The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters
by C. S. Lewis
1961

Having enjoyed The Great Divorce and found it extremely thought-provoking and had a casual book club with various members of my family, it was proposed that we read The Screwtape Letters next. It was just as thought provoking, if not more so, although somewhat less enjoyable. It consists of 31 chapters/letters plus one toast, and it’s all told from the perspective of a demon, the titular Screwtape, who is giving advice on how to lure humans into sin.

Despite having been written 80 years ago, it is decidedly timely today, as it addresses the devil’s goal of keeping humans constantly focused on doom scrolling and headlines and thoughtless denigration of anyone who disagrees with you, while avoiding humility, charity, respect, or thoughtful consideration. I felt decidedly called out at various points. I should be better! I will try to be more thoughtful and focused and enjoy the pleasures that are available to me in the present and worry less.

At other points, however, it feels dated in the way that it appears to be arguing about social trends that I’m not even aware of. At one point the devil is recommending that people should stay focused on government policies rather than prayers since those are so much less important and I really hope that Lewis had no expectation of “thoughts and prayers” becoming such a catch phrase for politicians refusing to update policies. As Screwtape presents himself as the arbiter of what is evil, Lewis comes across as an arbiter of what is good, and that is, occasionally, rough. Historians, modern artists, and unions are all mentioned as being misleading to Good Christians.

Lewis definitely takes the opportunity to call out some of his personal most and least favored theologians, placing them either as godly agents or thoroughly controlled by the devils’ temptations to sin. This book also has a nearly Ayn Randian Objectivist perspective on the world: what is Good is very clear and natural and unaffected by different lives, perspectives or understandings. Devils provide temptation and people provide false information but a Good Christian will just know what is right due to God, much the same way that Ayn Rand’s protagonists will know what is right due to Logic, despite any lack of education or resources for either. Peak individualism, despite the differences in both methods and goals.  

I found that I needed to read this book one chapter at a time and take at least a little break between. They were thought provoking and inspiring and occasionally quite funny, but they were also quite dense and more than occasionally rather florid.

This book also made me think that I should get around to reading Lolita, at some point, as the only other book I can think of that has the protagonist/narrator also be the unrepentant villain of the story. I did wonder how many people read this book and think Screwtape is an anti-hero instead. Some of his advice came across as fitting right in with big business and some of my least favorite managers at my job, so it’s not out of the question.

I got a lot out of this book and enjoyed talking about it with Anna as we progressed through, but the book started out strong and then got progressively more wearying as it continued. It’s worth reading, but be prepared to decide what you take seriously. (Note: Cherry-picking what to take seriously is also advice that Screwtape would offer a human and C.S. Lewis specifically rejects when it comes to religious contemplation. So, you know: Enjoy!)

The Screwtape Letters

By C.S. Lewis

Rebecca and I both enjoyed The Great Divorce so much that we decided to read The Screwtape Letters, another Christian fantasy by C.S. Lewis (her review to follow). This novel is a collection of letters from Screwtape, a demon, giving guidance to his nephew on how to corrupt people’s souls. And it comes out of the gate swinging!

“Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.” (p. 2!)

C.S. Lewis is scolding me for wasting time on social media from beyond the grave!

“But the best of all is to let him read not science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. (p. 3)

80 years ago, C.S. Lewis was dunking on do-your-own-research guys!

So, it’s been a real eye-opening seeing the ever-green traits of humanity that I used to ascribe to the digital age. I initially enjoyed the novelty of it, but the narrative structure of letters leads to far more proselytizing than The Great Divorce, which took a more show-don’t-tell approach. As Screwtape enumerates all things that can lead a person to hell, the path to heaven becomes narrower and harder to define. The reader gets all sorts of negatives (just going through the religious motions will surely lead you to hell, but so too will interrogating your faith too thoroughly), and no positive directions, as far as I can tell.

Of course, this falls in well with the conceit of letters from a demon. Lewis even gives himself a clever and all-encompassing disclaimer in his preface by saying that all demons lie and even have their own bias, so any issues with the letter lie solely with the fictional demonic letter-writer. So, while it’s hard to argue with this, Lewis clearly intends the book for Christian instruction, and for me, at least, this type of negative direction is not so helpful.

After a while, as the ways humans stray kept piling up, I started bracing myself for some ugly prejudice or another to rear its head. However, nothing overt emerged, though Lewis is pretty dismissive of women, when he gives them any thought at all, and it’s probably all for the best that he doesn’t give any thought to anyone non-white, non-Christian, or even non-English. It was hard to escape the feeling of just being constantly scolded, though.

The book contains 31 letters in all, each only being 3-5 pages, and it made me wonder if it was intended to read one letter a day, to allow the reader some time to really think through each one. But Rebecca read that they were originally released in serial on a weekly basis, which is an even better, longer break between each one! It ends with a longer essay, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which Lewis wrote years later, and in which Screwtape is addresses a new graduating class of demonic tempters. In it, Lewis once again expresses a surprisingly current sentiment, though more retrograde with a “kids these days, with their participation trophies” hack.

At the Feet of the Sun by Victoria Goddard

At the Feet of the Sun
Lays of the Hearth-Fire, Book Two
by Victoria Goddard
2022

If I had any sort of self-control, I would not have finished this book quite so quickly, because it’s essentially five books all presented together in one omnibus. Which I’m glad of! Because otherwise there would have been some real cliff-hangers. But, it’s really long with multiple interlinked plot arcs and side quests that are massive enough to be regular quests all on their own. And, also, the book (that’s really five books) does come to a satisfying emotional conclusion at the end, but it doesn’t actually conclude the original plot that was set up at the end of the first book. So I’m already looking forward to Book 3, but am glad enough to have a breather before presumably reading another 1000+ pages.

This book starts up soon after the end of Book 1: The Hands of the Emperor, and the first part runs parallel to The Return of Fiztroy Angursell, and then just keeps going with the adventures and development of Cliopher “Kip” Mdang. Kip is a wildly successful bureaucrat who has spent his life successfully dismantling an empire and replacing it with a more egalitarian system of government. And now he’s retiring. He’s not yet officially done, but he’s transferred the majority of his work and responsibilities to others and has the space to figure out who he is now that he’s not so driven anymore, and that’s not an easy path. And also, this whole universe is an amazing creation where there are nine interconnected worlds, magic and gods are real, religion is complicated and diverse, and time fluctuates wildly. Kip’s career is somewhere between 45 and 1100 years long, depending exactly where you stand, and his own personal experience varied as well as he experiences long periods of timeless effort. The story moves seamlessly between practical struggles and legendary adventures; travels on the sea around Kip’s home archipelago and travels on the Sky Ocean between the stars; searching for Kip’s lost cousin Basil and going to get a new fire from the Palace of the Sun.

Kip is amazingly and wonderfully competent in achieving his goals for the greater good of the world, but still struggles to find his place and self-promote when it’s about him and not some greater achievement. And figuring out how to communicate with his emperor as a person whom he loves after spending decades/centuries working with him as an untouchable god is an ongoing struggle, even as they both want equality between them. Through all the struggles, there’s a sense of certainty that it will all work out, or if it doesn’t, then it will be a loss of what could have been but what already is, is still sufficient.

It’s a beautiful and optimistic book, and I really enjoy it immensely.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik

The Golden Enclaves
Lesson Three of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
September 27, 2022

This book has been out for a week, but I was finally able to check it out from a local library and then read it over the course of maybe 27 hours (in the middle of a work week). And just wow! It’s so good and so satisfying and so tense.

This book starts immediately after the second book ends, and is very much a continuation of everything that has happened before in the previous two books and I probably need to go back and reread both in order to better enjoy some of the clues that had been casually dropped as world building before but abruptly become extremely plot significant here.

Each book centers around a conflict that’s slightly larger impact than the previous book. In the first book, the plot is focused on our protagonist’s personal survival; in the second book, it’s about the school’s survival; and in this the third book, it’s about the community’s survival. This is also the first book where the action is outside of the school and there are adults involved and hoo boy does that make things even more complicated. The kids in the school were just trying to survive: well the adults outside of the school are doing the same but have had even more time to make mistakes and make compromises and make hard decisions that have consequences down the years, decades, and centuries. And our protagonist El has to figure out how to live in the world where it’s the people rather than the mals who are the greatest danger.

This book also reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s Anyway the Wind Blows, the third book in her Simon Snow series, in a variety of ways that I can’t write out without spoilers.

Anyway, I adore this book, but it’s definitely not a stand-alone. So if you haven’t already, go read the first one first.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis
1946

I’ve been having trouble getting into any of my usual genre books and then my aunt recommended this book, which felt like a bit of a palate cleanser. It’s a fascinating premise with a somewhat disinterested perspective and it gave me so many thoughts. I really enjoyed it. It’s fourteen chapters across only 128 pages, but took several days to read because I had to pause and think about it periodically, to give each character their due.

The premise is that the narrator is on a bus trip from hell to heaven. It’s a regular bus route and anyone is welcome. Many are even eagerly awaited by those in heaven. And yet, very few of the travelers choose to stay. Each character is unique in their circumstances, but also the same in the way they consider themselves to have been in the right, and yet their self-defense is also their condemnation.

It gave me so many thoughts.

I’m going to make a cut here more for length than spoilers. In part because I think the experience of this book is not something that can be spoiled by advance knowledge. It’s not exactly plot driven. It’s characters and perspectives and metaphors. They’re fascinating and I want to talk about them.

Continue reading

Beware of Chicken by Casualfarmer

Beware of Chicken (Book 1)
by Casualfarmer
2022

This was a free online story posted serially that built a large enough following to get turned into a book. I actually read this (plus book 2, and several chapters of book 3 as well) on Royal Road earlier in the year before the author took a break to format and edit book one for publication. But since the online serial is still ongoing, this is a review of the ebook which has the distinction of being complete.

This book is absolutely ridiculous and also the quintessential pandemic lockdown book. It’s like The Swiss Family Robinson for anime lovers. Do you dream of leaving all the anxiety and stress of the world behind and go start a small farm that takes a lot of work to create but also is wildly, improbably successful? How about just have everything work out all right and be loved and respected as a powerful person while also being a friendly goof who enjoys life? There is no conflict that isn’t resolved nicely in our main character’s favor, with every protection that an author with world-building abilities can provide. This is the comfort book to end all comfort books.

The basic plot is that our main character, a guy from Canada, wakes up in a Xanxia (fantasy China with magic and demons and swords, etc.) in the body of Jin Rou, a lowly outer disciple of a great cultivation sect. Jin Rou is clearly fated to be the protagonist of an epic story — poor and abused, he will struggle and fight epic battles and rise to greatness, etc. — and our main guy decides to nope his way right out of that. He takes a quick exit from the top of that mountain temple, does his research to find the least dangerous, least magical location in the land and starts a farm. He still has the strength and speed of a disciple of a great cultivation sect, as well as the education of a modern farmer/handyman, so everything goes very well for him. He also has a rooster he calls Big D.

The rooster is the titular chicken of Beware of Chicken. This rooster does understand fantasy Chinese but not modern English, wakes up to being sentient and considers himself to be named Bi Di. It is also absolutely clear to him that he, Bi Di, is the first disciple of Jin Rou, a Hidden Master of great power. Bi Di rises to greatness, the farm is amazing, and absolutely everything is ridiculous. Jin Rou is the Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues, and absolutely nothing goes wrong.

Silver in the Wood

By Emily Tesh

First off, I have to recommend Tor.com’s eBook club, where they basically just offer a free ebook (or three) each month. A few months ago, the offering was a compilation of Witchmark, All Systems Red, and Silver in the Wood. I’d already read and loved both Witchmark and All Systems Red, but it took me a little while to get around to reading Silver in the Wood. Well, I read it in two days, and loved it, too!

It is very short, under a hundred pages, so more of a novella, but it just feels very tidy, if that makes sense. The story actually feels a bit like an ancient forest, quiet and mystical. There are no extraneous flourishes: only a handful of characters and the entire story takes place in a cabin and the surrounding woods. As a reader we get the pertinent information as we need it, and I don’t want to give any of it away early here.

I will say that the book is separated into two parts, and I was surprised and delighted by the shift in tone between the two. Part I has a mild melancholy that I could sink into, and Part II had me laughing out loud on the first page. Because I was reading Silver in the Wood as part of a compilation, I didn’t have a clear sense of where I was in the book until I’d suddenly reached the end. It had a satisfying conclusion that fit the rest of the book, but I was sad not to have more. And then, I discovered it was the first in a duology!

Drowned Country

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the sequel nearly as well. I was so happy to revisit the people I’d loved so much in the first one, but a couple of years have gone by in the world, and things have fallen apart. The general tone of the book shifted from quietly melancholy to angsty, and there wasn’t much humor at all.

A big part of that shift was due to the change in protagonist. While both books are written in third person, one character’s internal thoughts and feelings are expressed, and I didn’t like the internal life of this book’s protagonist nearly as well. His general personality was a slight irritant to me throughout the book, even when other characters and events caught my attention.

And the plotline is interesting, if somewhat recursive of the previous book. The ending was satisfying enough, too, that I don’t regret reading the book. Our protagonist matured enough over the course of the story that I’d probably read a third sequel if one came out, though this seems pretty definitively a two-parter.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula via e-mail

I just discovered the existence of Dracula Daily:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel – it’s made up of letters, diaries, telegrams, newspaper clippings – and every part of it has a date. The whole story happens between May 3 and November 10. So: Dracula Daily will post a newsletter each day that something happens to the characters, in the same timeline that it happens to them.

Now you can read the book via email, in small digestible chunks – as it happens to the characters.

I just signed up for this and am really looking forward to it!

The Angel of the Crows

By Katherine Addison

Someone had recommended The Angel of the Crows as Sherlock fanfic with the serial numbers filed off, and as Rebecca pointed out, they weren’t filed off much. For me, though, this had the benefit of the book feeling immediately comfortable even in the unique setting. Set in an alternative Victorian Era, angels guard most of the public spaces of London, while their fallen numbers rampage in war zones. Doyle has returned from war in Afghanistan (a depressing constant) with incapacitating wounds and a couple of secrets that are slowly revealed over the course of the book, and finds housing with the titular Angel of the Crows, who solves mysteries to pass the time and keep London safe.

Doyle, of course, quickly gets roped into assisting the angel Crow, and both of them are so eminently likeable with their various flaws and idiosyncrasies, and their relationship was so sweet, I could have read twice as many stories of their adventures. Crow’s lack of understanding of many human traits makes much more sense and is much more sympathetic, coming from a literally unearthly being. Addison also builds off of a variety of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories, including the Hound of Baskerville and the Speckled Band, and I really enjoyed seeing the reinterpretations in a world where werewolves and vampires exist openly.

Rebecca read it first and warned me that the book has very episodic plotting, with many shorter cases solved within the arc of the longer Jack the Ripper investigation. Knowing what to expect, I read the book somewhat like a collection of short stories, and found that especially accessible, too. None of the mysteries were as complex as one would get in a single dedicated novel, but I could read one each night and then set the book down satisfied. It’s been such a nice end to my day all this week that I’ve got a bit of a book hangover now, even though my to-read stack is towering.

Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander by Victoria Goddard

Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander
by Victoria Goddard
2022

Every so often I google search some of my current favorite authors’ names to see if there’s anything that I missed. And yes! I discovered that this novella published nine days ago. I immediately bought and read it and it’s such a delight. It’s a companion novella to the book, The Hands of the Emperor, (and about a tenth the length.)

Buru Tovo is ninety years old, a highly respected wide seas islander, who has been waiting, mostly patiently, for years for his grand-nephew, Kip Mdang, to return from his travels into the heart of the empire and take his proper place in the island society, trying not to worry that he never will. In this novella, he decides to make the three month journey to the capital and see what his grand-nephew has been doing. In The Hands of the Emperor, we see these events from Kip’s perspective as his grand-uncle suddenly shows up at the capital with questions. This novella is the other side of that interaction. Buru Tovo’s perspective is fascinating and lovely and complex and hilarious.

Petty Treasons
by Victoria Goddard
2021

In writing up the review for Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander, I discovered that I had not made a post about Petty Treasons before. Clearly something to be corrected! I also read this within a week of it being published. It’s another companion novella, this one about Kip Mdang’s introduction to the emperor, from the emperor’s perspective. It’s another delightful exploration of what Kip looks like from the outsider point of view. But more than that, it’s also a fascinating exploration of the emperor’s perspective, because Goddard did something really interesting: at the start, the text is written in the second person — possibly the only time I’ve ever enjoyed a story told in the second person. It’s such a brilliant choice here because it highlights exactly how much the emperor is disassociating, and makes it all the more impactful when he starts to have hope and the text, in fits and starts, transitions into the first person.

I’m always so impressed with Goddard’s ability to infuse her writing with such joyful excitement. Both of these are so delightful and make me want to bounce on my toes with sheer glee.