Thursday, 27 September 2012

VESSEL BY SARAH BETH DURST: A Review

Hello, Dear Readers! Welcome back. Lately I've read several really interesting books that I enjoyed a lot, so I decided to make an effort to actually review them instead of just giving them star ratings on Goodreads. Today's book is a fantastic high fantasy by a well-respected novelist whose work I've somehow never read before.

VESSEL by SARAH BETH DURST

The Synopsis:   

In a desert world of sandstorms and sand-wolves, a teen girl must defy the gods to save her tribe in this mystical, atmospheric tale from the author of Drink, Slay, Love.

Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. The goddess will inhabit Liyana’s body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But Liyana’s goddess never comes. Abandoned by her angry tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. For the desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.


Get a load of that! And perfectly representative, too!
The Review:

I shouldn't think it's a surprise that, having seen the cover and read the synopsis of this book, I was excited and intrigued. It's a non-European inspired setting and it deals with gods and faith and has what sounds like a strong heroine; all very much my bag. Plus, it all reminded me a little bit of one of my absolute favourite YA fantasies, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, which also has a desert setting and depicts the interference of god into human lives.

However, that level of interest also made me feel a tiny bit wary because it would be so easy for this book to let me down. I hesitated over buying the ebook for a few days, then finally bit the bullet and downloaded it to take with me on my journey last Friday.

I did not regret it. From the very first line this story caught me up and refused to let my attention go. Get a load of this:
On the day she was to die, Liyana walked out of her family's tent to see the dawn. She buried her toes in the sand, cold from the night, and she wrapped her father's goatskin cloak tight around her shoulders. She had only moments before everyone would wake.
Right?! Who could put the book down after THAT?

Sarah Beth Durst's world-building is a thing of wonder - beautifully subtle, with almost no noticeable exposition, but a sense of immersiveness that makes her setting just shine off the pages. The mention of glass dragons and sand wolves might make you think you were going to get something quite whimsical and surreal; in fact, that's not the case at all. The unnamed desert land within which almost all of the story takes place actually has a very gritty, real quality. 

Through the main character Liyana's intense, sensory experiences of life in her beloved desert, and through the stories that Liyana trades with and is told by others throughout the book, we get a rich sense of a living, breathing environment - of the beauty and terror of shifting sands, endless skies and isolated oases - and of a textured, evolving culture that is clearly influenced by many of the cultures of this world, but in a really interested and respectful way.

Speaking of Liyana? Well, I'd read a couple of reviews that stated Liyana was hard to empathise with or that she was - you know - that word. The one that ends in Mary and finishes with Sue? Grghgh. Fools! Fools! Liyana is precisely the kind of heroine that I love to read about, and which YA fantasy needs more of! She is a person, not a stereotype! She is flawed, yet awesome! I loved her!

The protagonist of the novel is truly strong, not just because she is a sensible, capable young woman with hard won survival skills and a badass knife made out of the scale of a glass dragon. Liyana has the kind of high moral bravery that motivates women here in the real world to achieve astonishing everyday feats and make humbling sacrifices in order to keep their families safe and fed. But in the midst of her sense of duty and purpose - and her quest, which is literally a matter of life and death for her people - Liyana is also always willing to listen, to learn, and to reassess the facts as needed. I loved her subtle, dry sense of humour and her unwillingly soft heart that causes her to care even for her enemies. 

After being abandoned by her family and her tribe, Liyana is torn by conflicting emotions. Soon everything that she knows about her Gods and her own purpose in life is turned upside down, and she's facing truly fearful dilemmas, choices that will affect not only her own life but the lives of everyone and everything she cares about. While her turmoil is sensitively portrayed, the book never strays into over-emotionalism (wish I knew how to get that balance right) and it was a real treat to read about a young woman who both felt things deeply and was also able to override her emotions and act ruthlessly when necessary.

Without spoiling too much (the synopsis there is carefully devoid of details) I will say that Vessel provided me with one of the few romantic storylines I've read lately which actually eluded labels or predictability. I don't think predictability is always a bad thing, by the way, but it was really intriguing to be faced with a situation in which I not only couldn't *guess* how things were going to end up, but also couldn't make up my mind how I *wanted* them to end up. I was surprised and delighted by the ending.

I was also really satisfied by the way that the plot developed. The book was well paced - no long stretches of boredom, or even any places where my attention wavered for a page or two. And it may have been a result of reading an ebook, which made it impossible to really judge just where I was in the story, but I loved the fact that just when I thought we'd gotten to the end and the quest was complete, it turned out that nothing was as simple as that, and everything Liyana (and I!) had assumed was going to unfold at that point... didn't. That's not an easy trick to pull off!

VESSEL is one of the most interesting and well-written YA high fantasies that I've read the ages. I recommend it to anyone who likes the books of Rae Carson, Tamora Pierce, or, in fact, me :)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

FROSTFIRE IN GERMANY

Hello and Happy Thursday!

I'm feeling a little tense today because tomorrow I'm off to Sheffield Highschool, where I'll be doing an event with about a hundred young ladies. For some reason school visits make me more nervous than any other kind of event, even the swishy posh ones where I'm supposed to act like a grown-up. My writing group think maybe it's because I get flashbacks to my own fairly horrific school-age experiences. I wonder if it's because these guys - young people - are my actual audience and the ones I'm dedicated to reaching and pleasing. In either case, I have the collywobbles. Wish me luck, Dear Readers!

In the meantime, I have some news to share - and you can probably guess what it is from the not-terribly-subtle post title. FrostFire has sold its first foreign right, to the German market. Which is exciting not only because, you know - my book in another language, a new interpretation of the cover art - but also because the German publisher is Carlsen Verlag.

That's... Carlsen Verlag, German publisher of Kristin Cashore, Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfield, Leigh Bardugo, Stephenie Meyer and a certain J.K. Rowling.

*Pause while Zolah muffles her squeeing in a pillow*

Ahem. And apparently they're intending to ramp up the focus on their selection of translated titles from Autumn 2013, and were looking for a special lead title to launch the new programme. Guess what that title is?

*More muffled squeeing*

So FrostFire gets to be the lead translated title from this amazing publisher in Autumn next year. I'm thrilled, and can't wait to see how the German version looks. Yay, Germany!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

BLOG HIATUS

Hello, my darling Dear Readers! I come to you today to announce (as the blog title suggests) that there will be a short blog hiatus starting next Tuesday and lasting for one week. I'll be back as normal the Tuesday after, the 18th of September.

Before anyone panics - everything is fine! Nothing catastrophic has happened. It's just that my parents are going on holiday next week, to a place that has its own a dialysis unit which will be looking after my dad while they're away. And that means I get a week off too (yay!). Since my The Night Itself edits came back to me this past weekend, this seems like a really opportune time to get as much work done, both on the edit and on book #2 of the trilogy as well. I actually meant to tell you guys about this on Tuesday but I forgot. My bad.

However, I might have some interesting news for you tomorrow. I literally can't tell you a thing about it at this stage because nothing has been confirmed and no details have been given. If I GET any details and am allowed to share, I'll do a post about it on Friday. If not, you'll know because there will be no post.

Goodness, that was cryptic. I'm like a ninja. A blinky, blonde NINJA.

In any case, have a great weekend everyone!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A QUESTION OF BROTHERS

Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday to all, and I hope you've had a lovely weekend, most especially those of you who are going back to school today, or will be in the next day or so. Hang in there, my peeps. I survived it: you can too.

Today I'm answering a question about The Swan Kingdom from a young writer who asks to be referred to by her FanFiction handle, The Imaginatrix. She says:
What made you decide to reduce the number of brothers involved to three? One of the things I loved about "The Wild Swans" was the number of brothers...
This is a really great question because it not only gives me the chance to offer you some information about my writing process, it also allows me to go back and dig into my own motivations, and quite often when I do that I discover stuff about the instinctive choices I've made that's very useful to me moving forward. *Airpunch*

So! The Imaginatrix is right. The number of siblings included in my version of 'The Wild Swans' is vastly reduced from either the eleven brothers you see in Hans Christian Andersen's tale or the seven that you sometimes see in other variations of it (for example, in the version where the brothers are ravens, rather than swans).


There were several factors included in this decision, although at the time it didn't really feel like a decision at all; it just felt like the only way things could or should be. It must have been one of the most basic things I 'knew' about The Swan Kingdom, before I even started work on it - that there would be four children in the doomed family rather than twelve or eight.

Why? Well firstly let's go back to 2004-2005 when I was planning and writing Wild Swans, as it was titled then. Harry Potter was at the zenith of its fame and success, so there was a real demand from publishers for exciting fiction aimed at 8-12 year olds, and as a result of the ever-expanding wordcount of JKR's books, those novels were starting to get a bit fatter even for regular, non-bestselling writers.

But I was writing YA, and at that point the category hadn't experienced any kind of similar boom. Twilight wasn't yet a sparkle in Smeyer's eye, and Suzanne Collins was still writing middle grade fiction herself. In fact, many publishers during this period saw YA novels from anyone other than established big names as problematic, a bit of a hard sell, and - having seen legendary YA author and personal icon Tamora Pierce dropped by UK Random House due to disappointing sales in GB - I was well aware of this. Debut YA novels didn't get any latitude in word count. They were generally expected to be somewhere in the region of 45,000 to 65,000 words long.

Now, a published author with a good relationship with their editor might be able to get around this a bit, but I was a complete newbie. I didn't have an agent and I didn't have any connections in the publishing industry. I knew that if I sent a query for a YA novel to any publisher, and mentioned a wordcount much over 65,000 words, I would just be asking to be rejected out of hand. So I was determined to bring the book in under that.

But at the same time, a huge part of my motivation in writing a re-telling of the fairytale was to thoroughly explore who these people really were. In fairytales you're told what people did and said, where they went, the great and terrible deeds they perform - but you're never told why. Why is the wicked stepmother so evil? Why is her husband the King so easily duped? Just who are these children, and how do they survive the suffering they go through in the story with their sanity intact? Where does the princess get her towering silent strength and determination to save her brothers? I wanted to take the fairytale stereotypes and turn them into PEOPLE. People with fully realised personalities and  complex motivations. If I couldn't do that then I didn't want to write the book at all.

You can immediately see the conflict here. In a book of 65,000 words or less how could I possibly fully characterise eleven brothers - as individuals - rather than a homogenous mass of Brother? How could I possibly make each of these young men a human with unique, memorable traits? Especially since the fairy tale has these boys losing their human form practically at the beginning? There was no way! I couldn't do it now, with four published books under my belt, and I certainly couldn't do it then. So the number had to be reduced in some way.

Now, throughout all the years of my childhood I had this poster on my bedroom wall:


It's a piece of art called The Children of Lir and it's inspired by a Celtic Myth of the same name - a story in which a wicked stepmother transforms the children of her husband (the god Lugh) into swans and dooms them to spend hundreds of years living on each of Ireland's great lakes. It's a ridiculously beautiful painting, as you can see, and it's also a very vivid, striking image - of three brothers and one sister.

During the early planning stages of writing The Swan Kingdom, when I was still working out the setting and how the world and its magic would work, I saw a documentary on the BBC about pre-historic, pre-Roman civilisations in the UK, and I found it fascinating. Not much is known about the indigenous British people who created Stonehenge and Avebury and all the other great Paleolithic monuments of Great Britain, or why their beliefs caused them to sink such massive amounts of time and effort into building these temples of stone, into recreating the natural landscape in such a way. And when we don't know much? We can *invent*.

Something clicked in my head. The Celtic myth of The Children of Lir, the pre-historic people of Britain and their possessive reverence for their land which caused them to attempt to reshape it permanently, lost Celtic and ancient British beliefs, cave paintings that showed man and animal spirits melting together, traditions of oral storytelling passed down through the matriarchal line... all these things seemed to fit perfectly into the story I wanted to tell. And that made it feel natural and right to use the family structure from that Celtic myth, the structure of one sister and three brothers.

Chosing to give my heroine Alexandra three brothers - David, Hugh and Robin - whom she knew as well as knew herself, whom she relied on and was incredibly close to, was, in my opinion, one of the best decisions that I made in writing the story. It meant that each of them got to be a distinct person, special to Alexandra - and special to me! - in their own way.

Reliable, quiet, intelligent David, quicksilver, charming, funny Hugh, studious, sweet, kind Robin... they're the big brothers I wish were mine (I don't have an older brother - just a younger one, who isn't anything like any of the boys in the story). And hopefully when Alex loses them in The Swan Kingdom the reader is able to fully understand her anguish and her desperation to get them back - not as a Fairytale Princess With A Quest but as a sister who has lost all the family she loved and can never mend her broken heart until she is reunited with the brothers she adores.

I hope that answers your question Imaginatrix! If anyone else has any questions about my books, or writing, or anything else for that matter, just pop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them here in future posts. See you on Thursday, Dear Readers!
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