They say that the best advice you can give a writer is to tell them to read. So, I've been frequenting the library these last two weeks, looking for comparable plots or genres to my story. Clariel, by Garth Nix, Scarlet, by A.C. Gaughen, and The Queen of the Tearling, by Ericka Johansen—each of these 3 books introduced me to complex characters, clever writing, and deft plot twists. They also taught me how NOT to write... I reviewed them on GoodReads.com.
CLARIEL — ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
I hadn't read anything by Garth Nix before, so I was looking forward to this prequel to his very well-received series Abhorsen. Rune-based magic is a main theme, and though my own story does not contain magic, the titular heroine is a discontented royal who rejects the superficial role she is expected to play—similar enough to provide good research reading! Clariel's adventures sweep across the country—but despite the interesting premise, vivid descriptions and intriguing plot, I felt something lacking. Perhaps this is the weakness of many prequels: if the heroine is doomed to fail (in order to set up a character for the already-written series), you feel the futility of her attempts, you do not empathize, and you aren't satisfied with the ending. Your thought on the last page is, "Oh," not "Wow." Clariel did not entice me to read Sabriel, the first in the series... but perhaps I erred in beginning with the prequel? Nevertheless, I was deeply impressed with the creativity of Nix's world building. He also has a clever way of saying much with few words—something I'd love to emulate. My lasting impression was to A) write doomed characters with redeemable prospects and B) read more works by Garth Nix.
SCARLET — ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
A.C. Gaughen does an excellent job retelling the story of Robin Hood, through the plain, blunt first-person narrative of a female thief. One of the best first-person narratives I've read in a while, because Scarlet felt authentically confident and vulnerable in turns, a reliable narrator, and realistically human (you know, not stronger than a bull and faster than lightning). There are some obvious plot developments, since this story is equal parts historical adventure fiction and historical romance fiction, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. There was plenty of action and medieval/Old World detail so that it did not feel like the plot was secondary to the love story. If you've watched Disney's Robin Hood, then you know the name of Robin's belle is not Scarlet... it's worth a read to find out how Gaughen develops this discrepancy.
I learned how driving and emotive unrequited/impossible scenarios can be—and, despite their frequency, how the variety of environment, circumstance, and response can keep it interesting and believable—just like real life, people. Conclusion: I (and my readers) can quickly fall in love with a heroine who is starkly honest about her flaws, impossible dreams, and scars, so long as she can back up the internal ruminating with quippy dialogue and diverse action. The only complaint I have, is that romance-heavy plots require most of the action to revolve around the heroine, which shrinks the magnitude/significance of the story. Oh well—who doesn't appreciate a lighter story once in a while? Not all books have to deal with the future of a kingdom. Also, grey-eyed heroes are the best.
THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING — ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Wow. There is much in common Erika Johansen's debut novel has with my own story. A kingdom in dire straits, a young princess who wants to make a difference, dangerous trips through the countryside, a paternal guardian figure, an unnamed rogue who prowls in the shadows, a glorious library, detestable courtiers... lots to love in here. This was one of the best books I've ever read: unique, but not too complicated plot, well-developed characters, and a great first-book conclusion that also sets up well for a trilogy. Johansen's skills with multi-perspective narration, connecting the reader instantly with the character on the page, and razor-sharp dialogue are enviable. I only read Clariel and Scarlet once: but I'm about to begin reading The Queen of the Tearling for a third time. I'm hogging my library copy with renewals... I should just buy this one. The sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling, is out, and is next on my list.
One aspect I wish was absent, was the magic / visonary references. This world is supposed to be 300 years after The Crossing—a pilgrimage from our modern-day world, after which very little technology survived. So how do we explain sentient sapphires, ageless queens, and unearthly spirits? I would have liked to see how Johansen could have written the story more realistically, in that sense... mostly because I haven't found a book as similar to my story as this one—and the magic is the main difference. Not that I'm saying a story has to be like mine to be good—I just sometimes feel that magic is an easy out for wonder, inexplicable events, and power. N'est-ce pas?
Parting thoughts: I don't want to spoil a jot. Go read it for yourself.