23 September, 2014

A little early birthday present and a tribute to the power of fantasy writing

I love books. Love to read them, hope soon I'll actually finish writing one. And for the last few years, I have loved young adult (YA) and fantasy literature (yes, literature) more than any other genre.

This weekend, I signed up for NetGalley, a website that helps connect "professional readers" (reviewers, bloggers, educators, librarians, etc.) with publishing houses who have advance reading copies (ARCs) of soon-to-be-published books to distribute. I had just learned that the release date for a book I had been eagerly awaiting, Samantha Shannon's The Mime Order, had been pushed back from October 21 to January 27. I was disappointed but learned that a sampler of the book (the first nine chapters) was available for request through NetGalley. I decided to take a chance and request it, and was thoroughly surprised and elated when I received a link to download the sampler just a few hours later. (Scroll down to the **** to skip right to my review.)

I've always read a lot. I can read very fast, and I like to read fast, which explains a lot about the kind of book I like. First, I want a book that draws you and wraps you in a different world. It could be an ambitious, expansive, shockingly different reality, or it could be a tiny fragment of a place, breathtakingly close to our world...either way, world-building, on any scale, is important. Second, I need chemistry, a kind of attraction (not necessarily romantic or physical) between my reader-self and at least one and ideally several characters. I don't need to always like them but I need to be drawn to them, either because I identify with them, or because I'd genuinely like to know them better, and preferably both. Third, I want mystery - or better yet, a mystery wrapped up in a quest and tied up in a bow of social change. I want to turn pages rapidly, heart pounding, eager to find out what happens next. I want to take a deep breath and force myself to close the book (or painfully-but-exquisitely be forced to close the book and wait for the sequel) to speculate and ponder and analyze and wonder.

And fourth, in a perfect book, when I get to the last page, I go back to the beginning and start all over, this time reading slowly, savoring perfect turns of phrase, noticing and dissecting nuances of story and character that I missed the first time around.

If we get to (4), I've found a book that I will love and re-read perhaps a dozen times. Maybe more. It's a book I'll return to when my Books to Be Read shelf has emptied, or if I have it on my Kindle app, when I can't sleep or am waiting for an appointment. This group includes the Harry Potter books, Philip Pullman's Golden Compasses, the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Tana French's mysteries, and a few select others.

If one of the first three is missing, but (4) is in place, I've usually described a book that I will always admire, that will have a place of honor on my bookshelf and that maybe, if something really resonated, I will come back to re-read every year or two. Many books in this group are perhaps more widely regarded literature, or have more layers of depth and meaning to probe. The best example for me is Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I usually cite as my favorite book of all time, or China Miéville's books, especially The City & The City. 

My love affair with fantasy started off slowly, during winter break in 1999, when my father brought home the first three Harry Potter books. Before Harry, I read widely and voraciously but self-consciously. Jane Austen (agonizingly dull). Carl Sagan (mercifully less dull). Edith Hamilton (genuinely loved classical mythology). Frank Herbert's Dune books (brilliant). Shakespeare (most enjoyable when performed improv-style at CTY). Foucault and Nietszche and so on.

After Harry, and particularly once I started medical school, I no longer cared what other people had labeled as "classics" or "canon". Elsewhere, I've read critiques of the adult readers who push YA books to the top of bestseller lists, concerns that this represents the death of adulthood. As someone who spent all of her twenties working intensely long hours, who works in a life-and-death field, I say... Meh. I don't care.

I spend large chunks of time reading serious nonfiction and academic journals. I want my literature escapist and immersive. I appreciate the beauty of the sentence, but I want that appreciation to be a lightning strike of insight, like the feeling of hearing a song, maybe for the first time, maybe for the fourth time, and having it pierce my soul. I don't want to have to study each sentence in a work of fiction the way I'd study a painting, trying to find the beauty in the deeper meaning.

At the beginning of my third year of medical school, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released, and my dad was diagnosed with heart failure. I was scared, sad and lonely, far from my family, as well as severely sleep-deprived on my surgical rotation. Most days, I didn't fall asleep until 2 AM and my alarm clock went off at two hours later, at 4. I started re-reading Harry, and every time I got to the end of the sixth book, I'd go back to the first book and start all over again. I began to really appreciate the nuances, the incredible attention to detail, the hints carefully - and naturally! - introduced in earlier books, the threads of theme and plot woven throughout the series. Regardless of how wholly novel any one aspect of plot or setting was, the finished product was extraordinary. At first it was fun, like marveling at a Escher drawing, and then it became therapeutic. So much of the story was really about coming to terms with mortality, our own and that of those we love. At that point in my life, I think I found Dumbledore as comforting as Harry does in the books. I was also touched by the morality, by the lessons that were not a preacher's afterthoughts but an essential part of the plot - lines like (and I paraphrase), "It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to our enemies but just as much to stand up to our friends."

Over the years, I sporadically tried to make this case to friends and fellow parents but rarely found a sympathetic, much less equally passionate, ear, so you can imagine how vindicated I felt when this appeared in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology:

"Recent research shows that extended contact via story reading is a powerful strategy to improve out-group attitudes. We conducted three studies to test whether extended contact through reading the popular best-selling books of Harry Potter improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, refugees). Results from one experimental intervention with elementary school children and from two cross-sectional studies with high school and university students (in Italy and United Kingdom) supported our main hypothesis. Identification with the main character (i.e., Harry Potter) and disidentification from the negative character (i.e., Voldemort) moderated the effect. Perspective taking emerged as the process allowing attitude improvement. Theoretical and practical implications of the findings are discussed in the context of extended intergroup contact and social cognitive theory."

In the spring of 2007, as a graduate student in Oxford, I walked into Blackwell's and casually picked up Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman's Golden Compasses trilogy (the U.S. title is The Golden Compass). The experience of discovering a new favorite book is nothing less than real magic. The following summer, the last book in the Harry Potter series was released. I read all day and into the night, and then experienced a crushing letdown, as I wondered if I would ever experience that "real magic" again.

Back in medical school for my last year, someone recommended a series that shall not be named here as the "next Harry Potter." It was not. It was too young for me, sloppily written and sloppily plotted, and ultimately offensive to my personal beliefs. (If you're curious, you can read my review here.) But I kept looking, not for the "next Harry Potter" but for the magic of falling headfirst into another world, of falling in love with characters, of trying to solve the mystery in an author's head. During the next few years, I discovered Haruki Murakami and China Miéville, as well as Tana French, Kate Atkinson and John Hart.

And then I met The Hunger Games, via my cousin Megan's blog. I was so quickly hooked that I read it in Kindle form on my iPhone while waiting for babies to be born (the pediatrics team is sometimes called to deliveries well in advance of the actual birth). I literally COULD NOT STOP reading it. I also could not stop searching for new books in this exciting and vastly cooler new form of YA that did not exist when I was a teenager. As a new pediatric oncology fellow, I discussed my love for The Hunger Games with a 12 year old patient who had received a bone marrow transplant and was strikingly thoughtful and introspective. He recommended a handful of YA books that he thought I would like, including Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin. When my son was born several months later, I began reading constantly on my iPhone to keep myself awake while he nursed (every two hours, until he was a year old...). In a matter of weeks, I zipped through dozens of books and fell in love, in rapid succession, with Laini Taylor, Maggie Stiefvater (Scorpio Races, not Wolves of Mercy Falls, however), John Green, Daniel Handler, and Sarah J. Maas.**

Several of the authors had started trilogies and series, and so I started pre-ordering sequels in Kindle edition on Amazon. They usually automatically downloaded at 10 PM mountain standard time, which meant many a night's sleep was lost when I couldn't resist starting the first chapter... And naturally, when my fellow Oxford alumna (then student) Samantha Shannon was tagged as the author of the "next Harry Potter", I heard about it and decided to pre-order The Bone Season, the first in her seven-book series. On my first attempt, it didn't draw me in and so I quickly forgot about it, until my father passed away and I was searching for something to read. And there it was on my phone, just waiting for a second chance.

I should just say now, before we go any further - I am not a critic. I am a book lover, an avid reader, an occasionally gifted writer who aspires to be a novelist someday, a teacher, a perpetual student ... everything but a critic. I did not take a single English literature course in college (the closest I came was a fiction writing workshop and a Spanish lit survey). But I do read book reviews, mostly in the New York Times. I am vaguely aware that there are definitions for fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, etc. and controversies over genre. I am also aware that certain complaints pop up regularly in reviews of more mainstream and YA fantasy, which to me seem to center on whether the plot and/or world-building are truly original or seem pieced together from other sources. For me, the non-critic(al) reader who wishes to be a writer, this criticism often seems beside the point. Very few writers are writing in the absence of inspiration, and even fewer of those are going to be any good. No one can imagine a world from scratch, without some sort of influence from the world we know and those who have tried to imagine alternatives before us. Moreover, while I appreciate the fictional world that seems brilliantly novel, clearly, the novelty depends on what else I've read...if some of the elements appear to have been inspired by a book published 200 years ago that I've never read, or published four years ago and I started it but hated the narrator...well, it's not going to affect my experience of this book.

When I gave The Bone Season its second chance, after the first few chapters, I pitched headfirst into the alternate future Oxford (and I admit, I do love a book set in a cityscape familiar to me) that Shannon has created. It met all my requirements - I cared about the narrator/protagonist, Paige, her friends and colleagues in the clairvoyant crime syndicate, and her mentor/maybe-nemesis, Warden. It sets up a conflict that has epic, fate-of-the-world proportions, without reducing the players to good vs. evil. It has the "mystery wrapped up in a quest", in that Paige understands very little of what is happening in her world.

Of course, there were flaws. With many bestsellers in this category, I sometimes think the editors got so overexcited about the apparent blockbuster on their hands that they became careless with little details of characterization. A few scenes are awkwardly written. But those flaws never get in the way of the story and so - to bring us back to where we started - I was still very excited to read The Mime Order. I was also excited because this is a multipart (seven books, I think) series, rather than a trilogy, and that gives a young author (and editor) time to mature. While there are several trilogies I've loved, the middle book often is weak, and recently I've noticed several authors (ahem, Divergent) seem to have produced a trilogy for marketing reasons, without really having a story that naturally warranted three books.

****The Mime Order Sampler****
This probably won't make a lot of sense if you haven't read the first book. Just FYI.

The first several chapters are promising! The writing is tighter and more polisher. The progression of action is nicely paced. Then - cliffhanger! And I'm left in agony until January... January! Not even in time for the Christmas holiday. :-(

A few concerns that probably won't lessen my enjoyment of the full book, but I going to throw them out here now as a prayer to the gods of publishing:

(1) I hate stilted recaps of previous books. I logically understand that publishers want to be able to capture the reader who picks up the second or third book in a series accidentally and pull them in so they will go back and buy the earlier books. But it's uncomfortable to read those recaps when they are clumsily inserted into the latest sequel. With a little more effort, I think most plots allow for a more natural exposition. For instance, early in The Mime Order, Paige summarizes her experiences for her friends Nick and Eliza. Instead of writing realistic dialogue for how Paige might actually try to relay her incredible story, the text summarizes it. Disappointing!

(2) My second wish is for the continued mystery to be justified by the plot. I admit, it's terribly difficult to plot a good mystery so that the main characters logically discover the answers, piece by piece, but I hate when authors are intentionally vague just to create a sense of mystery, that wouldn't otherwise seem to arise from the plot. I rapidly flip through those books just to get the answer for myself. (For instance, J.K. Rowling justifies much of what Harry has to figure out for himself by having Dumbledore withhold information to protect him.) At the end of The Bone Season, there is a ton that Paige does not know about the real identity and goals of her captors, the Rephaim, and the terrifying, flesh-eating monsters, the Emim, although many intriguing clues have been dropped. However, she also has a Rephaite ally, Warden, who clearly chooses not to reveal everything to her. It seemed, to me, that Paige would be in less danger if she had more information, and that someone trying to protect her would want her to be well-informed. So I have my fingers crossed that the secrecy will be explained, even if it is as simple as the truth being so awful that Warden didn't believe Paige would work together with him if she knew it.

Finally, if anything I've written here has resonated with you, please tell me what else I should be reading! In the last few weeks, I finished Sarah J. Maas' third book, Heir of Fire (best one yet), Tana French's fifth mystery, The Secret Place (my favorites are still the first two, In the Woods and The Likeness)Sheri Fink's Five Days at Memorial, Kim Barker's The Taliban Shuffle and Kathryn Joyce's Quiverfull (it's been a nonfiction kind of summer...no wonder I'm happy to get back to fantastic worlds). Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire is next up on my Kindle app.


**A probably-not-comprehensive list of YA, YA-fantasy, and mainstream-fantasy authors whom I've read and may review at some point:

  • I like you a lot. (runners-up to my best-loved books, for various reasons) Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Leigh Bardugo, Diana Gabaldon, Michelle Hodkin, Neil Gaiman, M.R. Carey, George R.R. Martin
  • I want to love you, but there are issues. (it's complicated but writing quality is definitely an issue) Richelle Mead, Tahereh Mafi
  • You started out strong and then what the hell happened? (plots that jumped the shark, or just didn't live up to their potential) Veronica Roth, Deborah Harkness, Gayle Forman, Alma Katsu
  • It's not you, it's me. Really. (really. amazingly gifted authors whose work I just didn't have that chemistry with) Kendare Blake, Lucius Shepard, Ransom Riggs, Jay Asher
  • I'm just not that into you. (missing one and probably more of the four elements above) Rae Carson, A.G. Henley