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.

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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.

On Writing, National Novel Writing Month, and Omega 84

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Remember when I said I would try to write every day for three weeks? Well, in a stunning turn of events (not), I failed. But much like my workout challenge, it wasn’t a complete failure. Out of twenty-six days, I wrote for sixteen days and missed ten. This includes creative writing and blog writing. Of those sixteen writing days, I wrote over 750 words on eight of them.

This is by no means my best record. But compared to the amount of creative writing I was doing a month ago, it’s a huge increase, and one that I’m proud of.

Let me tell you a story. In one of my classes, we were put into groups and given an assignment to create a fake publishing house. We also had to write fake query letters to the fake publishing houses. I didn’t think much of my query letters; none of my existing projects fit with any of the publishing houses in the class, so I made up some new ones. One of these stories I named Omega 84.

The fake publishing house I queried, Astral Waters Press, “publishes” science fiction novels featuring LGBTQ+ characters. Coming up with a fake story idea to fit those requirements seemed easy enough, I thought. So I wrote a query letter for a fake story called Omega 84. I won’t divulge too many details—suffice to say it features a gay woman who travels across space a few centuries in the future—but after I wrote the query letter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In bed that night, I lobbed questions at my fiancé: What do you think of this? How could this be believable? What should I name the home planet for my character? He didn’t have many suggestions, but he provided support…and then a reminder that he wakes up at six in the morning for work. I stopped asking questions after that.

But I didn’t stop thinking about Omega 84. Pieces started coming together. A narrative arc formed. My character’s motivations became clear and before I fully realized what was happening, I had my first book idea in two years.

I decided (foolishly) to write it for NaNo. So far, I have about eight thousand words, an outline through chapter five of the book, and a rough idea of what happens after that. School caught up with me again and I didn’t write as much as I wanted to, but it’s a start—if a difficult one. Fantasy is my comfort zone: with few exceptions, it’s what I read and write. But science fiction isn’t a far cry from fantasy. (They’re shelved next to each other in bookstores and libraries for good reason!) And I’m not afraid to tackle this unfamiliar genre.

That said, I’ll need some help. I’ve chosen my books through the end of the year but I’ll need some new reads, including some science fiction books, for 2017. Have any suggestions? Drop a comment or tweet me @fictionlass (see the sidebar). And if you’re interested in following my progress with Omega 84, you can search this blog for the tag “Omega 84” or Twitter for the hashtag #Omega84. I fully intend to finish a complete draft of this book and then try to edit it. If I haven’t posted about it in a while, feel free to bug me. I look forward to hearing from you!

Exploring the Amazon Bookstore

A few weeks ago, Amazon opened their third bookstore location in Washington Square. I’m not Amazon’s biggest fan (though I am a Prime user, mostly for their TV and music services), but I liked the idea of having another bookstore close to home. Amazon gets a bad rap from some publishing professionals for controlling too much of the book market. And while some days I agree with that sentiment, I was willing to keep an open mind about their bookstore. Maybe it would be awesome.

Well…

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It wasn’t what I expected.

In fairness, I wasn’t sure what I expected. And going in on opening day negatively affected my perception of the store: it was, in a word, overwhelming. So many people, so many book covers staring at me, so many signs to read… It wasn’t welcoming in the way I thought a bookstore should be. I treat bookstores kind of like libraries. The books should be plentiful, the people few and far between, the noise low. Amazon Books? Totally different.

When I finally found the sci-fi/fantasy aisle, I was confused. Surely there was another section somewhere? Maybe around the corner? But no, there was only the one aisle shown in the picture above. There couldn’t have been more than 200 sci-fi and fantasy titles in the whole store, which is strange to me, considering that I personally own over 50 fantasy and sci-fi books.

Something else that caught me off guard was finding books 2 and 3 of a series, but not book 1. I was assured that customers can order the missing books in a series from the virtual Amazon marketplace, but regardless, the source of this weirdness is an Amazon Bookstore policy: to only stock books with 4-star ratings or higher. (I’m sure they know this, but ratings aren’t everything; Twilight has a 4.2/5 rating on Amazon. Yikes.) Another side effect of only stocking the highest rated books is that I when expected to find an author’s entire collection of works, I only found their few popular ones. There are some readers who would want only the most read books by an author, certainly. But for me, part of the joy of being in a bookstore is stumbling across the unexpected. It’s exploring the shelves and discovering a book that feels unknown to everyone but you.

Amazon Books does not do this. Instead, only the most popular, most loved books are on display, and therein lies a realization: Amazon Books is in it for the money. The store is not comfortable; I found only a few chairs tucked between shelves, in the middle of where people browse. The lighting is new but makes the store feel dark and industrial. Sure, it feels like a new take on a traditional or independent bookstore, but…I don’t think it’s a good take.

From a business standpoint, maybe it is. It promotes visibility of Amazon as a book retailer, and the store does have a technology section which features the Echo, various Kindles, and the Fire TV among other devices. Amazon Books probably generates a lot of money for Amazon. Plus, the Washington Square area hasn’t had a bookstore for a few years; Amazon Books fills that void.

So there are benefits to the store. Perhaps I’m being overly critical. I’ve been in love with Powell’s since I moved to Oregon, and I couldn’t help but compare the two. I love the warmth in Powell’s—I love being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books. At the same time, friends have said Powell’s overwhelms them and makes them claustrophobic. I totally get that. Maybe they would like Amazon Books more?

I was never going to like Amazon Books the same way I like Powell’s. But maybe someone else will.

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.

 

Reading at the Gym

I was never a big fan of working out. Some months would go by without me exercising at all, other than walking to class or to the store. But this past summer was different. In addition to walking the trails around my new apartment, I started going to the on-location gym thanks to the help of a good friend. She’s been going to the gym on a regular basis for years, and since she was staying with me for a few weeks on a semi-vacation, I decided to use her as motivation and join her on the elliptical. The first couple of days were difficult for me, partly because I was pushing my muscles pretty hard, and partly because I was bored. Really, really bored. My friend turned on the TV for me but the best thing on was Numb3rs. Instead of watching TV, she read.

Yep. She read a book. While she worked out.

If you want to get technical about it, it was an e-book. She had her phone perched on the display of the elliptical, and despite reading it, she was working up quite a sweat. I later asked her how she could read while she was working out; wouldn’t it be distracting?

For her, it was quite the opposite. “Running is too boring,” she said. “Outside or on the treadmill—doesn’t matter. My mind wanders and I always think, ‘is it over yet? Am I done?’ But reading on the elliptical is surprisingly easy. It keeps me focused.” My friend averaged forty-five minutes on the elliptical that week, at varying intensities. And she read the entire time.

Weird though it seemed, I decided to try it. The next day, I took my phone with me, opened up an e-book, and read. And, truthfully, it did help.

I’ve seen some bloggers complain about people reading while they work out. If you can read and do X type of exercise, then you’re not doing it hard enough. That may be true for someone who’s reading a physical book in their hands. But reading an e-book on your phone while you’re on the elliptical is, actually, easy—not to mention unobtrusive and, to some extent, discreet.

Since I finished college, I’ve had trouble sitting down with the intent of reading a book for an hour or two. I used to read all the time. One summer, I read all three Mistborn books in one weekend. My family didn’t see me unless I came out of my room for food. Two years ago, I read the first two Stormlight Archives book in a couple weeks, but that was last time I can remember marathoning a book like that. Marathons aside, this summer was particularly devoid of books. I only read four or five (Elantris, a re-read, Kindred, The Forgetting Tree, The Emperor’s Blades, half of Aeronaut’s Windlass, and possibly another one). That’s nothing!

If nothing else, reading while on the elliptical might jump-start my reading habit again—and in turn, my writing habit. At least it’ll get me to work out.