Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

I heard about this book when Shannon originally signed her seven-book deal (!!), and it was all over the publishing news. The fantasy nerd in me got very excited, and now the first book has landed. This was the book I took on the plane to New York with me; I was convinced it would be perfect plane reading.

I was half right. The premise is intriguing; Paige Mahoney is a dreamwalker, a mental ‘hacker of sorts’ who can read the ‘dreamscapes’ of non-clairvoyants – here called amaurotics. She lives in the London of 2067, which is governed by an anti-clairvoyant institution called Scion. Scion seeks and captures clairvoyants – or ‘voyants’ – like Paige just as a police force does criminals, and puts them to work against other voyants, or disappears them. Ironically, the only way Paige can feel like she belongs in this oppressive society is as part of London’s underground voyant crime syndicate. By day, she tells her Scion-employed father she works at an oxygen bar, but after hours she surveils voyants in her precinct for a crime lord. Soon, though, she discovers that Scion is just one layer of a deeper, more nefarious plan.

Broadly speaking, this book is structurally sound. There is plenty of tension and action to keep the reader turning the pages, and some sympathetic characters to root for along the way. The narrative retains integrity even though not far into the book Paige’s circumstances, and her understanding of the world around her, changes dramatically. I know this has irritated some readers, but in principle I had no issue with this; it is rather a dizzying turn of events that gives you the tight-chested ‘what on earth is she going to do?’ feeling.

But my main issue with this book is that it felt undercooked. The finer details of the world-building, in particular, needed more attention. For example, Shannon has created an extremely granular and complex taxonomy of voyants, given as a family-tree-style chart at the beginning of the book. It’s an overwhelming introduction, so it’s puzzling that many of these divisions are inconsequential, story-wise. In fact – and I admit I was reading this in holiday mode, so I may have just missed it – there are some terms that I can’t even remember being used. (I also realise this is a seven-book series, so there’s an argument for including everything, but I’m not sure it works here.)

This may seem like a minor quibble but, on the flipside, weirdly, there’s some vagueness around what Paige’s dreamwalker abilities are. To some extent, there are plot reasons for this, but if a protagonist’s powers are so desirable and fascinating to everyone around her that she forms a kind of centrifugal plot force, as Paige does in The Bone Season, they should be as plain as could be for the reader. Similarly, two races that are introduced later in the book could have been handled more confidently; their clairvoyant qualities are not that well elucidated, and this makes the ending feel rushed and sloppy.

All this is not to be discouraging or horrid. I’m really talking about finessing and general tightening rather than integral problems. I did, though, feel that there were enough elements requiring polishing or rethinking that I came out of the reading experience a bit confused and not quite satisfied. Yet the pacing and action kept me going. So for the purposes of being distracted on a long trip, The Bone Season worked. I didn’t even write any notes as I was having a nice old time with it. But reading a book that isn’t quite ready for publication really makes it clear what kind of genius writers like Tolkien and Martin have (or perhaps reflects the time they’ve spent with their manuscripts, or the time allowed by a less pressure-cooker publishing process): absolute control over and knowledge of their worlds; and the understanding of what parts of it the reader needs to know about, and when.

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Laura Miller’s New Yorker piece on George R. R. Martin and his fans (who are legion) was great, and left me dying to read Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I like fantasy, I like complexity, I like HBO tv shows: done deal, right? I borrowed the first two books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings from my friend James, who has read them several times since childhood (Game of Thrones was written fifteen years ago).

By way of brief description, the books describe the power struggles of various high-born families in the Seven Kingdoms, and take their plot and setting cues from something approximating English medieval history (I think Martin has said that the plot is loosely based on the War of the Roses). They are huge books – both volumes run to over 700 pages – giving other sprawling fantasy worlds reason to reconsider their level of commitment.

Game of Thrones is a much easier sell than Clash of Kings: it is laden with surprises and ends with a fist-pumper of a scene. Clash of Kings suffers from the lugubriousness of an already expansive universe that Martin only continues to complicate, edge outwards and fill in, introducing more and more characters, locations and intrigues. Of course, that’s no problem in itself, but I found the second volume a bit tedious in places, and while I occasionally skipped over pages of description in the first book, I skimmed whole sections of Clash of Kings without regret. So while it was no great difficulty to continue on to the second book after the first, I’m in no hurry to go on to the third any time soon. (Dana Jennings’ NYT review of the fifth book in the famously long-incomplete series has swayed me slightly.)

Obviously, a lot happens in the 1500+ pages I read. (If anyone is giving out prizes for understatement of the year, I’ll take one.) But a few general areas of note. (Note that because there are so many significant plot changes, there’ll inevitably be SPOILERS. And note that I’m in no way trying to convert non-fantasy readers to these books. If the words ‘meat and mead’ anger you, you shouldn’t read this at all – click here now.)

I Sex and women

When an early description of a family’s bloodline contains the words ‘for centuries they had wed brother to sister’, you know you’re in for a hard-to-defend-to-your-friends kind of read. And no bloody joke. In Game of Thrones alone, you get twincest and a very closely written scene between an adult man and a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s enough to make you realise how grateful you are for age-of-consent laws.

Read more

, etc.

The Whisper of Leaves tells the story of Kira, an adventurous, gold-eyed healer whose skills exceed any her people have seen before. One of the Tremen people descended from the peaceful Kasheron, Kira lives in Allogrenia, a beautiful, heavily wooded land divided into portions each associated with one of the Tremen’s eight clans. Kira’s people love the land’s bounty, and carefully keep the ways into it secret. But the Shargh, who are as violent as the Tremen are peaceful, find a way in. Arkendrin, brother of the deceased Shargh chief, seeks Kira, because he believes that she is the subject of an old prophecy that foretells the destruction of his people.

Allogrenia is extensively realised by Nikakis, and her affection for the Victorian landscape where she grew up and continues to work is obviously a big influence on how she created the world in her Kira books. The Tremen people are intimately familiar with the uses of all the plants and herbs that can be found in their lands, and the forest’s animals are often invoked to add colour to Nikakis’s descriptions.

The Whisper of Leaves is the first in a trilogy. Once I’ve read the first volume in a trilogy, I’m usually pretty eager to pick up the rest of the narrative thread in the remaining books. In this case, though, I doubt I will get straight to it. I did like the world and the characters, but the pacing of this book was a little off for me. It moved more slowly than I would have liked, and as a corollary, I rarely sustained the heady suspense that is the usual payoff for reading dramatic fantasy novels. It’s a bit longer than it needs to be, too, though that’s a usual quibble for me with fantasy books. But it’s a nice gentle read, which I appreciated when I was heavily hungover yesterday.

There’s a beautiful illustration depicting Allogrenia on the book’s website, and you can have a peek at sample chapters from each of the Kira books there, too.

Sorry. I hope I haven’t put you off your lunch with 1) the moody backlit warrior maiden and 2) my feral desk. If you weren’t all that committed to nourishing yourself today anyway, I could tell you that I specifically had to angle this shot to avoid including perfectly normal pharmaceutical products which nonetheless would probably have made this insight into my life a bit too colourful for strangers’ consumption. So. Let’s be honest, it’s not that bad a picture after all (faux-Buffy notwithstanding, perhaps).

Those of you who know me or have read this blog for a little while will know that my genre of predilection is fantasy. I don’t read much true crime or historical fiction, graphic novels are few and far between on my literary plate, and I can’t lay claim to having enjoyed or fully read any self-help tomes. Generally, I’m an attempting-the-canon literary fiction girl. But FANTASY. I love it. It’s like a big juicy ice cream cone. Gooey, sticky, magic-y ice cream with crunchy satisfying narrative resolution every time (I guess that’s the cone).

Wow, are you bored yet? There’s nothing more boring than people rhapsodising about objects without explaining what they are or why the adulation is warranted. Hence:

Graceling is about a world where certain people are born Graced with uncanny skills. Katsa, the heroine, is a Graced killer. People born with these special powers are revealed when their eyes each resolve into a different colour. In Katsa’s country, when this occurs, the marked children are sent into the King’s service. As such, Katsa is a killer for the crown, and the role is beginning to wear thin enough that she has started a secret council whose members carry out secret good deeds under the power-hungry King’s nose.

Apart from a sluggish first couple of chapters, it’s a bona fide good old stock-standard fantasy book. The only time I ever mean ‘stock-standard’ as a compliment is respect of fantasy books. For me the predictable pleasure of reading a good fantasy book is twofold: I like the escapism and the trustily moral narrative arcs. The escapism is pretty self-explanatory — I get a kick out of written descriptions of human-dragon relationships (not romantic ones, I feel myself obliged to disclaim) and the way skilled fantasy writers can compound human relationships with the added burden of magical abilities. As for the narrative arcs, which in fantasy books are generally weighted in favour of honourable and beneficial resolutions, well, I think they’re as lucid a model for the universally applicable Introduction-Conflict-Problem-Adventure-Solution schema as any.

I like the fantasy books that deal with Grand Problems, and Graceling is certainly one of these. Look at the Harry Potter books, Isobelle Carmody’s books, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: these kids are all making pretty big decisions. The whole world rests on the shoulders of one preternaturally important/talented sprite. (Usually they’re quite shy/good-looking/self-deprecating/awesome at sword fighting, etc., too.) That kind of narrative conceit is fantastic for reaching shy/good-looking/self-deprecating/awesome at sword fighting kids, and enthralling them with the importance of behaviour and good decisions. I realise I sound like the least fun person on earth right now, but that is why I loved reading these books when I was a teenager.

I feel like I haven’t given Kristin’s book enough attention. That’s inexcusable, and I apologise (because she has a sword). But it’s a really good read. I borrowed it from a fantasy-consuming couple who both read Graceling in about a day. They both loved it, and so did I. Not to mention that a lot of these books have strong, young, female protagonists. These books are Feminism 101 for lots of young women, and an amazing resource for them when the world says no. The lessons aren’t written in black and white, either. Katsa first discovers what her Grace is when, as a little girl, she lashes out at a sleazy man who is giving her too much attention and kills him. How great a metaphor is this for the potential all people have to hurt one another, and how well does Cashore show Katsa’s turmoil as she is in turn misused for her hated abilities. Morally instructive lessons that are easy to identify with — check. Well-paced action, check. Hot love interest with sexy eyes — check. Come on, people.

Maybe I’m assuming too much, but if you agree with anything I’ve said, or like the fantasy books that I do, you will probably enjoy this. If you aren’t, then I’m surprised you are still reading this post at all, but maybe you are just addicted to the written word, and for that I commend you and suggest the telephone book as well.

Ugh. Okay. I am a pretty generous reader. While I’m reading, I can’t help but take notice of what doesn’t work, but afterwards I prefer to remember what I think the author has done well. There are obvious ‘pros’ in Brisingr, the third book in Christopher Paolini’s breakaway bestseller fantasy series: well-planned broad-scale writing, it’s fairly well-paced, one or two emphatic and wonderful characters. But there were a lot of ‘cons’ that sent smoke curling out my nostrils.

ONE: Paolini cannot write dialogue. Overexplanation, overcharacterisation, telling-not-showing, clunky dialect-rendering (when people say ‘aye’ every so often, they’re rural! or at least friendly!), it’s all there. I can’t tell you how many times I came across unnecessary words, sentences and exchanges that could and should have been sheared off. Bad dialogue turns characters from actors to bores, and I often had to suppress suspicions that some of the main people were really not very bright.

TWO: If you like things to be expressed elegantly (an adverb to be scorned by book critics, I know) or at least to be emotionally affecting, you won’t often find that in this book. The overwhelming impression is that of a second draft at best, with fan fiction-esque exclamation marks (…he wanted revenge!) and unanchored adventure-wish fulfilment moments (I’m enjoying fighting sooooo much, without qualification, even though I just had a massive ethical quandary about it) all too common.

THREE: The protagonist, Eragon — not my favourite-ever hero. Way too few redeeming points, and it usually takes a long and boring time for him to figure his thoughts out. (Plus, he’s not prone to very exciting thoughts.) Eragon was charming enough when he was a boy fiddling around with a dragon egg, but it’s close to crunch time in the series, and he still hasn’t got many defining characteristics. A bit whiny, actually. Lots of the other characters are way more compelling.

So, my open letter to Christopher Paolini: I know you take your work seriously, and you’ve done an okay job so far. But you make too much money from these books for me not to want to tell you this: curb your fan-fic tendencies, make Eragon more interesting and decisive, and the dialogue shorter and more pithy, or there will be blood.

A quick glance at the author biography tells me all I need to know about Kate Constable, i.e. that she’s a woman after my own heart for sure. Growing up, Constable loved Greek myths and knew nothing about football. I think we even went to the same school and university. Like me, she did an Arts/Law degree but unlike me she lived in Papua New Guinea, worked at a record company and married her boss.

I’m no stranger to Constable’s work (nor to the funny feeling I get when referring to someone as ‘Constable’) or the young adult female heroine fantasy genre (YAFHFG?). The Taste of Lightning is a premium example of both. Tansy, Perrin and Skir are three young people brought together by political intrigue and magic. By all rights, they shouldn’t be in the same place, let alone become travelling mates–their respective homelands are at war, and they come from wildly differing backgrounds. But between each other they find enough respect, skill and attraction to make a fist of helping Skir, a red-headed Priest-King, return to the Cragonlands.

Lightning is a wonderful book, with a spectacular hammer-home ending that reveals secrets of all kinds. The book smells of build-up, and I can’t find anything about it on her website but I would assume there will be a series of two or three.

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Terrier is about a girl, Beka Cooper, (whom old fans like me will know to be the ancestress of the Lioness books’ lovable Rogue George Cooper) who is in training to be a Dog, the Tortallan equivalent of police. She has a couple of magic tricks up her sleeve, like being able to listen to the spirits of the dead. But, as her mother was the victim of opportunistic and cruel crime, nothing serves her more than her hunger for justice. Okay, so, pretty standard fare so far. But holy crap, I have never got so much flak from my friends as when I was reading this book. Even my fantasy-reading friends were giving me crap for reading this. Most of their derision was aimed at the cover for being creepy and over-golden, which I have to agree it kind of is. They were also a bit scathing about the subject matter, which sounded cliched to them.

I’m a bit blind to the flaws of authors who have somehow managed to win my loyalty. I’m the same with some musicians. Even so, I have to say that while Terrier was engrossing reading, it had some minor problems. It was written in journal form. That’s a writerly conceit with merit, but the trick is balancing the getting-to-know-you value with the right amount of drama. Mostly the book reads fine, despite an extremely ambitious plot. But there are some saggy bits. And the character points can be overwrought, as in, ‘I get it! She’s shy! He’s a charismatic lady-killer! Okay, enough already!’

I’ll be damned a million times, though, if I can’t defend Tamora Pierce from lounge-room critics, because she was my first library-love. I received plenty of fines for her Song of the Lioness quartet books about Alanna, a magically gifted girl who pretended to be a boy for years because she wanted to be a knight. Come on! That is awesome-town stuff. I borrowed her books chronically until I could afford to buy them. And I read all her books that were set in Tortall (there are 15!). And that is because Pierce writes a fantastic female hero, and she just loves her readers as much as her characters, teaching them that it’s okay to be different or strong as long as you’re principled and compassionate. And she’s moral in the best possible way. I learned about the virtues of hard work and honour by reading Pierce’s books, but I also learned about evil, equality and the class system.

So even though Terrier isn’t my favourite example of Pierce’s strong-female issue-conscious fantasy, that’s still a genre I love, and the book features a range of fun, sympathetic characters, a good dose of danger, a purple-eyed cat and nobility everywhere you least expect it.

A by-the-bye — I’ve been reading a lot of YA and fantasy lately. But the last non-YA book I read was for my next book club meeting, and once I write up a book, it floats out of my head a little bit. So I’m hanging on to that one. Plus Terrier has to go back to the library. Wow, I cringe a little bit every time I write Terrier. I get so embarrassed about reading fantasy. Even more than I do about liking Selma Blair.

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