I’m going to split my comments into two sections this week. First, I’d like to talk a bit about how my own work has been going. Then, I’d like to reflect on a new book I read this week, Hidden Fire by Rosemarie Cawkwell (more just comments and thoughts, rather than a formal review).
This past week has been one of pleasant, slow, productivity. I’ve continued to chip away at “How the Thrun Earned His Wings” (while blissfully ignoring The Rule of Iron for a while longer), including attempting to sketch out what a “thrun” actually looks like. They’re curious critters; a sort of medley of cat and bird and lizard.
It’s been really fun to work on this story. I’m guessing that I’m about halfway to two-thirds of the way through it – I have no outline whatsoever this time around – and currently I’m thinking to finish this before I go back (or go forward) to another project.
Another interesting change in this (which I remarked upon last week) has been writing solely by hand. I’ll have to type it up at some point – and that’s when I’ll really get an idea how long the piece is – but for now I’ve got just about ten pages. Doing everything by hand is certainly slower, but I find I’m enjoying the experience more, and that I remain immersed in my story for longer, and more solidly.
Internet’s a distracting thing, after all. I may have to try doing more work by hand in general, moving forward.
That all being said, I’d like to be finished with “Thrun” by next week’s update. I think this is doable (based upon where I mentally envisage the story going, and concluding), but without hard maps of the terrain ahead it’s tricky to have an obvious goal.
So, Hidden Fire.
First off, a disclaimer; Cawkwell and I are both members of a writers’ group on social media. I neither solicited nor received an ARC for this book, but it’s possible (albeit I believe unlikely), that this could color my opinion of Hidden Fire.
I found Hidden Fire through a book promotion thread on the group Cawkwell and I are both members of. Reading the synopsis (below), the story sounded like it was my cup of tea.
Hidden Fire is a fantasy novel, the first of four set in The Northern Isles of a world called Erce, in which a young woman, LIZZY FITZALBONI, discovers herself and her place in the world. Privileged form birth, she must learn that not everyone exists to make life easy for her, while navigating a complex political world where many would like to see her dead.
The Northern Isles are four islands to the west of the great continental empire of Belenos. Midway between Belenos and the western continent of Camar, they are key trading ports, controlling the supply of furs and oils from Camar to Belenos, and of silks and spices back to Camar. When the islands go to war everyone suffers. Lizzy FitzAlboni is the illegitimate child of the King John VII of Albon. His political marriage to Jocinta Tarjani, the granddaughter of the ruler of the second largest island, Sumoast, has always been rocky. When Lizzy is kidnapped just before her 21st birthday evidence points to the queen and her kinsmen in Sumoast. Jocinta is exiled back to her family. In Albon, political and religious currents awaken as religious authorities object to the queen’s exile and the people agitate for further reform of the political system. Lizzy becomes involved, while raising her brothers. When her friend Lord Gos Val goes missing while on in Belenos, Lizzy and her friends must investigate, but are too late to prevent the war everyone knows is coming.
(Synopsis taken from Hidden Fire‘s Amazon page, linked above.)
In the end, I didn’t enjoy this book – but I’d like to go ahead and start by discussing a bit of what Hidden Fire did well, then what it didn’t, and finally what I hope to take away from reading this for improving my own work.
- I really enjoyed the setting of Hidden Fire. While we spend most of the time on the island of Albon (functionally an 1800’s faux-Britain; Albion), the diversity of political entities all vying for dominance within the world of Erce created a colorful and interesting backdrop. The social issues which the book attempts to tackle further develop and present the world around the characters.
- The politics and machinations are designed well, and given a proper sense of urgency and cleverness. Once the book picks up pace as the characters leave their island home to visit the continental empire of Belenos, the political spiderwebs start to become very interesting to watch.
However, while I did enjoy the setting and the general on-going schemes and ploys, I unfortunately found much more to my distaste than to my enjoyment.
- There was minimal conflict. I think this is the biggest criticism I have of Hidden Fire, and one which encompasses some of the other weak points. Throughout the story, I found that any time a problem arose, one or another of the characters was able to handle it easily, with little-to-no sense of distress or difficulty. Lizzy is abducted in the first chapters of the book; that arc ends around a fifth of the way through (according to my Kindle’s % tracker) with her stabbing her kidnapper and casually walking away. Throughout, it feels like a sequence of events, rather than the ongoing trials and tribulations of a plot.
- I think the main flaw in the above is that there is no primary antagonist. Sure, Queen Jocinta is discussed frequently as being the Bad Woman, who does Bad Things, but I felt that she never really was an actively malevolent force making the characters’ lives more difficult. However, whenever Lizzy (or another major character) wants to do something, there isn’t someone standing in the way saying ‘Nuh-uh!’ A good comparison, I believe, is to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Voldemort is, of course, the Villain – but Dolores Umbridge is who we hate. Without that active, on-screen source of malevolence of an Umbridge – or even a Snape – the characters never feel challenged.
- The promises made in the Prologue are not fully realized. In the beginning, we’re given a scene involving the birth of Lizzy FitzAlboni as the remaining child of a set of twins; her father and uncle (themselves twins) recognize the royal magic inside her. Hints and teeny-tiny tidbits of this magic are dropped throughout the book, but it isn’t until the last chapters that we seen magic in action – and then it’s EVERYWHERE, no stops. Lizzy never realizes that she has magic (in this volume), which to me is the broken promise. For me, the Prologue set up an expectation which wasn’t met.
- The Synopsis/Blurb set up genre expectations which were handled clumsily. Going in, I was just expecting a somewhat-standard Fantasy story. In my opinion, this story was more a blend of LGBTQ+ and Fantasy. I see two primary plotlines. First, there’s the “Albon slowly heading to war with Sumoast” plotline; second, there’s the “Suffragette Princess” plotline. While I’m sure someone more talented than I could weave these two flawlessly, to my reading experience they seemed at odds with one another.
- Perspective and viewpoints were handled poorly. This might just be my own personal tastes, but I believe that a story written in 3rd Omniscient could have taken better advantage of that perspective. In truth, Hidden Fire seemed to flirt the boundary between Omniscient and Limited; often the reader was left reading chapter after chapter of mainly Lizzy’s viewpoint (which makes sense, because she’s the main character). However, in other chapters and scenes the viewpoint would flicker from one head to another to another. I think the book would have benefited from choosing either to do 3rd Limited (with multiple perspectives), or to go really crazy with the viewpoints, and let us see more people from all over the world. The viewpoint was Omniscient, but for the most part we were trapped to whatever location Lizzy was in.
There’s two main lessons that I want to take away from Hidden Fire:
- Ensure conflict, mainly with an on-screen antagonist.
- Try to set up and then fulfill the reader’s expectations.
With The Rule of Iron, I really don’t have an on-screen antagonist (in my current draft, there’s no ‘Dolores Umbridge’ type character), which is certainly something I can improve. I’ve already had some thought regarding this bouncing around in my head, but I feel it’s a bit more clearly defined now. (I’ll not name characters, just in case of future readers.)
You’ve gotta give the audience someone to love, and you’ve gotta give the audience someone to hate. That’s just how stories work.
Good stories build strong emotions in their readers. I might even go so far as to suggest that what makes those stories good is the emotions they invoke. If we didn’t love Sam, or hate (and pity) Gollum, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.
I’m not sure what types of expectations I’m setting up for my readers with The Rule of Iron. It’s definitely something to go and ask my current and future readers. This probably isn’t as relevant for me right now as it will be once I’m working on a blurb/synopsis of my own. Rule doesn’t have a prologue (although Jiharel does, and Jiharel‘s prologue is written strictly to make sure that the reader has the right kind of expectation), but the first few chapters can still set expectations and important tones for a piece.
Anyway, some thoughts. If you think Hidden Fire sounds interesting apart from my own opinion, I encourage you to go and check it out! Just because I didn’t enjoy a book doesn’t mean others won’t.
Until next week, then.