Roshani Chokshi: In Which I Go Down the Fantasy Genre Action & Philosophy Rabbit Hole

I was griping on Facebook the other day about needing some new fantasy novels to read, and a FB friend recommended Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes. I hadn’t realized until I looked up Chokshi that she is also the author of Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first book in her middle-grade series and the first book published by Rick Riordan’s new imprint. That’s been on my to-read list for a while, and I’m bumping it up to the top as soon as I finish A Crown of Wishes.

I love fantasy novels. The Hobbit probably started me off. It was the first book I ever cried over–I remember sitting up when I was 12, after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, and whole-body sobbing as…!!SPOILER ALERT!!…Bilbo said goodbye to Thorin. (Do NOT get me started on Thorin in the movie version; what were you thinking, Peter Jackson?) And then, in high school, I discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall series, and I was a goner. In the past decade or two…young-adult authors have been adding brilliant worlds and works to the genre. Kristin Cashore. Sarah J. Maas. Laini Taylor. Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, just to name a few. I’ll take a leap and add Joe Abercrombie, even though, so far, I’ve only read Half a King

And, now, Roshani Chokshi.

I like beautifully written, fun, fast-moving fantasy stories. Throw in some humor–even better. I love strong world-building, and if you throw in a bit of philosophy to the mix, you’ve got me.

As long as the balance is right. If you lean too far toward the philosophy, with the action as a side-note, I’m gone. Keep things moving, keep me intrigued by the character’s actions and reactions, as well as their life-view…yes!

It’s not that easy. Terry Pratchett does it brilliantly, especially in his Tiffany Aching books. (I sobbed as hard, if not harder, with The Shepherd’s Crown as I did with The Hobbit.) Kristin Cashore rocks it, especially in Bitterblue (which I talked about here.) And Roshani Chokshi has mastered it.

Chokshi has set herself an extra challenge, I think, by setting her stories in a world where magic has layers and layers and where, when you step into the magic world, the shields (or scabs) you have built up around your vulnerabilities are ripped away. Chokshi’s magic gets into your mind and plays games, it grabs onto the big thoughts–the foundation of who you are and how you see things–as well as the smaller, not-fully-developed thoughts that flutter across that foundation to both threaten and promise. There are sections, long passages and chapters, where Chokshi’s characters essentially swim in this disorientation, sometimes struggling to even stay afloat. And you swim with them.

So many books, when they reach for this place, this kind of storytelling, get lost. As a reader, you feel swamped by beautiful words that are all thoughts, all philosophy. Often they are thoughts that are true to the characters the author has created, but–in the end–they are still just thoughts. Chokshi tiptoes up to the edge, she skims over its shore, but she never once falls in.

Chokshi’s characters are, much like Cashore’s Bitterblue, characters of the mind. The core of their being is the way they think–they way they see the world around them and the way they see their place within that world. It’s why they are so at risk–if the magic gets their minds, it gets their selfs. And so they fight it. And, I think, it’s the resistance that makes them so strong and that keeps Chokshi’s books concrete, active, and powerful. They have quests that force them into the magic and, to achieve those quests, they step in. Deeply. They immerse themselves in the magic as long as they need, and then…they jump back. Or draw swords against it. Or laugh at it. They grab for the pieces of magic they need to move forward; they dispose of the pieces that don’t. The magic is the vehicle for Chokshi’s characters; the characters are not simply vehicles for the magic.

Read any or all of the books I’ve talked about in this post. Just make sure you include Chokshi’s stories on the list. And cross your fingers that she has many more coming.

 

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Reaching for Powerful Words

I’m thinking about the reading I’ve been doing since the election. For a few days, honestly, I couldn’t find anything to read. This has only happened to me a couple of times in my life, and it’s always scary. Because…not being able to pick a book? Not being able to lose myself in a story, in characters, in words? That’s absolutely terrifying.

Then one day I knew I wanted to re-read Kristen Cashore’s Bitterblue. It’s the third of her Graceling books, and–for me–it’s her best. It’s the story of a young woman who has inherited a kingdom, a kingdom full of people whom her father controlled and tortured, manipulated with his mind, forced to do terrible things. Memories are traps for everyone in her world, including herself, places of gaping holes and sudden transports into the past. Bitterblue’s need is to learn and understand as much as she can about the past, to fill in the holes, and find some way for everyone to move forward from the travesty they all lived through. While Bitterblue is active and physical and well able to defend herself, she is a hero of intelligence, of logic and code-breaking and puzzle-solving. I think I needed to seep myself in “smart,” in the power of someone to ease people’s pain through analysis and thinking and direct speaking.

Since then, I’ve stayed in fantasy–reading through several books by Cinda Williams Chima. Chima’s books are tightly written and draw me easily into the heads of characters who look head on at their own problems and at the larger problems of the world around them, who tackle those problems with force and focus, and who–after many losses–win the bigger picture.

I think what I’m craving in my reading these days, is the feeling that we can do this. That we can take on the next four years and, frankly, kick our enemies’ asses. For now, I’m finding this reassurance in fantasy, in words that don’t look a whole lot like ours, that give me some distance and escape from the crap we’re facing, even as–at the same time–they maybe give me strength to believe in the battle.

I think I’m also, though, craving words of power. Both Cashore and Chima are good writers, strong writers. Their books don’t lose me in vagueness or mushy prose–Cashore, in particular, has done an amazing thing in writing a book about mental powers that feels anything but inactive. I’m not sure I could read a literary novel right now if you paid me. I know that, at some point, I’ll step out of the fantasy world and back into reality, but when I do I think I’ll still be craving strength and energy from the story words. I rarely read poetry, never have, but I found myself thinking this morning that maybe I needed to get a collection of Adrienne Rich’s poems and read through one every day or so. For the power and the strength in her words.

What I did do was track down Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise and listen to it again. “Does my sassiness upset you?” No, it doesn’t. It expands my heart.

Has your reading been impacted by the election results? Have you noticed yourself reaching for a certain book, a certain kind of book? What books of power have you turned to? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Prose: What I’ve Been Reading

Believe me, I get that prose–without plot, without characters, without setting and dialogue–isn’t enough. I’ve read enough books and manuscripts where the words flow pretty darned well, but everything underneath those words is thin–right. No scaffolding, no story.

But…I am also a sucker for beautiful prose, for the phrase or sentence that just nails it, that makes you suck in your breath, reread it, and then read it again–out loud to whoever is in the room, whether they really want to listen or not. The prose that makes them realize they really did.

It’s been a couple of weeks of reading authors who can wield words with beauty, like Van Gogh with his sunflowers, like Thor with his hammer, like B.B. King with Lucille. Authors who, yes of course they have all the other elements down pat, but who draw you along with the power of that prose. You absorb the story and the characters through osmosis, but you breathe in the words like the sweetest, purest oxygen.

If you’ve been following me on Facebook, you’ve heard me rave about the authors I’ve been breathing recently, but I’ll mention them here again.

  • Jandy Nelson. I remember really liking The Sky is Everywhere, so I picked up I’ll Give You the Sun. It knocked my socks off. Yes, story out the wazoo, but omg the beauty of the words, the way she mixes everybody’s special magic in with the less magic world they move through, the way they turn that world into magic for themselves and the reader. And two points of view, people…TWO.
  • Jan Karon. On a recommendation from a Facebook friend, I started Karon’s At Home in Mitford. I loved it. Sort of like Barbara Pym, except somewhere in the South instead of England, and without the depression. Without any depression. I put Book 2, A Light in the Window on hold at the library, but only Book 2, because you know…sometimes that first perfect book and then the rest not so perfect. Let’s just say that 50 pages into A Light in the Window, I zipped over to my library website and added Books 3 and 4 to my hold list. The books read like a river, one you’re safely and slowly traveling down–in the warm sunshine and not a drop of seasickness, with a pitcher of lemonade and a pot of tea waiting for you somewhere along the way. Even when Winter comes, you’re on that river, bundled up a little more against the cold, but still traveling happily, knowing its just the season and it will roll along into Spring and Summer.
  • Joshilyn Jackson. Years ago, I read Between, Georgia, which falls into that small bubble of books that may qualify as the single best book I’ve ever read. I’ve loved every one of Jackson’s books that I’ve read, but Between…it’s 17 stars out of 4. It goes on your must-read list NOW. And then pick up Someone Else’s Love Story, which I’ve been reading all morning and which is looking to be Jackson’s best one since. Kind of like Jandy Nelson, except entirely different, Jackson uses her power over words to place her character’s perceptions on the page and make them real. Again, two points of view here, and amazing, amazing, amazing. Different words, different phrasing for each of them–one kind of musical and light even when the darkness curls up at the edges, and the other a boulder just starting to shift on the slope of a mountain…just threatening to roll and pick up steam or maybe settle back down again and stay solid. With a few tiny sun-sparkles off the quartz embedded in its surface.

There are dozens of other writers who get me with their words–Steve Kluger with My Most Excellent Year, Kristin Cashore with Bitterblue are a couple that come to mind quickly. How about you. Who makes you almost not care that their storytelling and characterization is wonderful, because you’re so happy just to lose yourself in the prose? Leave some more suggestions in the comments!