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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Book Review: The Mirror Empire

themirrorempire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire was one of those books that I grabbed on a whim at Powell’s and promptly forgot about. I’m glad I pulled it from the shelf, though, because it’s an extremely ambitious novel and, despite its shortcomings, and enjoyable read.

When I first started reading Mirror Empire, I yearned for a glossary. Luckily, it delivers with a twenty-page glossary on every unfamiliar term in the book. (I just wish I had found it sooner.) I experienced more than a bit of confusion with the beginning of the book; it throws you into the world of the Dhai face-first with a gripping prologue and several different points of view. Off the top of my head, I can list at least eight different narrators, which may have been a bit much—even for a 500+ page book. That said, each narrator adds a new dimension to the story and grants the reader another window through which to look at the world.

While the glossary helped my comprehension of the novel, the storyline is another matter. Not only does the word “Dhai” refer to a country, its people, and its language, it also refers to a different set of people in the book. The narrators learn about this other people over the course of the story, so the reader’s confusion is also the characters’ confusion; in that regard, it’s a clever way to identify with the characters. That said, I found the storyline a bit difficult to parse out. Well…maybe it was more how the different characters relate to each other. All the names were unfamiliar, but every character had several relations to other characters, and even with the glossary it was difficult to keep track of it all.

The world is one of the more intriguing worlds I’ve encountered. It took me a little while to understand (and I don’t know that I fully understand it, even after finishing the novel), but I do know that some people in this world are “gifted” with magic derived from the “satellites” of the world, and that one of them is rising for the first time in many centuries—I believe 2,000 years—which awakens latent magical potential in more than a few people. Architecture in this world is mostly living plants, shaped into buildings and living quarters by a particular group of mages. The plant life is…well, alive. Sentient. I wish the novel had delved more into the living plants, but there was already so much going on without it that it was better left alone. And the land has a rich political landscape, and interested me even though at times I felt in the dark.

All in all, The Mirror Empire is a great addition to fantasy literature. As many reviewers stated, its every facet is “epic.” I’ll have to reread the novel before leaping to the sequel due to all the confusion (and my lazy reading habits), so for me, the book scored a 3/5. But I imagine a more perceptive, intuitive reader could rate it higher.

Book Discussion: The Danish Girl

 

I first heard of The Danish Girl when it came to theaters in 2015. A few of my friends—who are far more knowledgeable about and active in the transgender community than I—advised people against seeing it. It was great that aHollywood production had a transgender character, but the story of Lili Elbe’s transition is hugely different from the majority of trans experiences. Plus, the actor who played Lili is cisgender, even though Hollywood could have easily gotten a transgender person to play the part.

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Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe

So I didn’t see the movie. But a friend of mine had the book, and let me borrow it. And…wow.

I don’t feel comfortable giving this book a regular “review” for a few reasons, the first being that it’s so far outside my comfort zone. I can’t remember the last time I read a literary fiction book. The experience was so, so different from genre fiction. I read slower, and I could tell that the author labored over most every sentence and made conscious decisions about what to include in the scenes. Genre fiction—in particular, science fiction and fantasy—tends to describe every action the point-of-view characters take (or maybe that’s just something I do) so I found Ebershoff’s writing style refreshingly sparse.

Another reason I’m not comfortable “reviewing” this book is because I don’t know if it’s accurate. I’m not talking about historical accuracy; in the afterword, the author explicitly states the he filled in a lot of details missing from his research, and that he straight up created characters to suit the story. I’m talking about its representation of what it’s like to be transgender. I am not transgender, and I don’t claim to know what it’s like to go through that struggle. The transgender people I know each has their own experience, and none of them was exactly like Lili Elbe’s. This admittedly huge aspect of A Danish Girl remains a giant question mark for me.

Lastly, the ending fell flat for me. I knew the real-life Lili Elbe died after her final surgery, so I was expecting The Danish Girl to touch on grief. But the novel didn’t get that far. It ended before Lili’s story did, in my opinion. I would have liked to see the novel explore the various characters’ feelings of grief over Lili, especially because a few of the main characters knew Lili before she transitioned. I wanted to see, in particular, Greta’s grief over losing her husband intertwine with her grief over losing her friend.

Despite these reservations, I would recommend this book. Ebershoff’s characters are compelling and real, and his descriptions of the settings are exquisite. The novel is heavy-handed with the flashbacks in Part I, but they become less frequent as the story goes on. The Danish Girl explores not only one’s changing gender expression and gender identity, but also one’s changing sexuality. For anyone unfamiliar with it, The Danish Girl would be a great place to start learning about the transgender experience. Fair warning: the novel contains a few NSFW scenes and a stunning amount of sexual imagery. (I was expecting a more psychological look at transgenderism as opposed to a sexual one; that could be because the transgender person I know best is also asexual, though.) The Danish Girl is superbly written and quite the compelling read, and fans of literary fiction will find much to love between its covers.

Read Your Way to Better Writing

booksUnlike the vast majority of colleges (especially on the west coast), my alma mater offered two English degrees: Literature and Creative Writing. As part of the creative writing degree requirements, we had to take a certain number of writing courses in different genres—I studied the fiction and creative nonfiction tracks—and a variety of literature courses. Now, when I was a freshman, I didn’t understand why lit courses would be required for a creative writing degree. I wanted to write for the rest of my life, not read centuries-old manuscripts and analyze the author’s use of motif.

I’m probably not the only student who shunned the lit requirements at my school. I could do the work, but it wasn’t as interesting to me as writing my own stories or reading more modern fiction. No part of me wanted to read the works of nineteenth-century American authors, but I had to do it.

I don’t remember the specific moment when I realized why my professors required writing majors to take lit courses. I mean, I’d always had some vague understanding of the motivation behind it. Reading the stuff that came before you can make your writing better. But I hadn’t really internalized that. It wasn’t until I had taken a few writing courses that I truly realized the necessity of reading as a writer. The readings in my creative writing courses and the texts I read in literature courses allowed me to make informed decisions about my own writing: how to develop believable characters, for instance, and how to make characters interact with the setting of the story. Reading truly improves my craft—even reading stories I don’t like. (Especially the stories I don’t like.)

I know there are a number of non-reading writers out there, or writers who stick to reading works in a specific genre (typically the genre they intend to write). I’ve always been a fantasy writer and reader, and I probably always will be. But please know that there is so much to learn from reading other genres or other styles you’re not familiar with. Most of the books I’ve read recently have been in the high/epic fantasy realm, because that’s what I enjoy writing, and it seems perfectly natural to me to read only those books. But I’ve also read a number of more “literary” novels, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Tatjana Soli’s The Forgetting Tree, and those books have helped me hone my craft in ways the high fantasy books had allow me to neglect.

Reading as a writer helps in so many ways. It lets you know which stories have already been written, which characters and worlds have been explored. It provides insight on how to manage world building and character interactions and dialogue. It gives you a model for your story’s narrative arc. And, perhaps most important to writers who intend to sell their work, it allows you to draw comparisons between established novels and your own.

I refuse to accept the myth that reading books is a dying pastime. As long as there are writers, there will be readers.

 

Book Review: “The Emperor’s Blades”

emperorsbladespsdWhen you’re reading a book, do you ever feel like you’re obligated to finish it? That if you just read one more chapter, you’ll come across a beautiful gem of a scene and it’ll make the previous eighty pages worth it? That was kind of how I felt with Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. It took me WEEKS to finish it. I would read ten or twenty pages at the gym (more on that later), then another ten or so pages before bed, then I went out of town and didn’t read it at all, and then I was hanging out with friends… The book didn’t immediately grab me like I had hoped.

The Emperor’s Blades begins with a harrowing prologue depicting a man, who we are told is an immortal being called a Csestriim, and his daughter, who has been taken by “the rot.” In other words, she’s become human, and has aged past her prime. The man kills her without affect, seeming almost bored. It’s grotesque and dark and…a little…cool.

In writing classes, one popular theory is to lead a story with a hook—something to grab your reader’s attention and compel them to read further. The Emperor’s Blades certainly does that. But the prologue gives the reader certain expectations about the following story, and The Emperor’s Blades does not honor those expectations. After such a chilling scene, I would hope the ensuing story would illuminate some details about why the Csestriim killed their human children, but instead we only learn that the Csestriim died out millennia ago. But wait! Are they returning at last? Were they even real to begin with? Who knows? Not our characters! The prologue doesn’t have any bearing on the story whatsoever.

Prologue woes aside, the book does have some things going for it. It’s cleanly written with few grammatical errors and no logic problems I can recall. The basic elements of the story—king is assassinated, his children are in danger, etc.—aren’t that unique, but make for a compelling narrative. And the settings of the world are varied and intriguing. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the characters. Most everyone in the novel has either a mysterious, icy cold demeanor, or an explosive and anger-fueled attitude. Some even have both. None of the characters are people I would want to work with, let alone be friends with.

So the heroes are unlikeable and angsty. What about the villains? If written well, villains can be the most interesting part of a story. Sadly, The Emperor’s Blades falls short in this respect, too. The four main villains appear uncomplicated, straightforward, and obvious. Two characters are originally set up to be villains, but are later revealed to be “good guys,” which is interesting…or it would be, if I cared about those characters at all.

If there’s one thing The Emperor’s Blades does well, though, it’s action. The last quarter of the book, it feels, is one unbroken action sequence. Despite struggling to get through the first two thirds of the book, I read the last third in a single sitting. The tension ramps up, the characters start piecing the villains’ plans together, and the novel really moves. Was it worth the wait? I thought so. Will others appreciate it? Honestly, I’m not sure.

In the end, The Emperor’s Blades felt like a solid 3 out 5 for me. It has several issues, but provides good entertainment, a few great twists, and a beautiful action sequence. I just wish it had gotten there sooner.

A Review for “Name of the Wind”

The Name of the Wind cover

This post previously appeared on an old (and destroyed) blog. I’ve since edited it.

I know there are already a bunch of reviews for this book out there, but I’d like to add my thoughts anyway. Without further ado, here’s my review of Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel, The Name of the Wind (spoilers!).

The first time I read this book, I was fanatic. I recommended it to everyone I knew who read fantasy, and even some people who didn’t. Even literature professors were unable to avoid my zeal.

But during my most recent re-read, I used a more careful eye. This time, I read it as a writing major–as a critic–for my creative writing thesis in undergrad. And while I still enjoyed it, I found a few…issues.

First and foremost is the narrative structure. While the stories-within-stories frame is a technique practically as old as literature itself, it presents a challenge for the reader. Which Kvothe should we care about: the current one, or the younger one? Each has his own problems, and each presents a convincing character who I want to love. Sometimes I don’t care about the older Kvothe, a man who apparently lived a legendary life and started a war and possibly summoned terrifying ice-skating spiders. Instead, I care about young Kvothe, the rational University student squabbling with his rival, searching endlessly for his “ladyfriend.” And sometimes, it’s the opposite. It’s difficult for readers to hold two versions of the same character in their minds without favoring one, and that’s not always a good thing.

There are some technical issues in the novel, too:

  • Kvothe’s “You wouldn’t understand”/narcissistic attitude
  • The underwhelming female characters
  • Eleven-year-old Kvothe speaking with the diction of a twenty-year-old

That said, the novel has plenty of aspects that draw me in. Name of the Wind employs beautiful and at times striking language along with enticing worldbuilding and characters. Sometimes I sit back with the book on my lap and think, “Now there’s a good sentence.” Stylistically, I find similarities between Rothfuss’s writing and Le Guin’s. True, sometimes Rothfuss is a little heavy-handed with the adjectives, but as a fellow adjective abuser myself, I’m willing to forgive him.

Secondly, Denna. Denna is a fascinating character with just enough intrigue to make me yearn for more information, but a complex enough character where I care about her without knowing exactly what makes her tick. Her relationship with Kvothe is adorable, and her endless stream of suitors, while aggravating, presents the right amount of interpersonal stress on Kvothe where he’s truly challenged–and it makes me love them more. I’m not so sure she’s a realistic character, but she’s manipulative, intelligent, cruel, yet friendly and kind all at the same time. And that complexity gives her character strength.

And lastly, the mysteries. This is where the story-within-a-story frame really shines. Because readers see an older, aged Kvothe who contrasts completely with his younger self, readers are compelled to continue reading and witness the change occur. By the end of Name of the Wind, young Kvothe has changed, but not nearly enough to justify older Kvothe’s radically different outlook on life. That in turn pushes readers toward the second book in the series, Wise Man’s Fear, and to the eventual third book (which hasn’t been published yet). Rothfuss presents readers with the right amount of information throughout the novel: not too much where readers become bored, and not too little where they become uninterested. Instead, it brings readers closer to Kvothe and make them vie for his success. It’s all the more fulfilling when he gets it, and all the more heartbreaking when he doesn’t. I feel invested in Kvothe’s story, and that is, ultimately, any author’s goal.

This novel isn’t perfect. College classes probably won’t teach it any time soon. But it’s still an entertaining, fun read, and for that it earns 4/5 stars.