Site Update–And Why I Only Write Good Reviews

Just a quick, no nonsense post today–but an important one. I’ve made a long-awaited addition to the blog: look up, and you’ll see a link to a page where I’ve collected all the Indie Reviews I’ve written so far on Speaking to the Eyes. Since I decided to focus on Indie Reviews back in January, it’s proven a good direction for this blog–and this is the next logical step.

I’ll update it as I add new reviews to the site, and eventually I intend to fill out the page with links to Amazon or Kobo where you can buy the books I’ve reviewed. In the meantime, the list contains everything I’ve reviewed so far, listed in alphabetical order.

So…why are they all good reviews?

Fellow Indie and favourite on this site, J. M. Ney-Grimm, sent me a link to a blog quite a while back about writing only good reviews. She said it fit right in line with what I was doing, because I don’t review books I don’t like. I’ve unfortunately lost the link, but in a nutshell it said: don’t waste your time being negative.

Reviewing a book is a time consuming process. The scholar in me hopes I make it look easy–but really, it isn’t. Besides reading tons of books (something I’ve always been good at!), you have to read them with a critical eye. You need to take notes, pay attention to little details like plot holes, typos, the coherence of the World, and so on. At this point, reading ceases to be recreational–it’s a job.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I still love doing it, and I enjoy every word I read. There’s the old adage that if you love what you’re doing, you won’t work a day in your life, and that’s the case here. Some of my fondest memories of University were of holing myself up in the library for ten plus hours doing research for a paper. I get an honest thrill out of explicating literature, finding little connections and “ah-ha!” moments in a book, and learning why good fiction works.

But what it all boils down to is that reviewing a book takes a good amount of effort. And, quite frankly, it’s a lot less enjoyable when I’m reading a book that just isn’t that good. And I’ve come across many–I’d estimate that 1 in 5 Indie books that I’ve read are just tossed aside, unreviewed (though never unfinished). It’s not that they’re not worth reviewing–and in many cases, I can see great potential in what really amounts to a poorly edited or constructed work. I’d rather just enjoy the book for what it is (good or bad,) and not worry about working at it.

And there’s another–very important–aspect to this. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. One of the most valuable lessons I learned in University about critiquing literature is to avoid the “poison pen syndrome.” If you don’t like something, that’s fine–but don’t be a dick about it. There are hundreds of examples of poison pen reviews out there, and they serve absolutely no purpose other than raining on the author’s parade. If someone writes a bad book, they shouldn’t be bullied and mocked for it–they should be encouraged to try again.

I choose not to review poorly written books because it wouldn’t help anyone. It wouldn’t do the author any good to see that I didn’t like their work–if they even care what I think. It wouldn’t help my enthusiasm for writing this blog. And it certainly wouldn’t help push readers toward Indie work, or help sell books.

So there you have it. If you’ve ever read through my reviews and wondered why I tend to gush about how good a book is, that’s you’re answer. I enjoy each and every book I review on this site, and I’d recommend them all. But, to quote the master of reading advocacy, you don’t have to take my word for it…pick up an Indie book today and see for yourself!

 

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Indie Review: Chains of a Dark Goddess by David Alastair Hayden

The more I get into Indie fiction, the more fantasy I find myself reading.  And there are some great fantasy writers out there–not the least of which is David Alastair Hayden. I previously reviewed Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame, and praised it for its uniqueness. As I was writing that review, I was reading Chains of a Dark Goddess–it’s past time to visit that book!

Chains opens with a delicious premise: Breskaro Varenni, Knight Champion of the goddess Seshalla, hero of crusades and greatest warrior of the age, is betrayed by his trusted allies and murdered. Then, he’s brought back from the dead to exact revenge at the behest of an evil goddess. Sounds like a great antihero type story, right?
Well it is, and it would be a perfectly enjoyable read if Hayden stopped there–but he doesn’t. As the protagonist, the reader is immediately set up to sympathise with Breskaro—but this actions through the book make it difficult. This is a good choice, as it eschews the tired cliché of the antihero. Breskaro is evil, no doubt about it, and driven in part by bare revenge as he is, his motives are questionable. But there are good things about him too, and every once in a while he drops his guard to show a tender side that suits him well. There’s a running implication that he’s as evil as he is because of what he endured in death, but I think he was a bit of a prick in life, too. He’s certainly not a man to admire, but that’s what makes him such a great character. As a nice counterpoint to Breskaro the character of Esha is a delight. She has a youthful exuberance that infects everyone around her, even our undead warrior—and in that, she gives him one of his few shreds of humanity. There’s something special about her that’s not addressed until the end of the book, and I have to say I was surprised at it.

The use of a death mask to cover Breskaro’s decaying features seems like an obvious choice—but is no less awesome for it. It’s a terrifying image, but it also does well to give some pathos to his character; he knows he’s repellent, and though he never says it, seems almost ashamed at his appearance. At the same time, this action gives him depth—he fully intends to use his frightening visage to manipulate others. He’s not a cut and dried superhero, and has faults like anyone else.

The world of Pawan Kor–as mentioned in my other review–is vibrant and creative. It’s one of those fantasy settings that seems like a place you could actually visit; it’s real enough without losing the elements that make it fantastical. There’s a detailed history, though a lot of it is implied or described in other books. I’d have liked to see more of that history explored, but there is a sense of mystery about the world because it isn’t…and enough of it is that it keeps you intrigued.
The way Hayden describes how magic works is especially fascinating. It is based on the power of an ancient race of wizards how have ascended to beings of energy, locking themselves in crystals called qavra. These crystals can be used by their descendants to wield powerful magic, resulting in almost a possession by the ancients. Those who are not direct descendants can still call on that power, though it’s weaker. Effectively, the crystals become an implement and a source of magic. It’s a clear and elegant explanation with an old school pulp fantasy flair that also explains why magic is uncommon.

The thing I like most about this book is the way it explores religion. Hayden treats this subject very well; he doesn’t beat you over the head with it, and it’s not even (really) the theme of the book. Instead it’s an undercurrent that sweeps the reader along, almost without them knowing it; if you pay attention to it, it adds an important dimension to the narrative, but if you don’t, the plot stands on its own.

The main idea here is that faith is different from dogma, though the two are seldom separated. The Church of Seshalla has completed three crusades and is about to start the fourth, all in the name of “converting the heathens,” and the devotees of the church follow the edicts of the Matriarch (leader of the church) blindly and absolutely. At the same time, it’s made clear that the dogma instituted by the Church—however well intentioned—isn’t necessarily in line with the teachings of their Goddess. It makes for an intriguing subplot that, as mentioned, hovers just enough below notice that if you disregard it, you lose nothing. Which is a prudent decision on the author’s part, religion being the inflammatory subject it often is.

On the other side of things, we spend most of the time in the book among the heathens, and they’re portrayed as such—liars, thieves, assassins and sorcerers. This is another masterful stroke of Hayden’s; by making the “bad guys” unpalatable, they, like our protagonist, are harder to sympathize with. But with the way the plot is set up, we can’t cheer for the Church either. The result is a complicated mess of grey—there’s no good guy or bad guy at all, just people with different interpretations of the truth.

Such a complex moral question can’t be answered—or, at least, you’ll get as many different answers as people you ask—which makes it somewhat universal. A reader can pick up on what they want in this book, and while we’re certainly meant to root for Breskaro against the Church, the Matriarch and those who wronged him, those antagonists are just as likable and even sympathetic in their own way. And that is the trick to creating great conflict, and a great story.

You can find Chains of a Dark Goddess at Amazon and Kobo. Also look for David Alastair Hayden on Twitter, Goodreads, or at his website. Hayden has several other books set in the world of Pawan Kor–be sure to check them out!

Chekov’s Neglected Gun

by ToastyKen c/o Flikr

Anton Chekov is the bane of many a theatre arts student. His plays are long, tedious, and famous for having little (apparent) movement in the plot. He relied less on overt conflict and more on what he termed a “theatre of mood,” resulting in little action with tons of subtext. It’s tough to wade through and analyse, but it’s thoroughly brilliant work.

But the thing I remember most of my studies of Chekov is his shotgun. To paraphrase, he urged writers to remove everything irrelevant from a story–if you have a shotgun on the wall in act one, someone better fire it in act three.

It’s a simple concept, and seems quite obvious–why introduce a character or MacGuffin if you don’t intend to use it?–but it’s shocking how often it’s ignored. Not intentionally, I’m sure, but literature, TV and film is rife with examples of neglected firearms. A lot of the time, they show themselves as plot holes and hanging threads–things the author fully intended to resolve, but for some reason didn’t. (I suspect that it sometimes comes with editing–changing a certain scene without realising that the change has repercussions elsewhere.)

I think this is one of the cardinal sins of writing, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Sometimes in describing a scene or setting a mood, I’ll introduce elements that I have no intention of revisiting, because mood or description is their only purpose. To an extent, that’s okay, but it’s a slippery slope. Adding a brief mention of some exotic fruit that only exists on a single island can create a sense of wonder or alienness…but spend too much time describing it to the reader, and they’ll assume it’s an important plot point.

The big risk, in my opinion, comes with World Building. When you’re building a world for you characters to play in, it’s crucial to have a lot of detail: everything from social customs to geography to how that world works. When a writer does that much work on a story, it’s easy to want to reveal it to the reader–and the more little things you reveal, the more complete your world appears. But there’s a fine line here, as your readers will expect you to follow up on those small details.

Lost was a horrible example of this. It was obvious from the pilot that the writers wanted to instil a sense of mystery about the show, and I’m sure there were things they never intended to disclose. On the one hand, it worked–while it was running, fans had a rabid passion for developing theories explaining what the writers left unexplained, creating a wake of obsessed viewers(myself among them). On the other hand, the finale was a letdown because of all the loose ends–that sense of mystery was created, but it backfired, leaving many viewers frustrated (myself among them).

But it’s not always this simple. There are ways in which leaving that gun on the wall can actually work pretty well. One great example is the film Midnight in Paris, about a writer disillusioned about his present, longing to live in a bygone era. What could have turned out to be a relatively mundane exploration of wistfulness was made a terrific movie with a simple conceit: at midnight, he always finds a car that transports him to 1920s Paris where he can hobnob his literary heroes. The time travel angle is very important to the story, but it’s never explained–it’s hardly acknowledged. Beyond a couple mentions here and there, it’s simply accepted and left there, hanging on the wall.

But it works. It doesn’t need to be explained, because it’s nothing more than a conceit. The time travel itself doesn’t matter at all of the story, except as a plot device–the story is really about learning to appreciate your present and stop looking backward. It’s a shotgun, but we don’t care that it’s not used because doing so would almost contradict the very theme of the film–or, at the least, it would greatly reduce the impact. And here we come full circle to Chekov–the film uses this conceit not to move the plot forward, but to create a mood that suits the film.

Still, this isn’t an easy thing to pull off. It’s much easier to take that shotgun off the wall, load it, and fire. Or cut it entirely.

What are your favourite (or most frustrating) shotguns? I’d love to hear your comments!