the written world: of heroes

as anyone who follows me on twitter knows, i have a near-obsession with Madeline Miller’s Circe and Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer books. there are a thousand things that make them so effing great: the echoes of ancient stories in Circe, the voices of women rising like oil to the surface; the effortless storyteller’s prose in Strange the Dreamer, the rhythm of repetition (witch-light, spring-not-summer blue). but that’s not why my next tattoo is going to be the moth from the cover of Strange; that’s not why i pester my mom about Circe every time we talk.

i think it’s what these books have to say about heroism. fantasy and myth are genres saturated with heroes—your knights and warriors, your chosen ones and space wizards, your kings once and future. and i have immense affection for them! truly! i love to see a great evil thrown down by a greater good; i especially love it when that greater good isn’t white and straight and dude-ly, and i look forward to years and years and years of watching the hero’s journey reworked and reclaimed by marginalized voices.

but what Taylor and Miller are doing is a different, perhaps rarer kind of reclamation: they question the concept of heroism itself. they look at these (masculine, typically western) stories of righteous vengeance and glorious war, these grand conquests and prophesied duels that so often culminate in bodies strewn across a battlefield and a single bloody hand around the hilt of a sword—and reject them entirely.

Strange the Dreamer stars Lazlo Strange, a young librarian who journeys to find a lost city for no other reason than the wistful wonder in his heart. what he finds is a mournful, grief-stricken landscape, a people who have thrown off their oppressors but still bear the scars: missing children, stolen memories and forgotten horrors, constant nightmares—the very real traumas of conquest and rebellion. the two books in the series are essentially a slow and painful reckoning with that trauma.

it’s almost like an epic fantasy set after a different, traditional epic fantasy series ended. the true villains are already dead and gone, the conquerors vanquished. eril-fane, who would have been the classic protagonist of that other-series, is now thirty-something and haunted by his own great deeds. there is no problem that can be solved by the drawing of swords of training montages. the climax is a series of empathies, of things-forgiven, of open hands extended. the hero they need turns out not to be a man with a sword, but Lazlo Strange: a wistful librarian, and a kind man.

Circe is the story of one of the numberless nymphs of Greek mythology, clinging to the ugly fringes of her own divinity. exiled for witchcraft, she makes a life for herself among the woods and beasts of her island. circe rubs up against a dozen other myths—odysseus, obviously, but also the minotaur, icharus, prometheus, scylla—and sees not just their heroic climaxes, but their bitter afterwards. she comes to see the careless cruelty of the gods, the violent delights of men, and to rejects them. the finale of the book—which i won’t spoil but desperately, constantly want to talk about—is simply a man refusing an offer. it’s an un-choice, a standing-down from the demands of mythological narrative. it’s a testament to the brilliance of the book that a man denying his destiny is made into an act of bravery and wisdom; an act of heroism.

i don’t think there’s a lesson here, other than admiration. other than a hope that i can look harder at my own narratives, and question the stories i both tell and am told. i hope i can find heroism in the humble and kind, can look more closely at destinies and afterwards. i hope my sons grow up with different kinds of heroes.

other reading

  • this essay by jeannette ng in uncanny magazine is brilliant. it’s about showing vs. telling in fiction and the way that hard-and-fast rule can exclude marginalized voices from the mainstream. and the simple joy of replicating culture and documenting idiosyncrasies—not because a writer has to, but because they want to. because “diversity deserves documentation.”

  • i have no lofty or valid defense for this, but i recently fell into a small adam driver obsession?? i don’t know why! his face is like a cro-magnon hipster!! the dimensions of his body are more baffling than attractive! and yet i read every word of this new yorker profile and loved it.

  • i’m reading The Secret Commonwealth and having a lot of feelings about it. please feel free to talk to me in literally any context about those feelings.

  • the rise of skywalker marketing machine is very strong, and it got me with this one. i think when alan tudyk showed up is when i knew i was about to run downstairs and force my husband to watch it.


my book has been out for three months (this is apparently simple math and not sorcery). it’s gone into its fourth printing in the US and third in the UK. there are a lot of small and not-small things which i can’t tell anyone yet. i literally could not be happier about the people who have found and read and shared and loved The Ten Thousand Doors. someone got a tattoo!!!!!! someone commissioned art!!!!!

it’s still on sale for $2.99 in every digital format, in the US and UK, just fyi.

oh, and i’ll be in conversation with Erin Morgenstern (she says casually) at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington KY on Saturday, January 11th @ 6:00PM.