If you like your fantasy tropes laced with smart self-awareness, if you like your heroic acts of battle balanced with a healthy dose of “oh my god this is terrible why are you doing this you could literally die,” if you like your characters fizzy with sarcasm, and if you like your romance in many flavors but all slathered with progressive notions like consent, equality, and honesty, read this book:
Brennan does a lot of remarkable things with this book. I am going to tell you about three of them that particularly sparked my delight as a reader and as an editor.
Melodrama done right
Uncontrolled, self-serious melodrama is a terrible thing, a thing that can carry an unwary author off into the jaws of overwrought, clichéd prose devoid of real emotion. But Brennan harnesses melodrama and puts it into the framework of her main character Elliot’s personality. From the very first scene, where we meet him “brood[ing] tragically over his wrongs,” Brennan invites us to both sympathize with him and laugh at him, and to enjoy his dramatic perspective on the world.
It’s a great example of a useful technique: if you want to include something in your story that’s clichéd or ridiculous (be it an emotion, a turn of phrase, or a way of talking), set it in the thoughts or words of an appropriate character. Doing so gives the phrase a refreshed purpose that allows the reader to appreciate the original sense of the phrase from a new angle, like an inside joke.
Brennan uses this same technique on a higher level, too, using Elliot’s cutting commentary on the world around him to acknowledge the cliché in the premise of her book as a whole: “I don’t need you to explain to me the concept of a magical land filled with fantastic creatures that only certain special children can enter,” Elliot says. “I am acquainted with the last several centuries of popular culture.” With this wry self-awareness, the author invites us to laugh at the cliché and in doing so take new delight in the old, familiar concept of a magical world.
This mixture of mockery and love pervades the whole book and makes for an extremely satisfying read.
Another remarkable thing Brennan does is craft a running commentary on traditional gender roles by flipping the roles in one of her cultures: among the elves, women are the warriors who protect the honor of the men while the men raise the children and stay in touch with their feelings. Brennan illustrates the finer points of elf culture with brilliant reversals of modern stereotypes like this quote from an elf character: “You know — women shed their dark feelings with their menses every month? But men, robbed of that outlet, have strange moodswings and become hysterical at a certain phase of the moon?”
On its own, even with these clever details, the role-flip might come off as gimmicky or too obviously trying to make a point. But Brennan combines it with the good-old-fashioned misogyny that still lurks among the humans to produce a host of cultural misunderstandings that are hilarious as well as thought-provoking and play an integral role in the growth of the characters and the advance of the plot.
A third point of good writing this book illustrates is how to properly set up the major events of the plot. Many inexperienced authors write as though the more details they keep secret from the reader, the more exciting the big reveal will be. The problem is, if everything’s a secret, the reader won’t care what happens, because they don’t know what’s at stake or why the character’s choices matter.
Brennan sets up everything in the first scene: the tension between Elliot and the world around him that’s fundamental to his personality; the relationships that will drive the emotional plot of the book; the tension between cultures, both within the magical world and between the worlds, that drives the action; and the tension between violence and diplomacy that shapes the ethical perspective of the story.
Brennan leaves plenty for later — for example, Elliot says no one will worry about him if he disappears into another world, but we don’t find out more about that for another 43 pages — but she lays all the foundations. And as the book proceeds and she builds on those foundations, the reader starts to see the whole shape of the plot. Rather than spoiling the surprise, her deliberate sharing of relevant details demonstrates how there is nothing more thrilling for the reader than figuring out something before the characters do and eagerly anticipating the moment when they finally discover it.
What are you waiting for? Go find out what it is! And then come back and share your own impressions of the book.