Given the usefulness in my exercise on looking at the books I started but didn’t finish this year, I thought it would be interesting to similarly look at the ones I did finish and why. I haven’t yet met my pathetic goal of 12, so this is Part 1. Part 2 will be whatever I finish between now and 11:59 PM on December 31st (hey, I have a week off, I can dream).
Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1) by George RR Martin – This was the third or fourth time I’ve tried to read this book, and every previous attempt I gave up around 150 pages in. The main problem is that there are *a lot* of point of view characters and half of them are unsympathetic. I actually watched the show this year, found the characters that I liked, and then went back and made a final attempt to read the book. And I discovered three things: 1) with the exception of Danaerys every sympathetic character in their first (and sometimes second) chapter reads as one dimensional and a trope*, but in their second or third chapter their complexities start to emerge and they become much more interesting to read but there are so many points of view that these chapters don’t happen until after the point at which I always stopped reading; 2) the secondary characters are just so gosh darn interesting that once they show up they carry the scenes they are in even thought Catelyn is annoying, Ned is a self-centered, sexist ass, and Jon needs to get over his emo crap; and 3) some of them very, very slowly improve. Ned eventually won me over with his love for his daughters and acknowledgment that Arya is not a delicate lady, and Bran’s struggle with his disability was a lot more compelling to read than his rambling philosophy of climbing. I also discovered that Dany’s scenes are a lot more creepy in the books and I slowly stopped liking her as a POV character, but the rest of the characters kept me reading. I think the main problem with this book is the sheer amount of time it takes to do a minimal amount of world building and introduce backstory really slows down the beginning, and changing points of view every 10-15 pages further slows it. Once you get past that 150 page hump, it gets better.
There is also the problem of the rather extreme sexism and the frequent sexual victimization of Dany, made all the more unsettling because she doesn’t realize that none of this is okay. But it becomes apparent that the sexism is part of the world-building-driven plot rather than the author’s belief system, and the women all have agency and are working to take control of their lives in whatever ways they can. This creates one of my favorite villains in any series I have ever read, as well as a wonderful examination of what really makes a female character strong. Sansa is frickin unbreakable. There are no refrigerator girls in this book.
* When I have mentioned this criticism to others they have argued that Martin originated the tropes. However, this isn’t true. Tyrion bears a striking trope-level resemblance to Beldin, a character from The Belgariad which was published a decade earlier and at the time was famous enough to be trope-defining. Similarly, the trope of the girl who wants to be a knight and goes about doing just that despite people saying to her “but you’re a girl” started with Alanna in The Song of the Lioness (and that’s just the first one I know of), also published a decade earlier.
Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad Book 1) by David Eddings (and Leigh Eddings, unattributed) – I read all of the books set in this world back in middle school and *loved* them. In struggling with my own revisions I decided to revisit this classic epic fantasy as homework. I was both rewarded and disappointed. The book is a fun, quick read with plenty of action and a very dry sense of humor. Unfortunately most of the characters are one-dimensional. I seem to recall them slowly becoming more complex over the course of the series, which is an even graver offense than Martin’s problem, but I like the narrator, which kept me reading.
Reading through all the sexism and stereotyping of ethnic groups. I was shocked to discover one of my favorite books was so problematic, and decided I shouldn’t reread the rest of the series when there was casual discussion of marital rape and a total glossing over of the woman who was obviously traumatized (like, her characterization was actually consistent with a domestic violence and rape survivor, but other characters kept telling her to just get over it). I was sad to discover a former favorite was so problematic, but at least now I know to stop recommending it to people.
Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix – Another middle school favorite, I always loved how independent and resourceful Ella is in this book. In rereading it, I discovered that the world building is pretty thin (e.g. all of the kingdoms have made-up names suggesting a secondary world fantasy, and yet sophisticated people speak French) but in a fairytale retelling I was willing to forgive that. So I kept reading and reading and then BAM. Yet another book that uses rape or rape threats to motivate a character when literally anything else could have been used. They could have threatened to execute her, torture her, disable her in a way that would ruin her hopes of future employment. Nope. They threatened her with rape. I finished the book because it was extremely short and there were only a few chapters left, but I contemplated putting it down. How did I not notice that so many books I read in middle school involved rape?
How to Make Out by Brianna R Shrum – Completely implausible plot, love interest is a manipulative ass and total Nice Guy until the final chapters, but I loved the character’s voice. Also, unsurprising in a book called How to Make Out, there were plenty of steamy scenes involving making out that frankly are a good tutorial on how to write romantic scenes well in YA.
Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson – A reference on writing with deep point of view. A lot of the examples of deep POV that Nelson gives are, well, bad writing, but the examples of shallow POV are extremely useful in spotting those problems in your own drafts.