Rose Daughter

I just finished Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. I have to say, I’m not as wild about it as I was about Deerskin, her retelling of the Donkeyskin fairy tale. I really liked Deerskin (reviewed here,) but I did not enjoy Rose Daughter. I wanted to, but it was just so slow.

She lays the fairytale style on pretty thick. There is a lot of telling rather than showing, especially in the beginning. That, along with the old-fashioned language, multitude of dream sequences, unnecessary descriptions of random objects, and messy or missing dialogue, mean the story really isn’t nearly as gripping as it could be. Beauty isn’t the most inspiring heroine, either. She’s supposed to be the sensible one in her family, but doesn’t come across as being sensible as much as being a bit bland. Her stronger and more appealing trait is that she’s kind, to the point of having very little sense of self preservation. That last bit is kind of necessitated by the story, but I still feel like it negates her sensibleness somewhat.

The story is set in a generic fantasy land, complete with griffins, fire salamanders, and unicorns, but the fantasy creatures aren’t really any more relevant than real critters or human characters would’ve been, and I found it weirdly distracting to suddenly have to stop and wonder how one trains a hydra to answer the front door. One, more unique, touch is that roses are incredibly rare in this world, because they require either magic or love to bloom. Despite this, there are more roses in this story than I think I’ve ever actually seen in my life.

We don’t even meet the beast in this rendition of Beauty and the Beast until about halfway through. I like the elements that felt like they had been inspired by older stories, rather than Disney. The magical servants aren’t personified household objects, for example. Beauty’s sisters, Lionheart and Jeweltongue (yep, those are their names,) have their own plot lines, both of which are honestly a bit more relatable and compelling than Beauty’s. I would absolutely read a whole book written about Lionheart. She was fun. I did like the relationships between the sisters and their father, but they didn’t change much. I would’ve enjoyed more focus on them all growing together through their hardships, since so much time was already spent on setting the story up.

She managed to create a beast who doesn’t give me heavy domestic abuser vibes, so that’s cool. Beauty is still weirdly chill about him having essentially kidnapped her, though. Her shifting opinion of him makes about as much sense as all the other conclusions she draws about the mysteries around her, in that it all has very little to do with the evidence we’re actually shown. That was what bothered me the most, by the end. She jumped to conclusions sometimes, and other times actively avoided answers that seemed obvious. When it was convenient, she would just forget things. It was also rarely clear what the stakes were, in this world that was so densely populated with magic and magical creatures. None of the rules for how the magic worked were remotely consistent, nor were they ever explained. I couldn’t even tell if the characters themselves had any better sense of how magic normally worked. Half the time, Beauty would come out of some trance or dream sequence and staunchly deny that it had been real. Of course, right after denying that her visions could be real, she calmly accepted being dressed by magical invisible servants, strolled through a constantly changing palace, and had dinner with a dude who had been turned into a giant monster. Her constant confusion and disbelief were pretty annoying, given that she had zero reason to doubt anything she saw or heard in this world where magic apparently has no limits.

I am, possibly, being overly nit-picky about believability in a story where the magic itself was clearly not the point, but if the point was the romance, then that also missed the mark. I was on board for a nice romantic story, but she had better chemistry with her sisters and the roses she tended than she did with the Beast. It was sweet, but not worth all the empty dialogue, deliberate misunderstandings, and odd side-plots that did nothing to advance or explain the main story.

I often recommend the audiobook versions of the stories I read, but in this case I think it just slowed everything down and made the dialogue more frustrating. I’d pick it up in print or as an ebook, unless you’re looking for something to help you sleep. That’s not snark, just a suggestion. This might be a great book for listening to at bedtime. It’s not violent, particularly action-filled, or creepy, and it has a fairly soothing rhythm. That’s rare enough to warrant mention.

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The rose theme was intense. If you really really like roses, this book may be for you.

Writing days this past week: 3

The Savior’s Champion

I really enjoyed Jenna Moreci’s The Savior’s Champion. It sets a very satisfying pace, has lots of action interspersed with some real sweetness, and it kept surprising me all the way through (in good ways.)

First off, if you have an issue with words like “fuck” and “cock,” don’t even bother with this book, because you won’t have fun. Or, do give it a read, and maybe it’ll help desensitize you.* That said, if you find (contextually appropriate) dick humor entertaining, this is the book for you.

Tobias, our main dude, gets drawn into a massive tournament to win the heart and hand of his country’s ruler, the Savior. She’s the magically ordained leader of Thessen, but hasn’t been seen by anyone outside the palace for most of her life. Tobias is a former artist’s apprentice who has been forced to become a laborer in order to support his mother and sister. He doesn’t have any personal interest in the Savior, or in the power of being her consort, but enters the competition for his own reasons. The tournament consists of a series of inescapable challenges, many of which are life-threatening and violent. He struggles to survive and protect the people that he loves, but also to hang on to his sense of who he is.

The narrative style was sarcastic and fun, and a nice break from the overly stilted language you sometimes find in fantasy. Her world-building was creative and also really broke out of the typical fantasy mold. Overall, the story just frequently didn’t go the way I expected, and that includes the romance, which turned out to be my favorite part.

Tobias goes through some very understandable emotional struggles because of the disturbing situation he’s been forced into, and that was very skillfully and responsibly portrayed. Jenna did the same with consent and communication in the romantic situations, which was awesome. I really liked the diverse cast, too. There are several non-straight characters, and the women in particular have a good range of appearances and personalities. One has a physical disability and another is developmentally delayed, and neither felt like a stereotype to me, although I’m not disabled, so please take that with a grain of salt.

I’m really excited to read the next book in this series.

CW: There is some discussion and portrayal of sexual assault throughout the story, but it is strictly shown in a negative light, not tolerated or perpetrated by people we’re supposed to like. The storytelling is also fairly gory and visceral, so if violence is a trigger for you, you might want to approach with caution – though again, the violence is not glorified. Some ableist language, always used by the uncool people.

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* Regarding all the damn swearing: The thing is, limiting one’s vocabulary to avoid curse words doesn’t mean a person is better, cleverer, or even nicer. You can swear up a storm while uplifting others, and you can easily tear them down without ever stepping outside the bounds of “polite” language. In fact, one constant refrain I hear to protest swearing: “It’s just low class!” Is… You know, classist. That’s not a good thing; it’s actually an insidious form of prejudice. It’d be wise to examine your personal shit around language, whether you pick this book up or not.

Writing days this past week: 2

The Heart of What was Lost + The Witchwood Crown

I finally got into both of Tad Williams’s new books in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn world, Osten Ard. For those who aren’t familiar, this is an excellent fantasy series, and very worth checking out. The original trio came out in the early 90s, and I love them.

Interestingly, they also are credited with inspiring George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Having read both, the common elements can be pretty striking, even though the stories are completely different, as is the tone. If you’ve only read Martin’s series, and aren’t a big fan of the gore and sexual violence, you should definitely check out Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Tad doesn’t go in for that gratuitously gritty feeling, and I really appreciate that about his work. His stories and characters don’t feel unrealistic – much the opposite, in fact. They’re believably flawed and interesting, and his non-human characters in particular are uncommonly rich and personable. His focus in general is just a hell of a lot more uplifting than seems to be popular in epic fantasy these days.

It took me a little while to get around to these new books, but I finally did.  I just finished The Witchwood Crown, and I’m so ready for the next book.

The first and shorter of the two that are currently out is The Heart of What was Lost. It’s set right after the climax of To Green Angel Tower, and introduces some new characters that become relevant in The Witchwood Crown, while laying some more world-building groundwork. It delves much further into the Norn culture than before, which is really cool, and even gives us some POV Norn characters for the first time. (Norns are the eternally pissed-off northern cousins of the Sithi, a race of elf-like people that share Osten Ard with humans, trolls, giants, dragons, and the changeling creatures called Tinukeda’ya.)

The Witchwood Crown is set many years after all the previous events, when the main protagonists, Simon and Miriamele, are much older. It focuses on a mix of other familiar characters, and new ones, including their grandchildren and Binabik the troll’s daughter. Overall, it feels very much like the original books, although Simon has been replaced as resident mooncalf by his grandson, Morgan.

My one complaint would be that The Witchwood Crown has a pretty slow build, and that’s really less of a complaint and more of an observation. I really like how full Tad’s stories tend to feel, even if it does make the main plot move a little bit slowly. There are a lot of different characters and stories to follow, and I found it a really relaxing read, although there were some pretty tense bits, and I was surprised by how genuinely nervous I felt when my favorite characters were at risk. He really knows how to build up that tension and toy with the reader’s expectations, and I never feel quite certain that I know who’ll make it through to the end of his books.

Depending on your preference, of course, I’d highly recommend checking out the audiobook versions of these books. I quite enjoyed the voice acting, especially for the trolls. It gets a little silly, but it’s fun.

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(Writing days this past week: 2)

“The Girl Who Dared to Think”

I finished The Girl Who Dared to Think by Bella Forrest in one night. I didn’t plan to, but after a bit of a slow start it reeled me in. I was a little disappointed when I finished it and, unsurprisingly, it ended with a cliffhanger that leads into the second book in the series. That’s fine, and I’ll pick up the next one. I just really wanted a resolution when I hit that point sometime around dawn. 

Our protagonist, Squire Liana Castell, lives in a massive, glass-enclosed bunker called the Tower. Everyone in the Tower has a number on their wristband and a monitoring device in their head that checks for dissident thought-patterns and feelings. The number is a rating of their supposed loyalty to the Tower, with the highest score being a perfect ten. Her initial problems stem from the fact that she can’t keep her number high enough and she can’t seem to stop asking the wrong kinds of questions.

I was a little lukewarm about Liana at first, and very lukewarm about the apparent budding insta-romance between her and mysterious hot guy, but the setting and warped social structure were interesting enough to keep me going. I got to like Liana more as the story went on. She’s engagingly competent and not prone to convenient stumbles in the middle of the action so dudes can rescue her. Most of her decisions and reactions seemed internally consistent and logical from her point of view, which avoids a major pet peeve of mine.

The romance wasn’t as abrupt as it first appeared; the author seemed to rein it in after the first thrilling glances. I like that Liana has fairly balanced relationships with her friends, and that they don’t suddenly drop off her radar when a guy catches her eye. The story is refreshingly free of love triangles, as well.

The cast is pretty well gender balanced, although it would seem that LGBT people either don’t exist in the Tower or they’ve been forced into hiding/conformity, which I grant would fit with the general dystopian vibe. The cast also seemed pretty white to me. Again, that and other omissions could probably be attributed to the fact that they basically live in an unescapable totalitarian fishbowl, but it isn’t mentioned. I kinda hope that’s addressed in the next book, as Liana learns more about her world. The main diversity comes from the different social classes and communities, all of which are focused on a particular type of service to the maintenance of the Tower. The different vocations have their own micro-cultures, languages, and beliefs.

It was a pretty fast-paced read. I had some trouble picturing the architecture inside the Tower and the technology Liana uses to get around, but that could just be me. She seemed to put a reasonable amount of time into painting the picture, but it didn’t come together in my head, so I sometimes had to slow down to figure out exactly what was going on. (Also, this is just an editing nitpick, but there’s a chapter where she uses the word “statuesque” like four times in a row to describe the same woman and then once for her daughter. That is too many times unless they were literally made of marble and wearing drapey gowns.)

One interesting thing I learned after finishing this book is that it’s supposed to be set in the same world as The Gender Game, also by Bella Forrest. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that one from the description and title, but now I may give it a try when I’m done with these. Maybe.

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Moody tower window photo.

“Deerskin”

I just finished reading Deerskin by Robin McKinley. It was intense and beautiful. I didn’t want to put it down, mostly because I didn’t want to leave Lissar where she was. I felt like I needed to see her through to the end. She’s an excellent character, and I found that I cared very much about her very quickly.

The writing feels kind of fairytale in style. It tends toward some truly impressive run-on sentences, but the language also had an interesting flow to it that I really liked once I got into it. Even though it’s a bit wordy, the descriptions of her surroundings, sensations, and internal experience are extremely vivid and gripping.

Princess Lissar is accompanied throughout her journey by her loyal fleethound, Ash. I loved how relatable her relationship with Ash felt. The canines in this fantasy world might be almost supernaturally beautiful and graceful and clever, but they’re also just dogs, with all the weird little behaviors and quirks that people love them for. The story centers a great deal on her bond with Ash and the way they care for and rescue each other.

The rest of this post warrants a trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, so please be warned.

Deerskin deals with sexual trauma and Lissar’s struggle to survive and recover. I didn’t find that it in any way sensualized the abuse, which can be a big problem in some fiction. It does, however, go very deep into her senses, her emotions, and the resulting flashbacks and disassociation. I haven’t experienced PTSD, but it was in line with what I’ve been told it can be like. I was impressed by that, since I haven’t seen many realistic depictions of trauma in fantasy, but it might also be very painful for some people to read.

The story is based on Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault. I actually think that as a kid I had an illustrated book of the fairytale version, which is slightly terrifying to me in retrospect. Most fairytales were originally much darker than their modern kid-friendly versions, but this one is probably not as familiar to a general audience. Not so shocking that a story about a father trying to marry his own daughter didn’t catch on quite as easily as some of the others, where at least the creepiest parts were easier to pare off while leaving the stories intact. The original telling, of course, doesn’t focus on the terrible reality of incest so much as on the virtuousness of the princess in being willing to suffer ugliness and hard labor to escape her father’s immorality.

This story, on the other hand, is about Princess Lissar and no one else. It’s about her experiences, her rediscovery of herself, and her anchoring connection with the faithful dog who sticks by her through it all.

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Dead roses feel quite appropriate for such a disturbing fairytale.

“5,000 Words Per Hour”

I have not kept up with my goal of reading and reviewing one book on writing per month, but I’m catching up now. Last month I actually got through a couple of writing books. I read 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox and The Life-long Writing Habit, also by Chris Fox. I think that, of the two, I definitely got more out of the former, although I enjoyed them both.

5,000 Words Per Hour is a super handy book. I was a bit surprised. The title makes it sound kind of gimmicky, but I’ve been watching Chris’s videos on Youtube and it’s clear to me that his method works really well for him. (Astoundingly well, even.) He literally writes entire novels in a month or two each, back to back. Of course, that alone doesn’t mean his method will work for anyone else. Some people have the right combination of skills, practice, and good habits to be super productive, but that doesn’t always mean they know how to help others achieve similar results. Plus, a whole book that just says “Do this thing every day like it’s the only thing in the world that matters” isn’t likely to be very popular, or helpful for most people.

The nice thing about this book is that it is very simple and direct. He asserts that if you actually do the exercises he lays out, you should see dramatic and measurable improvement. He also says they’re simple, and he isn’t lying. The whole thing is easy to follow, makes a lot of sense, and most of it doesn’t take much time to try out. He jumps quickly into actionable suggestions, why he thinks they work well, and provides examples from his own experience.

Daily writing sprints are central to his approach. Writing sprints are exactly what they sound like: Short bursts of concentrated writing. The main thing, and the part that I personally struggle with, is not going back to edit during the sprint. I hate this, but it’s definitely sound advice if your goal is to improve your writing speed, so I’m working on it. Getting words onto the page, even if they’re a mess, is vital. Editing can always happen later, but you can’t edit what you haven’t written.

Another important component is tracking WPH, or words per hour, so you can see your improvement over time. Tracking numbers doesn’t exactly get me excited, but I’m taking this on because I know that a lot of the time when I get discouraged it’s because I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere.

Because longer writing sprints require practice and stamina, he suggests starting with five minute sprints (easy and manageable, right?) and then multiplying your word count by 12 to get a WPH number you can track as you go along.

My favorite take-away from this book is the idea of making a tortoise enclosure for yourself. I liked this concept so much that I made a goofy drawing to go with it, because it is both sensible and charming. Apparently, he got the idea from a video of John Cleese talking about creativity. The tortoise enclosure is a safe space for your imagination that makes it easier to get right into flow state and stay there the whole time you’re working. The boundaries for your enclosure are (loosely): Time, Space, and Privacy. He also suggests making a list of all the potential distractions that you frequently encounter and then making plans to eliminate or temporarily block each one before starting.

This last is probably very sound advice, because according to some science stuff that I read a while ago and can’t find now, each distraction sets you back significantly in terms of focus, no matter how briefly it holds your attention.

I’d recommend 5,000 Words Per Hour to pretty much anyone who wants to write more and write faster. It’s a quick read, so not a huge time investment. I listened to it on Audible, but it’s available in ebook and physical form as well. There’s a content warning after the picture, just in case anyone needs it.

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It’s Inktober, and tortoises are funny, so here you go.

CW: The author references his own weight loss and dieting behavior multiple times, and there’s some mildly food-shamey content that could bother some people.

I believe there was also a brief mention of depression and thoughts of self harm in his past.

“Norse Mythology” 

I confess that I haven’t yet finished reading my book on writing for March, but I have been listening to the audiobook of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. It’s very relaxing. He’s a great narrator, and the book has a wonderful rhythm to it. Each story is his retelling of an old Norse myth. He did a huge amount of research for American Gods and apparently he just has a general passion for norse mythology.

I love the way he characterizes all the gods. It’s cute and engaging, but I believe that it’s also very true to the original stories, or at least as much as it can be when sources sometimes conflict, or parts of the stories are missing. I was sad to learn that many of the stories about the goddesses had not been preserved or handed down at all. They’re simply lost to time and the spread of christianity.

It’s pretty different from the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read. He hasn’t taken many liberties other than relating these myths in his own particular voice. He’s just being a storyteller in the long tradition of storytellers who collect and pass on beautiful pieces of literary history.