From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

In my last book recommendation, for Gordon Grice’s brilliant The Red Hourglass, I set the stage by returning to my oft-repeated point about the difference between realism and plausibility. There’s no such thing as a “realistic” fantasy story, by definition, but readers will demand plausibility. For instance, I know that dragons are pretend, but if your dragons are plausible, believable, I’m not only willing to come along with you for the ride but excited to do so. I contend that plausibility is, not entirely but mostly, a product of consistency. If your dragon can fly across a thousand-mile ocean in one afternoon in chapter one then can’t fly but a few miles an hour in chapter seventeen, that dragon will come off as “unrealistic,” not because it doesn’t follow the rules of real dragons (which don’t exist) but because it doesn’t follow its own internal rules. You get to decide for yourself how fast a dragon can fly, but once you’ve made that decision you need to stick to it, or have an interesting story element that accounts for the change, like the wizard who was riding the dragon across the ocean had cast some kind of spell that made it capable of flying faster, temporarily.

But then what about the stuff in your story, however fanciful a fantasy or far-flung a work of science fiction, that is based in reality? Dragons are pretend, but people aren’t, and unless you’ve established that the people in your story are somehow different than real people, you need to be careful that even your swashbuckling heroes have some grounding in reality. Unless you’ve made it clear, for instance, that there’s some technology or magic that allows people to breathe underwater, there’s only a certain amount of time your human characters can hold their breaths. They can only be so cold for so long, go a certain amount of time without water, and so on.

This is where Last Breath by Peter Stark makes a great addition to your library.

Subtitled, “Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance,” Last Breath tells you in often excruciating detail, what actually happens to a person when he dies of certain causes—what it actually feels like to die.

Last Breath

I’m happy to admit that I’m a particular fan and practitioner of sword and sorcery fantasy, space opera science fiction, and violent horror, and as such I have an awful lot of fictional blood on my hands. And up until I came across Last Breath, I had to do a lot of imagining when it came to what it feels like to die, and beyond the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, how much punishment can someone actually take before succumbing to injury or other problems?

Last Breath covers a scary list of causes of death: hypothermia, drowning, mountain sickness, avalanche, scurvy, heatstroke, falling, predators, the bends, cerebral malaria, and dehydration.

Yikes. I know, right?

But if any of your characters might fall victim to anything on this list—even if you pull them out of it at the last second—you need to read this book, and re-read salient sections as the need arises.

First of all, despite its grim subject matter, the book is an exceptionally entertaining read. Outside magazine journalist Peter Stark has quite a way with descriptive prose with the factual science bits sprinkled in skillfully, as in this passage from the section on drowning:

He summons his whole concentration, like scooping up an armload of fallen leaves that want to waft away on the wind. Up, up, up. He strains up through the dark water to see the silvery surface. Up is life. Down is death.

More than actually seeing it, he senses the light again. He feels his body tossed upward. He hears swirling bubbles. White foam surrounds him. Cold air strikes his face. The roar of water fills his ears. Reflexively he exhales a great sigh of carbon dioxide. His mammalian instincts take over, and he pushes up his head like a seal pushing its nose through a hole in the ice. He breathes in. As he does, his body is tossed over into another hole. Matt’s last breath is a breathful of foam.

0 minutes, 54 seconds (325 milliliters of oxygen remaining): Matt gags on the foam as he goes down again. His larynx is in spasms, reflexively closing on the water and foam. No more water can enter his lungs. Many drowning victims inhale only a glassful or so of water, and in “dry” drownings—about 10 to 15 percent of all victims—the larynx closes before inhaling and the lungs contain no water at all.

Matt doesn’t know quite what’s happening to him. He has a vague sense of tumbling, as if he’s in a giant, warm whirlpool and helping hands are massaging and lifting him.

Or this passage from the section on falling:

He drops 30 feet in 1.4 seconds, or the equivalent of a three-story building in the time it takes to say “How are you this morning?” He has no chance to sort out the tumbling confusion of the fall, much less watch his life flash before his eyes. There is a moment’s blur of rock and sky, an instant of suspended silence. Crack! His right leg strikes a ledge. The blow somersaults him head over heels backward. He hears a sudden rush of wind in his ears, a rattle of falling stone, senses a churning whirl of blue sky and gray rock as though they were being beaten together in a bowl . . .

Suddenly it’s very quiet and he’s nowhere. He floats in the dark, suspended, indefinitely. After what seems an eternity, he hears a slowly gathering rush of sound, a clattering, like a horse and rider galloping over cobblestones toward him. He feels peppering little hits over his body, and a plonk onto his forehead. That was something real—falling stones. He’s not dead, after all. He tries to breathe. Nothing happens, as if all the air has been squeezed from his body like a spent balloon, and it requires more effort and pressure than he possesses to reinflate it. Is it worth it? So much easier not to breathe. But if he doesn’t breathe, this is the end. He will die. He wills his chest and diaphragm again, forcing a spasm of a breath, then another and another. He becomes aware of an intense pain far in the back of his chest, between his shoulder blades, as if a hand were reaching through his chest and tearing at the flesh along his spine. Just as suddenly it subsides. Panting raggedly, he opens his eyes. He’s lying on his side. He’s looking out across the valley to the rock face on the opposite side and, still well below him, the alpine meadow of the valley floor.

Scenes of imminent death in your fiction should be at least this compelling.

Last Breath is the sort of non-fiction I absolutely adore. It reads like an adventure novel with facts mixed in, and is an endless source of the best kind of information for a fiction writer. Last Breath tells you what it feels like in that awful moment, or over that even more awful span. The chapter on dehydration is particularly gruesome.

There were two things recently that made me think of this book, and reminded me to recommend it here.

First is that I’ve been slowly researching the Crusades for a historical novel I probably should have started writing by now, and I’ve got a fairly solid grasp on the dates and large-scale events, but what I’m out there looking for now are books that tell me what it was like to be alive then, and not just for kings and aristocrats, but for ordinary people. What did it feel like, smell like, sound like to be alive in that place and time? Last Breath does that, not with day-to-day life in the Principality of Antioch, but with day-to-day death everywhere, and any time. This is a must-read for everyone who might have to kill somebody, fictionally.

When (not if) you watch this movie, look for the point at which the clouds begin to move.

Which is where the second reminder came. The other day I watched one of my favorite movies again: Stranger Than Fiction. If you avoided this movie because the TV commercials sold it as another Will Ferrell goof-fest, forget those TV commercials and run, do not walk, to whatever legal source you have for watching movies and watch it. I love this perfect little movie, which recounts the story of a way-too-ordinary IRS auditor played by Will Ferrell who begins to hear a disembodied voice narrating his every move, and predicting his imminent death. It turns out the narrator is a novelist and somehow their psyches have converged. He is the character in her novel.

Before this is revealed to either Will Ferrell or the novelist, played brilliantly by Emma Thompson, we see Thompson’s novelist character writhing in the grip of terminal writer’s block. She can’t seem to figure out how to kill her protagonist, and spends endless hours imagining various forms of death. She could have used a copy of Peter Stark’s Last Breath.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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