Book Review: A Practical Guide to Evil

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Several months ago, my husband “ran out of books to read” and was recommended an online serial, or web fiction, called A Practical Guide to Evil. At the time, there were two complete books online and the beginnings of a third. My husband started reading it and instantly fell in love. He recommended it to me on multiple occasions; even when I was buried in schoolbooks to read, he would say, “Why don’t you just read the prologue? It’s not too long. You’ll love it.” I resisted until this weekend.

And I couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

Practical Guide is told from the villains’ perspective, and it doesn’t pretend otherwise or make apologies. Within the first chapters, it becomes abundantly clear that the main character, Catherine, will stop at nothing to achieve her goals—even if it means killing in cold blood or betraying her partners. But despite her evil actions, Catherine is likeable. She’s witty, cunning, straighforward when she needs to be and duplcitious when she doesn’t. She may have a ferocious, backstabbing, manipulative exterior, but she tells herself it’s all to free her homeland—and we believe her. We accept her twisted motives because we see the Heroes, and they don’t look so different. Practical Guide wants its readers to struggle, to wonder about the nature of Good and Evil.

In addition to the refreshing take on the classic hero’s tale, Practical Guide has an interesting magic system. The world is low-magic, with only a few individuals possessing powers, given to them by Names and Roles. Basically, Practical Guide‘s magic is based on achetypes, and shamelessly so. People can take on Roles, like Warlock, Captain, Ranger, Scribe, Empress… And they will learn magic based on the Role. Every person who comes into a Role has slightly different magic, so no two are exactly alike, but you can bet that everyone named Empress has been, well, the Empress.

So, the premise is good, the magic is good, the characters grow on you—what’s not to like? Here we get into the thorny side of web fic. From what my husband has told me, many web fics are published without any real editing (e.g. there are obvious typos). Practical Guide is sadly no exception. Every chapter has typos, phrases that could be omitted with no affect on the meaning of the sentence or paragraph; the story as a whole has a bad case of info-dumping and formatting issues. One character is referred to by alternating pronouns the first time he’s introduced (after his introduction, he goes by male pronouns only), and another character was renamed after her introduction—that, or there were so many new characters at once that I lost track of people. This book would never be on bookshelves in its current form.

But that’s a hidden truth to publishing. The book you buy at the store looks nothing like its first, second, third, tenth draft. The most important thing when acquiring a book is to look past its typos and peer into its heart, find its voice. Practical Guide has that voice, that nameless thing that keeps readers up at night, gripping their paperback (or phone, as the case may be) until the action subsides. I blazed through the first book of Practical Guide in just a few days and overlooked the typos and formatting issues because the story was simply too good to ignore.

I enjoyed this book immensely. I actually read it during the day, for once; that’s not an easy feat, as lately, I’ve been reading solely before bed. I’m so glad I took my husband’s word and gave this web fic a chance. You might enjoy it, too. So have at it.

2/5 for editing & design, 5/5 for everything else.

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Good Teachers Make Good Students

From fifth grade to seventh grade, I was a horrible student. I routinely received Cs in science, English, and math classes (strangely enough, those are the classes I enjoyed most in high school and beyond). I rarely did homework, and when I did, it was late or incomplete. Teachers eventually stopped giving me feedback, advice, or support. At the end of seventh grade, when all of my friends were on the honor roll (in other words, they got a 3.0 GPA or higher), I decided that I wanted to be on the honor roll, too. So I put (some) effort into my studies as an eighth grader. I don’t think I ever made it on the honor roll, though. I just wasn’t a good student.

But in high school, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I was one of the best students. I did my homework. I spoke up in class. I was on the honor roll every term; in fact, most terms I had a 4.0. And I wasn’t taking easy classes! I had a full load of AP courses my senior year and I still got As. Me: the girl who, four years prior, struggled to achieve a B average.

I’m not 100% sure why I changed. My middle school wasn’t harder than my high school, and my intellect didn’t make a huge jump between eighth and ninth grade. But, there’s at least one definite factor that changed my behavior and turned me into an overachiever: the teachers.

My grade school teachers saw in me a girl of average intelligence who couldn’t be bothered to do anything. They saw my tardy homeworks and said, “Well, our only option is to tell her to do her work.” As I recall, they didn’t really try to understand why I didn’t do my homework. Or, if they did try, they eventually gave up. Something wasn’t clicking for me in middle school. I took no joy in learning.

But then I started ninth grade. The teachers were young, passionate, enthusiastic, and empathetic. They wanted to know me. They wanted to teach. And they expected positive results. Between their infectious love of learning and their encouragement to participate in class, the “something” finally clicked for me. I grew to love school. I woke up early to prepare for the day instead of sleeping until the very last second. I can’t remember a time I was late to class, let alone late on a homework assignment. I became a class leader, a student who could be counted on to contribute to class discussions and help others.

Maybe that was another factor. I liked my classmates in high school way more than I did in middle school. I made better friends. People actually talked to me, got to know me. I genuinely cared about my teachers and classmates. At high school, there was a support system that just didn’t exist in middle school. My high school teachers cared about me in a way my middle school teachers did not. 

Some people might look at my accomplishments and argue that I’ve always had the capacity for success—that high school didn’t change me. But of course it did; everything else in my life remained the same. High school was the catalyst that righted my path, that gave me the tools to open doors and achieve success. I’ll be forever grateful to those bright-eyed teachers who sacrificed their sleep, their weekends, and often their well-being to deliver quality education to students like me.


The natural follow-up question to this post is, what specifically did they do to encourage different behavior in me? The answer is too long for this post, but it’ll come later this week.

Women Supporting Women

It’s been hot in Portland for about a week now. Last Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were all over 100 degrees. We bought a “portable” AC unit from Amazon just to survive this dry stretch. Most houses in Portland don’t have air conditioning, and it’s not a difficult decision to rationalize. Why would you need AC when it rains half the time and hardly ever gets up to ninety degrees? Well, in the past month, we’ve had sixteen ninety-plus degree days. It’s been rough.

Our AC unit doesn’t quite cut it; we installed it in our office upstairs, and while it works great in that room, it doesn’t do anything for the house. I needed a break from the heat—and several of my friends felt the same way. We planned a day trip to Moulton Falls in Washington, hoping to cool off in a relatively unpopulated and relaxing swimming hole.

In a perfect example of doublethink/lying to myself, I put on my swimsuit that morning while completely disbelieving I would go swimming. I’m extremely self-conscious, and I was unenthused about displaying my swimsuit-clad body for the world to see, so I tricked myself into thinking I wouldn’t actually use it—that I was putting it on “just in case.” Because, of course, going to a swimming hole doesn’t mean you’ll swim.

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Moulton Falls. Photo cred to Lisa Hein. Check out her Instagram: lisahein

We drove to Moulton Falls and had a lovely picnic. The five of us brought enough food for ten people. After cleaning up, the others started putting on sunscreen. I hesitated. But—we’re not really swimming, I protested. But I knew I was deceiving myself. I inwardly groaned and accepted my fate.

I put the sunscreen on. I waited as long as possible before taking off my shorts and t-shirt, hoping none of the others would notice my razor burn, my flab, and all the other small, inconsequential flaws of my perfectly functional body. I waited for someone to say something about my appearance. I was so sure one of them would notice all of the things I disliked about my body. But if they did, they didn’t say anything.

In fact, the opposite happened.

One of them grinned at me and said, “I love your swimsuit! It’s so cute. One-pieces are coming back.” I returned the smile, comforted yet still on guard. It was only a matter of time, surely, before someone gave me a too-quick glance or recoiled when I sat next to them. But as we made our way to the water and found some rocks to sit on, the negative reactions I had expected refused to manifest. The girls had every opportunity to comment on my appearance, but their words were only positive. It wasn’t an endless torrent of compliments, but it was enough for me to feel comfortable with my body and do what we had come to Moulton Falls to do: relax.

The water ran mountain-cold over the rocks. We alternated between swimming and sunbathing, talking about books and TV shows and school and work. We picked pebbles from the riverbank and drove home with the windows down. It was, unexpectedly, the most fun I’d had outdoors in a long time.

I was surprised to receive such supportive and loving words from my friends. Growing up, I watched TV shows and read books where female friendships were infrequently shown. The books that did show female friendships portrayed them with a dose of cattiness, and my own friend groups throughout the years followed suit. But the women I swam with at Moulton Falls broke the mold. For a few blissful hours, there was no cattiness, no competition, no parade—just five women in swimsuits, enjoying an outdoor adventure on their day off.

Our bodies are imperfect, but it doesn’t matter. We are so much more than our stretchmarks, our moles, our cellulite, our messy hair. There’s so much more to love.

Book Review: Three Parts Dead

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One of my professors is a SFF agent, and he recommended Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence to me. The Craft Sequence is a series of (currently) six books that all take place in the same world, but featuring different characters and locations. One of the interesting aspects of the series is that the first five books (and maybe the sixth as well—I don’t know much about it) weren’t published in sequential order. Three Parts Dead was the first book to be published, but in the timeline of Gladstone’s world, it’s the third book, hence the ordinal “third” in the title.

I asked my professor over Twitter whether to read the books in publication order or in temporal order. He suggested reading them in pub order, as that was how Gladstone intended for the audience to experience his world. So I took his suggestion and dove right into Three Parts Dead, and let me tell you: it was a wild adventure.

Three Parts Dead opens with a clinching first line: “God wasn’t answering tonight.” The rest of the book is similarly enthralling, with fully-fleshed characters and a complex world. By the end of the first chapter, Tara, the main character, has been kicked out of the Hidden Schools, nearly died after drinking a desert oasis dry, dug graves and raised zombies, and weilded a blade of moonlight. Actually, that’s only the first half of the first chapter.

I enjoyed the relentless pace and the diverse cast of characters. The plot was intriguing and not so easy to predict. The book’s downfall, in my opinion, is the relatively short explanation of the world’s magic, or Craft. I garnered that it’s a taught thing, and not many people can use it, but what is it exactly? Tara uses her craft in a variety of different ways—trying to explain them here would only be confusing. It seems that Craft can be a weapon, and also a tool: everything is connected with Craft, and the ties between things can be manipulated and used. But it’s a little difficult for me to understand. (That said, I did read the majority of this book right before sleep, so that may have affected my comprehension.)

At 330 pages, Three Parts Dead can be read rather quickly. Its length combined with its pace result in a quick read. Most of the fantasy I read could be considered epic in length, and this novel was a refreshing change. I might classify this book as a science fantasy, actually; while there is magic, technological progress hasn’t abated. The mix of technology and magic confused me at first but I grew to enjoy it. In all, Three Parts Dead was an enjoyable introduction to Gladstone’s world, and I’m excited to see how his series pans out. 4/5 stars.

Holy Hiatus, Batman!

So, all of my plans for this blog fell by the wayside five months ago. Nothing big happened; there was no real inciting incident for why I stopped blogging. But, if I hadn’t stopped in February, I would have stopped somewhere along the way. In the past month alone, I finished a term of grad school, bought a house, got married, and went on my honeymoon. It was a lot. I barely read any non-required books during that time.

Thankfully, things seem to be winding down for me. Soon I might have enough time to blog about the books I did read in the past five months, as well as behind-the-scenes stuff about publishing. My role in the publishing world has changed since I last blogged (in a good way), and I’d like to document it here.

Here’s a recap of the books I’ve read since February:

  • The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson
  • The Inheritance Trilogy, NK Jemisin
  • A History of Glitter and Blood, Hannah Moskowitz
  • Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone (in progress)

You can expect a review of at least one of these books in the coming weeks.

I won’t commit to a blogging schedule right now. In the next week, I’ll be flying back to Portland, unpacking the new house, and going for a quick jaunt down to California for my family-centered wedding reception—seriously, we’ll be there for less than forty-eight hours. I don’t know what my schedule looks like after that; I could be completely free save for my not-for-credit schoolwork, or I could happen to find employment between now and then. I do know that I have a lot of things to blog about, so I’ll be back. I promise.

Book Review: The Well of Ascension

I’ll jump right into it: Well of Ascension didn’t impress me like The Final Empire did. Sometimes, you have to wonder how serial authors muster the courage to release a book after producing such a hit. Well of Ascension was still early in Sanderson’s career, so it’s fathomable that Final Empire’s success had him (and his editors) a little starstruck. The timeline for Well of Ascension could have been shorter too; maybe it didn’t get the same editorial treatment Final Empire did. But regardless of the reason, the second installment of the Mistborn trilogy fell flat. (Spoilers ahead! Like, immediately ahead. Don’t read on if you’re not prepared.)

Unlike the first book, Well of Ascension focuses more on the politics of creating a kingdom (and eventual empire) and less on kicking obligator/Inquisitor tail. Compared to The Final Empire, this book could almost be described as a snoozefest. There’s so much political drama that I found myself wanting to get to the “good” parts—e.g., the action parts—of which there were disappointingly few. The few that are there, thankfully, are gripping and exciting, but the book toes the line between “this book is quieter than the last one, but still interesting” and “there’s not enough fightin’.”

Vin, who takes up the mantle as resident Mistborn in Luthadel after Kelsier’s death, has a distinct lack of agency in this book. To some extent, her lack of agency is a main and explicit struggle in the novel, but when she does reclaim her agency and her free will, she completely loses control. All of a sudden, doing things “her way” means killing dozens of people in near-cold blood. This is in no small part due to a rival Mistborn egging her on, but I wish she had shown more awareness. More propriety.

While Vin’s character arc doesn’t quite deliver, Elend’s is very well done. In book 1, Elend is little more than an unkempt philosopher; in book 3, Elend is a successful and frightening emperor. The transition between the two is well paced (Sanderson does a bit of hand holding during the process, eager to draw attention to Elend’s progress in the narration itself) and ultimately believable.

Also, I kept track of how many times the characters sighed in Well of Ascension. I didn’t manage to count them all; I grew bored about halfway through. But still, the characters racked up fifty sighs by the time I was at page 200. That’s way too many. I keep ragging on Sanderson for this admittedly minor flaw in his writing, but I’m honestly surprised that it escaped editors at Tor twice. (Three times, actually, since the characters in The Hero of Ages sigh a lot too.)

The Well of Ascension is an average book. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. I’m sure there are many people content to read no further than The Final Empire. I don’t begrudge them for that choice. An average book gets an average score of 3/5 stars. Honestly, I’m not surprised that the second book isn’t as good as the first. It’s a well-known occurrence for volume 2 of a book series or TV series or movie series to lack that essential spark of the first volume, the thing that made people want a second installment in the first place. I just started rereading The Hero of Ages; look forward to my review of it by March!

February’s State of the Blog

I guess I went on an informal hiatus for the month of January. School started again, and then we had a huge snow storm and the whole city shut down for a week, and the class schedules got super messed up. Plus, it took me forever to finish Mistborn: Well of Ascension. So I apologize for the radio silence—er, web silence.

Blogging about the topics I wanted to cover had absolutely no effect on my blogging schedule, so I probably won’t do that anymore. However, I will tell you what books I intend to read during the month of February. It’s a shorter month and I got a late start, so I’m only committing to two books right now.

  • Mistborn: The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by NK Jemisin

I realize also that I’m in a publishing program, and I should write about publishing things. And with that in mind, I’ll try to address two topics in publishing:

  • How a press acquires a manuscript
  • How to do a developmental edit of a manuscript

That’s all I’ve got for now. Hopefully tomorrow or Thursday I’ll post one (or two? Who knows?) posts from the above list, and will continue to blog through the term.