A Literary Playground: When Characters Run Amok In Your Head

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Note: To the 72 email subscribers who received an accidentally published WordPress post a few days ago with a very, very rough draft of this review, I apologize and hope that those of you who took the time to read it were thoroughly entertained by my unedited exclamations to myself. 

Title: Midnight Thief

Author: Livia Blackburne

Genre: Realistic Fantasy

Publishing Info: July 8, 2014 by Disney Hyperion

Jukebox: Finding a song to fit Midnight Thief was harder than normal. I had to find a dark song because this is a dark novel, but I also had to find one that is constantly moving because the main character Kyra strikes me as the sort who is always alert, eyes roving and taking in the situation even if the rest of her body is still. What I came up with is Tesselate by Alt-J. At 55 seconds, the instrumental break embodies the graceful way Kyra can climb up any wall:

 

I’ve mentioned Tamora Pierce a few times already because of my great respect and love for her Tortall series. Since I began reading her novels in fourth grade, I haven’t met anyone who is quite as reverent as I am of her beautiful, no-nonsense prose and her incredible worldbuilding skills. Until now.

Introducing Livia Blackburne: author of her incredible debut novel Midnight Thief, graduate of both Harvard and MIT, blogger of psychology and neuroscience, Taiwan-born, and most importantly, as awed by Tamora Pierce as I am. Ms. Blackburne also cites Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor as her favorite books.

Basically, the Jukebox Muse can die happy now that she’s found her doppelgänger (except for the neuroscience part).

There are several reasons why I am in such a tizzy over this book and why others should be too. I rarely encounter two strong main characters, a fleshed-out world, a true threat, and a surprising plot in one book. Yet Blackburne managed all of them, and from the semi-cliff-hanger ending, I predict at least two more books. Now that she’s put all that good foundation work in, the rest of her series is her playground. And if Amazon’s labeling of Midnight Thief as “Grades 7 and up” gives you doubts about its maturity, ignore it. Pierce’s books are also tagged as “Grades 7 and up,” and I just reread it last week.

Blackburne sets up her world and her main characters so smoothly, I didn’t even notice it was happening. Unlike the infodumping issue I talked about in Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season, Blackburne introduces her two main characters, Kyra and Tristam, by walking us through their daily routines. Kyra, a 17-year old talented thief, lives at the Drunken Dog Inn with her patchwork family of Bella, resident cook, and Flick, longtime friend and fellow former street rat. She steals because honest work is scarce and she needs money. And plus, she’s eerily good at climbing walls. But just because she’s a thief doesn’t mean we get to know Kyra by watching her steal things. We watch her interact lovingly with Bella and Flick. We follow her down the dirty streets as she visits Idalee and her sister Lettie, two street orphans who are living the same, unforgiving childhood that Kyra barely survived before Flick and Bella took her in. We understand through these experiences why Kyra’s identity is more than her thieving abilities.

On the other side, Tristam is a 20-something knight working for the Master of Strategy. He has an unbending loyalty to the Palace, but dislikes the confining atmosphere of urban life and regularly volunteers for patrol so he can ride in the open forest that reminds him of his country estate. When strange Demon riders who train wildcats as their own children begin raiding farms and murdering innocents, including his close friend, Tristam immediately devotes all hours to finding the threat, to take revenge and to keep the city safe. Rather than giving us immediate satisfaction in the form of developing a character via intense battle sequences and dramatic dialogue, Blackburne gives us the day-in-the-life view of her characters. I’d rather discover with Kyra that the blood from her first kill doesn’t wash away in one night rather than watch her win an epic battle. Blackburne has let Kyra and Tristam sit in her mind for years, and her patience has paid off.

Blackburne has not only created two smart characters who nevertheless ruthlessly question their own decisions and morals, but she has also described them with natural prose. Not beautiful, natural. We are routinely awestruck by beautiful prose that describes otherworldly and unattainable experiences and people. Natural prose makes us feel every little hope and disappointment that all of us experience daily. Mountains and valleys as opposed to bumps in the road. While beautiful prose can make us cry and sigh for a heartbreaking minute, I can tell you confidently that I will more likely come back to a world carved in natural prose, a world like Blackburne’s created, because it’s a world in which one can live and breathe and stay for a while. It’s a world that, once planted in readers’ minds, will grow by itself, filling in holes and edges, able to take the information presented in the book and extrapolate.

Like the world, the main threat in Midnight Thief is layered. Though the Demon Riders that Tristam is hunting are a large antagonist, Tristam and Kyra are, for all intents and purposes, mortal enemies before they meet and decide to work together. Throw in James, head of the Assassin’s Guild (Blackburne also published a novella filling in James’s background that she says should be read after Midnight Thief), who convinces Kyra to break into the Palace but never tells her the reason behind her assignment, and Blackburne has a nice Jack-in-the-box of a plot to surprise us with its multiple outcomes.

Midnight Thief is 384 pages. I learned from Tamora Pierce’s FAQ on her website that publishers used to limit YA novelists to 250 pages because they thought the teenage audience wouldn’t have the attention span to read more. The Golden Compass and Harry Potter pushed that limit up to 300, but it still takes a lot of convincing to get more pages. I wonder if that was the deal with Blackburne and Disney Hyperion. With the amount of time and depth that the plot covers, Blackburne could easily fill up 500 pages with more of Kyra and Tristam’s backgrounds. There’s some authors that need the 300 page limit because it forces them to cut all the unnecessary content. However, I didn’t want Midnight Thief to end after 384 pages, to the point where I put the book down after four chapters so I could savor what Blackburne did decide to include. Now that it’s finished, all I and others can do is wait eagerly for the next installment in the series.

Blackburne said herself that Midnight Thief “is my homage to the medieval fantasies I grew up reading. Most notably, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness, which I’ve read and reread countless times. Unlike the Lioness Alanna, Kyra is a thief instead of a knight, and the challenges she faces are different. But I hope I’ve captured the same spirit, vulnerability, and courage that drew me to my favorite girl-power fantasies from my childhood.” Knowing Tamora Pierce’s literature as well as I do, I can congratulate Blackburne on the fact that I see a lot of Tamora Pierce in her writing choices. I also see a lot that is purely Blackburne, a gift that is backed by her education in some of the best fantasy literature out there.

Rating: 9 – so crazy good that if the plot, characters, and world were real I would just run away and join them

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Explanations and Expectations: what is “The Next Big Thing?”

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Title: The Bone Season

Author: Samantha Shannon

Genre: Fantasy/Dystopian

Publishing Info: August 2013 by Bloomsbury USA

Jukebox: The main character Paige Mahoney’s strongest trait is her tenacity. She never loses sight of her goal to escape her captors and go back to her old life in the London underworld. Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence + the Machine, has that tenacity in her voice, no matter what she’s singing. In “You’ve Got the Love,” Florence is singing about a love that will pull her through thick and thin. Regardless of the lyrics’ relevance, I think of Paige when I hear Florence belt out all her angst:

I can see why so many people are debating whether Samantha Shannon will be the next J.K. Rowling. I can also see that comparing The Bone Season to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a terribly unfair comparison.

Shannon wrote her debut novel The Bone Season when she was a 21-year old student at St. Anne’s College. She got her big break when she interned with her future agent David Godwin. Even before the book came out, everybody started drawing comparisons to not only Harry Potter, but also Twilight AND The Hunger Games. Now, I don’t particularly like Twilight or the Hunger Games, but it’s obvious that those series and their authors have had incredibly successful careers (movies, crazy fanbases, etc.). So it seems that The Bone Season, which has been picked up by Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium studios and 20th Century Fox for a movie, is following the same path. But does that mean it should be compared to three of the most popular YA fantasy series in the last five years? Talk about impossible standards.

Plus, however flattering it may be to be up there with the likes of Harry Potter, it’s always a little sad when critics would rather say “Shannon is the new Rowling” than say “Shannon is NEW!” It’s hard enough these days to hash out fresh, original stuff without people immediately tagging you as “The next _insert famous author here_.”

If we evaluate The Bone Season without acknowledging all the comparisons, and keep in mind that this monster of a book was written by a 21-year old student, then Shannon’s debut novel is a great first effort. Shannon has laid down a ton of groundwork that she can explore in her projected six other books in the series (Seven books? Really? I wonder if that’s the agent, publisher, or Shannon talking). The world Shannon creates is refreshing, if familiar:

Click to enlarge

London, 2059. Humans are divided into two groups: normal and clairvoyant. There are several kinds of clairvoyance powers, but all of them are able to access and manipulate the aether, or the spirit realm. London is run as a police state, controlled by the Scion agency, whose one goal is to find all the clairvoyants, arrest them, and kill them because of their unnaturalness. Paige Mahoney, the 19-year old main character, works in the underground crime network of clairvoyants. She is a dreamwalker, a rare and therefore valuable kind of clairvoyant. When she’s arrested, she is taken to the lost city of Oxford instead of being killed. Rephaim, the humanoid but not human race, govern the city and enslave the human clairvoyants to help fight off flesh-eating monsters called the Emim. As Paige meets and comes to know her mysterious Rephaim keeper, Warden, she also explores the city, makes friends, and tries to find a way back to London.

Phew. Everything’s much more complicated than that, but you get the idea. The clairvoyance system that Shannon creates is both her strong point and her most confusing one. In the first few chapters, it was obvious that Shannon is a first-time, big-scale writer. There was a lot of not-so-subtle exposition (“infodumping,” I believe it’s called) to try and explain all the details of the underground clairvoyant gangs, as well as what exactly a dreamwalker like Paige could do. Consequently, the chart detailing the types of clairvoyants and the map of Oxford are extremely helpful while reading. I like Shannon’s idea of reimagining the traditional skepticism towards clairvoyants, card-reading, ghosts, and mediums into a race of unnatural humans persecuted because of their “disease,” but hopefully she will address all of the still vague areas of her world building in future books.

The jerkiness of the first-person POV also indicated that Shannon was still getting used to being in the mind of her main character. Many phrases seemed like they were for younger audiences even though they dealt with darker, more adult themes. The mantra of my high school english teachers, “Show, don’t tell,” sounded in my head repeatedly while I was reading. With that advice in mind, I believe one more revision would have made The Bone Season a tighter, more effective book in terms of the writing. Shannon’s narrative is also permeated with a lot of fun clairvoyant slang, inspired partly by the 19th century London criminal underworld. However, in the beginning the terms are flung at us with no explanation, and it’s disorienting until you gain enough context. Or you could be smarter than I was and realize there’s a glossary in the back. Shannon’s writing does calm down and even out, so if you can deal with knowing only 70% of what’s going on in the first few chapters, it’s worth it when the setting shifts to Oxford.

I could list more inconsistencies, but everyone, remember again that Shannon just graduated from college last year. I’m reviewing someone who’s only a couple years older than I am. Yes, Shannon still has a lot to learn in organizing her plot details, working up to a romance, and executing the big final battle, but I was so impressed by the daring and scope of this first book, that I am definitely reading the second book when it comes out in October 2014. I am excited to see how Shannon has learned from her debut novel and have no doubt she will keep improving. Will it be the next Harry Potter? No, of course not. No author or book can ever forge the exact same career path as another. Will it be a treasured YA fantasy series? That depends on how Shannon and her writing grow and change in her future books. My high expectations come not from the careless comparisons to famous YA series, but from the intriguing world Shannon has begun to explore in The Bone Season.

Rating: 7 – good: would recommend, above average, has some problems but I can deal