I don’t write very many book reviews, for someone who reads so much. My kindle is littered with dozens of samples, and even more samples-that-became-purchases in the last year alone. In the past twelve months, I estimate I read about 20 new books, and probably re-read a dozen more. And yet my last book reviewed was (it’s embarrassing how long it took me to search this out): World of Shell and Bone, in 2013.
I’ve read some really great books in the past year, like Uprooted by Naomi Novik, of Temeraire fame. Seraphina and its sequel by Rachel Hartman. Some really clever fairy tale retellings by T.K. Kingfisher. I’ve read some books I wasn’t enthralled by, despite expecting to love it, like Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. And I’ve read some truly mediocre stuff, like Virgina Boecker’s The Witch Hunter. I didn’t review any of them beyond perhaps a star rating, primarily because I was prompted to by Mother Amazon at the end of reading.
When I reviewed WOSAB in 2013, I did it because I was possessed with the need to dissect the failings of a post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA novel – probably borne out of a desire to avoid making any of those same mistakes in my own writing. Or to warn people that a pretty cover can hide a multitude of sins. I want to make explicit that is not the case here. The Fifth Season was a good read, with solid characters and world-building. Given my lukewarm reactions to both the Inheritance trilogy and the Dreamblood duology, I was far more invested in this book.
No explicit spoilers past the cut, but some minor ones.
One of the best things about writing genre fiction is the ability to achieve impossible things. You can write about women who live forever, dogs that can swim through the earth like it was water, angels descending from heaven to give a protagonist a much needed slap upside the head or a fairy burrow beneath the subway lines of Toronto. One of the worst things about genre fiction is the sloppy, implausible writing that happens sometimes. It’s not just limited to writing – think of the fine arts, too. You can’t rig a gryphon or a dragon if you don’t understand the bones of an eagle or a lizard.
You can’t break the rules if you don’t know them. That includes the rules of a completely fabricated magic system or universe setting. Even in writing fairly standard vampire stuff, there’s a lot to be aware of: does sunlight kill them? (Yes.) Do they have to be invited in? (Not explicitly but they can be repulsed by a command to get out.) Can they eat human food? (Yes.) Do they have to kill to eat? (No.) And so on. There’s a reason why stereotypes are popular; breaking the rules is exhausting. Okay, so my vampires can eat human food – it’s a good way for them to camouflage themselves as humans because in this universe, vampires are not known to humans, a la True Blood universe. But where does the food go? Their organs don’t work, they don’t take nutrients from it, and they don’t pee or poop. This isn’t Casper where the food shoots right through them and comes out a perfectly formed pile of mushy cake. I could just choose not to address it at all, vamps eat food end of story. But why pass up a perfectly good opportunity to be hilarious? Why not have eating human food make them bloaty or gassy or bloaty and gassy? If it’s a camouflage instinct, the vampire now has to balance eating to look human with gaining a 7 month food baby if he’s not careful. Eventually it would just get broken down by the virulent blood of being a vampire. It doesn’t matter if something’s impossible, as long as its plausible. Anchor your wild ideas into the reality of the world you’re creating, and you’re good to go. Just be careful not to tip your hand too much – after all, when you’re looking at a piece of art or playing a video game, you’re not actually looking at the bones of the figure, are you? (Let’s pretend for the sake of argument, we’re not looking at Frida Kahlo’s art, or playing a Forsaken rogue in World of Warcraft.)
The bones don’t even have to be the tropes that bind genre up, either. They can be the bones of good writing. Let’s face it, when an idea seizes you in its wolf jaws, you’re not thinking about good grammar or sentence structure. That’s fine! It can come later, in the revising process. But if at some point the bones aren’t there, no amount of editing and beta reading are going to put the muscles on it. Good grammar, good sentence composition, strong ideas and voices will carry your story, no matter how impossible and make it shine. When you’ve got them down pat, the rule-breaking can begin.
I love writing fantasy, horror and supernatural stuff because it’s so mind-bendingly fun. Yeah, you’ve gotta learn the rules, but every writer has to at some point. And then you get to launch them into a black hole, twist them all up and yank them out again.