Saturday, May 2, 2015

Reading as a Writer

So many books, so little time
One thing about writing is that it really eats into one's reading time. I used to devour a good book in 2-3 days, because I'd sit for hours with my nose buried in it. But writing (and yes, the siren's song of social media) means that I don't have hours of free time to lose myself in novels. It's been a while since I got sucked into a book I couldn't put down until it was finished, and the last time I did (the book was Robin Hobb's Fool's Assassin, by the way), I felt guilty that I did no work on my writing for a couple of days.

Another issue is that I have a very long list of novels I "should" be reading. Instead of seeking out books by old favorites (like Robin Hobb), I'm trying to read newer secondary world fantasy, especially successful debuts and top sellers from the past few years. And of course, there are also those award winning novels, or classic novels that everyone and their brother is talking about or recommending yet somehow fell through the cracks of my own awareness until recently.

And oh, God, I need to be reading more short fiction too, so maybe I can get over the block that stops me from coming up with short story ideas more than once in a blue moon.

The problem is, when I'm doing something because you "should" be doing it, even when it's something you enjoy and the book in question is really good, I have a harder time staying focused on it. Especially when I've got a couple of new novels I'm trying to get cracking on.

I thought I'd toss out some of the things I've read (or been reading) recently, however, as well as some books that are on my ever-growing to-read list.

Books I've finished recently

Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke: I loved her Stormlords books, so I was excited to see she had something new out. Interesting characters and world, though I didn't get quite as drawn in as I did with her previous trilogy. It's a little more standard-issue fantasy, though the interplay between the main characters is intriguing.

Shards of Time by Lynn Flewelling: The last novel in her long-running Nightrunners series. I've been reading her work since the early 2000s (when I discovered the Tamir Triad), and I love her characters and world. Sad to see it end, though I thought this one was maybe a bit flatter than some of her previous books about Alec and Seregil. Ending a long-running series is hard, though.

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan: A Gunpowder fantasy set in a society where the monarchy has just been overthrown. An unusual magic system and meddlesome gods (one with a penchant for cooking) adds a nice touch to this debut. The writing's a bit  klunky (as if the author couldn't quite decide if he wanted the pov to be omniscient or limited third), but it's a first novel. The dysfunctional, love-hate, father-son relationship between two of the main characters is fascinating as well.

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler: Another fantasy set in a society that feels like the late 1700s. Interesting world, though it feels like a lot of novel one is set up. Some nice surprises, and I like that the relationship between three female characters is important to the story. This is a fantasy debut, but I believe the author has published in other genres previously. A friend of mine from Cascade Writers says he's in her critique group and is a really nice guy, so I definitely wanted to give his book a read.

The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato: A debut steampunk novel by a writer I met at a workshop (Cascade Writers) three years ago. I don't read a lot of steampunk, but I enjoyed her setting, characterization and the romantic arc. Reminded me a bit of a Joan Aiken novel for grownups (I loved Joan Aiken as a child) Her protagonist is a healer, and I thought her healing system was really fascinating. Thankfully very different from mine.

Books I'm reading:

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: Just read first couple chapters. Looks to be a court intrigue fantasy stories, and I need to read more of those, since court intrigue figures heavily in my Umbral series, especially book 2 (which I'm working on now). Also, it's a Hugo contender, and I'm voting in the Hugos this year. The writing is really good and lyrical, though the pov (third person, pretty zoomed out with omniscient parts) is more distant than my preference.

Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg: A few years old now, but I'm reading it because I discovered that the main character is addicted to a pain-based magic, which should be familiar to anyone who's been beta reading for me. The particulars are different, though her stories and characters are similar to mine in some ways--broken heroes with plenty of internal conflicts and flaws, and she puts them through hell. I like the first person narration and main character, though I'm halfway though, and so far, the story is a bit slow. It takes place in a monastery, and I'm only just getting a feel for the stakes. She's a fine writer, though who is very good at description and scene setting that doesn't break pov or bog the narrative down. It makes me sad that her work is often overlooked by people discussing good modern fantasy writers.

Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley: About halfway through this one, and it's really intriguing. Different kind of world building. I wouldn't call it Grimdark, but it's definitely got a body count and its share of gray-scale characters. She tosses you into the world and culture with very little prompting, and you have to figure out what's going on as you read. Some people have commented that this is difficult to do, but I've been tracking things so far. The main issue I have with it is that the large number of pov characters makes it hard for me to follow or attach myself to any one story (a bit like Martin's work, though she sets things up differently, and I believe the different character arcs intersect more). Fantastic writing, and it's a shame it didn't net a Nebula or Hugo nomination this year.

Cold Fire by Kate Elliott: The second book in the Spiritwalker Trilogy, (first was Cold Magic, which I enjoyed). Sequels have been more on my back burner lately, but I want to get to this one. I enjoyed her world building and characterization in the first one. Also, the focus on a relationship between two female cousins is nice. So often, female characters are stranded in a sea of men in fantasy novels and don't seem to have any important friends or mentors who are women.

Dragon Soul by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett: Loved the first two books in this series, and I'm about halfway through this one. Hoping the boys find the remains of ol' Havemercy and get her going again.

The Dagger's Path by Glenda Larke: Sequel to Lascar's Dagger. Lots of cool stuff, and it appears that the main characters are traveling to the Va-Forsaken lands in spite of the best efforts of 2/3 of them. I've heard that the author modeled them after Malay, where she lived for a long time (and her husband is Malay also), and the setting is very well developed. The only thing I'm struggling with is the addition of two new new povs who have sort of taken over the portion of the story I'm on right now. They're likable and compelling, and I'm guessing their stories will interweave back into those of the three main characters from the previous book. I assume she's telling the story chronologically, so we're not getting anything on these other characters while they're uneventfully on a ship, but it's a bit disquieting, as if they've disappeared from the story. There's no perfect way to do a novel with multiple pov characters (and where the story takes place on different fronts) however.
Books I'm currently stalled out on, though I hope to plow through.

The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan: Sequel to Promise of Blood. Torn on this one. The increasing pathos of one of the pov characters (Taniel Two Shot) and his developing relationship with the enigmatic Ka Poel is interesting, but I'm not connecting well with Adamat this time around (he was less interesting to me than the other three povs in book one also). I can't put my finger on it, but the writing feels more distant and stilted with him, maybe because the author uses this character's proper name in almost every sentence and filters a lot, instead of trusting the reader to know that anything described in one of Adamat's chapters will be what Adamat sees, knows, hears, thinks or feels. I like the story and magic system, however, so I plan on getting back to it.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch: I should love this one, and I suspect it targets a similar demographic to my own novel (being in a sort of early modern era setting and somewhere in between heroic fantasy, noire, and fantasy of manners) but haven't been able to get past the first few chapters. I think it's the omniscient pov. I'm much fonder of first person or a closer limited third these days. But darn it, Lynch has a good reason for wanting to distance the reader a bit from Locke, and there's a lot to like about this world and these characters, so I'm definitely returning to it.

Books on my to-read list

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Because it's a Hugo contender and has gotten some great reviews. A SF novel set in China (and written by someone who is Chinese) is intriguing too.

Ancillary Sword By Anne Leckie: The sequel to Ancillary Justice, the winner of last year's Hugo and Nebula awards. I read AJ, and enjoyed it. The writing was clean and crisp but the author did a good job of capturing the setting and a very unusual pov character. Since AS is a Hugo nominee this year, I'll need to read it by July. Same thing for the other books on the Hugo and Campbell lists, and the short stories that are nominated. My general system for reading for awards is to read until I lose interest, and vote accordingly.

Star Crossed by Elizabeth Bunce: A YA fantasy novel that's categorized as manners fantasy because of its emphasis on intrigue again. While I don't think my own work is quite in that classification (supposedly, magic and combat aren't supposed to figure into fantasies of manners much), I do want to read more of them to see how writers who are good at intrigue spin plausible motives and dilemmas for their characters. I also need to read more YA. So it's in the queue.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. A YA fantasy novel by the master of Grimdark. I enjoyed reading his First Law trilogy, and I really liked the way he created very different narrative voices (in limited third) for each pov character. I'm curious how he approaches a YA novel (written in limited third and not the usual first) and how he's evolved as a writer since his first trilogy (haven't gotten to his interim books yet) and what his new world is like.

 Finn Fancy Necromancy, by Randy Henderson. I don't generally read much UF or humorous fantasy, but I know the author slightly from Cascade Writers, and he's a nice guy with a great sense of humor. The premise looks intriguing and rather unique, so this one is definitely in my queue.

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith: Looks very interesting and a non-standard fantasy setting, neither the contemporary world, nor a quasi-historical society.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal: The idea of something that's like a Jane Austen novel with magic is really intriguing.

The Shadow Throne by Django Wexler: Sequel to The Thousand Names.

The above lists can be added to or rearranged without notice.

So, how do other writers who also have day jobs keep up with their reading? Have you found that you read differently since you've been serious about writing fiction? How do you decide which books to read and how to prioritize them?