This is an ode to my first summer love. The one that made me realize that my imagination made me powerful. It taught me that there were whole worlds rippling underneath the surface of my everyday life, that creativity, bravery, and love for others were the highest of all virtues. When school let out for the summer, it became my constant companion and I visited its house on Library Ave. several times a week. It was during these sweet summers that I developed my love of narrative and imaginative worlds that has informed every career-related decision I’ve ever made. With great pleasure I offer this post, an ode to the Fantasy Novel, to share and honor all the lessons it’s taught me about love and the real world.
Love is always sacred and profane, human and divine, real and illusionary: the best love is often tinged with the pain of impossibility. Fantasy shows us the sweeping cosmic romance and the bounded, earthly erotic, the everlasting friendship sealed with sacrifice. But, let’s not forget the most important lesson that fantasy teaches us about love: it’s freaking weird.
Rhinegold by Stephen Grundy:
Love is apparently very hard to distinguish from lust and it can definitely happen on first sight. This whole distinguishing process is made more difficult when the object of your affection is an all-powerful god who walks the earth in human form, planting his seed in the wombs of strong women in the hope that they will raise a hero of epic proportions (physically and metaphorically). Also, sometimes you love yourself and the idea of continuing your genealogical line so much that you accidently/kind of knowingly have sex with your twin sister. Though while this is usually grounds for a plague on your houses, that is not always the case.
It’s clear that this book is also a labor of love, as Grundy (who studied English and German philology) produced a careful retelling that is part epic, part sexy romance novel. It’s got the best of the fantasy genre: dragons, rituals, heroes, sex, dwarves, failed marriage plots, witches, shaman, wolves, war, gods, religious tension, murder, and most importantly, mead. For me, this book will always be the perfect embodiment of the fantastic, the epic, and the shamelessly erotic.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern:
“Place me like a seal over your heart, for love is as strong as death.” Forever and ever amen.
When I think of this book, my mind conjures images of textures, smoothly rippling silk, plushy velvet, pebbly mounds of popcorn, and smells: caramel, cider, smokey late-autumn bonfires. This book has served as boredom buster, fantastic escape, and sartorial inspiration.
I have my husband’s ex-girlfriend to thank for this contribution to my list of books about love–she was working at a bookstore with this gem first hit the shelves. Morgenstern’s playfully surrealistic novel traces the story of two young and gifted magicians who are competitors in an ancient game using the travelling Night Circus as the arena for their battles of imagination. Set in an ahistorical Victorian world, it’s everything I want in a romance: an intricate story of larger-than-life proportions supported by a cast of unusual, endearing characters who make me wish that I could be part of the circus.
The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind
Love is never simple and sometimes your biologically or magically induced physical body is not compatible with the body of your one, true love–but this can often be overcome especially if you are an exceptional man who is determined to go until the ends of space and time in order to conquer all obstacles. Also, you can love peasants, too and because you love them, you want them to become better than what they are and so you apparently decide the best way to do this is by quietly invoking the teachings of Ayn Rand.
Confession: The only reason I read these books is because I became obsessed with their TV series incarnation, Legend of the Seeker, my first year in college and I couldn’t wait for the second season to come out on DVD. The novel traces the adventures of Richard Cypher and Kahlan Amnel as they fight to restore balance and order in their universe (often with help from some badass dominatrices!)
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski:
Sometimes love is messy and convoluted and growing together sometimes means growing apart. But sometimes love can be transcendent and bodies moving together can speak in “two dark languages” that “rarely survive. As quickly as they’re invented , they die, unable to penetrate much, explore anything or even connect. Terribly beautiful but more often than not inadequate.”
Love is convoluted.
A long list of people recommended this book to me, but the most convincing pitch was from one of my students who told me that she thought it would really relate to our class’s discussion of Freud’s essay on the uncanny (the term “unheimlich” is featured in the novel). House of Leaves is a triplicate narrative that is, most simply, about a house that’s curiously bigger on the inside than it appears and/or measures on the outside. In many ways, the book resists traditional summary by its labyrinthine, multi-genre nature—there are many ways to read the novel, many of them decidedly non-linear (kind of like love, right?).
Adult Fairy Tale Anthologies: Black Swan, White Raven; Snow White, Blood Red, (both edited by Datlow/Windling) and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, etc.
Sometimes love can be really fucked up, but there gets to be a point where love is so fucked up that it’s actually not love anymore. Also, Stockholm syndrome is different from love, although they look suspiciously similar. But lust can totally lead to love. Sacrifice and violence are often intertwined with love and lust, and if someone goes through massive amounts of bodily harm for you, then they probably love you. Anyone who says they are killing you because they love you doesn’t actually love you and you should probably kill them before they kill you. Ogres are actually viable sexual partners. Also, stepmothers never love you, no matter what.
Tithe by Holly Black
Sometimes love can be relatively predictable: an exceptional girl who grows bored of her lame-ish friends meets a mysterious man with a dark secret. She tricks the mysterious man into maintaining a contact with her, thinking she can manipulate him with her exceptionality like she does all the other men in her life. But the exceptional girl quickly finds out that out she may be in over her head as she is thrown into a world that she never knew existed.
The greatest and most enduring pleasure of reading Tithe was the introduction of a fantasy-world aesthetic that still resonates with me: a kind of “Alice in Urbanland” amalgamation of a mystic faerie world with the lives of ordinary people living in rather ordinary towns
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Because sometimes we all get by with a little help from our friends (especially when our friends are powerful wizards, able to command armies of dead warriors to fight on your behalf, or remember to bring spices in case you find taters on your journey to Mordor).