Thursday, July 31, 2014

In Which I Compare Different Books to See Why I Liked Them So

I’m a reader of eclectic taste. I read fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, classics, occasionally sci-fi… you get the picture. Today, I want to examine four wildly different books that I loved and see what made me like them so much. 

The books are:
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson – Epic fantasy/heist – A group of mismatched thieves plot to steal the Dark Lord’s gold. (Another pitch I’ve heard for this one is “What if the hero of prophesy failed?” but it doesn’t really cover the plot of the book.)
Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John – Contemporary YA – A deaf girl becomes the manager of a local rock band.
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal – Historical fantasy – Essentially a Jane Austen-esque story with magic.
Anything by Terry Pratchett, with emphasis on Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment (yes, that’s more than one book, but whatever) – Fantasy/comedy/thoughts on human nature – Going Postal: A con man is offered the chance to mend his ways by reviving the failed post office of Anhk Mor Pork. Monstrous Regiment: A girl cuts off her hair and joins the military, where she and her regiment have many adventures. (That sounds like a pretty bland pitch, but the book is so good.)

Things I liked about Mistborn:
-          The characters and character development. Sanderson’s characters felt very real and relatable.
-          The magic systems.
-          The plotting/plot twists.

Things I liked about Five Flavors of Dumb:
-          The characters. Flawed, but real and likable.
-          The premise. A deaf girl becomes manager of a rock band? I couldn’t just let this sit on the shelf. I had to know what happened.
-          The lack of anything too inappropriate. One character clearly wanted to be inappropriate with another, and there was one case of strong swearing, but beyond that, it wasn’t bad. I’m very wary of contemporary YA because I’m afraid that every time I get to a kissing scene I’m going to have to skip over a couple pages. (Although Steampunk paranormal murder mysteries are proving to be a problem too…)

Things I liked about Shades of Milk and Honey:
-          The magic system and how Kowal incorporated it into the everyday lives of the characters and society.
-          The story. It was like reading a Jane Austen story, sans weird grammar and punctuation, but with magic. I don’t fancy myself a romance reader, but for some reason Austen and Austen-esque stories pull me in. My guess is because I like the characters.
-          Flawed but likeable characters.

Things I like about Terry Pratchett’s books:
-          The humor. All the books I listed above have spots of hilarity, but Pratchett blows them out of the water. Clever humor, silly puns… he does it all.
-          The characters. Who can forget people like Moist Von Lipwig, Lord Vetinari, and Sam Vimes? Or the recurring side characters like Sargent Angua, C.M.O.T Dibbler, and Death? Each one is unique his his/her own way, and so very fun to read about.
-          The setting. Most of the Discworld novels take place in the city of Anhk Mor Pork, which could count as a character all on its own. It’s rich with different people and customs and quirks (which he uses to discuss human/troll/vampire/werewolf/etc. nature).
-          The thoughts on human nature/examination of the world and how it works. In the space of a paragraph you can go from talking about something ridiculous to something deep and profound. It’s wonderful. And it isn’t jarring. Everything weaves in together.
-          In the case of Going Postal, the premise. The idea of a criminal being put in charge of the post office is too good to pass up.  

Okay, now that I have that list, let’s compare. 

The first thing I notice is that I like well-developed, real-sounding characters. This does not come as a surprise. People with hopes and dreams, flaws and conflict are much more fun to read about than goal-less, personality-less, perfect people doing nothing (or doing something boring/cliché.) 

I also like humor. Again, not surprising. Though I didn’t list it for every book, humor had its place in all of them. Another example of my liking humor is in the character of Marcus from Dan Wells’ Partials. According to Wells, no one liked Marcus when the book came out, and everyone liked the character Samm. I always liked Marcus more than Samm because Marcus is funny (and he’s a nice guy.) 

Each of these books has a “Gee-whiz factor” in them. (Something about the premise/plot that grabs you by the collar and says “Hey! Read me!”) For Going Postal it was the idea that a criminal gets put in charge of the post office; for Five Flavors of Dumb it was the idea that a deaf girl becomes the manager of a rock band; for Mistborn it was that second elevator pitch about the hero of prophesy failing; for Shades of Milk and Honey it was the idea of Jane Austen with magic. To add a less extreme example, the “gee-wiz factor” of Gone Away Lake is the idea of two kids exploring and hearing stories about the old town that a swamp has now taken over. It’s not as “gee-whizzy” as the others, but it doesn’t need to be. 

Something else I didn’t mention for each book but applies to all is that they were well written. I like well written books with plots that keep me hooked. 

I also like cool magic systems and worldbuilding. 

I think this all boils down to the advice/observations you hear all the time: People like well written, occasionally funny books about real-sounding people and interesting, creative premises.

Now I can use the information I gathered to improve my own writing. I don’t know how I’ll use it, but it’ll be there when I figure it out. What are some recurring things you see in the books you like?




      Love those books.

    2. YAY.
      I really need to get the second one...