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How do you know when the girl is imaginary?

Imaginary GirlsThe first thing I did upon finishing Nova Ren Suma's extraordinary book, Imaginary Girls, was to flip back to the beginning and read it again. Though I reread a lot, the one other time I have done so immediately is with Gene Wolfe's Peace. This is fitting, perhaps, as it is Wolfe's definition of good literature - "that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure" - that came into my mind as I was reading Imaginary Girls.

Upon finishing again, my thoughts turned from the sublime to the practical. I thought, "Huh. I wonder where they are going to shelve this." I can see Imaginary Girls being described both as "the realistic book all genre readers should pick up" and "the work of the fantastic guaranteed to appeal to all readers of realistic fiction." I can see where both those descriptions are accurate, and both contain the important part - everyone should read this book. 

Suma herself describes it as magical realism. I don't disagree, but I am going to talk about Imaginary Girls specifically in terms of the fantastic. I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but to talk about this book, I need to talk about how it ends.

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Hey, That's Not Fantasy, Revisited: Thoughts on Songs of Love and Death

Songs of Love and DeathA few months ago, I wrote an article on Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife in which I suggested that perhaps the novel wasn't fantasy literature.  This post inspired a number of comments, as well as a guest post by Ken Schneyer in which he explores the nature and limitations of genre definitions.  All of this was very interesting to me, and the question of how I define fantasy literature has been something that has been percolating in the back of my mind since then.

These questions came back to the surface when I picked up Songs of Love and Death, a collection of stories edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.  All of the stories engage both the supernatural, as well as the theme of love and romance, and this cross-genre focus made it an excellent volume to think about the nature of the fantasy genre.

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Intersections and Unexpected Moments

This summer, the fantastic and the usual intertwined while my family spent time at the ranch where I grew up. The constant companionship of memory and discovery guided my thoughts toward those unexpected moments when fantasy leaves the realm of intentional thought, and bursts through the surface of our daily lives. Not quite unexpected moments such as coming across a child’s toy sword or finding a copy of a favorite book sets us thinking about fantasy, or even dredging up some wonderfully apt association between the not-very-pleasant teller at the bank and the White Witch, but the moments where things seem to fall between, when the very thing we are doing or the very place we are, fits without our forcing it into the realm of fantasy.

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Whose Hero Is It, Anyway?

The Mistborn TrilogyA few months ago, I wrote about Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first novel in a trilogy. I noted that the series got off to a bang with an epigraph from someone nervous about their role as the prophesied “Hero of Ages,” and then showed a powerful magician named Kelsier encouraging slaves to rebel against their masters. The book then followed Kelsier to the capital of the “Final Empire,” detailing his plans to overthrow the regime, and his allusions to more secretive plans, such as assassinating a thousand-year-old despot, the “Lord Ruler.” Sounds pretty heroic to me.

But, I found to my pleasant surprise, Kelsier is by no means the main character of the book. That honor could just as well fall to Vin, Kelsier's new protege from the streets. Getting one expectation—oh, this book is about Kelsier the prophesied hero!—and quite a different result—never mind, it's about Vin who develops from a distrustful criminal into a powerful magician, capable of love!—is very often the sign of a well-written book.

Sanderson agrees with me. In an essay I'll discuss more later, he writes, “I’ve often said that good writing defies expectations. (Or, more accurately, breaks your expectations while fulfilling them in ways you didn’t know you wanted.)” In challenging my expectation of who the protagonist was, Mistborn succeeded. Over the course of the trilogy, however, a lot more bait-and-switches emerged, beyond just the identity of the Hero of Ages. The series provides another warning about judging a book by its cover. Literally. [note: this post contains major spoilers about the entire trilogy]

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The Witch-Queen of Fillory

The Magician KingLet's begin by taking note of the parameters - the circumstances, if you will - under which we are working. The first is that I can make absolutely no claim to objectivity here. Not only did I beta-read The Magician King, but Lev is a very dear friend. I have no critical distance from either text or from author.

The second circumstance of note is, there are going to be spoilers for The Magician King in this post. I am quite serious about this.

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