Because of an inordinate amount of stress and busyness in my life of late, I’ve been gravitating towards Young Adult fiction which when done well, is great for truly escaping into a story. I’ve read three young adult books/series in the last couple months that have filled this escapist function quite well but with varying degrees of success and satisfaction. Just for shits and giggles I thought I’d analyze the why of my differing reaction to the books – a contrast and compare if you will.
The three books/series I’ll be discussing and my reviews are:
These books fell out that I loved Seraphina, really liked The Drake Chronicles and liked The Diviners but with some serious reservations.
In my opinion Seraphina brought everything to the table. It is set in an interesting and developed world with a society that felt real despite the fact that many of the denizens were dragons in human form. You could remove the fantastical elements and it would still work as a story but the inclusion of dragons and their very “other” natures, gave the book that something special and original. The story was complex and interesting with the large-in-scope elements that will carry the series being balanced by the more focused and personal mystery at the heart of this book. Despite being the first in the series the book never felt like set-up though it did a thorough job of introducing the world, the characters, and the major issues. And it was a story that swept me away and engrossed my interest. Probably most important to me were the extremely likeable, relatable, well developed protagonist and the rest of the cast which all provided their own unique characters to the puzzle of the story. The book incorporated elements of multiple genres including fantasy, mystery and romance and above all it had a sense of humor. It managed to have real drama and serious conflict while also being light-hearted and laugh out loud funny in parts. Of the three this was the gold standard from which to compare the other two. It was pretty close to perfect for the type of book it was.
The Drake Chronicles was the second most enjoyable reading experience but it could not have been more different than Seraphina. If Seraphina was a 10 course meal served in a tastefully appointed candlelit dining room, the Drake Chronicles was a salad of spring greens with balsamic vinaigrette served on a plastic table at an outdoor café; decidedly less formal and filling but still pleasant. And also easy to gobble down quickly. The Drake Chronicles primary strengths were its delightful, if less thoroughly developed, characters and it’s fast paced narrative splashed liberally with humor. There were teenage humans and teenage vampires and a lot of snogging and preternatural romance and of course over-the-top plots which you don’t want to question too hard or they might crumble and confess all their shortcomings. The difference between this series of books and other offerings (cough *Twilight*) was that these books had fun with it all and were peopled with characters that I would LOVE to hang out with. All the women/girls were strong, independent, and could kick-ass and all the men loved them that way. So while it’s easy to say that these books don’t have the “literary merit” that Seraphina has; they certainly don’t have the weight; I’m not sure the accomplishment is any less significant or impressive.
Which brings me to The Diviners. Like Seraphina, the Diviners combines elements from several genres and works to set up an ambitiously epic storyline that will be spooled out over a series of books. But it doesn’t do so with quite the finesse that Seraphina does, primarily in balancing the requisite set-up that must be done with the story at the heart of this volume. Like The Drake Chronicles it employs multiple character perspectives but it does so a little wildly, and it was therefore less effective and focused than the Drake Chronicles and not as personal and engaging as Seraphina which has a single narrator. The real problem however is that, despite all the great things it does with story and mood, it has some of the most god-awful annoying characters I have ever encountered. And even though we spend copious amounts of time in their company and in learning their back story, they never seem entirely real. So despite the fact that it is definitely a more sophisticated and weightier novel than any of the Drake Chronicles, I have the controversial opinion that The Drake's was the more enjoyable read. Now I am notoriously (in my own mind:) picky about characters and am particularly critical of female characters, and being able to engage or relate with the characters is the single most crucial factor, 9 times out of ten, in determining how I feel about a book. So the fact that I would love to hang with Lucy of the Drake Chronicles even though she’s a particularly obnoxious 16 year old and yet spending even three pages reading about Evie O’Neill made me wish that the big bad in The Diviners had succeeded in eating her, was the crux of how I ranked my enjoyment of these books.
So is there one particular element in a book that is make it or break it for you? Anybody else out there who can be reduced to a ball of incandescent rage by a character in a novel especially when that is not the intention of the author? Which brings up the writing craft of character development. I don’t doubt for a second that if I tried to write a character they would be insipid and full of contradictions and generally horrifying, so I’m fascinated by how authors create their characters and if they know beforehand exactly how the character will come across? Libba Bray obviously knows that Evie is selfish, arrogant, vain and obnoxious but she obviously still likes her because she made her the heroine. Indeed many readers seem to have no problem liking and/or engaging with Evie. So what makes my reaction (and a few other readers) so different? I compare Evie to Lily Bart from House of Mirth who is also selfish, arrogant, and vain and yet I sympathized and related to her immensely while not entirely liking her. What’s the difference?