What Not to Do

(Caveat: It is not my habit or intention to belittle another author’s writing. That said, I don’t always like everything I read. Do you? The statements herein are my opinion only. Your mileage may vary.)

This is not a book review. I just want that clear right up front, because in this post I want to talk about a book I have been trying—and failing—to read: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I initially borrowed the book from the library because I was ready for a new read, and this was recommended as one of thirteen best sci-fi books of 2017. The premise seemed sound. In the year 2140 (obviously), Manhattan is so flooded from sea-level rise that it has become the new Venice. Interesting, I thought. Ought to be good, plus bonus points for taking on climate change in a possible near future, set in a city familiar to many readers. Makes for a story relevant to our own times.

Right?

That’s why I tried to read it. I failed to finish because…well, there’s no polite way to say this. It bored me to tears.

And that is what I want to talk about. Some of the storyline’s failings I can point to and say “That. That right there is boring.” But the rest I’m not sure how to define, which I why I’m writing about it. Because as a writer, if I can’t describe why a book fails to capture my interest, then I won’t be able to avoid the same mistakes.

So here we go.

One clear pitfall of the book for me was that a main character (there are nine) is a hedge-fund sleaze who goes on and on and on and on about finance and housing bubbles and market indexes in excruciating detail. He’s not the only character to do so. I read the first segments of this, thinking it must have some connection to the plot (I think it does, eventually, though I’ll never know for sure). But after the first five, I began skimming without actually reading them.

Another was the unnamed character (“citizen”) whose chapters were absolute info dumps about New York history and culture. Not one of these chapters that I read added anything pertinent to the plot. Citizen even tells the reader that “if you don’t wanna know this, skip to the next chapter.” (Really? The author invites the reader to skip whole chapters of the book?) Again, read the first few, skipped the rest.

The characters themselves all fell flat. Not one of them felt fleshed-out or real to me. They all said different words, yet their “voices” sounded the same. They went places and did things and got together and faced problems, but none of it gave me a sense of urgency. None of it compelled me to keep reading. The writing, overall, used limiting words that drained conversations between the characters as well as descriptions of any power, something I’ve had to watch in my own work. Dialogue between characters felt stiff. There was more, but this will suffice to explain why, at about the 25% point, I decided to stop wasting my time.

More nebulous critiques centered around the pointless wanderings of the flat characters. Maybe it’s that their relationships, activities, comments and internal monologues all felt contrived. One scene in particular had a group of characters all meeting in one place and the author overexplained insignificant details like who sat where. Why is this important? Skip to that bit, please. There were good segments that gave me hope, but overall it felt like there was far too much extraneous content, as though the author could have cut at least 25% of the book and had a better, more focused and compelling story. Again, I’ll never know.

Correct me if I’m wrong—because KSR is a best-selling author with nineteen published books to his name, so clearly he knows something I don’t—but I’m pretty sure each of these faults I’ve named breaks rules that are pounded into our heads as new writers. Books on how to write publishable fiction tell us not to do these things. Fiction classes say the same thing. Writing conference breakout sessions repeat these lessons, so I’m left wondering if a) those books and classes and conference presenters are all wrong; or b) bestselling authors are held to a different standard than new writers.

Much as I wish it were so, the real answer probably isn’t that cut-and-dried. First of all, a) is both true and false because every fiction reader is different. Each one wants something different from a novel. As awful as I thought NY2140 was, there were plenty of reviews giving it four or five stars, raving about how all KSR’s novels had an underlying and not-so-subtle message. He definitely pushes a political agenda in this novel, one I probably agree with on many levels. I don’t mind a book with a message. But let it also have a story too, please. I’ve read other books like this in that they were all message and no story. All my works of fiction have messages too. I only hope they aren’t this dry and flavorless.

As to b, this is probably true. I remember a presenter telling me at a conference that writers have to prove they know the rules before they can break them. I’m tempted to think this is BS, until I read something like NY2140. It’s an example of the fact that publishers will be more likely to buy even marginal ideas from established writers who have already identified their market, while we newbies are still struggling to do that. Unfortunately, even if our stories is outstanding, we are all channeled through the narrow pipeline of available publishing houses whose primary goal is to make money. Don’t misunderstand me; there’s nothing wrong with making money. As a writer, I too want my works to turn a buck. But with so many of us, and so few publishing channels, it’s no wonder that more and more writers are turning to self-publishing options for their work.

I haven’t read anything else by KSR, and I probably won’t—partly because of my experience with this book, but also partly because one reviewer, who gave this book four out of five stars, commented that people who read his work usually don’t read it for the story, but for the “massive ideas he puts forth.” That reviewer is clearly part of KSR’s “established market.” She knows going in what she’s going to get and she goes back for more.

I know it looks like one, but this isn’t a book review. As always, don’t take my word for it. If you like the “story’s” premise, or have a soft spot for New York City or finance or utopian messages that out-shout the plot or the characters, by all means read this book. You may be one of those who find it inspiring. As far as I am concerned, it was a reminder to myself to mind my story/message balance, to fully flesh out my characters and their desires/conflicts, and to make every single word relevant to the work.

A God In Ruins

By Kate Atkinson
Back Bay Books, ISBN: 978-0316176507
Paperback, ©2016, 480 pages

Ex-bomber pilot Teddy, a.k.a. Edward Todd, has settled into an expected post-war role of husband and father, living out his days in small-town mediocrity with enigmatic wife Nancy, unlikeable daughter Viola, volatile grandson Sunny and pragmatic granddaughter Bertie. He is content to write for a local journal rather than seek his pre-war dream of becoming a world-renowned poet, or travel as he’d planned before enlisting with the RAF.

On the surface, Teddy is a quiet, unambitious man with strong pacifistic tendencies, and with good reason. Beneath the surface lays pent-up guilt for the hundreds—thousands—of innocents killed or maimed during his 72 bombing raids over Germany. Teddy lives by his own personal credo: Always be kind. Even when he suspects his wife is having an affair. Even when his daughter treats him like a burden and can’t wait to be rid of him. Even when those he holds dear take no interest in the one thing that ever really made him feel alive: the mechanics of bombers.

A God in Ruins is not a sequel to Life After Life, even though it explores another branch of the Todd family, most of whom we met in the first book. Teddy’s story is, rather, a companion piece and while it is not told in the same fashion as Ursula’s repeat visits to a life in this realm, chapters of Teddy’s life fall into the story in a jumbled way that at first was hard to read. However, the more I read, the faster Teddy’s hooks held my attention. Layer after layer is peeled away from Teddy’s façade to show the reader how his life came to this point. That alone would have intrigued me.

But Atkinson’s characters and their interrelationships run deep. Each and every one carries strata of cause to support the effects of their strengths as well as their flaws. Throughout the story, the author allows readers to see into the minds and thoughts of all the main characters—Teddy, certainly, but also Nancy, Viola, Sunny and Berti—so that by the end of the story we know why all of them did the things they did. Viola, in particular, presented a most unlikable character and, for me at least, never really redeemed herself. It was especially abhorrent to me the way she treated Teddy, who is the most sympathetic character of all. But when the story reveals the explosive crux behind this broken relationship, it changed everything for me. I still didn’t like Viola, but at least I understood a great deal more about her character.

But perhaps the most prevalent character in the entire story is the same as the one in LAL—World War II. Through the first part of the book, Nancy refers to “Teddy’s war” in vague comments, but Teddy’s actual experiences dribble down to the reader in small bites, enough that we know Teddy only ever really felt completely connected to his life while he was piloting a bomber. We see isolated memories of rough missions where Teddy and his crew barely made it back alive, and others where not all of them did. Teddy clearly harbored guilt over the bombing of innocents, though he carried out his duty on behalf of the Allied Forces, and is never able to understand the hostility that lingers in his countrymen and fellow soldiers long after Germany is in ruins and its despotic ruler in his grave. I related on a deep personal level with his inability to discern any reason to continue such hatred, and his horror over the enormous destruction wrought by the conflict.

While LAL carried a bigger punch with its continual restarts on Ursula’s attempt to get this life right, A God in Ruins packs just as powerful an impact on a quieter level. True to its main character, this book whispers its message, rather than swinging insight at the reader like a blunt object, as was more natural for Ursula. Atkinson’s revelations of the Todds proved for me to be a thoughtful look past the surface of what at first appeared to be the ideal family, and an advisory that no matter how hard we try, things don’t always work out the way we plan.

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson
Back Bay Books, ISBN: 978-0316176491
Paperback, ©2013, 560 pages

On February 11, 2010, a young girl is born to a wealthy English family. Due to a snowstorm and blocked roads, the doctor cannot arrive in time, and the child dies.

On February 11, 2010, a young girl named Ursula is born to a wealthy English family. The doctor manages to arrive in the nick of time, and saves the child, who later drowns on an English beach before she’s ten.

On February 11, 2010, Ursula Todd is born to a wealthy English family. Despite a blizzard and blocked roads, the doctor arrives in time to save the child, who grows up to …

Over and over, Ursula Todd is born and dies. These two facts remain the same, while everything in between changes in a variety of ways. Pertinent elements of her life – siblings, location, people who come and go, even pets – reappear again and again, always in different ways and at different times and with different results. Somewhere in the cycle of her lives, little Ursula begins to recognize similarities to things she couldn’t possibly know, and to make mindful changes to her life in an attempt to steer her own course, never understanding exactly why, only knowing that she must. That there is a purpose to her life and she must find it at any cost.

Life After Life is a story about family, about home and hearth, but also about choices and their inevitable consequences. Clearly, the plot accepts as possible the concept of reincarnation, but in a very specific way. Ursula is always born to the same family in the same home on the same day. She always has the same blood siblings, same mother and father. The same employees work in the house doing the same jobs.

If that sounds remotely boring, you couldn’t be more wrong. Not despite the similarities, but because of them. I found myself wondering, each time Ursula’s life began anew, when and how Fred Smith would appear, or Millie, or Lucky the dog, and what picture the tapestry’s threads would reveal this time around. While this is Ursula’s story, she isn’t the only one living multiple times. All the characters are destined to experience intersecting lives. They are tied together in ways that keep them coming back to each other.

For me, Ursula’s experiences provoked contemplation on choices we make every day. What if I turned left instead of right? What if I stayed home instead of going out? On such small decisions, worlds sometimes turn, and Ursula learns this in a very up-close and personal way. Atkinson neatly avoids the cliché of repeating lives, giving an interesting twist to the What If concept. I was absolutely fascinated with the way the author layered Ursula’s multi-life “history,” and delighted in discovering these reappearances each time around. But the tale twists even more when Ursula begins to remember, intuitively, the events that preceded painful or difficult or deadly circumstances from her past lives, and to take action to prevent those same events from happening again. Does it work? Not always, and even when it does, the consequences are perhaps not what she expected, but believe me, that’s no spoiler.

The war—which takes on the nature of a character in its own right—plays an enormous role in the lives of everyone in the book. Atkinson’s done her homework, but does not burden the reader with interesting details that are nevertheless irrelevant to Ursula’s tale. Life After Life is so much more than a historical novel. It’s a tale that drew me in and wouldn’t let go. This is an excellent read that will linger long after the last page is turned.

The Girl on the Train

By Paula Hawkins
The Penguin Group, ISBN: 9780698185395
Paperback, ©2015, 416 pages

Rachel’s teetering on the edge. Alcoholism and bitterness over her failed marriage nudges her closer every day to total loss of what little she has left. Her only bright spot is the daily commute to London where her train stops at a faulty signal. From there, she can see the back of her old marital home and, several doors down, the house of strangers she’s dubbed “Jess and Jason,” whose lives Rachel has imagined as a dreamy ideal, everything she wanted and everything she lost. But after witnessing a shocking encounter there, Rachel is yanked into the darkness of an alcoholic fugue, a lost night, and a frightening mystery that sends her spiraling into the lives of strangers whose beautiful facades are not at all what they seem.

The three main characters—Rachel, Megan and Anna—reveal themselves in layers. The further I read, the more I understood them. The more real they seemed. Each is flawed, as are we all. Yet theirs are basic human needs and emotions to which we can all relate. While I cringed every time Rachel reached for a gin and tonic or a bottle of wine, I sympathized with her pain. I cheered for her when she tried to stop, and felt disappointed when she slipped. And I strained with her to remember what happened that fateful Saturday night. Megan and Anna, too, struggle with demons and secrets that compel them to act in detestable ways, yet I felt compassion for their fear and grief and loss.

Hawkins incorporates, with brilliant results, the fallibility of memory and makes good use of the unreliable narrator in this gripping tale. No one is who they appear to be, and when one of the characters goes missing, everyone else seems guilty. As a writer who is always learning to improve my craft, I was awed by this author’s ability to thread suspense into the narrative, slowly at first, then twisting it harder as I got deeper into the mystery. This is no simple murder mystery. Each of the characters’ stories has its own revelation, some more than one, and even though I correctly guessed who committed the act by two thirds of the way through (if not sooner), there remained plenty of surprises I never saw coming.

The train is an apt metaphor for Hawkin’s thriller, since the murder at its heart careens through the predictable lives of its characters and shoves them all off the rails in a tangle of lies, suspicion and fear. Every incident in the story is connected, as are the cars on the commuter line. Rachel’s life, already unstable, hurtles out of control like a speeding train. Even her blackouts fit the simile, especially the single image of hovering beneath the railway overpass with dirt under her nails, blood on her hands and a cut on her head, and no clear memory of what any of it means.

I sat up half the night reading because I couldn’t put this book down. I’d like to be able to point out the weak spots in the story, but honestly I was so caught up in its thrill that I failed to notice any. It would be a real accomplishment for any writer, but Girl on the Train is a debut novel. If this is any indication of what is to come, I’ll be watching for future releases from Paula Hawkins. An excellent read.

Red Moon

by Benjamin Percy
Grand Central Publishing, ISBN: 978-1455501670
Mass Market Paperback, © 2013, 668 pages

They live among us. They might be our neighbor, our pastor, our doctor, our teacher, our spouse, our child. Most of the time, they look like us—except when they don’t. Except when stress or anger or fear incites the prion infection they carry into a frenzy and they change into their animal forms. They are the lycans, many of whom want only to be left alone, to be allowed to live their lives according to their nature.

There’s just one problem. Their nature is a fear too many human citizens cannot abide. When human attempts at control finally push the lycans too far, the Resistance bursts screaming from the shadows and there is no going back.

It feels to me like Percy took on a lot in writing this book, and he did it well. He aimed to blend literary and genre fiction together in a seamless style. He melded an alternate reality/world with issues relevant to this one, while fuzzing the line between the good guys and the bad guys. With few exceptions, no one is wholly one or the other in this story, which made it all the more gritty and plausible to me. All three main characters endure intense trauma and life-changing circumstances, and none fail to evolve in realistic ways. I found myself wondering how I would have handled the tragedies they lived through, whether I would have done any better than they. The truth is I don’t know the answer to those questions. More importantly, I don’t want to know. I hope I never find out.

Settings and scenes felt crisp and three-dimensional. I found Percy’s literary prose both beautiful and poignant, stark and chilling. He did tend to go on a bit longer than I would have preferred in his descriptions, but every reader’s tastes differ in this respect. In a few places, I skimmed the text to catch any foreshadowing, stopping only where it felt the relevant narrative picked up once more. Parts of the tale take us from one character’s head to another’s, even diving into the thoughts of bit players whose role consumes only a few pages before they are gone for good. Other parts pull back to reveal events unfolding far from our main characters, so that we know before they do what is coming. Scenes range from long, flowing passages to short, staccato bursts, almost like weapons fire; as events unravel and the characters’ world falls apart, scenes often ended in abrupt moments of tension, leaving the reader hanging in breathless anticipation for its resolution. In one way this format contributed to a more intricate weaving of plot threads, a writing tactic I generally like. However, I did find myself occasionally confused as to which character’s scene was which. This grew a little less frequent as the characters’ storylines began to converge.

While Red Moon is mostly character-driven, it is also a tale intended to provoke questions in the reader’s mind. As I mentioned above, issues prevalent in the narrative could easily have come from our own world. In the struggle between the lycans and the humans, as well as between the individual lycan and human enclaves themselves, I saw clear similarities to our own ongoing clash between individual rights and freedoms and the fearful desire to control and confine anyone who doesn’t match what we define as “normal.” Percy’s message isn’t even subtle when he illustrates the difference between those lycans who want life to go on in its usual peaceful way and those lycans who are willing to go to extremes to effect what they see as essential changes in politics and policies regarding their own kind. This is not one of those stories that ties everything up in a nice tidy bow at the end. Real life isn’t like that, and Percy didn’t try to depict it as such. The story’s conclusion is disturbing, unsettling, and absolutely believable, which only adds to the effect.

I must admit I didn’t know Red Moon was a werewolf story until the end of the first scene. Had I known beforehand, I might not have read it; with few exceptions—i.e. Stephen King, John Saul, a few select others—I don’t usually read horror. The only reason I picked it up was because some of Percy’s responses to questions in GlimmerTrain’s “Writers Ask” newsletter piqued my curiosity, especially where he responded to queries about the abundant research he did in preparation for writing Red Moon. “I have to read this book,” I thought. By the time I’d realized the plot revolved around lycans, I was hooked.

Make no mistake. There is a strong blood-and-guts horror element to this book, but what saved it for me was that the graphic violence was not gratuitous. It made perfect sense in the context of the tale, and if Percy had skipped those bits, it would not have worked nearly as well. Some stories can’t be told with sparkle and glitter, and this is one of them. The only gleam you’ll find in Red Moon is the reflection of moonlight on a sharpened blade, the muzzle flash of a Glock or an M4, and the liquid sheen of blood on the numerous bodies.

Because Percy wove his narrative in such a convincing way, I’m still not sure where my sympathies lie, with regard to some of the characters. I find I can see why most of them did the things they did, and I’m not sure I could make a convincing argument against them even when I didn’t like the outcome. And that—the fact that its moral quandary will linger in my head for a while after having finished it—is, for me, a sure mark of a good story.

Native Seeds

by Catherine Wells
Novella, 19,132 Words
Published in the November 2017 issue
of Analog Science Fiction and Fact
Edited by Trevor Quachri

After the Food Wars and a series of global storms and other cataclysms force the evacuation of Earth, two small bands of survivors remain behind. The Men on the Mountain depend on left-over tech, including ships that allow them to raid far-flung ruins for supplies and materials. The village of The People lives in harmony with The Mother Earth, using only those things She provides.

Each group believes the other perished decades ago. Each group struggles with the necessities of survival for their small band. When the two groups cross paths, the leaders of each have different ideas on how to pursue the best outcome for all.

Catherine Wells is not new to storytelling, but this is my first time reading her work. Her characters are strong and well-defined. Alfonso’s wisdom, Ruben’s courage, Chico’s resentment all ring true. I could put myself in any of their shoes and understand why they reacted the way they did, or at least see enough evidence of that sort of behavior in the world around me to know its portrayal is realistic. Artfully placed narrative clues about characters, backstory, and a few surprising twists all made for a richer reading experience.

The encounter between the surviving bands happens early, and Wells lingers over the ensuing relations between them in good storytelling style. The tale felt to me a microcosmic example of issues human societies face today. And if humanity continues in its current direction as far as development of tech with too little concern for the long-term effects on our ecosystem, the scenario she sets could certainly serve as a warning of what our own future might hold, if we don’t change our ways.

In all, I found Native Seeds to be a delightful tale.

The Faraway Nearby

By Rebecca Solnit
Penguin Books, © 2014
ISBN 978-0143125495, 272 pages

Like I said before, I don’t usually read memoirs. At least, I haven’t in the past. This is my second one this month, and I have to say I may be changing my mind. Though I have to say that this isn’t exactly a memoir. It is, but not really. When you read it, you’ll see what I mean.

From stories of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s to her own brush with cancer, the author weaves an intimate narrative about personal trauma and family relationships in such a way that we see the beauty amid the chaos, the poetry in the pain. Solnit’s ability to connect seemingly random and disparate elements amazed me, as did her insight. She seems to see right to the heart of things, touching the delicate pulse of truth beneath layers of superfluous camouflage with surprising power and sensitivity. More than once I would have sworn she was speaking directly to me; her words were that apropos to my own experience, that synchronistic to my own journey. Each time I felt her at my shoulder and had to put the book down for a while, so that I might fully absorb the impact of her words.

Throughout the book, Solnit demonstrates the importance in our lives of the stories we tell ourselves. With a true sense of artistry, she lays words like breadcrumbs that lead us toward understanding. Gently, she challenges us as readers to examine our own stories, to recognize their power to nurture love or fear, forgiveness or spite, empathy or anger, recovery or suffering. Her words coax us to believe that perhaps, if we are willing to see our stories for what they are and what they bring to our worlds, we can make new stories that bridge the extremes and lead to healing.

This is not an easy read. Its subject matter is far too thought-provoking. The Faraway Nearby is more a book to savor slowly, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, perhaps on a quiet balcony or in a comfortable nook. And when you’ve finished it and put it down, keep it handy. It reveals itself in layers as you go, and will likely offer different insights with each pass, so you’ll want to read it again and again.

Bumbling Into Body Hair

By Everett Maroon
First Ed. Booktrope, © 2012, ISBN 9781935961338, 250 pages
Second Ed. Smashwords, © 2016, ISBN 9781370241484

I don’t usually read memoirs, as a rule. I never thought they would interest me. I was wrong. Bumbling Into Body Hair is a story of the author’s transition from Jenifer to Everett, and all the emotional, social and psychological transitions that accompanied him along the way.

Told with remarkable humor and poignant honesty, Everett’s tale is sometimes raw, frequently hilarious, always moving. The thing that shines brightest on every page is his courage. Throughout the process, despite his self-doubt and the resistance from his partner and some of his best friends, Everett persists in doing what is right for himself – which sometimes required him to slow down. Be sure. Think this thing through. Seemed prudent to me, and to his therapist, who is a true gem in this story.

I read with anger, horror, and flat-out shock some of the reactions of people around Everett during his transition. One person on the street literally spit in his face. His bowling league manager asked him to use a special bathroom so as to not upset the other patrons of the alley. A cis-male passenger on the metro stood over him shouting, “Are you a man or a woman?” To each of these painful and awkward moments, Everett brought his own special brand of humor, like shouting back at the guy on the metro, “Are you an idiot? Or an asshole?” I think I actually cheered at that.

It seemed to me that his biggest fear was telling his co-workers, friends and family. How would they react? I won’t spoil it by telling you who said or did what, but I will say that not everyone handled the news well, and I can only imagine the betrayal Everett must have felt from people whose support he needed during an already difficult and confusing time. And yet, through faltering relationships and rude strangers and resurrected breasts, the rollercoaster ride of T creams, disastrous experiments with plastic wrap, and learning to use a “packy” (hint: don’t lay it on the radiator), he maintains his sense of humor and hope for a better life.

But Everett’s gender is only one thread in the larger tapestry of his story. At its heart, Bumbling Into Body Hair is a snapshot, a single episode in a much larger story. Because Life doesn’t hit the pause button while we figure these things out, the daily grind continued to throw the usual obstacles at him throughout his journey of discovery. Every reader, no matter their gender, can find some relatable element of Everett’s story, whether it’s his hectic work schedules, his financial struggles, his tendency to be accident-prone, his social adventures and romantic ups and downs. His first date with Susanne was especially endearing, given that we are riding on Everett’s shoulder and feel with him the awkwardness, his certainty that he will do something to screw it up.

My biggest takeaway from this memoir was that those things that matter most to us must be pursued. Despite opposition. Despite fear. Despite self-doubt. Each person’s journey is unique, and while others travel with us, alongside us, each of our journeys are undertaken essentially alone. Everett’s determination to bring his outside into agreement with his inside, no matter what, made me stand up and cheer.

The Traitor’s Kiss

(Traitor’s Trilogy, Book 1)
by Erin Beaty
Imprint, ©2017
ISBN 978-1-250-11794-6
Hardback, 352 pages

Sixteen-year-old Sage Fowler would rather live off the land than submit to a traditional arranged marriage, despite her uncle’s wishes. After she is apprenticed as an assistant—and part-time spy—to the head matchmaker, the two of them set out across Demora with a group of young women toward the king’s stronghold, where the young brides-to-be will be paired with appropriate husbands, and wed at mid-summer. Sage is just happy she’s not one of them.

Newly promoted Captain Alex Quinn must prove he’s worthy to lead by escorting the women on the months-long journey. Frustrated at what he considers a babysitting job, Quinn soon notices signs that all is not well in Demora. Barbarian squads filter across the borders, moving in strategic directions. Quinn knows something is very wrong, but with a whole caravan of women and the crown prince under his protection, his options are limited.

Sage finds the Captain cold, aloof. Quinn finds Sage rebellious, and far too curious in a suspicious way. As the secrets and lies pile up, neither knows who to trust. When assassins and traitors close the trap around them, they must make hard choices with the lives of others, and Demora will never be the same.

There’s a lot going on in this young adult fantasy. Within the layout of a strange land and a well-developed, intricate social structure lie all the familiar landmarks we might expect: landed lords and commoners, far-flung strongholds connected by dangerous roads where horse-and-wagon travel is the norm, arranged marriages that cement political alliances and secure dowries. Old-world traditions regarding the roles of men and woman rule here, which has drawn criticism from some readers.

But The Traitor’s Kiss also offers a strong female protagonist who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or show her strength in the face of opposition, no small goal for a YA novel. Sage’s intelligence and curiosity make her an oddball to her fellow female travelers and occasionally get her into trouble; but these characteristics also make her an asset to the main plot. No few number of young readers (of any/all genders) will relate to Sage’s difference, and surely find inspiration and hope in her good use of it. Quinn, too, offers a good role-model for young readers with his paladin-like qualities: honor, chivalrous leadership, devotion to duty, refusal to surrender to what seems inevitable.

With more than a few steamy romance and fast-paced battle scenes, it was sometimes easy to forget that Traitor’s Kiss is intended for younger readers. Still, the author balanced the intensity well, I think; there’s nothing in here I wouldn’t want my own teens to read. As for descriptive detail, Beaty spends more time in the characters’ heads, exploring their thoughts and personalities, than she does describing scenery or frippery or architecture. Personally, I find it easier to “see” a scene with a bit more detail, but that’s just me. Even so, it didn’t matter. I was quickly too wrapped in Sage’s and Quinn’s struggles to notice any lack.

I truly enjoyed this story. Even if you aren’t a young adult (I’m certainly not!), this is a good fantasy set in a believable world. Traitor’s Kiss is the first book in the Traitor’s Trilogy. The second book, The Traitor’s Ruin, is due to be released in May of 2018. The third book’s release is scheduled for one year after that, but I can easily see how Beaty could carry this tale on for years, far beyond the current Sage-Quinn drama. I sincerely hope she does. It would be fun to watch how Demora and its people grow, evolve, change. But even if the Traitor’s Trilogy is all we see of this land and these characters, I’ll be watching for more fiction from Erin Beaty.

The Stone Sky

By N. K. Jemisin
Orbit, ©2017
ISBN: 987-0316229241
Paperback, 464 pages

A change is coming. Whether for better or for worse, Essun cannot tell, but she has a plan to nudge astronomical events toward the side of humanity’s survival. She knows what it will mean for her, but no price is too great to pay. After a lifetime of anger and resentment and resistance, she has finally found a home among the ragged remnants of Castrima with people who care what happens to her.

Nassun also sesses the change. She, too, has a plan. But at the tender age of not-quite-eleven, Nassun has already learned that sometimes a broken thing cannot be fixed. Sometimes the best solution is to put an end to the suffering. She knows what it will mean for her, but after a lifetime of being used and mistreated and hated, Nassun believes wholeheartedly in a merciful resolution.

When mother and daughter come together on the other side of the world, the Change is imminent and the world hangs in the balance. The strange, white Moon looms overhead. Schaffa lays dying. Nassun has already set her plan in motion. And Essun must make the hardest decision of her life.

In this nail-biting conclusion to the Broken Earth Trilogy, Jemisin brings every thread from the complex Stillness narrative together in a seamless and breathtaking tapestry. From the ash-covered Rennanis high road to the deadly desert crossing, from the terrifying trip through the core of Father Earth to the clean, near-empty ruin of Corepoint, we travel alongside Essun, Nassun and Houwha as they hurtle toward convergence, the tipping point where the fate of all will be decided.

Scenes from the ancient past in Syl Anagist—where Life is sacred—lead inexorably to the breaking of the world, and the answers to all our questions. Not all at once, you understand; Jemisin metes them out in masterful storytelling style, a bit at a time, each piece full of promises that lead the reader further and further down the path to an exciting and not-quite-predictable end. By the time I reached the climax of the book, I could not put it down.

Stone Sky, and the entire Broken Earth trilogy, is a cautionary tale of the consequences of greed and self-absorption, of what happens when the advancement of the world rests solely on the repression of one group by another. The horror of the Seasons in the Stillness, and the shocking obscenities that occurred in Syl Anagist, remind us that building on the backs of others carries an inescapable price. Whether we pay it ourselves, or shunt it down the line to our ancestors, the scales will balance themselves. The only question is whether or not we are ready to accept responsibility, and do what is necessary to make things right.

Jemisin’s scenes are vivid, yes. But the thing I find most compelling about this trilogy—and this book in particular—is her visceral conveyance of emotion. When Hoa takes Essun’s offering, we feel her mixed emotions, her shift from revulsion to understanding, her sudden epiphany of where it will lead. When Nassun traverses the core of Father Earth, we share her terror and grief and loss, and the numbness that follows. When Essun faces Nassun at the climax of the book, we know what is in both their hearts, which makes the decision all the more painful for characters and readers alike. Stone Sky is a true vicarious escape into an adventure beyond anything I could ever experience here in my own world, and I am perhaps better for the journey.

Stone Sky is not a standalone tale. You must read the series from the beginning for it to make any sense. But believe me, that is not a hardship. The Broken Earth Series is an excellent tale, told in masterful style. I have no doubt that this newest book in the series will win its own Hugo, and probably others as well.