Thursday, October 21, 2010

Where have all the adventures gone?

It has not been so many years since childhood, and yet I've found myself in the last few years growing very distant from the books that I always found to be best as a kid. No, I don't mean laugh-out-loud hilarious books like the Wayside series, or the enjoyable simplicity of a good-vs.-evil fantasy. I mean the backbone of my childhood reading - the adventure book.

The last couple months have seen me trying to regain some of the childhood magic. When I was a kid, it wasn't so much fantasy that drew me in, or historical fiction, or otherworldly humour - it was the pure, clean adventures that the stories were built around. I look at favorite books like The Count of Monte Cristo, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and sequels, The Golden Compass and Harry Potter, all the way through Ender's Game and The Neverending Story: granted, most of these are fantasy or science fiction, but they all have at their core a sense of adventure and action. Some of my favorite books as a kid were historical fiction books that took me on crazy, sword-fight filled adventures, on crusades, to the farthest reaches of the earth, and back again. Books like A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. Books whose names have long faded from my memory.

It is true that for the most part, adventure stories link into fantasy. It's a curiously disappointing case, actually. I look at my possibly favorite book ever The Count of Monte Cristo and see that here is absolute adventure. Swords and bad guys and fighting and drama - all neatly labeled as a classic and therefore totally legitimate to read. It's a sprawling mess of a book, diving from one story to another, from one persona to another and that's where the fun is. In the story. In the adventure.

But this is getting hard to find. Today I look for adventures in young adult fantasy - great books like Jonathan Stroud's excellent Bartimaeus series, the exciting fun of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, the constant movement of Kenneth Oppel's Airborn (Matt Cruse) books - and find that these, while enticing in their action-filled adventure plots, are sometimes lacking in the more subtle story-telling fields that come with books that are more geared for adults (Bartimaeus is definitely the exception). Completely understandable, of course, but this doesn't diminish the disappointment entirely. Meanwhile, why must I suspend reality entirely just to get a bit of a jolt? Can't there be a good adventure story that does not detach itself from reality by living in the fantasy or sci-fi realms? And is high quality?

I recall when Lev Grossman complained that books today lack sufficient plot. He was right to a degree, but also wrong (and the argument would have been better felt had it come from an author whose attempt at writing an adventure book had been less mediocre) - it is not wrong for readers today to prefer the subtleties of character based novels and books that deal more with emotional development than plot development, but Grossman's point can be well taken if looked at the matter of adventure stories. It is rare (but not impossible ) to find a good quality, deeply written adventure novel today. And as a fan of the genre, it's a true shame.


  1. Huh. Have you read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series? That might be up your alley.

  2. It's funny, I've never really been into adventure stories, and definitely not sci-fi/fantasy (except for Harry Potter). But I just finished Don Quixote, which is definitely a wonderful adventure story--have you read it? Sounds like something you would enjoy as well. I'm thinking the Count of Monte Cristo is up next...

  3. If you're looking for an old-fashioned, swash-buckling, adventure story I'd recommend Michael Chabon's "Gentlemen of the Road" (which I believe was originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine).

    The Patrick O'Brian series Marie recommended is also very good.

    After those two, I'm at a loss... though I wouldn't go so far as to say I agree with Grossman's complaint that books today lack plot - but contemporary books seem to have lost the spirit of heroism and romance outside of genre specific literature. Authors seem to stick their heroes in microcosms, rather than sending them characters on the road (exploration is kind of a pre-requisite for adventure stories, don't you think?).


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