Comments on Craft: Double Duty & Show, Don’t Tell

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay CoverWhat I’ve read of Guy Gabriel Kay is long and winding (and enjoyable, provided I’m not in the mood for a breakneck thriller). Characters don’t follow a linear plot progression; events unfold. One technique of Kay’s impressed me when I read River of Stars. Although many people tell writers to show, not tell, the advice is sometimes difficult to follow. I find that examples are best. In the following scene, Kay’s character Wengao watches reactions when his friend Chen enters a room.

[E]very man with a connection to the literary or the political world knew Lu Chen–and his current fate. [Wengao] wondered for a moment if the daughter [Shan] would, then he saw the expression on her face.

He felt a flicker of envy, like a long tongue from an old fire. She hadn’t looked at him that way. But he was old, really old. Could barely stand from a chair without wincing. Chen wasn’t a young man—his hair under the black felt hat and his narrow, neat beard were both greying—but he didn’t have knees that made walking an ambitious exercise. He was straight-backed, still a handsome young man, if thinner-faced than he ought to be, and seeming tired now, if you knew him and looked closely.

And he was the man who had written “Lines On the Cold Food Festival” and the “Red Cliff” poems, among others.

This excerpt shows how Shan reacts to Chen, even though there is very little text dedicated to her. It shows us (without telling) she is infatuated or even describing her features or reaction (despite common newbie misconceptions, showing doesn’t mean using flowery similes all the time). It shows by giving the reader a view of Wengao’s reaction to Shan’s infatuation. The paragraphs also do triple duty by characterizing Shan and Wengao and describing Chen’s physical appearance and renown as a poet. It shows Chen’s poems are famous and well received without telling you they are: by listing his poems as a reason why Shan, a well-read woman, would be smitten and by setting them off in a paragraph of their own, Kay skillfully conveys these poems’ cultural weight in the world of his novel.

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.

Leaflet Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made World coverThe world is still only half-made. Between the wild shores of uncreation, and the ancient lands of the East lies the vast expanse of the West—young, chaotic, magnificent, war-torn.

Thirty years ago, the Red Republic fought to remake the West—fought gloriously, and failed. The world that now exists has been carved out amid a war between two rival factions: the Line, enslaving the world with industry, and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence. The Republic is now history, and the last of its generals sits forgotten and nameless in a madhouse on the edge of creation. But locked in his memories is a secret that could change the West forever, and the world’s warring powers would do anything to take it from him.

Now Liv Alverhuysen, a doctor of the new science of psychology, travels west, hoping to heal the general’s shattered mind. John Creedmoor, reluctant Agent of the Gun and would-be gentleman of leisure, travels west, too, looking to steal the secret or die trying. And the servants of the Line are on the march.

I can’t remember exactly how I became interested in The Half-Made World, but it’s been a while. I wasn’t quite ready to drop enough money to buy a new hardcover from an author I’d never read though, and that’s why when it came time to find books to populate my Nook, I was ridiculously pleased to see that for some reason, it was on sale for $3.99 (I later discovered that this was a promotional price because the sequel came out last week). It would have been worth paying more than that.

Characters in Conflict

The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, was how every viewpoint character had a strong internal conflict between who they were, what they were doing, and what they wanted to do.

The world of this book feels very magical-wild-West: there are cowboy-like outlaws (the Agents of the Gun), industry-driven railroad men (the men of the Line), the innocents caught in the middle, and the magical Hillfolk that no one fully comprehends. There’s a viewpoint character from every group except the Hillfolk.

John Creedmoor, Agent of the Gun, is ridden by a demon who lives in his revolver. The demon, Marmion, is used to more or less dictating the actions of his host. But Creedmoor delights in defying his master as much as he can, even when it results in demonic torture. Don’t get me wrong: Creedmoor is not a good man, and that point is frequently reiterated through his thoughts and actions. But there is a part of him that knows what good is and that wants someone to do the right thing, even if it isn’t him. John’s internal conflict was, for me, the most compelling conflict of the story.

Lowry is a man of the Line. Men of the Line are supposed to be more or less the same across the board: more or less equally capable, efficient, and unquestioningly loyal to the Engines they worship. His little rebellions are nowhere as brazen as Creedmoor’s, but they wouldn’t fit his character if they were. He is ever so slightly proud of his accomplishments (pride is anathema for Linesmen). He struggles with his desire for glory and his place in a system that doesn’t allow for glory. Especially when he’s put in contrast with Creedmoor, who is a complete glory hog, Lowry is actually an interesting character considering he comes from a group of people who are supposed to be the bland product of assembly lines and cookie-cutter lives. Where he ends up at the end of the book is perfectly fitting (though it felt unfulfilling for a moment and it took me a bit to realize how brilliant it was).

Liv was, for me, the least interesting of the characters. She too is in conflict with herself for most of the book—she struggles with her revulsion and pragmatic acceptance of Creedmoor—but I think she surprised me the least and had the simplest character arc. That said, she is very different, in a good an interesting way, from your typical fantasy heroine. She’s just not, in my opinion, the most interesting person in the book.

Drive to the Sequel

This book’s ending feeds heavily into the sequel. The biggest secret of the book still hasn’t been revealed, new difficulties are introduced, and in general it does a good job of letting you know that if you enjoyed this book, you must pick up the next one as soon as possible. But while I thoroughly enjoyed the setting and I’m emotionally invested in Creedmoor’s character, especially after the events at the end of the book, I’m going to hold off for a bit. Why? Because Liv suddenly became more central (and I already mentioned that she’s not the most interesting for me), and given the back-cover copy of the sequel, I’m not sure that the sequel will end up being what I’d expect. So I’m going to hold off until the price drops to something closer to the price of a mass market paperback. Gilman’s voice and setting are intriguing, and I want to try more; I’m just not quite prepared to pay a premium for it yet.

content warnings: Language (several F-bombs) and allusions to Creedmoor’s liaisons with various women.

Leaflet Review: The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson coverThe Emperor’s Soul showcases a fascinating magic system as the clock ticks down for a condemned criminal. When Shai is caught replacing the Moon Scepter with her nearly flawless forgery, she must bargain for her life. An assassin has left the Emperor Ashravan without consciousness, a circumstance concealed only by the death of his wife. If the emperor does not emerge after his hundred-day mourning period, the rule of the Heritage Faction will be forfeit and the empire will fall into chaos. Shai is given an impossible task: to create—to Forge—a new soul for the emperor in less than one hundred days. But her soul-Forgery is considered an abomination by her captors. She is confined to a tiny, dirty chamber, guarded by a man who hates her, spied upon by politicians, and trapped behind a door sealed in her own blood. Shai’s only possible ally is the emperor’s most loyal councillor, Gaotona, who struggles to understand her true talent. Time is running out for Shai. Forging, while deducing the motivations of her captors, she needs a perfect plan to escape …

This novella from Brandon Sanderson was the first full piece I read on the Nook SimpleTouch my husband got me for my birthday. (Side note: I know I’ve never been an outspoken fan of ebooks, but I have to say, with a newborn, I love my Nook. I can hold it and turn pages with one hand, and if the little one is up in the middle of the night, it has a little light to illuminate the screen so I can read while I rock him. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.) It was well worth the money I paid for it, even though there are full ebook novels you can get for the same price. As is typical of Brandon, the magic system is innovative and interesting. The two most important characters, Shai and Gaotona, have very different perspectives on theology, the place of magic in the world, and politics, but Brandon does an amazing job of showing how similar they can be when they’re genuine with one another. There is a great deal of discussion about the nature of beauty and art, and it’s actually quite poetic. As far as intellectual elements go (rather than the fun of character and worldbuilding, which were delightful), my favorite part was when Shai begins to understand how the emperor went from an idealistic crusader to an idle ruler. It rings very true, not just for the characters in the story, but for everyday people in the real world. I have to admit that I skimmed the fight scene. Fight scenes are another thing Brandon is known for, but I didn’t fully appreciate this one. However, you can hear Brandon explain why he kept it in a recent episode of Writing Excuses. (The episode is spoilerific, so don’t listen unless you’re okay with that.) Note: If you’re a big print fan and you decide you’d like a hard-copy version of this novella, go for it. If you buy the print version from Tachyon Publications, just email your receipt or a photo of yourself holding the book to ebooks@brandonsanderson.com and you’ll get a free electronic copy as well.

Leaflet Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Cover of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom RiggsA mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very peculiar photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that Miss Peregrine’s children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

Normally I’m not very good at enjoying a book that I think is a standalone, but is actually an introduction to something more. Normally I get a bit perturbed by books that spend a long time setting things up and keep me from fully understanding the worldbuilding for a long time. Normally I wouldn’t have been able to finish a book like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

But this book does things differently. The slow discovery of the world of the peculiar children is natural, and the steady pace at which the reader’s understanding unfolds somehow sits just right. It helps that the main character, Jacob, is as ignorant as the reader—anything he knows, you know, but anything he doesn’t, you don’t.

I’ll admit, the fact that it isn’t a standalone when that was my expectation was jarring.  I’m not particularly fond of being jarred. However, I found the children in the book—their personalities, their powers, their different reactions to their predicament—so interesting that even when I realized there was no way the story could wrap up by the end of the book, I didn’t get too upset. I appreciate that a good number of the children are treated as individuals instead of as a lump-sum group. An experience that makes one child an academician of everyday events turns another into a borderline sociopath who, frankly, makes me nervous (it doesn’t help that he keeps various body parts preserved in jars in the basement).

In short, the character development of the book makes my usual deal-breakers fade into the background. I enjoyed Jacob’s development from a loser teen to a bereaved grandson to the person he becomes by the end of the book. I enjoyed meeting the peculiar children right along with him and seeing his relationships with them develop. And it certainly didn’t hurt that there were pictures in the book (there are far too few pictures in “grown-up” books). If you’re looking for something with some strong characters and just a bit of creepiness, this book is a good place to look.

Content warnings: None that I can remember.

Leaflet Review: Railsea by China Miéville

I apologize for the hiatus—I know it’s been a while. The good news is that I’ve haven’t been posting because a series of exciting adventures have struck: the whole pregnancy thing (only five weeks until the little guy comes!), moving back to Utah from Texas, and starting graduate school are just a few of them. Because of all the adventures, after the next three book reviews (this one included), I’m only going to post once a week, on Wednesdays, instead of the Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule I used to have. Now, speaking of adventures, here’s a look at China Miéville’s latest work: Railsea.
Cover for Railsea by China Miéville

On board the moiletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death & the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea—even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-colored mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a kind of treasure map indicating a mythical place untouched by iron rails—leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters & salvage-scrabblers. & it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

A Unique Spin on Classic Stories

As you may have guessed from the book description, Railsea bears traces of Moby Dick in it, only instead of hunting a great white whale, the crew of the Medes is hunting an ivory mole (the captain is certain to inform anyone who thinks otherwise that Mocker Jack is not yellow). But as I read, I found that the actual plot line bears a stronger resemblance to Treasure Island. Young Sham longs for adventure and finds a bit too much of it along his way.

However, as one would expect of Miéville, although the book draws on these classic stories, it has a texture and a feeling that is all its own. The dingy, polluted atmosphere of the world of the railsea permeates the book and makes it settle into your mind even when the scenes are on the lighter side. The worldbuilding is in depth and shows itself in everything from the way the world’s inhabitants think about dirt and water to the way the words appear on the page (the word “and” is never used, only the ampersand). Railsea’s world is, well, not necessarily a delight, but certainly a unique draw for the book. (I can’t use delight because that implies sunshine and butterflies, but between the polluted cloud of the upsky and the bizarre mutations it causes for airborne creatures, you find little of either on the railsea.)

A Lackluster Main Character

Although the setting was compelling, I found it difficult to read Railsea quickly (quite the change from how I felt about Embassytown). This was largely because the main character, Sham, didn’t particularly interest me. He is a young boy without much direction in life: he longs for some kind of purpose, but since he doesn’t know what he wants, he simply drifts from task to task and from event to event. That attitude doesn’t really change until at least halfway through the book, and by that time I’d failed to connect with him. This stands in stark contrast with Avice from Embassytown, who was a self-proclaimed societal drifter, but who was compelling anyway. However, like Avice, Sham changes a lot over the course of the book, and his growth is realistic. He just isn’t as compelling.

Final Thoughts

Outside of the main character issue, I think the book was particularly strong. I enjoyed the stylistic prose quirks—the self-aware narrator, the asides about storytelling, etc.—even when they interrupted the flow of the narrative. Speculative fiction is prone to info dumps, and many people hate them (myself included) as a general rule. But in Railsea, Miéville selectively info dumps in a few chapters, never taking more than a page or two at a time. The voice is so compelling that the info dumps don’t feel like info dumps, and the timeouts from the main plot were some of my favorite parts of the book.

Content warnings: Some violence, though it isn’t trivialized; some language, though nothing you wouldn’t hear on TV; drinking; sideways conversations about sex, but no sexual scenes.

Leaflet Review: Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente

Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente

New York Times bestseller Catherynne M. Valente is the single most compelling voice to emerge in fantasy fiction in decades. Collected here for the first time, her early short novels explore, deconstruct, and ultimately explode the seminal myths of both East and West, casting them in ways you’ve never read before and may never read again.

I found this collection of short novels the last time I visited a city with a decent brick-and-mortar bookstore. I’m glad to have been introduced to Valente’s unique voice and style, and I have her children’s novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, waiting for me after I put this volume back on the shelf. Because this book contains four novels, I’ll tackle each one in a mini-review and follow up with general comments.

The Labyrinth

A woman wanderer, a Maze like no other, a Monkey and a Minotaur and a world full of secrets leading down to the Center of it All.

The Labyrinth is Valente’s first-ever novel. Before trying her hand at long-form fiction, she was mostly a poet, and that prior experience flashes its colors in the prose of this short novel. The language is beautiful, the structure dizzying and mazelike. However, this focus on poetics is also something of a flaw: the book doesn’t feel much like a novel. I felt validated when I read that Valente, looking back on her work now, considers it a “two hundred page poem with no columns and [her] whole heart.” I recommend The Labyrinth if you crave gorgeous and innovative uses of language and myth structures, but although I read it in a day, it isn’t exactly a quick read.

Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams

An aged woman named Ayako lives in medieval Japan, but dreams in mythical worlds that beggar the imagination … including our own modern world.

This is the novel in this collection that I found most interesting of the four. It’s also the least linear. Ayako dreams herself into myths from various cultures, from the Sphinx-and-Oedipus story to Babylonian creation myth, and the way all the myths weave together into Ayako’s life experience, and how Ayako weaves into them, is elegant. Because it is the least linear of the novels, it takes a little time to get a firm grasp on the story, and once you do the Sphinx dream will find a way to throw you off periodically.

The Grass-Cutting Sword

When a hero challenges a great and evil serpent, who speaks for the snake? In this version of a myth from the ancient chronicle Kojiki, the serpent speaks for itself.

Where Yume No Hon is nonlinear, The Grass-Cutting Sword is the most linear in the collection (that isn’t to say it’s strictly linear, but it’s much easier to grasp the basic flow of events). In this myth the Japanese god of storms falls from heaven and sets out to kill a monster that has devoured seven young sisters and is about to eat number eight. What I found most interesting in this book was that each sister got her own moment in the spotlight: her character, her desires, her motivations for putting herself in the monster’s way, etc. Frequently stories that involve such repetitive disasters go light on differentiating the characters in each one. That is not the case in The Grass-Cutting Sword.

Under in the Mere

Arthur and Lancelot, Mordred and le Fay. The saga has been told a thousand times, but never in the poetic polyphony of this novella, a story far deeper than it is long.

I’ve read a lot of Arthurian spinoffs; I’ve read a lot of Arthurian originals. Valente’s Arthurian novella is not necessarily a retelling of the Arthurian cycle, nor is it a retelling of a particular tale. Instead it is a collection of character portraits that reinvent the basic frames of the Lady of the Lake, Kay, the Green Knight, Dagonet, Lancelot, Balin & Balan, Pellinore, Galahad, Mordred, Bedivere, and Morgan le Fay. As a different way of approaching and interpreting the well-used cycle, I loved it. However, because it is, like the other novels in this volume, linguistically complex, and because it lacked an overarching plot beyond the general Arthurian cycle, it took me some time to get through. I typically read a character portrait or two in isolation and came back for more later. I don’t think my enjoyment suffered because of this.

Overall Comments

The novels contained in this collection are beautiful. For that reason alone I recommend it. But I don’t recommend it for light reading—these aren’t exactly breezy beach reads, but they aren’t meant to be. If you want something linguistically innovative or structurally experimental, pick up this collection or any one of the individual novels. You won’t be disappointed.

Content warnings: Adult topics dealt with in an adult fashion, so don’t go handing them to small children. Not that I think you would after the review I just gave.

From This Reader’s Shelf

Today I’m going to take a timeout from being a Serious Editing Professional and let you in on a secret: most every editing professional is a hopeless, passionate book lover. Don’t let them fool you with their comma-tinkering, fierce plot critiques, or official-sounding titles. Many of them are astute, professionally trained, and incredibly skilled, but underneath those things, they’re enthusiastic readers. I’m no different.

To give you a peek at my reader-life, today I’m going to share a look at my bookshelf. This is a special bookshelf: it’s transient. I’m in the middle of a months-long visit to an Air Force base, but since it’s only months long instead of a year or more, my husband and I left most of our books in my parents’ shed in Utah (thank heaven for their free space; we stole plenty of it). Here are all our books, minus books of scripture, those in foreign languages, and those I’m currently reading.

Kristy G. Stewart's Bookshelf

The Breakdown

Some of these books are titles Mr. Stewart and I have acquired since arriving here: you’ll see both Thief’s Covenant and The Rook, books that have only come out since the start of the year. There are also some necessary work-related books: the two most recent versions of The Chicago Manual of Style (or as I like to call it, BOB, for Bright Orange Bible); Eats, Shoots & Leaves; Editors and Editing; and Rewriting (which is the most useful book I’ve ever found about academic writing). Not shown is the APA publication manual.

Seven of the books directly draw on folklore or collect folktales. Yes, I read both the tales and the commentary included in The Classic Fairy Tales (edited by Maria Tatar). That’s the black book between Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Best-Loved Folktales of the World.

There’s only one book of poetry (prose is more my speed). Unless you count my Poe collection, which has both poetry and prose.

Yes, I have a complete collection of Poe covered with creepy red decor. I also have a less-complete collection packed in my parents’ shed.

Genre-wise, there’s biography, YA, dark fantasy, satirical fantasy, science fiction, horror, war fiction, nonfiction, and instructional books on screenwriting and typography. There is also a whole host of classics, but they’re contained in that sneaky little eReader on the bottom left, hidden beneath Billy Collins. (I don’t love my eReader, but I love that it carries my classic library for me.)

The books that are horizontal on the bottom of the shelf are books I brought because I am frequently set upon by sudden impulses to re-read them, so I couldn’t bear to leave them. Included in that list is Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, one of my favorites in his repertoire, which is also hidden in the eReader. If I had a hard copy, I would have brought it.

I haven’t read four books on this shelf: John Adams (I just haven’t been able to sit down to a page commitment that big since we got here), the Dean Koontz books on the right (recent acquisitions from my father-in-law), and The Hundred Dresses on the top left (a recent acquisition from my mom).

Kristy G. Stewart's "Currently Reading" Stack

In addition to that abused shelf, I have three books that I’m currently reading or am about to read. They migrate through the house with me, from kitchen to couch to bedroom and back. One of them (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland) just arrived today, and it’s hard to make myself wait to open its covers. I probably won’t hold out much longer.

If you could only bring one shelf’s worth of your books with you on a months-long expedition, which ones couldn’t you do without? Do you ever read more than one book at a time?

(Rules: Saying “I’d get an e-version of everything and just take my Kindle” doesn’t count unless you really do have your entire library on your ereader. In which case, if you only had a shelf’s worth of memory on your ereader, which files would you keep?)

Leaflet Review: Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief's Covenant, Ari MarmellOnce she was Adrienne Satti, an orphan with a rags-to-riches story.

Now she is Widdershins, a thief with a sharp blade, a sharper wit, and help from a secret god living in her head.

But now something horrid, something dark, is reaching out for her, a past that refuses to let her go …

This is another book that was on my “books to look for in 2012” list. (It’s also on the list of books Lou Anders convinced me to buy with alarming ease. The guy’s a freaking hypnotist.) Before I start the review, I want to share a note about the cover. The image in this post and the cover on my book are different in one way that is significant to me: the apostrophe on my book is a curly quote, not a straight one. I can no longer tell if straight quotes bother me for true aesthetic reasons or because I’ve been trained to eradicate them, but they stab my soul one way or another. However, my scanner is rubbish, and all the online images I can find have the erroneous straight quote, so do me a favor and imagine the cover is typographically flawless, because the final product is.

Now I’ll review the actual text.

Renaissance Romp

This book has several things going for it. The plot races forward at a steady clip, seamlessly shifting from one plot arc to another. Although this is a YA book, Widdershins tackles adult issues—keeping food in her belly, balancing an investment portfolio, etc.—but she still keeps a youthful attitude and likeability. The book’s topics aren’t watered down for a younger audience either. For a novel labeled dark fantasy it’s on the light and friendly side of things, but it still fits comfortably in that sub-genre. The book also benefits from a fresher milieu than many secondary world fantasies: it is neither fully modern nor fully medieval, but takes root in a renaissance-style city called Davillon.

Although dark things happen in the book, it never stops being fun. Between Widdershins and Olgun, her personal god, nearly every page is filled with an element of sarcastic joy, despite the fact that at any given moment just about everything is going wrong. The characters make for good company, no matter the circumstances, which is not something I can say for every book I’ve read.

Some Quibbles

As with most books I review, I have a few quibbles. With Thief’s Covenant, most of them are on the prose level. Sometimes the humorous prose is overwrought, straining too hard for the laugh. Even so, there were plenty of times when it hit the sweet spot and I did laugh, and humor is more subjective than most things, so for some of you the jokes I find overwrought will hit you right on the funny bone.

There are also some more grammar- and usage-related issues: some rule-breaking that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose other than confusing me; some words (like miasma) that appear more frequently than they should (in my opinion); and some sentences I had to read multiple times to follow the action of a scene.

The good news: none of these issues stopped me from enjoying the story. It was fun, fast, and flavorful. I’ll be holding onto my copy, and the sequel, False Covenant, will most likely find its way onto my bookshelf. All minor quibbles aside, I can’t keep away from an upbeat character like Widdershins.

Cover illustration by Jason Chan.

Leaflet Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

“Dear You,

The body you are wearing used to be mine.”

So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies—all wearing latex gloves. With no memory of who she is or how she got there, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and escape those who want to destroy her.

She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-level operative in the Checquy, a secret government agency that protects the world against supernatural threats—from sentient fungus to stampeding ectoplasm—while keeping the populace in the dark. But now there is a mole on the inside, and this person wants Myfanwy dead. […]

Suspenseful and hilarious […] The Rook is an outrageously inventive debut novel for readers who like their espionage with a dollop of purple slime, or their supernatural thrillers with an agenda and a pencil skirt.

In my first post of the year, I said The Rook was first on my list of books I look forward to in 2012 (both chronologically and otherwise). It didn’t disappoint, and I’m glad I own it so I can reread it in the future. There were a few main reasons I had for loving the book Daniel O’Malley wrote.

Premise

The pitch for The Rook intrigued me right from the start: the premise is unique because even though it follows a relatively common setup—Myfanwy Thomas lost her memory—the book tackles the concept from a new perspective. The old Myfanwy (who the “new” Myfanwy calls Thomas) has left letters, instructions, and binders full of briefing materials to guide the new Myfanwy, and the new Myfanwy is actually substantially different than Thomas. Thomas’s personality has been erased, so although both characters occupy/ied the same body and have the same skill set, they’re different people. Not to mention the fact that Myfanwy is a high-ranking official in “Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service,” so it’s not like walking into her life is a walk in the park to begin with.

Voice

Any memory-loss plot will involve a lot of information being hurled at the reader (and the amnesiac protagonist), which makes such plots prone to infodumps. However, in The Rook the infodumps are laced with another thing I love about the book: a voice so playful and engaging that even personnel dossiers are a joy to read. The voice that infuses the storyline from beginning to end is a blast.

Emotion

The voice helps The Rook walk the line between humor and heart. There’s no doubt that it is a funny book (if the bunny and the octopus in the coat of arms on the cover didn’t give it away, I’m not sure what would). However, it tugs at your heartstrings too. A lot of the tugging is done by Thomas, the old Myfanwy, in her letters. The way I felt about Thomas progressed through several stages, ending in an affection that almost led to tears for me when I read the last chapter (but I was strong and resisted impulses to let my tear ducts leak).

Character

The stages of my feelings about Thomas mirrored a masterful character arc. I expected Myfanwy to progress through the book, to grow from a personality newborn into a likeable hero who could save the day and beat the bad guys. That isn’t to say her growth wasn’t a pleasure to see—on the contrary, the way she grew to meet the demands of Thomas’s old job and new foes had me laughing and rooting for her cover to cover. But I think the growth of Thomas surprised me more, and shows the unique quality level of The Rook better. Thomas could have been a stagnant character, dispensing advice and knowledge from a static position of competency. With the playful voice, she could have been that way and I wouldn’t have minded a lick. But she went from a rather weak person who earned very little respect to a lovable, sacrificing tragic figure. I was terribly sad that the world at the end of the book couldn’t have both Thomas and Myfanwy.

There were other reasons I liked the book—it doesn’t rely on a romantic subplot, the supernatural powers were innovative and bizarre, the characters are people first and heroes/villains second, the beginning and end have a completely satisfying chiasmic structure—and I’m sure you can find plenty more. So get thyself a copy and enjoy the ride. Then join me in anticipating the sequel O’Malley has already promised.

You can also follow Myfanwy Thomas’s Twitter feed, @RookFiles. Prior to the book’s release Thomas tweeted, but now it’s Myfanwy. She doesn’t post often, but it’s always fun when she does.

Book jacket design by Lindsey Andrews

Leaflet Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music—hints of their true nature buried in in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless “haint” lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.

With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds. …

The Hum and the Shiver had me excited: it has an interesting premise, an interesting context, a killer title, and a visually appealing cover (can you believe it’s just straight-up photo-manipulation?). My little brother sent it to me for Christmas, because he is an awesome brother, and I read it in about two days.

Delicious Tidbits

The book has plenty of things going for it: an interesting take on contemporary fantasy (it’s definitely not urban, and none of the characters are cliche); the main character grows into a unique type of inner strength; the worldbuilding elements are delightfully fresh (music-based magic in rural Tennessee!). The elements of mystery surrounding the Tufa draw you through the book, and the cast of characters is very dynamic.

One of my favorite characters in the book was Craig Chess, the Methodist minister who has recently moved to Cloud County to work among the notoriously nonreligious Tufa. He’s awesome. He is a man who acts on his faith, who suffers fits of temper and temptation but always finds a way to deal with it, and who, although he earnestly wishes others to find the truth he holds dear, doesn’t need you to be in his congregation for him to wish you the best. He stands in stark contrast to the likes of Dwayne Gitterman, Bronwyn’s ex-boyfriend, who really doesn’t wish anyone well but himself.

Hangups

So I enjoyed the book. But I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. The book’s charm very much hangs on its milieu—the unique setup, context, worldbuilding, and small-town characters. In my opinion, the plot was not particularly masterful. Some of the conflicts, like Bronwyn’s inability to play music when she first returns home, are solved with surprising ease. The viewpoint is almost confusingly omniscient (to be fair, I haven’t read an omniscient POV since I read Dune, so my distaste for this technique could just be because I’m out of practice reading it). Plot-driven readers may take issue with a character or two who have more page time than their plot purpose warrants.

After reading the last page, I put down the book and said, “Really? Really that’s how you end it?” The ending didn’t resonate with me in a meaningful way. For a book that has so much heart, it felt surprisingly hollow.

Even so …

I still enjoyed it. Knowing what I know now, I’d still have read it. It’s a rich and textured novel with plenty in its pages that will please. Its heroine has a very interesting growth trajectory that I found satisfying. Alex Bledsoe recently announced that there will be a second book in the same world called Wisp of a Thing, and I’ll likely read that book as well. It’s not a perfect piece, but like I said, it has a lot of heart, and I’m glad I had a weekend to spend on it. If only for Bledsoe’s beautifully imagined Tufa culture and folklore and they way he put magic into the mundane, I’d gladly read the book again.

Content warnings: Language, sex, discussions about sex, mature themes, some violence (but not much).