Book Review: The Beast Is An Animal

The Beast is an Animal

 

Obviously, as an author of fantasy fiction, I love fairy tales. The Beast Is An Animal is such a story; think Brothers’ Grimm. Immersing in the story was like a cool swim on a hot day. The fictional setting felt like seventeenth century New England with small changes in the spelling of names and places to suggest a landscape that was different; forest became fforest and Alice became Alys, the story’s heroine.

The book touts the story of a girl coming of age while learning to deal with good and evil, beauty and ugliness. One cannot exist without the other, but she finds it all exists, within both her own character and her immediate environment.

I didn’t work hard to study the thematic treatments Peternelle van Arsdale infused in the work, but one especially relevant statement for our times rose to the surface, at least for me. Specifically, Beast demonstrates how extremism gives birth to evil, which continues to feed on itself until everything around it becomes tainted and ripe for destruction. In reflection, I’m not quite certain what role the Beast plays in the narrative as Alys must deal with creatures who morphed from children to something sub-human. The Beast itself did not appear to have much in the way of malevolence, and in fact, it seemed to be at risk right along with the humans of Alys’ world.

If there was one disappointment, it came at the end. Alys serves more as a spectator to the defeat of evil than an active defender of good, and the heroine who saves the world for the people she loves.

Overall, van Arsdale is a competent storyteller and should be on a short-list of authors to look for again.

World Building: An exercise in creativity…

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Perhaps the most fun I’ve had in terms of writing have been those sessions where I worked to create a different world or a world within a world for a novel. For Flashback, a story where an historian tries to prevent an assassination in the past, I needed a way to deal with time-travel in a convincing way. When you write science fiction, if you don’t base your premise on plausible science, you’ll lose your audience before you start and receive countless notes on how you got it all wrong. The challenge, as an accountant by training and profession, was to learn several theories of quantum physics relative to the creation of an artificial wormhole. Physics anticipates their existence, but how do you make a credible one up? This is where the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of genius comes by. Men and women with an amperage of brainpower I will never possess have actually discussed how to get this done. I adapted the methodology into the framework of my story, created a few rules that the plot would have to live by and voilà; I had a secret world known to only a few dozen people and a science-based platform from which to launch my characters. In essence, the science (as science fiction requires) became something of a character in itself. As went the wormhole, so did the stakes for the characters. One of the lasting joys of that exercise – which took a month of reading and re-reading texts on quantum mechanics just to warp my brain around the concepts – was that I now have the foundation for an unlimited number of sequels.

My second novel, Alfheim, a story of a boy who is actually an elf (think more in terms of Legolas and not one who works for Santa) was a whole different challenge. Like a Harry Potter or Twilight, I needed to create a completely coexistent world to our own. I spent hours and hours in the library, reading and soaking up elements of mythology that suited the ethereal images that existed in my mind. Like an architect who chooses from a diverse spectrum of building materials to create the physical embodiment of his creation, I found threads of folklore that inspired me to flesh out the characters that were slowly coming to life in my head. Each discovery of some fascinating morsel forced new questions as to how or why that would work in the world that was emerging. This is the crucial point where it’s imperative to start writing down the rules, the parameters that will govern your world, for once you begin to write, everything depends on those boundaries. If you violate these rules, you will anger your reader and unwittingly introduce a deus ex machina along the way, something to avoid at all costs. In the exercise, I borrowed from Tolkien, from sources on Fairy and Elfin lore (Celtic and Scandinavian), Medieval shipbuilding techniques, Medieval clothing styles, castle structures, ancient Celtic names and words and their meanings and pronunciations, Irish history, American history, driving through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but never once reading a book of similar genre until the book was completely done. Often, the advice is to read heavily in the genre you are interested in writing. Counter to this, I avoided it. I wanted the mythology and world building to be completely free of any other writers’ notions of what a fairy world is like (and there are many writers in the field).

The important things to remember in doing world-building are these: Create the rules for your world and stick by them, violate them only with a really good reason, make them as plausible within the expectations for the suspension of disbelief as possible, don’t be afraid to let your imagination run totally wild, and for heaven’s sake – HAVE FUN!