28 April 2009 @ 12:07 am
Two Novels, and a Theory  
I want to talk about two new novels, both historicals with fantastical elements, from new novelists. One is released as a YA, Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix, and the other is C.C. Finlay's The Patriot Witch. (AMENDED: Finlay has been around for a while writing award-winning short fiction, and wrote one other novel, but this is his first novel as C.C. Finlay.)

Before I get talk about the books, I want to talk about my theory about YA. Everyone says that we're in a golden age for young adult literature, and I agree. Last year some great books came out--and this year, more great books are coming out.

As I was reading these two books, it occurred to me that though Silver Phoenix is YA, and Patriot Witch is aimed at a general audience (assumed adult) there is more sex in the former than the latter. Tastefully handled, I thought, and absolutely integral to the story, which is about young adults on the verge of pairing up. Both stories have young adults as protagonists; both, in fact, begin with near betrothal scenes. But the betrothals do not work out, and soon other events overtake the protagonists.

I don't want to stretch that comparison any farther; my point is this. I think YA is great because now it can be great. I don't mean there is a necessity for sex to make a great book. What I do mean is that if the story requires a protagonist on the verge of adulthood to be thinking about sex, authors can finally write about it. And not be confined to sixty thousand words. Francis Hodgson Burnett did not confine herself to sixty thousand words, but 30 years ago, it was damn near impossible to sell a YA novel unless it was that long. And likewise 30 years ago, it had to be squeaky clean. I recall last year we were talking about the general impression some have that "teenage boys don't read." Well, no, when I was a teen, they just didn't read stuff printed for young adults--with those sixty thousand word limits, and boy protagonists in 1973 saying "Gosh darn!" when they were mad. The boys around me who read were mostly reading Heinlein, Vonnegut, Keroac, Malcolm X, Abby Hoffman.

Now, to the debut novels. Both are historical fantasy, as I said. Here's another observation: how detail can work for or against a reader. Finlay's novel is set in New England, 1775, and Pon's is set in Xian, my guess around Renaissance or Reformation times.

I've accrued a lot of impressions about life in New England at that time, having studied European history during that period. So details trigger a lot of complex awarenesses of social custom, usage. When Finlay's book opened, I damn near got punched out of the story within the first three pages because I got hit with several details that I just could not get my head round. Now, I don't know for certain the specifics of life in Boston in 1775, but in England, a conservative father did not take his unmarried daughter to a coffee house. Boys who wanted to marry girls came to call on the father at home, and the two spoke in Father's private space and came to an agreement before calling the girl in. Second, no unmarried girl would be caught dead in a cap, because only spinsters, married women, or widows wore caps . . . and those were strictly worn inside. Outside, girls wore bonnets.

So, at first, I couldn't tell where I was, that is, if Finlay had created a parallel universe. So when I heard about Redcoats marching, and minutemen, I wanted to know why--what were the politics in this world--what else had changed? Especially as the first bit of magic occurred directly after . . . but within a few more pages, more of the customs and social clues I was used to poured in, and the picture clarified. By page 18 or so, I began to shift into our history with magic being a secret history; by chapter two the paradigm had jelled, and the story caught me up so tightly I could not put the book down.

Our young hero, Proctor Brown (descended through his mother from the Proctors of Salem) returns home from his almost betrothal, not quite encouraged by a wary Tory father. With his mother, in secret, Proctor does a scrying. His mother is fearful, overworked, anxious--and angry. Proctor promises he will stick around--but then takes off, exactly like a twenty year old would; his heart is in the right place, he has the best of intentions, but he hares off without considering the consequences. And he gets swept up in the battle of Lexington, through the Bunker Hill. Later, when he pursues the question of magic, his mother will not communicate, and he gets himself into even more trouble.

Finlay's depiction of the hapless patriots experiencing battle for the first time is dead on target according to all the primary sources I've ever read. The characterizations are beautifully rendered, both women and men. (And not all his Redcoats are slimes and bullies.) Watching the wariness of Proctor and Deborah, a powerful witch his own age, turn gradually into respect and then friendship, was one of the strongest pleasures of the book--and helped intensify the worry as war closes in around them. One of my absolute favorites, though, was the fourteen-year-old Alexandra, whose veering between the thoughtless arrogance and total uncertainty of fourteen was spot on.

Another pleasure of the story was how he worked Quakers into the narrative.

The second half of the book was so intense I was longing to sneak away during a family party so I could read just one more chapter. I stayed up way too late, reading to the end. Finlay does not dump the reader into a cliff hanger ending--there is a satisfying coda--but do not, do not, read the sample chapter included after the ending if you are like me, and hate waiting, because I made the mistake of reading it. I was glad to see a sign of a favorite character, but when I got to the last bit of the sample I screamed, and scared all three dogs. Now I have to wait! Argh! Argh! ARGH!

Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix has a gorgeous book trailer. That will give you a glimpse of the storyline. It also conveys the mood, and a hint of the sheer, jaw-dropping beauty of this narrative. I mentioned details above. I do not know very much about Chinese history, so my appreciation for the tiny sensory details was all aesthetic: assumptions behind different foods, how they are served, the scents, certain plants, decorations, colors, would go by me.

But I can appreciate them just as part of the reading experience. Ai Ling's adventure is fraught with peril, her relationship with the brothers intriguing and delightful, yet a part of me wanted to linger over the ravishing descriptions. And not only the historic details, the way Pon works to make the magic integral.

Ai Ling can hear others' thoughts, and get inside their heads. She does this to Li Rong, Chen Yong's younger brother, at one point: . . . Yet a power and vigor still dwelled in his limbs, an energy that could be summoned in a heartbeat. His hearing was sharper than hers, and Ai Ling heard the rustling of leaves far above, along with the quiet chirping of bugs which she had not noticed with her own ears.

As Ai Ling's power grows, so too does the cost, and also her understanding. She has a quest not of her making, and yet it is hers, or becomes hers; she is a part of the spirit world as well as the real world. She's a young girl, with a young girl's intensity of feeling, and fears, and questions about how the world works even without fantastical creatures such as dragons drifting in and out of her life--and trees that fruit with living human hearts.

This is an amazing book, and even more amazing that it's a first book. I believe there is to be a second one; I sure hope so. I want to read more about Ai Ling and Chen Yong.

Two books I really loved, and I hope I did them enough justice to inspire other readers to give them a try.
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( 65 comments — Leave a comment )
asakiyumeasakiyume on April 28th, 2009 06:01 am (UTC)
Fabulous reviews--you certainly did make me want to try them both.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 10:03 am (UTC)
cindy_poncindy_pon on April 28th, 2009 06:03 am (UTC)
wow, sherwood. thank you so much for this post. i'm overwhelmed and also humbled. thank you for reading my little debut. i know how busy ALL writers are, and you were so kind to do this! i love the juxtaposition of your two reads. i also like what you've said about young adult.

i'm not sure if i told you, but i originally wrote silver phoenix as a straight adult fantasy. after all, so many protagonists in fantasy are teens. it wasn't until i began querying that i got the notion it could work as young adult.

and the kingdom of xia, is my own construction. based most definitely on china--but the book isn't truly historical fantasy because poor ai ling would have had her feet bound and remained at home. it was something i struggled with. i do love historicals and hope to write one some day.

thanks again so so much for reading and posting this!! and all best on your own release today!! =D
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 10:02 am (UTC)
Ah, thanks! I am so ignorant I assumed it was about the actual Xian (Chagun) and wondered if she wasn't noble enough for foot binding. Well, your Xian seemed real to me!
(no subject) - dichroic on April 28th, 2009 10:13 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on April 28th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cindy_pon on April 28th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
tigtogtiffy on April 28th, 2009 06:25 am (UTC)
You know, Amazon says you can buy both books of yours right now. Just saying. which is kind of exciting, since I don't like waiting for things.

And thanks for the book reviews. I love new things to read. :)
Estaraestara on April 28th, 2009 08:04 am (UTC)
Right! Amazon.de already sent the first one to me, I just have to get it today from the post office, as I wasn't at home yesterday when the parcel guy came around.
(no subject) - sartorias on April 28th, 2009 10:00 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on April 28th, 2009 10:01 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - merriehaskell on April 28th, 2009 09:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on April 28th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on April 28th, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - merriehaskell on April 29th, 2009 02:31 am (UTC) (Expand)
nishatalitha: Claim Innocence - swinging feet in skirtnishatalitha on April 28th, 2009 06:51 am (UTC)
I think I'm going to do my usual keep Amazon tags open until my library gets them. They sound quite interesting.

And yes, there's some fantastic young adult fiction out there.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 10:00 am (UTC)
Definitely ask your library to order both.
Wandering Hedgehogoursin on April 28th, 2009 07:32 am (UTC)
Hah! Your book was among the pile sitting in my pigeon-hole when I got back to work yesterday.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 09:59 am (UTC)
Hope you like it!
Estaraestara on April 28th, 2009 08:09 am (UTC)
Mission accomplished ^^
Silver Phoenix added to wishlist
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 09:59 am (UTC)
Re: Mission accomplished ^^
I think you will like it!
Stephanie Burgis: cupcake!stephanieburgis on April 28th, 2009 08:49 am (UTC)
Congratulations on your book birthday!!! :) I can't wait to read it. (It's going to be part of this month's Amazon order, hurray!) :)

And thank you for the reviews! They both sound really intriguing.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)
Grab 'em--I think you will like them!
lady_schrapnelllady_schrapnell on April 28th, 2009 09:09 am (UTC)
Ooh, those sound fabulous! Putting them on my list immediately...

(Very glad I didn't have to wait until today to get Once a Princess!)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)
Zornhauzornhau on April 28th, 2009 09:44 am (UTC)
The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp...
YA is short, fast-paced and inventive without the need to wallow in world building. If Lin Carter were writing today, it would be YA.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 09:57 am (UTC)
Re: The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp...
A lot of his type of novel is being repackaged as YA, I note.
Re: The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp... - zornhau on April 28th, 2009 09:59 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp... - dichroic on April 28th, 2009 10:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp... - zornhau on April 28th, 2009 10:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp... - dichroic on April 28th, 2009 10:17 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp... - zornhau on April 28th, 2009 10:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp... - marycatelli on April 28th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: The heirs to 60s-70s Pulp... - sartorias on April 28th, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
J. T. Gloverjtglover on April 28th, 2009 11:23 am (UTC)
Is there a large version of the cover art for Once a Princess to which I could link on my LJ? I poked around but could not find it. Amazon/Powell's/etc. seem not to mind my petty bandwidth theft for thumbnails, but I suspect they wouldn't be pleased at my stealing larger images...
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
I don't think they care, as I see them all the time. If you do, thanks! :-)
Rae Carsonraecarson on April 28th, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)
Alexandra was one of my fav characters, too!

And now I feel compelled to pick up a copy of Silver Phoenix. Sounds fabulous.
Chris Coenclarentine on April 28th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)
(Actually, Charlie Finlay has an earlier novel, The Prodigal Troll.)

Yay for good books!
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
I fixed that. Thanks!
(no subject) - clarentine on April 28th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on April 28th, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC) (Expand)
oracne - Victoria Janssenoracne on April 28th, 2009 01:09 pm (UTC)
You have successfully pimped to me....
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
Yippee! Good reading ahead!
tcastlebtcastleb on April 28th, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
Oh, good. I have Charlie's book here with me at work; haven't gotten as far as I need to yet, but I'm glad you liked it, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)
See if the battle of Lexington, or the events with the widow don't suck you right in. They sure did me.
Stephanie Gildart / Caitlyn Wellslilac_wood on April 28th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
Two more books to add to my stack! I'm excited. I've been getting good recommendations all this month. It makes my stack to big, but at the same time, at least I don't feel like I have nothing to read :)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
These are excellent books--enjoy!
Cynthiacynthia1960 on April 28th, 2009 05:14 pm (UTC)
Looking forward to both books! Gotta support my namesibling Pon!
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 28th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
Oh, it's a gorgeous book, I can hardly wait for her next.
windsong5 on April 28th, 2009 11:43 pm (UTC)
Awesome reviews, Sherwood. I love reading your take on things. Gah! I seriously need a twelve-step program. At this rate I'm never going to be a recovering bibliophile, because I'll never have gotten around to the recovering bit.

*shuffles off to B&Ndotcom*
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 29th, 2009 12:22 am (UTC)
Heh! Who wants to recover?

*says the addict*
(no subject) - windsong5 on April 29th, 2009 01:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
java_fiendjava_fiend on April 29th, 2009 04:52 am (UTC)
I'll have to get back with some thoughts on YA, but just wanted to pop in to say CONGRATS on the release of your book!!!!
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 29th, 2009 05:00 am (UTC)
Jenn: berriesjennifergale on April 29th, 2009 07:29 am (UTC)
Just a fly-by, but...I'm so thrilled that Sasharian is out! I remember reading an early draft back when Emilie was an infant. I know what I'm doing as soon as the next paycheck clears. ;)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 29th, 2009 01:06 pm (UTC)
lady_schrapnelllady_schrapnell on April 29th, 2009 09:11 am (UTC)
Oddly enough, I just now noticed that there's a long interview with Cindy Pon on enchantedinkpot which appeared directly below this on my friends' page! It's here if you want to have a look.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 29th, 2009 01:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks! That was a nifty interview indeed!
(Deleted comment)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 29th, 2009 01:08 pm (UTC)
Re: quakers, xian beauty, recoup
Finlay's use of the Quakers is interesting, insightful, and also respectful of the tradition. He gets the plain speech in the right form--I loved it.
(Deleted comment)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 29th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
Re: sex and prince(ss) books
A couple of things--despite the cover's hints, my book has no sex, though it does have romance, and gets into intimate space--but not physically.

Silver Phoenix begins with Ai Ling's mother making sure Ai Ling knows what is expected of a new wife on her wedding night. I am no scholar of Chinese history (though I want to fix that) but I got a sense that the attitudes toward sex in Pon's book were more Chinese than western--they were certainly more practical than many of the double standards and hidden pitfalls covered over by advtertizing lure that we get here.

Re responsibility: I tend to feel that it is the author's responsibility to write true to their convictions--even if others don't agree. I love Anthony Trollope's books, but though he wrote earnestly and passionately that a woman who dares to love another man (sex or no sex, just emotional love), and who finds out he is no good, is spoiled goods for the rest of her life, and it is her duty to keep herself away from any other men. I disagree, but he apparently believed it.

Responsibility for what kids read really lies with parents: one mom might feel her fourteen year old daughter is ready for this book. Another might want her daughter to wait for high school. I would have let my daughter read it, but that's me.
Shveta, bursting with stars ॐshveta_thakrar on April 30th, 2009 02:34 am (UTC)
A belated congratulations, dear Sherwood. :) I can't wait to read it.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 30th, 2009 03:01 am (UTC)
Hope you like it! (And these others--I bet you would love Silver Phoenix, sensitive as you are to poetry and beautiful things.)
(no subject) - shveta_thakrar on April 30th, 2009 03:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
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