Review: TOOTH AND CLAW by Jo Walton (Audible)

ToothandClawAudibleTooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Narrated by John Lee
(Fantasy; original Tor, 2003; audio Audible 2014)

Victorian dragons struggle against and freely express their true nature (because Victorians) in this story about family, inheritance, purity, and socio-economic class (because dragons).

Writer Brain: 5/5. Jo Walton’s story of this book’s origin makes everything make sense. Of course Victorian dragons. It’s perfect, right down to the Tennyson reference in the title. Even the seeming contrast between “Victorian” and “dragon” makes complete sense. As a writer, the whole thing proved that what could sound like an insane, over-the-top “stunt” could turn into a fully realized novel. It wouldn’t work if there hadn’t been great characters and exquisite world-building fueling great tension to move the plot right along. Without this level of execution, the idea could have been heavy handed; a lesser writer might have needed to contain it to a short-story pastiche. But this is Jo Walton, and she did it right. Take-away: Become Jo Walton. Eat green dragons. A great idea is best presented by great skill. Cultivate your craft.

Editor Brain: 5/5. Responding as an editor to a book I listened to feels different somehow. But I’m going to do it anyway. Many tidbits sparkled to my editor’s eye ear. Much of the worldbuilding is both new and natural. The story doesn’t rely so heavily on being Victorian that the dragons might as well be stand-ins in a human-Victorian novel. At the same time, the world isn’t so foreign that the reading experience is alienating. The names and honorifics and politics and religion all feel familiar, but belong in this dragon world perfectly. These aspects with feet in both worlds make it easier to empathize with these biologically nonhuman characters. Applied to a strictly second-world fantasy, this type of grounding might mean using simpler names, Earth dialects as analogs for fictional dialects, etc. More broadly, it can boil down to the basic advice to write for your audience. Think if it as translating for your audience: using the images, language, and themes that they already know to paint a new experience. Take-away: Don’t reinvent the wheel. No one needs a whe’el when they have rolling legs, tumblers…and wheels.

Reader/Listener Brain: 5/5. I stayed up late to listen to the last three hours–and this is notable especially because I have an infant and can’t afford to lose sleep. But I smiled like a maniac the whole time. I was lost in the story and it was a wondrous thing. The narration was great–I love John Lee’s accent and am definitely looking through the rest of his catalog. And, even more of a recommendation as a reader, I look forward to returning to this text–audible or otherwise–over and over.

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Review: THE GRACE OF KINGS by Ken Liu

(If you aren’t familiar with my template, I’m sharing my thoughts from my writer, editor, and reader brains, because sometimes they feel very differently about the same book. No spoilers, I promise!)

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
(Fantasy; Saga Press, 2015)

4.5/5 Stars

Amid decades of political intrigue, turmoil, and boldfaced war, a few lead the many in pursuit of a better life. But is a king better than an emperor? A thief better than a king? Gods and mortals struggle for purchase in this intricate tome.

Writer Brain: 4.5/5. There’s so much to unravel here. The prose is somehow stylized but not affected, reserved but never stilted. The magic, tech, and belief systems are instantly believable and not overdone. The cast is huge, but every person has his or her purpose. There are no throwaway people, even when they get thrown away.  (Insert writer “gah” of joy and envy here.) And I especially loved that the “bad guys” are often people who, in their own mind and moral code, are actually really good guys. This is not the cast of The Song of Ice and Fire series, either. The POV always feels much more formal, much more distant. While that worked, I wanted more dialogue–so much was a story being recounted rather than played out. And combined with the huge cast (with few characters getting lots of “screen time”), I felt I needed convincing to continue past the first third. And then I got convinced fast and read the last two-thirds like a madwoman. Take-away: The care taken in crafting this book is visible from every angle and on every page. But the downside of such a sweeping plot with such monumental implications for the characters may mean a lot of time spent on getting things going, which can be rough on the reader.

Editor Brain: 4.5/5. What Writer Brain said. Take-away: Sometimes Writer Brain knows what she’s doing.

Reader Brain: 4.5/5. Last year I read a bunch of dark-but-funny, swashbuckling epic fantasy, so coming over to this court-intrigue/war epic fantasy was much different. I told my husband it was like reading a Crane Clan courtier novel with several Scorpion Clan lawyers thrown in to gum up the works (please forgive these dorky Legends of the Five Rings comments from Reader Brain). I was stuck in Writer Brain and Editor Brain for a long time and then Princess Kikomi…wait, I promised no spoilers. Anyway, there was plenty that left me breathless and excited and awestruck. The tech–some have dubbed it silkpunk–is just awesome. I mean battle kites? Come on! And the divination! Oh, and the GODS. Ahh. Just stop me before I tell you all the good things in monosyllabic utterances.  Take-away: I think you’re very likely to read something that makes you want to keep going even if you’ve felt that the going is tough.

Et cetera: I openly wept on public transportation when I read Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” a few years back. There I said it.

The Quarterly Review(s) – Winter 2016

If you asked me ten minutes ago how the past three months had gone, you probably would have gotten a ragged sigh and a request for more coffee before I said anything more. But, let’s look at the numbers.

  • Writing: I’ve written 35,000+ words since January 1. It should be more. I’m angry at myself that it’s not. But THINK ABOUT THAT. I’ve written 35k words. That’s really not that shabby. And that includes a 7k day, a 5k day, and four 2k days. Really. I shouldn’t complain.
  • Editing: My freelance job-in-progress has been great. More than 130,000 words edited for this outdoor memoir and it returns from the copyeditor on Monday. Also, I’m this month’s voice of @EFAFreelancers on Twitter. Come chat about problem projects tomorrow at 3pm EST via #EFAChat.
  • Reading: Eight books read (more on that in a minute) and a whole list to enjoy.

In fact, all this reading has been so refreshing and rewarding that I’m really going to boost my book-chatter a bunch. Plus, I think it will help me as a writer and editor to really hone in on what I’m getting from each book, and since I have this blog, I might as well tell you.

And here’s my format:

  • Intro: 50 words (or less!); no spoilers
  • Writing Brain: ?/5 stars; what craft points really shine (or don’t) and what other writers can learn from the read.
  • Editing Brain: ?/5 stars; lessons to be learned for an editor from the book, including things that can be applied across genres, things that made my editor brain shudder, etc.
  • Reader Brain: ?/5 stars; my gut and visceral two-cents
  • Et Cetera: Other things, if it’s worth including them.

My goal will be to keep everything under 500 words. If I really need to expand something because I think it’s worth it, I’ll write a separate post.

So here’s a freebee because I want to give it a shot:

Heirloom by Eleanora Brownleigh
(Historical Romance; Zebra, 1983)

1.3/5 Stars

Interior decorator Thea heads to Mexico to spy for President T. Roosevelt. She can handle herself just fine, but society expects that she’ll need a man. Will her hero be her sham of a husband? A brooding military beau? What is she really getting into?

Writer Brain: 1/5 stars. So this is what too much exposition does to a story! I keep looking for the dialogue, and when I found it I was unimpressed. There was no tension beneath the paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of exposition. Take-away:

Editor Brain: 1/5 stars. Oh the back and forth! The story is told from two perspectives, which I had no idea to expect until I got to the second one. And Thea’s story had just started to get interesting! Nowadays, I’d expect those stories to be woven together chapter by chapter, rather than getting part 1, jumping back five or ten years for part 2, and then coming back to mix the perspectives for the rest of the book. It was like starting all over again from the beginning. Take-away: chronology can be the difference between someone continuing to read your book and putting it down because you give them a very convenient out.

Reader Brain: 2/5 stars. I mean: I finished it. All 687 pages. If you like dress porn (read: lengthy descriptions of fashionable dress) or similar effusive detail about high-end interior design, then this might be your romance novel. But I just wasn’t thrilled with the romance itself, and the other two parts of my brain were screaming in pain the whole time, so it was–at best–a 2/5. Take-away: my reader brain really might be the sum of my writer brain and my editor brain if you don’t give me anything else to enjoy. Take-away: I’m just not likely to recommend it to you.

Et cetera: I found this on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books; I’m sad that I didn’t like it as much as its devoted fans seem to. Also, I really love the author’s name.

And that’s a wrap. Expect more reviews as I finish writing them (seven more in the queue already!) and a look back at how things are going every few months or so!