Ryan Skardal

On FanLit’s staff since September 2010

RYAN SKARDAL teaches English literature. He currently lives in New Jersey with many piles of books, several poorly behaved cats, and his wonderful wife.

The City of Ember: Powered by a rich setting

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Long ago, the Builders created Ember, an underground city. The Builders only intended for the people of Ember to stay underground for two hundred years, but, due to a slight wrinkle in the Builders’ plans, the people of Ember have stayed underground far longer than two hundred years. Now, supplies are running out. In fact, there soon won’t even be light bulbs left, and the people will be left in darkness.

Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember is a children's post-apocalyptic novel that follows the adventures of Lina and Doon. Lina and Doon, at twelve years old, have finished their schooling. Lina, who loves running, manages to become a Messenger, while Doon, who wants to find a way to fix Ember’s flagging generator, draws work in the Pipeworks. Lina is an outgoing and cheerful girl, while Doon is more introspective and given to temperamental outbursts. However, they are... Read More

The Wisdom of the Shire: Remembering Hobbit wisdom in the 21st century

The Wisdom of the Shire by Noble Smith

Hobbits constantly surprise Elf kings, dragons, and Dark Lords with their courage and valiant spirit, but we rarely associate them with wisdom. Thankfully, Noble Smith’s The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life exists to correct our mistake. Wisdom of the Shire is one part self-help book and one part homage to Hobbit wisdom.

Smith divides his work into a series of essays, with titles like “How Snug is Your Hobbit-hole?” and “Your Own Personal Gollum.” The chapters often begin with a summary of Bilbo and Frodo’s adventures (sometimes Gandalf gets a mention and there’s even a chapter on “The Lore of the Ents”) in Middle-earth, which ends with a concise summary of the essay’s lesson.

Unfortunately, the essays rarely led to a startling revelation for me, perhaps ... Read More

The Magician’s Land: Let it breathe

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise about The Magician’s Land, the third installment in Lev Grossman’s MAGICIANS trilogy is its map. The first two books, which I read on a Kindle, didn’t have maps. This one did, and it’s great.

What I like about this map, entitled “The Worlds of Quentin Coldwater,” is that it’s not actually very cartographic. It lacks a legend, it does not show Fillory from the point of view of a flying dragon, and it does not list countries. In other words, the world has not been limited, so there’s plenty of room for imagination and exploration. A careful study of the map will reveal very little about which lands our heroes will visit or what will happen to them there.

And it’s a fitting introduction to The Magician’s Land.

The Ma... Read More

Sputnik Sweetheart: The world’s most depressing love triangle, after Twilight

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart is narrated by an elementary school teacher we know as “K.” K is in love with Sumire, an aspiring young writer who never feels sexual attraction for others until she meets Miu, an older woman and a wine dealer who is incapable of feeling love for others.

It’s the world’s most depressing love triangle, after Twilight.

In many ways, actually, Sputnik Sweetheart feels like a typical Haruki Muraka... Read More

The Sorcerer: Metamorphosis: The Sword in the Stone

The Sorcerer: Metamorphosis by Jack Whyte

Merlyn does not want to return to Camulod. He has found happiness in Mediobogdum with his wife, Tressa, and his charge, Arthur Pendragon. However, war is coming. Merlyn’s enemy, Peter Ironhair, has hired mercenaries to attack the Pendragon lands in order to advance the claim of Carthac, a distant relative of Uther Pendragon and a monstrous — some say invincible — psychopath. Meanwhile, the Saxons continue to invade along the southeast coast and there are also rumors of an invasion from the northeast.

Clearly, the Britons need a savior king, but Merlyn still worries that Arthur’s metamorphosis into the Riothamus — the high king — is not yet complete. They return to Camulod, where Merlyn and his brother, Ambrose, prepare to ... Read More

The Fort At River’s Bend: Half a story

The Fort At River’s Bend by Jack Whyte

The Fort At River’s Bend is the first half Jack Whyte’s The Sorcerer, which publishers decided to divide into two novels: The Fort At River’s Bend and Metamorphosis. Whyte apparently preferred that they would have been read as one entry.*

When The Fort At River’s Bend begins, our narrator, Caius Merlyn Brittanicus of Camulod, is reaching middle age. He is a warrior, a soldier, and a governor who has lost friends, family, and his wife to treachery and war. Now, he commits his life to raising Arthur Pendragon in safety.

Given that their enemies have already tried to assassinate Arthur, Merlyn has decided to remove the boy from danger and to raise him in secret. Merlyn sails to Read More

Travels: A journey abroad, within, and on the astral plane

Travels by Michael Crichton

When Travelsbegins, Crichton is a student at Harvard Medical School, sawing into cadavers with his peers. He nearly faints at the sight of blood, but he is a talented and diligent student. Crichton shares the objections and concerns that would ultimately drive him from medicine, a decision perhaps made easier by the fact that he had already begun to experience success as a writer of spy novels. However, more than anything, it seems that Crichton began to doubt that doctors are capable of helping people. Instead, he believes that people should always assume personal responsibility for their illnesses.

So, Crichton leaves medicine, moves to Los Angeles, and begins writing novels and work... Read More

The Running Man: Don’t read the introduction!

The Running Man by Stephen King

Ben Richards hates America’s dystopian future. Because he quit his job cleaning up atomic waste before it could sterilize him, Ben finds himself blacklisted and unemployable. He and his wife, Sheila, did manage to conceive, but their daughter now suffers from pneumonia in polluted Co-Op City. Sheila makes ends meet by turning tricks, which bothers Ben.

Ben looks at the people around him and is sickened by their devotion to the Network, a corporation that organizes and televises gladiator games for the masses. Ben knows the games are rigged — no one ever wins — but, his back against the wall, he decides to apply for the most dangerous game: “The Running Man.” If he’s smart and ... Read More

Night Watch: You can’t repeat the past (Of course you can)

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch has all but arrested Carcer, a serial killer who specifically targets members of the Watch, when they are thrown back in time.

Time travel is always inconvenient, but it is particularly trying for Sam Vimes, who is about to become a father. Worse, Vimes soon realizes this time in Ankh-Morpork’s history is especially awful because the city is about to revolt against the Patrician, Lord Winder. The people will revolt, Vimes remembers, and cavalrymen will put them down.

Vimes had only just joined the Watch when he first lived through the revolution, but he remembers many of the details, especially his old mentor, Sergeant John Keel. Keel taught Sam how to be a copper, a... Read More

The Fifth Elephant: The Watch goes to Uberwald

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

Lord Vetinari is dragging Ankh-Morpork and its City Watch into the modern age, but not everyone is happy. Now, instead of just leaving their carriages on the street, people that stop traffic and business will have to watch as a troop of trolls hauls their carriage away (unless they can afford to bribe Sergeant Colon). And although many of Ankh-Morpork’s dwarfs still cling to the old ways, others have begun to act radically: female dwarfs like Cheery Littlebottom not only admit that they are women but have also begun to wear… dresses!

Times are changing, but crime continues. Commander Sam Vimes and his team discover that a replica Scone of Stone has been stolen. The Scone is a Dwarf a... Read More

Jingo: Veni, vidi… Vetinari

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

Sam Vimes has changed a great deal since he was introduced in Guards! Guards!, the first DISCWORLD novel to feature the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork. He has given up booze, he is happily married, and he is now wealthy. The Watch has grown under his leadership as well. Its ranks now include werewolves, gargoyles, dwarves, trolls, and even zombies. As Commander, Vimes should devote most of his time to paperwork, but he prefers to spend his time on the streets, which have grown restless.

War is at hand. Tensions begin when Solid Jackson and his son discover an island rising out of the sea while they are fishing for Curious Squid. Both Ankh-Morpork and ... Read More

Monstrous Regiment: If you’re looking for grief, look to the ladies

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

“If you’re looking for grief, look to the ladies”

Borogravia is at war with Zlobenia, and the war is going badly for the Borogravians. Polly has stayed home to run her family’s pub, The Duchess, while her brother Paul has been away at the front. It’s been weeks since Polly has heard from her brother, and she worries that since women cannot inherit property in Borogravia, her family might lose The Duchess if her brother is lost. Besides, there’s no one else left to enlist, so young Polly decides it’s time to join the army. Unfortunately, given that women in Borogravia are not allowed to own property, it is no surprise that they are also prohibited from enlisting in the army. Polly disguises herself as a boy and signs on with Sergeant Jackrum’s Ins and Outs. In order to fit in, Polly practices belching, picking her nose, and scratching herself.

She joins the regiment... Read More

The Last Continent: No worries in Australia, Mate

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

In The Last Continent, Terry Pratchett sends Rincewind and the Unseen University wizards to Xxxx (Fourecks), which, the narrator explains, is not Australia.

In Interesting Times, Unseen University wizards inadvertently sent Rincewind to the Counterweight Continent (China), and now they inadvertently travel into the past of Fourecks — the Last Continent being created on the Discworld — while trying to figure out the Librarian’s name. Ponder Stibbins is the first to realize that the wizards have traveled into the past, and he warns the wizards that they must be careful to not change the future. Certainly, they must not kill one of their ancestors. But why would they want to do that? interrupts Ridcully. The Archchancellor argues that they’re already in the past, changing things, so the changes have already happened. And so a continent is created. The wizards meet t... Read More

Burning Paradise: Strong stand-alone Sci Fi

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

Members of the Correspondence Society have discovered an extra-terrestrial entity, which they refer to as the “Hypercolony,” in the atmosphere. The Hypercolony secretly monitors and subtly alters terrestrial transmissions in order to maintain peace on Earth. A few skirmishes aside, they have been successful, and humanity is once again celebrating the anniversary of the 1914 Armistice Day.

Earth may be a paradise, but it would be a mistake to consider the Hypercolony a benevolent entity. Its algorithms guide it to intervene in a way that will maximize its own chances for survival, a drive that makes it seem symbiotic. However, when the Hypercolony discovered the Correspondence Society in 2007, it sent agents — sims — to eliminate the threat. The “sims” — short for “simulacra” — look like humans, though an autopsy will reveal that they lack autonomy and also that they have a vegetati... Read More

A Hat Full of Sky: With great power….

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany is not convinced when her peer Annagramma explains that magic is a power that signals one’s status. In Annagramma’s view, the witches study arcane and obscure subjects in order to set themselves apart from society, and all of the other young witches seem convinced by her reasoning. Tiffany may not admit it, but she is insecure about her status among the young witches. Secretly, she wishes to reveal her power to them. The hiver understands Tiffany, and when it takes over her mind, Tiffany makes her wishes come true.

In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany travels to join her new mentor, Miss Level. Like all old witches, Miss Level is a unique sort. She has two bodies, and a spirit named Oswald cleans up around her cottage. Miss Level may be strange, but she has a kind heart, and she takes care of her villagers. Tiffany’s lessons are going well, though she does not like to wear black, she h... Read More

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