Inspired by a tweet from a friend which inspired a blog post by another, I wondered what books I’ve read that have been life-changing. There are several ways to tackle that question!
One book I particularly remember was “The White Dragon” by Anne McCaffrey. It was the first time I’d read McCaffrey. My year 7 English teacher had one lesson a week where we could simply read. I discovered only later that the intention was to read the books we were assigned for English as a number of my classmates would avoid reading anything resembling a book if they could, but I was already a voracious reader. The White Dragon was recommended to my by a friend. I’d rather naïvely asked which was the best one, and he’d foolishly pointed to this one instead of answering the question I should have asked: which one should I start with? It was likely my first exposure to a new type of fantasy. One with realistic people dealing with very human problems tightly meshed with a wonderfully realized and unique fantasy world.
I’ve since bought and read nearly everything McCaffrey wrote. She was very good at characterisation and developing her characters throughout a story. There was realistic sounding dialogue. There were scenes to make you cry. There were amazing victories over incredible odds. There was, quite simply, daring and wonderful writing.
Another work of hers that I’ve also come to value was “Get Off The Unicorn“. This is, unusually, a collection of short stories written by McCaffrey. Many of these were from her earliest times as a writer and show a lot of daring ideas. She arguably became more conservative as she got older. There are stories here that later formed the basis for a series of movels, but there are also stories here that did not. Again, the amazing variety of characterisation is apparant, as is the tightly-meshed world each story is set in.
In one of his many essays, C. S. Lewis wrote about out how many would-be authors will create a fantastic background and then proceed to tell (for example) an ordinary love story in front of it. McCaffrey could do that, but she obviously preferred to make the fantastic background part of the story. The frantic search that Daffiyd Op Owen ran for an unregistered telepath could not have worked outside the fragile environment of newly emerged telepaths in a future earth. Lord Jaxom’s life was forever altered because he impressed a white dragon. Take away the fantastic and the story disintegrates. This is a skill I want to be good at.
Another book which changed me was actually a series of books: The Belgariad by David Eddings. This is a more traditional fantasy adventure at first blush, but with two significant tricks. The first is incredibly detailed characters. They have distinct speech patterns, unique approaches to solving problems and special ways of interacting with each other. They can also make mistakes, and do, sometimes with significant consequences. I have re-read these books many many times, enjoying the journey they take me on. I know the ending well. But they taught me that the journey is also important. Maybe moreso.
The other difference I only discovered much later, after Eddings had published a version of his original notes. Turns out he had a degree in English literature and he had deliberately indulged in a number of old tropes common to adventure stories to write his own, in particular The Hero’s Journey. It has been argued by some that Eddings’ down-to-earth and accessible characters is what revitalised the fantasy adventure genre. Which is probably what he intended to do.
I didn’t know it at the time, but The Hero’s Journey is at the core of a lot of stories and myths from time immemorial. You can’t get away from it because human beings have been telling each stories since forever. The way a hero addresses a problem is the source of many an inspirational act. It is, in fact, the desire to tell these kinds of stories myself that have led me to seriously focus on being a writer.