Friday, September 30, 2011

WARRIOR

Review of WARRIOR by MARIE BRENNAN

(first in the DOPPELGANGER duology)


The premise of this book can be reduced to a concise hook: Miryo is a witch in training. Mirage is a bounty hunter. Miryo learns she cannot use her magic until she kills the doppelganger she never knew she had: Mirage. Remember, Mirage is a ruthless, expertly trained bounty hunter, so this isn’t exactly going to be easy.


By the nature of both Mirage’s career path and her impending confrontation with Miryo, intense action scenes find their way into almost every chapter. I’m not normally inclined toward action heavy books; I often find myself skimming the fight or flee scenes for the end result. Yet Brennan writes these scuffles with such urgency and clarity that each moment held my attention…even though I’m not familiar with all the terminology for specific kicks and strategies!


I don’t want to make it sound as though action is all this book has to offer. There are a lot of politics and well-paced mysteries as both Miryo and Mirage work to understand a world that defies their previous assumptions. I can be a very skeptical reader and there were many times when I braced myself for a contrived, cheesy, or cliché resolution to a problem. For inevitable events, such as when Miryo and Mirage finally meet or the many smaller stepping stones of necessary revelations, the author has her work cut out for her. The reader expects a reasonable amount of emotion and dramatics for an event of that magnitude not to mention understandable actions and conversations from the characters. Oh, and it still has to be interesting. I approached each of these critical moments with wariness, but Brennan pulled them off every time.


The magic in this world seems well-developed with its own checks and balances as well as cans and cannots. While the reader isn’t attacked with exposition about how magic works, what can be gathered from statements or conversations pieces together without any noticeable logic lapses.


The premise raises a lot of imperative questions about survival and killing. Though filtered down to a one on one situation, it’s easy to see parallels to war. Experienced witches have warned Miryo that if she doesn’t kill her doppelganger, her magic will spiral out of control, killing her and most likely many other innocent people. The only way Miryo can even contemplate this violent task is by thinking of Mirage as “it.” She pushes away her objections to murdering a human being and tries instead to stuff the action into the mental category of survival versus an inhuman threat. Convincing herself that this act is necessary is the only way she can live with it.


Though part of a duology, the book reads as a stand alone novel and ends without any vital plot threads left dangling. The end, as with the other crucial moments of the book, impressed me. Brennan sometimes backs her characters into such tricky corners that I don’t see how they’re going to find their way out without a painfully flimsy explanation. The end was a little like that and as the story drew down to its final pages, I feared a brisk wrap-up, but once again Brennan took me pleasantly by surprise.

Friday, September 23, 2011

JANNI LEE SIMNER

Interview with JANNI LEE SIMNER

Janni Lee Simner is the author of the post-apocalyptic YA faerie tales BONES OF FAERIE and FAERIE WINTER, as well as of the Icelandic-saga based THIEF EYES. She's also published four books for younger readers and more than 30 short stories, including one in the WELCOME TO BORDERTOWN anthology. BONES OF FAERIE received the 2010 Judy Goddard/Libraries Ltd. Young Adult Author Award.

What are you reading right now?

SILENCE by Michelle Sagara, which is due out next year. I love her adult SUN SWORD novels (written as Michelle West), so I'm really excited about this book, which is her first YA.

Books already out that I've loved the past few months include Karen Healey's THE SHATTERING, Megan Crewe's GIVE UP THE GHOST, Sarah Rees Brennan's THE DEMON’S LEXICON, Roseanne Parry's SECOND FIDDLE (not a fantasy, but very much about the importance of art in our lives), and Malinda Lo's HUNTRESS.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

So many things! I was the sort of kid who was always telling herself stories, so in a sense I was always a writer. I also immersed myself deeply in playing pretend games, long past the age when anyone admits to still playing them, and that was a part of becoming a writer, too. And of course, I've always been a reader. Sometimes, if you don't find that book you want to read, you have to go out and write it!

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I most love the moments when I'm deeply immersed in the story, and the words are flowing, and the characters seem just a little bit real. I also love the revision process, taking the rough words already on the page and turning them into an actual story.

I probably least love all the waiting involved in being a writer: waiting to finish writing a book, waiting to sell it, waiting for it to come out … being a writer has forced me to learn patience, something that doesn't come to me naturally!

Do you have a writing process?

My writing process is as much a rewriting as a writing process. I don't outline ahead of time (unless I need an outline as a sales tool), and I do go through at least five drafts to get a completed book.

- The first draft is the one where I pretty much tell the wrong story. By writing the wrong story--and seeing why it's the wrong story-- I learn things I need to know about the right story.

- The second draft is the one that's sort of kind of is somewhere in the neighborhood of the right story.

- The third draft is the one where I tell the right story, but use all the wrong words.

- The fourth draft is the one where I begin finding the right words, and along the way straightening out muddled character and story arcs.

- The fifth draft is the one where I smooth out all the things that are almost there, and polish the prose more deeply as well.

On top of that, I usually do a bunch more rewrites to get the ending to click into place.

I sort of think of myself as honing in on the story as I go. With each new draft, layers get added to the story, and so every draft has a role to play in making the final book as strong as it can be.

What are your passions?

I'm a serial hobbyist, so what I'm passionate about changes over time. A few things have remained constant through the years, though: a love of writing, an interest in doing volunteer work with kids, and a love of hiking and camping and the outdoors.

What inspires you?

I draw a lot of inspiration from natural world and various places I've visited. Wherever I go, I want to understand the land I'm walking on (whether I'm in a wilderness area or in a city where that land is more hidden beneath all the layers of buildings and people who live there) and how it shapes the people who live there. I've had several books (published and to be written) begin with a landscape.

Why fantasy?

I've always read fantasy, so it never really occurred to me to write anything else! I love magic, in our world and in other worlds, for its own sake and for the things it teaches us about what it means to be human and to live and survive in our non-magical world.

I love what Jane Yolen says about fantasy in her collection of essays, TOUCH MAGIC, which I think gets to the heart of one of the things fantasy is all about:

"And for adults, the world of fantasy books returns us to the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are:
                Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth."

I have that posted above my desk.

Why young adult?

I've always loved coming of age stories, so I've always tended to write stories with teen protagonists who are living right on the edge of that time when everything begins to change.

It took me a while to realize those stories were YA, though--I started off assuming I was writing for adults, just with younger characters. Then I noticed how much more enthusiastic the rejection letters I was receiving from YA editors were than those I was getting from adult editors, I took another look at both my work and at the books I loved to read, and I began more consciously calling what I wrote YA.

I also have written books for younger children, along with the occasional short story for adults.

How was BONES OF FAERIE born?

BONES OF FAERIE began with an opening scene that wouldn’t let me go. I don't know where that scene came from. I do know that once I wrote it, I had to tell the rest of the story. Only I didn't know how to--I didn't know what happened next, and I also just wasn't yet a good enough writer to tell the story well. So I went off and wrote some other things, but every few years I came back to BONES OF FAERIE’s opening, until I was ready to write the book that went with it.

All told it took me 12 years from writing that opening to finish the book!

How much do the fey and magic in BONES OF FAERIE pull from folklore and how much is your own invention?

It's a mix. Ballads and stories and bits of folklore did contribute to the book, but the elements drawn from them were in many ways transformed when seen through the lens of the book's post-apocalyptic war between faeries and humans. Glamour, for instance, became much harsher in FAERIE WINTER (BONES OF FAERIE’s sequel) than in the stories where I'd seen it used, because the world in which I was using it was harsh, too. And there are other elements that are entirely my own, including the quia trees that once grew only in Faerie, and that become increasingly important with each Faerie book.

A book in which I stuck a little more closely to existing canon than in the Faerie books was THIEF EYES, which is based on my reading of the Icelandic sagas. I think how close one sticks to the known folklore depends a lot on the story being told.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Be stubborn! Stubborn enough to keep learning, keep revising, and keep becoming a better writer; and also stubborn enough to keep submitting your work. Just because you don't sell quickly doesn't mean you won't sell. The authors who break in quickly and spectacularly are the most noticeable, but that's only one way to build a career. This is a paced game--more of a marathon than a sprint--and it's worth being in it for the long haul.

Learn the business, but keep as much focus as you can on the craft and the process of writing. That's where the joy comes from, and that's where you'll find the things to sustain you over that long haul.

Ignore any writing advice you hear that doesn't work for you, even mine. There are many ways to write, and no one way works for everyone. Try everything, keep the advice that works for you, and ditch the rest. Ultimately, you're trying to find your own way and your own processes.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I like gelato. I don't like chocolate. I think the Star Wars movies should have stopped with the original trilogy, and I try to pretend the later movies never happened. I used to love unicorns, and then I hated them, but now I love them again.

I've just turned in the third and final Faerie book (from Liza's point of view, anyway) to my editor. So many years after writing BONES OF FAERIE’s opening scene, it feels like Liza and I have traveled a long way together, and I'm going to miss her.

Friday, September 16, 2011

ZAHRAH THE WINDSEEKER

Review of ZAHRAH THE WINDSEEKER by NNEDI OKORAFOR-MBACHU


This book echoes with a universal theme in young adult literature: “I don’t belong.” The fourteen-year-old protagonist Zahrah already feels like an outsider because of her hair. She has what are called dadalocks, clumps of hair with vines woven into them. While those born dada are rumored to be very wise that doesn’t keep Zahrah’s peers from mocking her for being different. Only her friend Dari appreciates her uniqueness and when Zahrah discovers she can levitate, he pushes her to dangerous means for developing her gift.


Zahrah is a likable, relatable character. While she isn’t devoid of typical teenage insecurities, she doesn’t let them overpower her. She repeatedly impressed me with her determination and perseverance, especially in seemingly hopeless situations. Her friendship with Dari is also a literary rarity and I enjoy stumbling across less common relationship dynamics; their extreme closeness never spills over into romance, despite the fact that they’re both straight and unattached.


The trappings of this story are incredible. Zahrah lives in a world where technology and nature don’t fall into opposite categories. Most technology comes in the form of some type of plant. She even grew her own computer! Then there are the off-limits places that teenagers Zahrah and Dari, of course, sneak into: the Dark Market and the Forbidden Greeny Jungle. These locations are both swollen with the author’s inventive creations from the peppers you can buy in the Dark Market that make you more popular to the meat-eating hummingbirds in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle.


Okorafor-Mbachu demonstrates remarkable restraint in her use of magic. Zahrah’s only power is levitation and, as she’s a beginner, she can’t even rise notably high or move in any direction other than up. Cool by its magical nature, but there’s not a whole lot she can do with that power. While her talent is an interesting twist and a significant part of Zahrah’s identity, she doesn’t use it as a crutch. What’s really impressive about her is her wit and her resilience, which save her life far more often than any superpower.


While the prevalent theme of feeling like an outsider is pretty much standard for young adult literature, the intricacies of this book make it a rewarding and unique read. Every few pages, the reader discovers more imaginative creatures and objects to tantalize their mind and it’s nearly impossible not to invest in Zahrah’s bravery.

Friday, September 9, 2011

THE AMERICAN HEIRESS

Review of THE AMERICAN HEIRESS by DAISY GOODWIN

(review based on an advance reading copy)


This historical novel explores the extravagances and chains of vast wealth in the Gilded Age. The luxuries and indulgences, such as gold-painted hummingbirds, serve as atmospheric story decoration, but the heart of the tale lies in young Cora Cash. With seemingly limitless money and her mother’s determination to buy Cora a title through marriage, one might wonder what the girl lacks. While for the most part Cora contents herself with a wasteful life, most of her relationships function without any sincere affection or open communication.


The story focuses primarily on romantic relationships, though those shown less attention are still equally intriguing. At the start of the novel, Cora begs her childhood friend Teddy to marry her and whisk her away from an empty life. He rejects her for his artistic passion and moves to Paris to paint. As her mother hoped, Cora does find that title match. Better yet for Cora, she actually loves the man, but paradise turns grey when Cora unearths hint after hint that her husband may not deserve her unconditional love.


The book didn’t captivate my attention throughout, but I often found myself surprised by how invested I was in the characters. Whenever big moments sprouted up, I empathized with circumstance’s latest victim and wished I could reach in and help them. The focus wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be, though, which probably explains my slight detachment. About midway through, I expect most readers will foresee the proverbial can of worms. As for me, I was most interested in what happens after the can is opened, but the can just sits on the table until we’re near the end when, as expected, it finally explodes. Though I did enjoy the ending, I was a little disappointed by how easily everyone collected the worms and stuffed them back in the can. Everyone steps forward with some exposition heavy dialogue to reveal their piece of the story. Though we find out for certain who can be trusted and who cannot, I wanted to follow the characters longer and witness the fallout from so much mistrust in relationships.


Though Cora is likable and relatable, I felt a stronger tie to her maid Bertha. Cora isn’t cruel or abusive to Bertha, but neither does she treat her maid with the respect she deserves. Bertha has her own love story, one that, though problematic, still holds more promise for happiness than Cora’s. Despite her mistress’s spoiled expectations, Bertha recognizes that Cora has no true friends and thus feels a duty to be that one eternally loyal person in Cora’s life. Bertha’s sacrifices for someone who gives so little back threaten to destroy her own romance.


At times, the comma usage in this book pulled me from the story. There seem to be commas where they shouldn’t be on almost every page. Many sentences are linked together with a comma where a period should be. I did read an ARC, so I hope any grammar errors will be fixed, but the frequency suggests a grammatically rebellious writing style that, unfortunately, I found distracting.


This wasn’t a book that blotted out the real world, but it was one that left me thinking and one that forced me to feel at all the pivotal moments. The story tackles such big themes that it can barely scratch the surface of the issues: money, class, and trust. When all actions are motivated by the first two, it’s near impossible to find any of the third.

Friday, September 2, 2011

MARIE BRENNAN

Interview with Marie Brennan


Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. Her short stories have appeared in more than a dozen print and online publications. Her newest novel, WITH FATE CONSPIRE, is the fourth book in the Onyx Court series and released August 30, 2011.


What are you reading right now?


I'm doing a big project, re-reading (and blogging about) all of Diana Wynne
Jones' books, as a memorial. I think I've made it through ten of them so far, which is about a fifth of the total. She wrote a *lot* of books!

What first sparked your interest in writing?


Diana Wynne Jones, sort of, which
dovetails nicely with the above. I know I made up stories before I started reading her work, but it was her novel FIRE AND HEMLOCK that made me decide I wanted to be a writer. It's a story about stories and about the power they can have; no wonder that left a mark.


What do you love the most about writing? The least?


"Most" would have to be the moments when it feels like the story's writing itself, because my subconscious is tossing out ideas as if pointing out what actually happened, rather than making stuff up. Those are always the best ideas, at least for me; they mean a part of my brain has figured out something important, even if the rest of me hasn't yet caught up.

"Least" is probably the fact that novel-writing is a marathon sport. I know there are people who can do binge-writing and knock out a whole book in, like, a week flat…but I'm not one of them. (If only because my hands would fall off.) It requires several months of steady work, day after day, and after a while the numbers seem to move at a snail's pace. That middle third starts to feel like a real slog sometimes, with no end in sight.

Do you have a writing process?


Everybody who writes must, by default, have a process for it. :-) Mine has been changing lately, though. It used to be that I produced near-final first drafts, but the Onyx Court books required more and more revision, just because of the complexity of what I was trying to do. And the one I'm working on right now, A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS, is breaking my usual pattern of "a thousand words a day, rain or shine" — I keep taking a day off and then writing two thousand words the next day. I'm really not sure why. But it's important first to find the process that works for you (rather than the process you think you ought to have) and second to remember that it can change. What works for one book may not work for another


What inspires you?


My academic background is in anthropology, archaeology, folklore, a lot of history classes — I like knowing about different ways of living and organizing societies. I've gotten a lot of plot ideas, especially for short stories, out of "what if there were a culture that did X?" My first bit of success with fiction, “Calling Into Silence,” came out of reading about spirit possession in sub-Saharan Africa. Character has to come into it, too — I'm not interested in writing about societies in the general sense but I always think up characters in context, having particular roles and problems that come out of the culture they live in.

And that interest goes beyond the "colorful" value of those differences. We have a built-in tendency to assume the way we live is somehow "natural," that our way makes sense and everybody else's way is weird. The truth is, it's all weird. The more time you spend looking at alternatives and thinking about what they would be like, the more you see that…and the more it opens up the chance of you doing things differently, too, or at least understanding why other people might. That matters.

Why fantasy?


Because I like it? :-)

It just feels to me like it has more freedom. I could write stories set in other parts of the world (and I have, sometimes), but then you have an obligation to represent them accurately, which means you maybe can't tell the story you want to tell. And fantasy means that the experimentation I described above can go beyond tinkering with the mundane details of the world and into the metaphysics. Mesoamerican cultures believed that blood sacrifice was necessary to keep the cosmos functioning; what if they were right? How does that change the ethics that we take for granted?

How was MIDNIGHT NEVER COME born? How about WARRIOR and WITCH?


I've described the genesis of both in fairly extensive detail on my website; MIDNIGHT NEVER COME was born from a roleplaying game I ran, and the doppelganger books grew out of a random collusion of two very small ideas (see the "About the Novel" section).

Did MIDNIGHT NEVER COME require a lot of research?


Vast, vast mountains of it, that seemed to get bigger with each subsequent book. I have my entire research bibliography posted on my site, along with the journal of all my trips to London. Partly that was because I feel a genuine obligation to get things right, when I'm talking about real people and real history, but partly it was because researching really fed the story, as much as it restricted it; I kept turning up little details that I never would have invented on my own, which took the narrative in really cool directions.


How did writing the MIDNIGHT NEVER COME series and the WARRIOR series differ?


Did I mention the research? :-) They're very different kinds of stories, too; the doppelganger books are more about adventure, though they have a side order of politics, whereas the Onyx Court is much more political in nature. The latter is a lot more like writing a chess match, with more moves planned out in advance and more need for me to keep several narrative balls in the air at once. I also think of the Onyx Court as urban fantasy, albeit of a historical sort, because ultimately the fact that they're set in London, and follow the way the city changed through the centuries, is crucial to the story. Even the most important bits of the setting for the doppelganger books never came close to that kind of central importance.

Why did you divide MIDNIGHT NEVER COME into acts?


Honestly, it came about because I knew I would need to skip over a chunk of time partway through. Deven had to spend some time working for Walsingham before things got complicated; it just didn't make sense that Walsingham would give that kind of trust to somebody he'd only just taken on. And the process of establishing Lune in her new position would have necessitated a kind of prose montage, that wouldn't have been very interesting. So given that I was going to skip forward, it made sense to have some kind of division. Then I realized that the 1588 bit was likely to be approximately a fifth of the book, and of course plays in that period were often divided into five acts. Once I sat down to consider how the five-act structure works, it turned out to map pretty well to the structure of the novel, so I went with it.

What got interesting was deciding how to divide up the later books. Each one is different, but they all have some kind of part setup. IN ASHES LIE is in four parts because of the four days of the Great Fire, so that felt like the obvious choice. A STAR SHALL FALL, on the other hand…I went with seven because the number recurs so much in alchemy, but it turns out there's a good reason that seven-part narratives aren't common; it just doesn't feel natural. That one was a lot harder to wrestle into shape. It was a relief to go back to something very familiar, the three-part structure, for WITH FATE CONSPIRE.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?


Advice of that kind tends to fall into two categories: brief platitudes and really lengthy rambling. On the platitude side, I'd say write more, revise more, send out what you've revised, and have patience. (It sounds trite, but it's true.) On the rambling side, I've got a lot of essays on my site dissecting the craft and business and philosophy of writing; it's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I could say, but I keep adding new essays all the time.