"The Skeleth" by Matthew Jobin: Penguin Young Readers Group, 2016; 400 pages; $10.22
When it comes to writing epic fantasy fiction, East Palo Alto author Matthew Jobin takes the long view. Not only are his first two novels for young readers set in an alternate, magic-filled version of the Middle Ages, the saga is influenced by Jobin's training in anthropology and his study of the genetics and behaviors of prehistoric peoples.
Growing up in the town of Whitby, on the outskirts of Toronto, Canada, Jobin would play in a nearby wooded ravine and pretend he was in another world.
"I started to imagine that on the other side of the trees, instead of row houses and a baseball diamond, there was a medieval Dark Ages village. I started populating it with (imaginary) people and creating roads and maps."
A quarter of a century later, with a doctorate in anthropological studies from Stanford University under his belt, Jobin, 43, put his world-building skills to the test by writing "The Nethergrim," the first volume of a trilogy aimed at middle-school students. Published by Philomel, the sequel, "The Skeleth," arrived in stores May 10.
Earning comparisons to the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, Jobin's "Nethergrim" series chronicles the adventures of three young people -- a runaway slave, a horse trainer and an aspiring wizard -- as they fight to protect their village from a newly awakened supernatural menace. The books feature many of the familiar trappings of epic fantasy -- valiant knights, brave teens, magical duels and larger-than-life villains -- but with an extra complement of psychological realism that derives from Jobin's fascination with anthropology.
Jobin's academic specialty is the biology of anthropology, and as a lecturer at Santa Clara, at Stanford and with Stanford Continuing Studies, he has taught classes that include evolutionary medicine, anthropological genetics and prehistoric human migration. He said his favorite class, however, has always been Introduction to Biological Anthropology.
"Even though it is a first-year course, we cover a great deal of ground in investigating what it means to be human, from many angles -- primatology, paleoanthropology, genetics, linguistics."
Jobin sees anthropology as a lens looking back at the past, as well as at the viewer.
He said fiction about the Middle Ages continues to fascinate modern readers because "These people's lives were often a lot tougher and usually shorter than ours. To us, sometimes they seem very circumscribed. But if we investigate them, we find that they thought their lives were very colorful, very much worth living and very worthwhile."
One thing that sets "The Nethergrim" series apart from other young-adult fantasy books is its reliance on three protagonists, rather than one, a deliberate choice on Jobin's part.
"As much as I love many other epic series, I sometimes want a change from the idea of a 'Chosen One,'" he said. "Really important things tend to be done collectively or collaboratively."
Jobin continued, "If you have multiple people's perspectives, then you get more of a sense of what life is like, as opposed to what one person's life is like."
In creating his fantasy world, Jobin also developed languages for it. To make sure the non-English words sprinkled into the text made sense, Jobin sought help from his colleagues.
"When you're someone with a broad-based background in anthro as I am," he said, "and you've decided that you want to make your world internally consistent, it does help if one of your best friends is a Stanford-trained Ph.d. in linguistics."
Jobin said that his background in anthropology gave him a way to address issues of morality in his novels. "(Anthropology) lets you see yourself and your own assumptions about what is right and wrong and what is normal or abnormal. Every student has to go through it. Eventually, it reaches a point where they realize that many of the things they think are normal have been thought in another time or place to be completely bizarre or even reprehensible."
Anthropology also spotlights the universality of certain character types.
"Go to any culture, and you eventually find the hero, the sneaky person, the genius, the dullard," Jobin said. "Culture has a strong influence on us, but beneath that is an array of common human traits that you can find wherever you may go. That interplay between essential commonality with the diverging effects of culture is what makes humanity so complicated, and yet so fascinating."
With the publication of "The Skeleth," Jobin has a busy few months ahead of him. He's says he's hard at work on the final volume of the trilogy, as well as thinking about starting a new, unrelated novel. On June 4, he will appear on a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, speaking on "Creating Fantasy: Making Geographies, Myths, Languages and Customs of Fictional Worlds."