You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.
Spoliers: It could have been better.
You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.
Spoliers: It could have been better.
A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog. It’s mostly just for fun. But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try. Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.
I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney. I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much. If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.
Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.
It’s becoming less of a strange concept these days: Just because you like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s good; just because you hate a book, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. People often talk about this concept under the guise of “guilty pleasures”.
That’s the reader interpretation side of the issue. On the authorial intent side, we have goals vs. execution. An author might have sophisticated thematic goals, deep understanding of their characters, or brilliant and edge-of-your-seat plotting ability. But that doesn’t mean they can put all of it on the page so the reader can see it. I’ve heard many writers discuss the goals of their book, their plans for the characters, etc. And quite often I’m dying to read that book. But when I finally get my hands on a draft, or even a published book, it’s awful, or I hate where they went with it, or both. Casual readers might be more familiar with this issue from reading back cover blurbs. They’re written to sell the book, often by someone who is not the author, and they make it sound like the most fascinating book in the world. But then you read it and it’s trite, or boring, or predictable.
In order to visualize this, think of a three-dimensional graph using Cartesian coordinates: x, y, z. x is the goals of the author. Are they unique? Interesting? Well-constructed? Then they get a high x-value. Look at the execution. Is it elegant? Is it good? Does it get across what the author wanted to get across? High y-value. Finally, and this is arguable, but the most important issue to some people: Did you like the book? Were the characters interesting? Did the plot twist blow your mind? Did everyone get what they deserved–or not? High z-value.
To give you a better idea of how this graph works, high scores on all three axes mean the point on the graph representing a given book is in the back right corner. The further away on the y-axis, which should pierce your belly-button, the better the craft behind the book. The farther to the right on the x-axis, the loftier the goals of the story. Finally, the higher up on the z-axis, which should be running parallel to your spine, the more you enjoyed the story.
As an example of a book to be plotted, let’s take The Scarlet Letter. This was a brilliantly crafted book, with lofty thematic goals. And I sort of liked it. So it would sit somewhere to the bottom of my sternum, well past my right middle finger-tip, about five feet in front of me.
Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, which was a fantastic example of magical realism, had lovely prose and interesting characters, and which I thoroughly enjoyed, would be fairly close to the upper right, back corner of my book box.
And then there are the tons of mediocre books that I might not read again, but don’t regret reading the first time. And then we have Haruki Murakami, who is no doubt a great author, but whose penile adventures I have exactly zero interest in. If we stuck the z-axis right down through the top of my head, he’d be about at knee-level and to the northeast of me.
I think “guilty pleasure” does a decent job of describing the phenomenon of knowing something is not particularly good and still liking it. Kind of like McDonald’s. I love McDonald’s even though I know it’s horribly unhealthy, and try not to think about the process of making it while I’m eating–or ever.
More bro-type folks then I might find Natty Light to be a better metaphor. It’s an atrocious beer, tastes like watered-down camel-piss, but at least it gets you drunk.
And now I’m going to go feel ashamed of myself for suggesting that anyone compare natty light to literature. Even Twilight-level literature.
ETA: If I were a good writer, I probably would have opened with that Twi-light/Natty-light line…
(This is not hating on Twilight. I don’t like it, and it’s horribly written. But plenty of people I know have said it’s their guilty pleasure. Other readers may feel differently.)
Before we get going, I should explain that if I’m trying to find a book to read by online reviews, I look almost entirely at the negative ones. Most books have only a few 1- and 2-star reviews, so usually I read all of them, and some of the more popular 3-star reviews. Maybe a couple 4-stars. (I mean on Amazon and GoodReads.) That’s because the majority of five-star reviews in my experience are mostly gushing, don’t discuss the reasons why the reviewer felt that way except in terms so abstract as to be useless, etc. Sure, some low-star reviews are like that. But a lot of them take the time to point out every little itch and then about half are in between. And I find it more sueful to hear what people hated about a book when deciding if I want to buy it. Although unless a book has almost nothing over 2 stars, I don’t actually pay much attention to reviews for decision-making anyway. I just enjoy reading them for their own sake.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with Imaginary Girls. I don’t usually post reviews on this blog, partially because my taste is so weird, and partially because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of what this blog is about. I primarily enjoy writing about the theoretical aspects for speculative fiction, and as with this reviews, occasionally about YA. There are plenty of awesome review blogs out there, and I’m not interested in competing with them. I’m not capable of competing with them; my goals in writing a review are different than theirs. The reason I’m writing this review, besides that fact that Nova Ren Suma is an awesome writer and I loved this book, is because after I finished I was surfing reviews on Goodreads, and I saw a review, not surprising, but quite illustrating of a topic that’s been percolating and/or fermenting in my mind for awhile.
As the title says, it’s the tension between reader interpretation and authorial intent. By reader interpretation, I means the feelings and insights and the rewarded or frustrated expectations that a reader takes away from a story. And there’s a unique interpretation for each reader. I won’t debate the issue of validity here. It’s much too heated and ambiguous a discussion for me to get side-tracked on here.
So, instead, let’s begin with my review. The review I mention earlier had a different reader interpretation of Ruby than I did. She hated her. So did I. But whereas the other review saw this as a flaw, I saw it as the point. I don’t know Nove Ren Suma enough to make a firm claim to her intent. To an extent, it doesn’t matter. half the point of the novel seems to be to provide ambiguity. I admit that I am going to go a bit into spoilers. That’s where my goals in a review differ slightly from traditional reviews. Ruby is not a nice person. She’s not a mean person either. She’s more just amoral. What matters to her is what she wants, not what’s right or wrong. And the book does a great job of taking that, and still making her not a complete monster. When people have always done everything you wanted, it’s not that strange to take it for granted. Ruby holds the whole town under her spell. Her character isn’t cruel, just a bit purposefully oblivious.
And that’s part of what makes the book as good as it is. Ruby’s complete narcissism plays so beautifully into the magical realist elements of the story. It’s Chloe’s complete belief in her sister that allows all the fantastic events in the story to seem believable. London’s revival is perhaps the most unambiguous magical element. But for the rest of it, when you finally have a break from the consensus reality that Ruby holds over the town, when Chloe and London and their friends pass the boundary line and start to say all sorts of awful things about Ruby, there’s a moment where you realize that maybe Chloe isn’t the most reliable of narrators. Is she so under Ruby’s spell that she never saw these cracks? That’s one interpretation. Or there’s the idea of the boundary of Ruby’s power. There’s enough wiggle room to take either route. Or perhaps even the boundary is real, in the sense that Ruby doesn’t have enough energy to control things outside of town for mundane reasons involving time and physical stamina. The moments near the end of the second third of the book, where Chloe sees Ruby for once tired, not perfect suggest that this too is a possibility. This tension between various possibilities is part of what makes magical realism, real-world superstition, and a magician’s tricks so bittersweet.
Chloe has a few other moments of cognitive dissonance, as well. And in general she takes the route of doubling down on her faith in Ruby. Totally believable, to me. All fiction requires suspension of disbelief. Even the real world does. And Ruby has, evidenced by little hints throughout the story, taken a great deal of time to set up her perfect little world, or at least the image of it in Chloe’s eyes. When you have the scene at the beginning of the book, at the reservoir, and everyone seems under Ruby’s spell, there’s another interpretation to consider: perhaps many people are under Ruby’s spell–temporarily, or patchily, or entirely–but there’s also an aspect of rubber-necking and denial that could be in play. Some people absolutely see through manipulation and tricks. But they still love to see the master work. Or they want to be part of the legend, even though they know the legend is a fraud. It’s easy to forget that with humans, sometimes appearances can be more important than reality. You see it in rich-people take-down stories all the time. The cracks being exposed, the polite but purposeful ignorance. The winks that say “I saw saw that” or “we all know the truth but it’s more useful for us to pretend we don’t”.
But it’s common theme that the people most capable of casting these sorts of spells are also not the nicest of people. They understand manipulation. They know how to play groups off against each other, how to get someone to overlook the many little problems in the face of the one big wonder. And they learned those things for a reason. We don’t really get to learn Ruby’s reason. They had family troubles, and their mom was not the most perfect. Perhaps some things happened in the past we didn’t get told about. But I know people like Ruby, I’ve seen how they construct their worlds, paper over the cracks, and the portrayal of that in Imaginary Girls is very well done. It wouldn’t be the book it is if Ruby wasn’t so selfish and controlling. The tragedy of the book, the great and terrible beauty of it, is that even if the magic is real, even if Ruby did what she did, and Chloe and then London were brought back from the dead, even if she truly loved her sister in her own way, Chloe is still, for the foreseeable future lost in the spell of someone who’s dead and gone. (Or is she?!) It doesn’t even matter if things were really how Chloe saw them, because Ruby has screwed her up just the same.
Nova Ren Suma has done a beautiful job encapsulating what it’s like being a teenager, looking up to someone–loving someone, even–looking past their flaws. Even though I’ve never lived by a reservoir, or had the family situation Ruby and Chloe had, or whatever, this book definitely resonates with me, and reminds me of things that happened when I was younger, and most of all it created a great mystery that was fun to investigate, even if it was impossible to figure out the right answer. And she did it with brilliant prose and fascinating characters. And it’s hard to ask more from a book.
There are quite a few idioms in our culture that involve identification. Due to things like privacy, bias, and fear, we often want to talk about a characteristic of something without identifying what the something is.
In the case of my inspiration for this post, that something is a book. A famous book even. But I don’t know what that book is, because the person talking about it refused to name names. I respect this person, a well-known blogger in the circles I frequent. I have probably read this book. I would love to know what book they are referring to, because I would love to hear their opinion on it. But for some reason, they feel uncomfortable expressing a public opinion on the subject.
I wonder why. You see this all over the place, and especially in writing circles. And I honestly don’t see a concrete reason why it should be that way. I have some guesses as to why in some cases, but there’s nothing that defines clear, deserved consequences for breaking this apparent social rule.
First, there’s probably a desire to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. In this case, referring to a published book by a famous author, I don’t think they really need that amount of protection from hurt feelings.
Second, I often hear people worrying about getting black-balled by the industry. Now the fame of the author might be relevant, but I don’t know of any serious cases where this has actually occurred. So again I wonder at this omission.
Third, since there does seem to be a a set etiquette here, there’s the desire to appear to be playing by the rules and not being rude. Which probably makes the most sense out of all the reasons I can think of.
There are probably a lot more reasons, major and minor, that I haven’t thought of.
Series are very common in speculative fiction, and especially in fantasy. And even more especially in Urban Fantasy. Normally, when you read the first book in a series and find it less than satisfying, you don’t read the rest of the books in that series.
So, when I finally put down Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts, the first book in her Downside Ghosts series, I was very disappointed. Here was I book I had greatly been anticipating, and had recommended to me, even though I don’t usually read a lot of Urban Fantasy. The author is also active on Absolute Write, my favorite writing forum, and I have in fact spoken to her there.
But after the first 50 pages, I found the book very slow going. The magic system was interesting, there was a unique twist on the post-apocalyptic world, the character was a strong but flawed woman with drug issues and ties to the underworld that actually caused conflict with her everyday job. The writing was good. The villain was interesting. Yet the book wasn’t. (Keep in mind this was my first Stacia Kane book.)
I tend to finish things I start, and so I finished the book. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually enjoy books, and I felt let down. Even though I was desparate for reading material, the other two books sat on the shelf for two or three weeks. If I hadn’t bought all three currently available books in the series in one mass splurge of book-balancing, checker-shocking hemorrhage of cash, I would have written it off as bad luck and moved on. I would not have picked up the sequels. And I would have missed out big time.
Because the sequels were both page-turners, which I tore through in one day instead of studying for my finals. I loved them. I could see how much they benefitted from the set-up in the first book. There was a bit much re-hashing from Unholy Ghosts, and I think the books could have still been good reads if I hadn’t slogged through the first book. But overall, they were great, and I’m glad I bought them.
I’ve heard similar stories about Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. Fans are constantly explaining that the series really gets started after the first book, Gardens of the Moon, which is apparently slow and boring in its overwhelming detail. (Personally, I loved it.) The point is, even though writers are often advised that the first whatever–sentence, paragraoh, page, chapter, novel–is what makes or breaks a sale, those criteria don’t always match up with reality.
While it’s true that there are more books out there than a single person could read in ten life-times, that you can always just move on to a series that is good from start to finish, that doesn’t mean you should never read a book by that author again. Some authors deserve a second chance.
If you haven’t taken the hint already, Stacia Kane is one of those authors. But this post is not about how much I now love Stacia Kane. It’s about how no matter the amount of polish you grind into your first whatever, it won’t always be good enough to hook someone’s interest. But that doesn’t mean it sucks, or that you should give up on further work in that direction. So keep writing, and keep reading, and hopefully you’ll find what you’re looking for.
Tags: Authors, Books, Downside Ghosts, Fantasy, Gardens of the Moon, Not a Review, Reviews, series, Series Structure, speculative fiction, Stacia Kane, Steven Erikson, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Urban Fantasy
Learn more about Rahcel Aaron by visiting her website.
Read more about The Spirit Thief on the Orbit website.
As I said the first time, I normally don’t review books. But, having reviewed the first book in this series, The Spirit Thief, I figured why not review the second? So, here’s my review of The Spirit Rebellion by Rachel Aaron. And, to pack even more goodness in, I’ll use it as an example of good series structure.
There may be minor spoilers for the first book, but hopefully none for the second.
Book Two of the Legend of Eli Monpress starts out Miranda Lyonette returning to the Spiritualist Court to face charges of improper acquisition of a spirit and conspiracy with our anti-hero Eli. Eli is of course looking for a way to replace Nico’s dampening coat to hide her presence from the spirits.
Both of these opening conflicts have fairly high levels of tension and are built strongly on the foundations laid in the first book. While the main plotline of Spirit Thief was clearly resolved, it has lead to some very good opening subplots for Spirit Rebellion. And while these subplots are based on the first book and follow cleanly from the events surrounding that book’s climax, they do not undo what has occurred, nor make it irrelevant. Thus, the previous book could have served equally well as a standalone novel, and so can the second.
Now, I like long interconnected epic fantasy as much as anyone, but a good fantasy series does not require video-game style stakes elevation, and I personally prefer when it doesn’t. if you don’t agree, the rest of the post will still be interesting and relevant, but ymmv.
So, we’ve established that each book has its own personal conflicts but that the second book builds on the first. I’ll also note that the main plot of the second book is very similar to the first. It is first and foremost a caper, in which Eli runs around stealing fantastic things from their less than fantastic owners.
That said, the series is not episodic, as many urban fantasy series tend to be. The two main plots still rely on one another. In fact, the main event of the first novel is key to solving the conflict of the second. While avoiding the common fantasy trope of “plot coupons”, where the character runs around exchanging one valuable artifact for another, Aaron manages to incorporate previous material into the solution of the present conflict. And all this is accomplished while widening the readers understanding of setting and character.
We’ll start with the first. In Spirit Rebellion, we learn a lot more of the functioning of the spirit world and the Spirit Court. Both have their important figures and inconvenient politics. The politics of the Court are an obstacle to Miranda, while the politics of the spirit realm serve to frustrate Eli’s attempts to steal the thing which will absolve him of a rather large debt to a rather dangerous person.
What really makes these believable conflicts is that they cannot be easily solved with the skills and powers that got the characters through the last story. Eli finds out that all the charisma in the world won’t help when no one will talk to you. And of course, Miranda’s strong belief in the difference between right and wrong gets her in a great deal of trouble. There’s no black and white in politics.
We also learn a great deal more about Nico’s part of the story. There are several hints and clues as to the nature of demonseeds and how they grant their hosts their powers, as well as some revelations into their true nature and their relationship to the spirit realm. Fascinating stuff, but I won’t be going into it here. You’ll just have to read the book.
As for Josef, I learned that even publishers get confused by names, unless there’s an identical twin named “Joseph” somewhere that we have yet to meet. Anyway, while we get basically zilch in terms of character backstory, there some lovely character-building scenes and a lecture from my newest favorite talking sword that do a good job of making him more than just Nico’s bodyguard.
Finally, there are relatively few minor characters cluttering up the pages, but those that are there are well-portrayed within their limits and move the plot along without being obvious plot-bots.
Okay, now for the bad part. I’ve seen this mentioned in other reviews, most notably the one of the Spirit Thief over at booksmugglers, so I know it’s not just me. While the books are fun and the plots competently constructed, the main characters tend to be a bit flat. They’re fairly archetypal, I suppose you could say. Eli is the charming rogue, Miranda the feisty female mage, Josef the stolid swordsman, and the Nico the quiet girl with a mysterious past and incredible powrs. I like to compare Eli to David Eddings’ Althalus, and Miranda reminds me of Jordan’s Morianne, or possibly Siuan Sanche. I could make many more comparisons, but this is fantasy, so I’m sure everyone has some character they find a bit similar to every other. The point is, while there are three books left in the series, a little bit more info wouldn’t have hurt.
And now for the MCs. Miranda is not so bad. Things tend to go in her favor, but she’s a fantasy heroine, so it’s neither surprising nor especially damaging to the plot. But, Eli is another story. While he’s certainly powerful on his own, he would never have gotten so far without the backing of a powerful patron. As Mellinor remarks in the climax of the Spirit Thief, how could any spirit be allowed to bring Eli to harm? This backing has many positive and almost no negative effects on Eli. While it’s impressive of him to refuse direct help in tight situations—it’s typical of Marty Stus in that he doesn’t really seem to need it. It’s an empty refusal. He doesn’t lose anything precious that could have been saved, and he gets to keep his pride.
Of course, I appreciate the unique approach to making Eli special. Using a third and difficult method of encouraging the help of the spirits. But he seems to do little enough of it after the first book, preferring to rely upon his inner “light” to do the trick. Unlike the rest of the magic, this part seems little integrated into the story.
Overall, I liked the second book. It’s a good build-up and there has been some writing improvement. It’s not my favorite style of fantasy, being a lighter, more humorous take on the genre, but good writing and a good story make it one of the nicer additions to the new fantasy canon. I am looking forward to the rest of this series.
Tags: Althalus, Authors, Books, David Eddings, Eli Monpress, Fantasy, Miranda Lyonette, Morianne, Rachel Aaron, Reviews, Robert Jordan, series, Series Structure, Siuan Sanche, The Spirit Rebellion, The Spirit Thief
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