Archive for Books

Books

What’s Your Lane?

One of the most-repeated bits of advice in the independent publishing world is “find your lane and stay in it.” In other words, narrow down on the kind of thing you want to write that has an audience and focus on it. Write in one subgenre — maybe even in one series. So, not just stick with, say, contemporary romance, but small-town contemporary romance, maybe even small-town contemporary romance with veteran characters. And they should all be connected, set in the same small town, so that the secondary characters in early books will be the main characters in later books, and the main characters in early books will still be around as supporting characters in later books.

There’s nothing wrong with that advice. In fact, people who follow it are making a lot more money than I am. But I get twitchy around book 7 of a series, and it’s unlikely that I’ll want to keep writing in the same subgenre. Twenty years ago, I was enjoying the chick-litty tone of the Enchanted, Inc. series and couldn’t imagine writing a book that wasn’t set in contemporary New York. Now I can’t bring myself to write something with a contemporary setting.

What I think is more important about having a “lane” is offering readers a similar experience, no matter the subgenre or series. It’s about voice and vibes, the way a book makes you feel. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Connie Willis. She writes science fiction, but in subject matter she’s all over the map. She’s written books about time-traveling historians, a rom-com about implanted communications devices that link you with your true love, a road trip with an alien, adventures on distant planets, and a whole book on near-death experiences and the afterlife. But they all tend to have a certain kind of humor and worldview, they don’t have a lot of sex or violence, and her main characters tend to be practical, down-to-earth people even if they’re in crazy situations.

I think I’m pretty similar, but with fantasy. It may be contemporary fantasy, alternate history steampunk, small-town paranormal mystery, or secondary-world cozy fantasy, but you’ll get a touch of humor, not a lot of sex or violence, a practical heroine, and an adorkable wizard. There are readers who only want to read one particular genre or series, but I think most readers who like an author are willing to give other books a shot.

I felt like my views became validated by a book I read recently. I’m not going to name names because the point here is not to drag the author. Back in the early days of the chick lit craze, I took a couple of trips to England, and I ended up mostly buying books as souvenirs, since they had a lot of chick lit books that hadn’t been published in the US. There was one I particularly liked that was in the same vein as Bridget Jones’s Diary, only instead of just having diary entries, it also had e-mails between friends, notes left on the refrigerator door from roommates, and other bits and pieces of written material, and it told about a year in the life of a young woman living in a small town in the Cotswolds who was figuring things out and looking for love.

While I was going to a lot of bookstores signing books as the early Enchanted, Inc. books were being published, I found a book by this author in the bargain books section of a Barnes & Noble. It was a UK publication (the only price printed on the cover was in British pounds, with the American price just on a B&N bargain sticker). It was a bigger book, but it also involved women living in a small town in the Cotswolds. I never got around to reading it because I was so busy at that time, but I rediscovered it in my stash when I moved, so I finally read it, and I got a massive case of whiplash.

While it seemed to cover a lot of the same subject matter as that other book by this author and might have been considered staying in the same lane, it was incredibly different in tone. Instead of sweet and funny, it was rather raunchy. All the characters were horrible people, and a painfully toxic relationship was depicted as being true love. It was a very different reading experience (and I need to find a little free library to donate it to, or I’ll hand it over for the library’s book sale because I won’t be re-reading it). I’d have been happier with a mystery or a fantasy with a similar style and tone to that first book of hers I read than I was with the book that had a similar subject but that was so different.

The tricky thing about making your lane be about the voice and vibes is that you have to have a strong voice and know what your vibes are. What is it that readers like about your books? Then you have to make sure you can communicate that to readers and teach them to trust you enough to go wherever you go. You may not make quite the same amount of money as someone who can produce a 40-book series that keeps readers hooked, but I think you’ll be a lot happier. At least, I will be. I’d rather get a regular job than write the same sort of thing forever.

Books

A Big Fat Fantasy

I’ve mentioned before about how long books can languish on my To-Be-Read pile. My move actually gave me a chance to do some catching up. I tried to mostly read books from that pile before I moved so I could get rid of them. But there was one book I’d been saving for the right occasion to read. I got a copy of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson years ago at a WorldCon. I’d met Brandon a couple of years before that when we were on some convention panels together. I’ve read a couple of his shorter pandemic projects, but this book was so huge that it was daunting. It’s something like 1300 pages in mass-market paperback. I tried starting it a few times but always had to put it aside because I just didn’t have the time to dive into it.

But I figured that if I was going to have to spent a week or so without my furniture and without TV or Internet, that would be the perfect time to read a Big, Fat Fantasy, so I brought it with me when I moved. It turned out to be the perfect thing for the occasion when I had days without anything to do. I set up my lounge chair on the back porch and read for hours on nice days. When it was a rainy day, I set up the lounge chair in the living room and read for hours. On the day my furniture was supposed to arrive, with a delivery window between 8 and 10 later changed to between 1 and 4, and then it showed up at almost 5, I had nothing really to do but sit and read. I think I actually finished the book in a week.

And now I need to get the sequel, but there’s a waiting list at the local library and the e-book at my old library (where my card is still good for electronic stuff for another couple of months) is checked out.

Because this is a Big Fat Fantasy that sets up a whole series, it’s hard to explain what the plot really is. I guess it boils down to the fact that a war has been raging for years as one kingdom tries to get revenge against an enemy kingdom for assassinating their king, but the war has gone nowhere because it’s turned into a chance for profit and political maneuvering among the various princes of the kingdom, who are all out to further their own positions and can’t trust the other princes to actually work together with them against the enemy. In this war, there’s one prince who’s begun having visions that are either of the past or the future and that warn him of actions he needs to take, but he can’t get anyone to listen to his advice. Meanwhile, there’s a soldier turned slave who finds himself in the worst position possible in this war, but he might be able to make things better if he can get the rest of his crew to listen to him.

I really like the characters in this book and got caught up in their stories once I got into it because the main characters are good people doing their best in difficult circumstances. I’m a sucker for that kind of person, the one who tries to not only raise himself but bring others along with him. One thing I like about a big epic fantasy with multiple perspectives and storylines is seeing the collision coming, when you know it’s going to be interesting if these people ever run into each other, and you can see them getting closer to that intersection throughout the book.

Sanderson is known for his worldbuilding, and I would have to describe this as a fantasy novel taking place in a science fiction setting. It’s not in the generic medieval-ish Europe that’s so common in fantasy. It’s an alien planet with its own kind of plants, animals, and weather. If people were going around in spaceships and landed here, it would work as science fiction. But instead a fantasy plot is what plays out, with swords, armor, horses, and magic. That made it feel very different from most epic fantasy I’ve read. I have to confess that I love the quasi-medieval European fantasy world, but it’s fun to have a world that’s utterly alien.

If you love the plot complexity, political maneuvering, and multiple points of view in something like A Game of Thrones but could do without the excessive grittiness and want something a bit more uplifting, this might be a good read if you’ve got the time for it. Or if you’re a science fiction reader looking to try fantasy, this might be a good transition.

I’m really late to the game with this, I know, as the rest of the world has already discovered these books, but I’m not sure if all my readers are aware of what they’re all about, so I thought I’d share my perspective.

Books

After the Forest

I love fairytale retellings, novels that take familiar tales and flesh them out and give them context and twists. When you read the original tales (or as original as they were when collected and put in books), the stories are actually pretty thin, the characters are mostly archetypes, and there’s little context. Books that take the basics of these stories and turn them into novels or books that tell us what happened after the happily ever after are high on my list of favorite things. I wrote my own with Spindled, and I’ve written a draft of one involving Cinderella that I haven’t revised and published because I’m still not happy with it and am not yet sure how to fix it. I really love it when the book twists up multiple stories or implies that all the tales take place in the same universe.

I recently found another one of these, After the Forest by Kell Woods. This is a retelling/sequel of the Hansel and Gretel story, with elements of the Snow White and Rose Red story, as well as bits from the other, more familiar, Snow White story and a few others that are pretty deep cuts from the Grimm collection. It’s a sequel in that it takes place after the events of the Hansel and Gretel story, when they’re adults, but it’s also a retelling because it puts that story into a new context, adds elements, and has some of the events happen in a different way.

In the aftermath of the Thirty Years War in a village in the Black Forest, Greta earns a living for herself and her somewhat lazy, gambling-addicted brother by baking gingerbread using the recipe in the book she swiped from the witch’s cottage. But then she learns that her brother is so deeply in debt that they may lose their home, an old friend has finally returned from the war, some wandering mercenaries have come to town, there’s a mysterious stranger living in the woods, the baron has a beautiful new wife, and there have been bodies found in the woods that people think were killed by a bear. All of these things mean Greta’s life is about to change as she learns more about her heritage and the events that happened when she was a child.

I really liked this book. It hit a lot of my buttons. I’ve been reading history of the Thirty Years War in the past few years, so I’m intrigued about that. I’ve visited the Black Forest and lived not too far from where the book takes place. Putting the story into that particular place and time gives it a lot more weight than with the generic “once upon a time.” A lot of the theme is about a woman coming to realize what her power really is, which is a storyline that I enjoy. And there’s a subtle romance that gradually grows and builds. Plus all those fairy tales. It makes me want to re-read the Grimm collection to see which other stories are in there. I think I’ve spotted elements from a few, but I don’t know if my memory is playing tricks on me. I also like that most of these are less commonly retold tales. Snow White does come up a lot, but the bits used here are mostly the ones that didn’t make it into the Disney movie.

I’d definitely recommend this one if you like fairytale retellings but want to get beyond the Disneyfied stuff.

Books, movies

Good Endings

Last weekend, I rewatched the movie Stardust for about the zillionth time. That’s one of my all-time favorites, a “comfort” watch that never fails to make me feel good. There’s something about that movie that makes me sigh with satisfaction when it ends.

And that got me started thinking, what makes for a satisfying ending? What is it about this story (I have a similar reaction to the book, though the ending is a bit different) that gives me that happy sigh?

In this case, I think one thing is that it feels like everything is neatly tied up. The villains are taken down in satisfying ways, and even the irritants (not really villains, not really antagonists in the sense of being obstacles to the hero, just people who bother him) get taken down a peg. The woman who rejected him and used him early in the story gets to see what she gave up, and the one she rejected him for may not be as into her as she thought. A couple that was separated gets reunited. We even get the narrator telling us the long-term outcome. All of that comes together to give you that “yes, all is right with the world” feeling. I know a lot of people sneer at stories in which all the ends are neatly tied up, but there’s also something nice about that if it’s done well.

One thing that I think helps is if the “neatly tied up” doesn’t necessarily work the way you expected it to — it’s a way you like, but not what you thought would happen. I don’t know for sure if that’s the case with Stardust because it’s so familiar by now that I don’t even remember what I thought would happen. But I do know I love it when I’m expecting something to happen and what does happen is even better than I expected, or it happens, but in a better way, maybe with a fun twist. Of course, I can’t think of any good examples now, and I suppose it would be a major spoiler to give an example. That’s the challenge in talking about endings.

Tying everything up doesn’t necessarily make for a good ending, though. As much as I love The Lord of the Rings, I’m not crazy about the ending in either book or movie. It goes on and on after what should have been the climactic moment. The movie did help by tightening and cutting a lot. I know that all the stuff going on in the Shire when they got back was thematic, and I suppose it showed how much the Hobbits had changed in the way they handled it, but it still felt like “but I thought it was all over, and now there’s more?” I also have very mixed feelings about the very ending and the fate of Frodo and the elves. Again, I know it’s thematic, but I don’t really like the idea. There’s something about the way that saga is resolved that leaves me feeling not entirely satisfied, like there’s both too much and not enough. There’s practically material for an entire sequel in what’s supposed to be the resolution.

Another kind of good ending is the one that makes you want to read/watch the thing again, right away. I loved the end of the book To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis so much that as soon as I finished reading it, I flipped to the beginning and immediately re-read it. I’m not sure I’d say there were twists, but it was one of those things where you learn some of what really happened and what was really going on behind the scenes, so the end was a big “aha!” moment, and it was fun to re-read with that knowledge.

I’ve written before about what I termed the “Lucas ending” that showed up in a lot of the Star Wars films and one of the Indiana Jones movies — the cathartic victory, reunion with hugs, celebration. That can work really well as an ending pattern.

I find that I like it when the villain has a lot to do with his own destruction rather than the hero actually defeating him. There’s a lot of talk about how you could remove Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the outcome wouldn’t change much, but I think a lot of it is about the fact that he’s trying, and then I like that the bad guys defeat themselves because they don’t understand or respect what they’re really dealing with, and Indy prevails because he does and he knows what to do, and then his presence means the Ark doesn’t stay in the bad guys’ hands.

On the opposite side of the coin from the “everything tied up neatly” ending is the “leave them wanting more” ending in a series, where it’s just satisfying enough to make you happy but there are enough loose threads to make you eager for the next book/movie. You want to know what will happen next, how the characters will function with a new status quo. I’m not a huge fan of cliffhangers, though. I want there to be some kind of conclusion to each installment. I like the way that the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Deep Space Nine tended to do season finales. The end of the season would wrap up the latest arc in a satisfying way, and then there’d be one thing coming up at the very end that hinted at what the next problem would be. The good guys would get their celebration after defeating the enemy, and then in a kind of coda, we’d see a new villain or problem emerging. You wanted to know what would happen next, but it wasn’t leaving anyone in immediate peril. It was more of a teaser for the next arc following the conclusion of the last one, so things were wrapped up but you wanted to know what happens next.

Another factor in a satisfying ending is the feeling that the main characters are in a better place than they were at the beginning, both physically and mentally. I like seeing that they’ve grown and learned something. That may be why “full circle” endings work so well, where they may return to something that reflects or echoes the beginning, and that makes it clear what’s changed.

I have to admit that I struggle with endings. That’s usually what I end up revising first because my first attempt at an ending is never good. I’m so eager to be done with the book by that point that my first draft ending is usually along the lines of “and then they beat the bad guys, the end.” Once I’ve recovered from writing the draft, I go back and write something a little more detailed. And then I rewrite it again after revising the whole book.

What kinds of endings do you like best? What’s your favorite book or movie ending?

 

Books

More From the TBR Shelf

One of the books that languished on my To Be Read bookcase, in advance copy form, until after the third book came out was A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne. I think when I started reading it, back when it was still ahead of publication, I was afraid it was more intense than I was up for at that time. So it went on the shelf until I decided I really needed to read it a few weeks ago. I suppose it is intense in places, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’s definitely not cozy, but it’s not grimdark, either.

This book has a really interesting narrative structure. There’s a framing story about the aftermath of a barely averted invasion of a city by a strange race of giant-like creatures. The city is now full of refugees from places where the invasion wasn’t averted. A bard from a nearby land shows up, saying he has news that may be able to explain something about the invasion and he has reports from other lands. Our first-person narrator is a scholar who gets assigned to work with the bard to help him and record his stories (and also figure out if he’s a spy or enemy agent). Each night, the bard regales the crowd with stories of what happened in the other lands, and he has magic that allows him to “become” the people whose stories he’s telling, looking and sounding like them. Most of the book is these other people’s first-hand accounts. To keep the audience eager to come back each night, he tends to stop each person’s story on a cliffhanger and move on to a different person’s story. We get bits and pieces of a greater story that eventually comes together. In between these stories, our narrator tries to figure out what’s going on with the bard while also dealing with the impact of living in the aftermath of the attempted invasion.

I love it when a story is told a bit out of order, limited to the perceptions of just one person at a time when those people don’t have the big picture, and it’s up to me to put the pieces together and find the patterns, so I found this to be really engaging reading. Writing something like that is on my literary bucket list, but I don’t yet have the right story to tell that way. The magic in this world is also interesting. Each of the lands has its own “kenning” or form of magic that allows some people to manipulate a particular part of nature. To get this power, a person has to go through a particular ordeal that will either kill them or give them power, and there’s no way of knowing which one it will be. But then using the power drains the person’s life force. In small amounts, it’s barely noticeable, but if they have to go all-out, they may age decades. That means that there are real stakes in the use of magic.

Now that I’ve finally read the first book, I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, as we don’t yet know everything about what’s going on with these giants, and the threat isn’t over yet.

Books

A Pandemic, but with Dragons

I’m trying to read as much as possible from my To Be Read bookcase so I can clear out the ones that I want to read but don’t necessarily want to keep. And, yes, I have a whole bookcase, plus a couple of boxes. One of the fun things about being a writer is that when you go to writing conferences, they give you free books! Publishers give away books to writers because they know that writers talk about books, so they’re a good way to get buzz going about a book. My first few conferences, I got a bit excited about it and eagerly scooped up All The Books. I eventually realized that most of them went unread, so I tried to limit myself to ones that I thought I might actually read. Even then, I find that there’s a difference between my eagerness to read books I bought for myself and books I got for free (though there are books I bought that are on the bookcase, too). I think part of the reason is that, aside from things like special sales or used bookstore finds and the occasional booksigning for a writer friend, I generally buy a book because I want to read that particular book at that particular time. The giveaways may be things I might have bought, but they weren’t what I was looking for at the time I obtained them.

I’m afraid I’m mostly useless for building buzz because it can take me years past publication to get around to reading an advance copy. I just read an advance copy for book one of a series, and book three is about to come out. I may post something about it, and maybe that will help book three. I’m ashamed to admit that I got an advance copy of A Game of Thrones but didn’t read it until after the TV series came out. Actually, I did start reading it before publication, but I got it at a romance writers conference (not sure why they thought that was a good place to promote that book) and was therefore expecting it to be a romantic fantasy, so it wasn’t at all what I wanted it to be and I put it aside after a few chapters.

But there are some books I don’t remember obtaining. For instance, the book I just finished reading is an old hardcover copy of a book published in 1983. It looks like it was used, but I don’t remember buying it. Maybe someone else bought it and gave it to me. Although it was published in 1983, it eerily reflects some recent events. In fact, if not for the very 1980s graphic design on the cover and the copyright date (and the fact that the author has been dead for more than a decade), if you gave this book to someone to read now, they’d probably think it was a COVID-inspired book.

The book is Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, one of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. This series straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy. It’s technically science fiction because it’s about a distant world colonized by human settlers. After the colony was established, they learned that every so often the world gets attacked by these spores they call Thread that destroy life. They genetically engineered some of the local life forms to be dragons they could fly around on and shoot down this thread. But because the society reverts to being pre-industrial and there are dragons, it reads like fantasy. If you want to start a debate among science fiction and fantasy readers, throw out the “is Pern science fiction or fantasy?” topic. I read the main part of the series when I was a teenager. This appears to be a standalone prequel. I don’t think I’ve carried this book around since then, but I may have picked it up at a library sale.

This particular book is about an epidemic that hits at a very bad time, and it pretty much sounds like the COVID pandemic with dragons. There’s social distancing, the search for a vaccine, the people who resist the efforts to stop the spread of the disease, the people who think the rules don’t apply to them, the strain on healthcare workers, etc. Even most of the symptoms sound kind of COVID-like. The book is really interesting, up until the ending, which I pretty much hated. It was almost like she’d reached her contracted word count and was nearing her deadline, so she just ended it and then wrote an epilogue to tie up the loose ends without actually resolving anything. It was really abrupt. Since it’s a prequel, it’s possible that this was some element of that world’s history mentioned in the earlier books (which are but a dim memory for me) and that ending was already set in stone.

Anyway, aside from the ending it was interesting reading, and it kind of made me want to revisit that series. I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend it, unless you want to read about fictional pandemics. It will probably go in the box that’s getting donated for the library book sale because I don’t imagine I’ll be reading it again, but I’m glad I did read it.

Books, movies

Why I Love LOTR

Last weekend, I rewatched the Lord of the Rings movies. I reread the books a few years ago, and this was my first time to watch the movies after refreshing myself on the books (and when I reread the books last, it was the first time to read them after seeing the movies). One thing I found interesting was that I seem to have mapped some of the imagery from the movies onto the books, so I was mostly seeing the movie characters and settings in my head as I read (unless I ran into a strong image that remained from previous reads), even in the parts that weren’t in the films. As a result, I had scenes in my head involving the movie imagery that it turned out weren’t actually in the movies, so I was surprised when they didn’t come up. That was a little disconcerting.

Of course, now I want to reread the books again, but I don’t really have time for that right now. I’m trying to read through my to-be-read bookcase as part of a book purge in preparation for a possible move. So no rereading, just reading the books that have been waiting for me to get around to them. Maybe next fall or winter. They feel like fall/winter books to me, the sort of thing you read while snuggled under a blanket, maybe next to a fire.

I’m no book purist. There are book scenes I miss in the movies, but I can also see why they were left out of the films. Even with the regular release (I don’t have the extended editions), they’re very long movies, and these bits would mess up the pacing. But it would be kind of fun to have a whole movie of my favorite part of the whole series, the beginning up to Rivendell. I love so many of the parts that were left out, like the dinner party in the woods with the elves and Tom Bombadil (I know that’s controversial, but that part is basically cozy fantasy). That section of the first book is all about being in this other world and experiencing enchanting things before it gets serious with all the battles. I get bored with the battle scenes in the movies, when it’s all just orcs swarming all over the place. On this viewing, I got distracted by spotting when Orlando Bloom was and wasn’t wearing the blue contact lenses during one of the battle scenes because that was more engaging to me than all the hacking and slashing.

It’s the character stuff I love — Sam finding the strength and courage he always had but that came out when he was put to the test, Pippin growing up right before our eyes (you can actually see on his face the moment when all the illusions shatter), Eowyn being a badass warrior woman without ever being Not Like Other Girls, Aragorn finally accepting and claiming his heritage, the growing friendship between Gimli and Legolas. Gandalf’s gentle fondness for hobbits. I just really love all these people, and I think that’s a big key to the enduring success of these stories.

The ending is always a bit bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I’m usually tired from making it through the whole thing, but on the other I’m a little reluctant to leave that world and return to reality.

Incidentally, I’ve decided that my ideal home might be a hobbit hole in Rivendell. I like the coziness of Bilbo’s house, but I also love the airiness of the elven homes and I like the general setup and aesthetic of Rivendell. Maybe an elven house with an attached hobbit hole for a cozy nook. Incidentally, the movie depiction of Rivendell is one place where I can’t make the movie version fit what I see in my head when I read.

Maybe next time I read/watch, I’ll do it back-to-back or around the same time so I can do a real comparison between books and movies.

Books, movies

Kind of Like Enchanted Inc.

The main thing that sparked me to write the book that became Enchanted, Inc. was that it was the sort of thing I wanted to read but couldn’t find. I wanted something kind of like the “girl in the city” chick lit books that were popular at that time, but with some magic. I wanted something kind of like the Harry Potter books, but about adults and in the working world rather than about kids at school. A mix of magic and the real world with some humor and whimsy that were about life situations I could relate to as an adult. It didn’t seem to exist, so I had to write it myself.

Last weekend, I watched a movie that in some respects was a British, gender-flipped Enchanted, Inc., The Portable Door (it’s on Amazon). A young man trying to make his way in London gets a mysterious job offer at what turns out to be a magical company. He’s initially assigned to a tedious job with a mercurial boss, but then he comes to the attention of the company’s top executive, who assigns him to a special project. And he has a crush on his magically gifted coworker who’s on the fast track at the company. Beyond that, though, it goes off in very different directions. The company is different, the relationship is different, the assignments are different, the plot is different, the villains are different. It’s a different story entirely other than that basic framework.

But it turns out this movie is based on a book by Tom Holt that was initially published in 2003, so around the time I was writing Enchanted, Inc. I think it may have only been published in Britain at that time because the editions I can find from US publishers were from the 2010s. I certainly hadn’t heard of it until I saw the movie. It never came up as a comparable title when Enchanted, Inc. was on submission. If I’d known about it, it would have been easier to position my book. I wonder if there was something in the ether around that time or if it came from a similar place (Harry Potter, but in the corporate world). It’s even possible that if I’d found this book, I might not have gotten around to writing my book because I would have found what I wanted to read, but I suspect that by the time this book was published I’d already gone far enough in developing my own story that I still would have wanted to write mine.

I haven’t read the books (it’s a series), but I did enjoy the movie. It had all the stuff I was looking for when I came up with the idea that became Enchanted, Inc. It’s got humor, action, and a bit of romance. There’s a satisfying comeuppance for the villain and some good growth for the hero. My one quibble with the movie is that I’m not sure what audience they were aiming for. It falls into the category of “four-quadrant” entertainment, so it’s the sort of thing a whole family can watch together. There’s nothing unsuitable for children in it (it’s solidly PG), nothing parents would be uncomfortable watching with kids (or nothing kids would be uncomfortable watching with parents), but nothing really child-friendly, either. I would suspect that younger kids who aren’t yet of the age to be dreaming of the adult world they may one day inhabit would be mostly bored. But then toward the end it veers into the kiddie film territory. Just when the action gets pretty tense, the villains turn the ham up to 11 and they become like something out of one of the cheesier rubber suit Doctor Who episodes or a children’s film. It’s a big tonal shift, like they’re suddenly trying to appeal to kids or make the tense part be less scary for the children who’ve probably already wandered off in boredom. The books aren’t published as YA, so I’m not sure what they were trying to do here. The Jim Henson Company was among the producers, so maybe they were turning the Muppet people loose at the end. I still enjoyed it, but it was weird.

Now I need to find and read the books, but my library doesn’t have them. Apparently, this author also writes as K.J. Parker, who has titles like A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, and some of the reviews compare him to Terry Pratchett.

Books

Relationship Power Dynamics

When I was talking about relationship power dynamics a couple of weeks ago, the example that came to mind while I was mentally processing it was Pride and Prejudice. That whole book boils down to people who are trying to hold on to all their power, which is impossible if you want to start a relationship. There has to be some kind of vulnerability in order to connect with another person. You’ve eventually got to let them know you care. Of course, my brain wouldn’t let it go, since if it’s worth analyzing, it’s worth overanalyzing. So, here’s a look at the relationship power dynamics in Pride and Prejudice. Spoilers ahead, but the book is 200 years old.

To start with, Darcy has a lot of the power, in every sense. He’s got wealth and status and is considered a desirable marriage prospect. He can probably get just about any woman he wants. And yet he has to try to pile on the power by making it clear he’s not interested in any of the local women, especially not Lizzie. His offhand remark about her eyes is a hint that he might actually have some attraction to her, but he’s making an effort to avoid giving up any of the power that having any interest in her would take away.

Meanwhile, Lizzie is well aware that she has zero power here. She may be a member of the gentry, but her family is on the poor end of things, and she’s not going to inherit much. She has no wealth, and while she has status in this immediate community, she’d be a nobody elsewhere. Even in this community, her parents are embarrassing. Someone is going to have to like her a lot as a person or have some other motivation to want to marry her, and she’s acutely conscious of this. She doesn’t even feel like she’s a beauty. It’s her sister who’s considered the pretty one. Her way of clawing back some power in all this is to decide she has zero interest in Darcy, even if he is considered quite a catch. She loses that bit of power when he says he’s not interested in her.

So, she regains the sense of having the upper hand by first taking every opportunity to snub and insult him, then later by getting the dirt on him from Wickham. When she comes to believe based on Wickham’s stories that Darcy is a terrible person, Lizzie achieves the ultimate in relationship power: she no longer cares what he thinks or if he likes her. That helps her retain the upper hand when she runs into Darcy again. She can easily chat with him and tease him because she just doesn’t care.

Pride and Prejudice Meme
Darcy (Colin Firth) says "I love you"
Lizzie says "Go jump in a lake" 
Picture of Darcy diving into a lakeMeanwhile, Darcy has realized he’s in love with her, but his first effort at proposing is a total failure because he tries to do so without giving up any of his power. Yes, there’s the vulnerability of admitting he admires and loves her and wants to marry her, but he wraps it up in power displays by pointing out how unsuitable she is, how awful her family is, how she really has nothing going on for her. So, he may like her, but she’s lucky he does so because there’s not a lot there to like.

It’s only when he gets the shock of realizing that she doesn’t find his attitude all that appealing that he finally realizes he’s going to have to give a little if he wants her, and that’s when he writes the letter explaining all to her, making himself utterly vulnerable. He gives her a lot of power over him, since she could ruin his sister if she decided to spread the story publicly.

The next time they see each other, it’s with a very different dynamic. It’s interesting that the 1995 TV version adds even more vulnerability to him when he finds her at his home by having him in his wet shirt after his swim (in that era, a shirt was essentially considered underwear). That’s not in the book, so it’s Lizzie who’s feeling more powerless in having been caught touring his home, with his vulnerability coming from the fact that it’s the first time that he’s seen her since he poured all his thoughts out in the letter. When they come to each other from a place of vulnerability, without trying to cling to their power, they actually manage to connect.

Then he gives up the opportunity to gain power when he rescues her sister from being a shamed social outcast without getting credit for it, which would have made her obligated to him. He’s willing to not take power that he’s owed. She’s the one who finds out and then makes her “offering” of letting him know she knows. There’s give and take, and this is when they’re able to finally get together for good.

I think this is one reason for the enduring popularity of this story. It’s nice to see a story about people getting over themselves and being able to admit they were wrong, and the relationship power dynamics end up being pretty balanced. They both have to give and take, and you get the sense that this relationship is going to work.

Books

Recent Reading: Another Road Trip

I recently found a fantasy book that falls into that “romantic fantasy road trip” category. It doesn’t fit the plot pattern I identified for that kind of movie, but it’s definitely that “people fall in love along the way when they go on a mission/quest through a fantasy world” thing I love.

The book is Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn, and it’s the first book in a series. I’d read Shinn’s Archangel in a book group a couple of decades ago, but I hadn’t read any of her fantasy. I really enjoyed this one. The story involves an intelligence gathering mission for a king who’s worried there may be trouble brewing in the kingdom. He sends out one of his top agents, a woman with mysterious powers, and sends two of the king’s Riders, his loyal soldiers, to escort her. Also along for the journey are a young noblewoman with shapechanging powers and her friend with similar powers, and they pick up a young man with mysterious abilities along the way. A lot of people in the kingdom are leery of people with magic, so the mystics in the group and the Riders don’t get along at first, but the chief Rider and the agent gradually realize that they have a lot in common, aside from this difference.

It looks like this series is a hybrid between the romance series structure, in which there’s a different hero and heroine in each book, and the fantasy structure, in which there’s an overarching plot that spans books. There’s the big-picture plot about the scheming going on in the kingdom, but each book seems to focus on a different romantic couple.

I loved the characters in this book and I definitely want to spend more time with them. The romance is very subtle and slow-burn, so it’s more fantasy novel romance than romance novel romance. The main focus is on the mission and how this group learns to work together and use their various abilities as a team. It’s mostly a fantasy adventure story with a subtle romance that gradually comes to the foreground.

The only problem I have is that I got this book from the library and my library system doesn’t have the second book (it does have the rest of the series). I’ll have to put in a request for them to add it to the collection and fill out the series. This is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been looking for.