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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Anonymous Worlds

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Title: A Creature of Moonlight

Author: Rebecca Hahn

Genre: Fantasy

Publishing Info: May 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Books

Jukebox: The title of the song “All I Have to Do is Dream” pretty much says it all. It’s covered by local SF artist Lauren O’Connell, but was famously recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1958. O’Connell takes a decidedly more dreamlike approach to her rendition. Marni, the main character in Rebecca Hahn’s debut novel A Creature of Moonlight, takes a lot of walks in the forest. O’Connell’s subdued voice is what I imagine should be the soundtrack while Marni walks in her shadowy forest.

 

I read a lot of fantasy. Ever since a friend suggested Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series to me in 4th grade, I’ve thought that the ability to make up entire worlds, complete with a map, a government, history of alliances and warfare, and complex magic system is the best superpower ever. Everyone has their favorite books, and mine are the ones that endear me with their little gritty details of daily life. Immersing myself in those worlds, getting to know the characters who live in those worlds, is the best antidote for the times when the real world is just not cutting it.

Here’s where my made-up genre Realistic Fantasy comes in. Fantasy inherently means everything’s fabricated, doesn’t it? Yet when we look at some of the greatest fantasy series (Game of Thrones, Mistborn, Graceling), they are always built from real life. And that’s what I mean by “realistic:” experiences that readers can relate to as well as plausibility. The easiest way to realize a plausible world is to describe it as much as possible. And then you can layer on all the good stuff like family rivalries and rich cultural histories. This is the stuff of human lives. The things we’re all familiar with as a population. And thus, Realistic Fantasy is born. There’s only so much “fantasy,” or totally alien world, that an author can introduce to a reader before it just gets really confusing.

The thing is, Rebecca Hahn’s debut novel Creature of Moonlight isn’t introducing too much new material. It doesn’t introduce enough. There’s a kingdom. And a forest constantly moving inwards. And a dragon. But that’s it. We don’t know what kind of government this kingdom has. We don’t know how big this forest is. We don’t know what color the dragon is. There are no names except for select main characters. Now, some people can pull off minimalist description. Ernest Hemingway pulls it off in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Though I usually can’t stand Hemingway’s sparse style, the story works because he balances the lack of surroundings or detail with tense, crackling dialogue peppered with pointed silences. I’m not sure I can say the same for A Creature of Moonlight.

The plot is simple enough, revolving around a classic identity crisis. Marni, a half-human, half-dragon girl is heir to the throne and must decide whether to claim her throne or succumb to the calls of the magical forest and find her father, the dragon who lords over the forest. Her mother, the girl who ran away in to the woods and had a baby with a dragon (I was wondering about the feasibility of that couple until it was revealed that the dragon can take human form whenever he wants) is killed by her own brother (the current king), and Marni wants revenge. On top of that, the forests are moving in a couple feet every night and swallowing up farms and crops. Right away, Marni’s internal conflict is given precedent over developing the world around her. The forest she regularly escapes to could be any forest, filled with slightly weird creatures and brooding trees (though it does become more immersive in the last third of the book). The kingdom she lives in could be any kingdom, filled with unnamed rivers and run-of-the-mill lords and ladies. There’s a village. Somewhere. I think there were some hills, but I swear they were mentioned once and then they disappeared. It’s not like I need a detailed map, but there’s just not enough of a realized world here. Even the love interest is generic:

“He’s young, a black-haired, handsome man. Tall, and sure of himself. He’s been deferential to my Gramps to this point, and he speaks with an ease, a camaraderie the lords rarely manage.” (45)

That’s literally all the description we get for him, and he’s one of the main characters. So you might ask, if there’s barely any description, what makes up the entire book? Honestly, most of it is Marni’s inner thoughts. She dictates a lot of her actions, why she makes those actions, and what actions she might take next. There are no subplots, as her life and her inner conflict are the entirety of the book. Her narration’s dream-like flatness works as a constant reminder that the story is made up. Yeah, all fantasy readers know in the back of our minds that what we’re reading isn’t real, but a truly well-crafted world makes us feel a world could exist if it really wanted to.

I’d almost call the book uninspired, except that Rebecca Hahn’s way of making her descriptions and her world anonymous makes me think she’s deliberately typecasting everything. Part of me wonders whether she’s making a point with this anonymity, the fact that this conflict of identity and family could happen in any kingdom. Combined with Marni’s dream-like narration, we have a world and a situation that is slightly implausible. Surprisingly, I don’t mean that as a criticism; some of my favorite epic stories are the Greek myths, which are wholly implausible and very symbolic. The word “symbolic” is not well received by both my English teachers and me because it’s usually thrown around when someone doesn’t know what else to say. But we can’t escape the fact that if the kingdom and forest and dragon are deliberate symbols, then we have a story that could happen to anyone. And that’s powerful.

Do you remember what I said about fantasy having to relate to its readers? I may personally prefer fantasy literature that relates to me through the little concrete details of daily life, but there are so many other ways a story can connect, including great big symbols. At the heart of Creature of Moonlight, we have a girl discovering how she can live with her multi-faceted identity and history. With that reader’s mindset, the book connects as an appealing bildungsroman, or coming-of-age journey. But only with that mindset.

Rating: 6 – okay..but it could be better: would recommend with qualifiers; inconsistencies that raise my eyebrow

Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It didn’t end well.

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Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy

Titles: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Days of Blood and Starlight, Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Author: Laini Taylor

Label: Realistic Fantasy

Published in: Dreams of Gods and Monsters was published in April 2014.

Jukebox: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor is a vast landscape of color and emotion. The piece begins in a furious tantrum, waltzes through memories of happiness, and ends in a deep, sighing grief. As I was practicing this piece, I realized that its volatile atmosphere matched many of the scenes from Taylor’s story. It’s a long piece, so feel free to let it play in the background as you read. Here is my take on the sonata:

The world that Laini Taylor builds in this series is very complex and very thorough.  Much like The Hunger Games series, each book in the trilogy represents a different stage in the overall conflict: Daughter of Smoke and Bone introduces readers to Karou, an art student in Prague who lives with a family of chimaera (creatures made up of different animal parts, like, for example, a gryphon). She helps collect teeth for Brimstone, her chimaera father, but has no idea why he needs them. When she meets and falls in love with the angel Akiva, she discovers that she is part of a thousand-year war between angels and chimaera in the parallel world of Eretz. Days of Blood and Starlight deals with the aftermath of war and the process of organizing a rebellion. Karou, in discovering her past self, realizes that Akiva has betrayed her and her family. While Karou works, she deals with her desolation and slowly recovers, reacquainting her past self with her current self. Dreams of Gods and Monsters begins with a rebellion and ends by bursting the entire story wide open. Karou and Akiva discover a backstory to the backstory they thought they had figured out. The war between angels and chimaera, no longer contained in Eretz, collides with human history on Earth. Karou and Akiva achieve their main goal, to end war and tyranny, only to discover an even bigger threat to their newly acquired peace.

As anyone can see from the plot overview, Laini Taylor has created a layered world inhabited by well-rounded characters. But rarely do I encounter an author who can build complex worlds and characters while maintaining a hilarious narrative voice. She tells her story like an epic legend through beautiful, dream-like prose but also keeps everyone sane with hilarious dialogue. Taylor’s blend of epic description and humorous reality-checks is effective because she understands when to reveal a crucial piece of plot and when to take a step back and note the ridiculousness of a situation. As Karou and her best friend Zuzana watch the angel and chimaera armies attempt to form an alliance and share their food rations, Zuzana remarks:

You know what would be good now?” Zuzana whispered, when the sounds of spoons on plates had mostly quieted. “Chocolate. Never attempt an alliance without chocolate.

With that statement, it’s impossible not to smile in one of the most tense situations of the series. Taylor balances these quips with abundant richness of description: she develops both her characters and her world with care, treating the color of a tree’s leaves with the same curious reverence as a  soldier’s fatigue. She describes one of Karou’s “aha!” moments with lyricism:

Her heart started to pound. An idea was taking shape. She didn’t give voice to it, but let its traceries unfurl, following them and searching for defects, anticipating what the arguments would be against it. Could it be this simple?

Taylor offers the perfect blend of quirky humor and sad beauty. The only other author I know who is able to manage such a balance is Tamora Pierce with her Tortall series.

Taylor boasts a solid cast of characters too. The main couple, Karou and Akiva, are definitely an OTP (One True Pairing). Their forbidden relationship, centered around a period of happiness surrounded by grief and loss, is strangely attractive. But the supporting characters make this series especially well-rounded: Karou’s best friend Zuzana is a tiny, feisty puppeteer, master of the eyebrow arch. She is the reason for every uncontrollable bout of laughter I had while reading:

Zuzana Nováková was a pretty girl. She’d often been compared to a doll, or to a fairy, not just because of her slight stature but also her fine, small face…Deciding to take her on was akin to a fish deciding idly to gobble up that pretty light bobbing in the shadows and then— OH GOD THE TEETH THE HORROR!— meeting the anglerfish on the other side. Zuzana didn’t eat people. She withered them.”

Other memorable characters: Akiva’s sister Liraz is an uncrackable warrior with so many chimaera death tallies on her hands that her arms look like black sleeves. The White Wolf, leader of the chimaera rebellion, is full of plying charm and an unnerving love of killing. Again, I could go on.

Taylor’s handling of the crossover between Eretz and Earth, between fiery angels, demon-like chimaera and humans, is also applaud-worthy. She takes a very basic human belief, and asks us to re-evaluate it: Angels are good, and demons are bad, right? Then who do we support when the war between the two invades our daily lives on Earth? Should Liraz be punished because of the chimaera she’s killed or be honored? Should Karou’s surrogate father Brimstone die because he has scary horns? Taylor reminds us that all of our preconceptions started from a whisper, a rumor, a story. This idea that basic human beliefs are all relative appears much more in Dreams of Gods and Monsters. As Taylor rewrites Eretz’s history and consequently Earth’s history, the feeling that “nothing makes sense anymore” is just present enough to tip the reader off balance.

Of course, whenever an author tries to bend time and space and history, there is always a chance that the story arc will spiral out of control. Halfway through the final book, I started worrying about how Taylor was going to tie everything together. Using her third book to expand the backstory and character roster was risky. Just look at George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series–HBO might finish it before he does! As I mentioned, Taylor ends her story a bit unconventionally:

It was not a happy ending, but a happy middle— at last, after so many fraught beginnings.

Most of the time, ending with a beginning just leaves fans totally pissed off.  But Taylor wraps up her initial plot neatly and leaves us with the knowledge of a satisfying future ordeal. Because she reassures readers that each character has a renewed purpose, we are content to end in this intersection. After all, if you survive reading all three books, you’ve also survived a war, a rebellion, and a prophecy with these characters. So when Taylor asks us to let these beloved fictional people go, we trust in their ability to attack the endless future possibilities. It’s An End, not The End.

If Taylor ever decides to write a fourth book, I’m 100% positive that she’ll create an epic journey filled with renewed vigor. She has set up more than enough material to explore. But if she doesn’t, that’s fine too. Though I’m accustomed to getting my happy endings like everybody else is, I sit here wholly satisfied and deeply touched.

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