Reading books across all sorts of genres has improved my writing immensely. I have a feeling that writing reviews of books and forcing myself to put into words what I liked and didn’t like, what I admired and what I would have done differently, will help me become a better writer as well. So here I go.
I’ve recently read the first two books in two very different series that both have a supernatural element and a surprisingly sexy Scot: The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon and The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger.
Now, a bit of caution before I explain the premise of The Outlander Series. Based solely on the synopsis, I would never have dreamed that I’d enjoy the first book as much as I did. But it was recommended by several people who have little in common: My Uncle Matt, a history buff; Kathee, one of my esteemed critique partners; and Charlaine Harris, author of the Southern Vampire series (who reviewed a book in the series here). So, I figured if I could fall in love with a series about a telepathic waitress who solves mysteries and dates vampires, I might try a book about a postwar British nurse who stumbles through a Celtic rock formation and lands in the 17th century Scottish Highlands. That’s right. It’s got time travel.
So considering the premise it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is a book that defies categorization. It’s historical, science fiction, romance, mystery, and action & adventure. It’s chocked full of angst, but some lines make you laugh out loud. Claire, the time-traveling nurse, is a remarkable heroine. She’s smart, self-reliant, and loyal. What I love in my protagonists is something I often lack myself: courage. She perseveres over insurmountable odds. The hero, Jamie, was surprisingly likable. Though I wouldn’t say I’d typically go for a kilt-wearing redhead, it’s hard not to fall in love with this rough clansman with a surprising sensitive side. I even thought the Scottish dialect was cute.
I found myself instantly swept away by the story and eagerly devouring the rich, descriptive detail. Still, as much as I enjoyed this gripping tale, I often felt like I was being jerked around. The plot of the first two books (and from what I can tell from the synopsis of the third) relies on a series of “lies” that the reader and characters eventually uncover. People keep coming back from the dead, which is surprising the first time, feels cheap the second, and is downright absurd the third time around.
The detail that creates such a visceral experience of the world can at times slow the story down, and many scenes add little to the plot, as fun as they are to read. These books are LONG. (I read them on my Kindle, so I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into at the onset.) I feel like a vicious editor could have easily slashed through several meandering side stories.
I would also caution anyone who is squeamish about sexual violence to be aware that while the incidents included are relevant to the plot, they are rather graphic.
I’m definitely going to continue this series, and I felt like reading it was beneficial to me as a writer. I learned a lot about what works (for me) and what doesn’t (again, for me). While I hope to create my own characters that have as much depth and passion as Claire and Jamie, I’m won’t be abusing “but I thought you were dead!” as a convenient plot device and I’m going to reign in my love of description and the minutiae of everyday life.
These books are certainly not for everyone, but they’ve definitely captured my imagination. Diana Gabaldon has said that these were an exercise for her. She undertook this project to find out what it takes to write a novel. I can’t imagine a more fun and satisfying endeavor and she certainly succeeded. Not only did she write this epic series that has been made into a graphic novel and a musical, the story feels like her own vision brought to life even though it would be a marketer’s nightmare.
After a particularly angsty ride with Outlander and A Dragonfly in Amber, I was ready for something more lighthearted. After considering a few supernatural series, and deciding against them because their publishers had the illogical and irritating notion to price the ebooks more than the paperback version, I found Soulless on my to-read list.
I’ve been familiar with steampunk for a few years now, though most people I mention it to seems to have never heard term. A quick Google search will illustrate just how wide and eclectic the genre is, but at its core it involves a fusion of Victorian or Wild West periods and anachronistic technology into an alternative history fantasy world involving a healthy dose of clock parts and steam engines. I was first introduced to the style via scrapbooking (I’m a big fan of Graphic 45 papers, and the company did a gorgeous steampunk series). In preparation for an event at my local art museum the required steampunk cocktail attire, I thought I’d get into the spirit by reading a book in the genre, something I’d yet to do. I selected Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series out of the plethora of titles because it featured vampires and werewolves, and I can’t resist a good supernatural tale.
Alexia proves to be a witty, likable protagonist. In addition to the colorful cast of characters, the world-building in this series is astounding in its detail. It’s a delightful combination of Austen-esque comedies of manners and supernatural hi-jinks. The steampunk element is perfectly executed; it’s easy to imagine all the gadgets and gizmos and they seem right at home in a Victorian society that includes vampires, werewolves, and the soulless—the affliction from which our parasol-wielding protagonists suffers. Though her soulless state means she cannot hope for an afterlife, the practicality it instills in her, not to mention her ability to counteract the powers of the supernatural (her touch turns vampires and werewolves temporarily mortal again) it makes her an ideal sleuth to investigate strange happenings about London. And of course, she becomes intimately involved with a Scottish alpha-werewolf (really, when did Scots become so sexy?)
What amazed me about this series is the unique voice Carriger employs despite the third person narration. The highly stylized language might be off-putting to some, but I found the snarky asides and interminable adverbs cheeky and amusing. It’s a playful mix of mystery and romance. The love scenes are steamy without being raunchy, thanks to the period style. While some of the secondary characters feel a bit like caricatures (I love me a flaming vampire in pink satin and paisley as much as the next girl, but Lord Akeldama screams queen even without the constant references to his dandyish wardrobe) and wonder why Alexia is so judgemental of her best friend (she can be downright mean!) Ivy yet continues to associate with her at all. While not exactly soul-shaking or thought-provoking, the series is proving clever and entertaining, which is exactly what I sought when I purchased the books.