Saturday, December 29, 2012

Top Blog Posts of 2012

The year 2012 is almost at an end--and what a year it has been! As we think over what this year has brought us, let's also look back at some of the highlights of the blog this past year. So, without further ado, here are the top 15 blog posts of 2012! (Posts are listed in chronological order.)

The Hows and Whys of Naming God in Your Fantasy Story

The Weapons in Fantasy Series -- Swords, Bows, Armor

The Fashion in Fantasy Series -- Females, Males, Shoes

The Villain Series -- 5 Ways to Kill Your Villain, Recipe for a Dark Lord

Easter and Fantasy

The Names Series -- Names in the Bible, How to Name Your Characters

Costs and Benefits of Self-Publishing

The Colors in Fantasy Series -- Tools, Opposites

So go ahead and click those links to read any posts you missed! And if you liked other posts from the blog, be sure to comment and let me know. I look forward to an even better 2013!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ships & the Ocean in Fantasy

Occasionally I will open a new book, and, within the first few pages, I’ll notice something different: the salty tang of the ocean breeze, the soft splash of waves breaking against the prow of a ship, the creak of the rigging—in short, the story is set at sea.

Fantasy stories set in or around the sea are somewhat rare, but a few authors have produced lovely stories of ships, islands, and voyages. Some prime examples are C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Chronicles.

Today, we’ll discuss several things that make sea stories powerful—and then, some warnings and cautions when writing tales set at sea. First, the positives.

The most important aspect is how rare oceanic settings are in fantasy. So few fantasy stories are set at sea that it’s always refreshing to read one. (Mind you, other elements—such as air—are even more neglected and deserve a few well-crafted fantasies of their own.)

Second, stories of voyages always possess a lovely old-fashioned medieval atmosphere. Ships and the sea possess a nostalgia as we moderns become ever more confined to cars, airplanes, and our electric-lighted-GPS-guided cities. To be out on the open sea, able to gaze up at the Milky Way (or, rather, the constellations of your own galaxies)—it’s a beauty we seldom enjoy. (That’s not to say that everything about sailing was golden. Remember, sailors sometimes had to eat rats! Don’t let life on board the ship get too comfortable!)

Next, stories of voyages have the potential to explore any number of fantastic settings in the form of islands along the way. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there’s a desert island inhabited by a dragon; a prosperous and independent island tyrannized by slave traders; an island with little invisible dwarf-like creatures each possessing a single enormous foot; and more. The possibilities for variations of culture, dress, language, and so forth on various islands are nearly limitless.

Furthermore, oceanic tales afford the possibility for underwater fantasy creatures. Among the possibilities are merfolk, nereids, talking seahorses, krakens, or some species of your own design. If you do write a sea story, be sure to include some sort of fantasy sea creatures so that your readers are reminded that this is no ordinary oceanic tale.

Finally, stories set at sea can offer the dual sense of discovery and danger. Voyages have defined goals or purposes (traveling from point A to point B is common, but exploration—say, for new lands or for lost people or for gold—are often used as well) that serve to give the story united thrust. There’s constant tension in the form of the potential of running out of food or of being shipwrecked or lost at sea. The sense of direction and danger in sea stories give them a hidden power.

However, before you run to your pen/computer to begin writing, let me warn you that oceanic fantasy stories have severe flaws that we as writers must face.

The first and most crucial warning is that stories of voyages have the potential to get very boring, very fast. Because there are a limited number of characters on ship, there’s not as much suspense. Readers can guess the source of the conflicts, and thus they don’t have the sense of “what’ll happen next” to keep them turning pages. Just as the ocean starts to look the same after a while, so too do stories of voyages.

Furthermore, oceanic stories are often episodic, with each stop on an island like a “mini-story” in the middle of one long, boring voyage. Unlike most stories, which possess a cohesive narrative that makes the story flow smoothly from one scene to the next, stories of voyages often jerk the reader from one island to the next in a series of unconnected adventures.

Finally, stories set at sea are predictable. The same obstacles seem to come up in all of them: hunger, storms, shipwreck, sea monsters, drowning…the list goes on. Again, this will leave your reader bored and without suspense.

However, there is redeeming potential in oceanic fantasies. As always, my recommendation is to invert the expected elements to make them the opposite of what readers will be watching for. For example, try making the sea bright pink instead of blue. I guarantee that your readers will be at least momentarily diverted. You could also have portals inside the ship that transport characters to other places, making the ship a transportation device on the inside rather than the outside. Or you could place the ocean in the interior of a ship rather than its exterior. Once you begin looking for ways to contradict the expected norms, the opportunities are endless.

What about you—have you read any good fantasies set at sea? Have you ever written any oceanic fantasy tales? Any pros or cons or helpful tips to add to the list above?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Day of Rest and Review, Part 2

Two weeks ago, the first part of my series of two posts on a "day of rest and review" was featured on the Holy Worlds blog. Here's the opening of part 2, published today.
In part 1, I discussed the concept of a “DoRR”: a Day of Rest and Review devoted to God and centered on your writing. Just to recap, here’s the overall structure I suggested for your day:

1. Begin with Scripture, prayer, and journaling.
2. Look Back
3. Look Now
4. Look Ahead
5. Close in Scripture, prayer, and journaling.

In today’s post, I’ll take a closer look at the “meat” of the DoRR—the three middle portions of look back, look now, and look ahead.

Read the rest of the blog post at this link. And, for a dose of much-needed writing humor, here is Calvin and Hobbes.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Why are Fantasy "Boarding School" Books So Popular?

Harry Potter. Vampire Academy. Princess Academy. So many modern fantasy novels are set within the walls of a school—preferably a boarding school. But why? What is the attraction of school setting? That is what I will explore in today’s blog post.

First, school settings are familiar. As readers, it’s quite simple to wrap our minds around the idea of a school, simply because we’ve all been in school before. We know what to expect—homework, exams, classes, nice teachers and nasty ones. Even if we haven’t gone to boarding school (or homeschooled), it takes only a sight stretch of the imagination to picture the setting of a school.

Second, though, what makes these books interesting is that it’s school—with a twist. The school settings of fantasy books are intriguing not because they’re familiar but because they’ve got something different to them. Hogwarts in Harry Potter is interesting because it teaches magic. Princess Academy is exciting because it’s preparing uneducated mountain girls to act like princesses. Vampire Academy is intriguing because…well…let’s not go there. The point is, all of these schools sound much less boring than our schools were (although this may be an issue of “the grass is greener,” since learning takes work wherever we may go to school!). The “school with a twist” concept is interesting because of the way it combines the familiar with the exciting.

What’s more, these school stories are places we’d like to attend. Of course, we might not want to have to fend for our lives against dark wizards (Harry Potter) or prepare to marry a prince we’ve never met (Princess Academy), but in general, the school is engaging enough that we’d want to trade our own “boring” school experiences for these more exciting fictional schools.

An often-overlooked and very subtle benefit of school settings, though, is the innate structure of a school story. The school year has a very definite beginning and end, along with breaks for Christmas and the like, which forces authors to condense the story into one-year units. While such imposed structure may not work for every story, it does wonders to the outline of the story when there are definite deadlines by which x actions must take place.

A complement to the structure of school stories is the automatic multilayered plot. Obviously, on the surface level, there is conflict arising from teachers and homework and exams. However, there are also opportunities for conflicts among classmates. Then, too, in fantasy stories, there’s usually some darker villain looming in the shadows who must be conquered by the end of the school year. So many layers of conflict embedded in the story make it much more lifelike and interesting.

So there you have it: top reasons why school stories are so popular. They’re familiar, they have a twist that keeps them from boredom, they’re places we’d like to attend, the stories have structure, and they have an automatic multilayered plot.

Comment below and let me know your favorite school story, or tell us if you’ve been writing a school story yourself!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Guest Post: Day of Rest & Review

I have the pleasure to announce that the Holy Worlds blog is now featuring part 1 of 2 of a series on a "day of rest and review" by yours truly. The first post is available at this link, and the second will be posted next week. Here is my introduction to the series:
In this series of blog posts, I’m going to talk about the benefits of taking one day each 6-12 months off of your work or studies to rest and review your writing. There’s a parallel for this in the business world: it’s called a “personal development review,” which is a term you might see if you brave the world of cubicles (prison cells) in the member care or human relations department of a large company. It’s not a thought that would normally cross the farthest reaches of a starving scribbler’s mind.

But maybe it should.
I think this subject is one that's largely forgotten yet incredibly important for our development both as writers and as Christians, so I hope you'll take the time to head over to Holy Worlds and check it out. Look around the blog while you're at it, too!

As a side note, you may have noticed that Faerie & Faith has been somewhat silent the past two weeks. I do believe it's becoming  an annual tradition for me to post very little in the month of November (which is the month in which writers go crazy and sit at keyboards for hours on end trying to reach 50,000 or more words before the end of the month). If you're interested in my thoughts on Nano, you can find them here. Enjoy, and be assured: I'm now back in the full swing of blogging, and plan to post all the more in December.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Colors in Fantasy, Part 2: Opposites

In last week's post, I discussed the surprising lessons on writing that I've learned from Photoshop. I went into detail on Photoshop's tools of hue, value, and saturation, and shared their applications to fantasy. This week, I'd like to look at another facet of colors and writing: color opposites.

First up is warm versus cool. Warm colors are basically colors that make you feel warm: yellows and reds and oranges. Cool colors, then, are colors that feel cold: blues and greens and purples. The contrast between warm and cool can be used in your writing, not just in colors.

A lot of stories will assign the "bad guys" to either warm or cool colors, and then make the "good guys" have an opposite color scheme. For example, the White Witch's castle in Narnia was made of ice, which has cool blue tones. In contrast, Aslan's camp featured bright reds and oranges, and Aslan himself was a tawny gold. Writers often use the opposite pattern, too, and give the villains red colors (like in Star Wars, the Sith have red lightsabers) and give the good guys cold colors (again in Star Wars, the Jedi have blue and green and purple lightsabers). Experiment with the contrasts that work best in your story, and remember to have the color scheme flow from your characters. The White Witch's personality was icy and so her color scheme was cool; Aslan's character was roaring like a fire and so his color scheme was warm.

Next, we have the contrast between light and dark. We've discussed it a bit in last week's section on "value," but let me add a couple more thoughts here. The obvious way for writers to use light and darkness is to add mystery and danger to the setting. Dark scenes seem more evil or more ominous.

However, that's not how it has to be! What if you led your character down a brightly-lit white corridor rather than a dark, spooky one? You'd need to be more subtle about the sense of approaching danger, but it's quite possible to have a sense of looming evil in light just as much as darkness. One such setting I remember from a childhood classic was in Charlie and the Chocolate factory, when Charlie entered the pure-white Television Chocolate Room. While it didn't feel evil by any means, there were hints of "darkness" and danger even in the spotless room. So play with your use of light and darkness, and, as I said last week, never fear to invert.

The last area of contrast we'll look at today is analogous, complementary, and tertiary colors. For all of you who have never taken an art class, let me explain those daunting terms. Look at the circle of color (also called "color wheel") on the right. The colors right next to each other--orange and yellow, for example--are analogous. The colors directly opposite each other--red and green or purple and yellow--are complementary. Tertiary colors are the colors that intersect at each third of the wheel--so we have red, blue, and yellow on the one hand or purple, orange, and green on the other. (Do note that Photoshop uses a somewhat different color wheel that I thought would be a bit too confusing to explain here. If you're interested, here's a link to a great explanation.)

Surprisingly, these color divisions can be quite helpful in crafting your story. As with the other contrasting areas, a major way to use these colors is to show the difference between your good and evil characters. Many writers use complementary (directly opposite) colors to differentiate good and evil. For example, in the movie versions of Harry Potter, the villain's magic was green and the hero's was red (red and green are complementary/opposites). You'll notice that these colors also contrast by being warm and cold. The other color divisions are mostly helpful when you're short on ideas of details you can use to make your characters memorable. Instead of saying X character wore a purple sweater, say she wore a lavender one (analogous colors). These colors are also good to explore what colors work well in overall scenery (say, in the king's court): you can have his standard composed of blue and red elements on a background of green (tertiary colors).

I'll now venture into the most controversial area of color in fantasy: racial diversity. The color of each character's skin in a fantasy story is more important--and more overlooked--than one might think. For example, did you realize that all characters in Tolkien's Middle Earth are white (aside from orcs, who may or may not be underneath all that grime)? In Christopher Paolini's Eragon, only a few characters were black and none had features that I recognized as Asian/otherwise-non-white. I'd like to appeal to all aspiring fantasy writers, then, to add a bit more diversity to your tales. Skin tones are areas where we as fantasy writers have such incredible room for imagination. Don't feel confined to white characters simply because you've never read of blue-skinned elves! Use the color of your character's skin as another medium to communicate the deep themes of your story or the imagination of your world.

Overall, using opposite color elements (whether in warm v. cool, light v. dark, or complementary/analogous/tertiary) is a great way to add contrast to your writing. And, too, adding details of color makes the story more memorable to your readers. Use color as an opportunity to explore and expand your fantasy world!

All the best in your writing this week!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Color in Fantasy, Part 1: Tools

Over the past few weeks, I've been learning the delicate, obstinate, and so-called art of Photoshop. I've spent many frustrated hours staring at a canvas, paintbrush in hand, contemplating the next brushstroke--excuse me, I should say, hunched over the keyboard, manipulating pixels click by click. But let me get to my point. Through my journey in photoshop, I've learned quite a few things about correcting, manipulating, and applying color in digital images. And then I realized something even more interesting (especially for those who have stuck with me through this introductory paragraph): writers can learn a lot about using color in writing fantasy from Photoshop.

How do colors apply to fantasy, you ask? Well, let's look at it as Photoshop would: tool-by-tool.

First up is hue. The hue refers to the pure, undiluted, rainbow-like colors that most people would consider "colors." Hue means yellow, green, blue, red, magenta, orange--in their purest form. From a writing perspective, you want to make full use of the range of colors hue offers. If one character has a green cardigan, then for goodness' sake don't give another character a green scarf! Add variety and even spice to your story by mixing up the colors you use. A girl wears purple glasses. A boy has orange shoelaces. Hue is excellent for variety in details, and for making particular characters distinct based on what color they are associated with.

Second, we've got value. That's how much darkness each color has. To get a bit technical, a value of 50% is the pure color, the hue, that we talked about above. Black is 0% value. White is 100% value. Now this is all quite fascinating, but from a writer's perspective, the "value" tool has a practical usefulness. The levels of darkness (value) in each setting, each object, and even each character add depth and symbolism to your story. Obviously, a darker setting is more mysterious, more scary, more evil--in short, it's metaphorically darker. Tolkien's Mines of Moria were in deep darkness, which added to the spookiness and the sense of danger in the setting. Even objects that are darker in value seem to be symbolically darker in purpose. So play around with the value tool in your writing, and consider the levels of darkness in your story and how they affect the tale.

Third up is saturation. Saturation is the "purity" of each color. Again, to be technical, 100% saturation is the hue (pure color), and 0% saturation is white. Value measures from white to black; saturation only measures from white to hue (pure color). Why is saturation valuable for fantasy writers especially? Obviously, as with hue and value, saturation is great for adding a variety of memorable colors to your story (chartreuse, for example). It's also great for atmosphere in settings. Even further, though, one of the most fantastic parts of fantasy is that we don't have to accept the world the way it is. For example, what if your villain threatens to remove all the saturation from the world, making the world a colorless white? Or what if your world is colorless (0% saturation), and then your hero(ine) discovers color? It's fascinating to imagine the implications!

To sum up what we've been discussing, these three tools--hue, value, and saturation--together produce all the colors possible. Any color you can imagine (and a few that you probably can't) comes from a combination of hue, saturation, and value (commonly abbreviated HSB in physics textbooks and Photoshop alike).  Use them to add detail, variety, mood, and the fantastic to your story.

One last comment about color tools: when in doubt, invert. Do the opposite of what you normally would. Give your villains something white to wear and hide the scary monsters in the light forest rather than the dark one. Have the villains attempt to unleash color on the unsuspecting population, and make your heroes defend the cause of 0% saturation! Consider making your hero's favorite color your personal least favorite. Each of these "unusual" choices will add a definitely unique flavor to your fantasy. Always experiment and invert!

There's a lot more to consider about colors in fantasy, so be on the lookout for part 2 coming next week!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: Peter's Angel

Title: Peter’s Angel (first volume in the Peter’s Angel trilogy)
Author: Aubrey Hansen
Page Count: 336 pages

Stars: 4.5 of 5
4.5 = an excellent book that was gripping and enjoyable

Teaser: In the wake of a lost War for Independence, Peter Jameson, a young colonel, struggles to protect his tiny patriot state of Rhode Island from the oppression of New Britain. When New Britain invades, Peter finds himself leading his small cavalry against the massive British army. But war becomes the least of his worries when his own men kidnap him and hold him for ransom. Facing certain death, Peter is freed by a mysterious boy who vanishes without leaving his name. Peter determines to find his "angel" and reward him. But his rescuer has a secret of his own, and he will do anything to keep from being found.

That summary barely does anything to scratch the multifaceted surface of Peter's Angel, but it'll have to do for now until you read the book for yourself!

Age level: Teens and up (13+)

Violence: 2 of 5
2 = PG-level violence that's a minor theme in the book

Romance: 2 of 5
2 = romance is minor but present

Language: 0 of 5 (although language is implied in one scene)

Christian worldview: Peter’s Angel is an explicitly religious/Christian novel, which makes it particularly interesting to read and review. Altogether, I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle-yet-present thread of spiritual commentary throughout the story. It worked perfectly in light of the setting in alternate-American-colonial-times. Also, Hansen wove in discussions on courtship, swearing, and God’s role in world events in an extremely skillful way—some of the best I’ve read in Christian fiction. Peter’s Angel presents an excellent example of how to write a Christian book.

My Personal Opinion: First, a few comments about what bumped this book from 5-star status. The beginning felt a bit heavy and factual and, although interesting, it could’ve used a bit more conflict. Also, even considering that Peter’s Angel is a trilogy, the ending felt rather abrupt and made me very, very impatient for the next book.

Now for the good points. The concept itself is extremely fascinating. It’s historical fiction plus that sense of questioning and exploring reality, that sense of asking, “what if something had happened differently?” In terms of the writing, the characters were my favorite aspect of the book. Each voice was distinct and the use of details to differentiate the various characters worked well. Although the action may have been slow to start, once it did begin, there was an excellent balance of character and plot-driven conflict. The setting was well-crafted, and Hansen’s marvelous use of details made each scene spring to life before my eyes.

All in all, I’d highly recommend Peter’s Angel. If you’re at all interested in Christian fiction, I’d definitely suggest that you read Peter’s Angel, both for pleasure and to learn from a job well done!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

4 Myths About YA Fantasy

Today I have the honor of being part of Inklined’s blog tour on young adult books in honor of National Teen Read Week (in the US). 

For those of you who regularly visit my blog, you may have noticed that many of my recent book reviews have dealt with young adult (YA) fantasy books. Well, today’s my chance to explain why you should read YA fantasy too. To do so, I’ll bust four common myths about YA fantasy.

Myth #1: All YA fantasy is about vampires.
Falser than false teeth! Sure, there’s Twilight and Vampire Diaries and a whole slew of vampire-related books. However, they certainly don’t dominate the entire market. There are sub-genres of YA fantasy about fairies (Swift), about Greek myth (Percy Jackson), about fairy tales (Ella Enchanted), about traditional Medieval fantasy (Inkheart), and so much more. The vampire books may coat the surface of YA fantasy, but just like when searching for gold, you need to dig a little deeper to find the treasure.

Myth #2: YA fantasy has less mature content than adult fantasy.
Sadly, this myth is both true and false. There are many books, especially those intended for a middle-grade (preteen to early teen) audience, that have a minimum or no adult content. However, especially as you start progressing into full-on YA fantasy, the mature content escalates until, sometimes, it’s indistinguishable from an adult book. So before you plunge into a YA fantasy book, be sure to check out reviews to make sure you won’t be in over your head.

Myth #3: YA fantasy is too short.
Okay, so some YA fantasy doesn’t top 200 pages. But there are other works of YA fantasy that are 600, 700, even 800 or more pages long. For a few examples, think of the Eragon series or the Harry Potter series (at least the later books). One benefit of having such a wide range of page counts to choose from is that you can pick a book according to how much time you have to read. Pick a short book to breeze through for the weekend, and a long book to relish over winter break.

Myth #4: YA fantasy is “second-rate” fiction.
Definitely false! YA fantasy is just like any fantasy, or any fiction, for that matter. There may be shoddy work, but there are also plenty of gems waiting to be discovered. One way to discover them is to look for books that have won awards (ALA best book for young adults, for example). Or go to your favorite book reviewer and ask them for recommendations. Whatever you do, I can assure you that you will eventually find an example of YA fantasy that you truly love.

I hope this blog post has piqued your interest for YA fantasy. Check out some of my book reviews, or stop by Inklined to see some more blog posts about YA fantasy. And, of course, don’t forget to comment about YA fantasy myths you’d like to bust!

Sienna North is a writer, poet, and photographer. Her hobbies include reading Medieval literature, traveling around the world, and doodling in watercolor. She blogs right here at Faerie & Faith as well as on her photo blog, Sienna North Photography. She plans to self-publish her first novel, a YA book about Japan's 2011 tsunami, in March 2013.

Faerie & Faith is a blog for writers and readers of Christian fantasy. Since its inception in mid-2011, blog posts have dealt with such issues as using magic in stories, "God" in fantasy, and book reviews of (mostly fantasy) novels. While the focus of the blog has begun to shift away from strictly fantasy-related subjects, the fantastic will always be an important part of Faerie & Faith.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: Inkheart

Title: Inkheart
Author: Cornelia Funke (Translated from the German by Anthea Bell)
Page Count: 534

Stars: 5 of 5
  5 = an amazing book that delivers a punch. Read this! 

Teaser: Imagine it were possible to bring the characters from a book to life. Not like when someone reads a book with such enchantment that the characters seem to jump off the pages and into your bedroom…but for real. Then, imagine if those characters brought their world into ours.

One cruel night, Meggie’s father, Mo, reads aloud from Inkheart. As he reads, an evil ruler named Capricorn escapes the boundaries of fiction and lands in their living room. Somehow, Meggie and Mo must learn to harness the power of reading aloud to end this nightmare.

Age level: Teen and up (13+)

Violence: 3 of 5
3 = between PG and PG-13 violence that plays a major role in the story

Romance: 1 of 5
1 = there's a hint of romance at a PG level

Language: 1 of 5
1 = replacement swear words, implied swearing, etc.

Christian worldview: The major “magical” element is that certain characters in Inkheart can read aloud and bring fictional characters and objects into the “real world.” This is basically explained as a skill and/or a genetic trait, so it doesn’t conflict the Christian worldview. The villains also converted an old church to use as their “audience hall,” but that’s clearly seen as wrong.

My Personal Opinion: This book is one of those rare few that qualifies as an all-time favorite. The concept alone is breathtaking. What if characters in books were real? Funke also opens each chapter with a thought-provoking quote. What’s more, Funke’s characterization made each character seem distinct, vivid, and real. Meggie’s voice especially enchanted me (in a literal and figurative sense). The plot was so gripping and each twist and turn completely unexpected. The climax was absolutely perfect and brilliant.

The one problem with this story? Funke wrote a sequel—in fact, she made it into a trilogy. The story that ends in Inkheart is beautiful, but the story that she continued…well, it didn’t have the same “magical” quality to it that Inkheart did. I finished the trilogy and enjoyed it, but the ending left me definitely disappointed. If you liked Inkheart, then give the other books a try, but be warned: they’re very different in substance and even in style from the original. Inkheart has also been made into a movie, which doesn’t live up to the original at all, but it’s not a horrible movie. In fact, I rather enjoyed it.

So, bottom line: read Inkheart! It’s truly breathtaking.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Review: The Silver Shawl

In today’s post, I’ll be reviewing a book, but not just any old book. Today's story is a historical mystery novella by Elisabeth Grace Foley. Why the changeup? For one thing, today is the publication of The Silver Shawl, and it’s fun to celebrate with authors as they release their new books. For another thing, I love Agatha Christie’s books—if you don’t, you need to—and The Silver Shawl was highly reminiscent of Christie’s work. Plus, it’s enjoyable and fun to read. So, with that said, let me enter full review mode.

Title: The Silver Shawl
Author: Elisabeth Grace Foley
Page Count: 45

Stars: 4 of 5
4 = well-written and a good read

Teaser: In a small town in turn-of-the-century Colorado, a young woman has disappeared from the boarding-house where she lives. Her distraught fiancé is certain that she must have been kidnapped. But the case takes a new turn when a city detective appears on the scene, looking for a woman who matches the description of the missing girl. Was Charity really kidnapped, or did she have a reason to flee? Mrs. Meade, a gentle but shrewd widow lady who lives across the hall in the boarding-house, feels that there is something wrong with the story of Charity's disappearance...but can she unravel the mystery before it is too late?

Age level: Preteens and up (10+)

Violence: 2 of 5
1 = mild injuries appropriate for all ages

Romance: 1 of 5
1 = there's a hint of romance at a PG level

Language: 0 of 5

Christian worldview: No religious concerns of note. On the positive side, Silver Shawl had a sweet and Biblical portrayal of the fiancé-fiancée relationship.

My Personal Opinion: I don’t usually read novellas, much less historical novellas, much less historical mystery novellas, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began Foley’s book. From the beginning, however, I was captivated by Foley’s use of details. The descriptions of characters, the settings, the small gestures—everything felt vivid and true-to-life.

In the larger, overall structure of the story, the book read a lot like a short story by Agatha Christie. Mrs. Meade wasn’t quite a Mrs. Marple, but there were certain similarities nonetheless. The mystery wasn’t obvious, either; it left me guessing for quite a long time, which is saying a lot, for me. 

My one point of criticism is that the end of the story lagged a bit. There wasn't quite enough tension to keep the story going for the last few pages. However, otherwise, the story and characters were spot-on.

So, in all, I enjoyed The Silver Shawl quite a bit. If you haven’t had the chance yet to discover this marvelous world of short historical mystery, I suggest that you start right now! And you can leave a comment, too, to celebrate a fellow-writer’s self-publication day.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: The Fetch

In today's post, I'll review a book I read recently called The Fetch, which has a fantastic premise about Anastasia Romanov but (in my opinion) a rather flawed execution. A word of caution: this book is the first in a proposed series. While it stands alone acceptably enough, the story is not quite complete by the end of the novel.

Title: The Fetch
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Page Count: 384 pages

Stars: 3 of 5
  • 3 = enjoyable. May have minor content issues or flaws in the writing.
Teaser: Calder is a Fetch, a “death escort” who brings the souls of the dying to a decidedly non-Christian heaven (there is no Hell, as Calder explains). After falling in love with an earthly woman, he breaks his vows as a Fetch and stays on earth to try to find her. The woman happens to be one of the Romanovs, on the way to her death on the eve of the Russian Revolution. The story “solves” the mystery of why Anastasia and Alexei’s bodies were not found with the rest of their family.

Age level: Mid-teens and up (15+)

Violence: 3 of 5
  • 3 = between PG and PG-13 violence that plays a major role in the story
Romance: 2 of 5
  • 2 = romance is minor but present (for instance, one kiss at the end of the story)
  • Note: this book is technically classified as "supernatural romance." However, I felt the romance was really a side issue and hardly came up until the very end.
Language: 1 of 5
  • 1 = replacement swear words
Christian worldview: Clearly, the idea of a Heaven without a Hell is contrary to Christianity at its heart. If everyone is saved, then how can God have any justice or integrity? To be honest, God was really brushed aside in the story as an unsolvable mystery. The book did mention a historical Flood and Tower of Babel, but its explanations were again not entirely Biblical.

My thoughts: My favorite part of this story was the incorporation of the Russian Revolution and the Romanovs. By setting it in such a specific time and place, Whitcomb managed to surpass the ordinary clichés of supernatural fantasy and add suspense in regard to how she would clear up the mystery of Anastasia. The idea of Fetches was also intriguing, although I don’t think the philosophy of them stands up at all against the Bible. Still, not a bad idea.

As far as the romance goes, even though the book is billed as “supernatural romance,” there really wasn’t any romantic interaction between the characters until nearly the very end. It almost left me wondering whether there would be any after all.

The book’s biggest weakness, in my opinion, was that it was far too long. The characters spend half of the book on a chase around the world that seems pointless, and then the ending breaks in abruptly. If instead the author had ended the story about halfway through the book, with the excitement of death and danger still in the air, I might have been a lot more satisfied.

Overall, The Fetch was an enjoyable read but not outstanding. I’d recommend it to those interested in Anastasia or in the modern genre of supernatural romance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: The Swan Maiden

The Swan Maiden grabbed my attention with its gorgeous cover. The contents of this fairy-tale-spinoff kept me (mostly) enchanted, although in all I must say that the cover almost exceeds the story. Enjoy the review, and don't forget to leave a comment below!

Title: The Swan Maiden
Author: Heather Tomlinson
Page Count: 304 pages

Stars: 3 of 5
  • 3 = enjoyable. May have minor content issues or flaws in the writing.

Teaser: Doucette wants to be a “swan maiden,” a creature of flight and magic, like her two elder sisters. At last, she has the chance to realize her dream—but the day comes when she must decide between love and magic.

Age level: Teens and up (13+)

Violence: 2 of 5
  • 2 = PG-level violence that's a minor theme in the book

Romance: 3 of 5
  • 3 = romance is a major theme of the story but is appropriate for teens

Language: 0 of 5

Christian worldview: The magic in this story seems to be hereditary and viewed with suspicion or even dislike. (See this post for my thoughts on how magic in fantasy can or can’t mesh with faith.) The biblical lesson that a little power makes you want a little more is clearly told. The value of faithful love is also evident in the story.

My thoughts: This story was an elegant and enjoyable fantasy. I immediately connected with the feelings of jealousy and longing that Doucette experienced as she watched her older sisters flaunt their magic in front of her. The hero of the story, while a bit cliché, did show a lot of courage and honor and loyalty. Although the setting is a medieval fantasy, Tomlinson manages to deftly sidestep clichés by making the story focused on medieval France and incorporating very vivid details of life to make the setting come alive to readers.

My major problem with The Swan Maiden was a decision Doucette made towards the end of the story. The decision felt too selfish for her and unlike the way she’d behaved in the past. I didn’t think it was completely necessary for the story, either, particularly considering the ending. Still, it taught her a good lesson that I won’t spoil here.

In sum, The Swan Maiden was a light fantasy with good themes. A nice book to read with a cup of tea on a rainy day.