Tag Archive | Fantasy

Five books that punch you in the heart

Some books should come with a warning:

Booking Through Thursday asked the question:  What was the most emotional read you have ever had?  To answer that, here are five books I’ve read through the years for which I had no warning that I was about to be sucker punched in the limbic system.

1. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

The protagonists in this epic, evocative fantasy trilogy set in a richly textured alternate universe are mostly children, but it doesn’t stop Pullman from throwing the book of emotional trauma at them. So if he didn’t have mercy on his characters, why should he spare you, oh hapless reader? He makes you care about young Lyra Belacqua and her friends so much that when they  get into trouble, you can’t help gnawing your nails until it’s over. When they win, you’re right there with them throwing fist pumps in the air. And when they grieve, holy mother of many worlds, there is nowhere you can hide from the tears. I moped around for days after it ended. Then picked the first book up again to go through all of it once more.

2. The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien

There’s an irrepressible part of me which, even if I already know that a story has no happy ending, still insists on holding on to hope until the very last moment. For example, every time I watched any performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I would hold my breath at the climactic scene, crossing my fingers that maybe, just maybe—this time Juliet will wake up before Romeo kills himself. And I don’t even like those two infatuated idiots that much.

When I started The Children of Hurin, I already had a pretty good idea what would happen. I’ve read The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, so I thought I was prepared for the inevitable tragedy of it all. Wrong. It still broke my heart, dammit. It may not be fair to say that I wasn’t warned, but just because you know the train you’re on is going to crash doesn’t make the moment of impact hurt any less. And Tolkien got me on that train. He got me on that train real good.

3. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’ve already written twice about my favorite GGK novel Tigana (here and here), so I’m taking this chance to appreciate another brilliant work, The Lions of Al-Rassan.  Set in an alternate history version of medieval Spain, it is a deeply moving story of passion, faith, and valor in the midst of change and conflict. Like always, Kay’s characters are complex human beings you would be willing to follow into any adventure and fight beside in any war. Also, like always, Kay knows how to make you fall in love, he knows how to break your heart, and he knows how to make you feel it was all worth it afterwards. He’s a really good writer, is what I’m saying.

4. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

When a book’s title has the word “miserable” in it, there’s no way it’s going to be a laugh fest, right? Right, I knew that. But I was surprised anyway by how emotionally devastated I was by the (sometimes hopeless) struggle for love and redemption by the downtrodden in post-revolutionary France. I read this while growing up in a small town without a theater to speak of, so I hadn’t seen the world-famous play yet and had to find out what happened next by turning the page. What an unforgettable journey. The musty pages of that old book I found tucked high up in my mother’s bookshelf still have tear stains on them, and my mother still remembers how I wouldn’t shut up talking about it to anyone who would listen.

5. State of War by Ninotchka Rosca

This one is heartbreaking not just because it’s really good fiction, but because so much of it is true. It follows ordinary human beings throughout a dreamy, panoramic allegory of Philippine history and thus takes the story of the Filipino people out of the dry pages of textbooks and weaves it into living, breathing myth. I didn’t know I could grieve so much for what had been lost when I hadn’t even lived when it existed, but State of War brought home for me the damage inflicted on the Filipino psyche by centuries of carnage and subjugation. The novel got me thinking more carefully about who I was as a Filipino, all the while deeply aware of the irony that those thoughts were running through my mind in English. In the end that contrast somewhat describes my cultural identity: confused, fragmented, seeking, and still in the process of defining itself.

When I finished writing this list, I realized that all five of these books are set either in fantasy worlds or somewhere far in the past. Other honorable mentions are Atonement by Ian McEwan and Night by Elie Wiesel (holy buckets of terror, was I traumatized after reading the latter—which is as should be, as the Holocaust should never be taken lightly).

I do get affected by stories in set the here-and-now (The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, anyone?), but the ones on this list refuse to be dethroned from their place as soakers of the most number of handkerchiefs. I’ll be making my way around the other posts to discover reading suggestions for when I’m feeling brave again. Or severely masochistic. You know, whichever comes first.

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Haunted

I walked slowly through the ancient, abandoned insane asylum, thoroughly unnerved, skin crawling with chills that had nothing to do with the weather. Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.

Birds were singing. They hopped in patches of afternoon sunlight filtering in through the broken windows, pecking here and there at blades of grass growing out of cracks in the floor. Lizards darted along the crumbling walls, and butterflies (for heaven’s sake, freaking butterflies) fluttered among flowering vines that crept in from outdoors. The place was vibrant with life reclaiming the ruins.

That’s what was wrong. This place was haunted. At least, it was supposed to be. It belonged to the centuries-old dead,  those who’d been locked away here due to plots and conspiracies by their enemies. The truly insane who died had passed on. The unjustly imprisoned remained, their cold anger banishing all warmth from the moldering halls, their dark memories shrouding the windows from persistent sunlight. I didn’t know why they tolerated me coming here so often; I only knew why I came. This was the only place I could go where the outside world matched how I felt inside since Jonathan and our baby died.

Now the bright cheerfulness pervading the decrepit old building felt alien, glaring, even obscene. A bee buzzed by my cheek and I shrieked and jumped a foot, considerably more startled than when I first felt ghostly fingers touching my hair. I leaned against the wall, calming my furiously pounding heart, but the sun-warmed stone touching my skin freaked me out more than clammy, dripping walls ever did. What was going on here? What the hell was going on?

“Are you alright?”

I whirled towards the sound, fright mingling with relief that there was someone here, someone who might have answers.

“I heard you scream, so I came to see if you were alright.” The voice belonged to a man standing at the end of the hallway. Leather boots, torn jeans, dirty white shirt unbuttoned to partially reveal a solid chest. His eyes were ageless, and extraordinarily beautiful.

“Where are the ghosts?” I asked him, ignoring his concern.

“They left,” he replied. If he was surprised by my question, I couldn’t hear it in his tone.

“They left? Why?”

“I guess I scared them,” he answered, with an almost imperceptible lift at the corner of his mouth. Almost, but not quite.

“You scared them,” I deadpanned, despite the fact that my heartbeat was still in overdrive. “What could scare a ghost?”

“A wizard who could grant them another life.”

In my surprise, only the first part of his reply registered. I looked at him standing ten feet away, completely ordinary except for those remarkable eyes. “A  wizard. Right.” My disbelief couldn’t be more obvious.

At this, he chuckled and shook his head slightly, then started to amble towards me. “So let me get this straight. You believe in ghosts, but not in wizards?”

“I’ve seen ghosts,” I shot back.

He stopped about four feet away, holding out his arms at his sides. “Well, now you’re seeing a wizard, Melissa.”

The strangeness of the day, the drastic changes in my hideout, and the fact that this stranger knew my name choked any reply that I might have made to that.  Fear lodged in my throat so securely that I couldn’t make a sound.

“It just comes with the territory,” he offered gently, never moving from his spot, his watchful eyes marking my shock. “I mean you no harm.”

“Say you really are a wizard,” I said, struggling to swallow my fright just to get answers. “Why would you harm the spirits who were trapped here? And why is everything suddenly so different?”

He looked around at the sun-dappled, vine-tangled hallway. “It’s different because once their influence dissipated, nature started making up for lost time. But I didn’t harm your ghosts, Melissa, nor did I want to. I came here two nights ago because I was injured from a fight with two rivals who ambushed me nearby,” he explained, gesturing to the brown stains on his shirt, which I now realized were dried blood. “I defeated them, and I was able to close my wounds, but I needed a place to regain my strength. So I came here.”

“That doesn’t explain anything,” I interjected, my bravado rising again. “Even if any of it were true in the first place.”

“It’s all true,” he assured me, but instead of offense, I saw a hint of admiration at my determined recovery. “I’m powerful enough to grant a spirit in limbo a second chance at life. I’ve done it before, twice, for very good reasons. No one else can do that, and I guess it made me quite notorious in the supernatural world, so when I came here, the ghosts fled.”

“But why would they do that?” I cried, my heart starting to swell with unbearable desire, with anguished need. “Why would anyone miss a second chance at life?” If it were true, if he could do it, if it were in any way possible…my child, my beautiful child, and Jonathan, just to hold him close once again—

“Melissa,” he interrupted my frantic, half-formed thoughts. His voice was gentle, yet inexorable as rain as he doused my faint, flickering hope, “I can’t bring your family back. They’re no longer in limbo. They’ve moved on.”

Did I say my hope was faint? Yet when it was finally snuffed, there was a resounding crash, like a burned out house collapsing to the ground, burying me in ashes and burning, excruciating sorrow. It finally caught up with me here in my last escape, and I buckled under its weight, deaf to all else but the keening, animal sound of grief echoing against the walls. Dimly, I realized that it was my own throat making that horrible wailing, that I was finally weeping for what I had lost, releasing the flood of tears and racking sobs that I had kept firmly dammed for so long. I love them, I love them so much. I needed them, but I would never get them back. I would never get my family back, and I just wanted the agony to kill me.

But I didn’t die. After a long while, the tears were drained, and so was the last of my strength. I found myself lying on  the floor, curled up tightly with my back to the wall and my arms wound around my knees. The wizard—I realized that I didn’t know what else to call him—was sitting beside me, leaning against the wall and silently watching twilight fall through the window. That was all I registered before I gave in to the bone-deep exhaustion and fell asleep.

When I woke up, it was night time. There was no disorientation, just a returning awareness of grief and tiredness that not even the deepest sleep could ease. I gingerly sat up and took stock of my surroundings. The moon was out and there were some fireflies, but most of the light in the hospital hallway came from the little yellow fireball that my companion was tossing from hand to hand, much like my cousin Ted does with his favorite baseball. He looked at me and smiled, then casually waved a tall glass of water and a neatly wrapped sandwich into existence on the floor beside me. Still too tired to comment on this proof that he really was a wizard, I gratefully reached for the food and ate quietly.

When I was done, I leaned back against the wall beside him and stretched out my legs. “So you really are a wizard,” I remarked, just to break the silence. I winced at the hoarseness of my voice.

“Yep,” was all that he said.

“I still don’t understand why the ghosts ran away from you. I mean, they’re in limbo, so you could have helped them.”

“Can’t you really think of a reason?” he prodded, turning to me with an inscrutable look on his face.

“No,” I replied, genuinely puzzled but also glad for this tiny, momentary distraction from the barbed ache wrapped around my heart, piercing my lungs with every breath.

“Most ghosts don’t really want to live,” he explained. “They’ve gotten used to where they are. They haven’t accepted their deaths enough to move on, even after centuries. But life, with all its uncertainties, also terrifies them. Even being confronted with the choice to live again, the responsibility of having to say yes or no to that option, upsets them. So when they saw me coming, they fled.”

I was beginning to understand. I’d been a bit of a ghost myself, haunting this hospital, escaping the world. Only it wasn’t my own death that I was rebelling against. “Are they gone forever?”

“No,” he responded, shaking his head. “They’ll come back when I leave. Then all of this,” he gestured to the fireflies flickering among the vines on the opposite wall, “will go back to how it was.”

“Oh,” was all I could think of to say. The fireflies were really pretty, and I realized that I didn’t want them gone.

He smiled at my tone, a quiet smile, full of compassion. “You won’t be able to come back here, Melissa.”

“Why not?” I asked, but somehow I already sensed the answer.

“You’re no longer like them, not since you started facing your loss today. You’re now entering reality once again, rejoining the land of the living. They won’t let you back in. But you no longer need this place, anyway.”

“Living hurts,” I whispered, my voice cracking and tears, never too far away now, rushing back into my eyes. “It hurts so damned much.”

“I know,” he murmured. Then he released his fireball to float in front of us and slowly, gently reached out to draw me closer. With utmost care he rested my head on his shoulder and put his arm around me, then added, “but not always. It won’t always hurt.”

With that promise, he pressed a kiss on my temple, a simple kindness, a blessing to go with the uncomplicated comfort of his warmth. We sat there inside the ruined old building, the fireball, the moon and the fireflies blurring through my tears, dancing points of light in the darkness of my first night back in the land of the living. This time, I didn’t close my eyes.

*****

This was written for Inspiration Monday, in response to the prompt “now entering reality”. However, it started as a dream that pretty much was like the beginning of this post, where she walks around to find all the ghosts gone, and I woke up wondering, what could frighten the dead? This was a way to answer that question. Sorry it got so long, and thanks for reading!

Through the forest

These are three 140-character stories for Microfiction Monday, hosted on Stony River. The challenge is to write a tweet-length (or shorter) tale based on the photograph or illustration provided every week. Week 56’s picture inspired three stories, and somehow, they all ended up involving fairy tales, perhaps because the image of a lone traveler and a path in the woods is such a familiar element in fantasy and myth that my mind recognized it immediately and refused to let go of the idea. It would be interesting to know what the photo will evoke in other microfiction writers. Anyway, here goes:

They warned the prince against wolves, but nobody cautioned him against the faerie-child’s spell.

The princess kept waiting; he never came.

*****

For stealing Cinderella’s slippers, Lea was doomed to wander for eternity, growing old and returning to youth, over and over and over again.

*****

Daddy read her stories of ladies trapped by witches in the forest. Maybe that’s where Mommy went. She might need help.

Lucy started walking.

*****

That’s it! Your turn. 🙂

 

 

Her Secret Life

This is a story for Microfiction Monday, hosted on Stony River. The challenge is to write a 140 character tale based on the photograph or illustration provided every week. This one’s my first try. You can join, too!

 

A bread/water diet, witch’s orders. Stupid Princess Pageant. Una realized the jousting outfit under her gown made her look fat. No one knew.

You’re far away, beside me

In the silence that followed Devin felt a sadness come over him…. A sense of the terrible spaces that always seem to lie between people. The gulfs that had to be crossed for even a simple touching.

~ From Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Click here to read my new review of an old favorite book on this new page. 🙂

A wish can be a dangerous thing

“I know there’s something strange about this well,” I say. “You told me last night that it’s cursed.”

“It is.”

“How?”

“It grants you your wish — can you think of anything more harmful?”

I shake my head. “I don’t get it. That sounds perfect.”

“Does it?”

– Charles de Lint (The Wishing Well)

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