Meditation on Story

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Let’s talk about story.

Over the span of the last few months I’ve read a few books, some better than others. Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson, A Darker Shade of Magic, by Victoria Schwab, and Iron Gold, by Pierce Brown round out the more fantastical side of my reading adventures, while Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry, Ready Player One by Earnest Cline, and Altar of Eden by James Rollins represent the more…grounded side of my path, though not by much. I won’t talk much here about Harrow, RP1 or Eden – not because they were bad, but because they aren’t part of the bigger picture in this specific tale.

For those who don’t know, Oathbringer, ADSOM and Iron Gold are all installments in franchise book series. Represented here are The Stormlight Archive, the Shades of Magic series, and the Red Rising saga, respectively, where each series inhabits a genre of writing similar to – but slightly different than – the others. Stormlight is pure, high fantasy – set on a far off world, with spirits and monsters and gods, the Archive is on Book 3 of what looks to be a 10 volume mega-epic. More on this in a minute.

Shades of Magic is a science fantasy trilogy with pirates and blood magic, rune writing and a touch of romance, with ADSOM itself being the first installment. Finally, the Red Rising saga is a science fiction space opera set in a far future solar system, where humanity has been stratified and color coded, each tier of the society reminiscent of a culture or mindset. This all leads to an inevitable revolution, complete with heroes and villains – and Iron Gold is book 4 of what will likely be a 6 – 9 book series.

That I had the joy and privilege of reading each of these three books – Oathbringer, A Darker Shade of Magic and Iron Gold – within such close proximity to one another afforded me a real appreciation for just how different each of these stories actually is. Reaching back even further – to the fall – if I include Leviathan Wakes by James Corey, the Science Fantasy spectrum here grows even more complete. Yes, Altar of Eden might be considered hard science fiction, but for our purposes here, I’m leaving it off as more of an “action” type of story.

As a storyteller, I wonder sometimes what medium I should be exploring for my own work. Am I a visual storyteller (graphic novel)? Am I an oral storyteller (podcasts, southern style telling)? Am I destined to be an author (novel) or will I tell stories through design (UX)? Seeing three authors I respect (Sanderson, Brown, and Schwab) tell their own stories through the written form was eye opening, both in terms of what they did absolutely right and what left me cold.

From Sanderson, I learned the strength of worlds – of nations and towns, magic and mystery. No aspect of his imagination is unexamined or untested, no weight unbalanced, no question unasked. From Brown I learned the power of varying points of view, the unshakeable excitement of clear action sequences, and the payoff of slow burn reveals. Finally, from Schwab, I remembered the beauty of being whisked away on a wave of sheer imagination, and learned to always give a character a chance – to think I didn’t like Delilah Bard when I met her. Pshaw! What an idiot I was. Who doesn’t love a pirate?

Yet I learned the dangers of these styles – the threat of characters lost in their own stories, of a world becoming more of a character than the characters themselves, of a story so polished and tidy it feels almost…lifeless, at times. I also discovered the danger of leaving a story hanging from a precipice, and how disillusioning that can be for a reader.

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson (Book 3 of the Stormlight Archive): 8/10

Warring gods, sprawling histories, beloved characters and at least one startling death combine to create the strongest entry in Brandon Sanderson’s magnum opus since the book that started it all. Sanderson is back in his best form here after a shaky second entry – Oathbringer again marks The Stormlight Archive as a series to watch.

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown (Book 4 of the Red Rising Saga): 9/10

When an author as young as Pierce Brown announces his intention to continue a storyline he perfectly concluded at the end of an amazing trilogy, the cynical reader is filled with doubt. Who would have expected the glory that is Iron Gold – arguably the most mature and character driven entry into the Red Rising Saga to date. Without a doubt one of the finest bodies of work being written today, the Red Rising Saga entered a new stage with Iron Gold, to be picked up this fall with Dark Age. In the words of the immortal Sevro: “Shit escalates.”

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (Book 1 of the Shades of Magic series): 9/10

A Darker Shade of Magic was the book that made me stop and smell the pages for the first time in a good number of years. Tight prose, lovable characters, frightening villains and a wonderful magic system (and world for that system to inhabit) all combine to create a stirring and original story that feels like the stories I used to imagine when I was a child, if those stories were put into words and set to the page. I follow Victoria Schwab on Twitter, too, and get a particular kick out of how much she struggles with the writing process. This book was inspiring!

Each of these books was lovely – and each of them showed me a different way an author might explore this particular wedge of fiction. If you’re looking for an adventure, I can easily recommend all three of them, with full confidence that there’s only more to come.

That’s all for now.

-R

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-A & R, Intercoastals