Aug. 15th, 2010

The hardest part about my hometown is trying to imagine it through objective eyes.

Looking west to Alturas

After driving hours on a narrow highway, winding through mountain passes and long, summer-dry valleys, any sign of civilization is a relief.

Even if there aren't all that many. But it's hard to stay awake this late, and the other town was gone before it was even there, it seemed. A paper-cutout ridge of mountains lines the horizon on the east side, improbably snow-capped. There really only seems to be this one main street--oh there are intersecting streets, but they don't seem to lead anywhere. Exploring further, there are likely only churches left to find.

All the streets seem too wide for the lack of traffic, and does anyone actually live there? Wait, two jean-clad people of indeterminate gender have just stepped from one of the stores. It's an old-fashioned main street: two-story, western-style facades, one-building blocks, and none of the stores particularly stand out. Although the Title Co. seems to have been repainted recently--as opposed to anything else, but it doesn't look much like a Title Co. at second glance, whatever a Title Co. may be.

Then there's the flashing yellow light: "FIE TUK CROSSING"

Over the railroad tracks and already more than halfway through town. But signs, finally, of not being in the Twilight Zone remake: there's a RiteAid! a Shell! And a Quiznos!--how sudden. Their bright, professionally designed logos and plastic colors seem dropped from Mars.

Fortunately, the incongruous sight passes quickly, and after the flashing red light intersection--the only one in town, the road continues, and real civilization is only a little more than a hundred miles away.

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Character is the first thing I look for when reading, but a definite, clear setting is a close second. Fortunately, I've been on a reading kick lately, and actually have an example that covers both.

The Accidental Sorcerer by K.E. Mills (pseudonym for Karen Miller) has strong characters that are fully part of their entirely fictional fantasy world. Which is especially interesting because I don't think the world is given a name.

I think that indicates how strong a fantasy setting it is. In this book, the first of the Rogue Agent series, three different countries are in play: or rather, primary protagonist Gerald Dunwoody moves from Ottosland to New Ottosland, the colony, which is entirely surrounded by the desert country of Kallarapi.

Never, in any of these settings, is the audience given a rundown of the political system, the laws, the culture or the population statistics. Instead, the characters move through their surroundings, and like people reflect only on what immediately impacts them. So Gerald doesn't really think about how his government operates, but as a third-grade wizard and cog of bureaucracy, we learn about out it operates on a day-to-day level, and more importantly the attitude the government has to its function. Gerald's whole story begins when, at the factory he was sent to inspect , there is an explosion as a result of lax safety standards. Instead of the illustrious company being investigated, Gerald is fired.

Because he is only a third-grade wizard, several self-important first-class wizards go out of their way to make him further miserable--a very clear class structure that is only emphasized by his absent-minded, genius-inclined best friend Monk who is so far up the social ladder that, while he cannot directly get Gerald out of trouble, he can make the others back off. However, when his own stunts go awry, he isn't immune from the consequences.

The focus of the book is Gerald's time in New Ottosland. Unlike the mother country, New Ottosland follows Tradition with the capital "T". They speak the same language, every building is an exact copy, and every king is named Lionel and every queen Melisande--as are the first male and female heir. Gerald's problem is the new King Lionel disbelieves in any need for advisors or anything other than strict obedience.

And war is brewing with Kallarapi, the desert that surrounds New Ottosland. Given descriptions of turbans, camels, and very prominent Holy Men and gods, at first glance, Kallarapi might read as the stereotypical middle-eastern backwards country. But holy man Shugat is, well, if not good, especially to our protagonists, at least right. Kallarapi is a fully independent county--it represents mostly how backwards New Ottosland has become.

The beginning the The Accidental Sorcerer is in many ways whimsical. There's a great deal of witty banter, and wry observations on the fabric of society. But the strongest part of the book, the most moving, is that there really is evil in this world, and no one can be perfectly good.

Evil is human, and there is death--and it actually affects the characters. Someone is tortured, and changed forever. Everyone is actually impacted by the end, and there is no magical healing.

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