Mortal Gods

Mortal Gods, by Bonnie Quinn. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9781484917749.

Mortal Gods

Story:

In the modern era, a small and scattered group of people found they have –for reasons unknown—the ability to reshape reality simply by willing it so. They took the names of the mythological gods for themselves, and refused to answer to the rules and structures of mortal society.

For almost twenty years now, the mortals and gods have lived in relative peace, with a small handful of gods attempting to keep some measure of order among themselves. Among them is Loki, once a woman, now a genderless creation of its own with no ties to its past life, no obligations, and no sense of consequences. When a series of strange events point towards divine power, the trickster god is tasked with investigating the source, and a web of conspiracy quickly develops between groups of gods and mortals, all striving to dictate how humanity will progress. Loki is caught in the middle and irrevocably involved, as it has been named by the Oracle as the one who will be the catalyst that leaves the world forever changed.

Style and Plot:

Before reading this book, one should understand that it was self-published, which means that there are several formatting and grammatical errors throughout the text. However, if you look past those (and there aren’t so many that this is impossible), the story itself is well written and more than makes up for them.

“On Monday, I infuriated a god named Anteilis.” This is the first line of Mortal Gods, depositing us directly into the mind of Loki, a god who is attempting to find out who set fire to her Yggdrasil and caused several other events that she’s getting blamed for (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll be referring to Loki as “her” throughout the review, although the character is technically genderless). True to its beginning, the book remains fast-paced, but never feels rushed. The story portrays how people react when faced with sudden nigh unlimited power and immortality. Some thrive. Some hide. Some go insane. As you read the story through Loki’s twisted eyes, you can’t help but be pulled into this world where suddenly the fundamental laws of reality no longer apply.

The book has two major plots to it: the mortal attempts to get on the same ground as the gods (and the repercussions of those attempts), and the development of Loki as a catalyst. While both seem equally important throughout the story, the ending definitely does not treat them as such: the climax gives most of the attention to one, while giving the other a nod or two. This may feel a bit unsatisfying, but the loose ends of both conflicts are tied up, and it does prompt discussion on which one was supposed to be the point of the book. Mortal Gods asks several questions of the reader that demand to be considered. Is it possible for an immortal to retain their humanity, or should that even be attempted? When you’ve put yourself beyond mortal restraints, what is there left to restrain you? Everyone’s heard of “with great power comes great responsibility,” but how much of it is actually someone’s responsibility, and how much is their right? This is not just a book for mythology lovers, this is also a book for people who love the what-ifs.

Characterization:

Our main character is obviously Loki, a woman who has taken her name from the Norse god of mischief, and she has the wicked sense of humor and devil-may-care attitude to match it. She was quick to take to the power of a god and revels in it, but she’s also often plagued by questions about where her responsibility lies. It’s not easy to throw off the life and society that one has been born into, of course, and so Loki struggles to understand exactly what her role is in the world. She makes every effort to live up to her name, becoming the god of mischief and dualities in every way possible: remaking herself into something physically genderless, taking a neutral (but hardly uninvolved) stance on everything, and seeing many things with a clarity that others lack. It’s ironic, then, that she’s often also indecisive and uncertain. Quinn does an excellent job of maintaining Loki’s unpredictability, allowing the reader to understand her, but holding back just enough to maintain an element of surprise.

The element of surprise.

The element of surprise.

It’s stated that there are 48 gods in the modern pantheon, but probably only half of them are ever mentioned, and of those, only a handful are focused on in any depth. Some gods chose to take the names of mythological characters, such as Morrigan or Cupid, while others chose to make up their own names, such as Quif, Kingfisher, or Etci (not the god of online handmade marketplaces), and one unfortunate Tim. Although several gods are spoken of in the book, Quinn has managed to give them all distinct personalities and backstories without spending too much time on them or making them all blur together, so even a god whose been mentioned once is easily remembered. A strong cast is one of the most important parts of a book, and Quinn has pulled it off well.

Mortal Gods is psychological, hysterical, and evocative, and not one to be passed up. 4 out of 5 stars.

It’s important to note that the author, Bonnie Quinn, wrote and posted Mortal Gods one chapter at a time on a public art website, before taking it down when it was finished and putting it through edits. It was in progress before the Marvel movie Thor came out in theaters, which means that it unfortunately has another major character with the same name sucking up all of the attention. However, do not read this book with the picture of Marvel’s Loki in your head. The two characters are extremely different, despite being from the same namesake, and thinking of one while reading/watching the other is unfair to either of them.

Buy it on Amazon

Even More Writing Resources and References: Crime/Mystery/Thriller

The differences between crime, mystery, and thrillers

Basic Analysis of a Fingerprint

The NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Lawlessness, Anarchy, and Power Vacuums

Almost Everything You Need to Write Crime/Mystery/Thriller

What it’s like to be a homicide detective

A Day in the Life of an FBI Special Agent

The life of a PI

How Stuff Works: Catching a Serial Killer

FBI Investigative Practices for Serial Murder

Serial Killers: A Homicide Detective’s Take

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9781250037756.

Mr_Penumbra's_24-Hour_Bookstore

Story:

In 2012, the Great Recession has left many jobless, including one Clay Jonnin, a designer and programmer with only one award and less than a year of experience under his belt. Where his friends have visions, work for Google, or run multi-million dollar enterprises, he’s looking for work in San Francisco. He ends up in front of the eponymous bookstore.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a novel that attempts to reconcile the old world—that is, books, paper, and printing—with the new world: computers, programming, and immense archives of ebooks. It is a book for the nerdy (or geeky) booklover, blending technology, fantasy, and the real world together into a story about an enigmatic bookseller and the secret organization that lies just beneath the surface of his unassuming store.

Style and Technique:

In many ways, the book itself reflects the story. Mr. Penumbra’s cover is unassuming and not immediately attention-grabbing, just like the outside of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. In both cases, however, it’s the title that makes you look twice, and in both cases, you’re drawn into a story that’s more than it seems at first glance. (Also, the cover glows in the dark, so that’s a plus.)

The main mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s revolves around the strange, unintelligible books stocked by the San Francisco bookstore and the passionate allure they hold for the store’s patrons. This aspect is aided and abetted by more questions: How can the bookstore stay open if no one buys the books? Why does the store stock so few books that might actually appeal to a broader audience? Why 24 hours?

Unfortunately, as quirky and interesting as this may be to booklovers and geeks alike, the story is convenient and unbelievable. The motivations of the antagonists (left unsaid here to avoid spoilers) are silly and ridiculous, especially for a group of people who are supposed to be intelligent scholars, adept at researching and breaking codes. The plot cannot be taken seriously without swallowing a tablespoon of salt, and possibly one’s pride as well.

Sloan writes in first-person, present tense, using a character just bland enough (or with just enough personality) for nearly any reader to relate to and find likable. However, rather than seeing things through Clay’s eyes, the book is written as though Clay is describing everything to the reader. This can lead to separation of reader and book, with the reader feeling as though they are being told a story, instead of being truly immersed.

However, these faults do not mean that Mr. Penumbra’s is an unenjoyable book. It is clever in some parts, an interesting concept, and makes several references (some of them pretty meta) that readers will catch and be amused by (including references to a certain Mr. Moffat). Sloan also breaks a few of the golden rules of writing, which include things like “don’t introduce new characters or plotlines during your book’s climax.” In a book about breaking (or updating) the old rules, however, this doesn’t seem too out of place.

Characterization:

The book, set in 2012, includes a wide cast of characters of the new millennium, including the young who are tech-savvy (extremely, they all seem to know how to code, design, or program), and the older who are oblivious to or dislike new technologies. This could have made the book great. However, this means that the book is filled with references to Facebook, Google, and Twitter—references that are going to be obsolete, given five years or so. Furthermore, the presence of so many technological savants robs the book of its tension: The characters can find the answers to their questions by Googling. In fact, the character of Kat Potente has a job with Google, and can use their resources with little trouble. Clay’s millionaire friend who runs a graphics and animation tool company can supply him with any money he needs over the course of the book. His artist friend can make models of anything. At some point, the reader begins to wonder exactly why Clay is even needed in the first place.

The second kind of characters, the older people who are unfamiliar with technology, also have their own foibles. Corvina, the main antagonist, holds the view that all technological developments are evil and worthless, to the point where he becomes a clichéd caricature, all imperious looks and cloak-sweeping. Mr. Penumbra, on the other hand, makes a refreshing change in that he is eager to learn new technology and sees its value.

Sloan could have done better with fewer clichés and a focus on character depth instead of width, as a quiet book such as this one with a wide cast of two-dimensional characters does not make for an exciting read.

What need has the world for a 24-hour bookstore? When you read this book, you may as well ask what need has the world for technology and secrets as well. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a light, fast, and light-hearted read: entertaining, but with little depth. 3 out of 5 stars.

Buy it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Half-Price Books

Even More Writing Resources and References: Steampunk

Who knew that the internet could be such a great resource for resources? (I knew. I knew that.)

Steampunk

If you write or read steampunk fiction and are not following this blog, you’re doing something wrong.

Quick Guide to Steampunk Gadgets and Technology

Steampunk Archetypes

Clockwork Couture (A shop of steampunk clothing, absolutely wonderful if you’re looking for drawing or description references)

Beyond Victoriana (multicultural steampunk)

Art of Swords

Free the Princess: A Practical Literary Guide to Steampunk and the Victorian Era

Video

Eight Things I’ve Learned About Being an English Major

As my college education draws to a close and I get closer to receiving a piece of paper that says I’m a person who was productively institutionalized for four years, I’ve reflected on the things I’ve learned on the path to English Majorhood. I hope you’ll enjoy this short video.
(I apologize in advance for the absolutely horrendous video quality, I used the webcam that’s built into my computer. I recommend Visine.)

The Archived

The Archived by Victoria Schwab. Copyright 2013. Young Adult Fiction. ISBN 1423157311.

The Archived

Story:

The memories of the dead are stored in a strange library called the Archive, only accessible to specially trained persons through hidden doors in our world. Sometimes these Histories, as they’re called, wake up and escape the Archive. As a Keeper, it is 16-year-old Mackenzie Bishop’s job to send them back to the care of the Librarians, and she has her hands more than full when she and her family move into the Coronado: an old hotel-turned-apartment building that’s full of forgotten and unfinished stories.

Style and Technique:

The Archived immediately draws you in with a new take on the afterlife, a subject that’s held humanity’s attention for millennia. However, although the book starts strong, it begins to give off the impression that Schwab hasn’t fully fleshed out her world. The Why of the Archive itself isn’t explained: What is its purpose? Who’s the ultimate authority behind it? There is a potential for answers to these questions later in the series, as this is only the first book, but more information on how it works would do much to draw readers into the world and add to its believability factor.

Schwab’s grasp of setting is sometimes good and sometimes lacking. Our main character seems to travel between three different locations: the Archive, the Narrows, and the Coronado. Her description of the Narrows, the dimension in between our world and the Archive, is properly eerie and cold, and the Archive itself is quite interesting: Stacks and stacks of shelves and drawers running back as far as the eye can see. However, where the Archive and the Narrows are the better-described settings, the Coronado and its different sections seem blank, generic, and sometimes confusing in contrast.

Schwab writes in a very “present” tense—that is, both in present tense as we are used to thinking of it, and also in a way that makes you feel as though you’re with Mackenzie as she wanders the Coronado. Her portrayal of the underlying mystery throughout the book is engaging and intriguing, and she’s left plenty of loose ends to keep readers interested in waiting for the second installment.

Characterization:

Mackenzie Bishop is our main character, a savvy sixteen-year-old who seems smarter and more aware than your average protagonist. She often picks up on things that authors of other books might illogically cause their characters to overlook. This trait is important to her character, as Mackenzie is a Keeper: one of those tasked with making sure the woken Histories don’t escape from the Narrows. In order to fill this position adequately, Mackenzie must be able to keep it separate from her real life—and in order to do that, she must be a very good liar. And she is.

However, for all the potential Mackenzie has, she herself seems to be rather flat, and remains static (rather than dynamic) throughout the book. Beyond the Keeper and the liar, not much about her stands out. She has no hobbies, she has no life outside of her job (such as it is, there is no mention of whether Keepers or other maintainers of the Archive are paid). And yet, despite this seeming lack of anything else to do, Mackenzie doesn’t seem to have any problem putting off returning the Histories she is assigned. This is unfortunate, as the premise is a fantastic opportunity to really build up the tension throughout the book. Instead, the book moves along at a brisk-but-peaceful walk with no sense of urgency until the last third of the story.

And then there is Wesley, a strange, self-obsessed boy who visits family at the Coronado and seems to keep running into people. Schwab tries to be coy with this character, dropping “hints” about who he is in Mackenzie’s encounters with him. Regrettably, Wesley’s character seems to barely move beyond “vain” and “guyliner.” Furthermore, although Schwab is to be applauded for not allowing the romance subplot of the book to become more than a subplot (a pitfall that ensnares many young adult authors), the romantic tension, where there is any, is typical and hardly fresh.

Strangely enough, it’s the secondary characters that Schwab does well with. These characters mostly populate the Narrows and the Archive (and, consequentially, are too spoilery to get too deep into description) and have picked up the habits and mannerisms of three-dimensional characters. There’s Roland, a Librarian in the Archive (strikingly reminiscent of David Tennant’s rendition of the Tenth Doctor), and Owen, an oddly sane boy stuck in the Narrows with a lot of loose ends to tie up. Both of these characters interest the reader in ways that other characters fall short.

Although Schwab’s secondary characters are worthy, she has unfortunately fallen into the habit of making minor characters little more than vehicles for the plot. Mackenzie’s parents are almost painfully cliché and dim-witted, Mackenzie’s best friend apparently exists only for Mackenzie to rehash what living in the Coronado is like. The other, few residents of the Coronado seem to exist only to give information to Mackenzie, and serve no other purpose. While it could be argued that that’s what minor characters are for, authors should make an attempt to give their minor characters lives that don’t revolve around the protagonist.

Victoria Schwab’s The Archived is an original, interesting pick that reads well at first look, but begins to fray at the edges upon further scrutiny. 3 out of 5 stars.

Buy it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

The Book Of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. Copyright 2011. Young Adult Fiction. ISBN 1442429348.

Book of lost things

Story:

The Book of Lost Things is about David, a young boy who’s lost his mother and is trying to adapt to a life with his father’s new wife and her infant son, his only friends being the books on his shelf. However, there seems to be a dark presence hovering over the family, spreading infectious anger and frustration and straining relationships. Sometimes, David could swear he sees a figure in his bedroom window when he’s outside, one that clearly means no good.

It isn’t long before David is sucked into the world where the figure comes from: a world of nightmarish fantasy, sinister evils, and fairytales all twisted and wrong. The king of the realm is aged and his ability to rule is failing, but there may be hope for the land, and hope for David to get home, in the king’s sacred book: The Book of Lost Things.

Style and Technique:

The Book of Lost Things is written in the third person, focused mostly on David and occasionally on other characters. It’s set during World War II, which acts as the backdrop of the beginning of the book and plays a significant part in the first few chapters. The rest of the book is set in a world of Connolly’s own making, and he expertly stitches it together with creepy undertones and subtle nightmares.

Content:

Although the book was published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, this is not a children’s story. John Connolly takes familiar fairytales and twists them around to be not-so-familiar, and often horrifying. He amplifies the shadier (and sometimes sexual) implications that are often overlooked in the classic tales, and asks questions such as, “What if the king was not a benevolent person? What if the princess was not an innocent?” He weaves these dark tales together with reflections of nightmares you might remember having as a child into a setting that seems familiar and cheerful on the surface, but the more you see, the more uneasy you become. This is an author who would prefer the original version of The Little Mermaid to the Disney version.

Throughout the book are sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle signs of misogyny. The majority of minor villains that David meets in the other world are twisted women with vile practices: a huntress who removes the heads of boys and girls and surgically transplants them onto the bodies of animals, to be released into her woods and hunted down at a later date; a Beast that’s described as a large sucking worm with thick, spiny hairs that gives birth to hundreds more of itself; and a cursed sorceress looking for love and forever rejected (because only men can make her feel good about herself break her curse in classic fairytale fashion).

Although this could be seen as an attempt to create an equal balance of male and female characters throughout the book, Connolly could have pulled this off to a greater effect by putting some females in sympathetic roles, rather than almost exclusively antagonizing roles. There are only two female characters in the novel who are not antagonistic throughout the book: David’s mother, who is dead to begin with, and Anna, a young girl with an unfortunate curse.

Characters:

Connolly’s grasp of characterization is excellent. Our main character is David, a young, confused boy whose lost his mother and, as children can sometimes do, blames himself for it. He is naïve, sometimes petty, and will be familiar to all readers who’ve had a childhood.

The main antagonist of the book is The Crooked Man, a character straight out of nightmares. He is loosely based on Rumpelstiltskin, but, like all other fairytales in Connolly’s world, has been twisted to be made even worse. He is a conniving and malicious character, the kind that instills an icky feeling whenever he appears in a scene.

The Book of Lost Things is an engaging read that plays with expectations and overturns the familiar, but the author has made some unfortunate casting decisions. 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

Purchase it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble.

Helpful Resources for Writers

I’ve been away for a while, but there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation: I was kidnapped by mutant ninjas (not the cool turtle kind, either) and carted off to a secret laboratory where they wanted to put me through a series of experiments. After a few weeks of eating nothing but Turkish Delight and sleeping on straw before waking up at 2:37:43 AM precisely to babysit the neighboring cell-block’s kids, I decided I’d had enough. I made like a shepherd and got the flock out, and the rest, as they say, will be forgotten within a few months and after I die no one will ever remember the entire episode.

*ahem*

Anyway, to tide you over till the next review (spoilers: I’m currently working on the review of The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly), here’s a list of some excellent world-building resources for writers.

How to Build an Oppressive Government

Xtreme Culture Questions (A list of excellent questions to ask yourself when designing a culture [the society kind, not the old dairy kind {yes I just used brackets in parentheses}]).

Language Construction Kit

Generators! Name generators, inn generators, map generators (that one’s pretty cool), generators for all sorts of fantasy/RPG related needs. Excellent for when you’re stuck on describing something.

Inkscape (OpenSource vector graphics editor similar to CorelDraw or Illustrator. Good for maps!)

Worldbuilding Rants (What it sounds like: Limyaeel’s LiveJournal of rants about dozens of aspects in fantasy worldbuilding.)

Go forth and build worlds, only to shake their very foundations/utterly destroy them by the end of the book. Because let’s face it, who ever built a castle out of Legos and then calmly took it apart brick by brick when they were finished with it?

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Copyright 2000. Action and Adventure. ISBN 9781841154930.

amazing adventures of kavalier and clay

Story:

19-year-old escape artist Joe Kavalier flees World War II Prague in 1939 and ends up at the house of his cousin, Sammy Klayman, in New York. Sammy is a writer for a novelty company that’s trying to break into comics after observing the success of Superman.

When Sammy finds out about Joe’s incredible drawing talent, he quickly gets Joe a job illustrating for the company he works for. It’s not too long before Sammy takes the name Sam Clay and begins writing the plots for a series of comic books, to be illustrated by Joe. So begins the adventures of their trademark superhero, The Escapist, and the incredible story of the men behind the pages.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay deals with discovering your identity, finding acceptance, life in the comic book industry, life in the war, and the peaks and trenches of life in the real world. Neither fast-paced nor slow, it takes you through the myriad storylines with ease, showing you not only what happens to the main characters, but the effect they have on the events surrounding them.

Technique:

Kavalier & Clay is written in alternating third-person perspective, mostly focusing on the quiet and enigmatic Joe Kavalier and the inspired and aspiring writer Sam Clay, and the story spans out over the timeline of the Golden Age of Comics (from Superman to the Kefauver Senate Hearings). This makes it a bit confusing, as it can be hard to tell whether a few hours have passed between transitions, or a few years.

Style:

Michael Chabon has a very elegant, flowing writing style that moves from reverent to satirical, from vulgar to artfully coy, with minimal bumpiness (although this sometimes results in long, hard-to-follow sentences). He makes liberal use of clever diction and subtle (and not-so-subtle) jokes throughout the text, bringing each character to life in their own way. His insight into the comic books industry is also fascinating, and not to be missed if you’re interested in that subject at all.

Chabon sets up the scenes skillfully, painting New York evenings so real you almost think you can smell the hot peanuts, or hear the subway underfoot.

Characters:

One of the things that make Chabon’s writing great is his characterization abilities. All of his characters, even the often-overlooked side characters, have depth and distinct personalities.

Sam Clay is somewhat idealistic, opportunistic, and uncertain, dealing with several issues about who he is and what he’s doing. He is loyal to his cousin, a creative visionary, and determined to be successful. During the course of the book, his strengths and weaknesses are tested continually, forcing him to realize parts of himself and decide what’s worth holding on to.

Joe Kavalier is the quiet, thoughtful, tortured artist, illustrator of Kavalier and Clay’s The Escapist, talented in sleight-of-hand and literal and figurative escapism. In a constant state of worry for his family left behind in Prague, he is attracted to the sense of justice provided by his and Clay’s brainchild, but doesn’t know how to pursue it in a healthy manner. He finds a comforting muse in the bohemian Rosa Saks, and she in him, and together they attempt to control their inner demons.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a story with a fascinating perspective on the personal and societal implications of the Golden Age of comics, and repeatedly asks the ages-old question, “What is a hero?” 4 ½ out of 5 stars.

Purchase it from Amazon, Barnes&Noble.

A Collection of Helpful Writing Articles and Tools

In the interim between reviews, every now and then I’d like to point out some excellent articles and tools I’ve come across around the web that deal with the many aspects of writing. As an English major and a novelist, I always want to assist and encourage other writers at whatever stage of writing.

Revising:

How will I know if I’m making it better, not worse?

When do you stop revising?

Scene Composition:

Things A Scene Needs

Dialogue:

Dialogue Writing Tips

Writing Believable Dialogue

Tools:

Character Survey

“The Mother Of All Character Questionnaires” (No, really. There are roughly 18.5 billion questions here.)

Fantasy World-building Questions (This is one of the most useful resources I’ve come across for fantasy writers. It asks questions about everything from religion and politics to trade and style of dress. Very exhaustive. Be prepared to set aside a few days to go through and answer it all. Also, check out Patrick Rothfuss’s advice on worldbuilding.)

50 British Insults (Beware this one at work, music automatically plays on this site.)

Kitten Motivation (I.e. this site gives you a fresh picture of a kitten for every hundred words you write.)

Write or Die (For those of you who are a little too hard-core for kittens [admit it, you only act tough], Write or Die has more serious consequences for those who don’t write fast enough.)

Write World’s Toolbox (A lovely conglomeration of tools and helpful articles on all sorts of aspects of writing: from plot to theme to editing, and a billion things in between.)

And finally, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve read about writing in a long time: “Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.” -Jocelyn Hughes