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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How Has Your Reading Changed…or Not?

Thirty years ago (yes, really!), I was reading 700-page novels. In high school, I fell in love with Russian novels (yes, again, really!), and then in college discovered the British Victorian writers and fell, if possible, even more deeply in love (yes, oh, whatever…). It was an extension of what I’d felt when I found fantasy writers like Tolkien and his followers–the experience of being a fast reader who could finally stay with one particular story & set of characters for more than a day or two. Those fantasy series, and these novels…kept going. And, oh, the characters.

When I went on to grad school, I knew what I was going to be reading. More Victorians. I ended up doing my orals on the Bront ës, and my thesis on Wuthering Heights. (And don’t you think, BY NOW, that a spellchecker should NOT try to change “Wuthering” to “Withering?!”) I read and read and read and…

…I burnt out.

Grad school was where I discovered that academia was not the right place for me. That while reading was as necessary as breathing to me, and that–yes–I could talk about a book for hours–all this analysis, this taking apart the author’s meaning and intent, was starting to wear thin. And those long books suddenly felt…really long.

So I switched gears. The last semester I wrote my thesis and took one course: Modern British Drama. 20-50 pages/book, with about 10 lines of text on a page. And lots of laughs.

And for reading pleasure, I picked up Barbara Pym’s novels and…mysteries. (Yes, back to books I could finish in a day-and-a-half.) I discovered Ruth Rendell and rediscovered Agatha Christie. Again…not such long books. Some might say Agatha Christie doesn’t do character–I’d disagree. But I think, in Rendell’s novels and the rest of the mysteries I read in the next few years, there was a connection between the characters in the Victorian novels I’d been reading and these new series. The characters stayed around. And, even while they were busy solving crimes, they also (especially the more modern detectives) had their own life problems–problems that also went on and on, over multiple books, not unlike the never-ending problems that carried Victorian characters over 700 pages.

I still read mysteries. They satisfy something in me that I haven’t yet identified, but probably don’t need to examine too closely–they obviously satisfy that something in a huge number of other readers, or they wouldn’t be so popular. If I’m hanging around too long in just children’s or teen books, or in just fantasy, I find myself needing a fix of someone strong and aggressive, who’s out to solve someone else’s problems, even if they can’t really work on their own in a big way yet.

And then there is the kids/teen lit. This probably makes up anywhere between 80 & 90% of my reading today. Why? Well, yes, obviously because I write it. But more than that, because there is just so much on the market that is brilliant. Honestly, if you want to go as far as possible from the dense layers of Victorian novels as you can–pick up a 200-page realistic YA novel. You’d run out of red ink if you tried to edit one of those books from the 1800s into a story for teens today. (Well, honestly, except for maybe Wuthering Heights, but I may be biased.)

But again…the characters. I think this is the core of my reading over the years. The people who all these writers have drawn onto their pages, for me to immerse myself in. You’d think I would read mysteries for the plot, but I can pick up an Agatha-Christie novel for the third time and still not figure out whodunnit. Because it’s the people she wrote about and all their quirks and attitudes and perfect dialogue that hook me in and keep me reading. It was Cathy & Heathcliff and Catherine and Hareton that made me love Wuthering Heights. It’s the scene at the end of The Hobbit, where Bilbo and Thorin meet for the last time, that brings me back for a zillionth reread and has me in tears yet again. It’s the pain of Lia in Wintergirls that wrenches at me, that makes me need to put down the book for a break and calls to me until I pick it up again.

Character. So, yes, if you look at the books on my shelves today and compare them to the ones that were there thirty years ago, they don’t look so much the same. In fact, you could probably fit three of the books today into the space of one from the past. But it seems, after all, there is a connection, a continuity, in my reading over all these decades. Obviously, it’s the quality of the writing. Most importantly, though, I think it’s the people who that wonderful writing–those writers–created.

What about you? What are you reading today that you weren’t reading years ago? Is it a total switch for you, or do you see a common thread? Drop your thoughts into the comments and share.