Discussion: Name that genre! And…does it matter?

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get genre-burned. I’ll pick up a book, thinking it’s one thing, and then be disappointed when it turns out to be something else. It’s not that the something else isn’t good, or even that I didn’t like the book. It’s that it wasn’t what I was expecting. And while I sometimes welcome the unexpected, like with a juicy plot twist, I find myself wishing sometimes that the book world as a whole — bookstores, bloggers, even authors sometimes — would try to be a tad more accurate with genre labeling.

Also, let me just throw this out there: Young Adult is not a genre. Nor is Middle Grade, Adult, or New Adult. Those are audiences. They encompass the age demographic a book is targeting. But they don’t tell you a thing about what the book is about, other than the relative age of the characters (give or take a few decades, in the case of Adult).

So let’s talk just a minute about genres, what defines them, and which ones tend to have an identity crisis.

These are highlights from the Goodreads definitions. Sometimes it’s just easier than trying to type it all out myself.

FantasyFantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of technological and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three.

Science FictionScience fiction is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology. Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).

DystopianDystopia is a form of literature that explores social and political structures. It is a creation of a nightmare world – unlike its opposite, Utopia, which is an ideal world. Dystopia is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It often features different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions, and a state of constant warfare or violence. Many novels combine both Dystopia and Utopia, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of the two possible futures.

RomanceAccording to the Romance Writers of America, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” Both the conflict and the climax of the novel should be directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Historical FictionHistorical fiction presents a story set in the past, often during a significant time period. In historical fiction, the time period is an important part of the setting and often of the story itself. Historical fiction may include fictional characters, well-known historical figures or a mixture of the two.

HorrorHorror fiction is fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the audience. Historically, the cause of the “horror” experience has often been the intrusion of a supernatural element into everyday human experience. Since the 1960s, any work of fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme has come to be called “horror”.

ContemporaryContemporary literature is literature with its setting generally after World War II.

ParanormalParanormal books involve unusual experiences that lack a scientific explanation. Some popular subjects in paranormal books are supernatural creatures, ESP, clairvoyance, ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, and psychics.

SteampunkSteampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.

These are just some of the biggies. There’s tons of genres and subgenres out there, and often authors like to mash them up. For example, romance can be incorporated into nearly all of these genres, which gives you Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, etc. I think one of the reasons that genres get so muddled is that they’re not mutually exclusive at all. Contemporary is anything that takes place after World War II? Well, that could encompass pretty much everything (except Historical), couldn’t it? And obviously there’s tons of crossover between Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror/Paranormal.

I think the problem happens when we get these main categories confused.  I think the problem is twofold:

1) Certain genres are really popular, and everyone wants their book (or their client’s book, or their friend’s book) to be the next Big Thing. So they say it fits the genre, when in reality, it doesn’t. (I’m looking at you, Dystopian Fiction.)

2) Lots of books are really hard to classify, because the authors have mixed a bunch of genres together in a delicious cocktail of imagination. It’s a bit more understandable how these get confused.

So what’s the trick in figuring out how to classify what you’re reading? Just ask yourself a few questions:

1) What’s the setting? Is it past, present, future, or a made-up world? Is it based in reality, or could it plausibly happen in our reality, or is it in no way related to our reality? Does magic factor into it? Science? Is it based on a historical event that actually happened, or a historical event that might have happened if things were different?

2) If it is the future, what shaped the world? Was it a cataclysmic event? Government conspiracy? Aliens? Magic? Technological advancement? Just because it’s the future doesn’t automatically make it sci-fi or dystopian or post-apocalyptic. Look at why the world is the way it is, and that’s a big clue.

3) What’s the conflict? Is it about whether or not Jim and Sally will get together, or is it about whether or not Jim will save Sally’s a ghost, or is it about whether or not Jim will discover that he’s really a prince and the only one who can free Sally from the dragon? Granted, Jim and Sally may get together in all of these scenarios, but it’s only the main conflict in one of them.

Am I alone in caring about this? I’m not sure. Maybe you don’t care how something’s labeled; a good book is a good book. So what if you were expecting dystopian and got sci-fi instead? Or you wanted steampunk but wound up reading historical fiction? What’s the big deal?

But if you’re like me, it’s kind of like ice cream flavors. If I’m in the mood for chocolate and I get strawberry, I’m going to be disappointed. I like strawberry. Sometimes, all I want in the whole world is strawberry. But if I’m in the mood for chocolate, strawberry won’t cut it.

Here’s some examples of books I’ve seen miscategorized (a lot):

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron. I’ve heard this book described as Steampunk and Paranormal, but really it’s just Historical Fiction. The automatons in the story are things that actually existed during that time period (you can ask Sharon. It’s fascinating), and there’s no supernatural elements that defy scientific explanation.

What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang. This one always gets called Dystopian or Sci-Fi. But really, if you look close, it’s neither. It’s a modern alternate reality. So really, it doesn’t fit into any of the above categories. Broadly, it can go under the Speculative Fiction umbrella, but none of the other terms really fit. So there’s really little wonder why bookstores want to label it as something else.

Defiance by C.J. Redwine. This book is a cornucopia of so many genres, it’s easy to see why people can’t seem to label it. I’ve actually had a few discussions with C.J. about what to call this book, and even she is at a bit of a loss. I’ve heard it called Steampunk, Dystopian, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi. It’s marketed as Fantasy Adventure, but there’s no magic (although there is a blind wingless subterranean dragon). What it actually is, I believe, is a Post-Apocalyptic Adventure. I think.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I always see this book on the Horror shelf, and it’s just not. It’s not designed to scare or horrify. It’s about magical powers and adventure. It’s Fantasy.

How about you? Do you long to sneak into bookstores and reshelve the books to more accurately reflect what’s in them? Or do you figure, hey, I don’t care why someone picked up the book, as long as they’re reading it? What books do you see commonly misclassified, and do you care? 

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (@SJMaas)

I’ve had Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas sitting on my bookshelf since it came out in August, because I had heard nothing but good things and was itching for an awesome new fantasy to read. But alas, my terrible time management got in the way and weeks kept passing without it getting read. However, then I heard Sarah speak on a YA Fantasy panel at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and then I got to hang out with her (and the awesome Kat Zhang) for a few hours afterward because they are nice people and didn’t mind me crashing the party even though they’ve known each other for a while, whereas me…notsomuch.

So anyway. After that prolonged Sarah exposure, I concluded two things:

1) Going by her frequent references to Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, Buffy, Star Wars, Labyrinth, Harry Potter, and Legend, she is my kind of people.

2) I really need to read her book (especially when I found out it’s the start of what will ultimately be a 6-7 book series — um, yes, please).

The Plot (from Goodreads)

After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men—thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the kings council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for three years and then be granted her freedom.

Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilirating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her… but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead… quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.

My Thoughts

Now this is the type of YA fantasy I can get behind. It’s got fabulously nuanced characters, tons of action, magic, tension, mystery, court intrigue, more action, monsters, a hint of romance, and did I mention action?

From the first chapter, I liked Celaena despite her dark past and hardened nature. She manages to be tough and damaged and brutal while still remaining sympathetic. Her previous life experience has taught her to be wary of everyone she encounters, and her instinct for self-preservation often kicks in before any other thoughts or feelings, but even so, you can sense that aside from being a formidable assassin, she’s still a good person. She eventually manages to form friendships and ties to others that surprise even her, and even though she’s more than willing to kill a man if she must, she does have a sort of self-governing morality that keeps her feeling human in spite of her training.

Then there’s the two male protagonists, the Crown Prince, Dorian, and the Captain of the Guard, Chaol. Sarah managed to pull off something pretty tricky with them: a love triangle that is not annoying. They are both admirable and likable characters, and it’s easy to see how Celaena could be a good match for either of them. While the romance with Dorian is more overt, and the relationship with Chaol more subtle, I really enjoyed both and honestly could be happy whichever way the story goes. I do think the back cover copy (“Two men love her”) is misleading, as Chaol takes the vast majority of the book to try to sort out his feelings and even then, isn’t really sure what they mean. And the romance element is very much secondary to the main element — Celaena has much bigger things to worry about than which boy to choose, and both of the men have a lot on their mind besides Celaena. The book gives us insights into all 3 POVs, and I really liked that while they each definitely thought about romance, it wasn’t the only thing on any of their minds.

We also get the occasional POV of one of the scheming court ladies, who never became likable, but the insight into her thought process kept her from being one-dimensional. It’s always fun when authors let you into the brain of the “bad guys,” because more often than not, that’s not how they see themselves.

The action in the book is mostly centered around the Competition and the training of the Champions. It’s well done, and I could actually visualize most of the fights in my head, as she describes most of them in vivid detail. I always prefer this to fights that are described along the lines of “they fought, their blades flashing blindingly through the air, until she was panting from exertion.”* That’s how a lot of action scenes work in books, leaving pretty much everything to the imagination, and I never really feel satisfied with those. I don’t need a step-by-step recounting of every strike and parry, but my preference is absolutely for more fleshed-out fight scenes.

There’s also some non-Competition-related fighting, which is so cool I don’t want to spoil it by saying anything more about it.

There’s also magic, which was really interesting. It left me asking a lot of questions, like how do Wyrdmarks work if not through magic, and how is the king able to enforce his law against magic? The magical elements were definitely an important part of the plot, but still not the driving force of this book, which was kind of nice. This story focused a lot more on character building and the mechanics of the Competition itself. I strongly suspect that the magical element will evolve significantly as the series progresses, and I’m anxious to find out more about it.

The one complaint I have (which is all a matter of taste, because I’ve read other glowing reviews whose one complaint is the exact opposite of what I’m about to say) is that there are parts where I felt the narrative skipped ahead and I needed a little more information to get from point A to point B. Some transitions felt just slightly jarring. I was never lost, just felt that there was a scene or a snippet missing that I wish was there. I suspect this was because this story is less than half the length that it was in its original form, and while 900 pages would have been far too long, I’m guessing that there was some information lost in streamlining it down to the much more manageable length of ~400 pages that I would like to have had.

However, it’s still a pretty hefty book for YA, and I’ve heard other people say it’s too long. So take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.

Overall, this was a great read that kept me thoroughly invested throughout. I can’t wait to see where Sarah takes the story from here.

Content Guide: Contains a large amount of violence, some gore, devious plotting, references to torture.

*not a direct quote  from anything, just a sad little example I made up.

Review: The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson (@raecarson @harperteen)

[WARNING: Spoilers for The Girl of Fire and Thorns ahead]

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC for The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson shortly after finishing The Girl of Fire and Thorns. And while I really liked Girl of Fire and Thorns, I didn’t LOVE it. It wasn’t one of my favorite books ever. It was simply “really good.”

However after reading Crown of Embers, I would now recommend Girl of Fire and Thorns JUST so that you could read its sequel. Even if Girl of Fire and Thorns wasn’t good. Because Crown of Embers is THAT good.

The Plot

Crown of Embers picks up shortly after the conclusion of Girl of Fire and Thorns. After months of leading a desert resistance,  and after defeating the overwhelming army that threatened to destroy her husband’s kingdom, Godstone-bearer Elisa now finds herself a widowed queen, in charge of a nation still threatened by dark and mysterious forces.

As Elisa tries to determine how to govern her kingdom and keep her people safe, she finds there’s few she can trust: only her personal maids, Ximena and Mara, and her personal guard, Lord Hector, seem to be fully on her side.

Elisa’s advisers believe that she should form a strategic alliance with one of the northern nobility through marriage, a possibility that Elisa reluctantly agrees to consider. But as she entertains various suitors, she must also worry about several recent attempts on her life. And through it all, the Godstone that she bears still gives her the feeling that she has not yet fulfilled her act of service.

My Thoughts

Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it. The reason I didn’t like Girl of Fire and Thorns as much as I wanted to was because Lord Hector quickly became my favorite character, and then he was absent for most of the book. It’s hard to LOVE a book when your favorite character isn’t there for most of it.

However, in Crown of Embers, Hector is front and center from beginning to end, and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s now sitting comfortably near the top of my mental list of favorite male book characters, and I don’t see him getting displaced any time soon. He’s everything I love in a male fantasy character — noble, brave, honorable, kind. If Rae Carson ever decides to give Hector his own spin-off series, I wouldn’t argue with that.

But never fear, Hector is certainly not the only thing that Crown of Embers has going for it. I thought the plot for this book was a lot tighter and more cohesive than Girl of Fire and Thorns. It’s not that the first book didn’t make sense — it did — it’s that this one just seemed to flow more naturally, and the details threaded together more easily in my brain.

I was still left with a few questions at the end, but nothing huge. More along the lines of, “Why didn’t it ever occur to this character to do that?” And the answer may simply be that sometimes ideas don’t occur to people, even if they should be obvious. There were no questions that hurt the plot or the believability of the story.

The religious aspect that was so dominant in Girl of Fire and Thorns is still present, but not quite as front-and-center this time. There’s still talk of religious texts and doctrine, but it’s not as prevalent. I thought that in this book, Elisa seemed to mature in her faith and find a better balance between her duties as queen and her religion. She wasn’t as hesitant, although she was still questioning. I liked the growth of her character, and thought the tone of the book really reflected how she had changed.

As far as flaws with the book, there’s a very large trial that the characters go through, with very little payoff. I think it worked for the story and for Elisa’s character, but sometimes it’s disappointing in books when there’s a ton of buildup and then not a lot happens.

Also, the ending made me want to punch someone, just a little bit. It manages to have some good resolution, while still ending on a huge cliffhanger. It’s weird to simultaneously feel so satisfied and so unsatisfied. So be warned, people. When the ending comes, you may want to have a pillow or a stress ball handy. Just sayin’.

Overall, I loved this book. The pacing was excellent, the characters were amazingly well-developed, and the world building was, again, exquisite. If you’re looking for a YA fantasy series that you can really sink your teeth into, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

Content Guide: Contains violence, sexual situations

Review: Fire by Kristin Cashore (@kristincashore)

Fire is the companion novel to Graceling by Kristin Cashore. You may be wondering what the difference is between a companion and a sequel. I haven’t read many series that take this approach, but in my understanding, a sequel picks up after the conclusion of the events in the first book and follows the same characters. A companion merely takes place in the same world, but doesn’t need to follow the same characters (although there may be some overlap) or the same timeline as the first novel. Fire actually takes place many years before the events of Graceling, in a different part of the same world, and the only overlapping character is the villainous Leck. So fans of Katsa and Po, be warned — they haven’t even been born when the events of this novel come to pass.

The Plot

Fire is a monster girl, the only one of her kind. Monsters in Fire’s world are not as we think of them; they are simply creatures with fantastic coloring and certain special abilities. So a brown cat is a cat. A purple cat is a monster cat. Fire’s monster beauty causes all creatures, but especially men and other monsters, to be unnaturally drawn to her — men to her beauty, and monsters to her blood. She has learned to diminish the attention by covering her flame-red hair and dressing drably, but she still draws the eyes of every man that crosses her path. She also possesses the ability to enter other beings’ thoughts to communicate or even alter their thinking according to her will, but she doesn’t like to use her powers to control others and tries to allow men to keep their thoughts their own.

Fire has grown up living with her lifelong friend, Archer, and his father, former commander of the king’s army, Lord Brocker. She and Archer have enjoyed a friends-with-benefits relationship for many years, as he can’t help but be in love with her monstrous beauty, but at the same time, he knows her for who she truly is. Fire loves her friend in return, but has decided she must never marry or have children, for she wouldn’t wish the life of a monster on any of her offspring.

But soon, Fire’s comfortable life with Archer and Brocker is upset. Her presence is requested by King Nash, and his brother and current commander of the army, Brigan. They need her to use her special abilities to help them determine who is sending spies with mysteriously clouded minds into the kingdom, and what their enemies are planning. Although Fire is reluctant to go, she realizes that her powers may be the only way to prevent the kingdom from falling to evil in what seems to be an inevitable war.

My Thoughts

Fire was a very different type of story from Graceling. Whereas Graceling was more of an adventure story with just a handful of important characters, Fire is much more political and character-driven. There is a host of varied and intriguing characters, and while there is some action, most of the story revolves around unraveling the mysterious political motives and actions of nations on the brink of war.

Right off the bat, I liked Fire more than Katsa. My biggest problem with Graceling was that I couldn’t connect to Katsa very well, and therefore had a hard time becoming truly invested in the story. With Fire, although her monster beauty and her semi-telepathic abilities make her even less human than Katsa, I found her spirit and inner struggles much easier to identify with. She definitely had some thoughts and attitudes I disagreed with, but they all fit with her character and you could see why she was the way she was.

This book has a large supporting cast, and it took some concentration to keep them all straight. My favorites were Brigan, Brocker and Archer, even though none of them was infallible (it may be weird that I picked Archer, given his cornucopia of character flaws, but seeing him through Fire’s eyes allowed me to like him in spite of them), but I also really enjoyed the female members of Fire’s personal guard, who were a constant presence for most of the book, and the king’s other siblings, Clara and Garan. It was a lot of personalities to keep track of, and Kristin Cashore did a fantastic job of giving each of her characters, supporting or not, their own distinct personality and voice.

The plot was complex and at times hard to follow, simply because of the nature of books about political intrigue. I normally tend to speed through books, but I had to pull back and pace myself with this one so as not to miss any of the intricate twists and turns. The pacing was a bit on the slow side, but it worked for me because it allowed the characters to develop more naturally. I felt the ending was a bit more drawn-out than seemed strictly necessary, but it was still largely satisfying, tying up many loose ends. There’s definitely room for more stories set in Fire’s world of monsters and monarchs, but even if this book was a standalone and not a companion, it would be fulfilling.

The writing, as in Graceling, is beautiful. Settling into Kristin Cashore’s prose is like curling up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa. It’s just comfortable and soothing for my brain, and I could actually feel my thoughts relaxing as I sank into the world of Fire. I love the way Kristin Cashore tells a story, and I’ll read anything she writes, simply to experience her lovely storytelling.

Fire is a beautiful and fascinating tale, set in a unique fantasy world full of colorful characters that I wanted to immerse myself in completely. Even if you haven’t read Graceling, you could read and enjoy Fire with no trouble, although Graceling would probably enhance the reading experience. I loved it, and look forward to more stories set in this world.

Content Guide: Contains violence, threats of sexual violence, and several mentions of casual sex.

My review of Graceling

Throwback Thursday (July 26) – Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly meme hosted by The Housework Can Wait and Never Too Fond of Books!

It’s the nature of book blogging to focus mainly on new releases, but there are thousands of great books out there that haven’t seen the “New Releases” shelf in years. We hope to be able to bring attention to some older titles that may not be at the top of the current bestseller list, but still deserve a spot in your To-Be-Read pile.

You don’t have to be a book blogger to participate! You can put up a Throwback Thursday post on your non-bookish blog; or if you don’t have a blog at all, just use the comments to tell us about a book you remember fondly.

Here’s how it works:
1. Pick any book released more than 5 years ago. Adult, YA, Children’s; doesn’t matter. Any great book will do.
2. Write up a short summary of the book (include the title, author, and cover art) and an explanation of why you love it. Make sure to link back to The Housework Can Wait and Never Too Fond of Books in your post.
3. Link up your post at The Housework Can Wait or Never Too Fond of Books.
4. Visit as many blogs as you can, reminisce about books you loved, and discover some “new” books for your TBR list!

Feel free to grab the Throwback Thursday button code from the sidebar to use in your posts.

Thanks for participating, and we look forward to seeing which books you choose to remember!

My Throwback this week is…

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

A few weeks ago I featured Assassin’s Apprentice, which introduces us to the Farseer world. However, Ship of Magic, while still set in the same world, kicks off an entirely new trilogy complete with (almost) entirely new characters. Therefore, while I still would recommend you read the Farseer books first, it’s absolutely not necessary to really enjoy this book.

Ship of Magic follows the Vestrit family. Althea Vestrit is the daughter of a Bingtown Trader and rightful heir to her family’s Liveship, Vivacia. However, when her father dies, the ship is passed to her hateful brother-in-law, Kyle, instead of to her.

Kyle forces his son Wintrow to accompany him to sea, in spite of the fact that Wintrow was training to become a priest. Wintrow struggles aboard Vivacia, trying to cling to his beliefs in spite of his father’s constant cruelty.

Meanwhile, Althea enlists the help of her father’s former first mate, Brashen, in a risky endeavor to reclaim the ship. At the same time, the ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power and make himself King of the Pirate Isles.

Yes, that is a very complex plot, and I haven’t even begun to touch on all its twists and turns. One thing I love – love – about this series is that it alternates perspective between a ton of characters, and it works. Althea, Wintrow, Brashen, and Kennit are all narrators, and it doesn’t stop there. It’s the best example of alternating perspective I think I’ve ever read, and it helped me become completely and utterly absorbed in the world.

And as for the story, it’s one of the most vivid fantasy books I’ve read. Everything from the descriptions of life on board the ships to the somewhat stifling life lived by families in Bingtown is completely engrossing and fantastic. You really feel like you’re there with the characters, experiencing their (often frustrating and infuriating) lives. Oh, and speaking of infuriating, this book is also a fabulous example of a story where I started out passionately hating certain characters, and by the end of the series, I loved them. And that is no small task.

If you are a fan of fantasy, pirates, adventure, magic, and — oh yeah – dragons, this is a must-read.

This is a blog hop! Link up your Throwback Thursday post below!