Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana is about memory. Guy Gavriel Kay says so himself in his author’s note in the book. It’s about personal memory, institutional memory, cultural memory.

It’s about how memories can change, how they shape us, how they define us. It’s about how memories could mean something at one point in our lives, and then over the course of time, come to represent something else completely. The character of Dianora represents this last facet most eloquently.

Dianora, really, is the heart of Tigana, and we don’t even meet her until well into the book.

In short, Tigana is a story set in a land, the Peninsula of the Palm, that has been (mostly) conquered by two foreign sorcerers, splitting the peninsula into two competing factions, and a native son of the Palm wants to rise up and liberate his people.

I’m keeping the description intentionally vague, because to give away too much of the story is to undercut its effect.

The story begins slowly, and the history of the world comes at you hard and fast. It’s difficult to keep up with the names at first – I had trouble remembering which was the name of a person vs. the name of a place, but that all sorted itself out eventually. Stick with it, though. Because it’s worth it.

Because, holy shit, Guy Gavriel Kay can write.

Tigana is beautiful and heartbreaking and romantic and devastating, and no other character does more to exemplify all these qualities than Dianora, a lover of one of the foreign conquerors. By the time you meet her, the story should be well-established and entrenched in your head, and the weight of her character’s decisions, actions, and yes, memories will be what elevates this book from pretty good to sublime.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it made me consider my own memories, my own experiences, and made me think about how these may have changed over time. As a younger man, there have been moments, I am sure, where I thought to myself, “I am going to remember this, because it is perfect.” And, of course, I’ve forgotten these things, whatever they were, but I’ve remembered things I never expected to. Snippets of conversations. The faces of the people I’ve met and loved and fought with. The things I’ve said. The things I’ve not said.

And all of these cumulative memories aren’t static, aren’t like some old photographs that never change or fade with time. They’re still living and breathing, still moving with me, still shifting and changing. The thing I used to remember about a certain day are gone, to be replaced by something else from that same day. For example, when I flew abroad for the first time, it was my first flight by myself. I used to remember and dwell on the faces of my parents as I left them – my mother’s tears, my dad’s proud and melancholic expression. But now I mostly remember that first European sunrise I witnessed after a long, sleepless night when my flight neared its destination, that sense of hope and excitement and adventure that coursed through me.

Tigana’s take on memory, with certain characters, tends to be more institutional, more cultural – which is good! We as a society have a shared cultural memory, and those are all interesting themes that get explored in the book.

But when it comes to Dianora in particular, that’s when the story is at its most personal, its most intimate. Tigana stayed with me after I read it, and it’s largely because of Dianora, her memories, her actions, how her past informed her present and determined her future. I actually finished the book over a month ago, and I’m only now coming to terms with my thoughts and feelings on it.

Like I said – Guy Gavriel Kay can write.

Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising by Pierce Brown is one of the hottest novels to come out in the Young Adult space recently. The rights for a film have been made, and Brown himself is getting a ton of glowing press from the mainstream media.

Knowing this, I dove into Red Rising, the first book in the Red Rising trilogy, and at first, I was unimpressed. It follows all the tropes of a typical dystopian YA novel – a strictly hierarchical society (which, once you think about a little more deeply, doesn’t make any sense), a hero from the absolute bottom rung of said society, how the elite are keeping everyone else under their thumbs through cruel and capricious means, how the hero initially doesn’t want to fight the system but a family member gets killed, blah blah blah.

Basically the same stuff that drives The Hunger Games. Or Divergent. Or the Maze Runner. Or a billion other YA novels. This is the book that’s getting such wide acclaim?

Then a funny thing happened.

Then I started to care about Darrow. Then I started to get interested in the book. Then I started to enjoy it. A lot.

Not coincidentally, this shift in my thinking started right around when Brown dispensed with the usual YA dystopian cliches and focused instead on telling his own story, the story of Darrow, a Red who finds himself in the middle of Gold society, and realizing that things aren’t quite as simple as they seem.

The first 100 pages are uninspired, mostly worldbuilding and setup, but then Brown dug his claws into me, and soon I realized I couldn’t tear myself away. And that was when I realized why this series is so popular, and why it might become a movie very soon.

Unlike, say, The Fifth Season, Red Rising isn’t a literary book – it is exactly what it presents itself to be – a fun read that’s the equivalent to a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Make some popcorn, get comfortable, and enjoy the ride, because once it starts, you’ll be racing to the finish.

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, needs little introduction. Released to great acclaim, for good reason, it marks Jemisin’s authoritative ascendance into the company of elite sci-fi/fantasy writers of our day.

The story follows three women, all of whom are Orogenes, people who have the ability to call upon the powers of the earth. In this world, earthquakes are very common, and whole civilizations have been swallowed by previous quakes. Orogenes are capable of shaping, redirecting, or even causing earthquakes.

Orogenes are also viewed with distrust and suspicion by non-Orogenes.

One of the reasons why I loved this book so much, besides Jemisin’s beautiful writing and her deft plotting, is that it demonstrates one of the great strengths of genre books – its ability to critique and comment on contemporary society. Jemisin, a black writer, draws clear parallels between racial tensions (Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, et al) to the tensions between Orogenes and non-Orogenes. She also conveys what’s it’s like to live as people who have to constantly be on guard, have to watch not just their behavior and language, but also the way they think.

Take, for example, this passage between Syen, one of the main characters, and her mentor Alabaster – who in addition to teaching her the ways of being an Orogene, is forced to sleep with her so that they can make Orogene children for the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum is a school for Orogenes, and children are raised there to master control over their powers:

[Alabaster] rolls onto his back, looking up at the sky, and she thinks that’s the end of the conversation, until he says, “I think you hate me because…I’m someone you can hate. I’m here, I’m handy. But what you really hate is the world.”

At this Syen tosses her washcloth into the bowl of water she’s been using and glares at him. “The world doesn’t say inane things like that.”

“I’m not interested in mentoring a sycophant. I want you to be yourself with me. And when you are, you can barely speak a civil word to me, no matter how civil I am to you.”

Hearing it put that way, she feels a little guilty. “What do you mean, then, that I hate the world?”

“You hate the way we live. The way the world makes us live. Either the Fulcrum owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re ever discovered. Or we become monsters and try to kill everything. Even within the Fulcrum we always have to think about how they want us to act. We can never just…be.” He sighs, closing his eyes. “There should be a better way.”

“There isn’t.”

Being white, I don’t often think about how I’ll be perceived by others, but this is a very real thought process for a lot of black Americans – for many, there’s a constant, unending pressure on them to act a certain way, to say (or not say) certain things. Wanda Sykes makes this point much better and funnier than I ever could. And if you doubt this is true, just take a look at the YouTube comments for that video, always a font of wisdom. Here’s two that stood out for me:

Black people are naturally talented in music. Black slaves were demanded to perform in dinner parties to entertain the white people. It became their natural talent. It’s hard to find a black person who can’t sing or dance.

Or this:

“Ya know what dignified black people hate?   Tapdancin.”  –Wanda Sykes trying to be funny. There are very few dignified blacks.  Learn how to speak first.  And try not to spend the welfare money on booze and cigarettes.

Yeah. Moving on.

The reason I bring this up is because Orogenes have this natural, deep reservoir of power, power that’s controlled by others. The three main characters are all, at some point, have to answer to forces beyond themselves. When they finally do exercise their own powers, the earth itself literally trembles.

The Fifth Season has a lot going for it. You can read it on the surface level, and enjoy it for the story and the fantastic writing alone. It’s easy to read it that way. But like Orogenes, the book’s power runs deep. And that, more than any other reason, is why this is a memorable, worthy read, one that should place it among the firmament of science fiction and fantasy’s greatest novels.

On Dialogue: ‘Said’ Is Perfectly Fine. Leave It Alone.

Let’s talk about that Wall Street Journal article, shall we?

It went mildly viral a few weeks ago, and not for a good reason.

In a nutshell, the article is about a few teachers who are trying to get students to stop using “dead” words like “good,” “bad,” “fun,” and “said.”

From the article:

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

Dear god.

There’s a reason why we use “said” in writing. It’s an invisible word. Loading it with too many modifiers or replacing it with something else can often be distracting, and you run into the risk of Tom Swifties.

“We just struck oil!” Tom gushed

is probably my favorite example from that page.

The Harry Potter books, as much as I love them, are guilty of this. Harry doesn’t just simply “say” something. He shouts, mutters, screams. Ron even ejaculated once (oh my). Harry, Hermione, and Ron say things peevishly, loudly. Dumbledore speaks wisely. Snape slowly. And so on.

Look, most writers do modify their “saids” once in a while, but they do it for a specific reason. They want to leave no ambiguity about how their character is speaking.

But wait, you might be saying, why not do that all the time?

The truth is, if you’re writing dialogue well, you don’t need to.

“Stop right there!” (do you need to clarify that the speaker is shouting?)

“You’re really fucking pissing me off.” (do you need to clarify that the speaker is mad?)

When you’re going through your manuscript, watch out for these modifiers, and get rid of them. As many as you can. Keep only the ones that are absolutely, positively, necessary. Otherwise, you can just use “said” for 99% of the time and your work will be that much better for it.

Some authors think that using “said” almost exclusively will get repetitive, but that’s the beautiful thing – “said” is damn-near invisible. Look at this exchange from Doomsday Book by Connie Willis:

 “Badri collided with her on the way back to the net,” Dunworthy said.

“Are you absolutely certain?” Mary said.

He pointed at the woman’s friend, who had sat down now and was filling out forms. “I recognize the umbrella.”

“What time was that?” she said.

“I’m not positive. Half past one?”

“What type of contact was it? Did he touch her?”

“He ran straight into her,” he said, trying to recall the scene. “He collided with the umbrella, and then he told her he was sorry, and she yelled at him for a bit. He picked up the umbrella and handed it to her.”

“Did he cough or sneeze?”

“I can’t remember.”

The woman was being wheeled into Casualties. Mary stood up. “I want her put in Isolation,” she said, and started after them.

See? It was used 5 times in that short a span, and if you weren’t looking for it, you probably wouldn’t have noticed.

“But Bart, that scene had no passion. Nobody was expressing emotions. Where’s the shouting?” How about this:

“What’s the meaning of this?” Gilchrist said. “What are you doing here?”

“I”m going to bring Kivrin through,” Dunworthy said.

“On whose authority?” Gilchrist said. “This is Brasenose’s net, and you are guilty of unlawful entry.”

“You have no right to speak to me that way,” Gilchrist said. “And no right to be in this laboratory. I demand that you leave immediately.”

Dunworthy didn’t answer. He took a step toward the console.

“Call the proctor,” Gilchrist said to the porter. “I want them thrown out.”

See? If it’s good enough for a Hugo, Nebula-award winning author, it’s good enough for you. Because I said so.

Book Review: Zero World by Jason Hough

The common thread through this whole action-packed sci-fi novel, Zero World by Jason Hough is, in a word, mystery.

Peter Caswell is an assassin who works for a mysterious organization. But he’s no ordinary assassin, because his memory of the mission gets wiped every time, leaving him with no memory – or guilt – of those who he killed. Who did he kill, and why? He doesn’t know – and he doesn’t want to know.

The book begins when his employer assigns him to investigate a spaceship that mysteriously disappeared and has since re-appeared. Its entire crew – save one person – mysteriously turns up dead. And that one person? Missing, of course.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, suffice it to say that it’s a page turner because author Jason Hough is adept at leaving a trail of questions for the reader. As soon as something is revealed, another mystery pops up in its place.

The writing is excellent – it’s simple and straightforward. The characters are fleshed out, and the action scenes are thrilling without becoming sodden from too many details that so many authors love to inject in them. If you start reading this book, make sure you have a few hours to kill, because it’s awfully hard to put down.

Thematically, it explores self-identity. Peter doesn’t want to remember anything about his past life, and another character has to wear a mask in order to survive, and a third character projects to be someone she is not. In each case, they’re forced to confront their own sense of self and their preconceived notions on how things ought to be. Since who they want to be and who they actually are come into conflict, it helps drive the plot. Hough gives us just enough of this element to make his characters feel developed and three-dimensional, but not so much that it drags down the story.

Disclaimer: I won a free copy of this book via giveaway. If I didn’t like the book, or thought it was just all right, I wouldn’t be leaving this review. This book is legit, y’all.

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey

There are few things in life as enjoyable as a space opera that just focuses on telling a good story.

Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey one of those books.

The first in a series, it can be read as a standalone, but you really should read the others (I’ll be reviewing them in due time).

It tells the story of first contact, essentially. The book opens with a character encountering a strange and deadly alien life-form, and that chapter ends on an ominous note. From there, we meet our two central protagonists for the story, a detective straight out of noir and a captain straight out of seafaring and space-faring tropes along the likes of Firefly and Aubrey/Maturin.

They’re surrounded by a well-rounded and diverse (literally) cast of characters, each with unique and eclectic backgrounds. For the most part, they feel fleshed out and have their own agency, though a couple of secondary characters aren’t quite as memorable as others. Personally, I had a hard time distinguishing Alex and Amos, though not for James SA Corey’s lack of trying. One is a pilot and the other is a mechanic. One is from Mars with a Texan twang and the other is an engineer from Earth. And even as Corey continued to remind readers of this throughout the book, I still kept going, “Wait, which one’s which?” Though that probably speaks to my attention span more than anything else.

Easily the best thing about this book is the feel of the universe. It’s totally believable, with Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets (inhabited by Belters). The Belters have their own patois and sense of priorities. Corey’s world-building is exceptional – interesting and detailed enough but not so much that it distracts from the plot.

The plot is well-paced, and the style of writing feels cohesive (I felt this was worth noting since James SA Corey is actually two people, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).

If you’re looking for a space opera with intrigue, a well-paced plot, action and mystery, you really can’t do much better than Leviathan Wakes.

Help, My Scene Sucks and I Don’t Know Why

We’ve all been there. We have an idea of a scene we want to write, and we get to the business of putting thought to words. We slave away at it. Maybe it goes smoothly, and suddenly, your story is 2,000 words richer and it was one of those writing sprees that felt effortless.

Or maybe it was one of those days where every single letter that came out was absolute torture, and a measly 350 words later, you finally ground something out before raising your hands with frustration and walking away.

But the writing’s done. The scene’s done. We’re good to go, right?

And then we re-read it. And it’s crap. Utter, pure crap. How the hell did it get that way? What happened to the thing I had in my head? Why is it so miserable on page? The words are fine, there are some lovely sentences in there, but the scene, ugh. Blah. Other indistinct noises.

The worst thing? I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with it. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS SCENE?! There’s nothing obviously bad about it. It just doesn’t do anything for me.

Who here among us hasn’t had that experience?

The good news is that the way to diagnose what’s wrong with a scene is actually pretty simple. The hard part is doing something with it.

For any scene to work, you need 3 things:

  • A want
  • An obstacle
  • A resolution

Want, obstacle, resolution. If your scene sucks and you don’t know why, look for those things. This isn’t new or particularly original, I lifted this straight from Jerry Cleaver’s IMMEDIATE FICTION. I highly recommend this book (seriously, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and get it).

Essentially, your character has got to want something. If the scene doesn’t strongly convey what he/she wants, then you have to figure that out.

Secondly, whatever s/he wants, she can’t get it. At least, not easily. There has to be an obstacle in his/her way. The obstacle has to be as great as the desire for it.

Did Captain Ahab find Moby-Dick just off the shore of Massachusetts?

Did Romeo seduce Juliet and live happily ever after?

Did Dorothy call an Uber within minutes of landing in Oz and make her way back to Kansas right away?

No. Of course not.

The other thing you can do with the obstacle is allow your character to get what s/he wants, but use dramatic irony to twist it in a way that makes your character suffer. Remember, when you are a writer, you are a soulless, evil god who exists only to torment your characters until that final moment of satisfaction and resolution at the very end.

Simba from the Lion King just couldn’t wait to be king! So the evil geniuses at Disney made it so – they killed off dear old dad (spoilers, I guess) and suddenly the path to the throne was clear. Immediately, Simba realized he didn’t quite want to be king so quickly, did he? He got what he wanted…just not how he imagined it.

And then there has to be a resolution. Cliffhangers count as a resolution, but remember, a scene has to move the story forward. A resolution brings clarity to the want/obstacle dynamic, and propels the plot forward (unless, of course, we’re talking about the ultimate Resolution, or the end of the book, but that’s another topic for another day).

So there you have it. If your scene sucks and you don’t know why, check out the want, obstacle, and resolution. Chances are, the problem with your scene lies with one or more of these things. Make each element as clearly stated as possible, and then the scene will come together much better. You won’t be out of the woods yet, most likely, but you’ll at least be able to diagnose what’s wrong with your scene and work on fixing it.