Book Review: The Stars Never Rise

As I’ve mentioned in some of my past book reviews, I am currently making my way through some books that can be seen as a comparative title to my own books. This time around, the book is The Stars Never Rise and its sequel, The Flame Never Dies, by Rachel Vincent. This series was recommended to me as a comparison to my story, The Order of the Key, due to the family connection between siblings, and the main character’s drive to protect hers in the midst of an unbelievable and frightening world.

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Book Summary: Sixteen-year-old Nina Kane should be worrying about her immortal soul, but she’s too busy trying to actually survive. Her town’s population has been decimated by soul-consuming demons, and souls are in short supply. Watching over her younger sister, Mellie, and scraping together food and money are all that matters. The two of them are a family. They gave up on their deadbeat mom a long time ago.

When Nina discovers that Mellie is keeping a secret that threatens their very existence, she’ll do anything to protect her. Because in New Temperance, sins are prosecuted as crimes by the brutal Church and its army of black-robed exorcists. And Mellie’s sin has put her in serious trouble.

To keep them both alive, Nina will need to put her trust in Finn, a fugitive with deep green eyes who has already saved her life once and who might just be an exorcist. But what kind of exorcist wears a hoodie?

Wanted by the Church and hunted by dark forces, Nina knows she can’t survive on her own. She needs Finn and his group of rogue friends just as much as they need her.

What I enjoyed: I found the idea of the Church being in charge in a dystopian future to be an idea ripe for a writer’s playground, and Vincent uses it as such, creating images wrought with the harsher sides of religious rule over the centuries. It also pokes at the idea of the corruption of religion. This is a world that feels rich and lived in.

Nina is a great main character with a strong motivation–she does everything to protect her sister. But even in that, she makes mistakes. She isn’t a perfect hero, and some of the wrong turns she makes are some of the best parts of the book.

Nina amasses a group of friends throughout the course of the story that end up as beloved and dynamic characters. Grayson becomes Nina’s shoulder to cry on, Maddock and Reese become her teachers, and Devi becomes her foil. Devi, in particular, is a fun character precisely because she doesn’t really get redeemed. She’s good, in the more important ways, but she’s also nasty and rude. And then there’s Finn. Finn is Nina’s love interest, the exorcist that saves her. Finn has the best backstory–but I can’t explain anything! It’s all spoilers. But they are all good spoilers, that end up being the most interesting part of the story.

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The second book is a fitting sequel, with a new main big bad, a new creepy section of the world to explore, and the unveiling of some surprising plot elements.

What I’d avoid: I got the distinct impression when reading this story that the author didn’t really know everything she wanted to do with this world. Some surprises and plot twists paid off well, and some felt like they came out of nowhere. Particularly one secret regarding a character in which that character had a special ability that only made sense if the end of the story was already true. I can’t really explain what I mean, but I facepalmed when I realized where it was going. As good as the story and the characters were, this particular event felt strongly like the author asserting their will. It was a frustrating moment.

Another issue I had with the story is that it was billed as a duology and the ending of book 2 left a huge plot thread open. I actually looked up when the next book was coming out. I thought for certain that it was a trilogy. Book 1 and 2 closed well, but there was far too much story left to tell.

Would I recommend it:

Though I had my issues with this story, these were all things I noticed in thinking about it after the fact (aside from that one facepalm moment). I would still say that, on the whole, the story was an interesting and fun ride. I was forced to stop reading a few times throughout the course of reading it, and I always found myself itching to get back. I enjoyed the characters and the entire plot conceit. Despite the issues, it was totally worth the ride. I would definitely recommend this book for lovers of dystopian YA.

What can I learn from it: I think the big lesson I learned from this book is to make sure that any major plot twists I intend to pull off in future books are planned well in advance, and all strange things that can’t be explained in book 1 at least have a firm explanation in my mind, as the writer. And if I come up with a good plot twist later that doesn’t fit the narrative, I’d better have a damn good explanation for it.

All in all, The Stars Never Rise and its sequel were both suspenseful reads that any lover of YA dystopian will enjoy. Just don’t squint too hard at it. You could easily miss the flaws if you aren’t looking too hard.

 

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Editing And Why You Can’t Avoid It

In case you missed this weekend’s edition of Craft Quest, behold the archived video. This time around, we discussed the whys and hows of finding an editor with special guest star Jeni Chappelle.

Check it out here.

Learning to Fail and Other Rude Awakenings

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I don’t like to brag, but I’m really good at NaNoWriMo-ing. Like, really good. I have participated in many NaNos since 2012, and I have always completed my goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. I have also participated in the Camp NaNoWriMos, in that time, often pulling out 50,000 words in April or July, in any of the years I chose to participate. And then came this year.

In April, I already knew I was competing with a crazier schedule, and set my goal of Camp Nano (the version of this challenge that has changeable goals) to 30,000 words in the month. I managed to make that goal. In July, I did the same, hoping to finish out a decent chunk of the book I had started in April. By a week into the month, I could already see that I wasn’t going to get to 30,000. I cut my word count to 15,000.

You see, there was this scene. Or worse, there was this book. And it slowed everything to a stop.

When I started work on a new book while waiting for notes back from my edit-partner for my last completed first draft, Never Say Never, I intended to work on a light-hearted superhero tale. Often, to get myself into telling a story, I will first write my first draft of the book blurb, a teaser description to tell myself what’s at stake and who my main character is. I do this prior to outlining, just so I can get into the proper frame of mind. When I set out to do this, my simple superhero book became a dystopian novel about two teens living off the streets of a derelict city until they choose to fight for better. With zero superheroes. And I don’t know how. I often scoff at people who say the characters took control of the story, or who claim they need their muse, but this was definitely some kind of whacked out magic at work. I hadn’t had this idea before I set out. This was not the book I was looking for.

But perhaps it was the book I needed. For one, writing it scared the shit out of me. It required a level of worldbuilding I’d never done before. It required a set of research I’d never considered. Worse, as I started plotting out the outline, I began to discover the story was meant to be in third person, which I almost never write.

I went to a book signing a few weeks before, for one of my favorite authors–Patrick Ness. He said he always likes to scare himself with his book ideas. He said he didn’t want to write anything that didn’t scare him–it was part of the adventure of writing. So when this strange story sprang from my head, I went with it–I did the scary thing. I started outlining this story. I started doing the research. And perhaps, I jumped into writing the thing too quickly.

That was my excuse when I cut the word count in April.

But then, my life was changing. I started work with Craft Quest, continued working with The Inkwell Council, and started taking on occasional freelance editing jobs. I dove into a new fandom (I haven’t been part of a fandom in awhile), which was time-wasting, but also reminded me why it’s so damn fun to be a geek, and saved me from dealing with a lot of this next part–as I mentioned earlier this year, I recently was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. My symptoms had been growing steadily worse for the entire year before I figured out what was wrong, and have now continued cropping up in new and interesting ways. My husband and son got into a car accident, ending up in the middle of a seven-car bumper-to-bumper on the highway–they were fine, but the car was decidedly not. We frantically struggled to replace it. There was an awful slew of bullying at our son’s summer camp that was impacting him directly. And I got stuck, horribly stuck, on one scene in the story that I just couldn’t figure out. I crashed. HARD. I never made it to 15,000 words. That has never happened to me before.

From the end of July to now, I have written four pages. That’s it, folks. Four whole pages. And anybody who follows this blog regularly knows that’s a joke. It wasn’t even like I was editing Never Say Never. I got the edits, got stuck on the first thing that was said, and pushed that aside as well. I just didn’t know how to handle any of it, so I didn’t touch it. I put it all away.

I celebrated my son’s birthday. I handled that damn summer camp. I celebrated my best friend’s pregnancy, my sister-in-law’s new apartment, my other best friend’s journey through Thailand and Japan. I sat beside another dear friend as she struggled to (successfully, thank goodness) battle breast cancer. I got to work on another project close to my heart that I can’t discuss yet, but is arts-based and local, and should it take off, would touch on a long-standing dream of mine. I swam around in my new favorite fandom and made some new friends there. I lived my dang life. I took a break.

And I feel better. I feel clearer. I think this needed to happen to remind me I couldn’t do everything at once. I need to crash to remind myself that despite my protestations to the contrary, this illness has given me new limitations. I needed to crash to remind myself I had other priorities in life. I needed to crash to remind myself to have a little fun. I needed to crash because I don’t need to hit my goals every single time. Sometimes I’m allowed to miss them. I needed to crash to remind myself I didn’t need to get this story right on the first draft. That I could completely screw it up, go back in and rewrite it like I was bound to do anyway a few times, once I figured out what I was trying to say and how it was going to work. I needed to crash to remind myself that the work of sculpting doesn’t get done until the clay is on the damn table.

I needed to crash. I needed to fail. I needed that to learn how to take care of myself so that next time, I may succeed.

Tl;dr: I’m back, folks. How was your summer vacation?

Connecting the Dots of Plots

After a long August taking some time to repair myself and take stock of things (more on that later), I’ve returned with another CraftQuest video panel. Oh and hey! I’ve officially joined the CraftQuest team! So that’s some awesome news. And it’s just the beginning. I’m making some other moves, and I will discuss them as they begin to hopefully fall into place.

For now, check out the CraftQuest team as we discuss the important points of plot. And stay tuned for our next live panel on September 29th at 5PM EST, where we will discuss the essentials of editing with special guest star Jeni Chappelle. Enjoy!

How to Handle a Critique

Hi all!

Today I’m sitting in on Craft Quest’s YouTube page with a short video containing my 4 step rule for handling a critique. Check it out below, and be sure to join us live on Saturday at 5PM EST for a live panel on self-care for writers! Hope to see you then!

Book Review: Monsters of Verity by Victoria Schwab

It’s a funny cycle and it goes like this: I write a book. When marketing said book for potential agents, having comparison titles can be very helpful. I go looking for comp titles from comp title extraordinaire, Megan Manzano. She does it for me for free because she’s my husband’s little sister, and I spent hours when she was a kid playing pet shop with her stuffed animals, so she owes me. She does charge for the service as well, so you should check it out. The next step in the cycle is to read the books she recommends and make sure I agree and know what I’m talking about when an agent says, “what in particular did you think was similar to the book?” That would be a really bad moment to gape like a fish. Anyway, I read, I love, I gush to her in annoying ways via FB Messenger, and then I write one of these. The Monsters of Verity series by Victoria Schwab was recommended to me mostly based on tone, family politics, and monster battles, but I stayed for so much more.

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Book Summary: Below is the jacket copy for the first book of the duology, This Savage Song. I will not include a summary for Our Dark Duet, because that would be spoilery as all get out.


Kate Harker wants to be as ruthless as her father. After five years and six boarding schools, she’s finally going home to prove that she can be.

August Flynn wants to be human. But he isn’t. He’s a monster, one that can steal souls with a song. He’s one of the three most powerful monsters in a city overrun with them. His own father’s secret weapon.

Their city is divided.

Their city is crumbling.

Kate and August are the only two who see both sides, the only two who could do something.

But how do you decide to be a hero or a villain when it’s hard to tell which is which?

Corsai, Corsai, tooth and claw,
Shadow and bone will eat you raw.
Malchai, Malchai, sharp and sly,
Smile and bite and drink you dry.
Sunai, Sunai, eyes like coal,
Sing you a song and steal your soul.
Monsters, monsters, big and small,
They’re gonna come and eat you all.

What I enjoyed: I have to really stop and think about this, because on a knee jerk, I want to think I enjoyed everything, but I want to be more specific. This was definitely a novel that swept me up and through me through the dryer in the best possible way, so I’m still a little dizzy over it. Okay, deep breaths.

For starters, the characters–generally my favorite part of the book, I loved these characters. Kate was difficult to love, and at first you kind of loved to hate her, but by the end of her arc, I was blown away by her. She was a complex and truly wonderful character. August was a character I loved from the beginning, but his journey was a gripping ride, as he came to terms with who he was, what his role could be and what it should be. The villains ran the gamut between disturbing (the monsters) and oddly understandable and still disturbing (the human villains).

The mythology of this world was surprising and inventive. The monsters here are born of violent acts, meaning each act of brutal violence creates a monster. Dealing with your own demons is a big theme in this book. I was intrigued by the breakdown of differences between the monsters, and the creation of the war-divided city of Verity. I applauded her use of music as a way to draw forth a soul for devouring in the Sunai. This was a completely unique monster concept to me, and I loved the way this played out, especially in the end. The writing in itself is downright poetic. Like the music from August’s violin, it drags you in and holds you in its comforting lull or pulls you into pieces, depending on the moment.

The tone of the story was another lovely point. It was gritty and real and lived in. No punches pulled.

What I’d avoid:

There were a couple of things I didn’t love about the story, although they definitely weren’t as prevalent as the things I did. Schwab delivered a new and inventive world, and I understood that she wanted to leave some room for speculation, but there were a couple of threads I felt were left hanging. Things like “what happened to the US to create a city like Verity?” or “What happened to certain characters Kate and August weren’t able to maintain contact with?” just kind of never get answered, even though they felt like they would be. They aren’t integral to the plot, but it nagged me a little bit. Bigger questions, like “why are the Sunai SO DIFFERENT from other monsters, and from each other?” could have been purposely left open as something for the reader to suss out and theorize about, but I felt a few more clues would have been very much appreciated.

Would I recommend it:

I actually just did. I hope my husband is enjoying his audiobook of it right now! And I will continue to. I really enjoyed this story.

What can I learn from it:

I’ve been struggling with the bittersweet ending of one of my novels, wondering if I’d gone the right way with it. The Monsters of Verity series, along with its popularity, made me feel much better about this choice in my work. It also helped me trudge forward without fear in my latest work, which does have a gritty backdrop and a slightly selfish heroine. This story is a class in “Write what the story wants, the rest will fall in place” and I love that.

Despite my few tiny gripes, this series had me from the very first line and held me. And, it helpfully works as an addition to my list of comp titles. One of my favorite things about looking for comp titles is discovering new authors and new stories. Have any of you ready This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet? Any recommendations of similar books?