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Recent Reading: The Killing Moon, The Shadowed Sun

After Tana French’s IN THE WOODS, what I wanted was something I could be absolutely sure I would love. And since NK Jemisin’s duology earned this review, not to mention this one, I was confident it would be a good choice.

It was. But it’s taken me a week or so to take a stab at putting my thoughts about this pair of books into words.

First, assuming you’ve read NK Jemisin’s first trilogy, the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy . . . let me say that this duology really doesn’t have the same feel. Instead of the very close first-person narrative, here we have a much more scattered third-person narrative. In THE KILLING MOON, we have three main pov protagonists: the Gatherer Ehiru, with whom we start and who felt to me like the primary protagonist until quite far into the book; Nijiri, his apprentice, who grows up the hard way during the course of the story; and Sunandi, from a neighboring country. Plus certain scenes are presented from yet other points of view: The Prince, Eninket, who starts off sympathetic before we realize that he’s actually, well, I don’t want to say ‘ruthless’ because that wouldn’t be strong enough. Also one of his generals, Niyes, briefly. And I’m sure there are others.

All these characters are handled well, but the effect of using a scattered third-person is that this duology feels slower to start than the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. There you are drawn at once into close sympathy with the narrator; here you have to accommodate the shifting narrative. Plus the choice to use third person holds you at a slight distance from the characters. For me, this meant that the first quarter or third of the first book was not that engaging.

After that, well, I definitely did get drawn in! By the end, I cared very much about Ehiru and Nijiri and Sunandi. And about all the secondary characters, and the city of Gujaareh, and the country of Kisua. What I liked best about the main characters: none of them were perfect, all of them were different and complicated and felt like real people, all of them were very sympathetic, when they came into conflict with one another, it was for good reasons and they all learned to understand one another (pretty well, at least) by the end.

I was surprised to find that the first book stood very well alone. Events in the second book grow directly out of events in the first, but both books are surprisingly self-contained.

In THE SHADOWED SUN, Nijiri remains a minor character, so does Sunandi, and I was glad to see them both. And there’s a good scattering of other minor pov characters as well. But the main pov protagonists are the prince’s heir, Wanahomen, and the first woman healer-priest, Hanani. I had no trouble at all getting drawn into the second book, partly because I had already been drawn into the world, but partly because I loved Hanani a whole lot.

People are always talking about “strong female characters,” though what they mean by “strong” doesn’t always impress me very much; and the “first woman whatever” is a pretty common trope, of course. Jemisin handled Hanani and the society around her just perfectly. We get to see why women haven’t been allowed to be healer-priests (it’s not why you think) and why Hanani was an exception and the obstacles she runs into and the obstacles she doesn’t run into – all beautifully handled – and she does not become an honorary man even though she also does not accept a traditional woman’s role. My favorite thing in the whole second book is how Hanani at the end builds a life for herself that steps outside everyone’s expectations. Good for her!

The setting: everybody says this duology is set in an alternate fantasy world based on Ancient Egypt. Oh, come on. Sure, there’s a river that floods annually, creating a fertile region within a wider desert. Yes, we have a cosmopolitan and wealthy city set by this river. Details of clothing and jewelry and architecture may be similar. But there is no resemblance between the society of Gujaareh and the society of Ancient Egypt. None. Seriously, none whatsoever. So please, lighten up with the Egypt comparisons, people! What we plainly have here is a secondary world fantasy, and a very well done secondary world it is, but it’s nothing like Egypt. If you’re dying for a fantasy involving Egypt, how about LORD OF THE TWO LANDS by Judith Tarr? That’s a really good book. Or CLEOPATRA’S HEIR by Gillain Bradshaw, which is a historical novel rather than a fantasy and simply outstanding.

What we actually have in Gujaareh: a fabulous city, beautifully detailed, with a token secular ruler and a fascinating tripartite priesthood based on a unique and wonderfully-drawn religion. Plus a wider world around that city that is also well drawn and believable. What we have in this duology: a complex yet understandable and believable plot, with all the elements beautifully woven together. Wonderful characters. A beautiful and fascinating world. A satisfying conclusion to the first book, and an even more satisfying conclusion to the second. Highly recommended.

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Bad news and, thank God, good news —

The bad news, and it’s bad enough, is that poor Adora lost her litter. She got pyo — pyometra, an infection of the uterus — and I had her spayed to protect her health. There are only two bright spots to this: first, I recognized what was happening immediately and her life was never in (much) danger. Pyo is potentially deadly, so that’s not something to take for granted! Dora was pretty miserable there for a week or so, but she’s recovering nicely now. And second, though about half the expenses of breeding her are a dead loss, the stud fee itself rolls forward; since she has a young ruby daughter to whom the Ringleader dogs are well suited, I can eventually use the stud fee that way. Presuming that Folly clears her health checks when she’s two. But she should, I’m not very worried about that, I have generations of clearances behind her!

The good news: Kenya, at least, is pregnant. Whew! Just had the ultrasound this morning. She has four puppies in there. If everything goes well, if they’re all okay — and you don’t have to tell ME that things can go wrong, good Lord, I’ve had PLENTY of experience with things going wrong — but if she DOES have four, that’ll be enough for me to keep one AND everybody who’s waiting can also have one. Here’s hoping they’re all girls — or at least three girls out of four — or anyway, please God, at least a couple of girls! She is due the day before my birthday. I can tell you, ALL I want for my birthday is four healthy, vigorous puppies. Girl puppies. Okay, okay, beautiful, well-marked girl puppies — I will get pickier and pickier once I see they’re all healthy!

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About those prologues —

There are SO MANY posts out there that essentially declare that friends don’t let friends write prologues. And I think this is basically true, most of the time, unless it isn’t. And of course this is because so many prologues are dreadful.

Here’s a great post, by Rachel Aaron (THE SPIRIT RING) on writing a prologue your readers won’t skip. The money quote: “The most successful prologues fall into two types: prologues that exist to feed the reader information they otherwise couldn’t get, and prologues that set the mood.”

To which I would add, if the info given in the prologue is not actually crucial, don’t include it. A huge info dump of boring history may let the reader understand the complex origins of the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist (for example), but since the reader isn’t yet invested in the struggle between them and doesn’t yet have a reason to care about the protagonist, most likely the reader is going to find this BORING BORING BORING. It is NOT crucial information for the reader. Any tidbits that ARE crucial, if any, should just be worked into the story proper.

I mean, Tolkein didn’t include The Silmarillion as a prologue to The Lord of the Rings, right? You shouldn’t do that, either.

In the post I just linked to, Rachel Aaron explains how she used a prologue in her second book. I’m sure it’s obvious that one thing that might have made that work (I haven’t read her books and can’t judge) is that — and she herself points this out explicitly — the prologue is in the SECOND book, which means readers are already invested.

Nathan Bransford has a short post on prologues, back from when he was an agent, that’s worth a look. He basically reiterates that if a book works without the prologue, then you shouldn’t have put the prologue in — of course this is true. And he adds that a prologue ought to be short, self-contained, and comprehensible — which does rather beg the question of “how short is short?”

Two of my favorite good prologues are very, very short.

This one is from MaryJanice Davidson’s BETSY, THE VAMPIRE QUEEN series — The third one: Undead and Unappreciated. These are cute, fun books and Davidson plays with cute, fun prologues in several of them. In this book, she actually has two prologues, which right there indicates she’s having fun and not taking herself too seriously. The first prologue is this:

Once upon a time, the devil was bored, and possessed a not-very-nice pregnant woman, and ran that woman’s body for about a year.

The devil still drank and smoked, but only in moderation. The devil was good about taking prenatal pills but grumbled about the inevitable constipation.

And eventually the devil gave birth to a baby girl.

After a month of diapers, night feedings, colic, laundry, spilled formula (the devil hated to breast-feed), and spit-up, the devil said, “Enough of this,” and went back to Hell, which was infinitely preferable to living with a newborn.

The devil’s daughter was adopted and grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her name was Laura, and she liked strawbery ice cream, and she never, ever missed churc. She was a very nice young lady.

But she had a terrible temper.

There you go, that’s the whole thing. It’s short, self-contained, comprehensible, clearly sets up an important plot point, leaves the reader knowing something that the protagonist isn’t going to (but in a good way). And it’s funny.

A serious prologue that’s just as short but much more serious is in ALMOST PERFECT by Brian Katcher, which is a contemporary YA that was one of my very favorite reads from the past couple of years.

Everyone has a line they swear they’ll never cross, the one thing they say they’ll never do. Not something serious like I’ll never kill anyone or I’ll never invade Russia in the winter. Usually it’s something less earth-shattering.

I’ll never cheat on her.

I’ll never work at a job I hate.

I’ll never give up my dreams.

We draw the line. Maybe we even believe it. That’s why it’s so hard when we break that promise we make to ourselves.

Sage Hendricks was my line.

Here’s (part of) a much longer prologue that works beautifully, from Judith Riley’s IN PURSUIT OF THE GREEN LION

It was in the Year of Our Lord 1358, in the summertime, just two days before the Feast of Saint Barnabas, that a Voice spoke out of heaven into the ear of my understanding.

“Margaret,” said the Voice, “just what are you doing there?” My pen stopped, and I looked up.

“Surely, You know already,” I said to the still air.

“Of course I do, but I want you to tell Me, and that is entirely different,” the Voice answered.

But to begin in the right place, I must begin with God’s gift of daughters, which is made to mothers as a test and a trial. For on the Day of Judgment when we must answer for all things, what shall we answer if our daughters be too stubborn and impatient for the needle? Thus does God try our souls, and likewise cast out vanity, for the mothers of ungovernable children must always be humble.

Now the day on which the Voice spoke was all fair and warm, and everything was blooming and growing. We had removed our household from London for the summer once again; the disorder in the kitchens at Whitehill Manor had at last been put right, . . . . The air was so fresh, and the green fields so inviting, only a fool would imagine that two little girls as willful as Cecily and Alison would remember their duty. . . . . Still, as I climbed the long outside stairs to peep into the bower up under the eaves, I did not foresee what I would find. Empty! It was clear enough what had happened – two little pairs of shoes tumbled underneath the embroidery frame, a few dozen halfhearted stitches added to the work of months, and on the windowsill, Mother Sarah’s abandoned distaff.

“And she’s no better than they are! How could they?” I called out the window, “Cecily! Alison!” and thought I could hear the answering shriek of children’s laughter from a far-off place. Oh, failed again, I brooded. However will I make them into ladies? And then God will say at the end of the world, “Margaret, you allowed your daughters to become hoydens. Their French knots unravel. And those daisies. Ugh. Exactly like toadstools. Pass on my left, unworthy woman.”

But the silence of the abandoned bower was so inviting. I could feel the wonderful possibilities rising from the floor like mist. Mine, all mind, rejoiced my careless heart. Space, room, and quiet! And before I knew it, I had my paper and ink from the chest, and my writings about housewifery spread about me.

Now you must know that long ago I made a plan to write down all the wisdom Mother Hilde taught me, so that it would not all be lost. And my girls shall have it after me, and so become celebrated for their mastery of the arts of healing and cookery and housewifery. And it is very well that it all be written, even though these are all true secrets, for suppose some grief should come to me – how would they manage then? And this I must say of them, though they are slow at the needle, they are swift at the art of reading, which is most rare among females.

I set the pen at the place I had left off. “To keep the moth from woolens . . .” I had written, all those months ago, in London. How much had happened since then! Their father dead, so much changed. A bright shaft of sunshine from the little window above made a warm puddle of light on the page. Moths. How can keeping the moths off make my girls happy?

“Oh, bother moths! What do I care about moths? What ever possessed me to write about moths anyway?”

“Certainly not Me, Margaret.” The Voice sounded warm and comfortable, as if it were somehow inside the sunlight. I looked up from the paper and inspected the sunbeam carefully. The only thing I could see were thousands of dancing dust motes, all shimmering golden.

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” I addressed the sunbeam. “But now it’s all turned into moths and recipes for fish. And I don’t even like fish.”

“Why write about them, then?”

“I thought it was proper.”

“What is proper is what you understand best, Margaret.”

So, of course it was all clear. It wasn’t fish and moths I needed to write about after all. It was about something much more important. And certainly something my girls should know about, for the world tells them nothing but lies, leaving them entirely deluded on the subject.

“Why so busy, and so inky?” asked my lord husband that very evening. “Have you take up that recipe book again? Write about those tasty little fruit things in pastry – they would definitely be a loss to posterity. My future sons-in-law will bless me.”

“I’m writing a love story.”

“Another tale of courtly love to add to the world’s stock of lies? Surely you lead mankind astray. Pastries would be far better.”

“No, I’m not writing about that false, flowery stuff. Jousts, and favors, and lute playing in rose-covered bowers. I’m writing about the happily-ever-after part. I’m writing about true love.”

“Real love? Oh, worse and worse, Margaret. Nobody writes about that. For one thing, it’s not decent. For another, it’s impossibly dull. Now, if you wish to write about love, you must respect the conventions. What interests people is the trying to get, not the getting. Look at Tristan! Look at Lancelot! What kind of romance would it be if they could have had what they wanted? Tristan marries Yseult, and they produce a dozen moon-faced brats! . . . You must face facts, Margaret. You don’t understand anything about writing love stories. Stick to recipes.”

So of course I set to work right away. After all, my lord husband considers himself a great expert on the topic of love, because he has written a number of poems on the subject. But I, I have loved greatly.

I snipped a bit out, but that gives you the flavor of it. This prologue is about four pages long in the book. And what makes it work? Why, the protagonist’s voice, of course. THat last sentence is a beautiful hook: we are given a delicious sense of anticipation because we know just enough about what the book is going to be about. For me it’s a plus that we also know things are going to come out well at the end. But you see we certainly aren’t being handed an info dump of any kind. We do see something important, though: That God speaks to the protagonist, who takes this in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s intriguing and a nice draw.

There’s another kind of prologue that I hope works: the one that starts off as a chapter and then gets called a prologue kind of at the last minute. I know this because of *my* prologues. How long was the one in the third Griffin Mage book, The Broken Earth? About 25 pages? THis certainly doesn’t count as short, does it? I actually wrote that as Chapter 1. I and my editor went back and forth quite a lot before deciding to call it a prologue, the deciding factor being that it opens up with Mienthe’s childhood and thus well before the story proper begins. I wanted that chapter in there for several reasons, though, one being that I wanted Miente to be perceived as the main protagonist and that meant letting the reader see her pov first, before Tan was introduced. And that meant stepping back in time since the story proper really didn’t start until Tan crossed the river.

And in my as-yet-unpublished novel that opens with a prologue, that one started as a chapter, too. I eventually cut it A LOT and since it also involves a character’s childhood — though it also sets up a crucial aspect of the plot — anyway, I eventually started calling it a prologue. It’s perhaps five or eight pages long and I think it works quite well. But I admit this one is still going back and forth between myself and my agent. (I expect to send it to my Knopf editor pretty soon — I’ll be crossing my fingers about that.)

So . . . the “All prologues are bad” advice is too simplistic, but I do think it’s a good idea to SERIOUSLY think about whether your prologue is really an exception to the rule. As always, the take-home message: everything depends on you just being able to tell whether the prologue you wrote is a good one that will serve a crucial purpose effectively, or a terrible sucking wound that is draining the life out of your story.

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Pet Peeves

I happened to notice this, and this and of course it’s always somehow entertaining to see a list of pet peeves, the same way it’s entertaining to read very negative reviews. Or maybe that’s just me?

Anyway, what’s interesting to me is how you can read a list of somebody else’s pet peeves, and even though you wouldn’t have specifically thought of ANY of those pet peeves, the moment you see them in print, you think, OH, YEAH, ME TOO. Or is that also just me?

So! Orphaned kids attached to prophecies — yep, that’s a trope I’m tired of, all right. Someday I want to write a novel in which there is a prophecy that is just wrong. Would that make readers mad, do you think, or do you think they would be amused and pleased to see a prophecy not come true?

Precocious kids and idiotic adults — check. It is just offensive to see parents presented as totally clueless in order to force their kids to save the day. The author ought to be able to come up with a better reason for the kids to save the day than “Well, their parents are just stupid as turnips.” A really neat kid-parent relationship can be a huge plus in a book. Or a movie, because in this context what comes to mind is Veronica Mars, where the writers did a fabulous job on the relationship between Veronica and her dad. That was one of my favorite aspects of the show.

Writers who think their main characters are just too dreamy for words — actually, this isn’t a pet peeve of mine. As long as the main character really is dreamy. If everybody is in awe of how cool the protagonist is, when she is in fact impulsive and childish and dumb as a post, I will hate that book. I’m thinking of Kim Harrison’s Rachal Morgan series here. Everybody is just all “Ooh, she’s so dreamy!” and I think she is SUCH an idiot.

Weird names: well, obviously this is not a pet peeve of mine, as you’re certainly aware if you’ve read my books. I see absolutely nothing wrong with any of the names presented as “too weird” in that linked post. For heaven’s sake, “Trevanion”? Are you kidding me? It’s easy to pronounce and it looks fine on the page. Who could have a problem with it?

And then in part two:

Book and series titles that are confusing: well, I don’t spend time worrying about this, but yes, I don’t like confusing series/book titles either.

Weird use of perfectly ordinary words: That only bothers me some of the time. “Gifting” probably wouldn’t bother me all that much. Well, it would now that Charlotte has ranted about it, but if I’d read the book without reading this pet peeve list, it probably wouldn’t have. And yet I can be a major stickler for correct word use. So a definite pet peeve for me is “alright.” Two words! TWO! WORDS! There is no such word as “alright”! How complicated can this be?

Okay, taking a deep breath and moving on:

Intrusive narrators: Sometimes I think that is clever and fun, though I agree that the technique is always going to have a distancing effect.

Prologues: I used to say that I hated all prologues. Well, now I’ve written two books with prologues, so I can’t exactly say that anymore, at least not with much fervor. (One of those books isn’t yet published, so don’t rack your mind wondering if you missed a prologue somewhere.) I can’t even say that I hate all unnecessary prologues, because frankly I’m not sure if there’s any such thing as a truly crucial prologue. Even so, I have reluctantly been forced to admit that some prologues actually add to the story rather than detracting from it, even if they’re not strictly necessary. So all I can say now is: I hate badly written unnecessary prologues. Which is still going to cover most of ’em, imo.

I like most epilogues, though, but not if they do violence to the preceding story, which I think happens now and then. I grant you, epilogues are a matter of personal taste. The epilogue which has annoyed me most in the recent past was the one for UNDER HEAVEN by Guy Gavial Kay. Loved the book! But at the end, I was all, “My God, man, just write a second book and put all this epilogue stuff in that one!”

None of these are my REAL pet peeve, though.

My REAL pet peeve is stupid or ineffectual characters. The examples that leap to mind for me, right at the moment, and meaning no offense here, but way too many characters — not just the protagonist, but nearly everybody else, too — in EON and EONA, by Alison Goodman, were deeply, unbelievably stupid about recognizing and countering the big bad guy, and I couldn’t stand it. Yes the worldbuilding was good; yes, I like the alternate China-esque setting, but good Lord above, people, you might consider taking measures to protect yourselves from the bad guy you know perfectly well is planning t kill you all. Gave those two books to the library the day I finished them.

And I know, I know, Juliet Marillier is a great writer, okay? And usually I love her books. Really. But WILDWOOD DANCING, her retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses? Jena is not all that stupid, but she is totally ineffectual. Everything falls apart around her and she just stands there wringing her hands. I wanted to shake her and shout, “You’re the protagonist! Do something clever!”

How about you? What absolutely drives you nuts in a novel?

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A List: Best YA and MG of 2012

Here’s a nice list. Of course I’m sure there’re many many such lists around, but I do like this one.

What I like about this list:

The categories. Best Prose, Best Non-Dystopian Novel, Most Lyrical, Best For Highly Literate Children, Best Page-Turner, Best Slow Read — among other categories. I like the way these categories let me pay more attention to the types of books which would appeal to me (Most Lyrical) and gloss over the ones that probably wouldn’t (Best Book About Mean Girls).

This list is not especially for SFF, but there are a lot of SFF titles. Besides, every now and then I do read a contemporary YA story — usually because Ana at The Book Smugglers recommends them highly and so I make an exception. (So far I’ve always been happy I did.) So I’m more inclined than I might have been a few years ago to pick up one or two of the contemporary titles that made ths list.

Anyway, I’ve heard of a lot of the recommended titles, but I’ve read exactly . . . wait for it . . . one of them. Just one.

And I didn’t even like it all that much (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children).

I have one other book from this list on my TBR pile (The Raven Boys). Just one. I feel so behind on my reading now!

I have quite a few of these titles on my Amazon wishlist — which I use as a supplementary memory so I don’t forget about them — and this list includes several others that I’m interested in and ought to either buy or add to my wishlist. For example, Bitterblue by Cashore — I heard such different things about it, and I think it might really appeal to me, though actually I’m one of the few who wasn’t so terribly blown away by Graceling. I haven’t even read the second one in the series, what was it called, Fire?

I have heard all these fabulous things about Seraphina , which is a debut by Rachel Hartman, and even more fabulous things about Code Name Verity, which is by Elizabeth Wein, who I already know is an amazing writer. They’re both on my must-read list, but I haven’t actually got them yet. I just read a review of Under The Never Sky (at Bunbury in the Stacks) that makes me want to read that one. I’ve heard of For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund — it’s supposed to be a retelling of Jane Austin’s Persuasion. Doesn’t that sound like a must-try?

And there’s yet another mention of Frances Hardinge here, whom I’ve never read, but evidently I really must. She’s MG, which normally I’m not too inclined to try, but she’s starting to sound like another DWJ, the way people rave about her.

So many books, so little time!

And to add a note of urgency, I believe nominations for the Hugo close in mid-March. I wonder if this gives me enough of an excuse to go ahead and pick up at least a couple of the SFF titles?

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On the subject of movie parodies —

You just can’t beat this one! If you didn’t happen to run across it before, you really must follow the link and read it now! Warning: It’s quite long. But it’s really funny!

I never actually saw Avatar, and frankly after reading this parody, I have no special desire to see it, either. But the parody is just priceless. Enjoy!

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Here’s something fun —

A parody of “The Hobbit.”

I didn’t really like the movie very much . . . for me, it was nothing like as good as “The Lord of the Rings.” It didn’t stick as closely to the book as I thought it should and Jackson changed details where he didn’t need to, in ways that hurt the story. IMO.

And that fighting retreat from the goblin lair was totally, ridiculously unbelievable.

Although I must admit that I was charmed all to pieces by the bunny sled. That made up for a lot.

But whether you liked the movie or not, I hope you will appreciate this parody!

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What adult SFF novels would YOU recommend?

To someone who has previously focused mainly on MG and YA fantasy?

Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library requests suggestions, and this is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to make me zip downstairs to my own personal library and start selecting fabulous books that might fit the bill.

Note that Charlotte is specifically requestion relatively recent books. That makes it harder! I have LOTS of suggestions for books published a decade or more ago. She also asks for books that “are strong on character, and the characters are smart, often witty, and (if they are central characters) likable. …. These books are strong on setting, with lots of lovely details about place, and/or fascinating twists of world building (such as alternate histories) that really make the territory of the book an undiscovered country.”

As it happens, I think that it’s very likely that readers who love current YA generally are likely to prefer stories that are strong on character. I don’t think you often get a YA novel that emphasizes plot, ideas, or worldbuilding over character. A focus on character is very important to YA. And the characters do need to be likeable, generally. No Joe Abercrombe antiheros here, no characters who start off okay but become corrupted, no bad guys winning. Sure, we get semi-sociopaths like the John Cleaver in I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, but then John is a very likeable sociopath who, during the course of the trilogy, actually carves out a niche for himself that is solidly on the good-guy side of things.

In addition the the books Charlotte lists in her post, I would add:

Barbara Hambly, particularly BRIDE OF THE RAT GOD, THOSE WHO HUNT THE NIGHT, STRANGER AT THE WEDDING, and DRAGONSBANE. I think if you don’t like those, you definitely aren’t going to fall in love with Hambly! Granted, these may not meet the “relatively current” criterion, but I think they are perfect. So is —

Doris Egan, the trilogy starting with GATE OF IVORY. Egan never wrote much, but this is a wonderful trilogy that never got the attention it deserved. And one more —

Gillian Bradshaw. In my opinion, anybody who loves fantasy should think of trying historicals, and in particular this author.

Who do you all think belongs on a list of “adult fantasy novels that would appeal to adult readers of YA”?

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Oh, nice poll here . . .

. . . from Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks. Which door would you choose to step through? One that led to Hogwarts, Narnia, Westeros, Neverland, Alice in Wonderland, Middle Earth, or, um . . . right, Camelot.

I left a comment at Heidi’s blog, but I’ll give it away here, too: My pick is Narnia, my second pick is Middle Earth, and nobody else is in the running. How about you?

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Recent reading: Some books should come with a warning label

By which I mean, at least this time, books in which the bad guy wins. And I don’t mean a charming bad guy such as, say, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder or Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos. No. I mean a real bad guy, the kind where it’s an offense against the universe when they win.

I also mean the sort of books in which the good guy loses. I mean really loses, so that his life is thoroughly screwed up at the end. Worse: the sort of story where the good guy does it to himself, so that you, as the reader, can see everything going wrong while the protagonist’s mistakes pile up and then come crashing down on him and everyone around him with all the power and inevitability of a tsunami.

Don’t tell me real life is sometimes like that. If I wanted to read stories like that, I could read current news or ancient history or whatever.

So. I picked up IN THE WOODS, a debut novel by Tana French that came out several years ago, at a recent book sale. Here’s what the back cover copy says: “. . . three children leave their small Dublin neighborhood to play in the surrounding woods. Hours later, their mother’s calls go unanswered. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
“Twenty years later, Detective Rob Ryan – the found boy, who has kept his past a secret – and his partner Cassie Maddox investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the same woods. No, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him, and that of his own shadowy past.”

My tolerance for horror is fairly low, but I sometimes do like suspense and crime dramas, and I often like cop books, and this book was an Edgar Award finalist, and I liked the cover. So I read the first couple of pages. Here’s the first paragraph, to give you an idea:

“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping chants, One! two! three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.”

Okay, I’d call that promising, wouldn’t you? The second sentence got me. Beautiful! And then the rest of the paragraph: setting is very important to me in mysteries, and this story, set in Ireland, looks like it will be perfect. Just exotic enough to be appealing without being challenging. I may not know what Marie biscuits are or what a BMX wind is, but not knowing stuff like that isn’t going to bother me a bit.

And the writing here is top-notch. That part is undeniable. But I started to see the trend toward the protagonist’s life unraveling pretty early, and though the writing was good enough to keep me going, I definitely took a gooood step back emotionally and wound up not being very emotionally engaged with the characters. Which was wise. Because this author really ticked me off. And it’s not just because of the ending where the bad guy gets away with murder, and worse than murder, and is clearly going to go on destroying people’s lives for the foreseeable future. It’s also because of the way we get to that ending.

First, French provides one of the very, very few true nonsexual friendships between a man and a woman in all of fiction – Ryan and his partner Maddox. How often do you EVER see that? The author does it so well, the relationship comes across as totally believable. Then . . . well, then the author throws sex back in there after all and that relationship gets completely, irretrievably screwed up. I’m not saying this isn’t believable. Ryan’s all messed up because of his personal history, and although I don’t totally get his reactions with regard to this relationship with his partner, fine, I can believe he might possibly react the way he did. But I hate it. And I hate what it puts his partner through, and I hate where Ryan himself ends up.

Not only that, but Ryan’s personal history? The bit about being found gripping a tree trunk with his shoes full of blood? You see how the back cover copy invites you to believe that Ryan is going to figure out what actually happened to himself and his two friends when they were kids? And that unraveling that old mystery is going to be connected to the current murder? Well: sorry to spoil this for you if you were going to rush out and buy this book, but no.

There are hints about supernatural weirdness, probably evil supernatural weirdness, connected with those woods and that old disappearance. But in fact those hints stay completely unexplained. We never find out what really happened. Those shoes full of blood, a distinctly weird and creepy image the author rather dwells on? We never find out about those. We don’t even find out whose blood it was! Was it the blood of the two kids who disappeared? Don’t know, could be! Why was there blood in the shoes and nowhere else? We have no idea. Is there a connection between the old disappearance and the current crime? You’d think so, right? But if there was supposed to be such a connection, it was so subtle and mystical that I missed it.

And then the bad guy won.

I don’t care how good the writing was. I won’t be coming back for Tana French’s second book.

Here’s the Goodreads page for IN THE WOODS.

I particularly recommend Matt Sommer’s review, which is the second one down. Yeah, what he said. There’s an interesting comment in his thread, that Ryan himself may be supposed to be a sociopath and that he himself killed his friends. I don’t think I buy it, but it’s certainly an interesting idea. I think we see enough relatively normal emotions in his head to rule out that he his himself sociopathic, and I don’t *think* he killed his friends. But I don’t know. If you’re into psychological mysteries, hey, maybe you’d like to read this one after all and see what you think.

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