Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Book Review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor 

Goodreads Description: By way of a staggering deception, Karou has taken control of the chimaera rebellion and is intent on steering its course away from dead-end vengeance. The future rests on her, if there can even be a future for the chimaera in war-ravaged Eretz.

Common enemy, common cause.

When Jael's brutal seraph army trespasses into the human world, the unthinkable becomes essential, and Karou and Akiva must ally their enemy armies against the threat. It is a twisted version of their long-ago dream, and they begin to hope that it might forge a way forward for their people.

And, perhaps, for themselves. Toward a new way of living, and maybe even love.

But there are bigger threats than Jael in the offing. A vicious queen is hunting Akiva, and, in the skies of Eretz ... something is happening. Massive stains are spreading like bruises from horizon to horizon; the great winged stormhunters are gathering as if summoned, ceaselessly circling, and a deep sense of wrong pervades the world.

What power can bruise the sky?

From the streets of Rome to the caves of the Kirin and beyond, humans, chimaera and seraphim will fight, strive, love, and die in an epic theater that transcends good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy.

At the very barriers of space and time, what do gods and monsters dream of? And does anything else matter?

My Review: Goodreads ate my last review and I've had trouble summoning motivation since then, so hopefully this all comes out coherent.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters picks up just after the nail biting ending of the previous book, with Karou and Akiva trying to unite their rebel armies within the Kirin Caves. Laini Taylor beautifully mastered the tension it takes to join two opposing forces. It did not feel too easy, nor did the squabbling armies take away from the deeper story. The tension not once let up throughout the whole story, much like the previous novels in the trilogy, which made this book incredibly difficult to put down.

What delighted me most, at the end of the day, was the way Taylor continued to add more to her plot and deepened her story right up until the end. We were introduced to new characters, and old characters have their roles completely transformed. I must admit, I didn’t see Razgut having such a big role in the final book and was so pleased to see it. Though it was probably because I underestimated the story, which is my own fault, as the hints and character progression had been there since day one. Possibly, because there's so much more to this book and this series, it was easy to overlook him as a minor character with an interesting backstory.

And ultimately, his backstory is what made the book interesting, as it led into a deeper stories with the other parallel worlds, not just Earth and Eretz. After all, if there are two worlds, why not more? Taylor delves into this and more, which left almost an unfinished feeling to this book. It was my biggest and probably only problem with the series. Taylor dug deep into lore in the last quarter of the book, and it was due to how late the information came that made it so surprising and unusual. It's difficult to introduce a whole shwack of new information at the end of the story, as it often opens things up to more conflict and plot points. After reading the last page, the first thing I did was hop online and search for any news of a sequel, another series, something, because all the information that was introduced felt like the beginning of something new.

I think that's what frustrated me. I loved every bit of the worldbuilding and the plot, as most of the set up had been there from the very beginning and was obviously well-thought out. But with such a grand story, I wanted a grand ending, and it felt like I got that and just a bit of a taste of more to come. It sounds nice, but at the end of the day I wanted a resolution, not the introduction to another new series. Now, if Laini Taylor wrote a series about the godstars and what it all means, I would be thrilled and devour every book she put out, but it almost feels like a bit of a money grab, in the sense that the author is trying to sell me another book while I still haven't finished the one in front of me. But that's a whole 'nother blog post.

At the end of the day, the story comes back to Karou and Akiva, the main figures and driving force behind all that's happened. I was very pleased with the way their relationship was handled in the wake of miscommunication and war. Karou, much more than in previous books, feels incredibly fragile and almost bested by the events and traumas that have taken place over the last three books, and though she still had some serious kickass in her, it was great to see a main character actually affected by what was happening around them and show the wear of a battle-heavy life. In contrast, Akiva's character loosened up and became the kind of lovable partner you'd want to envelope and never let go. In this, too, I was extremely pleased. Most often with YA, it seems like the boys are brooding and the girls are peppy and sassy. Though Akiva and Karou came off that way at the beginning of the series, their characters have pretty much done a complete 180 by the end of this book, and the way they've changed is both believable and a step outside the YA formula. And we all know how formulas make us yawn.

Nearly everything about this book made me extremely happy. Laini Taylor is a magician with words and makes me believe in magic. The only thing that really disappointed me was that it didn't feel like a final book to me. Though all the plot and worldbuilding worked wonderfully, it left too many questions and opened too many doors for me to get a sense of closure for this story. I guarantee we'll see more Smoke and Bone books in the future, and though I will devour them with fervor, I still feel a little cheated, a little like the only way this follow up series could sell is if it had a strong lead in from Gods and Monsters, which is silly. If readers loved the first series, they'll read the second, without having to include the YA version of, "Next time on Daughter of Smoke and Bone..."

TL;DR: 4.5/5 stars. I wish I could have had a sense of closure. Otherwise, it left me in awe of Laini Taylor's writing skills.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

When Books Take Flight

Photo help/credit goes to Adrian Gaucher (@nobodieshero). He's got skillz!

In meme theory, there's this idea that ideas are alive, subject to evolution, reproduction, death and extinction like any other creature. The theory can sometimes be questionable at best, but I think in the case of stories and books, it is absolutely true. Any reader will tell you a novel is alive, that a story has the ability to completely transform them and their worldview, as well as remain alive in them for many years.

A good book, story, snippet, quote, semblance of words, whatever, has the ability to touch on deep human emotions. It inspires and sparks something in you, even if it's as simple (and "simple" is of course taken with a grain of salt) as your enjoyment or a love of a character's witty or sassy voice, something resonates there. The best books stay with you for years, you dwell on their ideas and characters, spend time creating fanart or participating in discussions, write fanfiction, reread the book, and most importantly, talk about it with those you care about. When we find something really special, we want to share it with others around us. This is where the meme theory comes in. Truly well-composed books that resonate and inspire want to be shared, and meme theory argues that it is not us sharing them, but the stories controlling us in order to live on and reproduce, like any other creature.

Not long ago I took a look at my bookshelf and noticed something odd. Almost all my shelves were filled with books I didn't particularly enjoy, or that I had given up on, or that I read but hated. But, when I thought about my reading experience, I didn't remember bad books. I remembered all the wonderful stories that I had read, the ones that truly made me feel and motivated me, and realized that, one by one, I had given them all away.

There are some collectors out there that are probably aghast at the thought that I have lost so many books simply by "lending" them out to people and then never seeing them again. Some were given away with the knowledge that they weren't coming back, such as with giveaways, where I get so excited about a book that I have to give it to someone, anyone, so long as they'd appreciate it. I like to think of it as the best books growing wings and taking flight, ideas growing and wanting to spread and evolve. The ones that are the most alive, the most vivid, end up flying off in the hopes that someone else will be touched and inspired by the story.

A book is often not born of one person anyway. Sure, there is someone who sits down and pens the story, but writing a book, as the acknowledgements will show, is never a one man job. There are editors involved, agents, beta readers, friends and significant others and writing partners that offer tips and ideas and changes. All of these edits and ideas are offered through so many different lenses. Seemingly, a writer doesn't write the book at all, and it comes to being all on its own. Wouldn't that be nice. The metaphor definitely ends there, as any writer knows that though sometimes the ideas seem to come together out of nowhere, it definitely takes a butt load of uphill work before anything looks remotely story-like.

It may seem like a whimsical and silly way to look at writing and creativity sometimes, but often when I get touched by something really special, like Dreams of Gods and Monsters and the rest of the Smoke and Bone trilogy, it makes me want to believe in whimsy and magic. At the end of the day, behind every bit of magic, there is hard determination and passion. And as a fellow writer, I'm always trying to dissect what about a book makes it so magical, and how I can achieve similar responses in my readers. After all, isn't it every writer's dream to write something that has that bit of magic in it?

I've learned a lot of things from studying the books that have really touched me. What makes them so magical? Of course, they need to have the fundamentals down.

1) A solid plot with little to no flaws or holes with intricate devices that keeps the story interesting and interwoven. Loose ends and holes can sink even the strongest stories.

2) Dynamic characters with conflicts between each other that are both interesting and sympathetic. The best characters are those with well thought out flaws and strengths with places to grow and fail as the story progresses.

3) A consistent tone/voice that sets it apart from the competition.

4) They must touch on something real.

Real? What is real? It's that bit of magic that turns a good book into a great book. That bit of heart that takes it to the next level. Donald Maass, literary agent, once wrote that it involved touching on timeless human experiences that many people can understand or relate to. A superhero book by Perry Moore called Hero did this by touching on the real lives behind his superhero characters, the wounds in their lives, whether they were physical, emotional or otherwise, and his main character who learned the true strength of his healing powers. Though this story was told through the lens of a superhero world, it still involved real world issues that people can relate to, even just emotionally.

In Dreams of Gods and Monsters, many could say that Laini Taylor's Eretz and its struggles of independence are no different than any other major fantasy story out there. What truly sets it apart, of course, is the originality, tone, and its ability to really touch on why this dream is so important to these characters. Yes, they want to save their world, but at the end of the day they just want to be together, in peace, in a world where people didn't have to hide and fight and die. But the way Taylor presents it is such a raw, emotional way that you really feel the loss of war and the yearning for the dream. The heart behind it is what elevated this book out of good to great, from bookshelf quality to taking flight.

Whenever I sit down in front of my computer, or my typewriter (nerd alert) I always ask myself what feeling I intend to inspire with my writing. What piece of humanity am I trying to touch on? In this scene, right now, what is the reader feeling? Are you only focusing on entertaining them? Because that will always leave you on the bookshelf.

They say every idea has been done. And it has. The difference is the execution, and how much of a heart you give the creature you're creating. A story with a strong heart will fly from reader to reader so it can spread and live on for a long, long time. No heart? No life, and your book will face plant before it can ever take flight.



Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Death of Icons

Am I a good person?

It's a question the Doctor asks Clara in the most recent episode of Doctor Who, which if you know anything about me, you know I'm a little obsessive about the man in the blue box. But I found that question returning to me as I watched the responses to Joan River's passing today.

For the most part, many responses involved the typical RIP, people reminiscing on how she touched their lives. And, of course, I saw the negative side creep out, which seems to rear its ugly head whenever it has its chance. Some people tweeted about how glad they were that she passed, that she was truly a horrible person who made a living out of criticizing others. There were people sending out links to crude sites like or claiming how they were "crying tears of happiness."

Now, we don't have to like everyone. After all, there are people who do unspeakable things in this world. But why do we use things like social pressures, criticisms, even insults to try and correct "wrongful" behaviour exhibited by other people? When you see a man hitting a dog, you call it disgusting, tell him to stop, describe his actions as abhorred or inhumane. And why? All in the hopes of altering behaviour, if not his then others, by showing how this behaviour is unacceptable. It's the same way that governments impose sanctions on other countries when they're taking actions they, or the UN, think of as unethical. On a smaller scale, we preform social sanctions on those who, in our view, have done wrong. We osctricize them from groups, shame their behaviour, and are guarded around them, which puts pressures on them to alter their behaviour.

But what happens when they pass away? What about Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, and dozens of others who have passed away? Is Joan Rivers still a she-bitch? Did her death wipe her conscience clean? The answer to both questions is no. Because Joan Rivers is dead, no amount of social sanctions will change her behaviour-- we cannot change the past-- but in this way, by continuing to impart social sanctions on a dead person, we're becoming no different from her, who built a career around antagonizing others. Our comments, however true or untrue they may be, now only fall on her family and those close to her. Suddenly, we're stepping from an attempt to correct behaviour to antagonizing others, from defensive to seeking out vengence.

Of all of us, Joan Rivers has got the shortest end of the stick. Her life is over, she will never change another person's life or affect the world in any way. However, we still can. I'm not saying that the thing to do is sing her praises-- quite the opposite. Learn what can be learned from her life and leave all else at rest. Focus on the positives her life brought-- because no person's life is wholly negative-- and lay the negative to peace. If the thing that bothered you the most was her attitude and how she treated people, how are you any better by lowering yourself to that standard?


-KE Carson

Monday, September 1, 2014

Infodumping: The Whats and Whys

What is an Infodump? 

I'm sure many of you have heard of the term "infodump." But what it is exactly? Why do so many people regard it with scorn?

Infodumping is a literary term (sort of) that refers to an author inserting a large amount of information into their story, of "dumping" it onto the reader all at once. Most often, it interrupts the story as it is not woven into the action and slows the reader down. Most writers use it to introduce a chunk of worldbuilding, backstory, or even trying to get across description or a character's personality. As writers, we have to get information across, and sometimes it's not as simple as to be condensed into a sentence or two. So is it all a bad thing to "infodump"?

Infodumping is not defined by quantity. There is no set number of words you're permitted to explain something. It's considered infodumping when the writing becomes irrelevant to the task at hand-- getting your reader to follow where you're going and keep their attention. As writers, we spend months and even years stewing over our worlds and characters, but the reader has only a few hours or days in which to process your novel. Therefore, when you try to force a lot of information at them at once, it can be difficult for them to follow and causes them to lose interest.

But how do you know when you have infodumps in your writing? Often it can be hard to see, especially if you see what you've written as necessary to the story-- and perhaps it is. But infodumping violates one of the most important writer creeds: Show, Don't Tell. When you're infodumping, the information is not woven into the story, and so it is not being "shown" to the reader. This is what makes it awkward. The same information can be revealed through the action of the story, often pieces at a time, at times when it becomes necessary.

Infodumps can take various forms. They can come as a prologue with long histories of fantasy worlds or excessive backstory that spells out the main character's entire personality and childhood. They can also come across as newspaper articles or newscasts that spell out a danger or upcoming plot point. There are also the blatant "As You Know, Bob," troupe, where characters will over-explain things to each other in order to catch up the audience. It's a lazy way to pass off information to the reader, but it will almost always come off as dull and clunky. In video games, infodumping can take the form of characters explaining things in long, awkward monologues filled with information that may or may not be actually useful to the player.

Is it Ever Okay to Use an Infodump? 

Generally, most readers find infodumps to be rather annoying. Though it has been used in the past and in published novels, it's generally frowned upon in current marketplaces. Even the most literary and languid novels tend to shy away from infodumping, in part also because it can often reveal too much information too soon and take away intrigue.

Current publishers, editors and agents shy away from a lot of infodumping because they're looking for more action driven narratives with quick paces and high tension to hook the reader in and keep them reading, in the hopes that they will purchase the book.

But It's Been Done Before

Some writers have managed to use infodumps, and sometimes effectively (though that will vary based on personal taste.) Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and JRR Tolkien are among a few. Adams and Pratchett managed to weave their copious amounts of information into their narrative by using humor and keeping the reader entertained, which refers to the point I made above. Infodumps are defined by quantity, but by whether you can keep the reader engaged. Many other writers have used humor or voice to keep readers engaged while they carry them through the information.

Tolkien, however, is another matter. Tolkien wasn't necessarily writing a traditional narrative, as his focus was not on the story or the characters, but on the world and its history. Tokien used his characters to move the reader through the world and the landscrape, rather than had them as the focus. LOTR was also written during a time when writers tended to be more omniscient, which allowed them to step out of character's heads and make observations and judgments that weren't about the immediate situation. Even then, Tolkien went above and beyond for his time, though he had already published before this epic, including the Hobbit, which has much less infodumping.

Infodumping is not popular to do in the marketplace these days for the same reason that high fantasy and long epics are no longer in demand—the need for more tension and story, with less details is what the readership, or at least the publishers, are looking for.

So How Do You Avoid It? 

The most important thing when communicating information is to weave it into the story. Reveal information only when it becomes necessary. Usually this means heading straight into action, and then saving the big whys for later. The whys and questions are what keep readers turning the pages. Using small tidbits to hint at the bigger picture will keep readers invested to find out more. Sometimes teasing is the best policy. And, of course, sometimes the best ways is to have a beta reader look it over, because they'll be happy to let you know which parts are dragging. 

Sometimes the best ways to get across things like description is to weave it into the action. Explain what they're wearing by snagging their jacket on something. Have them brush hair out of their face. Describe a room by focusing on how your character feels about it, and let it color their description. But for the love of god, please don't use a mirror to describe appearance. Some tactics have already been beaten to death. 

Hope you enjoyed my infodump on infodumping. Happy writing!

-KE Carson