Sabaa Tahir Lights A Torch Against the Night: Flights of Fantasy

Second world fantasy set in pre-technological worlds comes with a built-in set of problems for both the writer and the readers – pacing. It is quite possible to write a novel where the characters just walk from one set piece or place to the other. That gets old fast, and you can end up feeling like you’re reading a dull travelogue with bits of violence wedged in.

That is absolutely not a problem with Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night and An Ember in the Ashes. It’s rather the reverse and not a problem at all so long as you have cleared some time to read. These are stripped-down, raw, fast-paced fantasy chase thrillers. Tahir does a lot of smart re-invention of the genre with these novels, weaving themes of ethnicity, immigration and romance into a tight action narrative.

The structure of the novel is key to its enjoyment. Tahir alternates chapters between key characters. In A Torch Against the Night we meet Laia first, as her family is torn asunder in political upheaval. We meet Elias next; he’s a Mask, training at the Blackcliff Military Academy. They’re on opposite sides of a conflict that has an immediate, urgent feel. Power is being wielded by the cruelest and richest, in their own interest. An Ember in the Ashes adds a third character to the mix, offering yet another perspective.

At the prose level, and the immersive-reading-experience level, both of these books read like well-written, psychologically-informed thrillers. Tahir keeps the action close and lets the world speak for itself, laconically. She’s pretty much all show, no tell, and as a result, understanding the nature of the world she’s building becomes a plot tension point. It’s detailed, with a nice mixture of medieval realism with a mere soupcon of the fantastic – at least at first. As we dive deeper into the world, the weird starts to come out of the woodwork. It’s nice to see that she’s mining more than the usual mythologies, drawing most interestingly from middle-Eastern mythos. But she’s not just working with supernatural elements; the novel has a bit of science fiction as well. The result is a world that feels more well-rounded.

sabaa_tahir-2016-large.jpgA cast of well-drawn characters propels the novel. Laia, Elias, and others (best discovered in-story) are written with a compelling immediacy. Tahir creates a world that is very different from ours, but one that directly and indirectly addresses ours. Given that this is a second-world fantasy, it offers the best of both worlds – gritty realism, thrilling action, and an imagined world where the story unfolds.

Ultimately, both A Torch Against the Night and An Ember in the Ashes offer readers an exhilarating mix of exciting narrative, muscular prose set in a thought-provoking world. Balancing the power of optimism with a dark and gnarly conflict, Tahir evokes emotions we understand in a world we’ve never encountered. Back in our world get some new shadows, and some new light.

<a name=”ttrms” id=” ttrst”> </a>Here’s a link to download the lightning-round interview with Sabaa Tahir, or you can listen at your desk by clicking below.

And here is a link to download my in-depth conversation or take a vacation in another world by listening below.



Douglas Preston Follows Story to Story to The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

It might seem almost obvious. A lost city in an unexplored jungle. Explorers, living and dead. High tech informing an almost impossible trek. Every element of a great story is there. But there are lots of elements and lots of stories. How might one architect all of this material into a single book? Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story reads like lightning even as it pulls together the remarkably complicated threads of what prove to be a series stunning stories. In the moment, you’ll not want to put the book down. Afterwards, you might wonder, how did he get all that stuff in there?

preston-the_lost_city_of_the_monkey_godThe Lost City of the Monkey God may cover a lot of ground, but it doesn’t feel that way. Preston wisely weaves in the history with the story of his own exploration of an unexplored tract of jungle in Honduras, called Mosquitia (not named for the wildlife). For centuries, we learn, men have been looking for a “White City” or a “Lost City of the Monkey god” in this jungle. The explorers themselves are a diverse bunch, ranging from charlatans and liars to scientists, scholars and soldiers. Nobody found the city, nobody brought home the gold, beyond Preston, who mines their stories well.

The story of the expedition that Preston finds himself tied up in is even more fascinating than the history. The conflicts he explores in the field of archaeology between engineers and historians are on-going to this day. Make no mistake, Preston was not at first eager to join this crew. Like many, he doubted that any huge city could have existed where we currently see what appears to be untouched primal jungle. That’s pretty much what the science has been telling us, until recently. But Preston and his gang (along with David Grann) have put the lie to that notion.

Readers should be aware that they may get their full annual ration of snakes, bugs, and the slimy, deadly terrors of the jungle. And just when Preston thinks to have escaped, it seems that, as it happened in Relic (which he co-authored with Lincoln Child), something has followed him out of the jungle. Alas, it is not the were-jaguar portrayed in a sculpture found in the city.

douglas_preston-2016-sfcWe like to think we know pretty much everything about the earth, that we have conquered land and sea and sky. But as Douglas Preston demonstrates in The Lost City of the Monkey God there is a lot we do not know. And what we do know seems to be scattered willy-nilly everywhere. Douglas Preston brings it all together in a taut, exciting book that reads like a novel but has the raw power of truth. This book offers peril and terror, but also awe and wonder. There are fresh sights for us to see. Here is a book to open your eyes.

Before you open your eyes, or even after, you will want to hear the author speak. His enthusiasm, the echoing aftershocks that he is still experiencing from his journey are right there for you to hear. You might listen to about three minutes of this, run out, buy and read the book, and then listen to the rest. You might find yourself downloading the file from this link and listening with fixed awe to Preston. You might also click below and never go back. Welcome to Mosquitia. Netting is not optional.

David Grinspoon Sees Earth in Human Hands: Learning to Drive a Planet

It’s easy to be overwhelmed. There are so many moving parts, so much to keep track of – but we humans, having brought the planet this far, have demonstrated our ability to craft unintended change. Now, astrobiologist David Grinspoon says in his new book Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future, it’s our turn to take control and carry on with intended change – because, as his study of the planet Venus suggests, the end results of not doing so may well be terminal.

grinspoon-the_earth_in_human_handsWith Earth in Human Hands, Grinspoon looks outward, to the stars and the exoplanets, and then back, to the Earth. Make no mistake, this is a page-turning work of speculative non-fiction, offering readers the thrills of science fiction stories that are grounded in what we actually know at this moment. A huge part of that knowledge, as described by Grinspoon, involves the idea of “deep time” in order to help readers obtain the right perspective.

But that’s just the first of many fascinating stories that Grinspoon spins as he takes readers on speculative journeys to the past, the future, and even the present, informed by the latest science as well a strong engaging narrative voice. Grinspoon does particularly well with the Gaia hypothesis and the trickster-style researchers who originated it, weaving together the story of scientists and science to help us achieve and keep perspective. In this context, he discusses the plusses and minuses of geoengineering, as well as some of the proposed solutions to climate change.

Grinpsoon does not confine himself to the human race however. His sense of fun is infectious as he dives into contact with extra-terrestrial intelligences, and the potential for intelligent life on earth. After all, we’re on our way to the sixth of seventh mass-extinction, following in the footsteps, so to speak, of the microscopic life that brought about its own demise and created oxygen in life’s first go-round on Earth. If we blow ourselves up (and/)or kill off pretty much everything, then perhaps intelligent is not the best description for humanity.

david_grinspoon-2016-insetThe most enjoyable aspect of Earth in Human Hands is Grinspoon’s voice. He really has a talent for writing non-fiction that makes you want to turn the pages as fast as possible, mark them for future reference and read the book aloud to those around you. He can and does look at the terrifyingly difficult coming years with a clear eye – but this is in no way a depressing book. While he sees the difficulties with clarity, he also sees the opportunities as well. We may become mature, in spite of everything we have done.

When I spoke with David Grinspoon, and you can hear it easily, there is simply a sense that humans, having invented science, can invent everything else we need to succeed. You can follow this link to download our conversation or listen below.