Thursday, July 31, 2014

Illusions of Fate

Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White (a part of my Comic-Con horde) is one of those rare, special books you wish you could live in every single day. Yes, it is really that good. Better, even.

I met Kiersten at a Wonder-Con book signing last spring and fell in love with her enchanting, atmospheric In the Shadows, co-created with Jim DiBartolo. Needless to say, when I got my hands on the galley of the Illusions, I inhaled it in one seating. My only complaint about the book was its length. Too short. Too, too short. I would've loved to keep reading. And reading. And reading some more. Because this book is pure MAGIC. Charming, witty, heart-breaking, romantic. It reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle -- an old and true favorite -- with a shade of Jane Eyre, or, perhaps, Pride and Prejudice. The story has it all: a clever, strong, independent heroine; a dashing, tormented hero; a quirky, endearing sidekick (love you, Sir Bird); a creepy and cruel villain, and magic -- lots and lots of curious, strange, thrilling magic. 

On top of everything else, Kiersten has a gift for giving her readers a striking visual experience; as I was reading the book, my fingers itched to illustrate the scenes -- the ball at the lush hothouse of a Conservatory; the sparkling, vivacious symphony; the gloomy, misty park besieged by crows. Each scene set a unique mood, adding color and character to the original, vibrant world of magic, secrets and danger. And the shadows. Swoon. How I wish we could have this happen in real life. 

The story begins with Jessamine, who has left her native tropical island of Melei to attend school in a dreary, proper Albion (reminiscent of Victorian England.) With her dark hair and complexion Jessa doesn't fit in among the pale "civilized"Albions and has to deal with prejudice and harassment, still, she is determined to make the best of the situation. She excels at her studies and works hard as a maid at a ritzy hotel to pay for her school. When a chance meeting with gorgeous Lord Finley draws her into Albion's secret world of privilege, magic and danger, Jessamine refuses to play by the rules of others and sets out to discover as much as she can about the forbidden art of spells. Soon, she is caught up in an ongoing feud between Finn and the powerful Lord Downpike, who wants to uncover the secret of Finn's magic, a feud that threatens to destroy not only Albion, but also Melei. Jessamine must use every bit of her wits to stop her enemies and save everyone she loves before it's too late.

Jessamine, Jessa, is easily one one my favorite YA heroines: she's determined, spirited, witty, intelligent, feisty and brave. She is secure in her own skin, stands firmly by her beliefs (and her friends), refuses to play a damsel in distress, and, all in all, kicks some major magic ass. 

Finn is the perfect hero: selfless, kind, sweet, courageous, loyal. He treats Jessa with respect, understands her, supports her and appreciates not only her exotic beauty, but her intelligence and her personality as well. He cares for Jessa and is deeply protective of her, but never controlling or possessive. More importantly, he lets her make her own choices. Their dynamic is wonderful; Kiersten takes time to develop their relationship, and I love seeing their flirtatious banter turn into a raw and honest expression of real feelings. 

And, of course, let's not forget Eleanor, the girl's all sorts of awesome. She's a gem of a character -- wonderfully scheming and funny and gossipy and surprisingly bad-ass.

Favorite scene:

“You made it to do with her, though, didn’t you?” Eleanor looks pointedly at the ground where my shadow pools at my feet. “Can I see it? Wiggle around or something. I’ve never actually seen someone shadowed before! It’s so romantic!”

“It is nothing of the sort! It’s…” I glance at Finn, who is avoiding my eyes. “ He was just spying, and…” Romantic? Preposterous. But suddenly I am desperate to understand. “What does it mean? He wouldn’t explain it to me.”

“Open your mouth, Eleanor, and I will cut out your tongue and use it as fertilizer for my personal herb garden.”

“But she should know!” Eleanor whines, pulling my back to the couch across from Finn. “It’s adorable.”

Monday, July 28, 2014

Stronger, with More Hands...

I would've never pegged comic conventions for places to hear some of my favorite writers speak about their work to an audience of wildly costumed, raptly listening fans. To me, all the fantasy/YA panels, book signings and publishers booths at the recent San Diego Comic-Con were a complete revelation -- why hadn't I heard of such magical things taking place here before? And the book signings, my goodness, the book signings...The one thought running through my mind was -- hands. I needed more hands. Or, at the very least, a sturdier bag. But mostly -- more hands. Because the books were stacked up high, in colorful, author-coordinated towers, the scent of their still fresh typographical ink beckoning me like a heady, familiar savor lured a starving wanderer. So many new books. So many good books. So many unread books.

Getting the shiny, slick galleys (a copy of a book that has yet to go through the final stage of edits) was the unexpected treat: Kiersten White's The Illusions of Fate (I will gush about this particular book in a later post), Marie Lu's The Young Elites, Arwen Elys Dayton's Seeker. So very generous of the publishers to promote their authors with such fantastic giveaways. The galleys found a caring home, and I discovered new writers to love. Well played, publishers. Well played.

My discovery of books made me temporarily forget about everything else: the world faded to a swooshing background noise, the coffee crisis in my cup became a distant concern, the colors of the Thor costume on the fellow in front of me dimmed. Because books. They took precedent above all else. There were book signings with George R.R. Martin (you had to stand in line to enter your name in a drawing just to win the right to stand in a signing line!), with my beloved Robin Hobb, with always fabulous Laini Taylor, with the talented and hilarious Jim DiBartolo, with Lev Grossman, Allen Zadoff, Leigh Bardugo, Rachel Caine, Marie Lu, Arwen Elys Dayton, Marissa Meyer, Ann Aguirre, Kimberly Derting, Kiersten White, Tobias Buckbell and many, many others. It was a lush, book lovers Eden snuck into the chaotic comic book world. Who knew?

The second thought of the day was -- stronger. I needed to be stronger. Troy needed to be stronger. Stronger, and with more hands. Because those books and galleys, they were not feather-light. At the end of the day, my arms felt like aching wet ropes, twisted into intricate knots. Still, this hurt was well worth the pleasure of tucking myself into an armchair with so many new reads that very same evening.

Marie Lu and Rachel Caine
And the panels...My goodness. The panels! The panels were simply AMAZING! I went to Vengeance and Villains and got to hear Rachel Caine, Marie Lu, Arwen Elys Dayton, Ann Aguirre, Kimberly Derting, Kiersten White, Allen Zadoff and Tobias Buckbell discuss their favorite bad guys. Respect to Kiersten White for naming Peter Pan. That selfish flying brat used to annoy me as a child, making me root for the misunderstood, hook-handed pirate (and how can you not root for the pirate?). Yep, to me, Peter Pan was the ultimate bad guy: uncaring, callous, pompous, without any regrets or much of a conscience. It is ironic how the failed good guys often make the best villains! Conversely, the failed antagonists can morph into the perfect tragic heroes.

The panelists also agreed that well-written female villains were perhaps the most terrifying creatures in existence: to see women as destroyers instead of mothers, nurturers, friends would send shivers down the hardest, most stoic spines.  

The signing lines begin behind this fierce couple, see them?
I almost missed the End of Series...or Not? panel featuring Lynn Flewelling (Nightrunner series), Lev Grossman (The Magicians series), Laini Taylor (The Daughter of Smoke & Bone Trilogy), Jon Maberry (the Rot and Ruin series), Ben Winters (The Last Policeman Trilogy), Kresley Cole (Immortals After Dark Series), and Leigh Bardugo (The Grisha Trilogy), and was one of the last people to sneak into the crowded room. So worth the wait!

The first question was whether the writers pre-planned their series to be finite or not? Did they destroy the world or leave the story open-ended? Everyone had a different take on this. Lynn (who has one seven and one three book series) said that it was always painful to end a series, but her gut told her when it was time. Lev shared that he wanted to write about the magicians' life after their eduction. For instance, what was magic for if no one was threatening the world? Once, this goal was accomplished, he stopped. Laini is an intuitive writer. She had no idea how her trilogy was going to end until she wrote it. (By the way, it is unbelievably good. The Dreams of Gods and Monsters is everything you hoped it would be...tripled. A truly solid third book.) Kresley has a fifteen book series and is still going strong. She promised to write as long as people were willing to read. And Leigh enjoyed shorter stories, which could be tricky, as they imposed limits.

The second question asked what kept the readers engaged? Leigh said that authors had two choices for their character: a character who had everything and you took it from them, or a character who had nothing and you took even more. (And keep in mind that the story always trumps world-building.) Kresley liked to introduce secondary characters like a villain or godmother and switch up expectations. In Ben’s first book in the series, the character was young in a lot of ways and had to grow up. What made people stick was that the characters were still growing. Jon mentioned how we always entered a story with a limited world view. For example, his main character in the Rot and Ruin books was angry all the time, and why he was mad was part of his limited world view. But once exposed to a larger world view, it changed his life. World view wasn’t entirely the character’s fault, but as there was more exposure the view adjusted. Laini said she liked a tight narrative where certain questions were answered. Also, if the writing was beautiful, the reader wanted to sink into it.

Lev wrote The Magicians as a stand-alone, because he wasn’t convinced it would be published. But he had to send his characters back into that world. He wanted to know what happened next. Lynn said she also wrote a stand-alone that became two books, and then her editor asked her if she wanted it to be more. She invested so much, and there was more to tell. She writes for herself, as writing is hard, so she needs to love it.

The panel was amazing. Totally worth the wait.

Comic-Con appropriate footwear.

Getting into the Rulers of the Realm was even trickier. My secret to surviving the long, non-nonsense lines? Flats, or -- to be more precise -- flip flops. But even had I been wearing stilettos, I wouldn't have missed this discussion of epic fantasy between George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle), Diana Gabaldon (Outlander), Joe Abercrombie (Half a King), and Lev Grossman (Magicians Trilogy). Lively Ali T. Kokman of Barnes & Noble MCed. Being a fantasy girl through and through, I found the panel riveting.

Ali kicked off the discussion by asking the writers to describe the ways they tackled world-building in their novels. Joe admitted that he "made stuff up" and suggested you do lots of research or -- in other words -- read. For instance, he read historical non-fiction to lend his works authenticity. Diana agreed with the importance of research, adding that there was still "plenty to steal from real history." George R.R. Martin admitted to borrowing from history and throwing out what he didn't need or want. Lev preferred to deconstruct, or as he put it "defile" reality, and Patrick shared how sometimes he believed he had made things up, only to be questioned by fans, who found historical precedents. "I’m clever, I take credit for accidents." Nice!

After that, Ali wondered what, aside from research, assisted with writing? Joe's answer was -- maps. Yay, Joe. This really resonated with me. I'm a huge fan of fantasy maps because they really help you anchor your readers in your world, give them a real sense of place. Of course, fantasy maps can be tricky. George R.R. Martin called to exercise extra caution when dreaming up the lay of your land -- one day your publisher might decide to create a detailed map and then you would have to face all the disparities between your maps and the events you described in your book. And filling in the blanks could be a real challenge; turned out the author had a real hard time naming...mountains. He also said, "If you want to know where fantasy maps come from, take the map at the front of your favorite fantasy novel, and turn it upside down. Westeros began as upside-down Ireland. You can see the fingers of Dingle. Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies? Upside-down Alaska."

Patrick brought up an interesting point -- a writer should decide whether it is even necessary to create a map for his/her book, especially if they don’t particularly care for maps. Providing maps to the readers is a fantasy convention, true, but it is a convention only because Tolkien did it in The Hobbit -- and he did it because it was part of his story. Patrick also believed that many fantasy writers felt that they had to invent new languages, once again because of the Tolkien influence. "But Tolkien didn’t do it for tradition; he did it because he was a language geek! If you’re a geek for something, and if that’s herbology, or the nature of the night sky, or plate tectonics, revel in your geekery, roll around in it, and make that a part of your world." Don't do something because you feel like you’re supposed to, "I don’t really feel like that’s the best way to enjoy yourself and make a vibrant world." (By the way, Patrick's brand of geekery is currency.) To sum up this part of the discussion: Write about your passions and the rest will follow.  

For the third question Ali asked who was their first reader? "Myself," Diana responded, adding that she also trusted her husband's opinions. Joe echoed her answer, and Lev said that his wife read for him, because "she's way smarter than he is", but that he "is tougher on himself." Martin urged the writers to not simply write to trends (you'd lose yourself), but instead tell the story they really want to tell. His message was loud and clear: always write for yourself first. I cannot agree more. As for the beta readers, Patrick had the most, their number somewhere in the hundreds (he is obsessive about getting feedback from intelligent people), while Joe could only deal with two betas at a time. And Diana stressed the importance of getting feedback from the experts -- for instance, if your character loses a leg, find out as much as you can about the process of amputation.

Next, Ali wanted to know the toughest thing to get through when writing a novel? "Inertia," Diana answered. "The longer you go without writing, the harder it is to start again."She suggested to keep writing even when stuck. A great, wise advice. "That long period between the first sentence and the last," added Joe, urging fellow writers not to be too hard on themselves through the "suck." Another great advice. "Sucks" happen. They also pass, creating space for long, free stretches of writing.

At the end, the audience got to ask a few questions, among them:
How do you explore the unhealthy and healthy relationships in your books?
"Make a lot of mistakes in your life." Patrick suggested. "The earlier you make them, the more useful they will be and the more forgivable from your peers -- and the police." He explained how mistakes give one motivation to evolve. Lev described fantasy writing as "raw," the writing of it involving "sides of yourself that aren’t your can’t lie in fantasy, because everyone will know." Diana agreed that honesty is the key to a successful life (as is finding the right person.) Joe said he’d gotten two great pieces of writing advice: one from his mother, "be honest, be truthful"; "the other one, which I try to live by is -- every morning, get dressed. It can be a problem for writers." Martin challenged this, "I wrote many of my best works in a red flannel bathrobe!" "That counts!" Joe assured him.

The panel was long and lively and ended in such an interesting place that the audience, judging by how long it took people to get up from their seats, was very reluctant to leave.

Elsewhere in the center, Brenna Yavonoff signed copies of her latest book Fiendish at the Penguin booth, Marissa Meyer hung out at Macmillan that publishes Cinder, San Diego Public Library had a booth promoting library cards (libraries rock! I'm a huge fan/ardent believer in library-book-hunting) and around every corner another surprise lay in store for the lovers of books. It was like stumbling onto an Easter egg hunt, only way, way cooler.

All in all, I was surprised and thrilled to see so many authors, book sellers and publishers present at a comic con event. Next to booths of comic books, action figures and various super hero paraphernalia they held their own and drew in legions of fans -- colorful, enthusiastic, bookish, awesome.

Wow, this turned into a long, long post. But my simple going-to-look-at-the-comic-books trip turned into something much larger and greater, and I wanted to give it at least a tenth of the attention it deserved.