Saturday, March 28, 2015

How to tell if you are in a story written by Emily Paxman

How to Tell if You are in a High Fantasy Novel
So for those of you who don't know, I love the internet. One of the things on the Internet that I love is The Toast, a website about feminism, humor and books. Particularly the stuff about books. One of the series that they post gently pokes fun at the tropes frequently employed (or over-employed) within certain genres or by certain well-known authors. Together, they show you how to tell what novel you are in

Which got me thinking about some of the tropes and themes I over-use.  It's not infrequent that someone asks me what I write about. (Note to readers: If you have the gall to call yourself a writer, people tend to expect that your writing is "about" something. Fascinating.) 

I usually bumble out a plot synopsis for one of my current projects to them. It works well enough, but it is, at best, a snapshot of what I do or have done. I have been seriously writing since I was about 15, when I clearly had the sensibilities of a 15-year-old. I have years of overblown first drafts and bizarre plot-twists to my credit. And being perfectly honest, I`m not getting any better. 

So here`s  a celebration of the tropes I over-indulge in; the scenarios that play themselves out either frequently, or in a way that strikes me as iconic. So the next time you`re wondering "what does Emily write about?" Well... I guess the answer is these things.

How to tell if you are in a story written by Emily Paxman

You are a wizard living like a hobo in the forest. It has never occurred to you to conjure a tent.

There are at least four children in your family. More likely there're about ten.

You and your nine siblings all represent a different philosophical school of morality and this causes no end of debate. The utilitarian will one day be King.

You were supposed to be a side character and so your name is ridiculous, but since the first draft, you have risen in prominence and now we're all stuck with you and your stupid name.

Once again, your father is almost dead. 

Your journey has led you to the ocean and there, you have discovered a sense of foreboding.

You are a cat and you cannot see the color red because if there's one thing this children's book about talking animals must be, it's SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE!

You are a human, living in a world of monsters, elves and Gods. But your spirit is strong and you shall stand among them as an equal, even though you lack their paltry tricks.

You are half-cat, half-human and no one likes you.

Outside your house is a herb garden. You and your nine siblings were all named after plants in it.

The herb garden is ruined! RUINED! 

 At 6 feet 2 inches, you are the "little guy" in your group of friends.

The army is in town and you wish they would leave.

Even you're not sure if you're a scientist or a magician.

The world is a place of myth, enchantment and badly translated French.

It is the Middle Ages and there is no birth control. This weighs heavily on your mind.

Your chosen profession has accepted women in its ranks for some time but to be safe, you are still disguised as a man.

You are reading a book penned by someone named "Jessop" who has nothing to do with this plot line.

It is snowing and that's terrible.

You're beginning to suspect that you live in Canada.

That guy who seemed like the plucky comic relief is, apparently, capable of destroying the world. You wish you'd known this sooner.

You have been drinking and it is time for a comic song.

You and your friends form a band of misfits with super powers and this was clearly not stolen from years of watching X-Men cartoons. 

The school dance is coming and it will involve costumes.

The Gods might be real, but if they are, they do not speak to you. You take this personally.

The Gods are real and you rather wish they would shut up.

Time-travel probably isn't possible, but it sure would explain things if it was.

Your parents have arranged for you to marry a rich, handsome lord who is kind to you, loves you, and whom you love back. You run away anyway because you are a brat.

The radio is on and the song it is playing is symbolic.

You are a dragon bent on destroying the world, but life was not always this way. You were once a humble dragon-traffic conductor, but then a motorist ran you down, turning you evil. Your name is William. You were invented by a three-year-old. And you are the start of great things.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Reviews - The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races
Every year in November, the seas surrounding the Isle of Thisby foam with the emerging bodies of capall uisce - violent, flesh eating water horses, faster than any mount on land. And every year, tourists flock to the small island to watch the Scorpio Races. Often, riders die, but the money and glory of winning propels men to enter year after year.

Puck Connolly, the first girl ever to sign her name up for the races, knows that prize is her family's last chance to pay off their debts and save their home.

Returning champion Sean Kendrick has won the races three times, but this year he's got far more riding on victory than money or fame.

But as the seas grow wild with the November winds, neither is ready for what awaits them on the beach.

What makes it so good:

If you ask me, Maggie Stiefvater is one of the least pretentious writers I have ever read. When I read her books, I get the sense that she doesn't care what you think of her. She doesn't care if you think she's smart or clever. She doesn't care how you label her work. All she cares about is telling the best possible story she can, and that emotional honesty is what makes The Scorpio Races so moving.

I first came across Stiefvater in the library when one of her other books caught my eye - Shiver. The cover image was just so beautiful and intriguing. Then I realized it was a paranormal werewolf romance and promptly put it back on the shelf. It's no longer one of my prouder moments.

Shiver, I'm so so sorry.

I started to wonder if I'd judged Shiver too harshly when I heard about The Scorpio Races. There's a nice little medal on the cover of the book and my curiosity is always piqued when major awards are handed out to science fiction and fantasy novels. Still, I didn't get around to it. Not until I got a kick in the pants from Melissa, one of my MFA classmates. We were studying YA fiction and, as a class, we'd eviscerated another paranormal romance novel that had been assigned to us. Melissa braved our snide remarks and proudly brought her copy of Shiver to a later class. If we wanted to read paranormal romance - good paranormal romance - she promised us that Maggie Stiefvater was where we would find it.

Sure enough, Shiver is a pretty good book. Paranormal romance never has been (and likely never will be) my particular niche, but I could see why Melissa loved it. It was a story passionately told, with strong characters and lovely images. But the book that blew me away did turn out to be The Scorpio Races.

I've seen this novel labeled a few ways. Sometimes it gets called a paranormal, sometimes just a fantasy. In her author's note, Stiefvater herself notes that on some level, it's a dressed up version of one of the oldest chick-lit standbys ever: The sexy horse story. But oddly enough, I think the label that best fits it is one I've never seen her use. One so many other authors clamor for but never really earn - not the way Stiefvater does. This book is straight up magical realism.

What is magical realism? There's a couple ways of defining it, but I'm going to go with a definition based on plot. Magical realism is a story that's roughly 80% reality and only 20% fantasy. It's life as we usually know it, but shifted ever so slightly. Magic has an ordinary quality to it and in some cases, it might be debatable if it's even there.

This label definitely works for The Scorpio Races because Thisby is one of the most ordinary, real and emotionally compelling settings I've ever read about. Yes, the horses happen to be able to eat people. But at the end of the day, this is a story about a girl who is struggling to connect to her brothers. It's about a young man who can't get the respect he deserves from his boss. It's about American tourists buying cheap knock-offs of Irish lore. It's about loving the wind and the sea and small places and, most of all, loving an animal.

So many books want to call themselves magical realism because it carries the connotation that it's not like "normal" fantasy. No, instead it is "real." It's "literary." I dislike the idea that literary writing is confined to any sub genre of fantasy. But oddly enough, it's still all the more reason Stiefvater could have plucked up that label without a problem. The book is beautiful and has a literary quality to it that we could always use more of in YA. But Stiefvater never seemed to care about that. She only cared about Puck, Sean and the island of Thisby. And it's exactly for those reasons that she achieved that real, authentic, engaging voice that sets this book apart.

What could have made it better:

So... going in to this book... I really thought it was going to be about racing flesh eating horses. And yeah, it sort of is. But once I was about a third in I had this moment where I went, "oh... wait... the race, is like, gonna be the climax, isn't it? We're not going to get to it until the end? Oh... Okay..."

Spoiler alert: The race is the climax.

The rest of the book is more concerned with building up towards the race and making sure you really know and feel the stakes. There's a sense of dread by the time the race actually comes, which is great. But be aware that this is not a fast-paced adventure book.

This is not a bad thing entirely. At it's core, the story is about more than racing horses and it's about more than bashing the reader over the head with elements of danger. But as a result, the middle can be a little slow. Stiefvater does a decent enough job of keeping the tension alive throughout, but I can certainly point to a few chapters that wandered around a bit much for my taste. There are some scenes that could have benefited from tightening up. A romp this is not.

But within the fantasy world, its a refreshing change of pace. It's about more than swords and sorcerers. It's about us - ordinary people with ordinary problems with extraordinary horses. So do yourself a favor and do what Melissa would do: grab yourself a copy and get ready to be swept away.