Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1

jillwilliamsonnewsmallSpeculative fiction, and fantasy in particular, is known for its trilogies or tetralogies or series of five or of seven, or of an unending number. With few exceptions, of the various series I’ve read, I’ve thought book one is the best. This includes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which, despite the chronological way the books have been packaged, was the first book C. S. Lewis wrote in the Narnia series.

I’ve heard a number of writers suggest the first book is the best because the author took as long as it took to write that first book, but then when he or she was under contract, and under deadline for the rest of the series, the writing gets rushed. This explanation may be true, and it certainly seems logical.

The thing is, the end of a series seems to me to be vital for the success of the author’s next book. For example, how many readers who were so upset with the way author Veronica Roth ended her Divergent series will pick up her next book?

All that to say, I think Jill Williamson, author of this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, Rebels, book three of the Safe Lands series, has positioned herself very well for her next series. Of the three Safe Lands books, without a doubt, Rebels is my favorite. I really liked Captives and loved Outcasts which seemed so real, given the story premise.

There were believable quandaries: interpersonal problems, situational difficulties, cultural conflicts. But Outcasts was a middle book, deepening problems and increasing intrigue. While there was some resolution, in the end there were more problems left unsolved than ones brought to a conclusion. The question I had when I finished Outcasts was, could Rebels deliver answers in a satisfying way? I honestly thought there was too much. I didn’t see how Jill Williamson was going to pull it off.

But she did. In my opinion, Rebels is one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time. Yes, there are some threads left open, but that’s as it should be. I’ll discuss that point in more depth later in the tour. For this post, suffice it to say, I think Jill accomplished what only the best writers seem to do—her series got stronger with each book, and the final installment in the trilogy was the strongest of all.

Of course the beauty of the CSFF Blog Tour is that you don’t have to take my word for it. You can compare what I say about the book with what others participating in the tour are posting.

See what the following CSFF members thought about Rebels. (Reminder: a checkmark takes you to a tour article I’ve already found). Also, note that a number of participants, thanks to the generosity of the publisher Blink, have an extra copy of the novel they are giving away. You might want to get your name into the mix at one of these sites. (Special recommendation for Audrey Sauble‘s giveaway because you can earn extra points by linking to another CSFF tour post!)

Published in: on September 29, 2014 at 5:40 pm  Comments (3)  
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A Draw Of Kings Review Continued

The Staff & The Sword trilogy covers

I ended the first half of my review of A Draw Of Kings by Patrick Carr by saying I wished for more. There’s a difference in saying the story left me wanting more, and I wanted more from the story. I’m afraid my reaction was closer to the latter position.

In reality, I thought the plot was filled with conflict and intrigue. As I described it last time, it had three distinct facets–the civil war, the three quests, and the face-off battles against evil.

I could make a case for each of those being a book in their own right. In fact, if Peter Jackson were making this into a movie, I’m pretty sure it would actually be three movies.

The point is, the story was dense, and in my thinking, too dense. This coiled and twisted plot created a couple problems. First, parts needed to either be played out fully, requiring many more pages, or resolved quickly in order to move on to The Next Important Thing.

If each had been played out fully, the book would have run closer to 800 pages than to 400. But resolving the issues quickly meant that the problems didn’t require a true struggle. Rather, they were solved in short order, with little difficulty, though some loss or failure was accrued.

Quick resolution has a way of lowering stakes, I think. If something isn’t hard to accomplish, or if losing doesn’t cost dearly, there’s a reduction of tension.

The civil war, then, ended with a minimum of conflict and some loss, but because of the ease with which it concluded, I never had the feel that the loss would make much of a difference. After all, when the circumstances appeared insurmountable, they were actually quickly and quite easily dispensed with.

The same played out in each of the three quests. Something dire appeared, but the struggle to overcome didn’t entail a great re-thinking of goals or strategies. There was no struggle apart from an initial conflict that ended up becoming a success through this clever maneuver or that act of bravery or the other display of character or strength.

Each quest, then, even when resulting in failure or partial failure, left me thinking the ensuing Battle would boil down to the same type of one plan, one confrontation, one quick result.

Furthermore, these conflicts didn’t seem married to the inner struggles the characters faced. I would like to have seen Errol struggle with the presence of his cruel father-priest, for instance. Instead, he made a rather quick business of moving on when he’d struggled mightily in the previous book.

And perhaps that’s why he didn’t need to deal with the issue again. But then the question is, why insert Antil into the story again? Adora’s anger toward him felt artificial. He was not someone she knew, and in the face of the death of hundreds of civilians, it seems petty for her to try and exact revenge, not for herself, but for Errol.

All this to say, the wonderful epic story begun in A Cast of Stones deserved more, from my way of thinking. Errol is a character much to be admired. He has real doubts, deep hurts, and great skills–some with which he was born, and some he developed through long hours and hard, hard work. He could have become bitter, but doesn’t, though the choice not to follow that path seems easily arrived at.

The world itself has layers of authority, political intrigue, allies and enemies, betrayers and deceivers. I would like to have had more time with the interplay of these elements.

Finally, a story this big requires an equally big cast, and there were so many characters in A Draw of Kings, it became hard to keep them straight (which is why most epic fantasy has a list of characters to go along with a good map!) Of course, if there had been more story, then these minor characters would have earned more page time and therefore become more fully developed and therefore more memorable.

How can I sum up this book? I’d say it was an adequate ending to a great story. It answered the questions and entertained. It moved quickly, without snags or delays.

I suppose I’m being hard on the novel because I think it could have been great. I think Patrick Carr is an excellent writer who could make the end as great as the beginning, if given enough time to do so.

Honestly, to complete this third book and have it on the shelves in the short amount of time since the release of The Hero’s Lot is a remarkable fete but perhaps not the best decision. I don’t know who determines these things, but I’ve voiced my thoughts on the six-month novel before. I’d rather see more time given writers to get a story right than to get it done.

Would I recommend The Staff & The Sword to readers? Absolutely! It’s a worthwhile story, highly entertaining, with lots to think about on the way. Would I buy the next Patrick Carr novel? Absolutely! He’s a wonderful writer and just needs time to do his magic. I hope he gets all he needs from here on.

The Lady Or The Tiger?

TigerI was going to save this post for my editing blog this Saturday, but honestly this is what I’m thinking about, so this is what I’m writing.

Last week at Rewrite, Reword, Rework I wrote an article about story structure entitled “A Story’s Bare Bones.” I needed to do some tweaking to it and in the process came to this line:

Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must.

My mind immediately went to a short story I read when I was in school and which I later taught: “The Lady or the Tiger?” by Frank Stockton. It’s a story that does not resolve. The ending is wide open and the author actually turns the question back onto the readers: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”

When I read it as a kid, I hated the story for the very reason that it did not resolve. What was the point of reading it, I thought, if you don’t get to find out what happens.

But as a teacher, I sussed out the only possible ending. Sure, the author undoubtedly believed he was creating an unanswerable, unresolvable dilemma. But I don’t think so.

Here’s the story in a nutshell (it’s online in its entirety, so you can read the whole thing for yourself if you prefer).

A certain princess fell in love with a young man of “low station,” and “she loved him with an ardor that … [made] it exceedingly warm and strong.” After several months her father the king, a semi-barbaric ruler, discovered the affair and had the young man cast into prison.

This particular king had devised a system of justice that left the sentence of guilt or innocence to chance. He built an arena much like the Coliseum in Rome, but his had a quirk.

When all the people had assembled in the galleries, and the king, surrounded by his court, sat high up on his throne of royal state on one side of the arena, he gave a signal, a door beneath him opened, and the accused subject stepped out into the amphitheater. Directly opposite him, on the other side of the enclosed space, were two doors, exactly alike and side by side.

Behind one door was a tiger that would immediately pounce, kill, and devour the subject. If the accused opened this door he would be considered guilty of his crime.

ladyBehind the other door was a beautiful woman most suited to his age and station in life–no matter whether he was already married or enamored with someone else or not. Should he choose this door, he would be declared innocent.

The princess’s young man was doomed to the arena where he would either die or instantly be given in marriage to someone else.

She was a determined young woman, with “a soul as fervent and imperious” as her father’s. Hence, she went about learning behind which door stood the tiger and which, the lady.

Not only did she succeed, she also learned the identity of the young woman. “It was one of the fairest and loveliest of the damsels of the court . . . and the princess hated her.” She was actually jealous of her because she’d seen this lady talk with her young man and sneak a peek at him now and then. She’d even suspected he’d met her gaze.

So, the day of trial-by-chance arrived. The princess’s young man knew her well. He was certain she would not stop until she had learned the secret: behind which door stood the tiger and which, the lady?

When he entered the arena, he looked up at her and she, having weighed the consequences of her decision over many anguished days and nights, indicated the door on the right. Without hesitation, he marched up to the door.

And then, Mr. Stockton’s ending:

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?

Seems unsolvable, doesn’t it. But the answer actually lies in the story. She loved him. He trusted her.

Which would you point to if you were the princess and the person you loved were on the arena floor?

Published in: on July 17, 2013 at 6:34 pm  Comments (4)  
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Fantasy Friday – What’s Better Than Tolkien?

As the old year drew to a close, I abandoned a contemporary fantasy for the tried and true — a re-reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which you may recall from the post Fantasy Friday – Reading the Greats.

In explaining my decision, I said, in part,

I want a book of substance, that says something and makes me think larger. I want a story that touches my heart and makes me cry. Or laugh. I want a story I will want to re-read some day.

What book better qualifies than one of Tolkien’s? He is the master of fantasy, certainly. But why? Once we know Frodo makes it safely to Rivendell, once we know who the nine are who will make up the Fellowship, once we know the mountain won’t let them reach the pass, once we know who doesn’t make it out of the mines of Moria, why read it all again?

Today I read the last of writing instructor John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story which ends with the chapter “The Never-Ending Story” in which he addresses the factors that make a story live on. Such stories are the ones we re-read. Such stories are the ones that influence us long after we’ve put them back on the shelf.

Truby looks first at stories that do the opposite, then presents ways in which a writer can create the kind of story that doesn’t leave the “must read” lists. Most of what he says, however, is quite different from Tolkien’s work. Is Mr. Truby wrong, then, in his estimation? Actually, no, he stretches his theory to include books like The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

These are stories that are plot heavy and story-world heavy. The characters are important but less so than what they accomplish and how it affects the world. These are the types of stories that usually do not make the have-to-re-read list since the driving force is “what happens next?” Once the reader knows the outcome, the need to re-read evaporates.

But Tolkien’s work is different. He does two things which Truby identifies as elements creating an “infinite story tapestry.”

  • Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings [readings] move to the foreground.
  • Add elements of texture — in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world — that become much more interesting once the audience has seen [readers have read] the plot surprises and the hero’s character change. (p. 420)
  • I remember the first time I re-read The Fellowship of the Ring. I had all but forgotten the character Tom Bombadil and much of what happened to Frodo and friends in the Old Forest. But this time, reading again after much less time had elapsed, I knew what was coming and focused on different aspects. I even thought ahead to Fangorn and the Ents.

    I also have a better grasp of how The Hobbit fits into the history of Middle Earth. There are many, many more references to Bilbo’s story than I remembered. (And now I wonder if that’s because I re-read The Hobbit since re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring. 😉 )

    One reason writers should read great literature is to learn. To be honest, I hope it’s one of those “caught, not taught” things because when I read Tolkien, there’s just so much to enjoy that I forget to look at how he put it all together. Is there anyone better in fantasy?


    A couple interesting blog posts today have me thinking about endings. First Stuart Stockton over at Speculative Faith wrote “Can you find victory in defeat?” an article pondering whether or not a story needs to end with either complete triumph or complete failure. Might there not be some sort of mixed bag for our protagonist?

    The second post was by Jonathan Rogers (author of The Charlatan’s Boy, the upcoming CSFF Blog Tour feature) about sad books—favorite sad books, no less.

    As I am coming down the home stretch in my own writing, and work to pull things together in The Lore of Efrathah, I can’t help but take these thoughts into consideration.

    Do we remember, even treasure, happy-ending books more so than sad, or is the reverse true? Perhaps, as Stuart suggests, we prefer endings that are some combination of mission accomplished and mission doomed. After all, isn’t that closer to real life?

    But do we want our art to reflect our culture as is or our dreams of what we hope to become?

    Perhaps readers are all different. Or readers on some days want a certain ending and on other days a different kind all together.

    So I’m wondering. Is there a perfect ending? And if so, is it one that makes you cry, cringe, laugh, grimace, or hug the book to you and sigh.

    Does the perfect end make you want to race to the book store, the library, or an on-line store to find another story by the same author? Or does the perfect end make you want to savor the book, turn to the author bio or the acknowledgments, or even the back cover copy—anything just to keep you in the book for a few moments longer.

    Does the perfect ending make you want to hear from the main character again, or are you content to remember him/her as is? Does the perfect end haunt your dreams or suggest alternatives to your mind? Or is the perfect end perfect because it’s exactly how you would bring the story to its conclusion?

    Is an ending perfect because it surprises? Or because it fulfills expectations?

    Does the perfect end wrap up all the loose ends, or are a few danglers better?

    I have LOTS of questions, my friends. Tell me what you think about the ending of books. This inquiring mind wants to know. 😉

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