Welcome to the heroic edition of Mini Reviews! Today we have three books, as always, that somehow conform to the name of this edition: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss; Atlantis Rising, by T. A. Barron; and Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card. The last one isn’t heroic fantasy like the other two, but it was awesome, so I’m including it. If you haven’t read any of these books, don’t worry– it’s all spoiler-free, and I have a section on what I’ve learned after each review. I hope it’s helpful.
You can’t really tell from the cover, but this book is big. It’s a little bit daunting. When you start reading it, however, you love every second of it.
This book followed almost no story structure I know– it just had sequential scenes in the main character’s life, describing his childhood. With almost half the book going by with nary a mention of the overarching antagonist, this book could easily have dissolved into a boring memoir– and oh, there are monsters in a few chapters, so watch out. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the author wove an outer story, where the main character used to be a great hero, but is now only an innkeeper. The story grips you because of that curiosity– how did the change come about? As the main character tells the story about his own childhood, we are already involved in that story because we’re curious about the outer story. It’s rather brilliant.
That wasn’t the only thing, however. The author made music a subject of suspense. I can’t tell you how because of spoilers, but the music– something I can’t hear from reading the book, something I can’t enjoy as it ought to be– was promised and delivered so spectacularly I was actually out of breath. That’s pretty awesome.
Things I learned:
- If you take enough time, you can make just about everything awesome. Including the third-person omniscient the author used for the outer story.
- Not all promises have to wait until the end to be fulfilled. The music promise I mentioned, for instance, was in the middle of the book, and following that fulfillment, there was even more in that story. I suppose that’s the rule: you can fulfill promises before the end, but you can’t drop the story then. The story has to continue with conflicts and struggles as it normally would.
- Know the rules before you break them. He breaks the fourth wall occasionally in this story (because the main character is telling the story to an audience, of course), and many other things. He made it all work.
I picked up this book about a week ago because it was new and it looked shiny. The author seemed to be already successful, even though I hadn’t read any of his stuff or even heard of it. All in all, it looked fine, and the premise– how Atlantis came to be the legendary island it was– was interesting.
The book itself didn’t work for me. The author was obviously going for heroic fantasy, already armed with a prophecy, confident main character (complete with birthmark!), and megalomaniac villain. Things were going well until about the first chapter, when he made every novice mistake known to man.
He ended his first few chapters with successes instead of plot twists. You could almost imagine his villain sitting there, stroking a cat, soliloquizing about his master plan in a cartoonish Russian accent (he actually did that, albeit without the cat and the accent). The prose was so purple if it held it’s breath any longer it would probably asphyxiate. I once said about Dormia that it had promise, but it needed a drastic rewrite– this is almost too far gone for that.
Things I learned:
- Florid prose does not mean beautiful descriptions. In fact, for suspense, you want simpler descriptions. In an episode of Writing Excuses (Emotions, season 3), a guest mentioned that in order to get an emotional impact, you should present the facts and allow the reader to judge for themselves. I have a couple exceptions to this rule, but for describing something horrible, it’s useful– do you want the description to seem horrible or do you want the reader to glance over it? If you present the information without editorializing it, you allow it to seem horrible. When you choose not to present all the facts (such as omitting the blood in a large battle scene), you allow the reader to skim over the horror. With purple prose, you’re editorializing hugely and asking for attention to your words, not to the subject of the words. That isn’t usually the best idea.
- Continuing the last point, the main reason this book seemed cartoonish in places was because he was editorializing descriptions. Some places would seem like he was writing a horror story– he was presenting information as fact, because he couldn’t describe it prettily– and others would seem cartoonish, because he could editorialize. Pick one or the other, and if you pick cartoonish, know how to manipulate the horrible stuff in order to keep the style uniform.
- Do not write like you’re from Disney. This was another reason this seemed cartoonish. The characters talked to the animals (the animals didn’t talk back much, thankfully), sang in the forest, and pulled off unrealistic stunts that should never have worked. I don’t even know how to fix that, except to say don’t do it.
I already posted a big review of this on GoodReads, and I won’t repeat that except to say that this was an amazing book, extremely emotional, and incredibly well thought-out. It takes the events of Ender’s Game and retells them from the viewpoint of a side character, putting a new slant on things I never even considered. This sequel wasn’t necessary– it isn’t even a sequel– but it showed how good an author Orson Scott Card really is. The idea that every character is the hero of their own story is perfectly true with him. (Thus, this book does indeed belong in this edition.)
I think the thing that struck me most about this book was his attention to detail. In the GoodReads review, I took a long time to explain the genius of a single word choice halfway through the book– which basically acted as the midpoint. A single word. Because he had already made a promise by ascribing a specific emotion to that word, he managed to make this book so much more amazing. If that was the result of a lot of editing, or just a spur-of-the-moment genius idea, I don’t know– but it was intentional. Best of all, it was showing. (One word.) Oh, and this emotional turn-around came within a scene of dialogue that was cut-and-pasted from the original book– no new dialogue. Just new emotions. Seeing the impact of those same words on the opposite side of the conversation was astounding. (Oh, and just one word.)
Things I learned:
One word.Seriously, though, the emotions in this were phenomenal. This was the book that prompted the Contrasting Successes post, so that counts as something I learned. I liked the character already from the original book, but this book took him to a new level. I loved it.
- Word choices, of course. If you can ascribe an emotion to a word and then utilize that, you’re awesome. (One word.)
- Okay, I need something other than that one word to call awesome. I learned that I need to be able to take any character and figure out where he is, what he’s doing, and what he’s feeling at any moment in time. Sure, the main character is the most important, but understanding the side characters– and especially the antagonist– is necessary.
Thus endeth the reviewing. I hope you can see now why I considered Ender’s Shadow worthy of falling under the heroic mantle– I also hope you’re interested in at least one of the books I reviewed. You can make your own decisions, and by all means, if you read one of these books and learned something I didn’t mention, tell me. I want to be able to get the most out of each of these books.