Mini Reviews— Ghost Edition

I’ve read too many books to ever review alone, so I’ve decided to do another edition of Mini Reviews.  I’ll review three books without spoilers, but with stuff I learned from them that you might find helpful.  Since two out of the three books include ghosts, this is our Ghost Edition.  The three books today are Ghost Knight, by Cornelia Funke; W.A.R.P.: The Reluctant Assassin, by Eoin Colfer; and The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

I picked up Ghost Knight because it was a new book from Cornelia Funke.  Funke is a well-established author, with such amazing books as Inkheart, Dragon Rider, and The Thief Lord.  She excels at making characters wonderful and giving them beautiful worlds.  I fully expected Ghost Knight to be an excellent continuation of her amazing career.  I was a little bit disappointed with it.

Her style was on track with the rest of her books, the world was phenomenal (it was set in modern-day England, and the choice of locations was superb)– but something was wrong.  Perhaps I didn’t identify so much with the main character.  I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but Ghost Knight didn’t work for me as well as Funke’s other books.

Things I learned:

  • Always give your magic system a flaw, as I said in my recent post on magic systems.  Not only that, but when victory needs to seem apparent, don’t make it too easy.  (Those two posts were not inspired by this book.)  The villain of the story is defeated once early on in the book, and everything is just too easy.  The magic works as it’s supposed to, the villain dies like normal– it’s easy.  As things progress, you know it isn’t as easy as all that, but this was definitely one early problem.
  • Don’t make your main character too whiny.  The main character has a possible stepfather he hates, and that’s understandable; his mother is pushing him into a boarding school so she can vacation with the boyfriend, which is good grounds for loathing; but can we see a tiny redeeming quality to this main character?  Suspense in the book suffered because we didn’t enjoy the main character as much.  An example of Funke doing this right is The Thief Lord: Prosper is the best character ever, even though he hates his uncle and aunt, all because he loves his little brother to death.  You can see Bo’s esteem for Prosper in everything he says, and Prosper’s love for Bo in everything he does.  It’s that love that makes us root for them instead of the aunt and uncle.
  • Making the audience dislike minor characters should be simple– making them dislike villains should be much more complicated.  Minor characters can be described and forgotten.  We don’t need their backstories.  However, if you want them to remain in our heads as slightly detestable characters, don’t flatter them in their descriptions.  Funke does this expertly, giving minor people large noses or squinty eyes to fit their characters.  The villains, on the other hand, could be either ugly or handsome– it’s their actions and their backstories that really do the trick.

After the amazing finale to the Artemis Fowl series, I was excited to learn about this new series from Eoin Colfer.  As with Ghost Knight, unfortunately, my hopes were dashed.  Eoin Colfer has a distinctive style– a third-person omniscient that mimics cinematic storytelling styles while introducing backstories and thoughts at will.  Unfortunately, that style worked against him in The Reluctant Assassin.  Colfer convinced me that he could tell excellent stories using that style with such stand-alone novels as Half Moon Invesigations and my personal favorite, Airman.  Unfortunately, it just didn’t work here.  Instead of the thriller the structure dictated, the story became almost a comedy.

The humor we expect from his novels only deepened the hole.  He let it shine in a couple of the wrong places, destroying the suspense and keeping it from ever growing into the thriller he thought it would be.  The book was enjoyable, but for the wrong reasons.

Things I learned:

  • Never, ever, ever show the villain’s perspective unless you have a really deep character.  If the villain is misguided, you can actually create an alternate protagonist that the audience feels for; but instead of rooting for the villainous part of him, the audience roots for the circumstances to change so the villain’s good side can finally succeed.  If the villain is wholly evil, however, and you take scenes from his perspective, you’ve got a massive problem.  Since according to the law of villains in stories, the villains always have coincidences in their favor while the main characters never do, you run the risk of making the villain seem more competent than the protagonist.  And since we’re suddenly viewing things from his thoughts, we actually start rooting for him to do evil– not that we want him to kill all these innocent people, but a plot twist against the villain would shock us a whole lot more than a plot twist against the main character.  Unfortunately, Eoin Colfer did exactly that.  I finished the story with more respect for the villain than I ever had for either of the two main characters; and he’s utterly evil!  Colfer had the tools to make another viewpoint following the villain’s footsteps, but he never used it.  That’s the most disappointing thing of all.  If he had made a tiny switch of viewpoint, he could have had all the same scenes with so much more emotion and suspense.  It could have been a thriller.
  • Never make the obstacles facing the main character seem pathetic for humor’s sake.  You can make fun of them with words, but they must still pose a challenge.
  • If you’re setting a story in the same world as one of your earlier books, make sure the audience knows it before you start bringing in some of the main characters halfway through the book.

This is the first book I’ve read written solely by Neil Gaiman.  I read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, but that was all.  Luckily, The Graveyard Book didn’t disappoint me.  Another first: this is the first Newbery Medal winning book I’ve read that I’ve liked the first time through.  Either I’m being corrupted to the adult way of book appreciation, or it was just a really good book.  I think the latter is true regardless.

The Graveyard Book told a true coming-of-age story.  It follows the young life of a boy growing up in a graveyard.  It’s strangely fascinating.  While suspense isn’t pounding through the pages, it’s still present in a very subtle way.  The style was excellent, excelling in not saying things.  Several times, I found myself inserting sentences I would have written into a paragraph.  I don’t know if they would have made the book worse or not.  Humor was scarce, but it was present.  It too was subtle.  It’s an odd little book, but it’s a good one.

Things I learned:

  • When making sympathetic characters, you are allowed to cheat.  Neil Gaiman introduced the main character and the villain in the very first chapter, and immediately we knew which one we liked best.  The villain had just come from murdering three of the main character’s family, and is now moving on to the main character himself, just a baby at the time.  Which side of the struggle are we sure to side on?  The murderer’s side, or the baby’s?  Gaiman made a gamble that we would pick the baby.  Thus, he used stereotypes rather than backstory or even descriptions to show who was good and who was evil.  The main character was a bit of a jerk later on, but that initial struggle kept me on his side the entire way through.
  • In fact, the main character was even a jerk in the first chapter, albeit his being a baby at the time.  Neil Gaiman used another third-person omniscient sort of view, like a storyteller to children.  In the first chapter, Gaiman set up the main character’s entire character, accomplishing a very important plot point as he did so (the baby’s survival), and did it all without detaching us from the story.  It felt amazingly smooth.
  • When you’re a really good author, you’re allowed to mess around like that.

So there you have it.  In case you were wondering, the two books containing ghosts were The Graveyard Book and Ghost Knight.  I suggest you read The Graveyard Book, but I wouldn’t mind if you passed on the other two.  As for me, I’m going to read the rest of the W.A.R.P. series and see if it picks up, and Cornelia Funke has lost none of her status.  Happy reading.

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97 Comments

  1. I’ll have to read the Graveyard book! It sounds very good.
    I actually just read W.A.R.P and really liked it–but I’m the sort of person who basically likes every single thing Eoin Colfer writes. I’d read his grocery list…anyways, you said it was the same world as a earlier book and had some of the characters? Which world was that? ’cause that’s very interesting.

    And I agree with what you said about The Ghost Knight–it is very important to give a magic system a flaw/s.

    Great post!

    Reply
  2. You read The Graveyard Book, yay! “It’s an odd little book, but a good one.” My thoughts exactly.

    Reply
    • I’m glad I’m not alone. I seem to remember somebody coming by when I reviewed Good Omens and saying that they read this and didn’t like it at all.

      Reply
  3. I love Cornelia Funke, I will definately add her book to my reading list. Great reviews!

    Reply
  4. Thanks for those mini-reviews. I guess I will read Inkheart and Artemis Fowl above The Ghost Knight and W.A.R.P.

    Whiny protagonists can certainly get to be annoying. I recently read Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson and while it was a good book, I got heartily sick of the protagonist.

    Reply
    • Donaldson intentionally made the main character unsympathetic. I don’t know why, and I’ve never read the book, but that’s what I hear.

      Reply
  5. The Graveyard Book, it is! I like Neil Gaiman’s philosophical style, but I have never read any books by him. I need to read Instructions.

    Reply
  6. Hey, Liam? Have you ever heard of the series The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon?

    Reply
  7. I was slightly surprised at “The Graveyard Book” when I read it, but, like you, I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t hugely impressed with the ending at the time, I must admit, but in the end I kind of came round to it. It seemed a touch anticlimatic, you know?

    Reply
  8. I really should read Colfer’s non-Artemis-Fowl stuff…

    Reply
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