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Hear My Plea, and Book 19: Skin Game

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I have a problem.

Recently, I have noticed that no fantasy novel or series involving magic can be published without being constantly compared to Harry Potter. Reviews do this. Readers do this. Everyone. Does. This.

“The next Harry Potter!” “Harry Potter for grownups!” “If you liked Harry Potter, you’ll love this!” “If Hermione Granger had done x and y!”

I would like to ask that we, as a society, can please stop. Not every book about magic is like Harry Potter.

Nothing is like Harry Potter.

And I can hear people in the background arguing. “Well, obviously every book is different, if you were expecting something exactly like Harry Potter you should probably just go re-read Harry Potter! The point is that it gives you an idea of what to expect!”

And the problem with that argument is that it does give me an idea of what to expect. Unfortunately, what it tells me to expect is pretty much unattainable perfection.

I know there are people out there who will argue with me. I know this because, in the last year, two completely different people have commented to me that the Harry Potter series is, and I quote, “horribly written.” This causes me pain. I’m sure you think I’m joking, but I’m not. I have a kind of visceral reaction to negative comments about Harry Potter. I usually have to take a deep breath and then calmly explain that, though perhaps it’s not your favorite style of writing, you’re expressing a subjective opinion as if it’s an objective fact, and that’s simply not the case. In fact, I’m going to take it a step further: If your opinion is that they’re not your style, that’s okay, you’re allowed to have that opinion. If your opinion, however, is that they’re horribly written, you’re wrong. And I look at these people, whom I otherwise respect, and I think: “How would you feel if I found your favorite professional in the field that you have studied and learned a whole lot about in the past eight of so years and told you that they were horrible at it?” Like, you don’t see me walking up to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and saying, “I mean, I tried to like the original Cosmos, but Carl Sagan was just a horrible scientist.”

I realize this is an extreme example, but I just can’t help but feel like, well…

Anyway, I realize I have gotten horribly sidetracked by my feeling that I have been personally insulted when someone thinks good ol’ JK is a bad writer. That really wasn’t my point.

My point is this: When you compare something to Harry Potter, it sets the bar ridiculously high.

Let’s talk about the layers of Harry Potter for a minute.

The first layer of Harry Potter is the story. The boy who lived. The young wizard whose destiny it was to destroy Voldemort and his two best friends as they go through school and grow up. It’s a wonderful story, but by itself, it’s nothing special.

The second layer of Harry Potter is the meaning behind the story. Sure, it’s about a boy wizard, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about love and friendship, courage and acceptance. It’s about standing up for what’s right despite seemingly overwhelming odds that you will fail. It’s about believing that the world can be better, and that if you work together, you can make that happen. And that is fantastic. But again, it’s nothing special. Lots of books have similar themes.

The third layer of Harry Potter is the world it’s set in. From the very beginning, you’ve got a clearly defined Muggle world that makes sense. And that’s the most important thing about good fantasy, I believe: The realistic elements have to actually be realistic. If we, the readers, don’t believe the real world part of the story, how are we supposed to believe the fantasy world? The minute we think “there’s no way that would ever happen,” our suspension of disbelief falls apart. The Wizarding world works, too: There are rules, and throughout the series, magic follows the rules. Now, I couldn’t clearly explain the rules to you, but that’s not the important part. The important part is that magic can’t do everything, because if it could, then there would be no point in writing a story. For example, let’s talk about the time turner in Prisoner of Azkaban. I’ve seen this picture a lot recently:

And while it’s kind of funny, it’s not accurate. Saving Buckbeak didn’t reawaken the dead. You think you hear Buckbeak dying, but once they go back with the Time Turner, you see what was actually happening. Buckbeak never died to begin with. In fact, if they hadn’t used the Time Turner to go back and save Buckbeak, that would have been changing the past, because they had already done it. It follows the rules. Lily and James, on the other hand, actually did die. They couldn’t do anything about it. And why would they? It’s awful, but their deaths brought about the boy who would ultimately defeat Voldemort. If they hadn’t died, Voldemort could have reigned forever. Does that sound like a good plan to you? But, yes, other books have good world building in them.

Layer four of Harry Potter is the characters. Every single character, even the fairly minor ones, have distinct personalities. They all have different ways of speaking. They have detailed, rich backstories. They’re three-dimensional. If you read the Harry Potter books and don’t relate strongly to at least one character, well, I’ll be shocked. And if you reread them a few years later, you’re sure to find someone else who makes more sense to you this time around. There are no good guys who are just good, and no bad guys who are just bad. Every character will surprise you at times. However, I can’t say that this is the first book with amazing depth of characters.

The fifth layer of Harry Potter is, of course, the writing. This is, if you hadn’t figured it out by now, the most important part to me. It doesn’t have to be to everyone, but it is to me. JK has a very simple and straightforward (and, well, British) style. She clearly doesn’t write with a giant thesaurus sitting on her desk next to her. The language isn’t flowery; why should it be? It is, however, detailed and precise. She doesn’t leave a single word out of place in seven books. I had this fear after I finished my Creative Writing degree: I’d gone back and re-read some books I’d loved in the past and found that there were now things that really bothered me. There was always a little piece of my brain getting ready to sit down with the author and workshop their book. So, for a while, I was nervous about picking up the Harry Potter series again. I was worried that these books, which were such a huge part of my childhood and my life, would fall apart under my newly critical eye. And I picked them up and started reading and I was immediately whisked off to Number 4, Privet Drive, and the writing was perfect. I started looking for something, anything, that I would change, that I thought was too much, or that I didn’t feel I knew enough about. I found nothing. In seven books, nothing.

The Harry Potter books aren’t the only books out there that are masterfully written. However, very, very few books are as well written as Harry Potter.

And as for books that have stories as good, meaning as important, worlds as well-built, characters as well developed, and writing as amazing… well, let’s just say I believe there’s a reason JK was richer than the Queen for a while. You know, before she gave so much of her money to charity.

So when you compare a book to Harry Potter, you’re setting me up for disappointment. If you say, “This is a really good book!” then I’ll read it and I’ll enjoy it and I’ll be fun. If you say, “This is a lot of fun!” then I’ll read it and have slightly lower expectations of the writing and I’ll just let myself enjoy the story and I’ll be fine. But if you say, “This is like Harry Potter!” then everything that isn’t perfect about it is going to feel, to me, like a punch in the face.

For these reasons, I almost didn’t finish the first book of the Dresden Files.

Book 19: Skin Game (Book 15 of The Dresden Files)

You may have guessed from the above rant and plea that, when I first started reading these books, I was told they were like Harry Potter.

These books are not like Harry Potter. These books are gritty and kind of pulpy Chicago detective stories. The detective is a wizard, and his cases tend to be otherworldly. The fact that his name is Harry does not make the books like Harry Potter. If anything, they’re sort of like Supernatural. I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could say that they’re kind of like if someone who wasn’t JK Rowling wrote some stories about if Harry Potter were an American and never went to Hogwarts and had to learn magic in other ways and went on to be a detective in Chicago solving supernatural mysteries and it’s just a lot of fun and doesn’t quite have the substance that Harry Potter has but they are nonetheless super fun and exciting books (with bonus nerdy references), then, well, it’d be kind of accurate, but why bother when “gritty Chicago wizard detective” works just fine?

Over the course of 15 books, Jim Butcher’s writing has improved dramatically. (More than 15–he wrote a whole other series somewhere in there, too.) In the beginning, I had the opinion that they were pretty poorly written, but they were fun stories. I kept going because I forced myself to ignore the voice in my head saying, “They said this was like Harry Potter.” And I’m very glad I did. When Butcher wrote the first book, it was a reaction against a writing teacher he had who kept giving him advice he thought was bad. He finally went home and wrote a book following all the rules she’d set out and brought it in to show her how bad her rules were. She read it and told him to publish it. (Note: I got this story from Wikipedia. It might be wrong.) So, at this point, he wasn’t taking it seriously. It’s clear, as the series continues, that he begins to take his creation seriously. He puts a lot more care into the later books, and the endings of the past few have surprised me. He still has habits I don’t love–if anyone can find an instance where Harry says “Fuego!” and doesn’t snarl, I will give them five dollars.

So, they’re not books that you read for the masterful writing, and that’s okay. They’re books that you read for a fun story and pretty decent writing. In that, they are incredibly successful.

I can’t think of a book off the top of my head that has made me laugh as much as these do. Harry Dresden has a great sense of humor and some ridiculous antics. Jim Butcher is a huge nerd, too–I’m spotted a Sherlock reference, a Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog reference, and I’m fairly certain a Buffy reference, though that one was quite subtle so I can’t be sure. There are always Star Wars references, too, and I’m sure there are some that I just don’t notice. They’re extremely fun to read.

Minor spoilers ahead–nothing you wouldn’t read on the back of the book!

Now, if you’re a fan of the Dresden Files, you may have noticed the multiples of 5 pattern: Books 5, 10, and 15 have to do with a race of creatures called the Denarians and their leader, Nicodemus. The Denarians are weird and kind of difficult to explain. Basically, there are a whole bunch of fallen angels who were at some point trapped in coins, called Denarii, from ancient Rome. If a human touches one of the coins, that fallen angel has a path into their head. From there, the angel–the Denarian–can convince the human to pick up the Denarius and work with them. The Denarian now has control over the human, and they become extremely powerful. And, of course, because they’re evil angels, they also have some monstrous shape that they can transform into.

The Denarians are not my favorite bad guys in the Dresden Files series. I have a kind of hard time wrapping my head around them. I’m not quite sure what their rules are.

However, in Skin Game, Dresden is forced to team up with them. And I love when the good guy has to work with the bad guys. It always makes for an interesting story and, in this case, a whole lot of sass.

I really enjoyed the dynamic in this book, and I think it helped me to get Nicodemus a bit more. He’s much more developed at the end of this book than he has been in the past, where he seemed a little like an evil dude who had no reason to exist other than to be as evil as possible. But as Harry and Nicodemus work together to pull off a major heist, you learn a lot more about both of them.

MAJOR SPOILERS

LIKE I’M ABOUT TO RUIN THE ENDING

SERIOUSLY IF YOU HAVEN’T READ AND WANT TO STOP HERE

Okay, you were warned. I’m assuming that I’m good to say whatever I want now.

Were other people completely blindsided by Harry having hired Grey to be on his side from the very beginning? I’ll be honest: I always feel a little cheated when I get to the end of the book and there’s something very important that the POV character did that we didn’t hear about. I felt, right away, like I had to go back and re-read the entire book now that I knew what had really been going on. I think it would have made more sense if Mab and Vadderung had maybe collaborated to hire Grey and Dresden hadn’t known about it. However, if you’ve got to leave something out like that, Butcher did it pretty well. I didn’t see it coming at all.

I’ve wanted Murphy to pick up one of the Swords for a long time. I didn’t quite understand what would happen if she did it for the wrong reason; despite the fact that we’re told pretty clearly that it would destroy the sword, I remembered Harry picking it up once and using it wrong and it being fine afterward. I’d felt for a while like Murphy had this awesome card that she just failed to play, and why? Well, I get it now. The sword breaks and is lost. EXCEPT. Except it’s not! I hate to make a Harry Potter reference after my long rant up there, but holy Neville Longbottom, Batman! Let me tell you, my pre-book-discussion discussion up there, the one that is about how mad it makes me when people tell me something’s like Harry Potter, was almost about fandom as religion, and how when we really love something, we can’t help but believe in it, and what would be so wrong about embracing that? I sometimes tell people I’m a Whovian when they ask about my religion, and it’s usually joking, but I’m really only half joking. I’m saying, “You know, I don’t really want to talk about religion right now/with you…But I totally believe in the Doctor.” But I was a little worried that it was too much of a spoiler for the Lightsaber of Faith. Go, Butters. (Also: Did anyone else watch Psych? Because I can never keep Butters and Woody straight in my head.)

Overall, I loved the ending. It fit the story and set up some great questions about what’s going to happen next. I’m already really excited about book 16, though I’m sure I’ll have to wait a while for it.

OKAY I’M DONE WITH THE SPOILERS

So, what do you guys think? Have you read the book? Don’t post spoilers in the comments, because I know I have friends who haven’t read it yet, but let me know what you thought! (You know, cryptically.)

Coming Soon…

 20. Lexicon by Max Barry
21. London Falling by Paul Cornell
22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” a.k.a. J.K. Rowling
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
30. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
31. The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 1 by Michael Scott
32. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Lastly, re: the Harry Potter discussion up there. How do people feel about that? What books have you read that you just can’t compare things to? And what’s the most important part of the book to you? Are other people generally all about the writing, or do normal people focus more on other aspects? I’d love to know!

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Book Two: The Golem and the Jinni

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I just finished the most amazing book.

I should warn you, particularly those of you who don’t know me: I love books. I mean, I’m sure you could figure that out simply by the fact that I’m doing this whole 50 Book Project thing and blogging about it, but you still might not fully understand. I don’t like books. I don’t enjoy reading certain books. I love books. Sure, there are a few out there that I’ll read and say, “Wow, that was horrible.” It’s happened. There have been books that I read the first few pages of and said, “I just. Can’t.” There have even been books–and I’m a bit ashamed to admit this–books like the Twilight series, which I’ll read once and think, “Well, that was kind of fun and mindless,” and then months or years later, I’ll be in the middle of something really stressful (it was finals, this time) and say, “You know, I need something completely mindless, let’s pick that up again just so I have something to read while falling asleep,” and I suddenly recoil in horror upon the realization that I didn’t fully notice how horrible something was the first time around. (Sorry, Twilight lovers, but I’m not sorry.) (My test to determine whether a book is well-written is actually to pick it up again. The story can carry almost anything the first time around, but for me to read it again, it needs craft.)

These instances are few and far between.

There are very few books that I read and say, “That was good,” or, “That was okay.” Occasionally, perhaps a “That was beautifully written, though not really my style,” but even then I’m usually still all for it because I’m a sucker for beautiful writing. But most books, I love. I am a non-discriminating lover of books. You’re unlikely to ever read a bad review here. I don’t know if I’m just incredibly good at picking out books or if I’m simply not picky. Either is possible.

So please, let it mean something when I say that of all the books out there that I have read and absolutely loved, this one stands out.

Every once in a while, as I was reading this, I would pause for a moment and marvel at the fact that this was Helene Wecker’s first novel. Her first novel! I can only hope that some day, when I get there, my first novel will be as beautiful as this.

The Golem and the Jinni is a fairy tale all grown up, filled with magic, suspense, heroes, and villains. Throw in some very adult themes: Surviving the drudgery of day to day life. Feeling like there’s more out there for you. Needing someone, but trying not to. Learning to look back at what you’ve lost. And, lastly, what it means to be a person. Now add some beautiful writing. I am seriously wondering what altars Wecker sacrificed at in order to write like this. Zelazny and Jane Austen? I’m not even sure.

I picked up this book at the perfect time: As I suspected, there’s nothing like a bit of fantasy to make the winter wonderland I’m… or… I was in the middle of (until it got up to about 50 degrees today) seem a little bit more wonderful. I’m tiring of the cold, but for a few moments after I was walking back to work from my lunch break yesterday, watching the snow fall around me on our actually-quite-beautiful downtown (and, yes, trying not to slip on the ice underneath the snow), the beauty of the real world mirrored the beauty of the story I was engrossed in.

I’m reluctant to write too many spoilers, simply because the book is still so new–it’s just now out in paperback–so fewer people will have read it and be able to actually read the spoilers without them actually, well, spoiling. But I have to say a few things, right? So.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Why are you still reading? I said, spoilers ahead!

Okay, first, minor spoilers for those of you who haven’t read it but still keep reading even after I warned about spoilers (seriously guys stop it, this paragraph is your last chance). I love how contrasted Chava and Ahmad are from the beginning. Particularly, I love that we see Chava’s entire life, from her conception to her creation to her awakening on the ship to her time in New York–but we see so little of the Ahmad’s. He’s lived for hundreds of years, so how could we? Yet it’s revealed in these lovely little snippets–a memory here, a memory there–until his backstory and the current-day storyline are completely intertwined in a slightly unexpected way. I loved seeing him follow caravans and build his glass palaces, and develop more and more interest in humans as he does this, and seeing his freedom as he flies through the Syrian desert juxtaposed with his confinement in New York. It brought his pain at his imprisonment to life, and allowed us to see the freedom he longed for as he crafted his birds and his tin ceiling.

Now onto the bigger stuff. You may have noticed that I said “slightly unexpected” up there. I knew, I just knew, as soon as Schaalman decided to go to New York to seek out eternal life, that he had something to do with the evil wizard who imprisoned the Jinni in the first place. I don’t think I was supposed to know this–I think I was supposed to be worried about Chava. And I was! I knew he’d find her, and he’d try to either destroy her or take control over her (since the Rabbi was conveniently dead at this point, which made me very upset but was necessary)– but I just had a feeling that finding her would be a side effect to finding Ahmad and revealing whatever connection he had to the wizard. She tricked me, though. I had a flickering moment of oh I bet it’s the same person! but I didn’t latch on to that idea because we had seen Schaalman’s whole backstory, and seen him grow up, and reincarnation just seemed, well, unlikely. Oh, but it was amazing!

And can I just say how much I loved Ice Cream Saleh? I was so happy to see the role he eventually played.

END SPOILERS. YOU CAN LOOK AGAIN NOW.

I just, I absolutely loved this book. Have I said that yet? I’m tempted to say something incredibly cheesy, like “An Instant Classic!” (but I won’t). A new favorite, though, to add to that ever-growing pile of favorites. And to my shelf that was previously reserved for Gaiman and Zelazny.

And, for book 3, I’ll be reading

Runaway by Alice Munro. I read a short story by her for my book club (“Train”) and loved it, and then thought about it, and realized with horror that I had never read Alice Munro before. On the way out of our meeting (which is, conveniently, at a bookstore), I grabbed the first book by her that I saw. My copy doesn’t say “stories” on the bottom like that, though–I didn’t even realize it was short stories until I went to grab that picture to post! And since I loved “Train” so much, I’m not even remotely disappointed, though I’ll still be picking up a novel of hers later on.