Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

03 Oct 2009, 9:04 a.m.

"Not Ordinarily Borrowable: Or, Unwelcome Advice" by Thomas Thurman

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

My colleague Thomas Thurman wrote a light fantasy story called Not Ordinarily Borrowable. It's 106 pages, available as a print-on-demand book via CreateSpace (like Thoughtcrime Experiments), and delightful. You can read the first chapter online (and Google Books has the first half of the book but after that you'll have to buy paper or ebooks; I got to read a PDF on a mobile device, and it was fine). Excerpt:

Now in order to become a doctor of something, there is a simple rule to follow. You must find out something new, something nobody in the world has ever seen or known or thought before. You might suppose that with all the many people there are in the world, and with all the thinking that goes on every day, it must be difficult to find a new thing never thought before. But everyone has ideas every day, and there are so many different ones that, sooner or later, everyone must find something new. You yourself saw something nobody had seen before the last time you cracked open the shell of a nut.

After you have found out your new thing, you must write a book about it, a big, heavy book called a thesis. Then, last of all, you must explain your ideas to the other scholars, and the other scholars must be happy with your work. One day, when Maria had finished doing all this, she would be allowed to call herself Dr. Maria, and allowed to wear a scarlet robe instead of her black one. That way, everyone would know how hard she had worked to find out something utterly new.

But that day was still quite a long way in the future, and Maria still had a lot of work ahead of her before it would come.

Maria goes on an adventure that features a dragon, a bike, a mayor, and missing library books. It's charming. Lucky me, I got to call up Thomas yesterday on work pretenses and babble at him for twenty minutes on the following topics:

  • Every minor character has light but consistent and sensible characterization! And no one's an idiot. And since some of them are kind and smart and others aren't, I can't trust my reflexes regarding who will join Maria on her adventure, and how they'll behave. I wouldn't say my expectations are subverted so much as put aside lightly. It's a light book.
  • The story carried me along; it's great when a plot feels surprising, but inevitable in retrospect. Again, it's sensible and logical, down to the level of individual interactions. My suspension of disbelief never got rattled.
  • The setting! Lightly fictionalized Cambridge University! Biking through English villages and asking if anyone's seen a dragon! Incidentally, my favorite story about a grad student's thesis research since "Jump Space".
  • It's lovely to get a fairy tale that doesn't make me cringe in its gender issues. It's a matter-of-fact given that all the women and men in Not Ordinarily Borrowable are people, and how refreshing that is!
  • I'm going on and on about mechanics and "wow, he didn't get that wrong," but really I'm just enchanted that a colleague of mine just popped this much fun out and reading it was a high point of my week. It's like the universe left me a bonus.
If you enjoy Naomi Novik's Temeraire books and/or the Hereville comic How Mirka Got Her Sword (Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl Comic), you might like Not Ordinarily Borrowable (and vice-versa).