What I’ve Read: The Court of Broken Knives

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Brief Summary:

A company of mercenaries travel through a desert to a prosperous city to assassinate an Emperor. Among the mercs is a new recruit that shows his worth by killing a dragon, but boy oh boy, this kid has some baggage. The plan goes awry when the scheming lords out think themselves with twists galore. Elsewhere in the city, a High Priestess to a God that demands blood sacrifices grows weary from her chosen lot in life. During the attack on the Emperor, she escapes with the dragon-slaying boy and his surviving merc buddies. They set out toward his old home. Oh, not to mention, there is a metric sh*t-ton of killing in this book, blood galore.

My Thoughts:

Normally I do a breakdown of what works and what doesn’t but this story seriously doesn’t work for this process. There is so many things that just should flat out be wrong about this book, but, damn, it really does work. So the mold doesn’t work. Doesn’t work. The mold just doesn’t work…

I’ll be frank, the story itself isn’t that particularly groundbreaking, as it hits a ton of typical notes fantasy readers love. But that isn’t what makes this book special in my eyes. It’s the beauty in which the story is told.

Ok, so those last three lines of the first paragraph are a poor facsimile of the biggest thing that is “different” about this book. Most fantasy books, especially grimdark, (of which this book could be categorized) are written in a particular style – world-building, info dumps, and straightforward prose, along with some fascinating characters and magic systems. Not this book. TCoBK is written like a literary poem seen popular in the Transcendental Movement of the way-back-when. Sentences in Ms. Smith Spark’s book are not following grammar rules, rarely do sentences have both noun and verb, there are single sentences of emotions, and lots & lots of repetition.

It is really difficult to read at first because we are not accustomed to seeing that style within a SFF story (and most of us are not Lit Majors). But once you get into the story, (about 100 pages for me) the difficulty fades away and you start to appreciate how the beauty of the words magnify the events of the novel.

Here’s an example:

Marith sat and looked at his plate and felt their eyes on him. Pity. Mockery. Disgust.

Memories came to him. Sunshine on high moorland. Gray rocks tumbling into a gray sea. Beech mast crunching beneath his horse’s hooves, the light green and gold through the first new spring leaves. Men kneeling before him, women eyeing him with longing, a whole world at his feet. Gilded and pampered and lording it over everyone. Ruined and screaming and crawling blind in the dark.

Oh yes, he thought, I know what I am and what I’ve given up. Sometimes I even wonder why.

If that doesn’t paint you a scene within a character’s introspection, then nothing will. Trust me, this isn’t an easy read in terms of the word magic Ms. Smith Spark brandishes expertly, but when you get to the end, you realize it was a beautiful journey you just undertook.

One thing that I thought was super wonky and shouldn’t work is the use of Point of View in this book. There are four main characters – an old Gran Torino merc, a young “nobody” with strange behaviors, a High Priestess who drew the wrong lot in life, and the noble (rebel) with a cause that went awry. These characters are fun, they serve a purpose to the story (though see far below for my one major detractor of this story), but that’s not the issue. The issue lies in how the rest of the story unfolds using POV in general.

First, and I really don’t understand why Ms. Smith Spark would go this route, but the High Priestess character has chapters written in both close 3rd and 1st person POV. And it’s the 1st person that boggles my mind. Typically I dislike 1st person, but in this story it is just weird because the High Priestess is already a 3rd person character, yet when these 1st person interludes (for lack of better word) happen, they are almost like someone reading a diary of the High Priestess’ life. She goes on to explain the history of how she became the HP, what her duties are, what her emotions are to certain scenes unfolding. It makes no damned sense and I SHOULD hate it… But I didn’t. It was so odd, but I actually enjoyed these interludes, they added so much to the story that I applaud their use.

Additionally, there were other interludes that shouldn’t work either. We have short chapters about this God, this world-conquering God. These chapters are told from an omniscient POV. Hell, the first chapter is all about this God. We never really see this God, but we get to see the insanity and death that accompanies him. And then he goes away after the first half of the book, before you realize how this God plays into one of the character’s story at the very end. So strange to think this can work. And the other oddity is the use of the same character’s flashbacks to his childhood with his BFF/lover. The characters are never named (only using hair color to differentiate) but you know who they are. And the final chapter is a moment in time that nearly threatens to contradict all that happened before it.

None of this should work, but it all does. Such brave decisions made in isolation would never work, but they meld together into something great.

I would like to add the best thing about these four character POVs is that Ms. Smith Spark does an excellent job of making their voices distinct. The merc thinks and talks like a merc. His perception of events is ground in things he knows – blood, guts, swears, and coin. The young buck character has a background that would constitute him having a completely different voice, and he does. The High Priestess spent her entire life within the Temple, so she has this awe and bewilderment to her voice. And the noble is almost jaded with his life, so his thinking reflects that. What really works with these voices is that the chapters are written so differently from one another. The poetic prose mimics these characters’ voices. It’s perfectly done.

And the magic system – if you would call it that – isn’t really all that detailed. You really have no idea what the heck is going on, but since the prose is so beautiful, you suspend belief and it works. You could care less that it makes no sense, you just love seeing it happen.

My only real gripe with the story is the noble character. Sure, I get it, his plan to assassinate this Emperor (which fails obviously) is what brings all the characters together in this story, but after the first 3rd of the book where he is this big-time player, he basically disappears for the vast majority of the book. Yeah he has chapters here and there, but they really don’t do anything to serve the plot (hopefully more comes from him in the next two books). And I hate to think like this, but I almost felt his chapters were only meant to serve diversity (he has a male/male relationship). I’m all for diversity in my SFF, but this just felt added when it really didn’t need to be there (the one main character also had a male/male relationship), all the noble did was shuffle papers, eat food, and have sexual relations with his man. I kept waiting for some dramatic twist to come with his character, but it never did (aside from the most weakest attempt on his life ever), so it was a letdown (again, hoping more from him in book 2). But I still didn’t dislike his character at all, it was just like a simmer on the stove waiting for him to become a bigger role in the story.

Rating:

5 out of 5.

The Court of Broken Knives isn’t perfect by any means, but I’d be hard pressed to say that I didn’t love this story. I can’t wait to dive back into this world Ms. Smith Spark created. It’s not a book everyone will enjoy, but if you like the art of storytelling, then you need to give this book a read.

What I’ve Read: LifeL1k3

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Brief Summary:

In a post-apocalyptic version of the US, robots of varying AI are commonplace. Eve (our heroine) lives with her grandpa who is dying of the Big C, bestest friend Lemon Fresh with a sassy attitude, tiny robot Cricket who has a Napoleon Complex, and mechanical explodey dog Kaiser in the wastelands that used to be California, but is now an island of Mad Max gangs. After losing a gladiator bot execution, Eve’s world flips upside down when some magic higglety-pigglety occurs and then a beautifully perfect android appears out of the sky, only to tell her she is in trouble. Warring corporations, religious cyborg bounty hunters, crazy car chases in storms of glass, and angelic androids holed up in an ivory tower of radiation ensue with twists and turns along the way for good measure.

What works:

By now, if you follow my blog, you know I love Jay Kristoff’s books. The dude seriously knows how to write. His characteristic wit, goofiness, fun just oozes from this book. He still uses his lyric style to great ability here and even though this is a true YA story (as opposed to the stabby bitch of a daughter in Nevernight – his words) it still feels like a Kristoff book. The pace is super quick, and even though there are the world terms to learn, it is never expositiony or info-dumpy, it all feels natural, and once you learn them, you barely remember why you didn’t know them before.

And then in true Kristoff fashion, there are twists galore. No spoilers, but most were easy to see coming (YA level here), but the ending was a twist I saw coming, then BOOM, another twist I didn’t expect. The ending left on such a cliffhanger, but it still felt as if this book reached a satisfying conclusion. Yes, I know there is another book coming out next Spring, but even if it didn’t, I could be satisfied with the ending (though, let’s be honest, this story HAS to continue).

That said, I really enjoy the group of characters in Eve’s circle. Cricket and Lemon Fresh are really fun and I think they not only provide the comic relief, but also exhibit the true friend relationship that many books fail to show. While Lemon is this perky little street orphan who sasses the crap out of everyone around her, she does have this softer underbelly and loves Eve because she was the only one to see her as a person. And Cricket, even though he is programmed to love/protect Eve, he does challenge the Laws within the world. That and his constant quips about his shiny man parts reminds me so much of Bender from Futurama.

Eve is a wonderfully flawed main character. As the story goes on and she learns more about who she is, her confusion and coming to grips with those revelations are very realistic. Her emotions flare to either side all the time and I think that is something real people would do when they learn what she learns. Her relationship to the other characters is also something that works really well. Sure she has the YA love interest (see below…) but one thing you don’t see a ton these days in SFF stories is flat out friendship. I think that is missing in most SFF books because the focus tends to be on heroes saving the day on these massively detailed quests and journeys, and that usually entails the hero/heroine doing things alone, or when with a team, it is usually about the plot. Not in LifeL1k3. Kristoff makes this story about the characters and with Lemon, Cricket, Kaiser, and Eve, their friendship is just as important as the plot. And I like that.

The world itself is really fun. Dystopias are still chugging along but this world feels both unique and relevant to what we are dealing with today in the US. But what I really like about this world is that there are massive shout-outs to other artists without making them overt. I already said there is a Mad Max feel in the area Eve lives. Gangs on bikes wielding anything from baseball bats to flamethrowers. But then there is the city called Armada, made up of landlocked ships of all shapes, which obviously brings to mind China Mieville’s The Scar (not to mention the Kraken). Then toss in the AI androids of the Bladerunner series. This amalgamation of cool and differing stories really blend nicely in Kristoff’s world.

What doesn’t work:

So here is me harping on 1st person again…Here me out, though. In this story, we get 1st person flashbacks of an event integral to the plot. I don’t mind these, in fact, I really liked them. They fleshed out the story in important ways while also building that inherent conflict. However, there was a part in the middle where instead of brief flashbacks that were half a page at most, it went into a detailed backstory that lasted many pages. In that section, I was not a fan. Yeah it was important to the overall story, but to me, it was excessive.

I get it, this is YA and all, but I really didn’t care for the instant love story here. It connects to the flashback, but, yeah, not a fan. I really didn’t like the Lifelike’s “all I do, I do for you” mantra. I get it, he’s a robot and all that, but even when all the shit hits the fan, it felt contrived, too easy. I wish there was a bit more drag, more slowly developed. But eh, that’s just me.

Rating:

4 out of 5

I really liked this book, I love all of Kristoff’s books, his style just speaks to me. This is a really cool introduction into an intriguing world and I’m interested to see where he goes with it based on the ending.

What I’ve Read: Kings of the Wyld

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Brief Summary:

Retirement is not for the most famous mercenary band, though each member thought so. When a call for mercenaries to fight off a giant horde of monsters across a dangerous forest, one of the band’s kid goes off to glory only to be completely surrounded and left for dead. So the frontman – like a rock band of the 70s – decides to get the band back together again, even though they are twenty years older, fatter, and drunker to save his daughter from certain death.

What Works:

This book is one of the funniest, if not the top spot, fantasy books I have ever read. There are other books that have hilarious banter, cooky scenes, or dark humor, but none compare to this book. Seriously, the writing in this book, and the characterization of the POV Clay Cooper, is downright funny. The witticism is genius, every wry joke hits, the “good-ole day” memories are superb, and using 4 aged characters getting older is spot on fun. I have never laughed out loud so many times in a single book, and I had a dumb grin on my face multiple times.

But the reason why it all hits is that Clay Cooper is just hilarious at describing the scene unfurl around him.

Here is an example:

Clay spotted Moog retreating from a trio of yellow-eyed orcs. He almost headed over to help, but the wizard pulled a weapon from his bag that looked like a blue staff and a white staff had been locked together in a closet with the lights off. Clay recognized the Twining Staff immediately as one of the few magic items Moog had crafted himself and could have pitied the orcs for what was about to happen. The wizard gripped the staff with both hands, shouted a string of esoteric gibberish, and then held on for dear life as the Twining Staff began beating the living shit out of the three unfortunate orcs.

The whole concept of mercenary bands being like rock stars was awesome. But making the main characters ageing rock stars was even smarter by Mr. Eames. It would be like every story we hear about The Rolling Stones or ACDC going on the road while in their 60s, a talk of when they were younger and the epic stories they lived through. It’s exactly like that in this book. Clay and his band were renown so half of the time, whatever hell they end up in, they are let off because they are famous. Like Clay gets robbed twice by the same bandits, but they let him keep his famous shield because he IS Clay Cooper and that wouldn’t be right.

I really love the Spinal Tap reference of their bards always dying. There is a scene late in the book where they are reminiscing about all their bards, man was it great!

Another thing I enjoyed was that Mr. Eames numerously didn’t show the outcome of a scene even when there was a big build up to it. I actually really enjoyed this tactic because it isn’t about the actual action, but the path taken to get there. For example, the band stops at this famous tavern called the Riot House (Almost Famous anyone???) and there is this big confrontation. As soon as the confrontation starts, Mr. Eames’ scene breaks and then proceeds to tell what happened by the “bards who witnessed the true reason why the Riot House burned to the ground.” I loved it! It was absolutely on par with what this story is – a documentary on this famous band where stories about them are part true, part made up.

I was worried at the beginning that having every conceivable fantasy, mythology, made-up monster under the kitchen sink appear in this story, but it worked quite well in the end. It made each fight with these creatures unique and presented different challenges for the band. I especially liked the fight with the chimera in the arena and the dragon in the climax.

The rock star characters are obviously the best part of this story, but I really did enjoy some of the other mercenaries throughout the story. I liked at the very end in the final battle how these mercs got their place to shine, especially when Clay thinks some are dead (he sees them) and then they show up much to his surprise.

What Doesn’t Work:

I can see where some of the actual exposition could get ponderous for some readers. Nearly every chapter has a moment where a history lesson comes in. Majority of the time these flashbacks/historical event works just fine, but there were a few that went on a bit long or were not in the best spot in the story.

This didn’t bother me at all, but I can also say this might turn of some readers, but a lot of the story felt episodic. Meaning, there were clear starts and finishes of plot points before moving onto the next one and only bound together by the thin plot of going to save the frontman’s daughter. Like I said, this didn’t bother me because what makes up for some of this is just the characters themselves. Because they are funny and some of the hijinks that ensues because of their age, these episodes don’t drag the story down.

Rating:

5 out of 5. Definitely one of the top 3 best books (not to mention debuts) I’ve read in a long time.

Writing Thoughts: Doing What’s Best

Doing what’s best for the story is a refrain I had heard multiple times over the years, whether it was from Agents/Authors on conference panels, other blogs from Authors I follow, or from Twitter threads.

It seems like a simple thing, shouldn’t it?

But in reality, we, as authors, get stuck in our made-up reality that is our story.  And then we get blinded by our world, our characters, & our process, and we really have to step back from it. Examine it anew. Especially newer authors, or ones (like me) who have been working on a story/world for many years, it gets harder for us to look at the story with fresh eyes and see where we need to fix things.

Critique partners/beta readers are excellent sources for this to happen. With unbiased critique, they let us know what needs shoring up, and what can be ultimately cut.

And this is where we have to truly put on our author hats and take that broadsword and slash the ever-living shit out of our baby.

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Now, in my own journey, I had to make a decision that would alter the very fabric of the story I set out to tell. But after multiple years of failing to find that illusive unicorn that is known as a literary agent, I realized that I had to do what was best for the story…

Last time I spoke about the change in scenery to my series The Mistlands Tragedies. But prior to the final change, there was another major decision made and that was to focus my story on a different character than originally intended.

Let me get some back story out there. The original draft of my first book was strictly an Epic Fantasy with multiple points of view (POVs). I love ensemble casts and wanted to tell a story that had a big cast of characters. By the time I got the first book to a draft that was readable, I had 5 major POVs and 3 minor. I wrote the other two books of what was once a trilogy with this story. All said and done, I had 7 major and 10 minor character voices (Hells, over the course of these 3 books, I had 125+ named characters that had dialogue and parts to play in the narrative). But from the get of book one, my main character, Brynn, was the focused plot driver, and her story arc was the catalyst for nearly all the other characters. Meaning, almost every single character was introduced to expand her story. Except one.

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Well, that’s exactly the point, this industry is so subjective and there are “rules” that new authors need to follow to even get a sniff at getting traditionally published (which is the route I want to pursue). One of those unwritten rules is word count. My first draft of this book was 140k words, you know, 40k more than the unwritten rule for new authors…So whatever. If you’re GRRM or Sanderson, you get to write 500k and no one bats an eye. I hate this rule.

But honestly, even with 140k words, not every character was given enough room to grow and allow readers to get to know them. Minor characters it’s not as important, but the major POVs need to have a connection with the readers (good or bad depending on the character, aka my proper bastard villain that all my betas/CPs seem to love). Over the course of a series, you can have that growth, but in the first book of a series, it is difficult to have so many characters and give them the life they need.

And here is where that issue of doing what’s best comes into play. I needed to refocus this story if I want it to see the light of day on a book shelf. It was also a defining moment in my growth as a writer.

The character of Ashe did not directly affect Brynn’s story in the first book. Actually (and quite stupidly on my naive part) Ashe didn’t even interact with Brynn or the other POVs until midway through the second book. Her arc was completely separate from the rest of the story. While Brynn and the other main characters were all tied together on this quest story, Ashe was having her own plot. And it isn’t until book 2 that she meets the rest of the cast, but then even that was a small section because not long after, something happens to her and she goes off on her own, completely separated from the rest of the cast (I’m not counting other majors I introduced from other parts of the world because they haven’t met Brynn yet either).

On top of the Ashe conundrum, I faced the same exact problem most SFF writers face – world building. This damn series has such a complex world, religion, magic system. Everything is just dense. And trying to build a cohesive world in 140k words tends to have a ton of exposition within. Nobody wants that, let alone an agent/publisher. So that needed to also change.

Doing what’s best for the story (see recurring theme!!!), I made the difficult (and slightly frightening) decision to completely pull Ashe’s entire arc from Brynn’s story. I could have done the easy thing and just left it on the cutting room floor, but I loved this character as much as Brynn. I didn’t want this lowborn sasspot street thief with the power to summon the dead to go into the deep unforgotten realm of computer files. A decision had to be made.

Make Ashe her own story and write Brynn’s story as is!

Well, again, it’s not that simple. Ashe’s entire arc was built upon this world I had crafted. Creating a new world, while still fitting her in, was difficult (ask my CP Claire, she knows…). So I did the next best, and smartest, thing I could think of, Ashe became the first book in the now 5 book series.

As much as I love Brynn’s story, I had always struggled with creating that opening, that inciting incident that would draw readers in. Like how much to show, where to start, etc. Then throw the world building on top of that. It became a bogged down mess.

That is why having Ashe as a story on her own worked so well. I was able build the world slowly. I didn’t have to introduce all these complex concepts because not all of them pertained to Ashe’s arc. And Ashe’s arc from start to end works brilliantly as a standalone story. Yes, I had to craft other scenes to fill in sections. Yes, I did some major scenery changes. Yes, I made some changes to Ashe’s personality (next blog post!). Yes, I had to come up with a completely new climax. But that was not as difficult as starting from scratch if I had to plop Ashe into a new world.

The best part is that Ashe’s story has been read by my CPs and they all agreed it was the best decision for the series as a whole. She is a good lead in character to the concepts I want to invoke. And they love her quirky, fun attitude with that devilish badass just waiting to come out at a moment’s notice. And now I’m able to introduce Brynn properly in book 2 and give the readers the opposing characters/concepts without inundating them all at once. And then once I get to the later books and the ideas that I already have written, the emotional connection will already be there. (Oh, and I decided to cut down those 7 majors to only 3 and combine some characters together)

In the end, I did what was the best for my series. I think it’s something that I never would have dreamed about when I first set out with this story. It took years to realize this, but this time doing the queries/pitch sessions/pitch parties/what-have-yous, I feel insanely confident that my story is ready for that next step!

Writing Thoughts: A change of scenery

I want to start off by showing this really cool aesthetic one of my excellent critique partners created for me.

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She did a damn sight better job than I ever could have done. Granted, I’m not big on these types of things because I don’t need a visual to see my world, but the fact that she put this effort in, only goes to show that having a CP (having three excellent ones is even better!) is critical to success.

Now, you’re probably asking why I bring up critique partners when this post is about setting. It was strategic, I tell you! You see, when I first started writing this would be fantasy series, I started with a fairly vanilla traditional medieval fantasy world. In my head, the world was secondary to the story (at least in the first draft of the first book at the time). It was all about the characters and the plot for me. And I think that is the way it might normally go for many first-time writers. You need to focus on getting that story on paper, then you can go back and add more flavor to it. Spice it up.

Near twelve years on since that first draft started, I’ve made so many different changes to not only this story as a whole, but the world as well.

As I said, it was set in a world that the greater majority of worlds are based on. Very Western ideals of building shape, style, and architecture. That still works for some stories, and when I was writing the first draft of the series (trilogy at the time), it worked for the story I was trying to tell.

But the Gods’ honest truth, it was boring as Hell.

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There was nothing in that world that made it interesting. I tried my hand at the query trenches, digging away for a couple of years with no success. And then I did an online course with an agent/editor and he confirmed the exact same thing about my world. There was nothing about it that was cool or different from the thousands of fantasy books out there in the market. It was a cookie-cutter book.

It was around that time though that my interests in becoming a better writer grew, but also my taste of sub-genre grew as well. I started reading more grimdark, more steampunk, more New Weird fantasies and many of those stories have worlds that aren’t the standard run of the mill.

And that got me thinking on how to change my world up some.

At first, I decided I wanted my world to have steampunk elements. Completely altering the setting is a huge undertaking, it’s like bulldozing a skyscraper and building a brand new one with the same structure, just painting the metal/glass a different color. It is so time consuming to alter a setting from no/low tech, to one with much more technology. And I like to start each draft from scratch and only take phrases/sentences/paragraphs/ideas that I like from the previous draft and put them in the new one with all new writing.

More failed queries later (even though the writing became much neater and sleeker), I was still at a crossroads with this story. It still felt incomplete. It was missing something to give it that oomph.

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I used to be a gamer. I used to spend hours when I was in my 20s playing videogames (mainly PS) and the Final Fantasy series are some of my all time favorites. Final Fantasy IX of all 23432535 of them is my favorite. It has such a spot in my heart. But one really cool aspect of that game is the mist covering one of the continents. The mist powers their airships, their lights, what-have-you.

So I stole that idea. I added mist to my world instead of steam power. But that’s just lame to rip off something like that. Right? Right.

That meant I had to twist that concept somehow. I needed to tie the mist existence to the story. And that is where I came up with the idea to have the mist be a byproduct of a God’s failure. And the mist is also poisonous to all humans. Yet, it also has magical properties, so people can use the mist to make magic spells, weapon enhancements, physical enhancements.

Now that is a cool (at least in my mind, and a few agents I’ve pitched to) concept for a setting.

But back to the aesthetic at the top of this blog, even with this cool world and mist-tech, I was still lacking that extra sauce to push it over the edge.

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This world lacked a distinct difference from the traditional thought of steampunk = Victorian Goth. Don’t get me wrong, I love that aesthetic but I want to stand out. I want my world to have a different feeling, yet still evoke something we’ve seen and understand.

This (and not to prove my father wrong that my Classics & Anthropology degrees aren’t useless or anything…) is why I chose to have the setting be inspired by Roman Antiquity.

And Oh Gods, this made my story pop like I couldn’t even imagine!

A mash-up of Rome and steampunk (mistpunk) is so unlike anything I’ve read before. But it also really played into the story I wanted to tell (after some major story-shifting, of which, I’ll do another post about in the very near future) because the ancient mysteries/cults that actually existed in Roman times run directly into where I was heading with the mist. Cults of alchemy, Gods, and blood magic. Man, there is so much to toy with. It just made the right decision even easier.

Some of the things I added into this world are your basic columns, domes, aqueducts, you name it, but the biggest thing that helped shape this weird Roman mistpunk story is the addition of Latin terms, titles, and slang. I bet most people have no idea that Ancient Romans were dirty AF. They talked about sex constantly, and they had such a vernacular that would make censorship in this day and age pale in comparison.

By having these types of additions, the story no longer feels bland or meh, it feels like a world that is unique and different. I mean, it’s not everyday you picture centurion guards wielding gladius swords and firing wheellock pistols aboard airships (and if you have, tell me of this literature Valhalla).

But to sum it all up, why did this all come about? Because of working with that agent/editor and critique partners. They opened my eyes to a world that just existed and had no bearing on the story. It was just there. Now, after earthrending changes, the world is a character of it’s own! We get bogged down in our own stories that having other sets of eyes on it really enhances this odd journey of writing. Perspectives are the key to success, especially when they are different than your own. You grow, your story grows, and in the end, that is the basis of why we do this in the first place.

And it all starts with immersing yourself within a world that has a story that demands to be told.

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What I’ve Read: Endsinger

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Endsinger by Jay Kristoff, book 3 of The Lotus War Trilogy

Brief Summary:

With betrayal on all sides, Yukiko, Buruu, and the rest of the fading group of rebels are holed up in the Fox Clan’s city, and worse things are about to force the world into one giant fight for mankind. As the rebels try to destroy the Lotus Guild’s Earthcrusher behemoth, the remaining forces of the shattered Shogun are bearing down on Yukiko’s group. As Kin reintegrates himself into the Guild, he uncovers more secretive backstory of the First Bloom and the Inquisitors. Hana and Yoshi come face-to-face with their demons, aka their gaijin past. And to top it all off, the Endsinger, creator of all life and death is trying to tear a hole in the world and release her “children.”

What Works:

I want to start off by saying I love Mr. Kristoff’s writing. I read Nevernight prior to The Lotus War and I instantly fell in love with Mia and Mr. Kristoff’s particular style. I thought Yukiko and Buruu’s relationship growth over the first book was excellent as a debut author, and there was an underlying joyousness in that book that bespoke of an author coming into his voice. Now in book two, I could still see that growth Mr. Kristoff was working toward, but it wasn’t until book 3 where you could sense he truly found his writing voice.

I understand that not everyone is a fan of more visceral writing/sentence structure.

For example, take this passage: The ascent was torturous, fumbling in the dark, fingers scrabbling against the pipeline’s greasy innards.

I freaking love this, but how we are trained in school, this is not remotely grammatically correct. It just feels choppy and wrong to our trained minds, and most authors tend to not veer away from the standard sentence structure. That is one thing I love about Mr. Kristoff’s style, he goes as far away from it as you can think of. You saw the early stages of it in book 1, the teenage years in book 2, but in book 3, the visceral style was fully matured.

And I loved every second of it (again, not everyone might agree).

As much as I didn’t enjoy it in book 2 as much, the fact that book 3 is an ensemble story really helped make this book great. There is so much going on in this book that it would be impossible to only have a handful of POVs. Aside from Yukiko remaining fun, I want to single out two POVs that really stood out:

– Hana became a truly awesome character. I like how she became a Stormdancer like Yukiko, but her arc wasn’t the same. She had her moments where she was still the flawed gutter child of mixed heritage and I thought that was excellent behavior/mannerism within the overall plot. Her interaction with Akihito from book 2 grew in this book and I was happy to see them come together. And with how that all went down, bravo Mr. Kristoff, bravo. Didn’t see that coming! But I also truly enjoyed her relationship with Kaiah, though due to constraints of plot, it didn’t get as much time to grow like Yukiko/Buruu, but I’m not disappointed at all.

– Kin, without spoilers, was hands down my favorite character in this entire series. The route he took in book 2 and the way in which it all played out in book 3 was great! It didn’t take long for things to become clear, but everything in his arc was cool and twisty. I loved how his interaction with his “What Will Be” dream and the Guild was fun to watch unfold.

One thing Mr. Kristoff knows how to do very well is to make a giant battle all seem helter-skelter as well as beating with emotional heart. The battle between the rebels, thunder tigers, Guild, gaijin, and other stray characters was close to 150 pages long. Yet, it didn’t feel that long because of all that was going on at the same time. There were four different subplots happening at this time: 1. war in the sky. 2. battle on the Earthcrusher. 3. Hana and the gaijin. 4. attack on the First Bloom (Guild HQ). Each one of these things are crucial to the overall success of the book, but none are short-changed at all. Just excellent weaving back and forth, keeping everything flowing and tense.

As much as I really didn’t like the whole Yukiko/Hiro love subplot thing from the first book to this one, the way in which it all came to a head was well-crafted and satisfying as a reader.

So the ending, whew, grab the Kleenexes and prepare for all the feels. Even after all the deaths along the way (of which there were a toooooon, and well written too, very emotional!) there was still one giant hurdle left for the survivors, and Yukiko in particular. Now without spoiling how it goes, the previous Stormdancer and his thunder tiger went into legend by sealing the fate of their world with their blood. And Yukiko and Buruu know that only a Stormdancer’s sacrifice will make the plan work. Honestly, I’m pretty good at picking up on plot threads and if I wasn’t, I never would have seen this coming, that is how subtle Mr. Kristoff was in setting up this conclusion (it’s definitely built in, you can see it if you try hard enough to find it). But the manner in which the finale played out was not something I expected, it came from a completely different point. That’s great writing there!

One last thing I love about Mr. Kristoff’s style is that he knows how to leave scenes on a cliffhanger. There is a chapter toward the end of the major battle between all the factions (not the end battle though) where there are multiple POVs going through an emotional moment. And then, just when the characters are about to hit that crescendo, Mr. Kristoff ends that scene and moves onto another one. Now to do it once every chapter, I see that all the time, but this was at least three characters with very heightened emotional factors being dragged up the mountain top here, and when they are about to fall, BAM, next scene and we are left hanging to see if they survive or not (and because of all the death, you never truly know in this book). But what truly makes this part of the book great is that each cliffhanger ends with the exact same word: Squeeze. So much connotation in one single word. Just excellent stuff!

What doesn’t Work:

There really wasn’t a whole lot that I didn’t like about this story’s conclusion. Although, even though he turned out OK in the end, I still wasn’t a huge fan of Yoshi’s character. He was kinda funny though, but most of his scenes were just there.

Honestly, I really didn’t need the gaijin POV Aleksandar. I get that he was brought on to give a different perspective, but in the end, he really didn’t add anything we couldn’t have had with Hana or Piotr.

Rating:

5 out of 5

What I’ve Read: Kinslayer

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Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff, The Lotus War Book Two

Brief Summary:

Picking up from the epic showdown with the Shogun, Yukiko, along with her mind-melded thunder tiger buddy Buruu, is now seen as the poster child for open rebellion within the Shima Imperium. But Yukiko is still fuming about the death of some loved ones and her power of being able to enter the minds of animals is growing so bad that she falls to liquor to numb the onslaught. Told that there might be some ancient knowledge far to the north, she sets off to learn to control this power. Meanwhile, the rebellion is planning to infiltrate the heart of the empire as some characters thought killed in the first book have resurfaced, and a new link to the throne arises. But Yukiko’s actions have spurred other would-be insurgents into action. More twists and turns abound between warring factions and the ever-present Lotus Guild.

What works & What doesn’t work:

Normally I separate these two sections, but it was an odd thing while reading this book, many things that I really really liked, I also disliked for some reason or another, of which I’ll explain below.

Kinslayer becomes an ensemble book. I love ensemble books! Give me GoT, WoT, or any other epic fantasies where there are multiple Points of View characters and different arcs all going on at the same time. I love that this book became an ensemble cast, I really did, however, starting Book One as a limited POV cast and expanding greatly here has really diminished Yukiko as a character in my eyes. Stormdancer was in essence, all about Yukiko and Buruu’s connection. Yes, her father was a major POV, yes, Kin and Michi were POVs, but they were minor POVs. IT was ALL about Yukiko’s arc. And in this story, she is nearly pushed aside to grow the rest of the cast.

Yukiko’s storyline was great, she was angry, she was depressed, she had other things that I won’t spoil happening to her, but Godsdamn, her scenes were very short. I mean, her going north was a really damn good arc, but it was sporadic and limped to the finish. And then, she didn’t show up for 100 pages until the very end of the story!!!! Not exactly my favorite way for the main character…

I will say, making Kin and his arc a much bigger thread was a genus idea by Mr. Kristoff. I loved Kin’s character in the first book and he grew so dramatically in this book. The things he does and the actions he ultimately took were just epic and I didn’t see coming. I really loved it! I especially liked how he dealt with the inward hatred of him being a Guildsman amongst rebels. There was this real feeling of distrust, a fox in the chicken coop kind of feeling. It really made for some interesting character dynamics.

But to the detriment of the story, two siblings were introduced and given soooooooo much screen time. I liked the final outcome of their arc, but Izanagi’s balls I didn’t care for the vast majority of what they did. I liked Hana to an extent, but I could have completely done without Yoshi’s character POVs and thread. Hana had a purpose to the story, she rose to the forefront of the rebellion infiltrating the Imperium. But Yoshi’s story with the yakuza didn’t add anything to the overall plot other than to set up some gruesome scenes toward the end.

And then there was Michi. Man she really is a cool femme fatale character, but her temptation of love was not my favorite. Again, her climax to her story was really damn sweet and a bit unexpected, but the drive there was meh. At least there was some great emotional moments at the end for her.

The less said about Hiro, the better…

I really did like the introduction of the “round-eye” gaijin in Yukiko’s arc. It was interesting to see another people out there that was only alluded to. And, again, this part of the story was really fun and full of twists and turns for Yukiko and Buruu, very character defining. I mean, we got more thunder tigers!!!

The climax was amazing. It was such a slow build to the attack on the heart city of the Imperium, and when we finally got to witness it, it was a thing to behold. While I love epic battle scenes in books, I like the more intimate (or back-stabb-y???) moments against the battle backdrop. For example, Michi’s conclusion takes place during this epic invasion, but her scenes are concise and have huuuuuuuuge emotional impact to her character as a whole. To me, that is perfection on paper when an author can hit an emotional response to all the destruction going on around these characters.

But I temper the entire thing because of the introduction of so many one-off POVs that it sometimes felt erratic (I mean war is erratic, but this was a bit much).

On the whole, I really like the set-up and execution of the story, but things got muddied for me in the process.

Rating:

3 out of 5