Monday, September 11, 2023

book discussion report

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo (

Eight of us gathered in a small apartment to discuss our fantasy literature topic of the quarter. We'd all read the book, which is kind of rare, and we all liked it! Which is rarer. Well, one of us whose usual reading is epic trilogies and the like felt about a 98-page novella rather as if she hadn't had a full meal, but that was a quibble.

The deeply Asian (I guess Chinese?) setting seemed a bit alien to some of us westerners. Lines like the one about the moon having gone off to visit its other wife allude to folk tales we know nothing of. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to remember which of a group of characters with equally strange (to me) names was which. But in the end that wasn't much of a problem, mostly due to the author's superb characterization. There's six traveling together and they're all memorable and distinct, and they each remain themselves despite changes in circumstances.

This is a story about storytelling. The characters tell stories to each other and the principal viewpoint character, Chih, a cleric - really a scholar, who I guess became a cleric because that was how you can pursue scholarship in this culture - who's on a quest to collect stories and history, laps them up and writes them down. One of us said it's a little like the Canterbury Tales. (Only much more succinct.) There are even more stories being alluded to, like the one about the moon, than are told, so there's always more outside your grasp, a sure way to lure the reader on. Chih, who knows little about the local customs and listens much, is our guide to the world.

I thought the characterization was most excellent in the scene where they find the dead body in the shed. This had impact to the reader mostly because of the way the characters react, and the full descriptions of how they feel about taking the body down and burying it. Then they all look at Chih. Oh yeah, I'm a cleric, I should say prayers over the grave, even though obviously pastoral work is not Chih's normal job.

There's more I could say but won't, because it didn't come up at the meeting. There's two more of these, also involving Chih but not, I gather, most of the other characters, and they look worth reading too.

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