The Inevitable Disappointment of Trilogies? (Thoughts on A Conjuring of Light)

Inevitable Disappointment of Trilogies

I began this post as an ordinary review of A Conjuring of Light, the final book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. I realized most of my thoughts stemmed from the frustration of reading a trilogy’s conclusion, so I’ve structured this post to reflect that. If you haven’t read the Shades of Magic trilogy, you can avoid spoilers and skip to the section “The Problem of a Trilogy” for some general discussion on multi-volume stories.

“Nothing Happened”

I had a lengthy discussion of A Conjuring of Light over brunch with a friend. We agreed that it felt like nothing happened in its 624 pages. After that discussion, I went home, looked at the beautiful hardcovers on my shelf and realized – didn’t I say the same thing about the first book? “Nothing happened”? Certainly I thought that about the second book. A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows have little weight on their own, feeling like set-up for the final volume.

Of course, it’s neither fair nor accurate to proclaim “Nothing happens in ACoL“.  What do I mean by this? Too much plotting, where the story just moves from one event to the next? I might think that would mean too much happens, but too much can end up feeling like nothing. Occasionally I read a book where it feels like the plot has been contrived just to have the characters react in a certain way. Again, though, I feel like that’s a ridiculous comment to make about a book, which has by its nature been entirely contrived by an author. But the best books feel like they’re sharing a story of something that really happened, as opposed to a ‘what if’ scenario.

I also felt like everything that happened was a precursor to get to the actual story. But even at the end of the final book, I felt like I had never arrived at the ‘actual story’. ACoL, and indeed the whole trilogy, never felt significant to me. I enjoyed the setting and characters. Yet I felt no excitement about the story line or the particular happenings they endure. I wasn’t anxious to learn how the story would conclude. I didn’t feel any suspense about how the characters or their worlds might be impacted by the events of the trilogy. I suppose when I say “nothing happened”, I mean whatever did happen was not suited to my taste. Does any of this make sense? It’s a difficult sensation to describe. Have you ever felt this way about a book?

Repetitive Style

My primary dissatisfaction with ACoL is that Schwab’s signature tricks, which felt fun and fresh in the first book, feel repetitive and exhausted in this final volume. (Even at the end of ADSoM, I found myself tiring of her tropes.) Here are some small examples that stuck with me. A scene concluded with “Someone screamed” or a variation thereupon, which I noticed at least three times by page 135. A popular quote from ADSoM (“I’m not going to die,” she said. “Not till I’ve seen it.” “Seen what?” Her smile widened. “Everything.”) never struck a chord with me. Now the recycling of the words everything and nothing certainly doesn’t have any impact (Ex. ‘It was everything and nothing’, ‘It was everywhere and nowhere’, etc.) Typing this out, I realize I may sound nitpicky. But when I’ve read three volumes of the same thing, these sort of details stick out.

From overhead, nothing. Nothing. And then he heard his sister scream. (135)

Moving beyond minor stylistics and into a plot matter, the treatment of character deaths has bored me since ADSoM. If you find yourself suddenly reading particular details about a character who previously had no significance to the story, then you can be sure that character is about to die. Also, too many times is the reader asked to mourn a character, only to have that character return to life. (My note on this was “everyone’s dead, or are they? NOPE haha!”) This especially applies to Rhy. I rolled my eyes as he died and returned in the first hundred pages. Killing off a character but not actually is a trick I think you can only pull off once in a story.

The Problem of a Trilogy

How might these thoughts apply to trilogies in general? It seems a tricky thing to balance a story across three books. Ideally, an author could craft a complete and satisfying story in each volume, while also supporting an overarching story that concludes in the third volume. The first two books wouldn’t just be fodder for the third. The trilogy as a whole would be just as gripping a single volume story. So that leaves me with two questions:

  1. Can a trilogy remain fresh and new while maintaining whatever characteristics caused you to fall in love with it in the first place?
  2. Can a trilogy or series continually build momentum, up to that pinnacle of the final volume?

Well, I’m sure it’s possible. But perhaps I have too high standards. As someone who already prefers shorter books, and certainly books contained to a single volume, I am a tough critic of multi-volume stories. I did read more series/trilogies as a kid (which I still enjoy rereading today). Yet I can only think of one multi-volume work where I can answer ‘yes’ to both of those questions – the Unwind dystology by Neal Shusterman somehow exemplifies my ideal series.

Update June 27 2017: I just found a note in my iPod that was meant for this post – “You’ve established the characters so now it’s mostly plot”. More food for thought…

Did you find A Conjuring of Light to be a satisfying conclusion? What’s your experience been with trilogies (or series, duologies, etc.)? What’s your favourite multi-volume work?

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What is Speculative Fiction? Some Thoughts on Genre

I drafted this post back in January when I was trying to add a genre label to Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. I didn’t know what to tag it, so I took to Google and came across the term specfic, short for speculative fiction. I thought, “Aha, yes, that must be right! Wait, what about the other books I’ve labelled scifi? Is spec fiction a better label? What’s the difference…” Oops, now I find myself wading into this debate.

I didn’t realize speculative is such a hotly contested word. Some say speculative encompasses anything “created out of imagination and speculation rather than based on reality and everyday life” (Wiki), some say it’s a pretentious term for SF&F, some say it has a distinct meaning of its own. I fall into that last group. Speculative fiction for me means a story outside the traditional realms of science fiction, fantasy or horror. A speculative fiction book has fantastic (in the “imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality” [Oxford Dictionaries] sense) elements, but not necessarily wizards and magic, aliens and spaceships, monsters and gore. (I realize what I’m saying doesn’t really have a lot to do with the actual meaning of speculative. If we take speculative’s meaning at face value, I agree that it would be a catch all for any fiction. Perhaps the real solution to this labelling problem would be to find a better word in the first place! But for now I’m going to run with speculative.) Unsurprisingly, specfic is difficult to define! I feel I know it when I see it. That’s why I started wondering about it after reading Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. It’s a book with fantastic stories but you won’t find it shelved with SF+F and it likely won’t be your first recommendation for someone who loves George R.R. Martin or Arthur C. Clarke. Catherynne M. Valente (one of my favourite authors) doesn’t really like the term specfic and says it excludes her (though she’s not sure about scifi or fantasy, either), but for me and my personal definition of the term, specfic better than fantasy describes a story like Palimpset or In the Night Garden.

I took a look at the reviews I’ve labelled scifi to see if specfic is a more accurate label for them. The only one I thought I might change is The Southern Reach trilogy. It’s definitely science fiction but it’s got a lot more going for it. But then I realized I had labelled it scifi and dystopia, so I think it fits my labelling system without me adding specfic. 

For myself, I’ll use specfic as a catch-all term for future oddball reads, that don’t fit neatly into the traditional genre categories. I’ve long used the term eerie in a similar way. Eerie for me replaces horror, which doesn’t really fit the kinds of stories I read. Some of the books can be accurately described as terror, but a lot of them aren’t even really that, they’re just…spooky, or ghostly, or eerie ;P

So what have I concluded from all this? People will define genre however they like and use whatever terms they feel comfortable with. Whether this is good or bad is not something I’m concerned with. I wrote this post to hash out what I mean what I use a genre term. I know I use my own classification system (as I think everyone does to some extent) and I don’t expect all readers to use all genre labels in the exact same way. Heck, I’m sure there are plenty of readers who don’t even care about labelling books in such a manner.

This post has spiralled a bit beyond the two paragraphs I initially thought it would be! Ultimately, any differentiation between scifi, fantasy and spec fiction won’t really impact what I choose to read. I’ll still choose books based on their description or reviews. I don’t think it really matters to me what genres others use to differentiate their reading. I just really like metadata and organizing my reading, so it’s something I enjoy thinking about 😛 Keeping track of reviews by genre helps me connect similar books and find new related reads.

 Do you think about genre as much as I do? Or is it irrelevant for you?

PS – Here are the webpages I visited while researching terms:

Blogging Discussion: Mid-Year Check In

How is it mid-June already?! I always find the first half of the year goes more quickly than the latter half, but this year has been on another level, filled with traveling and visitors and  a new school year that started in April. 32 days until the last day of classes, and only 64 days until I go home. It concerns me a little that I’ve been in Japan for over 10 months, and it still hasn’t sunk in. I hope when I get home it doesn’t feel too much like a dream! While my year in Japan is almost up, my blogging year is only at halfway point. Time to check in, see how I’m doing, and what I should focus on in the remainder of the year.

  • 8 posts/month (twice a week, ideally one review and one other)
    • I’ve been keeping up with this one fairly well! If not quite twice a week, I have managed at least 8 post each month (February’s shorter… it can borrow a post from January and call it even ;P). May was a shaky month, and June isn’t off to a good start, though I have scheduled two posts per week all through June and July! I just need to write them… (I’ll be on hiatus again in August, as I’ll be traveling and moving back to Canada.) I’m struggling to focus on writing posts because I’m trying to be very active and to embrace opportunities I could only have in Japan – primarily I’m busy planning trips and going on them 🙂 Blogging will always be available to me, but I doubt I’ll ever live in Japan again!
    • While I’ve reviewed nearly every book I’ve read this year, I haven’t done as many ‘other’ posts as I’d like to. It’s easier for me to fall back on reviews than to think of something different to write…ah, aren’t I lazy?! I like writing reviews – that’s my main purpose here – but I’ll have to try to give more attention to posts like article reviews and responses. Once I get started on those posts, I do enjoy writing them and the thinking they require.
    • I kicked off a monthly feature in April called Family Reads, where a family member choose a book for us to read and discuss. I’m really pleased with how it’s going, though since I’ve only written two so far, I’m still settling into the format. April and May were done with Mom, but we’ll see my sister in June and my father in July.
  • Improve writing style
    • Hm, well… I think overall I’m improving, but there are still more times than I’d like there to be when I slack off and don’t articulate as clearly or precisely as I could (wow, this sentence exemplifies that.) I should be more ruthless when editing from my writing. Shape up, Reno!
  • Events
    •  24-Hour Read-a-thon: My participation in the April Read-a-thon this year was hindered by attendance at an out-of-town concert. I didn’t prepare as I usually do, but I managed to read for 6.5 hours. I also hosted a mini-challenge for the first time. I loved reading everyone’s responses. 
    • Armchair BEA: Last year I fully participated in this event and had a blast. This year I could only partially participate, again hindered by a weekend trip. However, the prompts gave me the opportunity to address some thoughts I hadn’t written about before (defining diversity + social media + character chatter), and I was able to participate in one of the Twitter parties.
  • Challenges
    • Re-read: 5/12. On track. There are some books I really want to read but I have them at home. I think I’ll be able to manage more than 12.
    • TBR Pile: 5/12. On track. I’ve tried two books that really weren’t for me, so I better enjoy the remaining!
    • Foodies: 3/4 to 8. Ah, this fraction is different…pretty much on track? 😛 I’ve really enjoyed the three books I’ve read so far and I’ve learnt a lot. I’m looking forward to reading more!
    • CBC Books: 3/12. This one’s been a bit tricky because I haven’t been able to get all the books through the library and I wasn’t interested enough to buy them ^^; When I’m back in Canada it’ll be much easier to access physical copies, so hopefully I’ll join in a few more reads towards the end of the year.
    • Indigenous authors: 2/5. Eh, I’m a bit embarrassed at having set that number so low… Shouldn’t be a problem to surpass it! I have a few titles on hold now.
    • Tolkien: 2/6. On track. I’m going to read On Fairy Stories this month and I really should start The Silmarillion but I want to give it my full attention so maybe I won’t start until September but I also want to start The Lord of the Rings but I want to read my lovely hard copy which I don’t have in Japan but I do have a hard copy of The Silmarillion so the conclusion is – I really should start The Silmarillion! But I also want to read a couple books about the pilgrimage I’m doing in Japan and those need my full attention AUGHHHHH I need an extra hour in the day to devote to THE SILMARILLION! /rant
    • Japan: 0/12 – Hahahaha I put it at 12, that’s a bit silly. I thought I would read 12 books about Japan since I arrived last August but nope…right now I’m just hoping to finish a big book on Mt. Koya before I leave. If I make it through three books for this personal challenge, I’ll be satisfied (the Koyasan book, finish Shackles of the Past, and another book on Japanese religion).

This year I’ve noticed a number of bloggers pondering the question of quality vs. quantity when it comes to the books we read. (I think Shannon’s post really got me thinking about this.) I’m reading many books (37, ‘one book ahead’ of my GoodReads goal), but are they any good? How do I find those exceptional gems? I think the only way is to read a lot of books! It’s hard for me to tell in advance what’s going to be an exceptional story or just an okay one. Let’s take a look at my 2015 challenge details:

  • I’ve read 8 ★★★★★ books. However, 5 of them were rereads! I’m very selective about giving out this rating, so if I read five 5-star (new to me) books in a year, I think that’s great. I do wonder if there’s any way I can increase that number, though, short of being less selective.
  • I’ve read 14 ★★★★ books. These are all books I thought were generally great and I enjoyed reading them. I’d happily recommend them and some of them I will probably reread in the future.
  • I’ve read 11 ★★★ books. This is the rating level I struggle with. 3 stars means it was good and fine, but there are many books I liked better. What I would love is to read less 3 stars and more 4 stars…but again, is it possible to tell which is which without reading the whole book? Hrm. 
  • I’ve read 4 ★★ books. Generally, if a book is 1 or 2 stars, I won’t finish it. The four books I’ve read this year were A) on my TBR list for ages and I finally got around to it (If I Stay), B) read as a last-minute pick for Family reads (The Sisters Brothers), C) second in a trilogy I’m committed to (Authority) and D) I wanted to know it ended (Emancipation Day)
  • No ★ books! I plan to never read a one star book again 😛 Mostly they came from mandatory school reading.

How is your reading going this year? Are you keeping up with any challenges, goals or resolutions? 

Blogging Discussion: How I Write a Review

Last month, I wrote about the difference between writing positive and negatives review. This month I’d like to talk about how I write a review. I think this might be an informal feature going forward – these discussion posts about blogging. As I delve deeper into book blogging, I’d like to get a bit meta and chat about subjects particular to book blogging. Onto this month’s topic!


As I started my review of The Third Plate, I realized I had settled into a regular pattern for how I write reviews. I decided to document how I wrote that review.

  1. Copy notes into a Word document – While I’m reading, I make notes on my iPad or directly in ebooks.
  2. Jot down initial thoughts – When I sit down to write the review, I make a note of any immediate thoughts I have.
  3. Organize notes and thoughts into groups – I look for common themes in my notes and group together related ideas. These groupings usually develop into paragraphs.
  4. Review remaining notes and organize/delete/make more paragraphs as needed – This is a final tidy step before I start writing.
  5. Quickly mold notes into sentences – This results in some very poorly formed paragraphs. The idea is to make the first draft, just get something ‘on paper’ to work with.
  6. Build up the paragraphs – Here is the longest step, the bulk of writing. I develop each of my fledgling paragraphs into something intelligible.
  7.  Edit the paragraphs – Once I’m done writing, I give everything an overview to see if it makes sense in context. I may rearrange paragraphs and do another edit.
  8. Write The Bottom Line – The Bottom Line is basically a summary of my review, so I save it for last.
  9. Read the post in preview – The final edit stage! The main purpose is to read aloud, catch any awkward bits, and fix any wayward formatting.
  10. Publish the post – This isn’t really a step but I saw I was at 9 and wanted to round out at 10 😉
This is the process I follow for my usual reviews. How do you write a review? Do you follow the same process every time?

Blogging Discussion: Writing Positive vs. Negative Reviews

Here’s a topic that’s been simmering in my mind since October. I started to contemplate this after posting reviews of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and The Haunting of Hill House. One book I loved and one book I did not love. My personal opinion aside, the two reviews are vastly different in terms of writing style. You might think two different people wrote those reviews! One review I am proud of, one review I am disappointed with. These two reviews stand in stark contrast to one another. I’ve written good positive reviews and bad negative reviews before, but I didn’t really notice the difference between them until I wrote two in such a close time frame.

I’d like to unpack why one review is so articulated and thoughtful, while the other is something of a mushy mess. My writing style seems to match how I feel about each book. If you look at the positive review, you’ll see it’s much longer, more analytical and better written. This sort of review takes a bit of time for me to write because I have many comments to make. I ramble on, then take some time to whittle down and polish my thoughts. The negative review is shorter and less defined. I find it difficult to write anything more concrete than ‘meh’. This sort of review takes ages to write because I don’t know what to say. I have an easier time pinpointing what resonates than what doesn’t resonate. My writing rises and falls to match my opinion of the book I’m writing about. I couldn’t bear to write a lacklustre review of a book I adore as much as The Haunting of Hill House – people must know just how much and why I love it! Whereas, I could care less what people think about my views on Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore because it wasn’t a book I cared about.

I’ve been using the term review, but I want to clarify that’s only a part of what I write when I post here about a book. My format tends towards review-style thoughts (commenting on what appeals or doesn’t appeal to me), followed by more contemplative comments on greater issues in the book and beyond (useful only for those who have read the book and want to think deeper on it), concluding with more personal or random comments (stuff that wouldn’t be helpful to someone deciding if they want to read the book). The first bit is what I’m referring to when I say review here. I want to write a good review even if I didn’t like a book. What’s a ‘good’ review? That’s another subjective question! For me, it’s a review that helps me form an opinion of whether I want to read a book or not. This means I know what the reviewer liked or didn’t like and why (without giving way the whole story), and I can judge for myself if those are things I’ll like or not. I’m not sure I did a great job of this in my Penumbra review. I find it harder to be objective and make useful comments when I don’t like something about a book (ooh, and maybe I’m not being objective when I say that – maybe I just want to think I’m objective in my positive reviews because I want the book to be objectively good! Ouch, my head.)  How can I improve my writing about a book I didn’t enjoy? I think the key is being more specific…but I’m not too certain what I mean by that, haha. Perhaps a better question is, how can I write consistently ‘good’ reviews about books I can’t get in to? The Haunting of Hill House review is better, I think, mostly because I put more thought into it. How can I think just as well about a book I didn’t like as a book I did like?

Questions to ponder: While this could easily become a discussion about positive vs. negative reviews, I’m more interested in how you approach writing those types of reviews. Do you write differently depending on whether your review is positive or negative? What sort of books do you find you give better written (not necessarily positive) reviews? What do you think of my Penumbra review? Would it be helpful if you were deciding whether to read the book? Another question related to all this is, what makes a ‘good review’ for you? Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this subject! I’m still pondering it out myself.