Happy New Year’s, ya heathen! I am celebrating by cuddling up with my cat, the one who has thus far escaped death for yet another trip around the sun, and seems blissfully unaware of both how lucky he is, and how much effort I once put into making him escape that death.
Anyway, I am truly impressed with your most recent letter, and, specifically, with how much time and work you put into that letter (stalking the NYPL! My stars!) and into our blog in general. Kudos, my thistline friend! In return, I have decided to gift you with a letter written in like half an hour, that took me no work at all, except the work of google image searching a gif, that, if Tumblr is at all bitchy about letting me use, I will probably just ditch at the first hint of technological trouble.
I have, of course, spent my holiday season reading, because I have no friends at my parents’ place except my undead cat and a very tired dog. Accordingly, I read two books that were both of the YA (I think? I never actually know if it’s YA or not, unless it’s blatantly obvious. Divergent, for example, could not be mistaken for anything but YA, as well as anything with the name “John Green” on the cover) and genre persuasions, The Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir and The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater.
I quite enjoyed both of them! But I do have a little note to make, regarding The Ember in the Ashes, which is that it is the first part of a series, and, unlike The Raven Boys, there’s no indication of that fact anywhere on the cover. Now, I didn’t know that either of these books were the first of a series when I started them, but in the case ofThe Raven Boys, that’s because I apparently neglected to look at the cover, which marks it Part One of the Raven Cycle rather clearly. So that one’s on me. For The Ember in the Ashes, I did look. I mean, I’ve read a fair number of secondary world fantasies, in my time, so I’m familiar with the general rule of thumb, which is that they don’t usually take place in stand alone novels. However, that Part One of [x] was conspicuously absent.
And I have to ask, as one person who works in publishing to another person who works in publishing, why do we do this? I mean, I know why we do this– readers might be a little leery about getting emotionally invested in a story of which only one third, or less, might be available at the onset, and where there’s always the possibility the author will get run over by a bus, therefore leaving said reader hanging, forever. I can’t help but wonder if at least some small part of the reason why we do this is because some of the most famous fantasy series out there– specifically and especially, A Song of Ice and Fire– have fallen into a forever-in-limbo state wherein the series remains unfinished, but children who were born after the first one was published are by now half way through college. Still, when you publish the first part of a series, before parts two, three, et al, come out, them’s the breaks, kids, and that’s the risk the reader takes. To not say so is to lie by omission, which is generally frowned upon when one is selling a product. So, the question does remain: why do we do this?
Furthermore, this increasing habit of neglecting the Part One of [X]creates the reader expectation that any new book of genre persuasion is probably the first part of a series, regardless of what it does or does not say on the cover, and that’s probably not an expectation we want to be cultivating. Also, is it really true that readers don’t like getting emotionally invested in part one of a series? I mean, it’s a given that readers probably like waiting as little as humans in general like waiting (which is to say, they don’t), but a series promises a story large enough, grand enough, emotionally complex enough, that it cannot fit into a measly 200-300 pages. I don’t particularly care for that, because I am a pragmatic mercenary of a reader (as are you, Artichoke, with your unnatural love of short stories), but I’ve encountered enough other humans to know that I am not the norm in this. People– and especially people who like genre– like their stories big.
In terms of recommendations, I don’t think The Ember in the Ashesis really your fare, but you might like The Raven Boys. On the other hand, knowing you, and given the cast of four arrogant boys and assorted others, you might really not like it. Only one way to find out! Chop chop!
TRB is about a psychic’s daughter named Blue, who has been told by her psychic mother that she will kill her true love with a kiss (does this happen before the end of the first book? No it does not! Series). She eventually joins forces with four young men of varying levels of charisma, ostentatious wealth, and liveliness, who are, with varying amounts of enthusiasm, looking for the Welsh king Glendower, last seen in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, now, possibly buried in a lies sleeping, ready to be awakened Arthurian sot of way, but, in the wilds of Virginia. Shenanigans ensue.
From the start, the writing is excellent; Stiefvater knows how to put a sentence down, and she knows how to bring characters to life with vibrancy and multifariousness, and that without simply giving you a list of traits by which to tell one apart from the next. I mention this because it’s the trap I thought she might fall into. The structure of the story is such that small groups of characters have the same general profile as one another; a collection of rich boarding school teenaged laddies here, a flock of psychic ladies there. In that sense, it is a book that is far more devoted to character than it is to plot structure, which is to say, it’s not your schtick at all, Artichoke. Reading it will be something different, which will be good for you. Eat your vegetables, take your vitamins.
My biggest complaint, which is a spoiler, comes near the end when an injury results in one of the characters losing the hearing of his left ear, something that’s mentioned a few times, and then promptly forgotten in the wake of the overshadowing matter, which is that the character in question is forced to compromise his principles. Which– as someone who was once a teenager, and once stared down the barrel of losing the use of a body part, and that without actually losing it– holy shit, no. Even when you’re a teenager, and even when you’re a stupidly stubborn one, like I was, I think you still have these ideas in the very far back of your head, this rational voice that sounds like your mother, saying “I am a changing, growing person, who may not think [these principles] for all eternity,”and “I am the best of friends with this person right now, but things might change, and we may not be friends forever”. Losing a limb, or the ability to hear out of your ear, or what have you, means really, truly learning what eternity is, and it’s a rather unpleasant discovery. I was in the midst of the nastiest break up and friendship drama I’ve ever gone through, adult life included, when I was suddenly in the hospital with a team of medical professionals putting my leg back together, and you wouldn’t believe how quickly everything else in the entire world suddenly takes a lower place on the priorities list. On the other hand, internal angst doesn’t make for as good of reading as inter-relationship drama between characters, so. That said; Adam’s hearing is probably pretty fucking important to Adam, even if the rest of us, readers and other characters alike, don’t give a shit, so it was a bit startling to me how quickly we, the readers, were welcomed into forgetting that that injury had happened.
But. I’ve had complaints of that variety with many, many books in the past, and I’m sure I’ll have that complaint with many more in books of the future.
It is, after all, the relationships between the characters, and that ultra-Americana, Virginia supernatural atmosphere, that makes the story work. In terms of the setting, there are places in the US, usually out in the countryside, and usually out in the east or the south, wherein the folklore– most all of which seems to concern restless ghosts of the dead and disappeared and done wrong– is more populous than the actual people, (you went to college in such a place, though I can’t remember how much attention, if any, you paid to the Bennington Triangle twaddle) and it’s enormously satisfying to see that atmosphere woven into a story. Furthermore, Stiefvater eschewed any of the supernatural ambiguity (you know the sort– it could be ghosts! or it could be mental illness!the reader decides) that tends to mark this sort of genre– there are supernatural forces at work here, and she fully embraces that, always with one eye on how it affects our characters’ friendships.
This is the sort of book where the major selling point is that old chestnut of wish-fulfillment, friendship. (Note: do reviewers still bitch wish fulfillment out like it’s incarnate of the devil, like they used to do in 2009? This is a genuine question). To be honest, this aspect of the book, and the fact that I really enjoyed myself while reading it, had me in identity crisis mode. Artichoke, am I lonely? I have friends! Just not here in Minnesota, except for my cat (see above). Oh dear.
More to be said, after you have read this, and after I have finished the series in total (last one comes out in 2016! I think).
Much love, and a happy new year,