I’m hoping to make something of a series of this. I thought it might be interesting as there are many developing writers out there, and quite a lot of us are on WordPress. Simultaneously, there are a lot of people writing reviews of books. Maybe some overlap would be possible?
The idea here is that when I’ve read a book (and I often – but not always – read YA fantasy because it’s what I write), I plan to put up a review of it, but rather than simply saying how much I liked it and awarding it “three-out-of-four chocolate cakes”, or some trite nonsense, I’ll write about what I learned from it and how it informs my own process.
I suppose it’s all about getting to know the market and audience better. Hopefully others among you who have read the same book or similar ones, or are working on fiction in this area, will benefit and feel motivated to comment.
I’ll put information about the book, so you’re familiar with what it is, and also a bit about how I got hold of it. I won’t be doing ratings. This issue is about Rachel E. Carter’s book, First Year. The following details refer to the Amazon.co.uk. version.
Title and author: First Year (The Black Mage book 1) Rachel E. Carter
Length: 322 pages
Publisher: Rachel E. Carter
Primary category: Kindle Store > Books > Teen & Young Adult > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Sword & Sorcery (Rank #10)
I paid: 99p
Before the age of seventeen, the young men and women of Jerar are given a choice –pursue a trade or enroll in a trial year in one of the realm’s three war schools to study as a soldier, knight, or mage…
For fifteen-year-old Ryiah, the choice has always been easy. Become a mage and train in Combat, the most prestigious faction of magic.
Yet when she arrives, Ry finds herself competing against friend and foe for one of the exalted apprenticeships. Everyone is rooting for her to fail–first and foremost among them is Prince Darren, the school prodigy who has done nothing but make life miserable since she arrived.
Will Ry survive, or will her dream go down in flames?
Why did I read it?
I read a good review. That’s pretty much it, and I’m sorry if that’s disheartening to the many, many folks out there who struggle to get their work reviewed. (NOTE TO SELF #1: Reviews increase conversion)
It was a good review, and I was intrigued because of my unfamiliarity with the genre. I suppose that for a person who often reads YA romance fantasy stuff First Year might seem quite archetypal, but I almost never read that type of thing as it just doesn’t interest me. Probably the last thing I read that was even vaguely close to First Year would be the Harry Potter books, and that was at least a decade ago now. They’re also set in a school and feature magic, but really that’s about where the similarities end. If anything, this is more like The Worst Witch only with kissing, betrayal and an array of moderately severe injuries.
However, my own writing overlaps with the YA fantasy genre, and so I was intrigued to find out more about a typical top seller. It was on sale for 99p and I thought Why not? (NOTE TO SELF #2: Consider barriers to entry)
What did I learn?
I know, I know, that section title sounds like something a ten year old would write on their homework. I don’t want this to sound like a book report, but part of the joy of being an adult is in allowing oneself to make up the rules as you go.
Apart from the above notes-to-self, the thing that struck me was how my initial cynicism pretty well melted away during the course of the book. Seriously, I went into the thing thinking, Well, of course, I hold far loftier ideals than this, but let’s do it for the sake of study, and ended up enjoying it perfectly well for its own merits.
The thing is, this is not a groundbreaking piece of literature, and that’s absolutely fine. The first impression it gave me, in fact, was that it might be inspired by video game mechanics to some extent. It features some slightly odd references in its early pages that made me genuinely wonder if I was reading an Elder Scrolls Online fan-fiction for the first couple of chapters. Video game style references to whether certain characters wish to specialise in Restoration or Combat, what to do when one’s stamina runs low, and a description of a character’s dark, brooding appearance and deep reddish eyes that surely had to be the portrayal of a dark elf… It all seemed to be inspired by the cannon of role-playing games.
This didn’t worry me as I like the Elder Scrolls games very much (Morrowind fan alert – and speaking of which, I can’t believe it turned 15 last month!). Indeed, I hoped that Carter might have had something to say about the relationship between the verbal rhetoric of books, in which words communicate meaning, and the tension that many games exhibit between reliance on verbal rhetoric and procedural rhetoric, in which performing actions imparts meaning, but this didn’t arise. I can see why Carter didn’t fancy that route: It may be interesting theoretically, but to incorporate that discussion into the book would surely have increased the complexity of the writing process beyond what her workflow requires. That’s a perfectly valid reason for keeping things simple, to my mind.
And that, perhaps, is my main takeaway from the book. It doesn’t set so much as a toe off the edge of the path set out by its genre conventions (as far as I understand them), but it is also tightly plotted, rapidly yet smoothly paced, populated with enough characters and content to be vibrant without tipping over into bloat, and it’s also fairly short. It knows the job it needs to do, it knows the audience it’s addressing and the content they expect, and then it delivers a good quality interpretation of that form. I suppose it’s a bit like ordering a meal in a restaurant – it may be the same thing you’ve had before, but if it’s well prepared and presented it’s still entirely satisfying.
Irrespective of content, provided a book passes a certain bar of quality, I think the concept of providing a small, simple, well-made product to an audience who knows what it likes is a useful one for me to bear in mind. It’s not exactly where I position my own writing, but if you’re in business this is always going to be a balancing act between being wildly original and being familiar enough to be trusted.