When you read a lot of books like I do, it takes quite a bit for something to stand out from the shelves and stick in your mind. A lot of books start to blur together after a while. Now, of course the books that influenced my writing stood out in my mind. If they hadn’t stood out to me, they wouldn’t be an influence now would they? But they aren’t the only books that have stayed in my head. While these books have stayed with me, they don’t necessarily correlate with what I like to write, but at the same time, taught me some extraordinary lessons about writing.
If I tried to summarize the Journey of the Catechist trilogy by Alan Dean Foster, you would probably think it is the most boring and most worn out story in existence. A noble savage is asked by a dying man to rescue a fair princess from the lair of a monster halfway across the world and bring her back to her family. Armed with his few weapons and gifts from his family and tribe, the noble savage sets out on a long and perilous journey to fulfill the man’s dying wish, with the certain knowledge that he shall die at the end of it.
Bah. How boring and tired is this plot?
See, it wasn’t the plot that had me go out and buy the rest of the books in the series. It wasn’t the plot that kept me reading. It was the world building and the adventures and what in the noble savages pack is going to get them out of their dire straits this time? The book would have been utterly boring and predictable if the setting hadn’t been so engaging and inventive.
I can be very forgiving of a predictable plot, as long as the setting and characters are interesting and fresh along the way.
I can’t remember if I bought the Angelwalk trilogy by Roger Elwood or if it was given to me. It was the second book in the trilogy, Fallen Angel that stuck with me. Fallen Angel is the story of Observer, the Chronicler of Lucifer. Observer is obsessed with seeing everything and writing it down. Lucifer encourages this because it keeps Observer by his side. Throughout the book Observer questions the rightness and morality of what Lucifer and the others are doing, but as he doesn’t participate he doesn’t fully feel he can cast judgement. (Now, I say Observer doesn’t participate, however, this is Lucifer we’re talking about and yes, Observer is called upon to take part. He just doesn’t do so under the name of Observer.) Observer is given multiple chances to repent and return to the Angels. Each time, he refuses because of his writing and in the end shares the fate of the rest of the Fallen Angels. And it is brought home that even though he was simply observing and claiming not to take a side, by doing nothing, he had chosen a side, Lucifer’s side.
The imagery in this book is not for the faint of heart. Fallen Angel is the observation of the world through the eyes of a demon. There is a point in the book where Observer has a vision or a dream depending on whether or not you believe demons sleep, about where all the victims of abortion come to him across the plains and ask Observer why he didn’t help them. Why didn’t he stop the practice? If I remember correctly, an angel (Steadfast, I think) comes and tells Observer the possibilities behind each of the babies and takes them to Heaven after giving Observer another chance to return.
The imagery of this book was very compelling, sometimes horrifying, but always compelling. In the guise of Observer, Roger Elwood had a very simple way with description and imagery that kept me turning pages. The words were clear, simple and direct but always exactly the right words needed to paint the picture Observer was seeing and stuck in my head. (I wish I had that way with words.) Perhaps, there is some irony of a writer liking a book about a writer.
The next set of books that stayed with me were written by Timothy Zahn. Now, Timothy Zahn was actually one of the few writers that I trusted in the Star Wars EU. And when it came to going through my books and keeping and getting rid of them, he was one of the author’s I kept. However, I hadn’t and still haven’t read a lot of his writing outside of Star Wars. I picked up the first book of his Conqueror’s Trilogy second hand and had to spend some time to find copies of the second and third book. (And then on my last move, I accidentally left them behind, drat. Note to self: Never, ever, ever, assume a box is empty. Ever.)
Science fiction is one of those genres that can be really hard to get into. The Conqueror’s trilogy straddled the line between “soft” science fiction and “hard” science fiction in a way that was more approachable for the moderately educated reader. They didn’t require the reader to have a degree in physics or biology to understand what was going on.
A lot of science fiction assumes that most aliens have advanced technology far beyond human’s that is usually completely mechanical and relies upon computer interfaces with binary similar to the way our technology works. This is, of course, completely and utterly ridiculous, but everyone has run with it from Isaac Asimov on down because well, it seemed the thing to do? Timothy Zahn decided to toss this idea out the window and wrote a book speculating about what would happen in humans met an alien race that used technology so completely opposite to ours that our technology actually caused their technology pain. This inability to communicate whatsoever sparks a war of misunderstanding, while the scientists on both sides of the lines scramble to figure out what the hell is going on with the other side’s technology and are mutually horrified by what they are finding.
I’ll admit that this wasn’t an easy read. I had to work to finish these books. I am more of a ‘soft’ scifi reader. Star Wars is an excellent example of the scifi I prefer, Heinlein, Asimov in moderation, the very early Frank Herbert, the non-political portions of David Weber and the satirical Robert Asprin. A lot of scifi is either far too technical (which is fine if you enjoy that type of thing) or not character driven enough to be interesting to me. The only reason I finished these books was because the concept was intriguing and interesting enough that I wanted to see how it would all turn out and if the two species could figure out how to settle their differences (which were more along the lines of, ‘hey, your technology is killing our technology’) and come to a mutual peace. Plus, there were mind meld pilots in the mix too to keep me entertained.
That is the power of a good concept. The premise of those books captured my attention and made me remember them.
The last series I want to talk about is once again by Anne Bishop. She is coming up a lot when I talk about books. This time probably not for the reason that you think. No matter how you look at it, there is a certain set way of writing. When you write a book, you have a main character (or two, or three, or half a dozen) and usually the story is told through the viewpoint(s) of them. They are the most important character(s) in the story and the reader gets to intimately (depending on point of view) know their opinions, likes, dislikes and general thoughts about the world around them. Not so in the Black Jewels trilogy by Anne Bishop.
Throughout the entire series of books set in the Black Jewels universe, not once, are we treated to the viewpoint and thoughts of the main female character the entire story revolves around, Janelle D’Angelline. We see Janelle through the lens of her father figure, her brother figure and lover. We see her through her friends and through her parents, family and her enemies, but not once are we treated to the inside of Janelle’s mind and thoughts. A lot of these viewpoints are male, which may be something of a weakness with this trilogy, giving such a strong female figure as the lead and then never using her thoughts. It is a very interesting stylistic choice. One I feel there might be two reasons for, but these are my opinions and possibly hold no weight. Either, Bishop thought that Janelle being Witch, Dreams Made Flesh of all the different races in her universe, that Janelle’s thoughts would be too alien for the reader to be able to sympathize with or, Bishop in her wisdom felt that the topics she was addressing would be way too shocking coming from the victim and decided to add a layer of “insulation” if you will for the reader. Thus, the reader would be horrified and disgusted, but not have the immediacy of the events through Janelle’s eyes.
There are other very strong female characters that Anne Bishop uses later to tell stories through. However, in her first, and major trilogy, she declines. In her later books, Anne Bishop does use a more ‘traditional’ story method, where the main central character to the story is the character we get the primary point of view from. The Black Jewels trilogy stood out in my mind simply because she declined to do so. The books, in my opinion, do not suffer because of this choice! Though sometimes I am very interested in knowing what in hell is Janelle thinking to end up with the conclusion that this has to happen. Other times, I’m extremely grateful not to be in her mind.
So, what makes an outstanding book in my mind can be almost any part of the story making process. It can be an intricate and imaginative world. It can be clear and concise imagery in word choice that sticks in the mind rather than slipping through it. It can be a compelling concept that stands apart from others. Or it can be an interesting style choice on behalf of the writer. These books are clear example of each of these ideas. Now, if there were books that managed to combine these, then we’d be closer to genius I guess.