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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Opening Those Closed Doors

I come from a long-lived family. I got to know three of my grandparents well into my thirties, and both of my grandmothers made it past 90. I was lucky in many ways to have them in my life, but one of the more shallow ways in which I like to look at that luck was that, truly, I got to put middle-age off for quite a while. (Do the math. Divide 93 by 2. Forty is NOT middle-age.)

Still, somewhere in the past few years, I got there. And, yes, twisted ankles take quite a while to heal; finding a comfortable & decent-looking pair of jeans takes even longer. On the flip side, it hardly takes any time, once I’ve curled up with a book, for me to fall asleep!

And there are days when I look ahead and feel like I need to race a whole lot faster if I want to do all the things I…want to do.

But I’m finding a big plus to being a person “of a certain age.” And that is that I believe in more possibilities than I did when I was younger.

When I left college, I decided that I was not a good enough writer to get into an MFA problem. This wasn’t low self-esteem; I’m pretty sure I was right. Unfortunately, I used that decision to do something we should never do…close a door. For too many years after that, I puttered with my writing, something that had previously been–since I was about ten years old–one of the most important things in my life. I wrote, or I said I was writing, but I drifted from project to project, with long gaps in between, and never getting further along than a beginning. If that.

Sometime in my thirties, I decided I was missing out and moved writing back up to a priority. The years off had put a dent in my confidence, though, had made me view myself as less of a Writer, had made me unsure if I had the skill or commitment to really produce anything. I wrote and I joined critique groups, and I wrote some more. And gradually, I began to take myself seriously enough to move steadily forward. That door was open, and I dared (and still dare) anybody to push aside the boulder I’ve got keeping it that way.

I thought this was it. I thought this was all the looking back I needed to do, that there were no other doors–in terms of my writing–that I needed to unlock.

Then just the other day I saw another door. It was tucked far into a corner. The bulb at that end of the room must have burned out, because I’ve passed that door a gazillion times in the last ten years and not even noticed it. I did hear some tapping, so muffled and quiet, I didn’t even realize something was trying to get in. A few authors I’ve been reading lately–Naomi Novik, Jim Butcher, Laini Taylor joined in, bringing the tapping up to a loud knocking. Then, finally, with a huge DUH!, my brain got it.

This was the fantasy door.

Basically, in junior high, I went straight from kids’ books and required classics to fantasy–via Tolkien and McCaffrey and Brooks and anyone else who fed my craving for elves and wizards and dragons and dark forests and sword fights. I never even heard of fan fiction until people went crazy with Harry Potter, and I never thought of sharing stories with my friends, but that’s what I was writing. Every story I started had someone with a long, white beard who spoke profoundly and made no sense. I didn’t read my work out loud, but you can bet every single character spoke with a beautiful British accent. My heroes communicated by mind with unicorns and dragons; they turned from poverty-stricken, hard-working peasants into powerful bearers of heretofore unknown magic.

You get the point.

And then–I can’t tell you when or why–I shut that door. I have a feeling it was the same kind of decision as the MFA one–I wasn’t good enough yet, so I wasn’t good enough.

Oh, all the things this writer “of a certain age” that I am now wants to say to that young girl writer…

Luckily, as I said, somehow getting older has taught me to stop putting limits on my future. I don’t know if I will ever write a fantasy. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come up with something non-derivative, completely my own.

But I do know that, as of a week ago, there is a folder in my filing cabinet labeled FANTASY. And in that folder, there are a few slips of paper, with just a few scribbled notes on them. Ideas.

Possibilities.

What doors have you closed and either forgotten about or too stubbornly ignored? Is it time, perhaps, to go oil the lock and hunt out the key?