I'm late with this one. Time has a way of slipping by me lately, what with my PhD defense coming up, writing a dissertation, writing a paper to submit to a journal, trying to find a freaking job, trying to complete some experiments, preparing for an upcoming conference, preparing for an upcoming site visit from a team picked by the National Science Foundation, and dealing with a cat who has incurred $5000 of vet bills in the last six months and who currently requires medication 4 or 5 times a day (depending on the day).
Anyway, at least I had some time tonight to catch up on blog posts; I've been putting some of them off for awhile because one was a review, and those take a good hour.
This month's (well, last month's) book was Candide by Voltaire. I read this a couple of times in high school and I remembered enjoying it, though I clearly didn't scratch the surface in terms of understanding it. I'm sure there are still some allusions I have no clue about, but I caught a lot more this time around than I did 17 or so years ago (has it been that long?). You mature as a writer as you age, and I think as a reader, as well.
The first thing that struck me is that there are a lot of fantasy novels which are plotted in the manner of Candide. Unfortunately, that's not a compliment. Candide is a satire. Fantasy novels generally aren't (there are exceptions, sure -- but I think most people write silly adventures like this, without realizing they're silly). I'm sure I could think of a few characters who died about as many times as Pangloss did.
I won't spend time on criticizing language, speaker attributions, etc. because this book was written in 1759 and is a translation. 250+ years and a language difference are enough to render stylistic concerns irrelevant.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the visit with Pococurante and the discussion of literature. I'll admit, sometimes I feel like Pococurante, unable to find satisfaction in anything I read. I can laugh at myself, at least. (Actually, it's not that I can't find satisfaction in what I read, it's that it's very easy to point out flaws. I still enjoyed The Hunger Games, even if there were some flaws, for example.)
Wikipedia has a nice analysis of this book and its historical milieu. Since this was never assigned reading for a class for me, just something I picked up on my own, I didn't know a lot of the background when I read it. There's something to be said for approaching a great historical work from a tabula rasa, so to speak, though there's also something to be said for reading it again after having the facts.
One thing I take from this book, that would be good for other fantasy authors to consider, is that none of Candide's and his companions' misfortunes were unrealistic. The wars, the "ravishings," the earthquake -- all of these were based on real historical events. I'm not saying that everything that occurs in a fantasy novel needs to be based on a real event. But what I am saying is that you don't need to go to extremes to come up with torments for people. Choose scenarios that are realistic, and your story will be much more engaging. (Choose a series of improbable, video-game-style traps, and people will picture Koopa Troopas and secret coin boxes. At least if they're from my generation.)
Okay, if I mention the original NES version of Super Mario Brothers and Candide in the same paragraph, I think it's time to call it a night.