Witches, Dragons, and Toto Too
by Susan diRende
I read a lot this year, mostly fantasy, borrowing new books and old friends. Partly, because I was writing fantasy this year. Partly, because this was a year when it seemed every book hinged on an alternate reality. Hanging out with friends in a bar? Taking a cruise? Not in this continuum.
I devoured whole series the way some people binge-watch television, nonstop and through the night. I made my way through Discword, reading some of them twice. I read urban fantasy and steampunk, high fantasy and paranormal romance. (NOTE: I skip the sex scenes in most romance genre books because they feel about as erotic as a sex toys catalog, sterile and banal. It is a sign of my need to read that I kept on with them anyway.)
I loaded my phone with ebooks from the library and then, curling up on the couch, drank in worlds by the cool, blue glow of the screen.
Floating in my dream-state, I confess I devoured a lot of ‘easy’ books. Stories that were pretty formulaic, that didn’t tax me too much, weren’t too dark, and ended happily. Still, amid the easily digestible, there are some lovely reads and many a pleasant hour spent. Since we are still more or less house-bound, I figured I’d share a few series that might beguile you as they did me.
ON WITCHES and their ilk
I preferred female main characters hands down. Females with abilities, strengths within themselves, powers that don’t come out with guns blazing but rather used as a last resort. Who prefer what Granny Weatherwax, the most prominent witch in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series calls “headology.” She frequenly scorned the use of magic, insisting it was much easier to let other people’s belief in your powers do the heavy lifting for you. My favorite series within the 41-book Discworld uber-series follows Tiffany Aching from the discovery that she is a witch at age nine in The Wee Free Men to her settling fully into herself and her place in the world in The Shepherd’s Crown.
Honorable mention: Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library series. She’s not a witch exactly, but a Librarian, whose use of The Language acts much like an incantation, so the distinction is moot. There are dragons in this series as well, which dovetails nicely to…
I like dragons in the Anne McCaffrey Pern mold, not the St. George Christianity mold. Dragons not as evil demons to be destroyed, but as an external form of the shadow within us. My armchair psychology says that it may be that masculine nature needs to battle and subdue the dragon while feminine nature… (There has to be a less submissive-sounding adjective. Feminile from the French? Femaline?) … needs to waken and partner with their inner beast of chaos and rage to become whole. If this is a girlie take on dragon nature, then girlie I am, and happily so.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series still pulls me in to reread one or more when I need a dragon fix. The initial book of the series, Dragonflight, made her the first woman to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards.
Honorable mention: Christopher Paolini’s Eragon launched his Inheritance cycle and his career. A popular YA novel, its flaws can be forgiven as it was written and originally self-published while Paolini was a still teenager.
Also-rans (though these dragons are more familiars than main characters):
The Chronicles of Elantra by Michelle Sagara
Shatterglass by Tamora Pierce, part of The Circle Opens series (YA, but still)
Yes, I know the cat is considered THE familiar of choice for witches. But for non-witches, dogs are popular sidekicks. (Disclosure: I have a dog, have always had dogs, and love them as myself. So, if you want someone to make the case for cats, owls, horses, or unicorns, you’ll have to look elsewhere.) Toto in The Wizard of Oz gave me my first inkling of the metaphorical identification transfer I later read about in psychology books like The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Betelheim. It was clear to me even as a little girl that the dog. Toto, was an aspect of Dorothy, the part she subdued in herself that she needed to embrace be whole and free. Small, clever, loyal, fearless, and obnoxiously yappy, Toto was the heart of the story for me. (Disclosure: I have something of a small-dog nature myself.)
Sometimes the dogs are seemingly harmless until danger transforms them into powerful and monstrous defenders of their person. (The Shih Tzu named Beast in the Innkeeper Chronicles by Ilona Andrews)
Sometimes it is just a dog, though the person may have some magical bond with it. (Assassin’s Apprentice in the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb.)
Sometimes it is the person herself who transforms, hence the huge popularity of werewolves in modern urban fantasy. (Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs, part of the Mercy Thompson series)
The above list doesn’t aim to be comprehensive or even representative of the best. I read over 300 books this year. They muddle a bit in my head. It’s the reading, after all, that is the pleasure of reading. The book is the means. There is no destination, only the end of the story and coming home again, like Dorothy.
Susan diRende ran away from college and joined the circus at 20, where she learned how to step outside the boundaries just far enough to get a laugh. Ever since then, she has been writing, painting, performing, and directing with the goal of bringing about illumination and transformation through laughter. She has won awards as a playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, and performer. A multilingual US/EU citizen, she currently is living the vagabond life with no fixed abode, chasing images and ideas wherever the impulse leads. Aqueduct Press published her novella, Unpronounceable, in 2016; it received a Special Citation for the Philip K. Dick Award. Earlier this year, her novelette "Knife Witch" appeared in The Cascadia Subduction Zone.