Sentences like fine wine

So, I was re-reading Stray by Nicola Griffith the other day. I meant to just read one particular scene and wound up reading practically everything after page fifty. And then going back and reading the beginning. That happens to me. I don’t know if any of you ever read a book from the inside out, so to speak.

This particular sentence, on page ninety-seven, caught my eye and made me smile with pleasure: The light began to change, thinning from rich afternoon mead to a more sophisticated predusk Chablis which slanted in through the trees and picked up the wings of insects dancing over the surface.

Isn’t that lovely? Really, even writing these hard-to-categorize thrillers rather than beautiful, detailed historical fiction like Hild . . . let me see, the back cover refers to these thriller types as “literary noir,” which I’m not sure I agree with but I see where they’re coming from . . . anyway, Griffith’s literary thriller trilogy is so beautifully written on a sentence-by-sentence level, something you just don’t see all that often. And sometimes when you do, the sentences don’t add up to such a satisfying story. I’m thinking here of In the Woods by Tana French, which put me off her books permanently because the quite horrible villain totally got away with ruining a lot of people’s lives and I just . . . ugh, no. (I should add that it is the first book of a series, so maybe things work out better eventually. The first book repelled me so powerfully that I will never know.)

Anyway, I do highly recommend The Blue Place and Stray and Always if you are in the mood for literary thrillers, or even if you aren’t, particularly. Especially if you would like to sink into the pov of a deeply sensual protagonist; I don’t think you see such a perfect sensualist very often. Or of course you should try Hild if you would prefer a long, lovingly detailed historical with a cooler, more cerebral protagonist.

But, today I am (finally) reading a book published, let’s see, back in 2008, Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet. I think I’ve had it on my TBR shelves practically that whole time, and now that I’ve finally picked it up, I am enjoying it much more than I actually expected to. Certainly much more than I usually would with a book that seems to switch to a new pov character practically every chapter, which ordinarily I don’t much like. I’m thinking one of the authors wrote some characters and the other wrote some other characters, kind of like Wrede and Stevermer in the letter game that led to Sorcery and Cecelia, though who knows, it’s just that the voices are so very distinctive. Here are a characteristic couple of sentences from Margrave Royston, who has just been relegated to the country for a particularly unwise indiscretion:

The terrible thing about the country – and this was why I’d left in the first place – is that you can’t spit sideways without hitting a sheep. They’re smelly, cruel creatures, malevolent and unclean.

Okay, didn’t you laugh? Of course you did.

Havemercy is, of course, nothing at all like any of Griffith’s books, except in the way I’m lingering over the sentences. I’m just on page forty right now, and it’s going to take me days to finish this one because I’m going to enjoy lingering over the words. And, I’m pretty sure, the characters. That’s why I don’t mind switching pov often, because the characters are so beautifully drawn.

Stay and Havemercy, as different as they are, offer in this way a similar reading experience. The reading experience is almost wholly unlike that of reading, say, Ringo’s Under a Graveyard Sky and the other books in the Dark Tide Rising series, which I zipped through in doubletime because a) the story just carried me along, and b) there was no temptation to linger over the writing, lovingly re-reading specific sentences for their artistic perfection.

I recently saw some writer, don’t remember who, comment on Twitter that being a writer has made it hard for them to read fiction because they’re so much more judgmental about the writing than they used to be. Other writers were chiming in and agreeing and I am just so glad that this hasn’t been my experience because for me the world is still filled right to the brim with genre fiction I enjoy for one reason or another, whether or not the writing is flawless.

On the other hand, if you’re on the lookout for perfect writing . . . again, I’m just on page forty. But Havemercy might be one to try. Also, Griffith’s books certainly are.

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5 thoughts on “Sentences like fine wine”

  1. I just finished a reread of Joel Shepherd’s Trial of Blood and Steel Quadrilogy, which is a glorious read. The notion is a mostly feudal North–with some tribal elements–goes on a crusade against an Early Modern South–with some Elven elements. The story centers on the actions of a disowned princess, Sasha, who joins a tribe and takes up the sword at age six, in rage and mourning for her favorite, eldest brother, after his betrayal by the feudalists.
    Just a glorious series. He joins Andrea Höst and Garth Nix as my favorite Australian authors. (Though I can’t recommend his earlier work.)

  2. So glad you finally got around to reading Havemercy and are enjoying it. I love this series. Especially the relationship between Rook and Havemercy; the dynamic between dragons and their riders have featured in a number of books but these two break the mold.

  3. Took a while, didn’t it? But the upside is, the whole series is probably out by this time. I’ve only seen Rook and Havemercy together a couple of times, but I really like them and the dynamic between them, as you say — though Rook is certainly a bit, um, rough around the edges. Or maybe all the way through …

    So far I like all four of the main characters, even though several — three? — are “types” that often wouldn’t appeal to me at all. An impressive characterization job by the authors.

  4. fx/ Elaine picks up the Joel Shepherd again after not being successful the first try.

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