Don’t Judge Alone-Modern Faerie Tales

Next week we’ll be moving on from one of my favorite authors working in YA to…another of my favorite authors working in YA. It’s a shift, I know.

I’m still working up my review of The Darkest Part of the Forest, but while doing that I’ve also been thinking a lot about Tithe and its sequels, the first of Black’s books that I read.

Why? Well because, although it’s a completely different story, The Darkest Part of the Forest is apparently set in the same universe and contains a decent amount of easter eggs for people who have read both. There were a couple of times I had to pull out my long neglected set of the series to check some names and timelines. As I did, I remembered how pretty the covers on my set were, and how disappointing the current covers are in comparison.

Which is sad to me, because the covers were a major part of what made me give the series a chance in the first place. I mean, look at these:

You can see how much design work went into them, and they’re beautiful for it.

Sure, they’re a little more pastel than the tone of the series technically calls for, but don’t they just exude magic? They look Celtic and modern and wild all at the same times, and the font gives them just enough of a creepy touch to fit the story.

I think about covers a lot. About a million people have talked about how important they are to the success of a book as advertising. I like to think about the artistic process involved, though. It’s always interesting for me to see what struck someone about a story so strongly that they chose that as its visual representation. Everything from the imagery chosen, to the positioning of elements, to the color palette can be telling.

For example, comparing Tithe’s original paperback cover to the one on the first edition is interesting, because where they both work off of the magic element, the tiny bit of creepiness added by the font in the paperback is blown up into the main feeling of the hardback’s cover.

tithefirsted

The sketchy lines and disturbing figures bring out the darker parts of the story, more so than the druidic swirls of the paperbacks. It also gives a glimpse of the characters, where my copies focus on the more symbolic elements of what the novels are about. I like the iconography of wings (fairies), sword (knighthood), and crown (power struggle), but getting a glimpse into the madness of the fairy court is great too.

The new British covers focus on the characters, too, even if they downplay the magical side of the story for the modernist one.

These ones almost look like neon signs to me. You still get some of the wilderness imagery here, but it’s simplified into stencils and presented in electric colors. I’m not sure if some editor thought this side of the story would sell better, or if it’s just what the artist got out of it. Either way it’s interesting to see how each of the designers had a slightly different take on the same novels. More importantly, it’s good to see how well and clearly they got across their chosen focus.

Which is why it’s so disappointing that the covers currently on the shelves are these:

I call these the creepy cosplay covers, and I have no idea how they happened.

I mean, I sort of get where they’re trying to go. There’s a strong romance aspect to the stories that none of the previous covers have picked up on. But they’re so badly done. Tithe could be worse even if the photoshop does look a little awkward, but even the posing on the other two feels wrong. The friend who introduced me to the series does visual design, and when I showed her these she cringed and said they looked like student film posters. To paraphrase her thoughts on the Valiant cover: “Like, she’s an inexperienced actress who’s hamming it up, and he’s some guy’s roommate who they dragged out of bed because they needed a second person in the shot.”

You’d think if they were going to spend the money to redesign the covers, they’d do it right. These look so cheap it seems like they’d be more of a turnoff on the shelf than anything. Especially since all of the others are at least decently well designed and make good moves to reflect the story. I thinks that’s all I want from a cover: pretty enough to be eye catching and feels somewhat like the book it’s on.

What about you guys? Do you like to look at different variations and see how they relate to the narrative at hand? Do you have any strong preferences about them? Does it also bum you out when bad covers happen to good books?

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Sapphique by Catherine Fisher

 

sapphique2

Incarceron Book 2, Firebird Books, 462 pgs.

Having finally accomplished his dream of escaping from Incarceron’s walls to the world outside of the prison, Finn must now contend with the things that his escape means. His having left his friends, Attia and Keiro, behind with no contact and little hope of rescue. His coming to terms with the fact that the world of Outside is nowhere near the peaceful paradise he had imagined it to be. His role as the keystone in a rapidly destabilizing political situation. And, overlaying it all, the fact that his escape from the prison, that escape from the prison is possible at all, has shaken the foundational assumptions of two worlds.

As I said before, neither of these reviews is going to be very critical.

Sapphique actually manages to retain most of Incarceron’s strengths of plotting, worldbuilding, and characterization. I sound more surprised here than I am. Fisher is a good writer, and I trust her skill. Still, considering how much the tone has changed between the two novels, it’s good to see.

And it has changed; specifically Sapphique is much slower, with its attention much more spread out than Incarceron’s was. If it feels a little slower-paced and more meandering than its predecessor, however, the plot is still gripping. There’s more political drama going on in this book than in the first, and with that comes a branching of subplots that feels far different from the singular narrative drive of Incarceron. Fisher writes intrigue as well as she writes action, though, so the difference is not a mark against it. And if the action is what you liked about the series, there’s still plenty of that in the sections set in the prison.

Maybe it’s because we spend so much more time outside of Incarceron in this novel that the setting also somehow seems more slowly paced. Like I said before, Outside is Pride and Prejudice to Incarceron’s Mad Max, and the polite manners make everything about this side of the world seem low-key, even when those polite manners are covering a knife in the back.

I’m fully willing to admit that the world outside is far less interesting to me than the world inside of the prison, but it’s not without its good points. Specifically, for my interests, following the stories of people that actually have some power means that we as readers get access to classified archives, and so get to learn some of that history I was craving. It’s not quite enough to satisfy the nerd urge in me, but, well, that’s always hard to really work into a story. I still find myself wanting some supplement books.

And the characters, of course, remain fun and intriguing and wonderful. I said in the review of the first book that this is where Fisher really shines, and I need to reiterate that here. For characters that already grew so much over the past novel, they continue to change and surprise.

The characterization front is actually one of my favorite parts of Sapphique because Fisher does something very clever with it. While we already had two major subgroups within our core cast of characters, those groups are split and rearranged in the sequel. This doesn’t seem like it should do much, but it’s a good move. The new groupings force both the prison and outside characters to react constantly to new personalities that they’d only had a glancing relationship with before, and those clashes in turn bring out different aspects of their own personalities. It keeps the play between them fresh and helps to grow the characters even beyond the new situations they’re forced into.

The best example of this is probably Finn himself. Inside the prison he’s the peaceable dreamer, and it’s hard to see his violent side when set against the brutal Keiro and the hyper-pragmatic Attia. When put in the company of the polite society characters from Outside, it’s much easier to see how prison life has shaped him.

It’s possible on some level that I like this move largely because it gives me Keiro and Attia angrily road-tripping across Incarceron in search of lore, forced to work together person to person, constantly at each others’ throats but never quite willing to leave the other behind. I think it’s a good one in general, though. Add in a couple of intriguing new characters, and the dynamic has changed more than enough to keep it interesting.

“Changed enough to keep it interesting” is probably my foremost thought on the novel. As I said at the beginning of this review, it keeps Incarceron’s strengths, but it’s happy to shift them into different shapes where necessary. It’s very much the same story, but it’s a different animal in feeling. Isn’t that kind of the ideal for a sequel, though? What you loved before, remade enough not to get bland.

If I have one bit of criticism here, it would be of the ending. At least going off of the two that I’ve read, I think Fisher’s series’ endings have a tendency to be too cerebral for me. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in that they’re usually nice summations that flow well out of the important developments and themes of her novels. They never lack for tension, and they trend towards forgiveness and second chances for anyone who could possibly be offered one.

This one in particular has a nice circular sense of the characters we’ve come to care about stepping into the shoes of the legends that created the situation, to maybe do it right this time. I want to make it clear that there’s a lot of good about her endings to recommend them. For some reason though, they always seem to lack a little of the emotional punch that I want.

I will say that this one worked for me far more than the ending of the Relic Master series did, and that, as important as endings are, the journey through both novels more than makes up for it. Most of what my problem with the ending means is that I’ll always love Incarceron more.

Still, I highly recommend both of these, and indeed any of Fisher’s work. Go pick up a copy of any of her books. You won’t be disappointed.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Incarceron

Incarceron Book 1, Dial Books, 2010, 442 pgs.

Incarceron is a labyrinth: a prison so large that most inmates spend their entire lives in only one wing and few believe that a world outside of it even exists. Finn believes, though. In fact, he’s sure he came from Outside, in spite of the scholar Gildas’ doubts and his oath-brother Keiro’s mockery. The earliest memories he has are of waking up, fully grown, in a cell, and he wants to see the stars again. Stealing a key, stamped with the same symbol tattooed on his arm, that allows him to talk to a girl from Outside is the final link in his long-stretching belief. Claudia claims to be the Warden of the prison’s daughter and seems to recognize and want to help Finn. Can she actually enable their escape, though? Incarceron is vast and deadly. It has many secrets and a mind of its own.

Have we talked about how much I love Catherine Fisher? No, I know we haven’t, the blog still having less than ten posts and all; I do though. Even being fairly new to her, I can say she’s one of my favorite authors working in YA today. From what I’ve read of her, I feel like she’s one of the few authors who gives me exactly what I want, almost every time.

Incarceron is no exception here, and neither is its sequel Sapphique. I read both of these books in rapid-fire succession because I was enjoying them so much. In fact, they’re a little mixed up in my mind because of this. I’m going to try to keep them as separate as possible for their individual reviews, but it’s hard to shake the overall feeling I got off of both of them. Spoiler alert: neither of these posts are going to be very critical.

It’s hard to talk about something that’s built so perfectly for you without it just sounding like gushing. Where do you even start? Especially when, from the other Fisher series I’ve read, Incarceron’s strengths are the author’s in general. Random points of narrative building just keep popping into my head with a rush of glee.

I love this world, with its combination of Mad Max apocalypticism and Pride and Prejudice frippery. It’s wonderfully drawn and intriguing as all get out. After about twenty pages I found myself craving a movie version because the visual divide between the world of Incarceron and the world of Outside could be so interesting if done right on film.

I, at the very least, want histories. It’s the sort of fictional world that you just want to step into and explore, to roam around and learn all its secrets. Fisher knows exactly how to feed out small details about its past to keep that urge alive, too. Even within the first novel it’s so richly developed that I could see a large-scale epic in this setting.

I love these characters. All of them, even when they hate each other. It’s here, especially, where Fisher shines.Like the world, the characters are divided into two main bands. Once they all come together they have a great dynamic; it’s a nice combination of the honest affection people have for their allies and the natural conflict that crops up when a group has drastically different formative experiences.

Beyond that, they’re all individually interesting. From dreamer Finn, to jaded survivalist Attia and religious fanatic Gildas, they all have immediately recognizable but well rounded personalities. Fisher seems to like these three in particular, as similar characters also made up the core trio in the other series of hers that I’ve read. I’m glad of it, because both times she writes them beautifully. The violent gang member Keiro, the heiress with something to prove Claudia, and the gentle scholar Jared fill out the rest of the main cast, all as vibrant and dynamic as you could ask for.

The villains are well done, too. Both the Warden and Queen Sia are politically astute, smart, and usually one step ahead; both make good foils to our younger and more reckless band of heroes. And Caspar, the comic-relief bully, is used sparingly enough that he remains entertaining instead of annoying.

I love the mix of myth and technology that seems to be one of the author’s calling cards. This is probably more properly sci-fi than fantasy, but it still feels like an epic. There’s no cold rationalism here. Instead the people who created the technology blend into legends as the science behind it fades, and quasi-religious orders pass down cryptic stories about them. I read a lot of both genres, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it anywhere else.

It’s done immersively, too. You’re never beat over the head with an “it was Earth the whole time” plot twist. Instead it builds slowly until all that faded technology that nobody fully understands becomes just another facet of the world these characters live in. As a reader you get to understand the little touches that the characters don’t, but those touches never feel like they were put there just to be clever. Instead they’re actually built on and developed.

And if the plot is a fairly standard quest, that’s so completely forgivable when it’s played with such interesting characters, in such an interesting way, against such an interesting backdrop. It remains tense and page-turning, regardless, and everything else that’s unique about the novel more than makes up for whatever small weakness is there.

I want to offer some criticism here to balance out the praise, but I did honestly love this book. I’ve asked before if I’ll ever not be lead astray by books the internet is raving about, and this is one of the handful I’ve found that fully deserves its accolades. Everything about this is beautifully developed, interesting, and exciting.

It’s an older book, so I’m sure quite a lot of people reading this have already picked it up, but if not I very much recommend giving it a read. It’s just the right blend of action-packed and thoughtful to feed both your mind and your heart.

Three Books to Fill the Discworld Gap

Almost a year ago Sir Terry Pratchett passed away, and fantasy lost one of its most beloved authors and fiercest advocates. Pratchett was brilliant, clever, and fundamentally kind; he understood people on a level that few authors can ever hope to aspire to. So many have told me that his books, especially Discworld, kept them laughing through hard times that I can’t even begin to count them. I very firmly count myself as a part of that list, so I understand, at least somewhat, the hole that the publication of The Shepherd’s Crown as the last Discworld novel leaves.

Now, I came to the series later in life, so I still have plenty of Discworld novels to work through; the people who have been reading Pratchett from early on, though, are not so lucky. I’ve even noticed some people saying that they don’t want to read The Shepherd’s Crown because they don’t want the series to end for them. So where to look next for hilarious, heart-wrenching, and surprisingly wise?

While Pratchett has written a solid list of non-Discworld novels, I’m willing to wager that die-hard fans have also read most of those books already. And, as I discovered while trying to make this list, comic fantasy may be a fairly common genre, but it’s hard to find anything that has quite the same feel that Discworld does. There’s a reason I only have three books here.

So let’s get into them: what they are, why I like them, and how I think they might start to fill the Discworld gap.

outapp

The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice by Tom Holt

Orbit Fantasy, 2014, 359 pgs., Youspace Series #3

There is, he said, a better way. It’s a way that leads us out of the mines. A way of prosperity, of security, of independence, of freedom for ever from the greed and oppression of the wizard. It’s the way, the only way, that goblins can be free and still be, to the very roots of their souls, goblins. It’s the way of basket-weaving.”

(pgs. 204-205)

This one feels so much like Discworld to me that I almost found myself surprised that there weren’t any footnotes. It has all the classic hallmarks: a traditional fantasy world that has nods to pretty much everything you could think of post-Tolkien, a send up of modern social issues made funnier by the transplant into a completely inappropriate setting, and heroes that only halfway count as heroic.

It’s funny. It’s irreverent. It’s about how introducing a market economy into medieval setting ultimately leaves the trappings of that setting nonsensical. If you liked the Moist von Lipwig books, I’m willing to bet there’s something here for you, whether it be the no nonsense heroine, the economic discussions, or the long con that’s going on in the background. If your Discworld tastes run elsewhere, you may like the conceit of reality infecting and disrupting typical narrative flow. And beyond any of that it is, again, really funny.

If I find one thing missing from this book, it would be, for lack of a better phrase, the sense of morality that Pratchett had. Good doesn’t always triumph on the Disc, but Pratchett rarely lets his real villains get away completely clean. This one takes a somewhat more cynical turn towards the end. It’s nowhere near enough to ruin the rest for me, though.

One last note: though this is the third in a series, I had absolutely no problem reading it on its own. I could sort of pick out places where the world might have been fleshed out elsewhere, but it functions just fine as a standalone.

The_Princess_Bride_(First_Edition)

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Harcourt, 1973, 308 pgs., standalone

And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy, because although everyone agrees with the formula of affection times purity times intensity times duration, no one has ever been completely satisfied with how much weight each element should receive. But on any system, there are five that everyone agrees, deserve full marks.

Well, this one left them all behind.”

(pg. 57)

Putting this on here feels like almost as much of a cheat as putting Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would have been; everyone knows it and quite a lot of people have already made the connection. I’m only letting myself off on this one because most people know the movie. Far fewer people know the book, with its equations for kissing, anachronistic timelessness, and “abridging” inserts.

It’s those constant little, clever details that make it feel like Discworld for me. It may have more of Disney than Tolkien in it and the humor may feel far more like New York stand up than Monty Python but it has that same fundamental understanding of the way classic stories work. And, like Discworld, it’s willing to poke fun, even while continuing to revel in those mechanics.

It’s less sharp than your typical Discworld novel, a little more sentimental, and there are clearer delineations between the humor bits and the fairytale bits, but if what you’re looking for is the playing around with narrative conventions then I’d recommend this book to anyone.

goblin quest

Goblin Quest by Jim Hines

DAW Books, 2005, Kindle edition, Jig the Goblin Series #1

Look where it had brought him. Had he died with Porak and the others, at least it would have been a fast death. Why in Shadowstar’s name couldn’t things go right for him, just this once?

Why in my name don’t you quit whining and do something for yourself, just this once?

Jig froze. ‘Who said that?’”

(Ch. 10)

If Holt and Goldman are the wit of this list, then Hines is the heart. His books are never exactly laugh riots, for all that they have good jokes, but in spite of this they have a core sensibility that’s very similar to Pratchett’s. His heroes trend toward the clever and the pragmatic, rather than the special chosen ones, and he likes to tell the stories of the underdog mooks, the characters our heroes normally slaughter with impunity.

Even when the characters do find themselves with powers of some sort, they only go so far. Knowldege, adaptability, and a willingness to get their hands dirty and do things are all requirements for survival in these books.

Hines writing is far more standard than that of the other authors on this list, and the other two novels in the series trend more towards typical fantasy quest the further they go along. I’d say it’s worth it even for the initial question of why the “villain” races in fantasy are seen as disposable, though. This is ultimately a series about one goblin’s attempt to break from his defined narrative role, first for himself and then for his entire species.

No one will ever quite replace Pratchett, and I don’t mean to even try. But if you find yourself missing Discworld and needing something that captures a little bit of the magic, you could do far worse than starting with one of these three.

Lit Fic, Awful Events, and the Tragedy Conundrum

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks joking with my friends that the Japanese are right, the number four actually is bad luck. If you’ve read my 2015 year in review, you already know that I really disliked the fourth book I read last year, and this year’s number four, Eating Mammals, while not quite as hateful, was still pretty bad. Part of this might have something to do with the fact that it’s literary fiction, which is really not my genre. I’ve actually been scouring my shelves recently in an attempt to keep my resolution to read more “grown-up” books this year. I know that’s not all of it, though.

The third book I read this year was Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, which nearly won the National Book Award, and I liked that one just fine. They’re fairly similar books, too; both have a focus on the oddball and mutated, both force you into the heads of disturbed and unreliable narrators, and both, barring the last novella in Eating Mammals, have a strong tragedy element.

Mammals, though, is very much what I think of when I think of lit fic, and is exactly the sort of thing that makes me turn away from the genre. Whereas, again, I really enjoyed Geek Love. So why the drastically different reactions to two books that have so many similarities? I think on some level comes down to how we view tragedy: what we think it means, how we think it should be written, and the place we ascribe to it in the literary hierarchy.

….

In most arts, we very much place a premium on tragedy, often setting it above the comic, or even just the happy, as more meaningful, more important, and more realistic. It’s fairly easy to understand why this is; it provides pathos and connection to the audience. Intense emotions are easier to access from the dramatic and the tragic side of things. And, after all, the world is often sad and horrible.

Though I’ve come to disagree in recent years that tragedy is the only way to write something important, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this. Tragedy definitely has its place, and what speaks to you as a reader is what speaks to you. What I do resent, in the admittedly small pool of literary fiction that I’ve read, are the works that make everything that happens in a story awful, for seemingly no reason. It always seems forced and try-hard to me, and I’ll even go so far as to say it’s generic. Just like I roll my eyes when the suspiciously well-dressed peasant turns out to secretly be royalty in a fantasy novel, I cringe a little when our jaded narrator turns out to have a druggie father in lit fic.

Eating Mammals has that same feel to me; bad things happen even when they don’t make much sense story-wise, because that’s just how the world works, right? Works that do this aren’t good tragedy, though. They’re actually a fundamental misunderstanding of the form.

….

It requires more room than I’m willing to take here to sketch the basic form of a classical tragedy. I would, though, like to go into one of its most well-known and most misunderstood elements: the hamartia, or tragic flaw. I think everyone who has ever taken tenth grade English has some idea of what this is. We’ll go with the classic example. Hamlet’s indecision leads to his waffling back and forth on the idea of vengeance, which leads to mistakes in carrying it out, which leads to the bloodbath at the end of the play. Hamlet’s tragic flaw is being indecisive. What most people seem to miss about the idea is also the most important part, though; the tragic flaw is not necessarily, in all cases, a flaw.

Most people would consider not murdering your uncle on the basis of a probable hallucination a good thing, and generally it would be. The key that makes a tragedy is in placing one specific person in the one specific situation where their personality leads them to make all the wrong moves, and their tragic flaw is the personality trait that leads them to those moves. Put a different person in the same situation, and everything goes well. Put that same person in a different situation, and again, things are fine.

When you get right down to it, on some level the key to making a tragedy work is hope. The audience has to be able to hope that our protagonist can overcome their natural instincts to make the right choice, and that when they do things will be different. Any engagement your audience has comes from this, and the emotional power that any story has hangs pretty heavily on audience engagement. So, when you have a story where awful things happen all the time, just as a matter of fact without any input from your characters, it loses its power.

….

That emotional power, where the situation flows so naturally from the characters that you know what’s coming even as you mentally beg them to make some other choice is at the heart of the problem for me. Put shortly, Geek Love had it and Eating Mammals didn’t.

I’ve already given the book away, so I can’t quote anything from Geek Love, and on some level doing so would be pointless. There’s a striking internal logic to the book that carries through the entire novel and is hard to capture in a single passage. Even without going beyond the main character, Olly, you can see it. You watch her life and upbringing, and see the morals she was raised with and the ones she comes to accept. You see her worries about not being unique enough for her family and her frustration with them, even as her devotion to them never wanes. You see her relationship with her brother, where honest love is mixed with fear and control and worship. And you see the key events in her life that made all these things true for her.

So when, at the end, Olly makes choices that bring the book to a tragic close, it’s a culmination of all of this development that’s come before. While you very much want her to choose differently, you still understand why she does what she does. Without a clean break from everything that came before, the novel could never have ended any differently.

Compare this to a passage from Eating Mammals

Alice shakes like an epileptic. But Tom in his confusion finds it impossible to blame the cat, for he sees no connection, no culpability. Unlike Alice, who will never recover from that horrendous sight, the horrible vision of wickedness that greeted her as she stepped finally out of childhood; unlike Alice, then, he at first does not understand. But as he grows small inside her, then pulls himself out, he realizes why she is hysterical, their precious moment turned evil.” (pgs. 87-88)

After this Alice goes insane and never recovers, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why this happened in the first place. There is some vague reasoning about the presence of evil at an important, tender moment, but that’s not really enough. Alice was never established as particularly delicate, or religious, or superstitious, or anything that would explain that sort of reaction. The cat is not established as that horrific, even; at best most people see it as a little unsettling.

I understand that a novella has far less room to make its point with than a novel, but the author still needs to work their setup in. Otherwise the audience is left feeling that the only reason things happen is because the plot calls for them, which makes those plot points feel unearned, like they don’t fit into the whole of the story coherently.

The rest of the second novella in Eating Mammals, which this passage comes from, carries on in much the same way, and the first novella in the book also has this same feeling. The only one that doesn’t is the third, and that’s because it’s mostly comic. Because of this overwhelming feeling that bad things are only happening because the author thinks they should, the whole work was a frustrating read for me.

….

I can only assume authors cram their works full of pointless despair because they think it’s necessary to make a work great, and on some level they’re not entirely wrong. Like I said, tragedy can dig toward deep emotions far more easily than other forms can.

I do think that those writers who do nothing but shove problem after problem at their characters are missing an important point here, though. It’s not the very fact that something sad happens that gives a story its power; it’s the careful crafting of a narrative to make those sad things essential and inevitable.

You can make awful things happen to your characters, but you need to tell a story first. And you need to make sure it functions as a story. Don’t just toss in some madness and murder and assume it will make your readers feel things. That’s the cheap way out.