To venture into the fantastic is to step onto unfamiliar ground. Some works do this figuratively, populating familiar locations with vampires, werewolves and other critters. Others prefer to be more literal, moving plot and characters at one feel swoop off to a distant landscape that often bears as much resemblance to the real location it’s based as Cliff’s Notes do to Les Miserables. Creators of imaginary worlds in some ways have it easier; there’s no physical artifact or weight of history to be fact-checked against by the “well, actually” crowd, and they paint on a blank canvas where the only continuity mistakes are their own. Authors choosing, however, to set their unreal adventures on very real real estate have a harder go of it, as every reader will have a different trigger point for errors or omissions in depiction that, once identified, will shut off suspension of disbelief and instead activate the klaxons of “Beware, lazy writing here”.
And yet, when done well, when an author draws on the associations of a place know to all – the lush deep growth of the Amazon jungle, the cobbled streets of Jerusalem, the pubs and alleys of the Dublin depicted not by a tourist board but by James Joyce – then the author has a head start, using what we imagine a place to be as a launching point for their own narratives.
The first book to transport us this week understands this; it just doesn’t use the effect well. Amazonas, by Alan Peter Ryan, features a gorgeous cover by Tomislav Tikulin. That, however, is pretty much the highlight of this journey into a South American Heart of Darkness. Dutiful wife Henrietta accompanies her feckless husband Edwin into the trackless jungle to follow brutal adventurer Crown to the thing that they think will make their fortunes: a “slave tree” that bears a most unholy fruit. Charged by Crown with finding a way to get the humanoid offspring of the slave tree to live, Henrietta engages in the inevitable conflict between ordered civilization and wild jungle. The lush prose is perhaps intended to evoke the overheated, fecund jungles the characters move through, but for all that the book is emotionally detached and unsatisfying. It’s not that the ending is nihilistic; rather, it’s that the narrative is in such a hurry to reach that nihilistic ending that any exploration of anything that doesn’t immediately feed that goal gets, for lack of a better word, mulched.
Legion, by Brandon Sanderson, heads for a slightly drier climate and offers something simultaneously more commercial and more streamlined. Stephen Leeds, the hero of the piece, has habit of manifesting fully-formed personalities who have whatever skill he needs at a given moment. This has given him both great wealth and great notoriety, as well as apparently doing a number on his love life. Rich beyond the dreams of Croesus, he doesn’t need to take any of the cases that are brought to his door on a regular basis. But when he’s asked to look into the disappearance of a man whose camera can supposedly take pictures of the past, Leeds (and a few of his aspects) head to Jerusalem in hopes of bringing him back. Slick and fast-paced, Legion feels like the setup for a larger story. Too many threads dangle at the end of it, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it as the first chapter in a new book.
The last stop on this week’s journey is actually legion in a different sense. Hal Duncan’s An A to Z of the Fantastic City is an altogether different beast, a collection of 26 short pieces on imaginary cities (some of which just happen to have real-world equivalents; his version of Dublin, for example, bears the same relation to the real one that W.P. Kinsella’s Iowa does to Heaven). The essays ascend through the alphabet, covering well-known “real” locales like Jerusalem, famous fictional places such as R’lyeh and Erewhon, and brand new locations such as Zeropol, running roughly a page and a half each. Some are engrossing, some are infuriating, some are aggressively abstruse, and none will satisfy a reader looking simply for a good story about an imaginary place. Those more interested in story will find little to chew on here, but a more introspective reader may find these ruminations on what the notion of a particular place actually means to be deeply satisfying.
Not all fantastic journeys are successful; not all imagined destinations tap into the magic they ostensibly hold as their raison d’etre. Still, a skillfully reimagined place, regardless of whose map it’s originally drawn on, can add much to a story – or overwhelm it.