Friday, April 11, 2014

Endings, *Heat* & Dreams of Gods and Monsters

About Spoilers:
The following post contains spoilers for the novel Days of Blood and Starlight and what I would call "teasers" for its sequel, Dreams of Gods and Monsters. In regards to the latter, I do not answer any major questions, expose plot twists or declare that anybody is dead (or not dead). If you are particularly sensitive to spoilers, well, that's why I put this text in red :-) Proceed with caution.

I finished Dreams of Gods and Monsters yesterday morning. It's the last book in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor. Books 1 and 3 of the series are two of the best books I've read in the past several years, and the accompanying novella, Night of Cake and Puppets, is one of the cutest things I have ever read in my life. (Book 2 is not of lesser quality than the others, but its character development, while appropriate for the trajectory of the novels, is brutal.)

Link to IndieBound
When I was only a few chapters into DoGaM, I started drafting a blog post in my head. The title was to be "How to End Something". This has been a rough year for endings. I've been disappointed with the endings of several stories in various media, books included. The most recent appallingly bad ending was How I Met Your Mother. I wasn't too invested in that show, yet I thought Ted Mosby deserved a better ending than that*.

*I won't spoil it here because I know a lot of people are watching it on Netflix. However, if you are doing that, my humble suggestion is that you reconsider. Besides, Netflix has every single season of Futurama, and you can't go wrong there.

Given that I am a writer myself, I worry about being hypocritical when I'm negative about other people's work. Would I want someone talking about my characters, my story that way? No, I would not, and that's why I'm writing this post. I want to figure out what these authors did and why they might have done it so that I don't make the same mistake.

In stories, the rule I believe in is that character always comes first. Character + World = Plot, which means plot is last, but too often - especially in movies and TV - plot comes first. I think when authors end their stories in a way that makes readers angry, oftentimes it's because the author violated the integrity of their own character.

Let's say you've followed a character's development over three books, believed it all, and then in the last chapter of the last book, they do something completely out of character. Sure, people can change, but if a character is going to change drastically, and at the very last minute, I as a reader want to understand why. If you tell me why and the reason is believable, I will happily accept the curve-ball ending. But without that explanation, I assume that the author has none, which means they violated the integrity of their character for the sake of plot, for the sake of doing something sensational.

The excuse these authors sometimes give is that they always knew how the story would end, that they didn't make the decision at the last minute, and readers should somehow feel better because of that. I feel more betrayed because of that! If the author knew how the story would end since they started writing it, then they did put plot first, and while it's possible to bring a plot and a character's development into alignment, the fact that said authors shocked and angered their readers means that they failed to do so.

But now, back to Dreams of Gods and Monsters. I am ecstatic over this book because it wasn't just a worthy ending to a trilogy, one that the characters deserved and felt natural in terms of plot, it's a brilliant book all by itself. I might even say - le gasp! - I liked it better than Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Here's why:

1. The scope of the narrative
In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the narrator mostly hovered over Karou's head the whole time, which was perfect because we got to know and love her and see her crazy world(s) through her eyes. It got broader in Days of Blood and Starlight so that we got to follow both Karou and Akiva, who was doing some interesting things on his own. In DoGaM, the narrator is all over the place, and I loved it. Every chapter felt fresh and because the narrator was following so many characters, we got to see each scene through the eyes of whoever had the optimal vantage point. There's also something about this style of narration that leads to fantastic comedic timing.

2. Eidolon eating a piece of fruit
The imagery in this scene is just amazing. I pictured the whole thing like it was a movie in my mind and I was thoroughly, delightfully creeped out.

After I read her first few chapters, I got so entranced that I started skipping ahead and I ended up reading all of her portions of the story straight through.

4. The bath cavern in the Kirin caves
Some interesting things happen there, and the way it's described (dangling pink moss!) in the words of Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there."

5. Justice
Laini Taylor is pro at justice. I'm not saying that all of her characters get what's coming to them; her books aren't pink and purple with happy endings all around. But there is a sense of justice in the world of the books that feels natural, like it's the will of the characters instead of the author, and I love that.

6. Mik's continued effort to complete three heroic tasks
This is a guy who I would definitely call a feminist because he 100% respects Zuzana's right to make her own decisions, yet he's put himself on a mythic crusade to win her hand. It's adorable.

7. Akiva's character development
These books established pretty early on that Karou is amazing, but she and Akiva had a rough start and he had some redeeming to do. He was also a little Byronic early on, which I never like, and I was worried that he would become a trope - the "hero" who acts like a miserable jerk because the girl he loves has important stuff to do and isn't paying him enough attention. Thankfully, he's matured and in this book, he takes on some important stuff of his own. The fact that he stepped up to the plate and got absorbed in his own work made me like him a lot more. It made him worthy of Karou.

8. Liraz's character development
I had written off Akiva's half-sister as a bitter sidelines character, the angry voice who brought tension to scenes that might not otherwise have it. She was sort of flat for Book 1 and 90% of Book 2, but in Book 3, Liraz is flat no more. There is one scene with Liraz at a river with her canteen that just melted my heart.

9. Ziri
Epic songs should be written about this guy. Sweet and funny and brave and so... Ziri.

10. "The Heat"
Laini Taylor handles "the heat" between her character couples with finesse*. Romance from the male's perspective is often mishandled in books. Many authors shy away from the male's perspective altogether - we can thank the Puritans for that - while others go too far in the opposite direction and give unnecessarily clinical descriptions of boners, as if doing so should cover all their bases when it comes to men and love.

I fear I'm treading into delicate territory here, but I don't know why since I'm not saying anything negative. My point is positive, and it's that male sexuality can be...adorable. Touch can be a powerful thing to a guy, and it doesn't have to be touch down there, it can be the brush of fingers on his cheek, a head resting on his chest, the feel of warm breath on his neck. Those things can mean so much to guys, often more than the same gestures mean to girls. In DoGaM, Akiva's feelings for Karou were distinctly male, but in the best, sweetest way. Karou could melt him with a touch, and validate his entire being with a smile. It wasn't just believable; it was beautiful.

Another thing I loved is that this book didn't shy away from female sexuality, a topic that's avoided even more often than male sexuality. Listen here, World: Women like sex, too. Get over it. We need more books - especially in YA - that portray positive female sexuality. I can think of more books in which girls are sexually abused than books in which girls have a positive sexual encounter, and that is sad beyond belief. What kind of message is that sending? What kind of expectations are girls growing up with when we're showing them only the ugliest side of sex? There is plenty of happy territory to tread. I remember being a teenager and wanting to touch a guy's muscular arm but fearing I'd hyperventilate if I did. It was exhilarating, feeling something that intense! Likewise, Karou gets so tingly and fixated on Akiva's body that she thinks she's going to explode, and I am so happy for her in those moments.

*Another author who does this really well is Tahereh Mafi. There are certain chapters in all three of her books (Shatter Me, Unravel Me, Ignite Me) that I had to read like, three times before I would move on because they were molten hot, and she was equally good at all the things Laini Taylor is as described under #10, above.

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