Saturday, 5 September 2015

Review of Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M. Lee

I give it 2.5 out of 5 stars, based on the Goodreads ranking scale.

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To start, I want to state that I am not this book's target demographic, but I have a soft spot for YA fiction so I read it anyways.

The world laid out in Gates of Thread and Stone leaves something to be desired for logical consistency. It's set in a fantasy post-apocalypse world, that is explained by a clash between magic and technology that sounds a bit like they're living in a nuclear winter. The large scale world leaves something to be desired in terms of logical consistency. While I accept suspension of disbelief as necessary for fantasy, I don't understand how the world functions at all. There doesn't seem to be any weather, or any seasons, and I'm not quite certain how anyone eats anything as there doesn't seem to be any form of agriculture or herding or even hunting that would explain how a (very) crowded city is able to feed anyone at all.

The storyline is one single narrative line, and there is a plot twist at the end that I suppose is meant to be surprising but there was so many obvious hints throughout that it was pretty inevitable that something was going on behind the scenes. The pacing could have been slightly faster, but it did keep me reading along.

I did really enjoy the descriptions of the threads of time, and their manipulation by the protagonist, Kai. The manipulation of time was an interesting element of the storyline, and one of the saving graces.

There were two things that really bothered me: Kai's obsession with Avan's body, and the insertion of real-world elements for no apparent reason.

For the first, I don't care to know how much of the book was dedicated to minute descriptions of the male love-interest's body. His purpose in the storyline is to be hot, and to swoop in at the last minute and self-sacrifice for Kai. There is no justification for why he is so bent on safeguarding Kai, not even his family back story. He also always conveniently shows up just in the nick of time to save the day, which is not always explained. He owes her nothing, and she owes him so much, and their relationship is so tenuous I'd thought he was a very minor character until Kai's brother goes missing.

Throughout the books, there are random insertions of real-world elements in the way the speak, the items that they encounter, the way people look (such as a mohawk... I want to know how that woman got hair gel, or why that was even a style option considering other background characters are described as wearing corsets or tunics.) It was startling, and distracted me from the story. It goes back to my first point on the world lacking logical consistency.

I am going to read the sequel, and I'm hoping that the author will develop the world more. While Gates of Thread and Stone wasn't terrible, there are far better YA novels out there that feature female protagonists.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Reflecting on Challenge

So, it's mid-September, and where am I at with my goal? Not even close.

I completed one round of edits on the (still) incomplete draft, and picked out problem areas that needing smoothing out. I took the draft from 111 pages to 131 pages, which isn't a whole heck of a lot, but it's still a respectable addition to the novel.

So what happened?

All the way back in May (when I was in a funk from getting rejected for multiple jobs), I decided that heck yes I was gonna finish that ever-elusive first novel! I was gonna finish it and edit the ever-loving god out of it and it was going to be spectacular. Was I possibly trying to prove to people who didn't care that I, yes I, was actually better off without working for them?

Maybe a little.

I started working nearly full-time in retail in June, and my personal life suddenly got a lot busier, and I let my project slip away. I haven't stopped thinking about it though, it's still kicking around in my head, waiting. To lay it all out, I want to talk about the challenges that made it easier for me to put off finishing the novel, because I encountered issues I hadn't realised would come up.

1) I hadn't actually read the story from beginning to end (with large plot gaps that needed filling, but regardless) until I sat down to edit it, and then suddenly all sorts of things started jumping out at me that I hadn't realised would be a problem until I did. Obviously, this is supposed to happen, but having all of these problematic things appear on top of trying to fill in narrative gaps was overwhelming. I tried to edit and write at the same time, which everyone will tell you, is one of the worst possible things you can try and do.

2) I started over thinking elements of the story. This ties back into the editing/writing at the same time issue, but it's slightly different. I began to mentally question every facet of the story, from characters to events to overarching themes and then became stuck in a quagmire of doubt and half-baked ideas that didn't amount to much. I lost the over-arching idea of what I wanted to accomplish trying to wade out of the mess I'd created.

3) The reason there had been narrative gaps in the first place were because I hadn't wanted to write the (necessary but slow) scenes in between the exciting drama scenes. The scenes weren't shiny and sexy, but they were important, so I did my best to slog through them, and along the way made them interesting in their own way. I still haven't finished filling in the narrative gaps as we speak, but I want to keep tackling them until I am satisfied with them and sure they won't put people to sleep.

4) I started flirting with other ideas, for other narratives that were new and sparkly and had promises of being easy and fun to write that made my current project seem....dull. As you shouldn't cheat on relationships, cheating on writing projects is equally as terrible an idea.

So what's next?

Well, I haven't given up. I'm still going to put in time to finish this novel. I'm not putting a date on it though, because deadlines I set myself don't actually do much to motivate me. I'm also going to attempt NaNoWriMo again this year in November, (with a shiny new plot), to get myself back into a writing groove. I'm going to keep writing blog posts of random things that occur to me, and I'm going to keep writing.

Because if nothing else, I will always be a writer, even if I'm not an author.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

"My Name is Inigo Montoya."

After doing a lot of practicing this weekend, I thought I might give my two cents about writing fight scenes, both medieval-style and renaissance-style, when it's a one-on-one scenario between two trained fighters.

What could I possibly know about this? Surprisngly, a lot. I've been doing historical swordplay for awhile now, and have done full-speed full-contact sparring (albeit with blunt steel weapons, not sharps), mainly longsword/bastard sword and rapier. I've also witnessed full-armor sparring, again with blunt steel weapons, but legit kits. This by no means makes me an expert on anything, but it does offer me a few insights.

I'm going to put aside the mechanics of how to describe actions, and balancing technique vs. story, and instead offer some food for thought on a general level.

1) Fighters will have some level of fear going into a combat situation, unless they are actively trying to die. Having someone trying to skewer you on a sharp steel weapon is scary, and historically, even a minor flesh wound could have become infected and caused an unpleasant death. So, for fighters with a wish to stay alive into their old age, survival instincts would dictate a physiological response of fear. How they deal with that fear depends on their personality, their experience, their training, what's at stake, etc etc.

2) Sparring is an adrenaline rush. That physiological response of fear I was talking about? Yeah, it causes adrenaline spikes. That comes with lots of fun effects like not feeling hits as much, getting into the zone, and reacting by instinct more than by thought. A character could conceivably be an adrenaline junkie, and get into  fights just for the high it gives, much in the same way some people are into extreme sports. They might also make rash decisions post-fight, when they're still riding the adrenaline and not using the analytic part of their brain.

3) There is a zone for sparring. It's not exactly having a blank mind, but more of an intense awareness of your physical self, and your surroundings. Finding that place is easier or harder for different people, because it's really easy to get distracted by other concerns, or over-thinking the fight. Sure, sizing up the opponent is a great idea, analyzing their movements, all of those good things require thinking, but I like to call it "back of the mind" thinking. While that sort of combat analysis is happening, the blank awareness dominates the main thought processes.

4) Different people have different fighting styles. Even if they've trained under the same master, and know all of the same moves, different people move differently. Some people will use brute strength, some will use perfect technique, some will be quick and agile, some will use feints, some will have an amazing sense of timing and measure. Whether any of these will always win against another, I have no idea, but I do know that it changes the dynamic of the fight a lot.

5) Continuing on the thought of fight dynamics, level of training or experience changes the fight a lot. Someone with little or no training will flail wildly; while this isn't effective, it is difficult to deal with because it is unpredictable, and can result in a lucky hit getting in. Someone with decades of training will probably move with a fluidity others can only envy, and they're challenging because their instincts have been honed far more than their opponents, and their "oh shit!" reactions will be more likely to be the correct reaction than yours.

6) Swords level the playing field. Put a sword in someone's hand, and suddenly the fact that they are a 6'7" muscular giant, or 5'0" and lean makes a whole lot less difference. They both have advantages and disadvantages to their height/weight/muscle to fat ratio, and one will not automatically triumph over the other. It will simply change their reactions to their opponents to best use their own strengths and exploit their opponents weaknesses.

7) Fighting in armor is hard. While it isn't exactly heavy when you put it on, you can feel it weighing on your limbs. I tried on a chainmail shirt, and while it wasn't heavy, it actually felt like it was constricting my lungs, and it became harder to breathe. This means that people in armor will want to finish off their opponents as quickly as possible, with the least amount of energy possible. So, hour-long fights? Not going to happen, unless their armor is enchanted to be light as a feather. It is also damn hard to find the weak spots in armor, which means that there will be a lot of scuffling and hits that have no effect until a weak spot is exploited (armpit, under the helm, etc..). The easiest way to get someone is to knock them off their feet and then finish them off from there. Having a back-up weapon like a dagger is exceptionally useful in this situation.

If I think of anything else, I will add it, but as some final thoughts, if you want to find out what holding a real steel weapon feels like, find your local western martial arts group (if you're in a major city, there's probably one near you), and if that isn't possible, there are a lot of historical manuscripts from the Italian, German, French, English, etc... traditions available online, from various eras, with translations to English done by some dedicated people. Research is your friend!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Ode to Overcoming Expectations

I think the main theme of this blog is dealing with internal struggle as an author, and not on the part of characters. Maybe I tend to think about everything too much, but my story as a writer is not complete with my story as dealing with a multitude of mental roadblocks.

Today, I learned to let go.

It had nothing to do with writing, but a challenge I referred to a few blog posts back about swordplay. I hadn't met it for two days, not because I was busy, but because of my own expectations for myself. I had made it my goal to re-familiarize myself with a style of swordplay that I haven't practiced in many, many months, and although my body remembers the actions, my muscles no longer have the stamina for the particular actions required of them.

This was depressing on a number of levels, and for the past two days, I wanted to simply give up, put it off for another day. I had expected that I would have lost some strength, I had accepted that, but I hadn't realized quite how far it'd gone.

Obviously, I was conscious of the fact that I could return to my previous level of ability with practice, but my expectations were that I should be at that ability right this very moment.

It took me until today to shake off that expectation, and let it go. I had to accept that no, I'm not as fit as I was before, but that I can still work towards it.

This, I think, is still something that I need to work on for writing. I expect every sentence to come out perfect the first time, and get frustrated when they don't, so I start editing and writing at the same time which just makes me get stuck, become apathetic, or produce very little result for my effort. When I get there, I think it will be glorious.

So, here's to overcoming self-expectations, one at a time!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Review of Enchantress by James Maxwell

I've been on a reading kick, so have another review! I give it five out of five stars, based on the Goodreads ranking scale.

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I want to start by saying that the moment I finished this novel I immediately went onto Amazon and purchased the sequel. 

The author has created an expansive world in Enchantress, and fleshed out the setting to the point where you can picture it in your mind. Everything is internally consistent, and the system of magic is particularly well thought out. Anything that needs explained is explained, and I liked that the author thought out how the extensive use of magic would affect the growth and use of standard technology, or even change it completely, such as negating the use of beasts of burden.

There are many separate threads of narrative that end up coming together beautifully at the end. The characters were flawed, and didn't necessarily always do the right thing, and they experienced personal growth. I really enjoyed Ella's blossoming as a character, and Killian's story line.

Another excellent point is the battle scenes: while there is perhaps an unrealistic number of soldiers and battles fought in comparison to what history tells us, they were well-written and intense without becoming eye-glazingly long. The sequences involving the bladesingers were excellent, and there was the right combination of describing technique/skill with a focus on the internal dialogue of a fighter.

To be sure, there were some cliches in the story line. There were some wise Obi-Wan figures, some mystical woods people, some warrior tribes people, orphans who find out that they're really nobility, and some minor conflicts that resolved themselves relatively abruptly. I am happy to skim over these facts, as they don't detract from the storytelling. The only point of irritation I have was the meticulous descriptions by the author of naked female bodies, repeatedly. They were all flawless and perfect, and served very little point to the plot other than to be admired by male characters. 

Aside from these few points, Enchantress is a fantastic read, and I recommend it to all lovers of a good fantasy story

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Review of The Light Keepers by Mande Matthews

This blog has now surpassed 300 pageviews! I'm more excited than a duck in a pond being tossed breadcrumbs.

There is also one person out there still using Netscape. I feel like you, whoever you are, are a time-traveler from the 90's finding out what's going to happen in the future. I salute you, Netscape user, for checking out this blog, despite the uselessness of the information that you can take back in time with you.

In other news, The Brightest Night is sitting pretty at 130 pages. I'm in a good writing space, so hopefully will get some more pages done tonight.

You lovely folk also get a book review courtesy of yours truly. The novella in question is The Light Keepers, and a preview of the next book Bonded, by author Mande Matthews. I give it two stars out of five, based on the Goodreads scale.

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I was browsing the Kindle e-books, and stumbled across this. Wanting to read something fantastical, it looked the part, so I downloaded it and read it. The particular version also came with several chapters of Bonded, the first book of the ShadowLight Saga, and this review will address both.

I wasn't really expecting all that much from the read, and that's essentially what I ended up getting, not that much.

The Good: The premise of the story is fairly interesting, and I was intrigued enough to keep reading. Astrid (main character) has some interesting internal conflict, and it was kind of interesting to have a narrator who was mute, and thus not able to fully exert herself on her surroundings. There's some really lovely descriptions of setting, and the fact that it was a pseudo-Viking society becomes pretty clear quite early on. Various of the setting were quite original, such as the song of the Mother, and the idea of shadowalking. The villain (even if he doesn't get properly introduced) was pretty creepy, although the sexual tension...really doesn't make sense. Yes, the dark side is seductive, but...why literally?

The Bad: While I haven't read the entire saga, I'm pretty sure my predictions for the ending are spot on. It's a variant of a plot we've read multiple times before, although I will give it kudos for doing it in a new and different way. I have a basic understanding of Norse mythos and Viking culture, but a lot of concepts brought up were unfamiliar to me and could have used a little bit more introduction. The use of nei for no and ja for yes irked me. I understand that it was to establish the foreign setting, but if all the characters are speaking the same language, the necessity is gone.

The Ugly: There was a whole lot of action and angst, but there was no down time to digest, and a lot of internal conflict resolved itself incredibly quickly. A lot of relationships were established, but rather than being shown, were described point blank. I came away from the prequel and preview of the next book feeling unfulfilled, because there was a lot of stuff going on, but it lacked substance. 

I'm not going to touch the fight scenes, because they do what they're supposed to do for the plot and establishing characters.

Will I keep reading Bonded? Probably not. If you want something fluffy that is a quick read, then you may enjoy this book. If you want something to sink your teeth into, this book is not for you.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Keeping the Moles in Line

Many, many years ago, I read the first chapter of a book that had the narrator describing how her emotions were like moles. The particular narrator was focused on the point that she seemed to have less moles than other people, or perhaps a different kind of mole. [Either way, for the life of me, I can't remember the title of the book or the author, so if you know it, please enlighten me.]

Am I about to start talking about metaphors? Not even remotely.

I want to talk about writing through a variety of different emotional states.

To start, a quote from GoT's Syrio Forel, because the Braavosi is amazing:

"Good. Trouble is the perfect time to train.
When you're dancing in the meadow with your dolls and kittens,
this is not when fighting happens."

I'm sure you can guess where I'm going with this. Since ancient Greece, artists of all kinds have talked about getting inspiration from muses in the completion of their work. Others have removed themselves from reality through the use of drugs and alcohol to help get into a state where they were able to write. It would be wonderful if suddenly rainbows rained down upon me and showered me with the energy and inspiration to write a complete novel from start to finish in a glorious burst of textual orgasm. In reality, that's never going to happen.

There are, obviously, moods better suited to writing, and inspiration does strike on occasion. But, as all writers are human being, we experience the full range of emotions, from despair to anger to ecstasy. Depending on what you're writing, some of these might actually be helpful to channel onto the page. However, there is one particular mole that is difficult to write with: apathy. It's the apathy of not wanting to do anything, the apathy of post-modern existential ennui that makes everything seem pointless, the apathy of questioning the value of pursuing your writing.

I wish I could tell you that I have a magical remedy for apathy. Unfortunately, I don't. Having been wrestling with it the past few days, the only thing I can say, is that writing with apathy is difficult, but doable. If you can ignore the voice of Nietzche talking about an abyss and put some words on a page, the willful act of creation  slowly drives the apathy mole away, until it goes back to its dark lair. 

So shoo, apathy mole, be gone!