Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Recommendation: Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death recently won the World Fantasy Award. In honor of this award, I decided to review it here.

For those of you who haven't heard of this novel, the basic plot can be summed up with "girl discovers her powers and then goes on a quest to save the world." And while that by itself doesn't sound very original, there are two aspects of this novel that make it absolutely worth reading: the world and the overall style and execution.

Here is my review:

It's difficult to rate this book, because it's very different from a lot of other fantasy books. Not only is it set in Africa, which is very rare in fantasy, but the book has an entirely different feel. The atmosphere is very mystical, and it often feels more like magic realism than fantasy. 

As a result, this book gets away with stuff that would otherwise make me groan. If you stuck Onyesonwu in any other fantasy novel, her 'special snowflake' status would probably piss me off. The purity of Daib's evilness would never be acceptable. The way Onyesonwu is able to quickly repair a broken and divisive society is also completely implausible. However, the thing about this book is that I didn't expect plausibility. 

This is the first novel I can remember reading where I could actually suspend disbelief, and where I didn't feel like I needed a logical explanation for everything. In many ways, the story feels almost fairy tale-like. (Well, not "fairy tale," but like a story you would tell around the campfire.) 

The interesting thing is that the mystical, tale-like atmosphere doesn't take anything away from good concrete world-building. I wish I could comfortably navigate through my constructed world the way Okorafor does. She writes in details like cactus candy, rapas, water capture stations, and juju without drawing any attention to the fact that they might be unusual to many of her readers. 

In terms of characters, I like how Okorafor develops her entire cast, including the secondary characters. Luyu was probably my favorite character. I had some issues with Onyesonwu, however. At times, she seemed like a self-centered bitch. I hated the way she antagonized Diti during their fight. Although she had valid reasons to be angry at Diti, Diti herself had good reasons to be upset, especially considering that she gave up so much in order to go on a perilous journey with Onyesonwu. I also disliked Mwita, and didn't understand why Onyesonwu was so in love with him. He's often controlling, jealous, and kind of a dick.

Friday, October 28, 2011

"The Bookman" by Lavie Tidhar

Looking over this blog, I realized that I really ought to post more book reviews. So here's a book review:

The Bookman, by Lavie Tidhar, or "How to ruin what could have been an awesome book"

This book has a fairly decent and original plot. It's steampunk + alternate history + lizard kings + characters based on historical and literary figures + adventure, which should be a cool combination, except that it's very difficult to care about any of it.

How difficult? Last night I had twenty-five pages before the end of the book. I wasn't particularly tired or busy, and there was no reason why I couldn't just finish it. And yet, I decided to surf the internet and go to bed instead.

Let me repeat that: Twenty-five pages, and I couldn't bring myself to grit my teeth and finish it last night. (I ended up finishing it this morning.)

Why was it so difficult? It wasn't boring--on the contrary, there was a lot of stuff happening. The problem was the characters. The only one in the book who has significant screen time is Orphan, the protagonist, and he is about as flat as they get. He has very little by way of personality, and he is relatively passive.

There is the right way to do passive characters and the wrong way. The right (well, depending on your definition of right...) way is Quentin Coldwater, from The Magicians*. Passivity and dullness is Quentin's character. It's what makes you love hate want to bash his head into a brick wall. However, Orphan isn't the kind of passive that you can hate. He's the passive, personality-free character about whom you just don't care. He gets shuffled around from situation to situation, and all he cares about is his dead fiance. (And with how little screen time she gets, and how early she dies, the reader pretty much forgets everything about her, making it nearly impossible to sympathize with his feelings.)

Anyway, now that I've finished with that, I'm off to read I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak. If there's any author who's capable of making me care, it's Zusak. (I cried through the last fifty pages of The Book Thief.)

*Actually, I also hated The Magicians, for two reasons: 1) Grossman's lazy writing habits; 2) Quentin. However, while I hated Quentin, it was also part of what made me admire the book. It's very rare to see nihilistic fantasy with a protagonist you're supposed to hate, and the concept of the book is really cool, even if it failed in execution.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Found: Perfect cafe for writing!

I have found my new writing cafe in Montclair! It's an independently-owned place with fairly cheap coffee and really good baklava. Yay!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I love this part, but I have to cut it

Today was the first day of My Novel and Me time. I finished re-writing the first scene and hit 1000 words.

Unfortunately, a lot of that will need to be cut or edited, due to awkward wording, lack of description, or just the fact that it doesn't fit. Such as this:

An hour later, she finally pulled into her driveway, but she wasn’t alone. A round-faced, balding man was climbing out of the car in front of her.
            “Good afternoon, Aaron,” Paula said, sauntering towards him. She joined him on the front steps and handed him one of the shopping bags she was carrying. “Be a gentleman and help me with this?”
            Aaron sneered, but took the bag. “Good afternoon, Miss Jumiere.”
            “Are you here to see Nathaniel?” Paula asked, twirling her keychain in her fingers. “You have poor timing. He has a reading session with Olivia and would hate to be—”
            Aaron crossed his arms. “Do not delay me. This is urgent.”
            “Urgent? A warlock, then?” Paula grinned. “Don’t you already have enough hunting plaques lining your wall?”
            “You’re amusing, Miss Jumiere. Now please unlock the door.”
            Paula tilted her head to the side. “I’m curious, Aaron. Do Takiran women find your collection attractive?”
            She could almost see the pulsing vein in his head as he reached for the doorbell.
            “Tell me. Do you stuff the heads yourself, or do you prefer to hire a taxidermist? Because you know what King Sanrik said about getting other people to—”
            She could hear the faint echo of the doorbell inside the house. The door opened and Nathaniel nodded to both of them.

I love the snark, and especially the warlock-heads-on-a-plaque part, but the topic of human taxidermy is kind of morbid, and to present Paula with a morbid sense of humor on the first page would be a serious misrepresentation of her character. Also, it almost sounds like Paula is flirting with Aaron, and considering that there is at least a twenty-year age gap between the two of them, this is certainly not what I'm going for.

Are there any lines from your writing that you absolutely love, but had to cut for various reasons?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Writing Motivation and the Westboro Baptist Church

Since I have fulfilled a lot of my immediate RL responsibilities, I have decided that now I need to have some serious "My Novel and Me" time. This will probably entail a lot of hours spent in cafes and a lot of angsting, and hopefully, lots and lots of words. Preferably the good kind of words.

Unfortunately, years of school and homework and being an honor student/pre-med has made me incapable of working without a deadline. Even if I tell myself "finish by this day" I know that the deadline isn't actually enforced, so it might as well not exist.

A friend of a friend recently gave me an idea that should ensure I never miss a deadline ever again. So here goes:

If I fail to complete 75,000 words on The Temple Well by December 31st at midnight, I will donate $50 to the Westboro Baptist Church.

What the hell am I getting myself into?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dystopia and High-Concept

What is it with all of these high-concept dystopias:

Wither: What if everyone died at a young age?

Delirium: What if you could "cure" love?

Divergent: What if society divided itself according to virtues?

Uglies: What if all ugly people were required to get plastic surgery?

The Pledge: What if socioeconomic classes were divided by language?

It seems that most dystopias these days center their world-building around some pseudo-scientific, high-concept "What if?" I suppose this is an author's way of attempting to be original, but these concepts often seem more like some silly gimmick. It's like when you're in third grade and you decide to write a story about 'what if candy rained from the sky?'

It doesn't help that these books tend to follow a similar pattern:

1. Choose your "what if?"
2. Create a totalitarian government that centers around that "what if?" concept. Bonus points if said government is one-dimensional.
3. Create a smart, spunky female protagonist. If she isn't already against the "What if?" concept, she must at some point discover how horrible it is.
4. Create a love interest, preferably a gorgeous guy who is a member of La Resistance. (Bonus points for creating a love triangle. More bonus points if the heroine spends more time obsessing over her love interest(s) than thinking about anything else. Even more bonus points if that love will somehow save or redeem her/him.)

I understand that the authors are trying to send a message through these "what if"s, but in many cases I feel like those messages are, well, obvious. (Choice is good, love is good, etc.) It's hard to sympathize with a protagonist's problems when it feels like they're in a situation that would never happen in the first place.

Then again, considering Takira in my NiP, I guess I have no right to talk.

*I don't really have the authority to discuss this trend, since out of all of the books I mentioned, the only one I actually read was Divergent (and admittedly, I do want to read Wither, despite the fact that the author doesn't seem to know how a virus works.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

In response to a quote preceding a soon-to-be-published YA book:

You know that really famous Robert Frost poem that everyone loves to quote? "The Road Not Taken"

A word of advice: If you really want to take the road less traveled, pick a different fucking poem.

ETA (4/20/12): The funny thing about that poem? The people who quote it are actually the people who totally missed the point.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Secondary Characters I Really Liked

YA Highway: What supporting character from a YA book would you most like to see star in their own novel?

Meh, I don't feel like speculating on novels that don't exist right now. How about, instead, I just give you a list of secondary characters I really liked: (spoiler-ish ones in white)

Ship Breaker: Pima and Tool

Ash: Clara

Who Fears Death: Luyu

The Magicians: Penny. He was the only interesting character in the entire book.

The Hunger Games: One of the sad but awesome things about The Hunger Games is that the first book introduces so many characters, but due to the circumstances of the series, a lot of their personalities and back-stories remain a mystery. Thresh? Foxface? Even Cinna we don't know much about. (Although I think it would ruin it if we saw Cinna's backstory.) Also, I love both Haymitch and Joanna Mason.

Harry Potter: Once again, lots of them, but Ron is hilarious and Hermione is under-appreciated, considering that she saves the day EVERY SINGLE TIME. Also, like everyone, I would love to read a book starring the Marauders.

The Kingkiller Chronicles: Devi. These books need less fairy sex and more Devi.

Neverwhere: Marquis de Carabas

Monday, October 3, 2011

On Mind-Control Technology: "Dollhouse" and "Divergent"

I recently finished watching Joss Whedon's show Dollhouse. While the show was enjoyable (and very addictive), I would hesitate before calling it "good." For those who don't know, the premise involves a group of people, "dolls," who are wiped clean of their personalities so that they can be scientifically imbued with the personalities of other people.

In many ways, the show reminded me of Veronica Roth's recent novel Divergent. For the 0.2% of you who haven't heard of it yet, it's a YA dystopian novel about a society that divides itself into factions based on individual virtues. (My review is here if you're interested.) While the plot of Divergent isn't anything like Dollhouse, both of them contained an element of mind-control technology that was crucial to the story--and, in both cases, I found that technology problematic.

Note: This is not a rant or an attempt to bash either of these stories. This is merely a discussion.

However, in order for me to discuss this properly, I will have to reveal certain elements of the plot. So, yes, this discussion is FULL OF SPOILERS for both Divergent and Dollhouse. And no, I will not hide them.

And yes, I do recommend reading/watching both. Dollhouse is entertaining, and has good action and witty dialogue. Divergent also has a lot of action, as well as a believable romance. I also think both bring up good discussions, even if they are of the "this premise doesn't make any sense" variety.


So, anyway, mind control. In Dollhouse, people are implanted with new personalities and memories, while previous personalities and memories are completely forgotten--except in the case of the main character, Echo, for a reason that is never really explained. In Divergent, the society uses a "simulation serum" to put people into fearful scenarios that feel very real. However, certain individuals, called "divergents", are able to bend or overcome these simulations. Of course, the main character, Tris, is one of these unique individuals, as is her love interest and mother.

Tris' "divergence" means two things: first, that Tris doesn't fall primarily into one virtue--she embodies three of the five defined by her community; second, that she is strong-willed, which is what allows her to overpower the simulation serum. This itself doesn't make any sense. First of all, is it really that rare for someone to equally possess multiple virtues or character traits? Secondly, how does having a "diverging" personality mean that one is strong-willed?

Well, okay, so the above is more of a rant. But here is the real problem: Am I really supposed to believe that Tris is strong-willed?

It is true that some people are more in control of their emotions than others, but this doesn't mean anything about bravery. When faced with the simulations that were chemically designed to stimulate the amygdala, Tris could mentally lower her fear response faster than any of the other initiates. While this shows impressive emotional control, the fact that Tris knew she was never facing any real dangers means that this is a terrible way to show a strong will. A strong-willed person is someone who acts DESPITE their fear, not someone who can simply push it away. When I think of a brave, strong-willed character in Divergent, I do not think of Tris. I think of Al, who stuck to his morals despite the fact that his actions would have made him Factionless. ("Wait," you say. "But Al didn't stick to his morals." Personally, I felt his sudden transformation was a HUGE inconsistency in his character, and I refuse to buy it, no matter what Veronica Roth expects me to believe.)

At the end of the novel, the simulation serum is used to turn the entire Dauntless faction into an army of mindless killers. Tris, due to her divergence, isn't affected. In fact, if I'm remembering correctly, she doesn't even have to struggle against the mind-bending simulation. At this point, her divergence doesn't feel like a result of her strong willpower; it feels like a magic power.

The same is true for Dollhouse. Halfway through the second season, Echo discovers that she can slide into any one of her previously implanted personalities, even though they should have been erased. Not only that, but she can do this at will--this means that she can become a rocket scientist or a ninja or a diva or whatever she needs at the present moment. In other words, she goes into complete Mary Sue mode. The only possible explanation for why Echo (and one other character) can do this while others can't is that at one point she was simultaneously implanted with over thirty personalities at once--all of which were wiped afterwards. Perhaps this is supposed to suggest that Echo/Caroline is also strong-willed?

(And don't even ask me how she can mentally bring herself back from the dead.)

Basically, my problem with both of these stories is that they seem to be confusing "pseudoscience" with "character development." And when you're trying to write about strong will, or bravery, or anything, really, character development is indispensable.

Additionally, there are two other issues I had with mind-control scenarios.

1. Army of mindless/brainwashed zombies: I'm not saying you SHOULDN'T do this, but this basically turns your immediate enemies into cardboard cutouts; they don't need a reason to be evil because they're brainwashed. But wouldn't it be so much more interesting to fight against an army of real human beings? You know, people who believe in their cause as much as you believe in yours?

2. Mind-control can be overcome by the power of love--ugh, can you say cheesy? (Actually, this wasn't done badly in Dollhouse, but in Divergent it made me want to puke.)


I know believability in fiction is something that tends to be very subjective, so I'm curious to hear everyone else's thoughts.
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