Book Review: “Range of Ghosts”

range-of-ghosts-largeI finally did it. After a month of off-again, on-again reading, I finished Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts. I should have done it a lot sooner, but school kept demanding my attention (and I didn’t manage my time well…) and now we’re here. As those of you who read my previous blog post on Range of Ghosts know, I was not a good reader for this book. There were things I missed or didn’t understand because I was so scatterbrained. But I’ll do my best to give you a good blog post on this book.

The Range of Ghosts is one of the few fantasy books I’ve read that celebrates diversity. Each character is described as belonging to a different people, a different country. What’s even cooler is that the world of Range of Ghosts—at least the world depicted in the novel—is based off the central Asian steppe, and the characters reflect that. I can’t remember a single light-skinned person in the book. Just like the multitudinous peoples of Asia, the peoples of Range of Ghosts are multifaceted and varied. And the characters are completely believable, too. Their motivations and voices are distinct and realistic. Elizabeth Bear did a wonderful job portraying diverse cultures.

Another cool, diverse thing about Range of Ghosts is the gender makeup of the named characters. The two main POV characters are Samarkar, a once-princess who chose to become infertile for the chance to have great magic power, and Temur, a forgotten son of a conqueror and warrior. That’s an even split. But the rest of the characters that join on their journey are three women and one man (not all at the same time). It’s so rare for women to be equally represented in fantasy—and rarer still for them to be more populous than their male counterparts.

The ending, by the way, was amazing. Samarkar swims across a sea. Another character becomes possessed. Little things Bear had been hinting at throughout the novel converge in a stupefying final scene. I definitely want more (and thankfully, there is more, in the form of two books to round out the trilogy). And now that I’ve exposed myself to one of Bear’s series, I’ll be more willing to read her other works—of which there are many.

I could continue, but really, this Tor.com blog post discusses Range of Ghosts better than I ever could. I give this novel a 4/5, and will definitely reread it in the future.

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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: “A Darker Shade of Magic”

My fiancé purchased A Darker Shade of Magic, a novel by V. E. Schwab, at Powell’s a few months ago. It had been sitting on our bookshelf since then—he’s been occupied with other books recently—until I finished The Emperor’s Blades and needed something else to read (and blog about). It was the spine of the book that initially drew me to it: plain white with large, angular yet artistic text, it looked out of place among the many fantasy novels we owned. When I picked it up, I saw that it was published by Tor, one of my favorite publishers. They’re not known for their minimalist covers, but somehow, A Darker Shade of Magic was given a cover that is intriguing in its baseness. A figure in red steps between two circular maps. The book itself is lightweight for its size. It’s completely different from every other Tor book I’ve come across—and perhaps that was the intention.

A Darker Shade of Magic isn’t simply different in a physical sense. I find its combination of interdimensional travel, a Victorian era setting, rampant magic, and a high fantasy tone difficult to categorize. It’s clearly a fantasy book, but it’s not “urban” in the strictest sense, and it’s not quite a “period piece” because only a portion of the novel occurs in Victorian London. Perhaps the rock I’ve been hiding under recently is much larger than I thought, or maybe I’ve had my head in too many high fantasy books, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel quite like A Darker Shade.

While the story has a straightforward, classic approach to the narrative structure and could even be divided into three acts in the same manner as a play, the writing style is refreshing and the characters intriguing. The first chapter in particular reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s style: grounding details decorated with snappy phrases that draw the reader in. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Schwab spent weeks writing the first few paragraphs alone. When read aloud, the sentences flow together with a delightful cadence not unlike the river that serves as a motif for the novel. Schwab’s writing is elegant, straightforward, and luxurious in its brevity.

For a novel to succeed, it needs magnetic characters with which the reader can identify. I can’t decide if A Darker Shade follows character tropes too closely, or if it achieves a balance between recognizable and unique. The male protagonist adheres to the strong-and-silent type: he is one of a dying breed of wizards, and takes his duty very seriously. But he also has his quirks, namely his penchant for useless baubles and trinkets from other worlds. The female assumes the swashbuckling rogue archetype with street-smarts. At times she can appear a bit too unflappable, but she gets herself into so much trouble over the course of the novel that it’s not necessarily a fault; the reader knows she’s done this before, and will try her damnedest to survive, even (or especially) if it means attacking with reckless abandon. The tone difference between her viewpoint chapters and the male protagonist’s serve as welcome breaks in what could have been a much darker, duller story.

Of course this novel isn’t without its faults. One villain in particular seemed lacking in motivation, and a few side characters faded from my memory after a few chapters (even though they were important later on). Tor employed an excellent copyeditor who made very few mistakes throughout the novel, but I tripped over the language at times. That said, I would definitely read this novel again—and will hopefully get my hands on its sequel soon. All in all, A Darker Shade of Magic provides a fascinating conceptualization of Victorian London intertwined with fantastical magic. I highly recommend it for readers looking for a break from high/epic fantasy, or are looking to test the waters of fantasy/period literature. 4/5 stars.