Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Writing As A Career

Over on Facebook, a friend put up this post and it got me thinking about my "career" (laugh) as a writer, both in its present state and in the future. Could I do that? Could I be a full time writer. I dream of it, like all of us that write do, but reality is a different beast all together.

Now, a few things to note. I am not published. I'm inching closer, I think, and believe in my heart of hearts that one day you will be able to go to your bookstore or click on to Amazon and find my books their, but for now I still proudly bare the banner of "aspiring author." But I'm not approaching it from the angle of a NAIVE aspiring author.

I've always approached the business rather pragmatically and think that I understand parts of it...and other parts I don't, but still I don't get all ruffled over form rejections or nonresponses they way some do. I understand that this is part of the game, but when you enter the game all bets are off. The publishing world is a brutal one and I've been through the grind. I've talked about the "upheaval" for the last few months and while I'm not ready to talk in great detail about it, I left my agent in April. It's left me borderline crushed and I've been in a malaise ever since. But that's not the purpose of this post, I want to talk about my career. Leaving my agent is a story for another time.

I have a pretty good gig as a teacher right now. For the second year in a row I am teaching nothing but seniors. It's a different beast, but one that I think I've managed to wrangle in, but no matter what, it's not a bad gig. I make decent money, I have decent benefits, good hours and I even get to teach creative writing this year. But as with all teachers, there is the feeling of "the call" when it comes to our jobs. I'll admit that the last few years have been trying on my sense of "the call" but even at its darkest, I love what I do. That moment when you see a kid "get it" or when you teach them something that they've never learned before. This year I had to teach a senior how to write a signature. Those are the things that don't show up on any teaching evaluation and the reason I do the job. I have said more than once that I can't imagine not teaching. Plus, I've worked at least one job or another since I was in middle school. I don't know what it's like not to go to a job.

That being said, the fantasy of being a full time writer is appealing but, as I see it right now, a complete and total fantasy that I don't think I could indulge right now or any time in the near future. I grew up understanding the stress of "money" and more to the point not having a lot. And that understanding drives me and my "dream" of being a full time writer. I know the nature of the business and understand that it is highly unlikely that I'll ever be successful enough to not work as a teacher. It's a reality that isn't a reflection of what I believe my talent level is, (One of the great nuggets my former agent gave me was to never doubt you or insult the work. You are great) it's just an understanding that my name isn't Rowling, King, Patterson or some celebrity writing the memoir of my years before I became a viral YouTube sensation.

This doesn't mean I've completely given up the fantasy. Who knows, maybe SEASONS OF DESTINY or THE FALCON & THE CROW or THE LOST SCIONS will hit huge, get me a deal for a second rate movie that will fail miserably at the box office while I'm sitting in my custom made writing shed writing and tooling around town in my matte black Dodge Challenger. But I know this is an extreme fantasy. I'll be honest, I'd be ridiculously satisfied if I made enough money so I could take an early retirement in ten years or my wife could quit working full time. Ah, this is the stuff of fantasies. I need to write for now. I can feel the gears turning a little and the rust falling off. I've got ideas to flesh out and try to make work in my notebook. Wish me luck.

And look for that matte black Dodge Challenger in your neighborhood.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Month In Review: August 2016

August was August. The Dog Days of Summer. The countdown to the return to school. The end of summer school and more often than not a mad scramble to finish whatever it is that I was trying to accomplish. But this summer was different. It's been a weird summer, as I've documented in these Month In Review posts. So what about August?

WRITING: Another miserable month. I scrapped another project, the prank war novel. I couldn't get the voice or story down. It wasn't working for me. As my friend Mike Winchell says a writer has to write, but I've been stagnant this summer. I can't get a groove on any of these projects. I've got some ideas of how to shake this, but we'll see if I can pull it off. I've been doing a lot of "studying" lately and reading some good writing books that I hope will help me moving forward. I know how to write, that's pretty obvious but I need to figure out some things about what's wrong with what I'm writing that it's not catching on. I'll get there, I know I will. I agree with Mike that a writer has to write, but sometimes you need to clean the machine and I'm doing that now. I started a "Abandoned Project" blog that I may or may not get around to because I have some ideas that can work, including one that I could never do but I really love enough that I may do it anyway, just to practice and another that I may be able to modify to work for me. I also came up with another big book fantasy idea that I'm not rushing into yet because I have some actual research and prep to do before writing it.

For now though, I'm studying. I'll find the words at some point.

READING: I had a heck of a reading month. I finished 11 books and I'm working on a few more. The interesting thing is between the end of July and most of August, I read 7 books in a row that all are pretty much going to make my best of the year list. So, here's the highlights:

  • The Forgetting Moon: Long formed this on the blog. Heavy metal epic fantasy. Great book, loved it.
  • Paper Girls, Volume One: A brilliant graphic novel about a group of paper girls that get caught up in some strange events involved in some crazy supernatural adventures the day after Halloween. 
  • Hamilton: The Revolution: I love stories of stories and this is THE story right now in pop culture. I loved reading the inspiration behind the music and the story. The Chernow book that inspired the musical is high on the reading queue as part of my "research" and it was brilliant. 
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: It was nice to be in Potterland again and it was a highly entertaining story that I breezed through. The one thing that it was missing though was JK Rowling's voice. It just lacked her...heart? But still a cracking good HP story.
  • The Serpent King: I single served this book, reading it in one day and it was brilliant. I long formed it on Goodreads and may longform it here on the blog.
  • Save the Cat: A writing book that was recommended to me by someone. It was interesting and eye opening to an extent that it has me rethinking some of my writing enough that I want to revisit it. 
Read a couple of graphic novels, some good, some not so good, but enjoyable. I'm presently engaged (once again) with some Dragonlance and then going to move into some more epic fantasies for my "study."

I'm on pace, as of today, to read 78 books this year. I haven't read as much epic fantasy as I initially planned, but I'm making progress. I'm singled out some books to read in the coming weeks and we'll see how it plays out. 

WATCHING: A lot of watching too.
  • THE OLYMPICS: I watched a ton of this, even while I was at work. I love the Olympics despite the usual political turmoil that surrounds them. If you follow me on Twitter, you know how much I love the Olympics. 
  • THE HUGO AWARDS: I live streamed them and tweeted as I watched. I'm not going to get into great detail about my feelings about the Hugos, but if you've gotten to know me via social networks, I think you can figure it out. 
  • JAMES BOND: It's been a Jame Bond summer for me and I'll be long forming my Bond thoughts at some point in the next few weeks. 
  • ANT-MAN: I need to redo my Marvel Cinematic Universe ranking sheet. This is a fun movie. 
  • 30 for 30: Pony Excess: Another of the 30 for 30s that I love. It's just so good and there's something that's so satisfying knowing that smug prick Craig James eventually falls flat on his face. 
DID: Lifting. Planned the first two months of school

So, with the sun setting on Summer 2016, I have nothing to show for it. But here's to the beginning of the school year and the hope that I find a groove. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review: The Forgetting Moon

The Forgetting Moon by Brian Lee Durfee is a big book. The ARC I read weighed in at 777 pages. Massive. Been a while since I've toted a book around with that much heft. I drove my wife crazy shoving it into the swim bag en route to her dad's house with the kids. Being an titanic epic fantasy, I read at a slower pace, to make sure I didn't miss anything and got everything I could out of it. One of the things I "do wrong" as a reader is reading too fast sometimes and missing important details.  I didn't want to do that with this book. The Forgetting Moon is a great throwback to the late 80s/early 90s brand of fantasy while appealing to the ever present grimdark aesthetic that is so popular these days. It's like Durfee used the spices of 80s/90s fantasy while cooking something decidedly contemporary. It made the book infinitely enjoyable and when I sat down to read it, I read it in big sweeping chunks.

The Forgetting Moon starts with a familiar story: an orphan with a mysterious background raised by a grumpy mentor type in a backwater town then expands to a wider, vastly more complicated world. Durfee navigated this better than it sounds as there is some purpose to this other than strict adherence to the tried and true rules of fantasy writing. Durfee mixes the typical hero's journey story with the political intrigue that we've come to expect from our modern epics and he does it well. There are parts in the plot that get herky-jerky, almost like the idea came up all of a sudden in the writing and he couldn't ignore what he was doing, but it doesn't slow down the story at all. (I'm going to talk about this a little later on because of a very specific reason.)

The world building is amazing in this book. Durfee nails it on so many levels. The names alone worked on multiple levels for me. Names are important to me. They have to make sense and the names in Durfee's world make sense, The Five Isles is a living breathing world that is simple and complex at the same time. I'm guessing there are some roots in RPG settings in this world. His world is small despite the largeness that he's created and the constructs of that world work well. Orders of knighthood, secret societies and an terrifying order of assassins mingle together in a dangerous world that isn't specifically like anything we've seen before but is familiar enough that we're comfortable with it. In a lot of ways, his world is very old school and it worked for me. I wanted more of the world at large since the Five Isles seemed very, very isolated despite the implied epicness of the world.

Durfee's done something in the world building that's at the core of the basic conflict in the story that I adored. He's created an pseudo-Christian fantasy religion that works so well. It drives massive portions of the plot and is somehow appropriate in this day and age. I'm not a big religion in fantasy guy. I despise the "God/s on Speed Dial" method of story telling that is so prevalent in epic fantasy and Durfee avoids that while really driving home some thematic concepts about religion, faith and even Christianity. (Yeah, I'm as surprised as you are that this is coming up in this review.)

Durfee's characters are typical of epic fantasies, but well drawn and interesting interpretations of the tropes we know and love. (If you've read my reviews, and why haven't you, you know that I am a huge fan of using tropes!) But the interesting thing he does is talk, outright, about the roles these characters have to play in the story. I love this and think it's an interesting way to go. Our main characters aren't confined by the tropes that define them but they are comfortable in them and Durfee is deft as using them. (Tell me Prince Jovan isn't a combination of Derek Crownguard and every douchy 80s movie rich kid villain.) Some of the secondary and tertiary characters are a little cardboardy, but that's more out of necessity of the narrative than Durfee's skill as a writer. There are some character wobbles that frustrated me and occasional inconsistencies that were noteworthy, but not distracting.

The plot moves along, clicking into place along the way as we begin to see how these different threads weave together into one tapestry (if you'll pardon the metaphor.) There are a few places where I needed to review something from a previous POV chapter, but that's more me than the story. The end comes in a torrent where I was scratching my head at some of the twists and turns that occurred. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about that method of story telling, but it works for the story and what Durfee tries to do. And let me say, these did not diminish my enjoyment of the book at all. I loved it.

Durfee oscillates between different voices too that help make the story move along. The Tala POV reads like an intense YA book while Nail reads like a typical epic fantasy narrative and the soldier POVs are as good as anything out there. The only POV I found troubling was Jondralyn. It felt kind of all over the place, but I kind of chalked that up to the way her character was.

My only "complaint," and it's a funny one (trust me, you'll laugh), is how many elements of my own book, WINTER'S DISCORD, this shares. Orders of knights, a nation of refugees, archetypes and secret societies all play major roles in my book. It gives me some optimistic in that I must be close. I believe that Brian (I'm be conversational here) has described his book as heavy metal fantasy and I'd say that's accurate. Well if I can indulge, using Metallica, THE FORGETTING MOON is MASTER OF PUPPETS then WINTER'S DISCORD is THE BLACK ALBUM. Anyway.

THE FORGETTING MOON is a terrific, throwback debut epic fantasy that doesn't reinvent the wheel but rather gives it an electric guitar and pound drums soundtrack. It's clearly going to wind up in my end of year Best Of list. I'm looking forward to THE BLACKEST HEART.

(An ARC was provided by the author.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Month In Review: July 2016

The summer of 2016 has been pretty darn good in some ways and pretty miserable in others. That conflict is driving me crazy. It's been good in that I haven't had to worry too much about any of my financial responsibilities. We set up a separate account for all of our bills, put my summer check in their and now all we have to worry about is little things. It's been a relief. I also am working summer school, which is basically four hours a day for me to write and plan for the coming school year. However that's been the stress. But let's break it down.

WRITING: July was a miserable month for writing for a wide arrangement of reasons. I've been struggling to find something I'm passionate enough to write about. I've written before about how I'm a streaky writer at times but for some reason I haven't been able to engage in much. The epic fantasy I was planning wasn't working for me. The contemporary fantasy that wasn't sure what it wanted to be that I came up with next fizzled.  I tried revisiting a novelette I had started, but decided not to do it. I was floundering a bit. Then my buddy Mike Winchell slapped some sense into me, getting me back in the game. I decided to scrap all the fantasy I was working on. I don't want to build another world right now. So, with some inspiration from STRANGER THINGS (see WATCHING), I decided to work on the late 80s prank war story I had been toying with. It's another story that isn't sure what it wants to be, but I'm going to just get a draft on paper. The interesting thing is that I had a great idea pop into my head for later that I'm very excited about and another idea that I'm thinking about starting the world building on for much later. It's a big book political fantasy and unlike my previous efforts I'm going to take some time to build the geopolitical world. But for now, I'm focusing on the prank war story, per Mike's very good advice.

READING: I had a great reading month. I'm still working on THE FORGETTING MOON and it's terrific despite my pace. I'm really focusing on the book and reading massive swaths of it one of two days a week. It's a 777 page book. I keep promising to have my review up "this week" and it keeps getting pushed back. I'm making a run tonight. I've only got about 140 pages left then I'll do a long form review here, on Goodreads and Amazing. That being said, I read/listened to 6 books and there were some good ones in there, so here are the highlights:


  • SAGA Volume 6: If you are a fantasy or scifi or comic book fan and you aren't reading Saga, then you are doing it wrong. Everything about it is amazingly epic and beautiful. 
  • BIRTHRIGHT Volume 3: The direct inspiration for my contemporary fantasy that I didn't know what it was. Volume 3 was better than the first two and it was just a terrific story that I wound up loving more than I thought I would. 
  • GI JOE/COBRA: The Last Laugh: Way better than a GI Joe comic should have ever been. A great spy story that I couldn't stop reading. 
  • BINTI: Holy Christ on a Popsicle stick. Sharpie this in for my year end best of list. Amazing language and voice combined with a stunning story of war, peace and one woman's desire to live. I loved it. 
So for August, with school looming, I'm going to finish MOON then I'm planning to read the new Harry Potter book. My school librarian already had a copy and I started reading during summer school one morning, got 15 pages in and put it down because I knew that I would've lost about 3 hours of my life and couldn't afford to do so at the time. So there's that and I also got a copy of the HAMILTOME from the library, so I'm going to plow forward. Hoping to hit 6 books again this month, but we'll see.

WATCHING: Again, probably a little too much television watching (Mike called me on this), but here's what moved me:


  • James Bond Movies: Starz has been playing all the James Bond movies and I'm like the 11 year old me watching them in the summer in my parent's living room, which might be a good thing since I'm writing a story that takes place in the 80s. I'm going to long form James Bond movies at some point. I feel like I need to watch them all, including the "reboot" movies. I watched SPECTRE and liked it was better than people said it was. 
  • STARCHASER: I participated in an event on Twitter called Saturday Night SciFi and this was another thing from my childhood that I remember. (I need to rewatch Warriors of the Wind too.) It was fun, silly and a pretty terrible movie. 
  • PING PONG SUMMER: I caught this movie by accident and I still don't know what to think of it. I needed a movie about a "summer adventure" and this seemed to fit the bill, but I was confused by it. Set in 1985, it focused on a break dancing, ping pong obsessed teenager and the summer that changes everything (I stole this from IMDB). I couldn't tell if it was "serious" (for a comedy) or a farce. In the end I liked but didn't love it. It had moments that were really good: Susan Sarandon as a ping-pong Yoda, the town bully and toady (as every good 80s movie has to have) that drives an IROC blaring "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister, a training montage and break dancing. It's better than I'm describing it and I'm better prepared for my 80s book having watched it. 
  • SEVEN DAYS IN HELL: A hilarious mockumentary featuring Jon Snow and Andy Samberg...sorry Kit Harrington and Andy Samberg. While Samberg is the comedian, Jon...I mean Harrington steals the movie from him by playing the dense tennis prodigy 
  • 30 for 30: THE BEST THAT NEVER WAS: Marcus Dupree's story is a YA/NA book waiting to happen. 30 for 30 is the best thing next to play by play that ESPN does. 
  • THE RNC/THE DNC: Just follow my Twitter feed. 
  • STRANGER THINGS: I'm not going to link this because if you don't know what it is, you are probably hiding under a table with a paper bag on your head. I've only watched the first two episodes and I'm hooked. I just haven't had time to commit to sitting down and finishing it, partially because I hooked my daughter on the show and partially because like THE FORGETTING MOON, I need to pay attention to it. All I can say is that I want to write something just like it AND I am firmly TEAM BARB.
  • ELENA OF AVALOR: I am a fan of the Disney Princess universe and would jump at the chance to write YA books in it. A great addition to the same universe as Sofia the First, ELENA seems to geared to a slightly older audience but still a well done series with great world building and characters. One of my dream projects would be to get on the Disney Princess story canon writing team. 
DID: Spent some great time with my family outside at the pool, Water Safari and some day trips here and there. Getting back into lifting after some injuries (back, knee, getting old sucks) and trying to eat better. 

So, July was mostly great with some bad spots. My writing career has been a dark cloud for me lately and it's been hard not to let that affect my mood. I'm working on it. Anyway, August will be better, despite the end of summer clock ticking away on the wall in front of me.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

Month In Review: June 2016

2016 is half over. I thought about making this a Half Year in review, but decided against it, sticking to monthly reviews. The hope in this is that when I am a marginally famous writer, I'll keep my fans updated in a general sense. Pretty arrogant....but that's me. June was a meh month but with good reason.

WRITING: I pulled a little bit of a Hamlet this month. I couldn't make up my mind. I had a few projects in the chamber, but couldn't pull the trigger on any of them. I talked a little bit about this last month and settled on a completely different project than I intended. After talking to a handful of trusted friends, I've narrowed the idea down. I started sketching out some things, scrapping them, sketching out some more, then scrapping that...I rudimentarily built two worlds before settling on the one I'm setting this story in. I'm not in the outlining stage quite yet but I've sort of fumbled out some words on it. Not many, but enough that I have the framework for a story. So starting July 1, I'm diving back into the story and running with it. I'm teaching summer school this year and I'm creating a writing and workout schedule revolving around summer school. I'm very excited. I'm not going to set a word count goal for the month, but I've got a number in my head. By the end of July, I will have a robust word count and new YA epic fantasy to talk about.

READING: Four books this month, including one that is clearly going to be on my Best of for 2016. You can read my review of AN EMBER IN THE ASHES from earlier this month. It's spectacular and one of the best YA fantasies I've read in the last few years. Other things I read this month:


  • Oyster War: a mythically infused historical graphic novel about the Chesapeake Bay. Entertaining and well done. Liked it a lot.
  • Zodiac: Having watched the movie, I became consumed with the story of the Zodiac Killer. I listed to the audiobook in my car and walked away wondering if I was the Zodiac Killer. In all seriousness, I think I got a story idea from this. It just needs some time in the seed vault.
  • Rat Queens, Volume 2: Fun with some interesting spins on the tropes of fantasy, but a little kitschy at times. There are a lot of people that rave about this online and I can see why, but I have to admit that it feels a little overrated to me. 
For now, I've got a stack of summer reading I want to do. I got an ARC of THE FORGETTING MOON , a book I am loving for the nostalgic late 80s vibe I'm getting from it. I've also got 2 or 3 contemporaries from the library I want to read and my crisp new book that's all about everyone's favorite "bastard, orphan, son of whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of in the Caribbean by providence impoverished in squalor" ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow. There's a fantasy novel buried in there too. But we'll talk about that more later. 

WATCHING: Lots to talk about here. Maybe too much TV watching, but I watched a lot;

  • Game of Thrones: Let's get it out of the way. The last two episodes of this show were the best television of the last thirty years. I can't think of what was better than that. The Sopranos, maybe. It's actually the best epic fantasy we may have ever seen. Say what you will about the Battle of Helm's Deep or Pelennor Field. this topped it in a way that we have never seen. The deep, terrifying beauty of "The Battle of the Bastards" was everything that an massive battle like that should be and the epic ending that was "The Winds of Winter" was the perfect ending to what the previous episode had done. And guys....Lyanna Mormont.....just Lyanna Mormont.
  • Finding Dory: Cute, funny and smarter in a way you wouldn't expect. It's basically Slumdog Millionaire but with CGI fishes. 
  • The Thing: Masterful suspense and horror in the pre-CGI days. 
  • Conan The Barbarian/Conan The Destroyer: The first was actually less formative than the second. Destroyer was on HBO all the time growing up and it became the template for a fantasy adventure in my mind. And that Atlantean sword. No sword has ever been cooler.
  • The Tony Award: Because Hamilton. Just Hamilton. 
  • American Ninja Warrior: Research for the new project. This is so going to be part of that story.
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction: Guilty pleasure. I loved Revenge of the Fallen even though I knew it sucked and the same thing with this movie. 
  • Terminator: Genesys: I didn't hate it as much as I thought I would. I mean it doesn't hold a candle to the original and Judgement Day, but it was kind of enjoyable in dumb way. 
  • Empire of the Ants: Watched this late on a Saturday night and I was a little kid again. An old school, schlocky horror movie about giant, mutant ants. So formative. 
  • John Carter: Again, another movie that wasn't as horrible as people initially said it was. It slows down a little in the middle but it's still much better than people said it was. 
So, June was okay. July will be better. 

 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Irrational Fears

When I was a child growing up in Astoria, Queens, New York in the shadow of the Queenboro Bridge, I was terrified of army ants and one that seemed viable to the young me despite my very urban surroundings. I was reminded of this last night as I watched the movie San Andreas on television last night with my daughter and wife.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with reading and animals. I spent hours reading. Back in the late 70s/early 80s every supermarket had some kind of encyclopedia tie in. Each month or week a new volume would come out and I would eagerly await it's arrival. The one I was most obsessed with was The Funk And Wagnall's Wildlife Encyclopedia. I read them from cover to cover, imagining myself an intrepid explorer finding these animals. (I was also obsessed with atlases, but that's another blog entry.) When you think about the natural world, it's a terrifying place. Especially to a kid that grew up in a blue collar neighborhood of Queens, New York. And my hot button animal that terrified me? Army ants. I was genuinely terrified of being slowly and painfully consumed and stripped to the bone by millions of ants. It kept me up at night in a way that I cannot express in words. Completely and totally irrational, right? Not to the five or six or seven year old me though and I was faced with something similar last night.

My wife turned on San Andreas, the Rock-fueled disaster film about an earthquake destroying much of California. I didn't really watch and was starting to fall asleep anyway. I'm not so into disaster porn anymore and think that the 1974 movie Earthquake already did this better with really bad special effects and Charlton Heston telling the earthquake to get its filthy paws off of him. As we were watching, there was a scene where the Hoover Dam collapses and kills a man, among others. My daughter was sort of freaked out about this.

She started asking questions about disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes because she is a lot like me and has an active imagination, the kind of imagination that can put herself in the middle of an earthquake. To most of us, this is absurd, but to an eight year old with an active imagination, it's very real. So we had a very brief and quiet conversation about it so we didn't distract my wife who was watching the movie. (My wife has a practical mind that finds this line of thought absurd.)

I explained to my daughter that we don't get a lot of tornadoes because there are too many hills around us and they need mostly flat surroundings. I know this isn't scientifically accurate, but for the moment it was what I needed to say. Then I explains that occasionally we may get an earthquake, nothing like the movie would probably happen where we live (Syracuse) and the worse we would feel would be like a big truck driving by the house. I told her about the last earthquake I remember a few years back and that's exactly what it felt like. She seemed satisfied with this and went to sleep.

But as I sit here today, I wonder if that's how we're somehow we're wired as some kind of survival mechanism. Or is it some gene that I passed down to my daughter. I still have some irrational fears as a 43 year old man. When I hear a noise outside, I assume one of three things: zombies, Bigfoot or a baby kaiju. I am terrified of moths. Seriously. When my son says there's a monster behind me, I take that seriously. And I'm terrified of being eaten alive. These are irrational fears. I'm old enough to recognize that and maybe that makes them infinitely more irrational than my fear of army ants. Is it hardwired? Is it learned? Is it the product of an overactive imagination? I don't know.

And just so you know, I will will obliterate any sign of ants in my life to this day.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: An Ember In The Ashes

I haven't been doing many long form reviews lately, instead choosing to do book reviews on a smaller scale in my monthly reviews, but I thought this one deserved a longform. (They'll be a few more of these as I have about 4 ARCs that I need to work through in the coming weeks!) As always, spoilers abound. 

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir is one of those books that I was interested in but was a little worried about it because it looked and sounded a lot like another YA fantasy that I had high hopes for and just fizzled for me, but it came up in my library queue and I thought I'd give it a shot. And I'm glad I did. This book was phenomenal on so many levels that it's clearly going to wind up in my Best of list at the end of the year.

There was so much I liked about this book and, as I read, realized it shared with my own writing. Great characters, well thought out but not overly complex worldbuilding (I mean that as a compliment and I'll get to that in a minute) and a snappy plot that keeps things small within the larger story. 

One of the things I've noticed about YA fantasy is the desire to kind of make everything about these giant stakes, this does that but on a vastly smaller scale, so to speak. As much as the competition between the Masks to be the next Emperor is a driving force of the narrative, the reason everything happens in this story is because Laia wants to rescue her brother. This is the engine that makes the story move and it's well done. Laia doesn't want to topple and empire, she wants to live her life and when that is thrown into chaos with the capture of her brother, she makes desperate agreements with the rebellion, a group she's never really wanted a part of. And Elias just wants to leave the empire. He wants no part of it, even though he is integral to it in every way. It's a huge way this story works. As epic as the stakes are in what is happening, that's actually secondary to what's happening. In the smaller story, Tahir makes it about the character's motivations not the world shaking events that surround them. It was actually somewhat refreshing. 

The characters make this book move. Laia and Elias are great characters. Hurt, wounded and damaged, they figure out what they need to do to survive the brutality of their existence. Elias's mother, the Commandant, is chillingly rendered and his best friend, Helene, is a young adult version of Brienne of Tarth but Tahir has the skill not to just make her a shade of that great character but breathe a whole other life into her. Elias's antagonists, the twins Marcus and Zac, are thinly made, almost caricatures, though I wished there was a little more Zac as I feel he was underused in the story. Many of the background characters in the Elias thread are stock characters, almost necessary in a cast this size, but they work well, filling the roles they need to fill when they do. 

In the Laia thread, from the moment we meet them, the members of the Rebellion are all menace. As a reader, you aren't to trust them from moment one and that is a real strength. The idea that the rebels aren't these righteous warriors of truth has been put forth before, but is often ignored. Tahir does a great job with it. Laia's interactions with the Commandant are cringe worthy and I mean that in the nicest way possible and the mystery of Cook has me wondering if that's a question that will ever get answered. 

The romantic elements were well done, though the Keenan/Laia pairing seemed forced at times. The tension between Elias and Helene is just taut and well written. It's not so much a love triangle as it is a love dodecahedron, so to speak. And it doesn't get in the way of the story.

The world building is sound and simple. I don't mean this in a bad way. Fantasy writers have a million different directions to go in when building a world, some create vast histories of their worlds and can tell you who ruled an empire three thousand years ago then will make sure you know that they know that which then distracts from the story. Others are sparse, concentrating on the action within their book then they wind up with dozens of inconsistencies and holes that can also distract from the story.  There's a balance and Tahir nails it. Others still fill their world up with complicated names and ideas that can confuse the heck out of a reader or hit us with the Our Elves Are Better trope too many times. Tahir doesn't do this, instead calling her people Martials and Scholars and Mariners. Makes sense right? The history is there, but it's not relevant to the story, so we don't need to know it.  She tells us what we needed to know about the Empire and the Blackcliff school, which were important to the story, without sounding infodumpy. It's really well done and I liked it.

The one aspect of the book that really struck me was the relationship between the commandant of the Blackcliff school and Elias. (SPOILER: She's his mother.) I love a well done, complex child-parent relationship, especially in a fantasy book. I love writing them and think that when I get back into a rewrite on my SCIONS book, I'm going to make the parental issues with the book more apparent. That being said, the thing that struck me about this the most was that is was a son and mother. It's just not one you see a lot of in YA fantasy. The Commandant is just terrific. She's chilling and cold and amazingly diabolical. The chapter when she finally explains herself to Elias is just some of the best writing I've ever read in this genre or any other.

My only complaint, and this is strickly a personal thing and it has no bearing on the quality of this book, is that I wish it were 3rd person close and not 1st person. Seriously. That's my only gripe. And it's just a me not you thing.

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is one of those rare books that can sate both the YA fan and the epic fantasy fan in me. It does what it does incredibly well and is a joy to read. It's intense and unputdownable. It's definitely going to be on my Best of 2016 list.