Gift of the River (preview)

•August 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

A glimpse of something I’ve been working on for the past several months. Called Gift of the River, it’s a historical romance set in Ancient Egypt. This is the prologue as it currently stands, although it’s sure to go through lots of revision before I’m through with it.

……

Hooves pounded the ground as the horses tore across the open plains. Iset clutched her captor, deciding she was more terrified to being dashed to pieces on the ground than of wherever he was taking her. She twisted to look behind them, straining through the clouds of dust that followed them to search for the answering cloud that her father’s pursuing forces would raise.

But no such cloud of dust was in sight.

Continue reading ‘Gift of the River (preview)’

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The Animation Station

•August 26, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This is just a quick note to let everyone know that I am moving all the posts dealing with animation and animated films over to my new blog Animated Rhapsody. This blog will focus on the written word, including book reviews, my thoughts on genres, writing, etc, and my own journey as a writer.

“Fake Fantasy”…and other thoughts on genre-blending

•August 22, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I just finished John Christopher’s A Dusk of Demons over the weekend–another random library pull. This  one didn’t work too well for me. There were lots of reasons why the book never got beyond “meh” for me–bland, underdeveloped characters for one, and an emphasis on plot rather than story for another. But no matter how I considered it, I couldn’t escape one thought: I would never have picked it up if I had realized it was a sci-fi.

It’s my own fault that I didn’t. The spine was clearly marked with a green rocketship “sci-fi” tag, and the details of the back cover blurb referred to it as a sci-fi as well. But I was looking at the title and the cover–which depicts a boy with a medallion pitted against howling Nazgul-ish things in a medieval-y farm setting–and I was in a rush. In fact, I didn’t even notice the sci-fi tag until I was a good third of the way through the book, and I almost never stop reading a book if I’ve gotten past the first chapter, no matter how much I dislike it (it’s part of what makes those sample books on Kindle so dangerous for me). So I kept reading, and hoping I would like it anyway.

It’s not like I’ve got anything against sci-fi, after all. I absolutely love fantasy, and fantasy and sci-fi have long been acknowledged to be sister genres, sometimes said to be separated only by their settings. I have a quite a fondness for their trendy little sister speculative fiction as well, and for dystopian stories which pretty much all fall into one of the three, depending on the details. I’ve even read and enjoyed a few sci-fi classics such as Dune and Ender’s Game, as well as a bigger pile of Star Wars Expanded Universe novels than I care to admit to.

So, I like sci-fi elements and I like those elements blended with elements of fantasy. Why then, was A Dusk of Demons such a huge miss? I think the simple answer is that I felt cheated.  As a reader, I expect different things from different genres. Even though there is a lot of common ground, fantasy and sci-fi definitely have different tropes, conventions, and tendencies. In A Dusk of Demons,  the title, cover, plot summary and most of the story led me to believe it was going to be a story about a boy learning to fight demons, probably with mystical powers he would inherit from his father. I was expecting battles and magic, not a stripping away of the fantastic elements to reveal a banal reality with a few too much explanations and more cynicism than I’d like. (That right there sums up a LOT of why I don’t like sci-fi more). Instead of the story I wanted to read when I picked up the book, I get something else–hence “fake fantasy.” I had much the same experience when I read Sylvia Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars, although that one is more obviously sci-fi and is a better book to begin with. Both of these books borrow some of the settings, archetypes, and overtones of fantasy to deal with them in a sci-fi manner. However, in both books the “borrowed” elements come across rather bland and flat, leaving only the sci-fi elements to add interest. Unfortunately, that’s just the parts I’m least interested in.

I think a lot of this boils down to reader expectations. I have little problem with genre-blending when it’s clear from the beginning–including the cover/title/marketing/etc. that’s what’s going on.  However, I distinctly remember one category romance that I despised because fantasy elements (not even magical realism, downright fantasy) were popped into what was otherwise a straight Regency romance (and was marketed as such). Like I said, I normally like fantasy, but when I’m reading a normal Regency, I don’t expect mysterious faery protectors to come out of nowhere and direct the plot.

What do you think?  Do you like genre-blending at all, or do you like your fiction to stay firmly in one category? Have you ever been tricked by a “fake fantasy” (or maybe a “fake historical fiction” or “fake western”, etc?)

Gateway (Book Review)

•August 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

My last few posts have been about movies, Disney and Pixar movies in particular, so I’m excited to talk about books today. I just finished reading Gateway by Sharon Shinn, and as soon as I finished it I knew I had to write a review.

Gateway tells the story of Daiyu, a Chinese-American teenager living in St. Louis, who suddenly finds herself transported to an alternate world. In this world, Jia, as Daiyu quickly learns, it is the Han, a people very similar to the Chinese, who explored the new world, and Shengleng–the city Daiyu knew as St. Louis–is the most important city in the world. Because her Chinese heritage lets her pass as Han, Daiyu is recruited to infiltrate the upper tiers of Han society in order to eliminate the  prime minister Chenglei. But as she proceeds in her mission, Daiyu has doubts. Is Chenglei really the evil man that her handlers, Ombri and Aurora claim? Can Ombri and Aurora be trusted at all? Complicating everything is Daiyu’s budding romance with Kalen, a poor stonepicker boy. If Daiyu does decide to go through with her mission, can she bear to leave Kalen behind?

I have a kind of uneven history with Sharon Shinn’s works, of which I haven’t read as many as I probably should. I loved the world she created for The Safe-Keeper’s Secret and its sequels, but General Winston’s Daughter frustrated me on so many levels, not the least of which was the heavy-handed anti-imperialism message and the tacit approval for, essentially, a terrorist attack. When I picked up Gateway from my local library, I wondered which work it would resemble more.

As it turns out, Gateway is completely its own book, with a unique voice and style. While Shinn’s richly detailed world-building  is definitely present, as is her penchant for exploring the interactions of different cultures, Gateway didn’t forcefully remind me of any of Shinn’s previous books. Like  General Winston’s Daughter, it  features a teenager girl entering another culture and becoming enthralled with it, but instead of trying to drive home a political message, Gateway simply seeks to be a romantic fantasy adventure.

Daiyu, the protagonist,  almost represents what any savvy reader would hope to be like if they got swept into another world. She’s open to the mysterious strangers, but she weighs her options before making decisions. She’s eager to see this new world she’s in, but she keeps an escape route handy. She uses people as she has to, but feels genuinely bad for any collateral damage, even just of the emotional variety, she leaves in her wake. She tries to avoid relationships that can only end painfully, but in the end her heart just can’t help itself. Most importantly, she remains skeptical of everyone. I found this both interesting and frustrating. Intellectually, I approved of her reluctance to trust Aurora and Ombri. Emotionally, I longed for her to invest in one side or another. When she finally makes her decision and commits herself, the story rockets with intensity, but it’s a little late in the story.

As a character, Daiyu is a little bland. She’s a bit too much a placeholder, constantly responding to the actions of others, instead of shaping her own path. However,  as placeholders go, at least she’s an inoffensive one. Her voice is crisp and modern, in pleasant contrast to the ornate fantasy culture around her, but never jarring with slang or pop culture references. She quickly picks up on what’s she’s told, minimizing info dumps. Although she falls for Kalen pretty quickly, she doesn’t spend pages drooling over him.  Despite her initial irritating indecisiveness, when she does decide to act she handily proves herself no damsel in distress.  Daiyu won’t be joining the pantheon of most-beloved characters any time soon, but being inside her head for the space of a novel is a painless, mostly pleasant experience.

The plot, which mainly revolves around Daiyu insinuating herself into high society and trying to decide whether Prime Minister Chenglei is really a bad guy or not, meanders a little at times. Readers who are looking for fast-paced action will probably tire of Daiyu’s detailed descriptions of the gorgeous outfits and intricate customs of the Han elite. Gateway chooses to focus on the world-building  over the adventure aspects, probably to the book’s benefit. It also places a lot of emphasis on the romantic subplot, which grows in importance until it’s a little hard to tell whether this is a fantasy adventure with romantic elements or a romance with fantasy and adventure elements. Daiyu’s relationship with Kalen, the poor cangbai (that ‘s Fantasy Chinese for “white”) stonepicker, moves at a whirlwind speed. It could have benefited from a slightly slower pace and more development, however the interactions between the two always feel natural and the progression of the relationship, while rapid, doesn’t come across as forced. Shinn keeps the romance as a thread entwining throughout the novel, never overwhelming the main plot, yet never wholly disconnected from it, either. There are some very sweet scenes between them that become very poignant by the end of the book. On my first reading, I “dinged” them some points for the cliched “I’d never met him before, but he seemed so familiar” routine, but the ending forced me to reevaluate as it brought some very teasing possibilities to my mind.

The real delight here, though, is the world that Shinn creates. Inspired by Chinese culture, yet not bound to it, Jia is a beautiful, exotic wonderland, yet with a palpable darkness to it as well. Shinn has an eye for “domestic” details, adding countless tiny customs, fashions, and other particulars that make her world feel real.  Whether we’re joining Daiyu for a formal tea with society’s elite, or wading for precious qiji stones in the river with Kalen and the poorest of the poor, every layer and  facet of the world resonates realistically. Because Shinn brings Jia to such vivid life, we are almost as enthralled with it as Daiyu is, which makes more powerful the poignancy of her inevitable departure.

Whatever gripes I had with the first three quarters of the novels, the last fourth is wonderful. The stakes ratchet up, Daiyu takes an active role, and the romance has fantastic emotional payoff. The very last chapter was both intensely enjoyable and frustrating. It made me completely re-evaluate the beginning of the book. I’m not sure if the possibilities it raises were intentional, but it would fit the rest of the book beautifully in a very poignant way. The conclusion is somewhat satisfying, but I rushed to the computer hoping to discover that this was the first book in a series. Sadly, I could find no evidence of this.

If  this was a first book in a series, I would give it 4 stars out of 5, but as a standalone novel, I can only give it 3 1/2. The premise is intriguing, and the world-building is excellent, but the characters and plot aren’t always quite up to par, and the ending leaves a little too much hanging.

To write, perchance to dream…

•July 11, 2012 • Leave a Comment

And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you’ll use them however you want to…

~Anna Nalick, Breathe (2 AM)

I’ve never been much good at keeping a diary.

I’ve often wished I were. I’ve heard diary-keeping touted as a means to organizing your life, becoming a more reflective individual, improving your prayer life, improving your writing, and keeping your waistline slimmer. Heaven knows I could use all those things. But despite my best attempts, I’ve never been able to keep at it for more than a stretch of ten days at a time. Why is that? It’s not that my life is so boring and my thoughts so banal that I have nothing to say. It’s definitely not that I hate writing. In fact, I often caught myself composing the events of my life diary-style in my head. So why do none of these words ever make it onto the page? Do I just hate holding pencils that much?

…Maybe.

But in actuality, I think my problem is different. I think my problem is that I, when I’m writing, already know the things I want to write down. Informing myself in such a time-consuming way doesn’t hold that much interest for me. (Either that, or I’m just lazy. It’s a toss-up.) But you, whoever you are, however you came here, you don’t know. So to you I write.

Welcome.

I’m Starry, avid reader, amateur critic, and fledgling writer, among other things. This blog is essential a hodge-podge of my thoughts on stories, whether they be in books I’ve read, films or television that I’ve seen, my own writing, or in real life. My interests are wide and varied, and hopefully this blog will be too. To be truthful, I’m not exactly sure right now what form this blog will take, but I know it’s an adventure waiting to be started.Come along, if you like. I don’t know where we’re going or how we’ll get there and I don’t  promise that we won’t end up in poison ivy and stickerbushes as often as we glimpse scenic vistas, but I do pledge to be an interesting traveling companion along the way.