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 Hydrogen Sonata: The final CULTURE novel

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

The Gzilt civilization is as old as the Culture, and their technology is roughly equivalent, too. Although the Gzilt were invited to join the Culture when it was created, they declined, in part because of the Book of Truth. The Gzilt are proud of their Book of Truth because, unlike so many other culturally significant texts, theirs actually predicted many technological achievements. So, the Gzilt figured they were special, declined to join the Culture, and now they’re preparing to Sublime.

Sublimation allows a civilization to exist in a higher, largely incomprehensible dimension. No one understands exactly what it is, but a civilization’s people and AIs do leave our space for a better one. Some old Culture ships have returned from the Sublime and mathematicians can prove that it exists. Still, it’s a big step.

And if that’s not clear enough: sublimation is a big-... Read More

Sourcery: Wizardry vs. Sourcery

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

Sourcery begins as Ipslore the Red is about to die — or, more accurately — it begins as Death is coming to collect Ipslore’s soul. Wizards can see Death, so some plan to negotiate terms before departing.

Ipslore is an eighth son and a wizard. Banished from Unseen University for marrying and having children, Ipslore manages to create a magic staff for his own eighth son, a newborn he has named Coin, just before he dies. Coin, being the eighth son of an eighth son, is not just a wizard — he’s a sourcerer. And instead of dying, Ipslore transfers his being into the staff, cheating Death, so that he can guide Coin’s destiny.

What’s the difference between a sourcerer and a wizard? It’s not that sourcerers are more powerful than wizards so much as wizards are not particularly powerful at all. Sourcerers are powerful like gods. According to the L... Read More

The Prophet of Yonwood: Why Book 3 of 4 is rarely a prequel

The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau

Nickie is eleven years old when her aunt Crystal takes her to Yonwood, North Carolina. Their family has inherited a mansion, Greenhaven, from Nickie’s great-grandfather, and while Nickie loves the old building, Crystal is determined to sell it and get back to Philadelphia as soon as possible.

We see the house through Nickie’s eyes, and it is full of neat things, including her great-grandfather’s journals. Nickie also finds Amanda Stokes, who had cared for Nickie’s great-grandfather but who now has nowhere else to go. And there’s also a dog, Otis. Nickie agrees to help Amanda stay hidden in the house and they together create a soundproof room for Otis. (Crystal hates dogs.)

Nickie is a good natured kid and eager to help others. She sets three goals while at the mansion. She is determined to:

Keep Greenhaven
Fall in love
Help the world Read More

Station Eleven: Possibly 2014’s strongest post-apocalyptic novel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Arthur Leander is one of the finest actors of his generation — certainly one of the most famous — and his life’s relationships form the hub of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven. The story begins with Arthur’s death: he’s on stage in Toronto, playing Shakespeare’s Lear, when he collapses from a heart attack.

Station Eleven shifts through multiple perspectives and it’s, to say the least, non-linear, so it’s probably easiest to map the novel’s characters by how they relate to Arthur at the time of his death. Kirsten is a child actor in the play. Jeevan is a paramedic in training who rushes to the stage to save Arthur (there’s nothing he can do). Miranda was Arthur’s first wife, and though she remains a target for the paparazzi when she returns to Toronto to visit her ex-husband, she has other... Read More

The Martian: Being abandoned on Mars is more fun than you thought

The Martian by Andy Weir

Impaled by a communications antenna and blown into a sandstorm, Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars. By chance, he lives, but his crew has already left. Though he has no way to communicate with or return to Earth, Watney tries to survive anyway. Back on Earth, however, NASA learns from its satellites that Watney is alive and they try to rescue him. Unfortunately, even in the near future, space travel remains complicated and dangerous.

Well, that’s the plot.

The Martian is a hard sci-fi survival tale. Weir puts his protagonist in an impossible situation, comes up with schemes to help him survive, and then complicates those schemes with unforeseen obstacles (at one point, for example, the soil is too loose). Fortunately, Watney has a knack for improvising. While the plot may seem thin, it’s pretty fun watching Watney come up with ways to survive, even when surviv... Read More

Hogfather: Happy Hogswatch!

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

Up, Gouger! Up, Rooter! Up, Tusker! Up, Snouter!

Apparently they celebrate something like Christmas – Hogswatch – on the Disc. Why not? Children write letters to the Hogfather, who travels around the world delivering presents in a sleigh pulled by hogs. But no one really believes in the Hogfather, right?

Sadly, the Auditors have decided to hire Ankh-Morpork’s Assassins Guild to delete Discworld’s Hogfather, or the Fat Man, as they call him. It’s an unusual assignment, thinks Lord Downey, since the assassins don’t believe that the Hogfather exists. How can they fulfill the contract? However, a particularly ingenious (and psychopathic) assassin, Teatime, thinks he can do the job.

Meanwhile, Death has taken over the Hogfather’s duties. He’s up to the task, though he carries it out in his own way. For the most part, he takes the role to heart:... Read More

The People of Sparks: Darkness cannot drive out darkness

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Lina and Doon have led their people out from the subterranean city of Ember. Now, they encounter a world full of dazzling new things like birds, sunlight, and trees. For all its wonder, Lina and Doon have not entered a world of plenty. The humans before largely destroyed the world with their weapons and their insatiable need for revenge. Doon and Lina lead the wandering Emberites in search of a new home.

Instead of a home, however, they find Sparks, a town that has finally begun to realize tentative prosperity after years of struggle. Reluctantly, Mary, Ben, and Wilbur, Sparks’ leaders, agree to provide shelter, food and training to the people of Ember. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors that led them to destroy the world. Unfortunately, Sparks does not enjoy a large surplus of f... Read More

Mitosis: A corny, action packed short story

Mitosis by Brandon Sanderson

David and the Reckoners have freed Newcago from Steelheart’s dictatorship, but the people are slow to believe in themselves. Epics have divided and dominated America for so long that many people are leaving before another Epic arrives to take over Steelheart’s domain. David takes comfort in the return of Chicago style hotdogs and in the steady trickle of people that choose to enter the city each day in search of freedom and a better life.

However, a new Epic does attempt to take over Newcago in Brandon Sanderson’s short story, “Mitosis.” An Epic, Mitosis is a little like Marvel’s Multiple Man: he has the power to split into multiple beings and he lives so long as one of his copies lives. Thankfully, David and his friends are developing a knack for discovering the Achilles heel of the Ep... Read More

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

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