Character Corner -- Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer
It has been some while since I did a character review, but then, it has been some while since I read something quite this engaging. I have to say, I picked up Bloody Jack rather on a whim. I enjoy pirate stories, and have one in the works to write myself, so I’m always interested in seeing how other authors portray that era and life on the high seas. (I also have to say that I would never have picked it up at all except for the awesome swashbuckling cover art shown here which, sad to say, seems to have been chucked in the version currently available on Amazon for a cover which is practically cliched in its bland triteness.)
But, it being a Young Adult title, I have to say I went in with fairly low expectations. I don’t mean that as any kind of dig against YA—I love YA, and most of what I write has been YA. I only mean that I wasn’t expecting much more than a hum-drum tale of pirates and Spanish gold. Boy was I wrong, in the best possible way. It is, as the Publisher’s Weekly starred review says, “a rattling good read” that kept me up late several nights in a row, largely on the strength of its amazing protagonist.
The protagonist is Mary Faber, a young orphaned waif making a hard living on the streets of London. How she becomes “Jack” Faber and ends up on a ship in His Majesty’s service is a tale in itself, which I won’t spoil here except to say that it is touching and poignant and heartbreaking in all the right ways. And while striving not to spoil anything else in the book, I do want to talk about the some of the many things Meyer does very much right with his protagonist.
Meyer has an incredible ear for the language of the period. He portrays 18th century English vernacular with incredible facility. Further, he made the perfect choice in writing the book in first-person POV. Thus, not only does the language of the book convey the setting, but it’s also integral to Mary’s characterization. Everything we see is Mary’s take on events. If you go to writers conferences or attend talks by agents and publishers, you’ll always hear them say they’re looking for books with a strong voice. Bloody Jack is a great example.
Meyer gave his protagonist quite a personality, and one that is perfectly fitted to her backstory. It is never difficult to believe that she would feel and act in the ways she does. Her ship-board life demands acts of bravery, which she supplies, not because she’s brave (and at several points Mary herself remarks on how she was never very brave) but because she’s a survivor and because she’ll do just about anything to protect the people she cares about. Meyer has done an amazing job of portraying someone who really does wish she could just have a quiet, peaceful, safe life, but can’t, and yet rises to the occasion in order to get by.
Those are Mary’s major themes. But Meyer didn’t stop there. He gave her some additional colorful personality traits—a love of music, a playfully evil mischievious streak, and a right saucy sailor mouth—all of which he works into the fabric of the storyline. None of those traits are there just for fun. Every one of them has a meaningful impact on the ship-board events, and affects Mary’s standing significantly.
He also portrays her as an intelligent, thoughtful girl. This largely comes through in the way she thinks about life, and the occasional deeply insightful observations she makes about it. And if I may go off on a tangent for a moment, I think novels give writers a unique opportunity to make readers think about things they might not otherwise think about. But, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. The wrong way is to be heavy-handed, preachy, and moralistic in your narrative, to make sure the reader cannot possibly miss how you feel about an issue. The right way is simply to shine a little light on an issue, show your readers how your characters feel about it, and let readers make up their own minds. If you do read Bloody Jack (which I highly recommend), pay attention to Mary’s observations about the differences between men’s and women’s clothing for a great example of how to do that right.
There’s a saying that in every scene, you have to know what the goals of each character are. Further, characters are supposed to have an over-riding goal for the story, one that is captured in the story’s central conflict. Mary definitely has goals in every scene, but she doesn’t so much have a goal for the whole story as she has a series of escalating goals. One of the parts of Bloody Jack I enjoyed most was watching the evolution of Mary’s goals as the book progresses. In the beginning, her threats are starvation, freezing to death in the winter, and the gruesomely portrayed antagonist Mr. Muck. Her goal is simple survival. But as the book progresses, her goals shift, little by little, until by the end she has gained meaningful long-term goals for her whole life.
Her character arc is wrapped up in her ever-expanding event horizon. In the beginning of the book, she doesn’t expect to live long at all. Street urchins usually don’t. But by the end, everything has changed. Watching her go from hopelessness to hopeful about the future, and watching her have dreams and make plans about the future, was really beautiful to read. Like watching someone come back to life. Masterfully done, Mr. Meyer. Masterfully done indeed.
Finally, the way Meyer treats Mary in the book is perfect. She has a hard life, and Meyer doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t do the worst thing possible to her, which would be to baby her. If you want to read a great example of the adage “when in doubt, make it worse,” read Bloody Jack. Because Meyer relentlessly makes her situation worse, while at the same time making it much, much better. It’s a great piece of writerly jujitsu, watching how he alleviates one problem in her life only to reveal more subtle, darker, sinister problems lurking in wait.
All in all, I loved Bloody Jack. Even better, it’s the first book in series chronicling the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy. I’m excited to read the rest! Give Bloody Jack a try. You won’t be sorry.
August 20, 2010 18:11 UTC
Character Corner: The Last Universe by William Sleator
It has been so long since I posted a Character Corner review that most of my new readers have probably never even seen one. If not, it’s a book review wherein I discuss the good, bad, and ugly about a book’s characters. Part of the reason I haven’t done one in a while is because of the question of spoilers. It is quite difficult to provide a meaningful discussion of a book’s characters without spoiling important plot points.
I have no spoiler concerns with The Last Universe because, well, let me put it this way: When I finished the book the other night, I turned to my wife and said “What a disappointingly stupid book.” Honestly, you’ll be better off spending your reading time on something better. May I suggest Newberry winner When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead? It has a similar teen girl protagonist and mystery/adventure plot, but is a totally kick-ass book.
I have to say I was surprised at this book’s many flaws. Sleator is a well known author, with a whole bunch of books to his name. My wife read some of his stuff when she was in library school and said she enjoyed them. The “other books by” list opposite the title page in this one lists twenty-one other titles. So I was expecting better. Maybe after a certain point an author’s agents and editors stop paying attention? I don’t know.
The story, in a nutshell
The rest of this will be easier if I at least give you a capsule summary. First off, you’d have to classify this as a paranormal book. There are three notable characters in this book. Teenager and first-person narrator Susan, her sickly brother Gary, and the family’s gardener Luke. The basic premise is that the kids’ great uncle was a physicist who studied quantum mechanics, and built this freaky hedge maze out in the family’s wooded back property where, if you go in, you come out in a different universe. Parallel world stuff. The they discover this when the maze starts making strange things happen elsewhere in the gardens.
Susan’s job in the book is to push her brother in his wheelchair through the gardens, because he’s so sick and being outside is what he wants to do, and how can you say no to your dying brother? Susan is fairly realistic in this, so far as really she just wants to hang out with her friends and not be coerced by her parents and her brother into being his summertime caretaker.
Gary’s job is to be the cryptic cipher. He, so we are told, just knows there’s something weird going on in the garden—or more specifically, at the spooky old pond where a little girl drowned several decades prior—and so he wants to be there when it happens. This, ostensibly, is why he continually demands that Susan take him out to the pond and why he has gotten a bunch of quantum mechanics books from the library. Gary is the book’s stakes, too. He also claims that whatever is going on in the garden is making him better, helping him recover from the illness that put him in a wheelchair.
Luke’s job is to maintain the family’s gardens, but also to take care of a cat that had once belonged to the great uncle from way back (it’s a cat, in a story about macroscopic quantum effects. Get it? Nyuk-nyuk! ), and to deliver a critical piece of information later on in the plot. Luke is Cambodian, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge. He sends money back to his family in Cambodia whenever he can, and longs for the day he can rejoin them.
Be smart. Fact check your book
Here’s a tiny little thing that would have been no work at all for Sleater to have gotten right, but which he didn’t, and which sabotaged his protagonist and my suspension of disbelief alike: sloppy use of the word “quantum.” As Susan experiences the weird happenings in the garden, she becomes naturally curious as to what’s going on. This provides Gary with an opportunity to explain, a little bit at a time, some of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. This, in theory, is great: with the sorry state of science education in our public schools, I’m all for slipping a little science into YA literature, especially when it serves the story.
Only, Susan consistently misuses the word “quantum” in her dialogue and her narration. She treats it like a noun, rather than an adjective. She asks Gary questions like “Tell me about quantum” which, leaving aside the obvious “Here be exposition!” red-flag, is just wrong. She could ask about “quantum physics,” “quantum mechanics,” or “quantum effects.” Those would all be fine. But bare “quantum"? No. It’s wrong.
I wouldn’t mind if she did it once. That would be a fine way to show that she doesn’t, as she admits, know the first thing about it. Gary could correct her, and thenceforth she could get it right. But that’s not what happened. She made that same mistake many times, and Gary never called her on it. He should know, he’s the one reading all the physics books. He uses it correctly in his dialogue, so I know he knows, and therefore, I also know that William Sleator knows that “quantum” is an adjective.
So why does Susan keep getting it wrong? There’s no excuse other than sloppiness. Because analyzing the relationship between surface-level writing and the portrayal of characters is what I do, I can’t help but step back and conclude the fault lies with Sleator, his agent, and his editor. Sleator should have gotten it right, but somehow didn’t, and nobody upstream in the publication process bothered to pay much attention, probably because he’s got a history of 21 other titles under his belt already.
But that’s me, trying my hardest to look favorably on Susan, and even I couldn’t fully escape the feeling that Susan was kind of a dope. Other readers may be less likely to be so charitable towards her. Still, in the balance I’m left with a protagonist I can’t really respect and a writer I can’t really trust to get the details right. Ask yourself, are those your wishes for how readers will experience your book?
This error falls under the larger category of fact checking. So be smart. Take the time to fact check your book on stuff like this, especially when elements of your premise, plot, et cetera fall outside of your own personal areas of expertise. And don’t try to tell me that it doesn’t matter because YA readers wouldn’t know enough physics to spot the mistake. If I ever catch you disrespecting your readers like that, I’ll personally come over to your house and steal all the vowels off your keyboard.
Keep your characters’ priorities straight
Sleater also did a poor job, in my estimation, of correctly maintaining his characters’ differing priorities. The only one he really gets right here is Gary, whose overriding priority is to overcome his illness. Everything Gary does is in line with that, until that proves to be impossible. After he loses hope for himself, his main priority shifts to Susan’s welfare. That was great. But Sleater didn’t do so well with Susan’s and Luke’s priorities.
Susan’s original motivations to assist Gary on his expeditions into the “quantum garden” are fine. She really does want to see him get better. But later in the book when the figure out that the hedge maze sends you to different universes where things are different (e.g. in some universes, Gary isn’t sick), her priorities don’t track. At that moment, when Susan comes to understand what the maze really does, she ought to be faced with a rather thorny set of questions. Are they still the same people, if they go to a different universe? Can they ever get back? Even if they do find a universe where Gary is just fine, will that even matter since they won’t be in their home universe with their real parents?
If I’m Susan in that situation, my reaction is going to be to want nothing more than to figure out how to get back home. It’s at heart a denial reaction: Gary understood what was going on, but didn’t tell her. So from her perspective, she has just learned not only that she has been duped, but that she has just had her whole life—her friends, her family, her home, literally her entire world—stolen from her. Yes, maybe these parallel worlds are eerily similar to her home world, but now she understands that they are not the same. Remember why stakes work? Remember how the endowment effect shows that characters will work much, much harder to avoid a loss than they will to gain something of ostensibly identical value? For Susan, the endowment effect and her natural denial should work together to create a powerful new priority: get home.
Alas, there’s no inkling towards any of that. There’s no examination of any of those thorny questions that sure popped right int my mind. There’s no heated argument between Susan and Gary where she rails at him for tricking her out of her rightful universe. There is no re-evaluation of priorities. Nothing.
Instead, Susan continues on helping Gary visit yet more new universes looking for the one that will satisfy his priority. Emotionally, it rings false. It would be one thing had Sleater recognized the emotions that this revelation should have had on Susan, and confronted them head on. But he didn’t. He skipped over it entirely and moved on with the plot he wanted to tell. He traded his plot problem for a characterization problem, which in my view is always a losing trade.
Sleater did something similar with Luke. Luke, we are given to understand, knows something about the dangers of the hedge maze. We learn, later on in the story when he delivers that critical clue to Susan, that he probably understands the maze sends you to a different universe. Yet, given that, there’s still a point where he chases Susan and Gary into the maze, supposedly out of fear for their safety. That would be very noble, except for not making any sense. On the one hand, if he understands what the maze does, then he would know that the instant they set foot in it, they were already lost. So what’s the point of chasing them in there? On the other hand, he would also understand that if he sets foot in the maze, he will be forever separated from his real family, the one he sends money to all the time, and that he wants to be reunited with. So again, why would he go in? He wouldn’t. Except, he did. Sleater made him go into the maze anyway, despite what Luke knew and understood, and despite acting against his knowledge and his priorities alike.
Don’t get sloppy.
Don’t forget: little details of language use can be just as problematic for your characters and your overall story as can outright plot holes. And never forget, too, that your characters ought to be real people with their own unique, motivating priorities which govern much of how they feel and act. Always keep your characters behavior consistent with their priorities, lest you break the reader’s faith in your character, lest you break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and lest you undermine the reader’s trust in you to tell them a believable story.
If you do ever find yourself in William Sleator’s enviable position of having 21 prior published books to your name, don’t let yourself get sloppy and don’t let your agent and editor stop holding you to the highest standards either. You owe your readers better than that.
July 06, 2010 04:01 UTC
Character Corner: Annabel Scheme by Robin Sloan
This is a book with a history that deserves some brief explanation, as it’s a great example of an author using social media technologies in an innovative way to both write and publish a book. You can read more on his website, but the short version is that Robin Sloan used the website Kickstarter both to raise money to support the writing of the book as well as to develop a pre-book-launch fan base and community around the book. This is brilliant, and at least in Sloan’s case, wildly successful.
It helps that Sloan is also a talented writer. Alas, no social media technology is going to help you with that. The book itself isn’t available at Barnes & Noble, but I don’t feel bad about reviewing it here because you can download it for yourself from Sloan’s website under a Creative Commons license.
The story itself is a funny, inventive adventure, a heady admixture of occult and cyberpunk themes. A strange combination, but Sloan makes it work. The result is what you might get if Neal Stephenson and Christopher Moore teamed up on a book. Sort of ”Snow Crash meets Practical Demonkeeping.” I give it two and a half stars; I’d give it more, but it has some weaknesses that drag it down.
The book includes a number of glosses over existing technology and brand names, with Sloan giving roman a clefs to icons such as Google and World of Warcraft. And I have to say, he uses those very smoothly. I recently read Libba Bray’s new book Going Bovine which does the same thing. In Bray’s case they felt forced, almost as though her publisher was afraid of actually mentioning Star Wars and other pop-culture trademarks by name. They were awkward enough to impact the story, and they made me wonder if her publisher made her do that. In Sloan’s case he obviously re-branded those icons on his own initiative, and he makes them work very well. They felt integral to Annabel Scheme in a way that the renamings in Going Bovine didn’t.
The book does have some shortcomings. One, it’s short. It’s properly a novella, not a full novel, which kind of sucked because it was enough fun that I wanted it to be longer. Two, the writing is quite rough around the edges. So rough in a couple of places that it pulled me out of the story. This is a book that needed an editor, but didn’t get one. [Full disclosure: I know this because I thought the project was so cool I offered to edit this book in exchange for a credit. But c’est la vie, that never happened.] However, despite the book’s shortcomings, the story and Sloan’s fast-paced style combine to overcome them and create a wildly entertaining result.
Still, this is Character Corner, so what about the book’s central actors?
The book’s eponymous main character, Annabel Scheme, is a private investigator specializing in “digital and occult” investigations. Sloan uses the device of a secondary narrator character (see below) to keep the reader out of the main character’s head. This was a great choice because it helped build a deeper sense of mystery around the main character herself. We could be credibly surprised by her actions, because the narrator was also surprised by them.
Annabel Scheme definitely fits the Sherlock Holmes-ian model of an investigator as person with almost encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of things, with lots of skills and tricks of the trade that aren’t themselves magical but take on that aura to someone who has never been exposed to them before. Oh, and gadgets. She has a lot of very clever gadgets. It is a somewhat stereotyped concept for a private eye, but again, Sloan does a great job with it.
I have only two significant complaints about Scheme herself. First, she is perhaps too well connected. That is, she always knows who to go to for information, and they’re always happy to see her. She has extensive and very convenient history with some of the plot’s central figures. It’s fine to do that sort of thing here and there, but in this case it felt like too much to me. I felt like Sloan’s default choice when facing his protagonist with an obstacle or challenge was to reach into the grab-bag of “well, who can I have her be connected with that can tell her what she needs.”
It undermines her as a character because she isn’t so much overcoming obstacles herself as asking other people here and there to do it for her. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in other characters to help with things, but there’s a balance to it that I feel is missing here. It would have been nice, now and then, for one of her sources to stonewall her or something. Make her work harder for her victories.
My second complaint has to do with plausible motivation. There’s a point fairly early on in the book where one mystery is resolved, her client’s question has been answered, and the book by all rights and norms in the detective story game, ought to end. But, Scheme has this notion that something else is going on too, so she keeps investigating. Yes, that’s necessary for the plot to continue, but it had me scratching my head. Why is she doing this? At this point, nobody’s paying her. She’s diving headlong into various dangers, embroiling herself in some deep mire, for what reason?
You can’t read this book without concluding that Robin Sloan is a clever and very inventive guy. I know he could have come up with a genuine motivation for her to continue, or re-worked the original mystery to encompass the whole plot, but he didn’t, and it undermines both the character and the book.
Hugin-19, or simply Hu, is the book’s narrator. I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything by saying this, but Hu is a computer. You learn this in chapter 2. The picture Sloan paints, and that the reader works with, is very much like Hiro Protagonist’s AI sidekick from Snow Crash.
In that context, at many points Hu’s thoughts and attitudes felt overly human to me. His grasp of human emotion, intuitive leaps, and a variety of other things struck me as out of character.
However, there’s a twist in store about Hu, one I won’t reveal because that WOULD be a spoiler. The thing about this twist is that in many ways it retroactively justifies Hu’s overly-human thoughts and attitudes. It doesn’t leave the reader with the greatest feeling; it’s like I’ve gone through this whole book with this gripe about a central character, and then at the end I get this “oh, NOW you tell me?” moment.
I was immediately reminded of Justine Larbalestier’s book Liar, which includes a similar twist about the underlying nature of the narrator. However, in Liar’s case I didn’t wish I’d known the twist sooner.
They say you learn something from every book you read, and what I learned from the portrayal of Hu in Annabel Scheme is this: if you’re going to have some type of identity-based twist about a character, you need to construct that character’s thoughts, speech, attitudes, and actions in the pages before the twist is revealed very carefully. They must fit both with what the reader initially thinks about the character and with what the character actually turns out to be.
In Liar and Annabel Scheme alike, after the twist is revealed you can look back and say to yourself “oh, now I understand about why the character does such-and-such.” The difference is that in Liar, I wasn’t left feeling that those actions were out of character at the time they happened.
To Sum Up
Robin Sloan is a wickedly smart, inventive writer who will be great someday. He’s rough around the edges now (and I’m happy to make him that same offer on his next book), but he’ll get over that. He has a wonderful flair for inventive leaps that feel perfectly natural. I hope he continues writing in a similar cyber-punkish vein, because he has a great grasp on technology and what I feel are very incisive views on future-tech.
At the risk of dating myself, I am reminded of Max Headroom’s “20 minutes into the future” tagline, a feeling Sloan captures marvelously in this novella. And I cannot help but be amused to note that one of Max Headroom’s creator’s was also named Annabel.
All in all, despite its flaws I enjoyed Annabel Scheme immensely. Download it today and give it a read.
December 22, 2009 19:08 UTC
Character Corner: "Huge," by James Fuerst
[Note: I’m starting a new semi-regular feature here on the blog. “Character Corner” is book reviews from the perspective of showing character, not plot. Here we go!]
Last night I finished reading Huge, the debut novel by James Fuerst. We’ll get to the character stuff in a minute, but let me gush about the book in generic book review terms for a minute:
I loved this book. I give it four, maybe four and a half stars. It was awesome. Funny. Poignant. Moving in places. Very well set in its time and place (New Jersey in the 1980s). Funny. Wait, did I just say that? I did. But it was. This book had me giggling from cover to cover, and busting out laughing at its high points. It was flat out hilarious, but not just in throwaway silliness. The humor was inherent in the truly amusing circumstances Fuerst put his characters in.
Ok. Enough of that. What I really loved, and what Fuerst absolutely nails in this novel better than a lot of successful career novelists I could name, is the characterization. It’s hard to discuss characterizaton in a meaningful way without also spoiling the plot, but I’m going to try because y’all really should read this book and it would be a crime if I went and spoiled it for you.
The main character is a pre-teen boy named Eugene Smalls. Everyone calls him “Genie,” but he has decided he’d rather be called “Huge” instead, despite his diminutive physical stature. Huge Smalls. Classic. Now, you’re going to think I wrote last Friday’s article on purpose, because Huge Smalls is such a perfect example of what I was talking about, but I didn’t. Sometimes things just work out like that.
What I mean is that Huge’s view of himself is wildly at odds with how others see him. This is pretty obvious from very early on in the book. So you know that at some point he’s going to have that moment of epiphany where he realizes this and has to deal with it. Fuerst handles it brilliantly; what I won’t reveal is which of the three strategies I explained in that last article Fuerst chose for dealing with it.
Huge also has a chip on his shoulder that’s so big I’m surprised it doesn’t crush him. I’m not a big fan of this, because generally it is just a sign of an overblown ego, but I was surprised to see what Fuerst did with it. Huge’s chip on his shoulder wasn’t so much about ego as it was about armor. Fuerst did a beautiful job of portraying that particular character flaw as a defense mechanism, which did wonders to help make Huge—a difficult kid to love—into more sympathetic character.
As wonderful a character as Huge Smalls himself is, I have to tell you, I particularly liked the frog. Yes, the book has character who is a frog. No, the book is not a paranormal piece, it’s not magical realism, it’s not wizard fiction or anything like that. It’s straight-up real world stuff, but there’s a frog in it. Not only that, but the frog is actually an integral supporting cast member and a distinctive character in his own right. If that piques your interest—how can a writer turn a frog into real character without resorting to fantasy?—it should. Go read the book.
It would have been easy for Fuerst to simply make the frog be like any other person. We’ve all read talking animal stories at some point, so we’re all familiar with animal characters who, despite being four legged, nevertheless think and act pretty much like people do. My guess is that Fuerst could have gone that route and still managed to have the frog serve its necessary function in relation to the plot and Huge’s character arc.
I’m glad he didn’t, because that would have sucked compared to what he did do, which was to go deep into the mindset of a frog. The frog has froggy opinions and attitudes about the world and about Huge’s life. The frog’s perspective is completely different from Huge’s. Yet, once you understand that this frog is supposed to be an actual frog instead of a frog-shaped person, his perspective fits so exactly what you might imagine a real frog thinking and saying that the character becomes really believable.
It’s a tour-de-force of characterization. I’m tempted to make “good writers know how to think like a frog” into my new motto. The relationship between Huge and the frog is also intricate yet very well portrayed, but I can’t really tell you much more than that without getting into spoiler territory, so I won’t. Go read the book.
James Fuerst: a writer to watch
All in all Huge was a great read, and a very impressive showing for anybody, let alone a first-time novelist. I envy Fuerst’s ability to craft really funny scenes and yet blend them with a ‘huge’ amount of pathos. I’ll be waiting eagerly to see what he comes up with next.
October 26, 2009 17:29 UTC
For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar