So here’s some books I’d recommend, along with the thing that’s stuck with me months after reading them:
N.K. Jemesin’s The Fifth Season – Clearly Explaining The Unknown
Here’s a thing I didn’t realize was hard about writing until I saw N.K. Jemesin doing it effortlessly:
Explaining what’s happening without explaining why.
If I tell you “A guy is shooting at us from far away,” well, you understand both what and why. You understand that a gun is designed to kill people with super-fast projectiles, you understand that it’s fired only when someone’s trying to kill you, you understand that this is deadly force.
That’s the “Why.”
Now surgically remove all of those elements to leave you in the dark about what a gun is, leaving you only the “what.” You hear loud noises. People are dying, maybe with little puffs of blood coming out of them, but you don’t know what bullets are and those fuckers are moving too fast for you to see. You aren’t even aware that bullets come from a set direction unless you’re really good at intuiting on the fly, or maybe you see a flash from that window and connect the dots –
But the sequence of events is much more likely to confuse you. You get that people are dying. But explaining exactly what is going on without providing greater context is hard – and it gets harder later on when you have a character who can explain how this “gun” works and your mind snaps into context and goes, “Oh, okay, a gun, now all that made sense.”
You don’t see a lot of magic described in fiction without the why, because without a why lots of mundane things become impossible to describe, let alone crazy magic systems. A guy’s mowing my lawn as we speak, and I envision writing a scene where a dude with a low-set deathblade machine methodically uses it to truncate certain forms of vegetation, and Jesus that’s going to leave a lot of people confused unless I explain why he’s doing that.
Jemesin is a goddamned expert on writing magic where you understand exactly what is going on, but don’t have the faintest clue why things are working that way. You’re never more confused than you need to be. You understand the results but not the reasons, which makes it so incredibly satisfying when the reasons come along later on and they all make sense and you get a sense of this stupendously deep magic system that keeps going, and going, and going.
It won the Hugo. It deserved to.
Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds In The Sky – Endless Possibilities
All the Birds in the Sky can be described as “quirky.” If you’re looking for a book with a finely-tuned plot, don’t bother – this is a book that meanders, taking long strolls down interesting paths, sometimes hand-waving the parts that aren’t as much fun to delve back into the weird stuff.
I absolutely love that tone. I love the way this book doesn’t care about anything except what it thinks is cool.
Basically, All the Birds in the Sky follows two kids – one of whom grows up to become a great nature-witch working for a worldwide conspiracy, the other who becomes a techno-savant in a Silicon Valley world-changing tech corp – and both halves of that equation are unpredictable and unlike what you’ve seen in books before.
But it’s the side-trips I like. Charlie Jane allows us to get snagged on these weird side characters with their own crazy histories, these little asides that flesh out the world. A lesser book would have zoomed in on these two (compelling!) competing people, but by pulling out and allowing the rest of the world to take center stage from time to time what you get is this feeling of a world with limitless potential.
A lot of books feel like a Disney Park theme ride – everything happens within full view of you, and when you get off the ride you’ve seen all there is to offer. Whereas All The Birds In The Sky makes me want to hop off that Disney ride because we just passed another ride, and that one looks so interesting too, but oh we only get a glimpse of it before riding into the distance.
I had the exact same feeling that I did when I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in that I would have been perfectly happy if this book had chosen never to end, and just kept following these awesome people around so I could hang with them. The ending’s disappointing, but largely that’s because I didn’t particularly want it to finish, so I can hardly blame Charlie Jane for that.
Scott Hawkins’ Library At Mount Char – Tender, Loving Brutality
Picture a school like Hogwarts, instead of being run by a loving Dumbledore, it’s run by God.
Like, the guy who is in charge of the universe. He didn’t create the universe. You think. But he is in absolute control of it, and he’s trying to teach you how to be his acolytes with the casually world-bending power that wizards have, and the only way he can do that is by showing you all the terrors of the universe.
You are at his whim. There is nothing you can do. He is God. And yet he is gifting you with such extraordinary powers, even though he killed your mother and father and took you on-board and you strongly suspect he reorganized time in order to ensure you wound up right where he needed you so you were at your most vulnerable.
It’s a hell of a school. You learn a lot.
But oh, how it costs.
And the thing is, I loved Library at Mount Char because this sounds brutal, and the book is even more brutal than that, with these psychologically scarred kids being put through a wringer and the world being battered at the hands of a guy who actually is more powerful than you’d dream. (Like, death won’t save you from him – he’ll just go get you back, and he’s teaching you how to do that too.)
But peel away that very thick rind of horror, and underneath is one of the most compassionate books I have ever read. I’ve never before read a book where buckets of blood is literally tame compared to what the headmaster does, and yet the characters come to such beautiful realizations that reader, I wept.
It’s a gorgeous balance – this book’s tender moments wouldn’t function without the alien coldness of the universe Scott Hawkins created, because the strange kindnesses that form when you’re smashed down that thoroughly become so meaningful.
And that ending. Oh, I won’t spoil it for you.
But that ending.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.