Review: WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER by Rae Carson

It’s no secret that I loved Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, so when I heard she was beginning a new fantasy trilogy — a historical fantasy, set during the California gold rush — my fingers immediately began itching for a copy. Fortunately, I had a friend who generously offered to loan me her ARC (once she was finished reading, of course — there is generous, and then there’s just plain ridiculous), so I was able to read WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER a few months early.

And guys, I didn’t even think it was possible, but if the first book is anything to go by, I think the Gold Seer Trilogy may be even better than GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS.

I know. Take a moment.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in this new trilogy, introduces—as only Rae Carson can—a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance. Includes a map and author’s note on historical research.

My Thoughts:

Before I dig into my thoughts on the first book in Rae Carson’s new Gold Seer Trilogy, let’s discuss genre for a minute. While WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER is being marketed as a fantasy, and while the opening chapter firmly establishes Leah Westfall’s ability to magically sense the presence of gold, once you move past the events that set Leah off on her cross-country journey, I was surprised to find that the majority of the book reads like a straight historical. Who knows, maybe future installments in the series will play up the magic more, but going off of just this first book, it feels a bit more accurate to call WOEAS historical fiction with some magical realism elements, rather than a fantasy

That said, even though I’d been prepared for a fantasy, I was not disappointed in the slightest to find magic missing from the majority of WOEAS. Leah — who starts going by “Lee” early in the book, when she disguises herself as a boy — is an utterly compelling narrator, and Carson’s prose is simultaneously lush and gritty, masterfully evoking the visuals and sounds and smells of a late-1800s America. The staggering amount of research that must have gone into this novel is evident on every page, immersing the reader in the endlessly beautiful — yet unforgivingly harsh — American frontier.

Though the ensemble cast seems kind of sprawling at first, Carson skillfully manages to develop her characters into fully three-dimensional people after surprisingly little page time. It didn’t take long before I was rooting not just for Leah, but for the families and individuals traveling alongside her. I won’t name names, because some characters have pretty impressive arcs (and some, um, die), but suffice it to say, Leah isn’t the only one who ends the book loving these people like family.

For those of us who grew up playing the video game Oregon Trail, Leah’s journey will come with a distinct sense of nostalgia. While (spoiler alert) Leah never hunkers down for days on end to shoot squirrels, she, along with her fellow travelers, must ford rivers, maneuver covered wagons, manage sick oxen, and battle disease (although not quite as much dysentery as I remember from my Oregon Trail days). Though the wagon train’s trek to California moves agonizingly slowly, the plot never does. Carson is a master of infusing her story with moment-to-moment tension, and even when the characters were sitting still, I found myself flying through the pages.

As with Carson’s first series, [what I suspect will be] the main romantic subplot doesn’t get much exploration in this first book. While there are hints, this is a story of survival and endurance, not romance. However, as a fan of the slow burn, I thoroughly enjoyed the foundations that were so thoughtfully laid in this book, and I think that even readers who prefer a lot of swoon in their fiction will find that, while sparse, there are enough tidbits in this book to carry them through to the next one.

Overall, I found WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER to be a beautiful, vivid, and compulsively readable portrayal of life in Gold Rush-era America, with just a dash of magic. I unequivocally loved it. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or historicals or simply a good story well told, I think you’ll love it, too.

Get thee a community

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

I just returned home from the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference, and whew. I am tired. Not only physically tired from days jam-packed with amazing panels and breakout sessions, followed by nights spent laughing with friends until we couldn’t hold our heads up or our eyes open. But also mentally tired from all the wisdom that was shared, and creatively tired from untangling the knots that had been littering my latest WIP.

I could sleep for a solid day, no problem.

But first, if you’re a writer, I’m going to tell you something important. Something that I’ve known for a while, but that attending this conference reinforced in an undeniable way. Are you listening? Good.

Whether you are a NYT Bestselling Author or a dreamer still plugging away at your first novel, community is vitally important. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that should be true — writing is most often a solitary pursuit, after all — but trust me on this. Without community, most of the authors I know would not be authors. Yes, even the naturally talented ones. Yes, even the ridiculously successful ones.

Without community, the voices of doubt can be deafening. Without community, rejection can be crippling. Without community, giving up may seem like not only the easy choice, but the obvious choice. The smart choice.

I’m lucky. I know this. I live in a city that has one of the most vibrant and supportive writing communities in the country. Most of my best friends are writers, and several of them are successfully published and willing to double as mentors.

These are the people who have slogged through all my various manuscripts when they were rougher than sandpaper, and helped me hone and revise them into something worth reading. They’re the ones who helped me craft a query letter and put together a list of agents. They’re the ones who clinked glasses with me when I signed with my agent. They’re the numbers I text when I get good news, and the ones who respond with a flurry of raging emojis when I get a pass.

They’re also the people who cried with me when I got my diagnosis, who have made me dinner and taken my children to gymnastics. We have celebrated birthdays and marriages and holidays together, road tripped together, run races together, and moved more boxes from Old House to New House than I can count. We have had the same conversations so many times we can rant each other’s rants.

1500906_10152131544474424_335539677_o

The Nashville writing community, New Years 2014

This is my writing community. This is my family.

Right now, you’re probably doing one of two things. You’re nodding along knowingly, because you have a community, too, and you relate to everything I’ve just said.

Or you’re despairing, because you feel like an island, and have no idea how to change that.

To that I have two things to say. One, you’re not an island. I promise, there are those out there in the same stage you’re in, suffering from the same doubts and insecurities, working toward the same goals. Somewhere out there is a friend you can lean on, confide in, celebrate with. You just haven’t met them yet.

Two, you are capable of finding them. No matter how shy, how insecure, how introverted, how geographically isolated, how young or old, how experienced or raw. You can do this. It will involve stepping outside your comfort zone, doing something that scares you. But you can do this. I believe it with my whole heart.

Maybe you can muster enough strength for a Big Action, by joining an organization or going to a conference or a retreat or book launch and introducing yourself to strangers. I’ve done this, and trust me, I know it is terrifying. I’ve gone to book launches and hovered in the back, pretending to read the spines of the books on the shelves just so I wouldn’t look out of place. I’ve signed up for a retreat where I only knew one person, and felt the urge to run and hide in a corner with my laptop instead of talking to people. The fear can be paralyzing. But if you can push through it — even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person, the least-scary-looking person at the event — maybe that’s all you need to do. Sometimes one person is all it takes.

And if that person doesn’t end up being Your Kind of People? Try again. And again and again. It’s daunting, but remember, a person is only a stranger once.

Maybe that’s just too much, and no amount of pep talks will make you physically walk into a place where you don’t know anyone. That’s totally fine. Maybe, for you, stepping outside your comfort zone involves becoming active in an online forum like Absolute Write, or following the #amwriting tag on Twitter and engaging in those conversations, or emailing another writer you know vaguely through social media and asking if they’d be interested in exchanging work.

That’s what I did. Three years ago, when I was considering writing a book and didn’t know any other writers, I emailed another blogger I’d interacted with on Twitter and asked if she’d ever considered writing, and if she’d be interested in having a critique partner. I have no idea what possessed me to do this — I am Introverted with a Capital I, and do not voluntarily reach out to strangers — but that tiny step turned out to be life-changing. Today, that blogger is not only still my primary critique partner, but also one of my best friends. Because of that email, I wrote a book, and then another and another. I found my local writing community. I discovered a sense of belonging I’d never felt before.

Photo taken by Carla Schooler

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

And before you say, well, you’re an anomaly, let me tell you, it happens more often than you think. At the SCBWI conference I attended this weekend, one of our keynotes was given by the writing team of Gail Nall and Jen Malone, who met online when they entered the same writing contest. Now they’ve published multiple books together. Since they live halfway across the country from each other, they’ve only met in person a few times, but that doesn’t make their friendship or their writing camaraderie any less true.

During their keynote, Jen asked all the published writers in the room to stand, then told them to sit if they thought they could’ve gotten to where they are without the support of other writers. Want to take a guess at how many sat down?

No one is surprised when I say zero, right?

At the same conference, a pair of men — obviously good friends — was introduced to me, and then the mutual friend doing the introduction said, “Guess how they met,” in a voice that told me I’d be surprised by the answer.

Yup, you guessed it. Twitter. It was only their first or second time meeting in person. Not that you’d ever know it to see them interact.

I hear stories like this all the time. Even in my own life, I have multiple good friends where our first interaction was online. Forget what Buzzfeed or HuffPo tells you — you can make friends and find community anywhere. It just takes some effort.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013 Betcha can't tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013
Betcha can’t tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Bottom line is, wherever you are in your writing and your friendships, don’t discount the importance of finding other writers to commiserate with, to cheer on, to ask for feedback and wisdom, to celebrate in times of accomplishment and grieve with in times of disappointment (and not just yours — one of my favorite things about having talented writer friends is being able to celebrate their successes, even if I’ve just suffered a failure. It’s a much better mental place to be in when you can always find something to be happy about).

Not every writer I know has a critique group, or lots of local events to attend, or a love of social media. That’s fine. But every writer I know, published or pre-published, without exception, will tell you that they would not be able to keep making books without their writing community, whether it is vast or intimate, local or online, public or private.

Community comes in all shapes and sizes and locations. Yours doesn’t have to look like mine, or anyone else’s. It can be entirely unique to you and Your People. But please, don’t try to do this alone. Don’t let fear or pride make you an island. Find the people that give you the fortitude to keep walking this road. Putting words onto paper may be a solitary activity, but Writing — as a career, as a dream, as a life — is better with a team.

 

Review: FOOL’S QUEST by Robin Hobb

Oh, FitzChivalry Farseer and my Beloved Fool, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.

*looks at bookshelves*

*counts*

Apparently at least eleven books’ worth.

Wait, don’t run away! This is my favorite fantasy series — and one of my favorite series, period — of all time. Of all time. Yes, it’s hefty, but don’t worry, I’ll help you through it. And if you love richly built fantasy worlds, complex characters, strong friendships, magic, and dragons, I promise you, it’s worth the time commitment.

First, some basic orientation. Robin Hobb’s FOOL’S QUEST is clearly not a standalone, but the second installment in a new trilogy (beginning with FOOL’S ASSASSIN) that follows two other trilogies, starting with ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, where we meet main protagonist Fitz as a young child, and ending with FOOL’S FATE, where we leave him as a grown man. Plus there are two other companion series set in the same world — the brilliant Liveship Traders trilogy (starting with SHIP OF MAGIC), and then the Rain Wilds Chronicles (which I have to admit I haven’t finished yet — I’m working on it!). The companion series are not necessary to read and understand the Fitz books, but they very much enhance the experience.

That’s fifteen books thus far set in this world. And counting.

If you’ve never read any of the books set in Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies and its surrounding lands, fifteen books is a pretty daunting number. As this is my favorite fantasy series of all time (I may have mentioned this), I personally think it’s worth the effort to read all of them (Rain Wilds Chronicles, I will conquer you), but if that’s just way too big an undertaking for you, then you *only* (heh) need to read seven books to understand the events in FOOL’S QUEST. They are:

The Assassin trilogy: ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, ROYAL ASSASSIN, ASSASSIN’S QUEST.

The Tawny Man trilogy: FOOL’S ERRAND, GOLDEN FOOL, FOOL’S FATE.

And then the first book in the new Fitz and the Fool trilogy: FOOL’S ASSASSIN.

These books all share a protagonist — FitzChivalry Farseer — and proceed chronologically throughout his life, each book building off the events of the last. There’s really no skipping around if you want to read about Fitz — sorry — but at the same time, I cannot overemphasize how much I enjoy reading about Fitz. Like many high fantasy series-starters, the first book in each series takes a little while to really get going, but once it does, hoo boy.

(If you wanted to read the two companion series, they each stand alone, but Liveship Traders falls between the Assassin and Tawny Man trilogies, and Rain Wilds falls between Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool.)

Try as I might, there’s really no way for me to review the fifteenth book in an ongoing series without spoilers for the preceding books, so if you haven’t read them, proceed with caution. I’ll try my best not to be too spoilery, but even the broad strokes give away some major developments of the other books in the series. So. Continue at your own risk.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to my thoughts on Fitz’s latest adventures in FOOL’S QUEST (Fitz and the Fool #2).

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Acclaimed and bestselling author Robin Hobb continues her Fitz and the Fool trilogy with this second entry, following Fool’s Assassin, ramping up the tension and the intrigue as disaster continues to strike at Fitz’s life and heart.

After nearly killing his oldest friend, the Fool, and finding his daughter stolen away by those who were once targeting the Fool, FitzChivarly Farseer is out for blood. And who better to wreak havoc than a highly trained and deadly former royal assassin? Fitz might have let his skills go fallow over his years of peace, but such things, once learned, are not so easily forgotten. And nothing is more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose…

My Thoughts:

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found out Robin Hobb was writing a new series about Fitz and the Fool. While we left both characters in a pretty satisfying place at the end of FOOL’S FATE, I’d come to love these characters like family. I missed not being able to journey alongside them on their adventures. So although I had no idea what to expect as far as a conflict for a new series — the main conflict in both the Assassin and Tawny Man series is pretty handily wrapped up at the end of FOOL’S FATE — I was eager to return to the world of the Six Duchies.

Like the first books in most of Hobb’s preceding series, the initial installment in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, FOOL’S ASSASSIN, takes its time ramping up. I very much enjoyed it — by this point in the series, my overwhelming fondness for FitzChivalry Farseer means that I’m totally cool following him through a series of quiet and mundane tasks, whether it’s managing his estate or dealing with his children (mostly because Fitz has gone through so many dark times that I’m beyond pleased that he has an estate, or children) — and this sort of slow grounding process is necessary to re-establish the reader in Fitz’s world and remind us of the events that led here — but as far as action goes, it’s not until the final act of FOOL’S ASSASSIN that we really see things take off.

Not so with FOOL’S QUEST. Again, this is pretty well expected for each of Hobb’s series: Book 1 spends its time meticulously setting up an intricate pattern of dominoes, then Book 2 blazes in and knocks them all down, leaving the reader in a mess of perfectly executed chaos. FOOL’S QUEST was no exception to this. It hits the ground running, picking up right where FOOL’S ASSASSIN leaves off, and pushes the plot forward at a determined pace, never feeling rushed, but never letting up, either. High fantasy tends to run long in pages, but while reading FOOL’S QUEST, I found myself lamenting that there were *only* 500, 400, 300 pages left to go.

You know that feeling when watching the extended edition of The Two Towers, and it ends and you simultaneously realize, “wow, that movie was three and a half hours long,” but also wish it didn’t have to end? That’s the feeling I had reading this book. Though I was aware of its heft, when I turned the last page, I wasn’t anywhere near ready for it to be over.

Unlike FOOL’S ASSASSIN, which focuses almost entirely on Fitz and his life far away from Buckkeep Castle, FOOL’S QUEST returns him to his old stomping grounds, where we finally get to catch up with beloved (and Beloved) characters of the past. The Fool is there, of course (I was surprised at how little The Fool was in the first book, given its name), just as mysterious and tragic as ever, along with Chade, Kettricken, Dutiful, Elliania, Nettle, and a host of minor characters whose inclusion made it feel like a true homecoming not just for Fitz, but for the reader. There are even some cameos from characters from the Liveships and Rain Wilds books, whom I hope we see more of as the story progresses.

Although this series of series has always tied together beautifully, to me it’s always felt kind of like a quilt, with clearly distinct pieces coming together at the edges and making up a whole. The Fitz books overlapped with Liveships, which overlapped with Rain Wilds, but they were all still their own separate entities. But in FOOL’S QUEST, for the first time, it began to feel more like a tapestry, with the threads beginning to weave over and under and through one another. It’s possible this won’t come to fruition, and that this Fitz series, like the other (brilliant) books before it, will end up more or less self-contained. But I kind of doubt it, and look forward to seeing how Hobb continues to tie this massive world and cast together.

As with every one of Hobb’s preceding books, in FOOL’S QUEST you can expect a host of fully realized, complicated characters, lush worldbuilding, achingly gorgeous prose, vivid emotion, catastrophic stakes, and thrilling action. But for me, the relationships between the characters are what shine the brightest. Fitz’s friendship with The Fool is, of course, the Catalyst on which the whole story pivots, and always has been. Watching these two characters who have been through so much together interact and trust and plead and betray and forgive is a truly beautiful, frustrating, heartbreaking, uplifting experience.

Contrasting that is Fitz’s relationships with his daughters, where he is not a Catalyst, but simply a father, with all the expectation and disappointment and responsibility that brings. Watching Fitz try to navigate fatherhood, after watching him grow up and struggle and fail and triumph, is both rewarding and agonizing. I want nothing but the best for Fitz, but both fate and his own shortcomings are constantly getting in his way. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him and hug him, maybe at the same time, which for my money is one of the hallmarks of a truly excellent protagonist.

I could go on for ages, but suffice it to say, all of Fitz’s other relationships are similarly complex and well-drawn. Each feels like fully realized person, and the way Fitz interacts with each person he encounters is wholly authentic and honest, whether he’s fighting to the death or gently caring for a traumatized stable hand. Though the sweeping plot of FOOL’S QUEST is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as Fitz’s quest to aid King Verity against the Red Ships Raiders, or traveling to Aslevjal island to slay a dragon, it’s these relationships and interactions that are the true meat of this series.

Ultimately, this isn’t a recommendation for this one book — if you’ve already read the preceding 7-14 books, you probably already have a pretty good idea if you want to read this one — but for this series, and every series about FitzChivalry Farseer. If you’re not sure if fantasy is your thing, or you’re hesitant about picking up the first book in a series that is so sprawling, let this be your assurance that this is a series that only gets better as it continues. It’s worth the time, it’s worth the investment. Fitz and The Fool are two of the greatest characters I’ve ever read, and as long as Robin Hobb sees fit to keep writing books about them, I’ll be the first in line to read them.