Tabs and Follow Me

October 14, 2017

More on Point of View

A while back, I got into a conversation with my critique group about when something is a 3rd person point of view that jumps and when something is an omniscient point of view.

We were looking at Ursula K. Le Guin's writing book, Steering the Craft, which we're reading together really slowly.  Le Guin talks at length about point of view.  Specifically, we were talking about her example from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, where the point of view shifts from one character to the next and back and around.  It's masterfully done, and most of my group agreed that trying it themselves just made a huge mess, and this was a lesson in sticking to the point of view of one character.

When I tried to write something like Woolf where the perspective shifts from one character to the next (and in my defense, I tried for about ten minutes and declared it good enough) I looked back on it when I was done, squinted at it, and said, "Well, that's just omniscient."

So that got me wondering, if you manage to make this work elegantly and smoothly, if you manage to change perspectives mid sentence without losing your reader, at what point is it still 3rd person and at what point have you moved to omniscient?

Feeling a sense of exasperation, Charlie Brown said, "Good grief," unknowing that Snoopy's activities were completely reasonable.
So we get information from Charlie Brown's point of view (he feels exasperated) and then information from Snoopy's point of view (his plan is reasonable, if you ask Snoopy).  So, without seeing any of the surrounding sentences, you could argue that this is in third person limited, but jumps from Chuck to Snoopy, or you could argue that this is omniscient and told by someone who knows what they're both thinking.  I think there's two things going on that lean towards one or the other. 

1. Voice.  If I did a better job of having the first half in Charlie Brown's voice and the second half being in Snoopy's voice, that would be evidence for a shifting third person POV.  If the voice is consistent through the whole sentence (which is not to say that there is no voice) that would be evidence for an omniscient POV.

2. Scope.  Or how far the camera that shows us the scene is zoomed in.  If this were a movie, and if the scene shows a wider view of the events, that's evidence for an omniscient POV.  So if the camera can pick up Chuck's exasperation and Snoopy's motives at the same time, it's like we have both characters in frame at the same time in a wider shot.  If the camera is zoomed in on Chuck, and then swivels or cuts to a close up of Snoopy, that's more like 3rd person POV.  I can't really tell if you could say which one this is from this example, so maybe that's not helpful here.  But one of my critique partners pointed out that an omniscient POV would be able to tell you something that the characters don't know themselves, and that seems to fit with this.

October 11, 2017

The Masked City Review

This week's novel is The Masked City, the sequel to The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman.

Irene is enjoying being the Librarian-in-Residence in a magical, steampunk world.  But when Kai (her student and secret dragon) gets kidnapped by Fae and brought to a high chaos world, Irene has to rescue him before the dragons declare war on the Fae, potentially destroying whole universes in the cross fire.

There's a cool thing going on here where the Fae get power from inhabiting leading roles in stories.  So the more stereotypical and overly-dramatic they are, whether they're playing villain or hero, the more powerful they are and the more easily they can draw random passersby into their story.  This leaves the humans in worlds controlled by Fae to act like puppets whenever a Fae walks by, shifting in and out of stories without any control at all.  Lesser Fae gain power by getting closer to the main plots and being less like side characters.  So you've got this culture where everyone is trying to be a main character, and everyone is trying to out-drama each other. 

The thing I like best is that Irene has to keep asking herself what role she's playing in a story.  If she's the villain, she's likely to be caught through unbelievable coincidence.  If she's the hero, she's likely to out maneuver the people chasing her.  It's a cool set up, and I wish more time was spent digging into it.  Aren't we all the heroes of our own stories?  And if so, how do two conflicting stories interact?  I would have liked to see Irene consciously grab the reigns of someone else's story, or I would have liked to see one of the lesser Fae rise up to become a main character.  I would have liked to see some investigation of genre or tropes.  I want to know more, because this is a cool idea.

As with the last book, I think Irene is neat.  She's collected and reasonable and she has sweet Librarian powers.  And as with the last book, I'm pretty ambivalent about Vale, the detective.  I outright got irritated with him when he showed up to announce that he'd figured out everything Irene had figured out, but more easily and stealthfully, plus he'd figured out the one thing she couldn't get.  On the one hand, it was fortuitous in the way that a story with Irene as the hero would be overly-convenient.  But on the other hand...shut up, Vale.  I don't need some dude coming in to make Irene look stupid and show that the last hundred pages or so of her investigating stuff was worthless because he'd already done it.

Shut up, Vale.

***

Next week: Central Station, sci-fi by Lavie Tidhar.

October 3, 2017

The Privilege of the Sword Review

This week's novel is The Privilege of The Sword by Ellen Kushner.  This one was recommended to me by my friend Dani, who thought I would like that the main character is a girly girl who has to learn to sword fight (and also probably thought I'd like the steamy parts).  She was correct.  This book was fun.

Katherine is a noble country girl, whose family has been in a legal battle with her uncle, The Mad Duke, for years and it is bankrupting them.  When her uncle randomly says he'll forgive all their debts and leave them alone if they send Katherine to him, Katherine thinks she's going to have a season in the city, living in an elaborate house and wearing beautiful, expensive gowns and going to parties to meet eligible young men.  Instead, her uncle decides that she's going to learn to be a swordsman, handle his duels for him.  He gives her very nice clothes, but they are clothes for a swordsman, and therefore involve pants.  Horrors!

Katherine was a fun character.  I appreciated the complex relationship she had with learning to sword fight.  She's resistant to it because it's typically a thing that men do and she's the girlie-est of all girly girls and it's going to ruin her reputation as a Lady.  But she's also honor bound to help her family the same way she would help them by marrying well, and her putting up with the Duke's whims is going to do that.  And then she starts being really good at it.  She takes it seriously and prides herself on learning.  Then she gets obsessive in a very teen girl way about a book about swordsmen, and she's drawn to the drama romance of her new profession, to the point of getting upset when it turns out that real duels are kind of boring and unintelligent and over less than heroic squabbles.  The push and pull is really interesting, as is her growth through the story.

It was also a really well put together queer narrative.  The Mad Duke is openly bi (I assume.  He never says how he identifies so it might be more along the lines of pansexual).  But more interesting than that is Katherine's sexual awakening.  She's also bi (again, I assume), and her discovery of that is really well handled.  In their pseudo-Regency society, no one has really talked to her about sex, so when she realizes she wants to kiss ladies, she has to simultaneously piece together all the innuendos that have been going over her head (which is an entertaining thing for a lot of the book).  She freaks out because she feels sexual attraction, not because she feels it towards women.  And she never feels guilty about it, which is really cool.  It's more of a light bub moment than a dread filled moment.

The other thing that stands out for me about this book is that it's fantasy because it's set in this word that's not ours and doesn't really exist.  However, there's no magic or monsters or supernatural forces of any kind.  It's people doing people things in a sort-of-Regency setting.  I find it gratifying how malleable the fantasy genre can be.

The narrative often shifted from Katherine's point of view to cover some side character or another, and I wondered why I should care about them and how they fit into Katherine's story.  They all come together in the end, but a lot of the time I felt as if I was missing something.

***

Next week: The Masked City, the sequel to The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

September 26, 2017

Maplecroft Review


This week's novel is Maplecroft by .  It was recommended by the Writing Excuses podcast as an example of an epistolary narrative.

A sickness has crept into the town of Fall River, where people hear an eerie call from the ocean, where they change to become unresponsive, sensitive to light, their bodies bloating and their skin becoming translucent.  They grow gills and move in jerks.  Eventually they turn against their families and escape to the water.  Unless their families defend themselves, which is what Lizzie did the night she killed her father and step-mother with an ax.  When the sickness returns, Lizzie--now a social pariah--is the only one who can protect the town.

This is a fictionalized retelling of the story of Lizzie Borden, who was charged and acquitted of killing her parents with an ax in a big brouhaha in the 1890s.  But I don't think that adds anything to the story and detracts from it a bit in that it's kind of uncomfortable to see a true crime portrayed as "no, monsters did it!"  I guess no one is really harmed by fictionalizing these events, but the serial numbers could have very easily scraped off, and I would have enjoyed it just fine.

The chapters are mostly diary entries.  They allow for candid discussions of what the characters feel, especially when they're being petty and delusional and unsympathetic.  The diary entries give rise to incredible honesty that I don't think the narrative could have achieved except through using a first person narrative and switching every chapter to a different character.  And even then, a diary is naturally a place for self-reflection, so the simple first person might not have dove as deeply.  It allows the characters to express jealousy that other characters don't pick up on.  It allows characters to slowly lose touch with reality or worry that they're losing touch with reality.

The main thing I looked at in this book was something I've been thinking about for a while.  I have a critique partner who's of the school of thought that people don't remember conversations verbatim enough to write them in a letter or a diary.  Whereas, I'm of the school of thought that of course I don't remember things exactly as they happened.  Who cares?  I'm going to fill in the gaps to make a good story, and whoever's listening will know that and get the gist of what really happened.  So I've been trying to find some middle ground where I can write like I want without my critique partner tackling me. 

In Maplecroft, the events toward the end of the book--the climax and leading up to it--are detailed in a way that my friend would probably flag.  However, early in the story the writers use qualifiers and only scattered descriptions of things they would definitely remember.  (And these make those details all the more powerful by contrast.  Like how the smell of the monsters is awful and there are long descriptions of what it smells like that make you understand, not just by the comparisons made, but by the fact that they're going on and on about it, that it's disgusting.)  As the story picks up, I was swept up in the horror and suspense enough that I wanted to hear about fight scenes in all their glory.  I wanted to hear the conversations that spelled out their working theories of the sickness.  I didn't notice when it became less realistically epistolary because it was giving me what I wanted.  It's the quick pacing that makes this work.  It's exciting and creepy and I wanted to keep reading.  In the end, I still had questions and everything didn't fit together neatly, but I was reading so fast that I didn't care.

Another thing the form has going for it that lets it push at the boundaries of realistic diary entries is that, even when they're being detailed about dialogue or action scenes or monster descriptions, the entires still have a sharp voice that's different for each character.  The voice is still there, and that roots us to the diary format.

Furthermore, there's also something to be said about this being set in the 1890s when everyone was an avid journaler, and that most of the characters are scientists striving to record their observations in as much detail as possible.

***

Next week: The Privilegeof the Sword, YA fantasy by Ellen Kushner

September 19, 2017

Their Fractured Light Review

This week's novel is Their Fractured Light, the last book in the Starbound trilogy by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner.

Sophia, who left the haunted swamp planet of Avon in the last book, is now a con-artist with the aim of killing Roderick LaRoux for his crimes on Avon.  Gideon is the universe's best hacker.  They get thrown together, fall for each other, and then must overcome their mutual betrayal and distrust of each other to save the universe from LaRoux's evil plans.

This series has a structure that I've been seeing a lot lately where each book focuses on a different couple, adding characters and expanding the universe as it goes.  It's a good way to show different sides of an issue, different experiences in an expanded universe, and how far reaching one conspiracy can grow.  However, I have a couple problems with it. 

First, by the last book, when everyone's together, I'm overwhelmed with how many shmoopy couples are in the same room.  Even though I'm rooting for each of the couples, and I want to see them be schmoopy, all together it's a lot.  There are just so many straight people.

My other issue is that (and I think I've said this before) I loved Lilac and Tarver from the first book so much that I put off reading the second book, because I knew that the narrative turned away from them, and the thought of that made me sad.  I then loved Lee and Flynn from the second book and put this book off because the narrative turned away from them, even though Kaufman and Spooner have shown me that they'll make me love new people.  I'm a big, grumpy, stick in the mud, and I don't like change!  But then a weird thing happened. 

The weird thing is not that I loved Sophia and Gideon.  And I love Sophia and Gideon.  The first half of this story is a sexy spy-vs-spy where they're both keeping secrets and both have trust issues and are both using each other.  And there's this neat tension, where the reader (who is getting both Sophia's and Gideon's points of view) understands exactly how much they've hurt each other without even knowing it way before Gideon and Sophia figure it out.  So you're waiting in suspense for the last shoe to drop.  They have great chemistry and exciting escapes and it's fun in the way that satisfying heist stories tend to be.

The second half of this book draws the series to a close by bringing the other two couples onto the team.  And this is where the weird part is: I wanted them to go away so I could spend more time with Sophia and Gideon in their story.  Because it stopped being their story at that point and became an ensemble story, but at the same time it stuck with Sophia and Gideon's alternating points of view.  So a lot of the time I felt like other characters were having a more interesting character arc, but we could only see it from the outside.  So not only was Sophia and Gideon's story hijacked so we viewed a different narrative as outsiders (one where Sophia's skill set wasn't all that useful anymore) but the characters I loved didn't feel like they came back.  I wasn't in their head anymore the way I was when I fell in love with them.  They felt like they were passing through in a cameo appearance. 

I really have to hand it to Kaufman and Spooner.  They outdid themselves with lovable characters in every book in this series. 

***

Next week: Maplecroft, epistolary supernatural horror by

September 12, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky Review

This week's novel is All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

Patricia is an outcast middle schooler, who one day runs into the woods away from her sister, where a bird tells her that she's a witch.  Lawrence is an outcast middle schooler, who would rather program AIs and build robots than be outdoorsy like his parents want.  To pacify them, he makes friends with Patricia, who spins stories for his parents about all the time they supposedly spend outside.  The more outcast they become, the more their reputations bring each other down, and they're repeatedly tempted to abandon each other, finally splitting after Patricia saves Lawrence from military school and runs away to magic school.  They reunite as adults, with the world on the brink of collapse, both with ideas of how to save the world.  But their ideas conflict with each other and bring about a war between science and magic.

I really like the first third of this book where they're in middle school, and I had trouble with the last two thirds.  After thinking about it, there are two reasons for this.

First, when they're children, Patricia's magical achievments and Lawrence's technological achievements look like coping mechanisms, like stories they're telling themselves that aren't based in reality because their realities suck.  Lawrence builds a "two second time machine" that moves the traveler two seconds into the future--just far enough to skip over a punch.  Now, in the world of the novel as we see it, it seems unrealistic that time machines exist, that a kid can build one, that everyone doesn't have one, and that they're being used for relatively trivial things, all of which points to this not being real.  And then there's the deniability aspect: two seconds is such a short amount of time that it could be that Lawrence is just cringing through those two seconds and playing a game where he convinces himself that he didn't experience them.  He could convince himself that this game is real, as kids are prone to do.

Then for Patricia, there's a tonal shift the moment magic comes into the picture, as if she's flipped a switch in her mind and now we're in the land of make believe.
"I found a wounded bird," Patricia said.  "It can't fly, its wing is ruined."
"I bet I can make it fly," Roberta said, and Patricia knew she was talking about her rocket launcher.  "Bring it here.  I'll make it fly real good."
"No!" Patricia's eyes flooded and she felt short of breath.  "You can't!  You can't!"  And then she was running, careening, with the red bucket in one hand.  She could hear her sister behind her, smashing branches.  She ran faster, back to the house.
...
Patricia paused in a small clearing of maples near the back door.  "It's okay," she told the bird.  "I'll take you home.  There's an old birdcage in the attic.  I know where to find it.  It's a nice cage, it has a perch and a swing.  I'll put you in there, I'll tell my parents.  If anything happens to you, I will hold my breath until I faint.  I'll keep you safe.  I promise."
"No," the bird said.  "Please!  Don't lock me up.  I would prefer you just kill me now."
"But," Patricia said, more startled that the bird was refusing her protection than that he was speaking to her.  "I can keep you safe.  I can bring you bugs or seeds or whatever."
There's also the extremes with which the bullies in her life are presented.  Her parents' dialogue doesn't sound like adults speaking, but does sound like a pre-teen relaying a conversation with her horrible parents. 
"What Roderick is saying is that we spent a lot of money to send you to a school with uniforms and discipline and a curriculum that creates winners," Patricia's mom hissed, her jaw and penciled eyebrows looking sharper than usual.  "Are you determined to blow this last chance?  If you want to be garbage, just let us know, and you can go back to the woods.  Just never come back to this house.  You can go live in the woods forever.  We could save a large sum of money."
We're pretty clearly in Patricia's mind, which makes the reliability of the story questionable.  So when the guidance councilor has an elaborate backstory about being an undercover assassain sent to kill Patricia and Lawrence, and failing that at least to turn them against each other, it's reasonable to think, "Oh, this kid does not like that guidance councilor."

It's charming and whimsical and heartbreaking, and I really liked how it was clearly from a kid's point of view without using childish syntax or vocabulary.

But the we jump to when they're adults, and other characters are witches and other characters have two second time machines, corroborating that what I thought was escapism was actually happening.  You could say that this is an interesting play on my expectations, or that it says something about believing children, but I really liked my expectations, damn it!  Showing that I was wrong to think what I thought wasn't delightfully surprising, but rather disappointing.

Secondly, when they're adults, the background of the world falling apart comes into play.  Global warming and climate change are going to make the earth uninhabitable, and Lawrence is trying to invent technology to evacuate.  The apocalypse is a kind of low rumble in the background, a kind of dark cloud over everything, which makes it oppressive but also means it stays low key for most of the book.  The pivot point comes when there's a super-storm that floods DC and New York, displacing people in a huge evacuation.  Not really what I needed to read this weekend.  So there was a combination at work where I was simultaneously thinking "a hurricane isn't going to destroy civilization.  You need like three hurricanes to destroy civilization," and "Oh God, it's happening."  Which made it an unfun read.

But I did really like the first third, and I probably would have liked the last 2/3 if I hadn't just read the first third and I hadn't read it during hurricane season.

***

Next week: Their Fractured Light, the final installment of the YA sci-fi Starbound series by

September 5, 2017

Strange the Dreamer Review


This week’s novel is Strange the Dreamer by Lani Taylor.

The story goes that there's a magical city of riches and knowledge in the desert.  But 200 years ago they stopped sending out caravans, and 15 years ago its name vanished from memory, replaced only with "Weep." Lazlo Strange, an orphan raised by monks and a librarian at the university library, is so obsessed with stories about Weep that that he earns the nickname "Strange the Dreamer."  Sarai, a girl who has spent her life trapped in Weep's citadel after the massacre of her family, is able to control dreams, and uses her skills to bring vengeance on the people below.  But she's starting to question if the torture is justified.  Together, they're put in an impossible situation of keeping everyone alive.

This book is gorgeous.  The prose is vivid and magical, and I was sucked in from the first page.  The characters were complex, as no one was purely good or evil to the point where I sympathized for everyone even as their actions were reprehensible.

I was also impressed with how the reveals were handled.  I knew what the twists would be before they were explained, and I was on the verge of disappointment.  But every time, it turned out that the explanation--or what I hesitate to call a twist--was not the shocking part, but the way it was revealed was where the surprise came in.  There was always a measure of awe or wonder that made the reveal magical, that made it rewarding, that made it so I only knew the skeleton of what would happen ahead of time.  It was almost like Taylor knew that the reader knew the twist, and she was unconcerned with keeping her secrets, which was a great call since it allowed her to put her effort into presentation instead of obfuscation.  And the presentation was--again--gorgeous.

For example, Lazlo is in suspense about the problem Weep is facing, while the reader knows from Sarai's point of view chapters that the citadel is looming over the city as a reminder of centuries of oppression.  So when Lazlo discovers this, it is not surprising for the reader.  What is surprising is what the citadel looks like, and it is impressive and surprising enough that the reveal as Lazlo comes over the hill to see the city is delightful.

Taylor also plays with tension in a neat way.  In the prologue, a girl falls from the sky.  Eventually, as you read, you realize that this event wasn't in some distant past, but it's coming up, and I was waiting for the moment when a girl would fall from the sky.  The anticipation grows as you start to understand the enormity of the situation of a girl falling and you start to understand that the consequences are going to be catastrophic.  So whenever things start looking up, the fact that it's all going to come crashing down still looms over you.  There are scenes that would otherwise have little tension, but I was braced through them, thinking, "Ooooooh, this is it.  Someone's getting pushed off this balcony any second now."

I can't recommend this one enough.

***

Next week: All the Birds in the Sky, magic and sci-fi in an oncoming apocalypse by Charlie Jane Anders.