Friday, April 7, 2017

Readable Stories

I spent a lot of time during break sleeping and reading. By coincidence, historical fantasy about being airborne in the British military: Leviathan, eponymous first book of a trilogy by Scott Westerfeld (a reread); and the first five books of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, and Victory of Eagles).

For all six of these books, fewer than 24 hours passed between when I started and finished reading. Of course, during break I have time to read--but the stories are also compelling, and since work on my story is starting to roll again, I want to think more about what makes a story readable. About what keeps the pages turning.

Some spoilers ahead.

Premise/Genre. Leviathan series--steampunk WWI. Temeraire series--Napoleonic Wars but with dragons. I am a sucker for historical fantasy. Although I haven't made a particular study of any time period, setting a story any time but now introduces a layer of escapism that is often/occasionally desirable. The appearance of historical figures and events, and the way that history is distorted through the introduction of fantastic elements (e.g. dragons), is particularly interesting to me since I like looking at examples of where it is done well and poorly.

As it happens, I am not a sucker for war stories, and ones that are crammed with jargon just lose me. But I do like action/adventure, and books with soldier characters do tend to deliver on that front.

Viewpoint Character. Everything that I write is character-driven and I prefer the novels that I read also to be so. (Short stories get a pass--there's not as much time to get invested in a character so often the concept carries it more.)

For the Leviathan series, Deryn Sharp sounds like a stereotypical "dresses like a boy to become a soldier" kind of protagonist, but what I like about her that makes her more than an archetype for me is her clear devotion to being an airman. She has goals; she has motivation. I remember not really liking Prince Alek until later in the series, because he's a bit of a brat in the first book. Count Volger is loyal but Machiavellian and exactly the kind of character that high school me wanted to be.

For the Temeraire series, the eponymous dragon is my favorite. Honestly he's a bit overpowered relative to the other dragons, especially in book one, but I adore the fool. Very smart and powerful and independent dragon who dotes on his captain and is good friends with the other dragons in the formation. Captain Laurence originally seemed to me to be too much the Everyman stiff-collared British gentleman, but he's grown on me.

Character Interactions. The ones I enjoy reading tend to be healthy, supportive ones. Leviathan: Prince Alek and the master mechanic, Herr Klopp; Deryn and Alek, eventually. Temeraire: all of the captain-dragon teams, except Rankin because he's the worst; Temeraire and his friends; Laurence and Riley, Laurence and Granby, Laurence and Admiral Roland; Laurence and his mom, Temeraire and Laurence's mom (they don't interact a lot but they are very nice to one another). Und so weiter.

Romantic relationships are only pleasant to read if they fulfill the above point. When the first hint of Deryn having feelings for Alek showed up in book one I groaned since at that point I liked Deryn as a character much more, but by the time they actually got together later in the trilogy I was on board with it.

Pacing. The books all take place in wartime but the actual fighting doesn't get a commanding portion of pagetime. Still, the books never feel as though they lack for action. The characters are always going someplace, doing something. All the books I write have journeys somewhere, and the books I read are also very mobile.

But the grueling journeys are interspersed with rest stops, where the characters can refuel and continue on. Good pacing doesn't mean a string of high-adrenaline scenes one after another; without some sort of cadence, even action gets boring. I included this consciously in Ubermadchen: the second half of it is essentially a tour of the premier cities of Austria, with more or less stressful journeys between them.

Theme. I'm out of practice with identifying themes in literature, but stories and the way they are told hint at the values the author seeks to uphold. Who are we meant to sympathize with, who are we meant to find reprehensible, whose stories are told?

The viewpoint characters in the books I read are idealists, principled and often naive, honorable, decent people. We are meant to like these people; even if more practical people (e.g. Count Volger) who are set up as foils are also meant to be sympathetic, their stories are not central.

Furthermore, the characters' idealism is not set up only to be trampled down. They may go through plenty of hell (e.g. Laurence) but they get out again. They survive with their integrity intact. As an idealist myself, I like this message.

Both series I read from are, as I said, set in the British military. I am hardly an Anglophile; the British Empire has lots of blood on its hands. Temeraire addresses questions of colonialism and the slave trade in what I found was a period-appropriate but also appropriately-condemnatory way. I don't think it Leviathan addressed any such issues in the first book, but in the second book I do distinctly remember Deryn commenting that it was obnoxious of European nations to keep calling Istanbul "Constantinople."

Writing Style/Voice. The rest of this list is subjective, but this is perhaps the most subjective item. I really liked the voice in the books I read. There were a couple of passages in the first Temeraire book where Laurence bordered on being insufferably stiff-upper-lip-British, but overall I never found myself distracted by the language. The language is not particularly beautiful, but I don't like decoration, I don't like fluff in my writing.

I do enjoy certain writers with whom the language and its complexity is itself a treasure, but these tend to be writers of primarily short works. Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite writers, but Borges is not meant to be read with the pages flying.

In a novel, the language isn't the point, and if it isn't the point, it had better not get in the way.

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