I know that it’s generally a bad idea to judge a book by its cover but when the cover for The Never Tilting World was dropped in Shealea’s blog, I knew right then and there that I had to get my hands on it the moment it was published. Lucky for me, I’ve had the incredible honor of partaking in a major perk of being an active book nerd in this little community: blog tours! That’s right, somehow I was able to get my hands on an eARC of The Never Tilting World and fangirl about it months earlier than I expected.
Here’s an abridged version of my experience reading The Never Tilting World: breath: stolen jaw: on the floor heart: full hotel: trivago (I couldn’t resist)
A well written book isn’t the same as a well told story. That’s the first important lesson I learned as a writer: the distinction between writing and storytelling.
Now that I’m both a reader and a writer taking a shot at fiction, I value story and structure more than writing style because the former is a tad more difficult to master than the latter. I don’t judge books on the simplicity of writing but instead focus more on how well it draws me in and how good its story is.
When I read Magonia, I realized that while a great writing style may not redeem a bad story *cough Daughter of Smoke and Bone cough*, bad writing can doom a potentially good story on the very first chapter.
Fiction is a powerful escape from the humdrum of reality. Naturally, readers are expected to suspend their disbelief if they wish to maximize the reading experience. When readers enter a story, they have an unspoken agreement with the book: I’ll accept the book’s version of reality as long as the book itself provides a reality that’s believable and consistent enough to get behind. Simple.
But there’s a catch. Even though it is fiction, stories should do the heavy lifting when it comes to suspending disbelief. Readers can’t and shouldn’t be expected to suspend all of their disbelief because then they’d just be a passive observer of the story’s events, barely critical of the characters, hardly conscious of what the story is trying to tell.
Fictional stories may not be real but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any realistic elements in them. The best stories are grounded in a conceivable perception of reality which is why readers can easily get lost in those worlds – at some level, the fictional world feels solid enough that readers don’t need to stretch to imagine themselves in that reality. You can accept that a secret world of witches and wizards coexist with ours and that only a little orphan boy can save that magical world from crumbling. You can buy a young Texan girl trapped inside her house is blown away into a weird and colorful world with talking lions and heartless tin men. You can even believe that a small island kingdom can have triplet queens born every generation and that they must fight to the death for the crown on their 16th birthday. All of those fantastical concepts are fine on their own and don’t really need to provide an in depth lore to explain each and every how and why.
However, when a book only spews concepts and ideas without the least bit effort in the building of a logical reality… well, readers can suspend their disbelief only for so long.
Nine years ago, I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the first book of the genre-defining trilogy. It was one of the first YA dystopia books that I’ve read and arguably one of the best. Well, I’m remembering the book with nostalgia glasses on so, naturally, I only recall the good. But I digress.
Although it’s been a decade since I read that book, I still distinctly remember its incredible finale. I remember how my heart stopped when, after defeating the last Tribute with the promise of both Katniss and Peeta winning together, the Gamemakers amend their their previous rule change just to squeeze in one last dramatic twist to the Hunger Games. I remember the gut-wrenching visual of Katniss and Peeta looking at each other, realization dawning on them of what the Gamemakers were telling them to do. And I remember that absolutely victorious moment when the two characters force the Gamemakers to take back their amendment by choosing to commit suicide together than kill the other. Say what you will about the trilogy but that right there was some straight up tremendous writing.
That ending worked so well because the conflict between Katniss and the Gamemakers (and, in a way, the totalitarian government of Panem) was steadily brewing all throughout the story. Katniss’s provocations against the Gamemakers grew bolder and bolder, culminating into the ultimate act of defiance. Certain scenes even foreshadowed the ending. The Hunger Games was skillfully crafted to have achieved such a powerful conclusion.
I will always remember that ending no matter how many books I read in my lifetime because there’s just something so poignant about a young girl whose entire life was governed by a power she could never hope to fight back yet actually triumphing in the end.
Ruthless Magic, in comparison…. well, let’s just say that even though I reread it just recently, the ending is already swimming out of focus and I have to consult my timeline notes to jog my memory.
In the first part of this Book Talk, I went on a lengthy diatribe about how Ruthless Magic‘s story and structure did its theme absolutely no service though it had every opportunity to do so. Narrative decisions and worldbuilding concepts did little to assert the book’s moral argument – the story basically just meandered in a contrived direction, clumsily handing the reader hints of what it was trying to say at some point in the journey, until eventually it reached an unsatisfying end.
The first part discussed the book’s inefficiency at themes on a general level. Now it’s time we talk about the book more in depth. As I mentioned in the first instalment, there are different ways of applying the theme in the story, mainly by relating it to the story elements. One particularly effective way to do this is by designing characters as variations on the theme.
Ruthless Magic’s theme is harmony so it shouldn’t have been too difficult to write characters who had varying and contradicting approaches to that idea… right?
Although I’ve been a self-proclaimed book reviewer for nearly a decade now, if there was ever a story element that I shied away from as much as possible, it’s themes. And with good reason. Themes are intangible and vague, requiring in-depth analysis to figure out, especially on a long-form story like a novel. For me, if a book is good, it’s good; I’ll leave the theme analysis to people more capable than me. The more concrete story elements like character and plot are more of my jam.
Of course, now that I know better, I realize you can’t actually treat individual story elements without touching upon the theme at all. In fact, story elements don’t exist separately from one another. They’re all interconnected, they’re all related and defined by all the others. The theme just so happens to be the one element that’s more pervasive and subtle than the rest. It weaves the whole story together, makes the sequence of scenes, dialogue, and conflict have some higher meaning.
I didn’t quite understand just how important the theme was until I read a Megan Crewe’s Ruthless Magic, a book that failed at communicating its theme at the most basic level despite having all the necessary tools at its disposal.
Summary: Each year, the North American Confederation of Mages assesses every sixteen-year-old novice. Some will be chosen. The rest must undergo a procedure to destroy their magical ability unless they prove themselves in the mysterious and brutal Mages’ Exam.
Disadvantaged by her parents’ low standing, Rocío Lopez has dedicated herself to expanding her considerable talent to earn a place in the Confederation. Their rejection leaves her reeling—and determined to fight to keep her magic. Long ashamed of his mediocre abilities, Finn Lockwood knows the Confederation accepted him only because of his prominent family. Declaring for the Exam instead means a chance to confirm his true worth. Thrown into the testing with little preparation, Rocío and Finn find themselves becoming unlikely allies—and possibly more. But the Exam holds secrets more horrifying than either could have imagined. What are the examiners really testing them for? And as the trials become increasingly vicious, how much are they willing to sacrifice to win? [blurb taken from GoodReads]
Everyone loves anti-heroes. Complex, flawed, and tormented characters just trying to do right by their family or their friends make for an excellent read. And if these morally grey characters have to lie to their loved ones, break a few laws and a few bones, and kill a meddling detective every now and then, all the better. They’re just out there, living their lives, you can’t really blame them.
Beatrice Lacey from Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre, on the other hand, is not an anti-hero. She’s a villain, straight up. She might have all the traits of an anti-hero and I certainly rooted for her, despite her faults, at the beginning of the book. But as the story progressed, it became abundantly clear that Beatrice – beautiful, ambitious, ruthless Beatrice Lacey of Wideacre – wasn’t an anti-hero. Not after the trail of corpses she left behind.
Although I was repulsed, shocked, and disturbed by Beatrice’s character, I couldn’t help but admire her power and effectiveness as a villain. Gregory knew how to build a spellbinding and sinister character. Readers might not like her but, just as you can’t look away from a car crash, morbid curiosity compels you to keep reading about her.
Over the years, I’ve honed what I now call my three-chapter sniff test. Basically, if I can’t find anything or anyone to care about by chapter three, there’s a huge chance that I’m not going to care about the story as a whole. And I’m usually right. It doesn’t have to be a something big like the main character or the plot. Really, it can be any aspect of the story, from one interesting plot point to a minute worldbuilding detail. In fact, the main reason why I was so taken by Ready Player One – to the point where I literally did not notice the problematic main character, the flimsy plot, and dumb dumb dumb action scenes – was because I fell hard and fast for the concept of OASIS.
Ultimately, readers are looking for one thing when they’re reading a book: a reason to care. It’s a simple enough requirement but anyone who’s ever dabbled in fiction writing will tell you that it’s extremely difficult to execute. Which is why I was so enamored with Helen Scheuerer’s Heart of Mist on the very first chapter alone. In such a short period of time, I cared about Bleak, the tough as nails, aloof main character who, for all intents and purposes, should have made me recoil. I’ve consumed enough media to know how… iffy these types of female characters, especially YA heroines, can be portrayed so I think I was rightly wary. I mean, tough-talking, ostracized, female character, with a pining conventionally attractive childhood friend to boot? Sounds like 80% of the heroines in the genre, let’s be honest.
However I soon learned that while Bleak might seem like the standard no-shits-given main character with a tragic past in a YA fantasy, she’s far from the typical cardboard cutout “badass” heroine.
I have a passionate love for books with magic or superpowered people and I’m currently in the processing of writing my own little fantasy tale and, let me tell you, as fun as imagining a make-believe world is, it’s insanely difficult to establish a coherent magic system. Depending on the kind of story you’re writing, a magic/power system can be as comprehensive or as mysterious as you want and oftentimes even just deciding which route to take can be difficult.
In my opinion, a story can have the most fascinating magic/power system ever but if that system doesn’t have consistent rules, if the system can’t even stand under basic scrutiny, then the whole story will flop. Willing suspension of disbelief can only go so far and when you’re dealing with magical folk you’re treading on thin ice to begin with. Now, from what I’ve gleaned from weeks of on-and-off research, making a rational magic/power system is attainable if you take three things into consideration: the verisimilitude of the system, the conflict/s that the system invokes, and the impact of the magic/power to users, non-users, and society as a whole.
As an example, let’s take a look at Marissa Meyer’s triumphant sci-fi adventure series, The Lunar Chronicles. Although the book series doesn’t have as extensive a magic/power system as in a Tolkien tale or any Tamora Pierce book, I believe The Lunar Chronicles is a great example of how a simple superhuman ability can shape a simple story into a complicated, riveting yarn.