Five Novels About Storytelling - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Five Novels About Storytelling

Alexander Wallace presents five novels about the power of stories.

I love stories. I love the idea of stories. I suspect that many readers of this article do too. What more is nerd fandom than loving spectacular stories of worlds we most likely will never see? It’s not for nothing that the origins of modern fandom can be traced to Hugo Gernsback and his magazine Amazing Stories, and that the entire genre of science fiction for a long time flourished in the medium of the short story (and in this century, I read four different science fiction magazines with regularity).

But it is rare that stories confront the art of storytelling themselves; it’s self-aware in a way that most people don’t care to be, as it can reek of naval-gazing and parlor games. In this article, I’d like to give you five different books in multiple genres that directly concern the art and the power that a story can have.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow.
This book was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2020; it was third in my preferences for the nominee (my favorite was Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, followed by Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame). Do not take that positioning as a slight; rather, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a delightful book about why people love ‘genre’ literature. January Scaller is a young dark-skinned woman in early 20th century Vermont, where she distracts herself from the cruelty of her adopted father and his associates. The plot really kicks off when she finds a special book in a chest in the house, which begins a story about stories that has stuck with me for quite a while.

Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove.
It’s the late sixteenth century. The Spanish have ruled England with an iron fist ever since Philip II’s Spanish Armada succeeded in its invasion. Under many oppressive regimes, there have been those writers and artists who have used their skills to resist the oppressor with samizdat or tamizdat. In this world, that task falls to the humble playwright William Shakespeare, who must write a play that sets England aflame.

Ireland by Frank Delaney.
Of all these books, this is perhaps the most un-Warped Factor. Ireland is a straight historical novel about the child Ronan O’Mara, who is enthralled by a travelling storyteller who visits his village in rural Ireland in the 1950s. Fascinated by this old man’s stories, Ronan begins a lifelong quest to find him. Interspersed throughout the novel are several sections that tell stories of Irish myth and history in an exquisitely written way, bringing this country, foreign to most of us, to life. It’s a must-read for anyone who loves Ireland, but you don’t need to be Irish to appreciate it; I, a Filipino-American, loved it.

The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes.
The Deep was another 2020 Hugo nominee, albeit not the winner. The plot concerns a society of mermaid-like beings who are descended from the slaves cast into the ocean from the merchant ships carrying human cargo during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The main character is tasked with being the only one who can remember all the awful memories of the slave ships because it’s too traumatizing for the rest of her people. This is a story about the memory of the past, and the power of storytelling to bring it back temporarily, and what is the responsibility of those entrusted with that task.

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.
Ireland may be the least Warped Factor of all these books, but Calvino’s entry here is simply the straight-up strangest. It starts with a main character deciding to read the newest novel by Italo Calvino (presaging just how meta this book gets), and then goes to a chapter that purports to be from that newest novel by Italo Calvino (are you confused yet?) The book goes back and forth between the main overarching plot and excerpts from this alleged novel by Italo Calvino, whose contents change radically from iteration to iteration. In addition to being one hell of a mind-screw, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler also encapsulates the sheer joy of reading more than any other book I’ve ever read.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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