more of a villain. Her cold, callous way of dealing with division in the frozen, doomed settlement of Vinland is chilling – ‘give me an axe’ she says and takes care of the problem herself. For her character alone, the Vinland Saga is worth tracking down.
Well, that’s all the sagas I’ve read. I’ll be talking more about medieval fantasy fiction soon, including Game of Thrones, so be sure to watch this spot and prepare for more.

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Norse Saga-O-Rama Day 1

I have a new book out, the first of a series. It’s called The Sagas of Egil the Scarred, Volume 1: The Defenders of Blackspire Abbey and you can find it here
It’s a supernatural Viking adventures, a prequel to the El Mosaico series, and a medieval fantasy story full of demons, witchcraft, hacking, slashing, and everything a fan of those noble Northmen could desire.


To celebrate, I’m going to be recounting some of my favorite Norse Sagas – real accounts of legendary warriors, blood feuds, raids, battles, and monsters from the Viking Age. After you’ve purchased The Defenders of Blackspire Abbey, I urge you to check out some of these primary source documents so you can learn about Vikings firsthand. It’s hard to say if the stories told in these sagas, passed down by oral tradition before being transcribed, are historically accurate – and in some cases, they’re definitely not – but each one is still a great read.

Egil’s Saga
I had a Viking phase in high school. I didn’t start wearing a horned helmet (real Vikings didn’t, as any historian will tell you) or travel around in a long ship, but I had an urge to read about these barbaric, pagan warriors from the North who would charge into battle with a swinging axe, a roar in their throats, and transform into a bear while a blistering heavy metal guitar solo sang praises to Odin. That stuff is pretty appealing for a teenager. I started with Egil’s Saga, an account of the life of Egil Skallagrimson, a wandering warrior, Viking raider, mercenary, and awesome poet. In my mind, there’s no better place to start. Egil is, to use the technical term, a badass. He gets his first kill at the age of seven, splitting another boy’s head with an axe. As he grows older, he travels through Europe, serving as a mercenary and winning battles in what’s now England, raiding Slavic tribesman in what will become Russia, getting involved in a blood feud with Erik Bloodaxe (what a name), the King of Norway, and fighting in numerous ritual Viking duels, known as Holmgangs. The whole saga is pretty much a listing of all the awesome and amazing things Egil does. A quick example – Egil’s in a duel with some crazy Viking berserker champion, who manages to cheat by giving Egil blunt weapons. Egil manages to hold his own, realizes his sword is useless, then tackles his rival and tears out his throat with his teeth. And if that’s not enough, right after tearing out a guy’s throats, he grabs the horns of the cow meant to be scarified to the Gods after the duel, and snaps its neck with his bare hands. Egil’s also an amazing poet, or Skald, and the Saga contains many examples of his poetry. He was once captured by King Bloodaxe and saved his life by writing the guy a particularly wonderful poem. However, Egil is also a troubled and dark figure. Modern scientists think he had Paget’s Disease, giving him a malformed head and frequent headaches. He’s always driven to travel, fight, and kill. In his old age, he’s too feeble to do this and becomes a bitter old man who can’t protect his family. If you want pure action with a little depth, I’d recommend Egil’s Saga without reservations.

Njall’s Saga
Swinging around a massive battleaxe and hacking off a foeman’s head might seem awesome to a teenager who knows about the world solely through video games, Lord of the Rings, and Heavy Metal music, but the reality is violence is much more complex and much darker. No saga talks about the futility of violence and the endless, cyclical nature of revenge and feuds like the famous Njall’s Saga. It’s considered one of the classics of the form and for good reason. Njall’s Saga tells the story of two friends, the eponymous Njall Borgeirsson and Gunnar Hummandarson, and their extended families. They start out as best buds, neighboring land owners and farmers in the harsh frontier of Iceland, but misunderstandings and stupid arguments quickly pit their families against each other in a blood feud. These feuds were a major part of Norse life and Njall’s Saga shows how pointless and endless the quest for vengeance can be. It’s a universal theme (the TV series Justified and the film Blue Ruin do the same sort of thing, but transport it to the family squabbles and honor killings of the modern American South), and Njall’s Saga articulates it beautifully. The story also includes a good look at the conversion of the Icelanders to Christianity, which is fascinating. The Norse were pretty much the last people in Europe to become Christianized, and the process of conversion, with plenty of practical questions and demonstrations surrounding the power of Christ, is uniquely Scandinavian. Christianity also doesn’t make the Vikings any less violent. Njall’s Saga is certainly worth seeking out for anyone interested in examining the not-so-fun consequences of the Viking culture.

The Saga of Grettir the Strong
One cool thing about Norse Sagas is that they’re not exactly realistic. There are historical events, characters, and themes, like the Varangian Guard, Viking Mercenaries serving in the Byzantine Empire, but then, without fanfare, you’ll have wandering Icelandic outlaw Grettir taking on a monstrous ghost creature called a Draugr (a sort of zombie warrior phantom who would be right at home with Game of Thrones’ White Walkers) who is bothering a nearby farm, or dealing with some angry trolls. The mix of real history and magic is a very cool combination and was a major influence on my own stories. Besides the cool fantastic elements, Grettir the Strong’s saga is unique because it paints the tragic picture of a man out of his own time. Grettir is a pagan in a mostly Christian Iceland, and it’s fascinating to see him interact with, respect, or battle his Christian counterparts. He remains defiant, sticks to being an outlaw, and it all leads to a spectacular and violent end. If you want a bit of sorcery with your swords, Grettir’s the way to go.
That’s all for today, but there will be more Sagas coming soon, so keep a good grip on your sword, whisper those prayers to Odin and Thor, and stay vigilant.

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Fantasy To The Power of Five: Mara Valderann’s Heirs of War

There’s something particularly cool about a big ensemble cast – a Magnificent Seven or The Avengers, coming together to argue, plan, and eventually band together for a common goal and save the day. Maybe these big ensembles are cool because of the sheer range of personalities they can include. We can see characters bounce off each other, feud, and fight, and become fast friends before the big team-up leading up to the climax. That’s definitely what Mara Valderann is going for in her novel, Heirs of War. This book boasts not one, not two, and not three – but five main characters who are thrown together by desperate circumstances and tossed into a dangerous adventure in a magical world. She largely succeeds in creating a nifty story about a hidden magical world, and the five young women who are connected by birth and a powerful prophecy.

See, these young women all lead sort of normal lives on earth, but they’re really the Duillaine Annir – super-powered magical royals from a set of magic worlds connected to our own and based in Celtic fantasy. They all have names like Zelene, Rhaya, Isauria, and Ariana and were brought to earth from the mystic realms to protect them from their enemies, ruthless killers known as Cahrain. The fifth of them remained in the magical world. Pretty soon, the Cahrains are after them, and they all all thrown into the magic world, as the adventure begins.

The ensemble cast is great at putting different personalities against each other. Zelene’s a fiery, tough girl who raised by abusive foster parents. She’s doubtlessly the Wolverine of the group. Isauria gets prophetic visions and has a deep intelligence – maybe she’s the Egon? And Ariana’s friendly and nice. I guess she could be the Michelangelo? She gets captured by the Cahrains and struggles to escape. Though they fall under broad personalities, the girls definitely have well-developed personalities, and they react to this fantastic world in a natural way – comparing it to Renaissance Faires and harping on the injustices of the Medieval class system. They’re all pretty sympathetic and it’s cool to see them meet.

However, the large cast does have its downsides. Each girl has their own friends, often with a love interest, a powerfully-built defender called a Cyneward, and two of them are twins, while the others are cousins. This adds up to a load of characters and connections between characters, and it can be tough keeping them straight. Plus, the countless Celtic names for the different worlds and customs get thrown around a lot. It all adds up to a cast that could be a little overstuffed. Another unfortunate result of the large cast is that it takes a long time for anything to happen – we check in one character, see their plot advance a little, and then bounce to another for the same. It’s not until the very end of the book that our heroines are really getting down to business to fight evil. I guess that’s saved up for the sequel, but I wish this first volume had some more payoff. Additionally, I found the prose – particularly when it described crazy magic spells – seemed a little short and lackluster. I hope that Valderann can take some time and really make a reader visualize and be wowed by the impressive feats of magic contained in the story in future sequels.

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Undead Assisted Living: Araminta Star Matthews’ and Stan Swanson’s Return of the Loving Dead

Supernatural shenanigans and high school-aged characters go together like Joss Whedon and comic book franchises. Taking teenage angst and adding a dose of magic or sci-fi is a recipe for success, with countless noteworthy examples. It’s easy to see why. Horror tropes provide the perfect metaphors for many issues that teenagers face – things like addiction, emerging minority and sexual identity, slipping away from childhood, the fear of conformity, and the struggle to fit in – can easily receive fun metaphorical representation with vampires, werewolves, or witches. Araminta Star Matthews’ and Stan Swanson’s Return of the Loving Dead follows this proud tradition, mixing humor, horror, and teenage quirks into a fast-paced and highly entertaining supernatural tale. Lots of those metaphors pop up in Matthews’ and Swanson’s novel, but the one that seems the most relevant, to me at least (and I don’t know if this is the author’s intent), is the challenges of living with a loved one who has special needs.

The story is an interesting look at a post-zombie world. The zombie outbreak has already happened, and been neatly contained – though many people were killed or turned into zombies. The government has stepped in, zombies are kept in internment camps, and everything’s back to normal. Or so it seems. The main character is high school senior Amber Vanderkamp. She’s got a best friend, a quirky goth/punk/wiccan Lesbian named Jasmine, and a sweet, nerdy boyfriend named Zach. But then Zach is bit by a rogue zombie, dies, and comes back as the alliteratively appropriate Zombie Zach. Amber wants to care for her boyfriend and signs a release saying that she has custody over him. Zach’s parents figure that he’s dead for good and allow this to happen, and now Amber has Zach under her care.

The bulk of Return of the Loving Dead is about Amber and Jasmine trying to take care of Zach, and this is where the book mostly resembled the real life struggles of those trying to care for a relative with special needs relative with special needs. Zach had poor motor skills, limited intelligence, and he needs to be fed and cleaned. He also has to be constantly given medication or he’ll revert to feral zombie instincts and start trying to snack on people. Amber and Jasmine try numerous times to ‘cure’ Zach of his zombie existence, with New Age techniques from some of Jasmine’s friends at a local magic supply store, as well as using scientific techniques like hooking him up to a car battery. These attempted cures don’t work too well, and Zach is stuck as a zombie. Additionally, when Amber and Jasmine take Zach out in public, he gets countless odd stares and unwanted attention. Zach gets a lot of hate too, a natural result of people assuming that zombies are still dangerous, and there are attempts on his life from a mysterious would-be zombie killer that adds to the drama.

Obviously, people with special needs are not mindless zombies. The metaphor doesn’t extend particularly far, but it’s nice to have it in the story. Amber and Zach clearly do love each other – even if Zach has trouble expressing that love, and their struggle is strangely heartwarming. Amber and Jasmine’s constant teenage back-and-forth isn’t quite on the level of Joss Whedon, but it’s funny and entertaining nonetheless. Return of the Loving Dead is a little meandering, and I hope the sequel is more tightly plotted, but it does lead to an exciting climax with Amber participating in a fateful performance of Romeo and Juliet at her high school’s theatre.
Return of the Loving Dead is the first book in the Horror High School series, and it ends with a good hook for the next book – the Big Fang Theory, which will probably bring in vampires. At least, I hope it’s vampires, and not copious amounts of canned laughter. But the book concludes with an interesting core cast of characters and promises of more zombie adventure, so I’ll be sure to check that out. I do hope you pick up Return of the Loving Dead, for excellent undead antics.

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An Uncomfortable Out of Body Experience: Beth Winkour’s Sunshine in Darkness

Possession is a common theme in supernatural stories – and a naturally terrifying one. We’re all comfortable in our own bodies, more or less, but what if some outside force took us over, forced us out, and then made us watch as they did whatever they want with our skin? Such is the terrifying case with Rose Sunshine Pilgrim, the heroin of Beth Winkour’s book, Sunshine in Darkness. Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five may be unstuck in time, but Rose Pilgrim is unstuck in flesh. When she was young, her body was taken over by a mysterious creature called an Intruder. Since then, Rose has been turned into a non-corporeal spirit, trapped outside her body and floating around. To make matters worse, the Intruder is being of pure evil, who uses Rose’s body as a tool to create mayhem. It’s a suitably horrifying start.

But when Rose is seventeen, the Intruder grows tired of her and moves on – possessing a newborn baby. Rose is able to get back into her body. Unfortunately, when she tells everyone that she’s been possessed by an Intruder for her entire life, she naturally seems insane and is sent straight to an asylum. To make matters worse, the asylum is run by abusive doctors and is under the control of people possessed by other Intruders, who enjoy making Rose’s life miserable. It’s a pretty terrible situation, but Rose is determined to persevere. She changes her name to Sunshine and starts to proactively try to fight back against the Intruders – saving the lives of a fellow patient who is possessed, as well as the infant her former Intruder who is taken over. Dealing with the Intruders means doing some dark deeds and manipulating their evil ways to Sunshine’s own ends.

I really enjoyed Sunshine in Darkness, due to the novel, terrifying setup and the sympathetic nature of Sunshine’s character. Even though Sunshine has to deal with a wretched situation, she struggles not to despair and tries to battle the Intruders as best she can. Winkour never reveals too much about the Intruders, which is a good move. They could be demons or alien or extra-dimensional beings. It doesn’t matter for the story and they remain shapeless, monstrous forces with sadistic natures – though some of them have deeper feelings that they don’t want to share. They make for good complex villains, and tough foes for Sunshine to contend with. Sometimes, her plots and machinations can be a little confusing, but Sunshine in Darkness still piles on the intensity and emotional struggle until the final page.

Overall, Sunshine in Darkness does a great job of taking a classic supernatural fear and turning it into a complex story with a courageous heroine. I urge everyone to give it a read.

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A Beautiful Bildungsroman: Elle Klass’s As Snow Falls

The bildungsroman – or Coming of Age story – isn’t a genre that gets used a lot these days. Most of the time, a modern novel or short story will encompass a fairly small period of time and deliver a deep study of what happens to those characters within that small time frame. This wasn’t always the case. Back in the days of yore, books would follow a character from birth to adulthood and maybe even to old age and death. Charles Dickens cranked out stories that did this, and so did Charlotte Bronte. There’s something to be said for a novel with that kind of scope. Elle Klass achieves that scope in a mere 65 pages, with her novella As Snow Falls and largely does a pretty good job with a classic bildungsroman story.

As Snow Falls has an old woman in a cabin, as – in the title – snow falls around her. She reflects over her entire life starting from the womb and going to the present. The unnamed narrator talks about her early childhood, her first days in school, high school, college, her first loves, marriage, grandchildren, the death of her parents and husband, and her old age. It’s a huge scope and Klass should be commended for capturing the emotional content of all these events. The uncertainty of adolescence and the post-college years, the sadness of watching an elderly relative grow old, and the struggle of child-rearing are all beautifully rendered by simple, no-frills prose. You really get to know this woman, and feel for her as she recounts her life.

However, I do think As Snow Falls had a few problems that stop it from being a perfect novella. The theme of following the course of a life reminded me a lot of Annie Proulx’s ‘Job History’ from her famous Close Range short story collection, but Proulx was able to tell that story in a few pages, while Klass’s tale stretches to a full novella. It might be a little unfair to make the comparison, but I think that Klass could have edited it down a bit to achieve perfection. Also, As Snow Falls doesn’t have much in the way of a driving conflict. Like most lives, problems arise and are dealt with, but they don’t stick around or really affect the protagonist too much. Lots of drama might not be necessary in this sort of story, which is really about cataloging a life, but more conflict would have helped to hold my attention. Finally, Klass didn’t really have any details about the specific time the story is set. One character goes off to war, but nobody ever says what the war is. I suppose it’s Vietnam because helicopters are mentioned, but having no major details about the world around the characters makes everything feel a little too vague.

Still, As Snow Falls does a great job with following a woman throughout her life. I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading a story with an ambitious sense of scope and a great deal of heart.

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