My Letter to Cynthia Voigt (circa 2010)

Dear Mrs. Voigt,

                I am writing to you in the hopes of being able to express how much I cherish your Kingdom series, in particular the third book, The Wings of a Falcon.

                I first read Falcon when I was eleven, in a small and recently-established private school in Hong Kong. (We had only recently moved there, and I could not attend public school as I couldn’t speak Chinese). The book had been donated along with a small collection of other works, to contribute to our library’s rather limited catalogue. It was dog-eared and tattered, and parts of the cover were held on with laminate; clearly it had been well-used. And being a lover of any fantastical or adventurous stories, I immediately felt drawn to read it.

                I must confess that initially, I was rather confused by the story, but I hope you will forgive that reaction when I explain why. Being just eleven, the only fantasy stories I’d ever read were of that sword-and-sorcery sort, grand Tolkienesque imitators that were heavy with magic and operatic drama. So I determinedly read through Falcon, convinced that in the next page or chapter, magic would appear. None did so, but the characters themselves drew me in, and so I read on. It was my first experience with a more realistic fantasy genre. By the time I approached the end of the book, I was thoroughly riveted. There is, of course, a place for generic sword-and-sorcery fantasy books, and I still enjoy good ones of that sort immensely. But I wholeheartedly feel that there are not nearly enough books in the style of Falcon; that is to say, literature which explores the fantastical depths of the soul.

                 It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what it is about the book that so appeals to me, partly because it’s lots of little things, I suppose. The style of writing, for a one, is a style that I enjoy immensely, and isn’t often used (or very popular  amongst authors, it would seem). To say that I enjoyed the characters would be redundant, as the characters are, of course, the focal point of the story.

                 The last day of high school, I walked into the library, put that book in my bag, and walked back out. In exchange, the library received my entire fantasy/sci-fi collection, which I donated as compensation. I was going away to England for university, and due to severe luggage limitations, I could not afford to take my books with me. So I gave them away, and chose to take only The Wings of a Falcon instead. That battered copy was precious to me, more so than anything other book I owned.

                I’m twenty-three now, and married. I have yet to find another novel which holds such a place in my heart. That same library copy sits on my shelf, tattered and battered but still standing, alongside a newer and more durable hardback version. It has followed me across continents, through heartbreak and marriage, and kept me company through university. One day I hope to be able to read it to my own children, should I have any.

                As I have grown up, I felt that the book aged and grew with me; I have re-read it every year, and as I grew (I hope) a little wiser each time, I gained a little more from reading it each time. I’ve made my husband and father-in-law read Falcon, and needless to say both of them also enjoyed it immensely. I genuinely feel that it transcends the genre of “young adult” in the concepts and characters it explores; it is both an accessible read for children, and thought-provoking narrative for adults.

My initial intention in writing this letter to you was simply to ask a question, but when I actually sat down to do it I felt it would be a shame if I did not also take the opportunity to express how much I’d enjoyed them, and the kind of impact it had made on my life. I hope that I have not bored you too much in doing so!

I read in an interview (I think it was an interview) where you said that you began every book by first asking a question. I would be very interested to know what that question was – because I am very fond of the answer it created!

— Sunyi D.

_________________________________________________________________

Well Sunyi D –

I am honored — and, frankly, both delighted and moved, as well — by your love of Oriel’s story (or is it Griff’s, or Beryl’s?)  I thank you for writing to tell me how much it has meant to you.  Every book has a one-on-one relation with every reader, which is one of the wonderful things about books, and reading them — you are clearly a reader for whom Wings of a Falcon was meant.  (As I am myself, I admit it, insofar as the person who cooked up the story can also be a reader of it; which, to a large extent, she can, if she’s done a good enough job with her idea.)

Yes, there was a question in my head when I first thought of the plot.  I was standing on a path running up a steep Alpine ravine, when I imagined — for some reason; who knows why these things crop up in imaginations — I saw a young man hauling himself up over the edge, and thought of how easily he could fall down, onto the rocks, and how likely it was that that was what would happen.  So it was a question of the nature of the hero, and if it is necessary for the hero to survive to be effectively (and affectively) a hero.   In the stories, the hero tends to win through — but what if he doesn’t?  Because in reality (as in, say, the twin towers on 9/11) many heroic people didn’t survive.  So that, I thought, thinking about it, when a person is choosing to behave heroically, making those very risky choices, he/she has to remember that there is no guarantee that he/she will win through.  I thought that it was not entirely honest in books to have the hero always win through — and books should be, as much as possible, honest.
That is what I was thinking, as I wrote it.  That was the question I was addressing, in my own mind.

I cannot tell you how glad I am that you found it there, on the library shelves, all those years ago.

Cynthia Voigt

Progress

There’s very little left to do for sections 1-3. Even my paid editor isn’t making sweeping changes, and my betas are only doing tweak corrections as they go.

And now, today, since my kids are sick and the baby’s slept almost the entire day, I’ve somehow managed to complete a rough draft for the entirety of section 4. That’s about 15k words in total (it’s the shortest section).

Not all of it was from scratch. I did have some bits and pieces written before, but nothing readable in the sense that it was all over the place. You could conceivably read through section 4 and follow the story now, though it’s painfully ugly at the moment.

Still, that’s got to be some kind of personal record, and I’m knackered. Also sick, because now I’m coming down with whatever the kids have got. Probably didn’t help that youngest literally threw up in my face this morning. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have a mouthful of vomit in your eyes, drop me a note and I’ll describe it in detail for you.

Anyway. For those who regularly churn out such numbers in their authorial jobs, this achievement probably doesn’t sound like much, but writing new is always the hardest bit for me. I’m much more at home editing, editing, editing, and even rewriting; fresh ground is the toughest to plow.

Next up – whip my poor beloved betas and editors into action, and start the querying process sometime in April.

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

Dark Eden (Dark Eden, #1)Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like a lot of reviewers, I’m not sure how I feel about Dark Eden. It didn’t bore me, which is always a good thing – the question is whether the total sum reactions are positive or negative. In the end I came down with “positive”.

And if you’re wondering how that’s possible, allow me to use American Presidential elections as a simile; the overall result will be a landslide, yet every state is too close to call in advance type scenario.

That’s how I found DE going through it. I was on the fence for almost every aspect but enough “categories” won out.

The underlying sociological stuff is good, very good. Usually this sort of thing is done poorly in spec fic and the author’s efforts do pay off here. There was a genuine organicness to the setting that didn’t feel tacked on or papered over, and some interesting insight (imo) into a hypothetical society with almost no patriarchal bias.

The story of Angela Young, the story’s “Eve”, (including the tribal retellings and re-enactments of her life) are incredibly powerful, despite the fact that she is long since dead and gone.

My main difficulty – and this, I suspect, is where it garners a lot of hate – was the almost physical pain of having to sit through a novel where every POV character is little better than a caveman in terms of narrative capacity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s immersive and probably well done, not to mention it creates a very distinctive voice. But the temptation to flee into a different book with a more conventional set of characters is pretty strong.

John and Tina are a head and shoulders above the others in terms of readability, almost to the point of dubiety given their upbringing and low level of education, but I can’t complain about that too much; I was honestly just relieved to have a more straightforward set of POVs to go through.

This is of course very personal as a bias. Whenever possible I’d rather have a lucid, literate character, however much that constrains the setting or prose (and frankly, it’s rare that it does – this is probably an unusual case as a result).

The plot is not remarkable; I would compare it to a coming of age story, in the sense that you already know what the ending is going to be and you’re only reading to assess how well the author puts the characters through their paces. The book feels exploratory rather than decisive, which is really not a bad thing.

The final element which tips this to positive for me is a certain insouciant rebellion on my part against this trend of high-action, pretend-to-be-a-thriller madness which is currently gripping modern fiction (even spec fic). I admire a book that is confident and calm and thoughtful, which takes its time rather than dragging you from pillar to post with a series of carefully scripted marketing hooks.

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A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book ends with the supposed good character (not all the POVs are “good” per se) committing an act of pure selfishness – it ends up being tantamount to murder. How the hell did that get past an editor? It’s inconsistent and incoherent as a character choice.

I like the opening but quite aside from the fact that the MC’s jacket (the “hook” which opens the book) is never explained, there are a lot of weak plotting issues and massive inconsistencies running through this novel. There are also very basic errors throughout the book (like calling an English king/queen “your highness” – it’s supposed to be “your majesty” ffs. Presumably the author couldn’t be bothered to do even a cursory google search?)

I notice some people have asked if it’s YA; it certainly has a YA feel in scope and tone, and perhaps I would be more forgiving if it had been marketed as such. I honestly don’t understand why it gets rave reviews, though. The characters are paper thin/inconsistent, the world building is abysmal, the metaphysics don’t even attempt to make sense, and nothing interesting is explained. It doesn’t feel like “period” fantasy either, because everything is decidedly modern. I don’t mean just the language, which generally I would expect to be modern, but sensibilities and relationships and behaviours are those of modern American college students, transplanted into a city which is 1800s London in name only.

Period settings can be a powerful place to explore fantasy concepts but in this case, the author has used it only as a limiter rather than a versatile stage, by which I mean she has primarily used it to limit the technology and options available to the characters, and to add as cheap window dressing to the novel.

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Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel's Dart (Phèdre's Trilogy, #1)Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I would describe this book as “masochist woman with slightly magical vagina conquers the world”.

Note – this is not a criticism. It’s well written, amusing, intricate, interesting. It’s nice to read a book where people don’t have sexual hangups, which is straight faced and upfront about bdsm (not being silly) while also thoughtfully exploring the implications of a society which incorporates it.

The romance aspect is actually chaste for the most part, because in a world/book where sex isn’t much of a big deal, people by and large aren’t repressed about these things; therefore the people she doesn’t sleep with take on additional significance.

I have no desire to read the rest though because I think the book is complete as is and would not benefit from sequels.

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