SHADOW AND BONE by LEIGH BARDUGO
When I was a child, my grandmother used to make the most decadent, velvet smooth chocolate sauce in the world. I remember pouring it generously over vanilla bean ice cream and watching it turn the snowy mounds into a river of milky goodness. The best part was always dragging my tongue over the spoon, removing every remnant of rich, black chocolate.
The memory of edible nirvana was triggered in the pages of SHADOW AND BONE, a delicious tale of darkness and light. Bardugo can write – really, REALLY write.
You see, I am 100% impatient with any book, film, or even TV show that simply cannot convey the story (no matter how stellar the premise). If an author cannot write, I simply toss the book. This is more of an issue than one would think. NOT an issue for Bardura! DAMN this chick can wield the elusive Sword of Scribes like a robust gladiator.
Perhaps it is my age, but when I first started reading SHADOW AND BONE I was reminded of a very strange muppet-like film, known as THE DARK CRYSTAL . . . dropped into a fantasy version of pre-WWI Russia. Yeah, I know – a wild mix, but it works brilliantly. It also brings the setting to life as it’s own character – a rare gift to the reader.
SHADOW AND BONE follows the journey of former orphan and simple mapmaker, Alina Starkov, from King’s army soldier to legendary Sun Summoner. There are, of course, two boys: The Darkling and her fellow orphan, Mal, who she has always had a crush on, but he seems oblivious to. Typical dude.
There is the Grisha (magic-wielding people) who are seen as the most powerful of soldiers (though still under the King’s rule) who are led by the Darkling (the most powerful of Grisha). There is the Unsea (also known as The Fold) – a dark, swath of dangerous, desolate land that is bathed in constant, black fog. Inside the Unsea are abominations called Volcra – think of the winged, underworld creatures from Fantasia’s NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN. Travelers who attempt to cross the Unsea do so knowing that the Volcra may rip them to pieces (making the crossing highly unappealing . . . and rarely attempted by anyone without a Grisha guard). Supposedly, the Darkling’s ancestor created The Fold, which makes him, well, FRIGGIN’ SCARY to the lay people. He is trying to undo the hell created by his family.
Alina becomes the world’s most valuable asset when it is revealed she is the one who may be able to undo the Unsea with the light she can call to her. She is snapped up and placed under the guard and tutelage of the Darkling and his Grisha. Her life goes from poverty to extreme wealth and, though she has been separated from her beloved friend, she begins to fall for the Darkling. Mal, however, gets dragged back into her life . . .
Because I don’t want to reveal spoilers AND because it is a fairly complicated story, I will not get into further detail. SHADOW AND BONE, however, is a most unusual story with rich details revealing a dark world at war. This is the first book in the Grisha series (Siege and Storm is due out next).
I will absolutely be buying a copy.
As a writer, I do wonder . . . I think this may have been longer, but was condensed by the publisher or editor. I would love to ask Bardugo if a few scenes were trimmed down and, if so, will the full scenes ever be published online? Say, as a “director’s cut” sort of thing? Great story and I would have loved it to delve even deeper into Alina, Mal and the Darkling.
Of course, it IS a series . . .
THRONE OF GLASS by SARAH J. MAAS
A++ Brilliant! Must, MUST be read.
I first heard about THRONE OF GLASS on an agent’s blog and will admit, I wasn’t instantly dying to buy it. Assassin? Eh. Glass Castle? Eh. THANK HEAVENS I DID BUY IT! Want to know just how good it was? When I got to the end, I waited a day and STARTED READING IT A SECOND TIME. Yeah . . . that level of addiction.
Basically, a young girl is a famed assasin in a fantasy world and she is enslaved in a mining prison. She gets a chance to win her freedom by competing against other killers in a Champion’s Tournament held by a ruthless king. Of course, freedom means that she will become the king’s lead henchman, but still . . . it’s better than the prison. There are two men who start to fall for her: the Captain of the Guard, who acts as her trainer, and the Prince, who seems like a superficial playboy, at first.
There is a whole, additional plot line of the evil king, acting as a warlord over the land and conquering countries. The outlawing of magic, a portal to a dark world, a warrior princess who befriends her . . . you get the gist.
Oh yes, and there is something roaming the castle, tearing the other champions apart, eating their brains and gutting their organs. Yup – I would have checked out of Casa De Creature too, but not our assassin. She is determined to win her freedom (and figure out why the other bad-boys are getting filleted). What she is completely thrown by is the love she feels for the Prince and the slowly blooming affection for the Captain.
The boys, as well, seem to have a hard time coming to terms with what they feel for her and what they know she has done in her lifetime. They slowly begin to fear that she may not win and will be sent back to the prison . . . to die.
Truly a kick-butt story and strong, STRONG written voice. Ms. Maas – you’ve earned the right to brag ;)
FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS by DIANA PETERFREUND
ENGLISH TEACHERS TAKE HEED! This book should – no, MUST – be on the classroom reading list. I’d say it is best for the 8th grade and up crowd due to size, but on a reading level, it is not at all difficult. I’d dare say this should be required reading (perhaps ditch that puker of a novel known as THE SCARLET LETTER – gag – and replace it with Peterfreund’s tour de force). This is a literary gem with rabid appeal to the teen.
The story is a dystopian retelling of Jane Austen’s PERSUASION. In the future, humanity has nearly reached extinction. Man’s race to create a better human and world – live longer, run faster, less disease, greater bounty – has resulted in a cataclysmic error. Those humans who have partaken in these genetic alterations lead to a race of humans that are mentally limited and child-like.
Heroine Eilliot North and her family, however, have escaped this fate as they (and their fellow believers, known as the Luddites) shunned such advances as an affront to God. They hid, underground during the times of the Reduction (which produced the limited individuals known as the Reduced). When they returned to the surface, they took it upon themselves to care for the Reduced, however . . . the Reduced became more like slaves to the Luddites, who saw themselves as nobility.
Years after this Reduction, the Reduced are starting to give birth to children who are not, themselves, Reduced. The children are entirely normal. While the Luddites call the children CORs (Children of the Reduced), these new generations reject the term, believing that time of the Reduction is over. Instead, they call themselves Posts – Post Reductionists. Needless to say, the North family relies on the work force of their Reduced and COR workers. They do not want to buy into the idea that the Reduction is over and they cling to their beliefs, outlawing all technology, medicines and any interference with nature. Elliot, however, is wavering on her Luddite beliefs and has even gone so far as to secretly develop a stronger yield of wheat through genetics. A big no-no. Elliot is also childhood friends with Post child and servant, Kai, who runs away to a Post enclave.
Years passed since Elliot last saw her beloved friend and she is shocked when the fabulous and technologically advanced Cloud Fleet (solar-powered ships) asks to lease the North family’s ship-building facilities. Elliot agrees (and managed to sooth her strict, Luddite father with a bribe of amazing Cloud Fleet horses) and is shocked to come face to face again with Kai, who is now Capt. Malakai Wentforth, a Cloud Fleet Captain.
The majority of the novel is spent on Elliot coming to terms with her renewed affection for Kai, who has obviously tampered with nature and therefore risks the wrath of God in the Luddite’s eyes. But as Elliot begins to see the truth of what she has always been taught, she starts to question the reality of the Reduction and if, in fact, the Luddites are clinging to an ancient, erroneous belief. She also starts to question who she truly is at her core and the strength to stand up to her domineering father who treats the Reduced and Posts so badly.
A literary gift for the mind. A true masterpiece for the classroom and a story in which teens will actually be enthralled :)
GREAT AUNT SOPHIA’S LESSONS FOR BOMBSHELLS by LISA CACH
I simply couldn’t put this down – read it cover to cover in one day. Lisa Cach is riotous. While it is entirely possible I understand the feminist humor in this because I am a fellow graduate of the oldest all women’s college in the country (like Cach), I LOVED THIS BOOK. If I could buy a copy for each and every one of my gal pals I would! I was busting out laughing. If you want a taste of her dry-humored wit, pick up the book at the store and read from 79 to 81. LOL!!!!
So, premise: Grace, a 26-year-old graduate student, is working on her thesis for her PhD. In what? Women’s studies. Her working title? “The Belle of the Ball Cries Alone: How Beauty Brings Unhappy Endings in the Emotional Lives of Women.”
To help with her thesis, she decides to take up her ancient, B-movie actress of an Great Aunt (Sophia) on an invitation to stay with her at her beach house in Pebble Beach, CA. Beach house turns out to be a mansion and Sophia turns out to be loaded. Two men – Declan (drop-dead, movie star handsome MBA and Sophia’s financial advisor) and Andrew (cute in a Birkenstock way and Sophia’s personal physician) hang about the house. Declan immediately tries to put the moves on Grace, who is determined to prove that she is a feminist and, therefore, detests men like Declan. Only problem? She is somewhat attracted to him and she finds her most basic desires trying to overthrow her brain. But, DAMN IT! She SHOULD be attracted to the doctor who obviously thinks with his brain and not his . . . .
Anyway, to make matters FAR WORSE, Aunt Sophia is determined to prove that the thesis is a load of crap and challenges Grace to let her transform her into a bombshell over the course of the summer. Sophia believes that beauty = power and that a woman who believes she is beautiful, and acts like it, also becomes beautiful on the inside and strong as hell.
Anywho, insanity ensues, the thesis goes to hell and Grace learns that Aunt Sophia is one devious old lady . . . but also damn brilliant.
Go. Now. BUY. No way you can put it down. JUST TERRIFIC!
UNDER THE NEVER SKY BY VERONICA ROSSI
Oh man – I got sucked into this one fast. First of all, I am not really a big dystopian reader (DESPITE the fact that most of the books I have been reading lately of the YA genre fall into that category). In Rossi’s novel, I found many great stories tossed together – snipets of DUNE, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, THE MATRIX – really, quite an impressive mix. Even on occasion, I found a bit of LORD OF THE FLIES.
UTNS is told from the perspective of the two main characters in alternating chapters: Aria and Perry. Aria is a Dweller who lives in the protected domes of Reverie, though not for long. She gets tossed out into the wasteland that has become of the world, scorched into a dead landscape by the relentless, brutal Ether sky. Aria’s world within the dome is a sterile environment of perfection and its inhabitants live within fabricated, virtual realms that they connect with through devices that attach over one eye. Think Star Trek Borg on the Holodeck (yeah – look it up).
Perry on the other hand, is an Outsider – considered a savage by the Dwellers. True, some of the Outsiders are not so nice (the cannibals aren’t very pleasant) but they are real people living in a non-virtual, dangerous world. They are rough and rugged, compared to the Dwellers who seem downright fragile by comparison.
Aria and Perry’s worlds collide and an uneasy trust is formed between the two – both need something only the other can provide. Hidden mysteries, interesting characters and dark secrets are revealed as they trek across the land (known as “the death shop”) and attempt to survive. Through their journey they find more than trust with each other – they find a passionate bond.
Great storytelling, vivid prose. Can’t wait for the next installment!
BEWARE – A few spoilers. Not many though!
THE SELECTION by Kiera Class:
Right out of the box, I will say it: Absolutely worth reading.
I will follow this with a warning however: It ain’t finished.
Call me crazy, but I was told over and over again that any one book in a series must be able to stand by itself. You know – beginning, middle and END. This one? Cliffhanger. Worst part? I’m fully addicted and the second book in the series is no where to be found (word is that the writer, Ms. Cass, has a new goober and has taken time off from writing. 100% understandable, but the wait may kill me).
Basically, in the future, there are tiers of people – castes you are born into that set you on your path for life. There is no escaping these ranks and, lord help you, if you have sex outside of marriage. It is rare – exceptionally rare – to marry and have children outside of your rank. However, in an attempt to unite these many variations of people, the monarchy is holding a Selection – 30 young ladies will be chosen to court the Prince, so he may chose one to become his wife . . . and eventually, queen.
Our heroine, America, gets pushed into the Selection by both her family (a low caste #5) and the boy she loves (Aspen, a lowest #8). Aspen, believing that there is no way for them to ever survive financially if they were to marry, breaks her heart. Feeling she needs to help her family, and pissed (somewhat) at Aspen, she heads into the Selection. Her family is paid for her participation and she is re-ranked as a #3.
Of course, America is just there to get her family some much needed cash and has no intention of winning. Unfortunately, Prince Maxon isn’t the stiff-suit she imagined him to be and they hit it off as friends (which, you guessed it, slowly evolves). Of course, one cannot leave Aspen behind totally, for what is the fun of living happily ever after?
Great book, excellent writing (and I am DAMN picky), fun story. Brace yourself for the “WTF moment” when it ends abruptly.
Well done Miss Cass . . . now hurry up and get us the next book! LOL!
Write a query? Shoot me now.
I have been working on my query letter for over a month now. It has gone through the careful eyes of several, trusted Beta editors and STILL opinions vary as to which version they like (I have roughly five variations).
I am just about to . . . What’s that? What is a query? Ah . . . let me back up a bit then.
A query is one of Dante’s realms of Hell. It is roughly 200 words (possibly less – sometimes a single sentence), that must sum up your entire book and makes the agent DESPERATE to read more. Not just “want” to read more, but MUST read more, because: a) your prose is so outstanding and b) your concept so amazing, that they are going to give you a chance to be heard via your manuscript. Note: they can still say “no” after they read pages.
This past week, I have been attending the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference and, I must say, it is worth your attendance. So far, I have taken two classes taught be NYC agents – Sorche Elizabeth Fairbanks – The Art of the Query, and Anne Hawkins – Why Agents Reject Good Books. Here is what I learned:
FOR FICTION WRITERS:
1. A query must contain the protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution. ONLY NAME those characters. Forget the BFF – if the friend is a critical player, just mention her, but not her name. Too many names = too confusing.
2. Be vivid and not a broken record. Your query shows your writing chops, your flow, and the feel for the character. It needs tempo and brilliant writing skill. Do not be redundant. For example (and I am using what Fairbanks gave as a great specimen): “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Do you see the mistake/redundancy? I’ll let you stew on that and cough up the answer at the end of this post ;)
3. If you have a personal story that links you to your fictional character, add it. This is not some long, rambling story, but something that makes the agent think, “Wow, this person is going to really be able to portray this character.” This is NOT: “I’ve read nine-milion sci-fi pieces” OR “I published two articles in a sci-fi magazine” (your credits go at the end). This is “Dear so and so, when I was ten, I nearly lost a limb in a shark attack, but I was lucky. It got me thinking: what would my life have been like if fate wasn’t on my side that day? SHARK ATTACK is the fictitious story of so and so who loses her leg to Bruce the Shark and how she becomes stronger though that loss blah blah blah.”
4. EVERY BOOK must contain one of the 4 S’s: STYLE, STORY, SETTING, SOMEONE. This means that what makes your book spectacular is one of the afore-mentioned. STYLE is very rare – it is a true literary work, so don’t even think “you ‘dat fly.” STORY is the gift of storytelling so richly, that people read for that aspect alone. SETTING is when the location is so brilliantly drawn that it becomes a character unto itself. SOMEONE is a beloved protagonist. MOST writers fall into the SOMEONE category, so make him or her shine. IF you can’t pick out which one is your strength, your book may not be strong enough.
5. Conflict: Agents want to see an INTERNAL struggle and an external one as well. They want to see an active, vibrant protagonist, not just someone who is dragged around by an outside conflict. Do not have more than three, major plot points in the query or you will be ringing your own death knell.
6. Personalize to the Agent: Let the agent know HOW you know them. Did you see them speak? Read their blog? Love a book the represented? Let them know. Plastered their photos on your bedroom wall and built a mini-shrine to their greatness? I’d probably skip that tidbit.
7. Word Count: Word counts for fiction (including YA) should run between 80k and 125k. Anything shorter or longer raises a questioning eyebrow. Agents also want to know if your book is the first in a series (which helps them figure out if you are just going to be a one-hit-wonder). Series books are popular and a great series it their golden goose.
8. Crucial Lines: Agents normally read the first couple sentences from your letter. If they are not grabbed immediately, they jump to the last few sentences (your credentials). If you have professional writing experience, or valid writing chops, they go back to the top and read the entire query. This means that those first, few sentences BETTER GET THEIR ATTENTION.
Everything above applies BUT, non-fiction is harder (stop screaming and pull yourself together!):
1. YOU MUST HAVE A PLATFORM OR CREDENTIALS: For non-fiction, showing a platform (basically an already established readership that you bring with you to the table) is critical. The agent is not there to get you readers. You bring your own and they can help make that group grow. No platform? Then you must be an expert in your field. Writing a book on landscaping? You better have a degree, or loads of professional experience in high-profile places and published work in magazines. Having four-zillion Twitter followers and nine-million blog-lovers works as well.
2. FOR MEMOIR: You must be the first in your idea / story. Have a cancer story? Forget it. It sounds harsh, but we were told over and over that no one wants another cancer story unless you have a mind-blowing spin on it. Basically, why would someone buy an unknown person’s memoir that someone famous has already written?
A Few More Tips:
Remember that some genres are dying. Apparently ChickLit is gasping its last breath (IN HER SHOES walked right out the door). Didn’t know that.
Beware mixing genres (romantic horror can be hard to sell because the romance fans don’t want the horror and the horror fans don’t want the romance). If you try it, one genre in the book MUST take the lead.
Conflict of interest: Agents won’t take a book that is too similar to something they are already representing, or a subject that would insult their current writers (see comment below to clarify this mind-twister).
Beware of querying the big five publishers directly. If they reject you, an agent often doesn’t get a second shot to approach them with your book. Small and medium-sized presses are fine. The big five are: Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster.
Beware signing contracts without a good LITERARY ATTORNEY. Joe Shmoo, attorney at law from down the street, most likely will have no clue what a good contract looks like.
Lastly, some things you have no control over, like an agent’s personal taste. Some rejections come down because a book is simply not their cup of tea or they can’t figure out who they would sell it to.
Okay – so the answer to the sentence from above: “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Did you figure it out? It should be: “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her
bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Your mind’s eye will KNOW her toes are bare because she can feel the floor. Remember – MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.
BEST OF LUCK!
Stein states that, “The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.” His full op-ed can be found HERE.
Really? THE HUNGER GAMES trumps vulgar nudes on the disgust-o-meter? I think that may be a bit extreme (especially if you HAVE seen some of the trash that floats on the Internet). His opinion however, is an intriguing observation, especially for someone like me – someone who writes not only for periodicals like Stein, but who also writes YA urban fantasy (see 408 ON MAIN). While I do not agree with his stance (I think adults should read whatever the heck they choose, whether FALLEN or THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), he is on to something. Something that I will admit: I am not a huge reader of YA fiction, even though I write YA fantasy.
I know, I know: GASP!
Calm yourself. I do enjoy excellent YA: BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, anything Jack London & Scott O’Dell, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD and yes, HARRY POTTER and MAXIMUM RIDE, plus many others. However, to only enjoy YA novels (heck, to even read more YA than any other genre) would be, for me, creative suicide.
Why? Because great fiction begets great fiction and some of the finest examples are in adult novels. When we, as writers especially of YA, neglect the wide range of adult fiction available our characters can lose their sharpness. They can fade, no longer providing the reader with that vivid contrast within their fictional realms that vaults them off the page and into the theater of the mind.
I read EVERYTHING and I am a voracious bibliophile at that (I burned through the TWILIGHT series in four days WITH an infant). JURASSIC PARK? Decimated that sucker in two days while in high school (okay – it was propped up inside many a text book during class). Trust me, the rabid-dino book was brilliant and sealed my fate as a huge Crichton fan. I also loved the fact that the attractions would eat the tourists (secretly all Cape Codders love that idea).
Yet, my characters would not be who they are without the darkness of Patterson, King, Hoag, Grisham and Larsson. They would not have the vividness of realm without Tolkien, Benchley, du Maurier and Crichton. They would lack the laugh-out-loud dialogue without Brockmann and Hiassen.
So, do I think YA authors should be only YA readers? Absolutely no.
Do I think it is still important for YA writers to read YA fiction? Absolutely yes.
What do you think?
Can any writer be a great storyteller without reading outside their genre?