[BLOG TOUR + US/CAN GIVEAWAY] Guest Post by Brian Staveley: What I Learned Reading the Same Book Every Day for a Year

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The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it’s too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.

As you all know, I read, loved, and reviewed The Emperor’s Blades (You can find the review HERE). It’s a bewitching, enchanting, and thrilling story of three siblings as they see the world they’ve always known change before their eyes. There are talks of ancient magic, of creatures told in legends, and of a grand conspiracy that’s simply waiting for the right time to reveal itself. In short, it’s one huge book, with a huge world, with characters with huge hearts… and you should read it, too.

And of course, we all credit such brilliance to its author, Brian Staveley. And he graces this blog with his presence through a guest post, where he shares a bit of his wisdom.

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Magic Pebbles and Stupid Donkeys; or What I Learned Reading the Same Book Every Day for a Year

If you’re not a parent, chances are there is no single book that you’ve read over a hundred and fifty thousand times. If you are a parent, of course, there will be several. Perhaps chief among these, in my own personal experience, is William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. It’s a wonderful tale, oddly harrowing, for a children’s story, and one I have had more than ample time to consider. The book rewards such consideration. In fact, in many ways, it is a useful exemplar for the writer of fantasy (or, indeed, any writer.)

A quick recap of the plot, for those who spend their time reading a sequence of adult novels rather than a single children’s book on endless repeat:

Sylvester finds a magic pebble that grants wishes to anyone holding it. On the way home, he encounters a lion, and, in a panic, wishes he were a stone. Unable to hold the pebble in his new stone form, he is seriously screwed. His parents search for him, to no avail. After a year has passed, they try to cheer up by going on a picnic. By coincidence, they set their lunch on the stone that is Sylvester, find the pebble, and put it on the stone. Sylvester wishes to return to his own form, and the family is reunited.

So what’s so great about that? Well, a few things.

First, the handling of magic. It’s easy for an author to get all tangled up with magic. On the one hand, there’s the danger of explaining too little – if we have no idea what the pebble (or wand or zebra cape or whatever) is capable of, we have no idea what to hope for or what to fear. The parameters of success or failure are too amorphous to invite our emotional investment. On the other hand, it’s easy to explain too much. In Sylvester’s case, we need to know that the pebble will fulfill wishes asked by someone holding it. That’s it. That’s all. We don’t need to know why it does this, or where it came from, don’t need to know if it’s inhabited by the tortured soul of a half-orc named Guag, or whether or not there’s an entire vein of the rock somewhere that could be mined for the large-scale production of magic pebbles. That information might be interesting – in fact, it probably is interesting – but it’s not what the story is about, and so Steig is smart enough to leave it out.

Second, Steig understands that every decision made by a main character need not make sense. In fact, there’s something wonderful about an entire plot turning on a foolish but irreversible mistake. In this case, when Sylvester sees the lion, he wishes to be a rock. It’s dumb. Catastrophically dumb. The narrator acknowledges the folly of this wish, but points out that Sylvester’s fear drives him into error. Likewise with adult fantasy. We want a coherent plot, one that fits together without feeling contrived, but that does not mean the actions of every character must cohere into some rational whole. Just because an archer stands and fights in one battle doesn’t mean she can’t flee in the next. In both words and actions, people are fallible, unpredictable, and inconsistent. The trick, of course, is to find the unbroken emotional thread that unifies all the surface inconsistency.

Third, Sylvester handles a number of secondary characters with a deft touch. The woman who gave us the book, a good friend of mine, told me that her favorite part was the lion. The lion, while crucial to the plot, is not crucial to the emotional core of the story, and here again, we find Steig handling a tricky issue with wit and grace. He’s wise enough to get the lion on stage, then off again fast, in the space of a single page spread. No need to let the lion steal a show that doesn’t belong to him. On the other hand, in the space of those two pages, the lion (through the art and writing both) becomes a unique, memorable character. He only gets a single line – “I saw that donkey as clear as day,” he mutters, staring at the stone in perplexity. “Maybe I’m going crazy.” – but it’s the right line, uttered in a voice unlike that of any other character in the story. The lion reminds me of the minor characters in Dickens – Uriah Heep, the Aged P, the Artful Dodger – men and women who appear for a page or two, sometimes less, but stick in the mind long after the book is shut.

The book is only a couple dozen pages, but Steig makes every word count. It’s a remarkable story, and a humbling one for someone whose debut runs to four hundred and eighty pages. That said, if my son asks me to read the damn thing one more time, I’m burning it.

Brian Staveley photoBrian Staveley

After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades (forthcoming from Tor on January 14, 2014), is the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Tor.com has been good enough to release the first seven chapters as a teaser that can be found here: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/11/read-the-emperors-blades-by-brian-staveley. Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on twitter at @brianstaveley, facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley.

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Faye

Faye

A 21 years old Filipina who loves books, games, languages, and most especially, food. Secretly wishes to be an astronaut so she can explore the stars. Has a love-hate relationship with Philippine politics. To get in her good graces, offer her Foie Gras, Or shrimp. Or a JRPG. A YA sci-fi book works, too. You can follow her on twitter here: @kawaiileena

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  1. says

    Nice guest post! I haven’t read a children’s book in so long (maybe like four years actually) but I’ve never thought about dissecting the meaning of a children’s book or truly analyzing it. But when I’m a parent I feel like I’m definitely going to want to burn some of the children’s books I’ll be reading to my kids. Apparently when I was younger I was obsessed with the Three Little Pigs and could quote it word for word, and I’m feeling that my children might mirror that reaction to a children’s book.
    Eileen @ Singing and Reading in the Rain recently posted…Avalon by Mindee ArnettMy Profile

  2. says

    Wonderful review I totally agree about sometimes decisions not being so logical. I mean look at all the stupid mistake Harry Potter did and it was so realistic! It sounds like this book is very well written with just the right balance of details and characterization!
    Giselle recently posted…Review: Fake ID by Lamar GilesMy Profile