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A love letter to (and giveaway of) Matt Ruff’s Fool on the Hill

August 7, 2009

Re-read. Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff (1988)

Length: 396 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

Dates Read: I first read this book in April of 2003; the current re-read happened during July 2009.

Modern fantasy
and zany fairy tale, and
that’s not close to all…

Summary: The story behind Fool on the Hill, as far as I know it, goes as follows: Matt Ruff was an undergraduate English major at Cornell University in upstate New York. When it came time to submit his honors thesis, instead of turning in fifty pages on the use of shoelaces in E.B. White’s oeuvre and their relation to the major themes of Norse mythology, or whatever English majors usually write honors theses about, he walks into his advisor’s office and plunks down a several-hundred-page draft manuscript of what would eventually become Fool on the Hill.

As to the story within Fool on the Hill, that’s a lot harder to summarize. The ostensible main character, Stephen T. George, is a young author living in Ithaca, who spends his time writing, falling in and out of love, and flying kites. However, the story focuses equally as much on Luther, a mongrel dog, and Blackjack, a Manx cat, who follow the scent of Heaven all the way to Ithaca; a group of modern knights and erstwhile college students known as the Bohemians; Calliope, a Muse, and the most beautiful woman in the world; Aurora Borealis Smith, student and daughter of a would-be revolutionary; a group of invisible Shakespearean sprites that live throughout campus and help maintain the University; Ragnarok, the motorcycle-riding and mace-wielding Black Knight; and many others. All of them are caught up in a Story being told by Mr. Sunshine, a Greek God who entertains himself by creating “true fictions” with the lives of mortals. And they are all faced with a common enemy from deep history: Rasferret the Grub, whose magical powers of Animation are matched only by his malice. Everyone will have a part to play, but it will ultimately be up to Stephen to learn the art of Writing Without Paper if he’s going to save the day, the university, and those he loves when a Dragon Day celebration goes horribly awry.

Review: While I love Fool on the Hill, and would go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite books, and particularly one of my favorite books that I *didn’t* first read in childhood, I will admit up front that I am rather biased. My predisposition towards this book comes from the fact that it takes place at my alma mater, so I’m intimately familiar with the places, institutions, and even the types of people that populate this book. Plus, there’s a bit of a thrill to be had from reading a scene where a car chase (okay, a motorcycle-and-Animated-driverless-truck-full-of-pigs chase) goes zipping right past my junior year apartment.

You might scoff at me saying that reading a book that is so thoroughly grounded in a location helps to make it more real, when that reality involves sprites and magic and a canine university and a flying ice bird and armies of cross-bow-shooting rats. But the truth is that Ithaca, and Cornell, feel like places where magic could happen. When Luther says that Ithaca smells like Heaven, like “green and rain and hills”, I can’t dispute that in the least. It doesn’t hurt that just about every location and tradition in this book is real: The Boneyard is real, Dragon Day is real, Risley the arts dorm is real (and while they didn’t have a lot of horses in my day, a swordfight on the lawn would not have been out of place.) About the only place that’s not real is Tolkien House, the fraternity that holds its parties in the underground grove of Lothlorien, reached by crossing the bridge of Khazad-Dum – and for all I know, Tolkien House *is* real, and I just never got invited to any parties there. Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.

So, while Fool on the Hill is certainly going to appeal most to Cornellians, I really do think that it’s a wonderful novel regardless of where you went to school. It’s about three parts fairy tale, two parts urban fantasy (as urban as you can be in Ithaca, anyways), two parts mythology, one part zany screwball comedy, one part tragedy, and liberal doses of horror, action-adventure, and romance. It’s also jam-packed with more literary references than you can shake a B.A. in English at, drawing heavily on Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Greek mythology, but also throwing in glancing allusions to everyone from Ray Bradbury to A. A. Milne to Samuel Beckett.

Jam-packed is a good way to describe the book in general, but Ruff does his usual excellent job of balancing a huge host of characters and a bunch of storylines. The pacing’s not perfect – the main bad guy doesn’t even show up until about halfway through – and some of the minor characters aren’t much more than caricatures, but all of the main characters are so sympathetic and all of the storylines so interesting that I never really minded just reading about what they were up to, even if it didn’t directly bear on the central plot. The short chapters keep things ticking along quickly until eventually all of the disparate pieces come together like clockwork in the final chapters. It’s a big, sprawling jumble of a novel, but I mean that in the best way possible – tons of characters, tons of action, tons of laughter and sweetness and tears and charm, all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable novel that’s got something for every fantasy fan. 5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I love this book, and while I’m admittedly biased, I really do think that even non-Cornellian fantasy and fairy-tale fans, as well as those who have enjoyed Ruff’s later work, or who like Christopher Moore‘s books, will find something here to love as well.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Matt Ruff’s website

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Mr. Sunshine first enters the city near dusk of a spring day in 1866, after heavy showers have turned its dirt roads and streets to mud soup.

Giveaway: I’m giving away a copy of this book! Now, you might ask: “If you love this book so much, why are you giving away your copy?” To which I would reply: Never fear! I have a spare, brand-new copy to give away! To which you might again ask: “Why do you have two copies of this book?” To which I would respond by telling the following story:

Because I love this book so much, I’m forever trying to get people to read it. In the days before I joined LibraryThing, I loaned this book to one of my friends, but didn’t write down anywhere who had it. In August 2006, when I was creating my LT catalog, I was going through my shelves, and couldn’t find my copy. I asked everyone who I could have lent it to if they had it, and everyone said that they didn’t. I particularly pesterd my friend Dave, who I remembered being the one I thought would enjoy it, and he swore up and down that he didn’t have it, that he’d had it but given it back to me, that it was by no means in his apartment, etc. Finally, a year or so ago, I broke down and bought myself a new copy. And, about a month after that, who comes to my office sheepishly holding my original copy of Fool on the Hill? Yeah, that’d be Dave.

So, two copies of one of my favorite books (plus a very good trump card to use in future arguments with Dave.) And I’m giving the newer one away!

1. Leave a comment on this post telling me about somewhere you’ve lived (or visited) where you felt like magic could’ve happened there without being out of place.
2. Make sure the e-mail address in the box on the comment form is valid and one you check regularly; there’s no need to put your address in the comment text itself.
3. Open worldwide; I’ll draw a winner a week from tomorrow.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2009 3:11 am

    I really liked Ruff’s Set This House In Order, and Fool on the Hill is on my wishlist to pick up. Bad Monkeys was pretty good too, but it got too confusing at the end for me to really recommend it.

    • August 7, 2009 12:49 pm

      Set This House in Order is probably my second-favorite of Ruff’s books, after Fool on the Hill… they’ve got very, very different tones, though, with STHiO being much more serious and much less wacky-adventure-ish.

  2. August 7, 2009 9:06 am

    I’ve read Set This House in Order and thought it was wonderful – now I’ll have to find a copy of this one, too!

  3. August 7, 2009 9:54 am

    I’d love to be entered! I once did a mini-pilgrimage to my patron saint’s (Julian of Norwich) shrine in, you know, Norwich, and stayed at the wee guest house there. I was only there for a few days, but I wouldn’t have been surprised by magic there – nothing spectacular and flashy, but magic of the David Almond variety.

  4. August 7, 2009 10:20 am

    I think magic could and did happen in the little village – Ste. Foy-les-Lyon – in France that we lived in.

  5. August 7, 2009 11:07 am

    I took a train ride through the Bavarian Alps once – it definitely looked like a magical place!

    Please enter me!

    nbmars AT yahoo DOT com

  6. Wanda permalink
    August 7, 2009 11:16 am

    The Amalfi Coast in Italy is a place that felt magical to me. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.
    wandanamgreb (at) gmail (dot) com

  7. August 7, 2009 3:00 pm

    “instead of turning in fifty pages on the use of shoelaces in E.B. White’s oeuvre and their relation to the major themes of Norse mythology, or whatever English majors usually write honors theses about” lol :D As an English major, I’m absolutely not offended :P

    I’d love to read this. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see magic happen in the Black Isle in Scotland. I saw this sign! Need I say more?

    • August 7, 2009 3:21 pm

      Heh, I’m sure most English majors’ ideas on what us biology majors write our honors theses about are equally silly. :)

  8. August 7, 2009 5:46 pm

    A friend of mine absolutely RAVED about this, so I read it a few years ago. I liked it, but I have to say I liked his more recent one, BAD MONKEYS, a lot more.

  9. August 7, 2009 7:48 pm

    Thsi sounds amazing. I’d never heard of it, but I’d love to try it out. I’m going for a B.A. in English right now so that is definitely a plus already for this book and why I should read it.

    A place I’ve gone where I thought magic could happen? I don’t know…maybe a theater in New York City? That’s the best I have, but I could see it!


  10. Mermaid-Spark permalink
    August 8, 2009 10:50 am

    I lived for 3 years in the mountains 30 miles inland from the Pacific Coast in the Northwest. I had a creek running out back of my house and the loveliest fairy ring of mushrooms. I felt that place was magickal and I still to this day miss it.

  11. August 8, 2009 12:01 pm

    I can’t possibly pass up a giveaway for a book that comes so highly recommended. :) The most magical place I’ve ever been is Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. (It’s also one of my favourite places in the entire world). It was raining when I visited, and the light was so perfect that I could easily imagine myself stumbling upon a faerie conclave or a portal to another world.

  12. August 9, 2009 3:19 pm

    This sounds like a wonderful read. And I understand exactly what you mean about part of the appeal to you being its setting; I feel the same way about Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry books, and they only take place at my old university in the beginning! That was enough to hook me. Since I would love an urban fantasy that takes place entirely at the University of Toronto, that would be my pick. There are so many lovely old buildings on campus …

  13. Debbie permalink
    August 9, 2009 7:07 pm

    When I was a kid we went to this bed and breakfast and I always thought it was magic. There was this lady that ran the place that dressed like a gyspy. When you would walk into the front door music would play, I always thought that was magic of course now I know it was just her door chime. Please include me in your giveaway.

  14. August 10, 2009 8:37 am

    I am positive that the Castle de Jehay in Belgium is magical. I really hope that I have the chance to revisit the place someday… I am added this book to my tbr, too, so I promise to read this whether or not I win.

  15. August 10, 2009 9:24 am

    It sounds like a good read. I sometimes buy back up copies to give away if like a book enough!

    There’s a small woods behind my house and in one particular spot with a good sitting rock, I’m fairly sure something magic could occur at any time. Hasn’t yet. But soon, I know it!

  16. Ruth Ann permalink
    August 10, 2009 10:17 am

    I worked at Edwards Air Force base for a while. There were times when, with all of those cool aircraft around, it seemed like magic really was happening. Amazing place.

    Thanks for the chance to win!

  17. Angela MacRae permalink
    August 13, 2009 12:46 pm

    I live in Inverness in the north of Scotland and just outside the town there is a place called Clava Cairns which is an ancient burial ground with standing stones. I love to go there to sit and read and it always seems to me that something magical could/should/probably has happened there.

  18. August 15, 2009 10:41 pm

    I visited New Zealand and thought that One Tree Hill in Auckland was amazing with the huge trees and fields. It definitely seemed magical to me.

    Another magical spot is Central Park in NYC, with the large trees and pockets of beauty in the middle of the city.

    But I think One Tree Hill in Auckland > Central Park

    gaby317nyc AT gmail DOT com

  19. Beth permalink
    August 19, 2009 12:49 pm

    We used to vacation in the Catskill Mountains. The fog on the mountains in the morning used to be eerily magical.

    lizzi0915 at aol dot com


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