Bookbanter Column: The Long Read (June 22, 2012)

Books come in all shapes and sizes and most importantly, in various lengths.

A variety of authors write and publish a variety books with a variety of page numbers. Some are small and seemingly pathetic 200-page novellas, some are your average 300-400 page-turners, and then there are those special authors that like to write those 800-1000 page behemoths.

Now, mind you, books will vary in length depending on genre: children’s books will usually be within that 200-page mark, young adult pushes it to 300 (unless you’re Harry Potter!), mysteries tend to be in the 300-400 page range, and a number of fantasy authors like to write those really long ones.

This column is about those special heavy tomes.

In the last couple of years there have been a number of these long books published by a variety of authors in various genres, and I’ve read a fair number of them and they’ve all been pretty good.

So if you’re looking for that long 800-1000 pager to get sucked into, check out the titles below.

11/22/63 by Stephen King (849 pages)

Jake Epping is a thirty-five year old high school teacher living in Lisbon Falls, Maine. He enjoys his simple life, conveying to kids not just the beauty of the English language, but discussing and enlightening the teenagers with some of the great works of literature.

In the opening of 11/22/63, the reader learns about Harry Dunning’s past life. Dunning is an adult student who got his high school diploma a while ago; Jake still has that very special essay Dunning wrote. It wasn’t grammatically correct, and was filled with spelling errors; but it was also the story of the day Dunning’s father came home drunk, when he was a child, and brutally murdered his mother, sister and brother with a hammer, while Dunning barely made it out alive with his life, suffering a smashed leg.

It was a moving story that Jake has never forgotten.

He enjoys his days after school going to see his friend Al, who owns a local diner, where he enjoys one of the most delicious burgers on the planet, and the amazing thing about it is he hasn’t raised his prices in decades. A customer can still enjoy a burger with fries for the ridiculously cheap price of under $3. It seems like something Jake should be suspicious about, but the burgers taste too damn good. The following day Jake meets up with Al again and finds him to be a changed man, incredibly aged overnight and he looks like he’s dying; that’s when Al tells him his story.

In the back of his diner is a portal to 1958.

Al himself has been back a number of times, and each time he comes back through it to the present, everything resets. He’s narrowed everything down to one important event he believes will change everything: the assassination of JFK. He tried once, spending five years back then, but it didn’t work. Now it’s up to Jake. And just to prove that anything is possible, Jake’s first mission is going to be to go back and stop Dunning’s father from killing his family.

Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (1008 pages)

Readers are returned first to Kote at the Waystone Inn with his friend and apprentice, Bast. A new day begins, after the stories and surprising events of the one before. Chronicler sits ready to record the story, while Kote has already been up many hours, preparing fresh cider and newly baked bread. And so Kote continues the story of his life, the story of Kvothe the arcanist.

The sixteen year-old continues his studies at the University, struggling to get by. He has spent his recently acquired monies on a new lute and now has little to show for it, but the instrument is an investment. Now raised to the next level of arcanist, Re’lar, his tuition is considerably higher, and his must borrow money to pay for it. Fortunately, he has his incredible talent as a musician and singer, and is able to make some money this way through a clever scheme at the inns.

Then there is the Fishery, where all manner of arcana are made. Kvothe has spent previous terms learning and inventing simple items such as sympathy lamps that bring in a decent amount of money, but this term he is challenged to create something truly unique; it will take him many months, but the result will fetch a high price.

Kvothe is also finally granted access to the priceless Archives once more, and after learning how to travel its complex, labyrinthine halls, corridors and stacks; begins his incessant research on the unknown Chandrian, for they are the ones who murdered his family and friends.

Meanwhile, Kvothe’s relationship with Deanna continues to go nowhere fast, as he does all he can to make her happy and feel special . . . everything that is except confess his love for her. He even breaks into the rooms of his mortal enemy to steal back Deanna’s ring and proceeds to get himself into a whole mess of trouble.

At the end of the term, Kvothe seems to have everything in order, but has a couple of options: he can continue with his studies the following the semester, and risk having the gossip of his involvement jeopardize his studies; or he can leave town and try something different for a while. Fortunately at that moment, there is a rich noble from Vintas looking to woo a certain lady and needs one skilled with words. So begins the second half of the book, as Kvothe is soon on his way and finds himself involved in the noble courts, as a different world is revealed to the reader of manners and ways and courtly intrigue. Kvothe is also employed into a gang to stop a band of bandits terrorizing the tax collectors. In this gang he befriends a unique man and seeks to learn his ways and culture.

The question is whether he can understand and learn this man’s language, as well as stop these bandits once and for all. Meanwhile, in the back of his mind, Kvothe wonders and hopes if the rich noble who has employed him may wish to take him on permanently as his patron.

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (1040 pages)

In the North, around the Wall, King Stannis Baratheon seems to spend a lot of time trying to decide what to do with no real power or army to use, while listening to Lady Melisandre, who continues to spout enigmatic prophecies that make little sense; yet readers do get to enjoy a chapter from her viewpoint for the first time.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow is elected as the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, as he must deal with not just enemies beyond the Wall, but also amongst the very men he leads and is in charge of. He works with the wildlings, bringing them south of the wall to bolster his forces in preparation for a possible attack from the Others; it seems to be an interesting act of diplomacy, but goes on for far too many pages, with little action or continuing story taking place.

Much of the rest of the book takes place to the far East.

Martin has provided a couple of new maps, but nothing so clearly defined and comprehensible as the great continent of Westeros. Tyrion flees to Pentos, drowning himself in wine. He is forced to join with a group traveling to Meereen, along with the apparently not so dead prince Aegon Targaryen. Tyrion – as he always does – manages to get involved in a whole variety of adventures, including the meeting of another dwarf, and a female no less!

Daenerys is the character that seems most put through the ringer in this book; much like Cercei was in A Feast for Crows.

She is no longer the tough, proud, defiant woman that everyone feared, and not just because she has three growing dragons. Having conquered Meereen, she should be the unstoppable, unquestionable queen that she is, and yet insurrection is afoot and Daenerys cannot seem to decide what to do; perhaps it is because she has become obsessed and besotted with one of her soldiers and seems to be able to think of little else when he is nearby, and yet he is of lower class and cannot possibly be her husband.

The black dragon, Drogon, meanwhile is running rampant through the countryside as growing “teenage” dragons do, and Daenerys has no idea how to control him.

Finally there is Quentyn Martell, Prince of Dorne, whose story comes from nowhere as we follow his trek across the lands to Meereen, where he hopes to woo Daenerys by enslaving one of her dragons. It does not end well for him. Interspersed throughout the lengthy book are other POV chapters from the likes of Bran Stark, Davos Seaworth, Reek (who is in fact the very not dead Theon Greyjoy), Arya Stark, Victarion Greyjoy, as well as some surprise cameos from Jaime and Cercei Lannister.

Reamde by Neal Stephenson (1056 pages)

Richard Forthrast is our approaching-middle-age hero who is one of the big brains behind the multi-billion dollar MMO, T’Rain, which is known throughout the world, whether you’re a rich white kid who likes to pretend he’s an elf, or a gold farmer somewhere in Asia looking to make some good money.

T’Rain was in fact created with that in mind – Richard’s past is not a completely clean one by any means – to be open and available and possibly profitable to just about anyone on the planet with a good Internet connection. And then a very specific virus attacks T’Rain, known as Reamde, which immediately begins making a lot of money for its creators and screwing over a lot of the regular players. Richard and his team of brainiacs are now working round the clock trying to bring a stop to this.

Meanwhile, one of Richard’s family members – Zula – originally from East Africa and adopted into the family as a young girl, was hired by Richard to work for T’Rain, and becomes involved in a really big problem when her boyfriend Peter – who happens to be a renowned hacker – is looking to make good money selling credit card numbers to a shady, unknown character. Things take a turn for the worse, when the Reamde virus hits and screws everything up for him. Before they know it, the Russian mafia is breaking down their door, kidnapping them, and taking them to Asia by private jet to find the perpetrators of the Reamde virus and get their revenge.

Reamde begins like an expected Stephenson book with computers and an MMO, but then makes a change to a Tom Clancy-style thriller, as the characters travel around the world, getting involved in elaborate shootouts in distant countries.

Eventually Islamic terrorist even get involve, as well as a member of MI6 who seems to appear from nowhere and gets a twenty page introduction. The crux of the book takes place towards the end of the first third of the book, in what Cory Doctorow calls “. . .an epic, 100+ page climactic mini-war.”

The ongoing saga eventually leads back to Seattle and the northwest, passing into Canada, where the novel began, pulling Richard Forthrast into the mix.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (1008 pages)

Our story focuses on two characters.

One is Kaladin, a young man in his twenties who has seen much of life already. Raised by his surgeon father to become a brilliant doctor, he instead turns to the life of a warrior, with hopes of getting his hands on a Shardblade, and soon sees his fair share of death and bloodshed.

Now he is a slave, for reasons unknown, with little to hope for in life. He soon becomes a member of the bridge crew, a group of slaves whose job it is to carry a giant, heavy bridge across great distances and to lay it across the chasms to allow the soldiers to cross and attack the enemy. Kaladin becomes part of bridge team four, which is renowned for losing the most lives each time it races into battle. Kaladin finds a unique luck on his side, as he manages to continue to survive, and then chooses to work for his team, train them, create survival tactics for them, and he discovers something he thought he’d lost for good: hope and his will to live.

Then there is Shallan, a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times after the death of their father. The family is in possession of a Soulcaster, a unique magical device that can essentially create just about anything out of nothing, only now it is broken. However, Shallan has a plan: to become the ward and student for Jasnah Kolin, sister of King Elhokar of Althekar, with plans to replace Jasnah’s Soulcaster with her own; her only problem is she has no idea how to use it.

A number of interludes throughout the book help to introduce some minor characters to explore some more of this overwhelming world, such as Szeth-son-son-Vallano, who is an assassin from the land of Shinovar, possessing a unique magic to flip gravity around. And then there are the spren, which are spirits that seem to be caused by or drawn to specific happenstances and emotions, such as fear, pain, music, rot, and glory to name a few.

Little is known or understood of the spren, other than they exist, while Kaladin finds himself befriending a specific spren that seems to be evolving.

Under the Dome by Stephen King (1074 pages)

Imagine the quintessential American town – Chester Mills, Maine – where life has rolled along at its own sedate pace since the beginning of time; it is a simple life that many envy and yearn for, while others disregard and ridicule.

Now imagine that an invisible dome forms around the boundaries of the town, trapping everyone and everything inside, as well as preventing anyone and anything from entering; all that is able to pass through is air since it’s composed of tiny molecules. From now on the humble citizens of Chester Mills must live off of whatever supplies and reserves they have.

Then add some classic, unique and outright bizarre Stephen King characters; you’ve got yourself a very special story, weighing in at over a thousand pages.

There’s Dale Barbara, an ex-military man who came to Chester Mills to get away from everything, working as a cook at Sweetbriar Rose. After getting into a serious fight with the town bullies – who include the sheriff’s son – he’s all set to quit town, but the dome comes down before he’s able to make his escape. Now he’s trapped inside with a whole mess of people who hate his guts and would sooner see him dead.

Jim Rennie – known as “Big Jim – is the town’s Second Selectman, a member of the three-member team that makes up the governing body for Chester Mills. Only Big Jim has everyone in his pocket, owning him favors, and he’s also been running an underground scheme that’s making him a very rich man. He thrives on power and being in charge, and when the dome comes down he thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world; his calling from God to take charge once and for all.

Julia Shumway is the editor, publisher, and devout writer for her very own Chester Mill’s Democrat, continuing the family business, and always looking for a great story and a way to reveal the true, seedy underbelly of Chester Mills that she knows exists. After Dome Day, she knows Jim Rennie is up to something and will stop at nothing to expose him for the fraud he is.

And 13-year-old Joe McClatchey, a good-looking nerd with all the answers, but he also has some important ideas about what exactly the dome is and what might’ve made it happen. While the town slowly devolves into pandemonium, he spends his time trying to find out the cause of it all.

Stephen King conceived this book, originally titled Cannibals, early on in his career, but was never satisfied with the story.

Now he has delivered the weighty tome of Under the Dome, where lines will be drawn, sides declared, alliances forged, and enemies and allies made.

Many people will die – which is no surprise for a King novel – but the wild thrill ride will keep you addictively reading, aching to find out how it all ends.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

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