24 May, 2015

Time for another book review

I just can't let it go!

This is what I get for reading so much YA fantasy, I suppose, instead of legit grown-up literary stuff. Most of the time, it doesn't quite live up to my expectations, but then when it exceeds them, it's just extraordinary. It's always a pleasure to lose yourself in another world, and it's a kind of exquisite joy to marvel at the flexibility and grace of someone else's imagination. Like watching a rhythmic gymnast.

First, I read/re-read all of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. From the beginning. I skimmed over some of the more horrific cannibalistic parts and tried not to dwell on all the allusions to brutal gang rapes. This isn't the first time that a film or television adaptation helped me get into a book I didn't initially love - I had the same experience with The Lord of the Rings. When I first read A Game of Thrones in 2011, I was pregnant (though that's probably not a good excuse, I've never been squeamish) and all the bodily mutilation going on made it a bit hard to appreciate the characters. Watching the HBO version - even though this season has been a bit disappointing  - helped.

Then, for a change of pace, I read Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorn and Roses, which I had preordered, based on my love for her Throne of Glass series and my fondness for the story of Tam Lin. Let's talk about Throne of Glass for a minute: Maas has a fairly cool story. She started writing this series as Queen of Glass on FictionPress when she was a teenager and finally got it published many years (and many revisions) later. It's supposed to be a riff on Cinderella, but only in the sense that Cinderella is the fairy tale that set the author's imagination wandering. The first book, Throne of Glass, grew on me. As a YA fantasy writer, Maas is not Laini Taylor or Maggie Stiefvater. Her sentences don't echo in my head, over and over, like a favorite song. But there is a delight to her characters and their relationships to each other, a sense of humor, sarcasm, witty, good-natured ribbing that washes over the reader like a cup of hot chocolate. Her characters (like Stiefvater's) feel like old friends. Her main character is a girl, an assassin, a voracious reader, who loves music, candy, and beautiful gowns, and manages to be both selfless and self-centered, able to revel to luxury and capable of surviving anything. It doesn't always quite add up - if you pause for too long - but stay immersed in Maas' world and it works.

Also, they wear really awesome clothes. Maas uses Pinterest to good effect - the women, especially, are breathtakingly dressed and she does a fabulous job describing the fashion. On the downside, she does clearly have particular turns of phrase and descriptors she loves to use, and a LOT of people wear clothes that are "simple but obviously of very fine make." It's repetitious, yes, but mostly it just makes me jealous - why can't I find basic, high-quality clothes like white linen shirts that fit me flawlessly and "supple leather" boots than mold to my feet? (Cuyana, please make a few more things. And make the fit a little less unisex. Please.)

For the most part, the plot of Throne of Glass (so far - there are three books out in a six- or seven-book series) works and the twists and turns are intriguing and satisfying. The back story is impressively well-developed. (It's so well-developed, in fact, that I hesitate to return to writing my own novel out of fear that I don't have the imagination to pull it off. Like J.K. Rowling, even the smallest details and introduction of apparently minor characters has major relevance for the plot.) There is a major plot hole in the second book - something that really never makes sense - but it's possible to overlook it and jump back into the flow of the story. Do you ever do that? Simply choose to pretend that your favorite author didn't actually mean what they wrote? As long the rest of the story makes sense without the problematic element, I do - all the time. Often, the problematic element is an illogical explanation for a supporting character's actions and I can imagine into place a more logical one. I reserve my greatest agonizing for books that are beautifully set up, with elegant words and fascinating characters, but where the illogical element ruins all the downstream events and the book collapses like a house of cards.

Where are the editors, I wonder? I should be editing these books.

A Court of Thorns and Roses doesn't quite collapse but it's on shaky ground. The main character never has the depth of the protagonist from Throne of Glass. She's less outlandish and yet less fully realized too - she seems like a mashup of Cinderella and Katniss from The Hunger Games. Both she and the male protagonist are so reserved and laconic that it's rather hard to get to know them, as the reader. That's okay - she still does a better job than most. I think magic is hard to work with, in a story - authors really have to know what the rules are, or readers will question why anything happens the way it does. The rules are perhaps not quite as well-defined in Court of Thorns and Roses as I'd like, but the real problem in the logic comes only in the last quarter of the book. (That's probably why I enjoyed it as much as I did.) Essentially, the last quarter introduces an intriguing antagonist of questionable loyalties but his loyalties aren't quite questionable enough - it's a mystery why the main antagonist lets him get away with playing for both sides as much as he does. Alas, when I'm faced with that kind of mystery, I usually conclude that the author knew where she wanted her story to go and didn't spend enough time thinking through how to get from point A to point B. And then I blame the editor for not being objective enough to see the problem. Because, at least in this case, it could have been written in a way that was more believable, less dependent on luck. And I would have liked it a lot more.

The second problem is harder to describe without spoilers and, indeed, a long explanation of the plot. Essentially, it has to do with why one of the main characters is himself an obstacle to his own romance (which drives much of the plot). The reason makes sense, after the reader has spent some time thinking about it and turning it over and over in her mind. The problem is that the bits and pieces provided by the first-person limited narrator are barely sufficient to realize why he acts as does - and not sufficient to make it wholly believable. Does that make sense? Without nuance, if I were to summarize the plot for someone, this aspect of the plot, of character development and motivation, would make sense and seem quite powerful; but the book needed more richness and detail in this regard to make it "real on paper."

Of course, NONE of this means that I'm not going to pre-order the next book in the trilogy (and mark the date on my calendar) as soon as it's available.

In the meantime, I think I'm going to order Eleanor Catton's first book, The Rehearsal. After all, The Luminaries might be the last truly literary book that I happily devoured. All the Birds, Singing made my skin crawl and kept me awake half the night, but I was still a bit lost at the end. Some books are good, but clearly written for English majors to dissect in seminars, and not for this poor, tired mother-doctor-daughter-writer, reading under the covers in the early hours of the morning.

Finally, a quick note: if you've followed the links for book titles above and in previous book review posts, you may have noticed a change. I've switched from linking to Amazon.com to linking to IndieBound, which lets you search for the book at locally owned bookstores near your zip code. Unfortunately, I currently live in a town with no locally own bookstores, and I still do a lot of reading on my Kindle app for convenience. But I love and miss Tattered Cover, and when I lived nearby (and spent half of most weekends wandering around the aisles and sipping spicy Bhakti chai), I bought all my books there.