Dissecting a Debut: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.


Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy
Page count: 431
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 9780802120205
Pub Date: 6/19/12
Agent: Warren Frazier
In Brief: Much has changed in the Persian Gulf since the fourteenth century, and even more since jinn and humans knowingly walked the same streets. Of course, the jinn still walk among the people, but as people are more concerned with their digital freedoms and the growing government efforts to crush them, the jinn go largely unseen. Alif, a young computer hacker, bridges the gap between myth and truth after a highborn girl breaks his heart. His typical teenage troubles lead to a national rebellion and a clash between worlds when he hires a Jinn vampire to protect him and the mysterious book his lover sent him.

A quote on the back cover noted that Alif is “a powerful reminder of how far fantasy has come since Tolkien.” — Jack Womack author of Random Acts of Senseless Violence.

Some of the best fantasy I’ve read in the past year has been set outside the familiar Middle Earth territory. At one time, I loved the harsh winds of the Nordic rugged terrains and the forests cursed or enchanted by ancient celtic mythical creatures. I embraced it because it took me to a world beyond my own, a world where anything was possible. While it’s still fun to read, it doesn’t have the same foreign appeal that it once did.

Wilson took the fantastic elements that I love — ancient myths, magic, a fine line between reality and imagination — and built them into an entirely new setting, a setting that’s real and contemporary, but so far from home that I could not imagine it without Alif as a guide. This book made me think about why a woman chooses to wear a veil and why Western people would immerse themselves in an Eastern culture. It included enough familiar references, like The Golden Compass and the story of Aladdin and the lamp, that encouraged me to find the common denominator between the cultures even though their mythical creatures were strange ethereal images flashing between beast, monster and man.

While the story takes on epic struggles, from a high security prison where criminals starve to death to a sideways world where demons lurk and wraiths have computer troubles, it all begins with a boy who loves a girl, but can’t have her. Alif is just another victim of unrequited love, a simple and true story. Perhaps, as in many fantasies with higher beings, that’s why the jinn decided to protect him.

The deft blending of familiar and foreign wrapped me up into this tale, and left me wanting more. Honestly, when left with the choice to read about orcs or a jinn called Vikram the Vampire, who wouldn’t be more curious about the latter?


Let’s talk copyright

Bringing up copyright around authors can be a bit like opening Pandora’s Box, but let’s have a go, shall we? After all, a renown scholar, author, and lawyer Leslie Klinger has just sued an author’s estate on whether a particular character is in the public domain. The character in question? Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

“It is true that some of Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes are still protected by the U.S. copyright laws,” Klinger said. “However, the vast majority of the stories that Conan Doyle wrote are not. The characters of Holmes, Watson, and others are fully established in those fifty ‘public-domain’ stories. Under U.S. law, this should mean that anyone is free to create new stories about Holmes and Watson.”

Now before we get all defensive on one side or the other, fan fiction VS. original creators, let’s follow the rights trail. When Conan Doyle died in 1930, he left his literary estate to his three children, Denis, Adrian, and Jean. Denis did quite a bit with the rights before he died, and then Adrian took over, but after that it gets tricky. The rights bounced around a bit after Denis’ widow, Nina, had some financial trouble and lost them to the bank. For about ten years, the rights were held by non-family parties. In the early 1980s, however, the UK put Sherlock & Co., into the public domain, and the US gave preference to family heirs like Jean to reclaim copyrights, and Jean did just that. She had some fun with the rights, allowed some different interpretations like Young Sherlock Holmes, and then bequeathed the rights to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, who then sold it back to Conan Doyle cousins (Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd.).

Sherlock Holmes copyright holders since Arthur Conan Doyle's death

Sherlock Holmes copyright holders since Arthur Conan Doyle’s death (info from New York Times, 2010.)

So what, exactly, is the Conan Doyle Estate managing now? US rights to 10 stories from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Everything else was published prior to 1923, so Conan Doyle’s copyrights have expired, leaving the content in the public domain. Now, I haven’t read The Case-Book, but from reading The Adventures and The Memoirs, which are free in the public domain, I have a firm grasp of the characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Klinger is compiling a collection of Sherlock stories, inspired by Conan Doyle’s originals. The Estate wants a cut, even though Klinger’s collection excludes any details from The Case-Book.

I make a point to stand up for authors in difficult legal situations, and it’s clear that the author to defend in this case is Klinger. Conan Doyle and his heirs had years of fun and profit from the Sherlock Holmes mystery stories, and even Klinger is willingly paying the estate for use of the stories that they still control. But when 50 other stories are sitting in the public domain, inspiring fan fiction and other creative works, it’s clear that the spirit of the Holmes’ character is free.

“This isn’t the first time the Estate has put pressure on creators,” Klinger added on his Free Sherlock site. “It is the first time anyone has stood up to them. In the past, many simply couldn’t afford to fight or to wait for approval, and have given in and paid off the Estate for ‘permission.’ I’m asking the Court to put a permanent stop to this kind of bullying. Holmes and Watson belong to the world, not to some distant relatives of Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Klinger filed his suit last week, and it seems like he’s the right man for the job.

In a broader copyright sense, most authors want their works protected so that they get a piece of the pie when someone reads a copy of their book, decides to make a movie based on the book, or a little figurine of a character. When websites try to distribute content for free, or someone else lays claim to the story and tries to publish it under their name, copyright laws allow the author or their representatives to swoop in and stop those pirates and plagiarizers. And sometimes royalties keep coming in after the author’s death, giving a little monetary boost to kids and grandkids. But from that messy chart up there, you can see why eventually, copyrights must expire, stories must become a part of our general culture, and characters must become free.

Jane Austen’s two-month turnaround

Thinking today of the lovely Jane Austen on the 200th anniversary of her most popular novel’s publication. Her brother Henry acted as her literary agent, and Thomas Egerton paid her 110 pounds as an advance, just two months before Pride and Prejudice‘s release.

Today’s writers have it a bit different — not that you’re paid much more, since $175 in 1813 would be about $2,500 today — but you do have to wait a good while longer before holding a copy of your published book. If an agent made a deal in November 2012, it’s likely that by today the contract negotiation may be complete and signed by the author and publisher.

Months go by afterward as the editors edit, marketers market, and sales associates try to convince bookstores that your book is going to be a popular one, one that must have a place on their shelves! Designers whip up several cover options, trying to pin-point just the right image that might grab a passerby. As all this happens, you will wait, occasionally sending back revisions to your editor and hoping that all this waiting will pay off in the end.

Then the publishers wait as well, timing the release of your novel at the best possible moment — right before Christmas, or alongside a related historic event.

But I have to say, if I were around in January of 1813, I would have been ever so glad to obtain a copy of Pride and Prejudice to warm me through these long winter months. And perhaps, since she wrote the first draft, First Impressions, nearly 20 years earlier, Jane deserved her quick publication turnaround.

Dissecting a Debut: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Genre: YA Fantasy
Page count: 451
Publisher: Random House Children’s
ISBN: 9780375866562
Pub Date: 7/10/12
Agent: Dan Lazar
In Brief: A shaky peace exists between humans and dragons in Seraphina’s medieval kingdom, where dragons walk the streets in human bodies, so as not to frighten people. Prohibiting dragons’ natural form is one of the many rules outlined in the treaty signed 50 years ago. But when a royal family member is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion, just days before the treaty anniversary celebration, Seraphina must be careful to hide the truth about herself, even as she comes to realize that she’s the only one who can help the village maintain its peace with dragons.

I had heard fantastic things about this book from other people in the publishing industry. I was expecting some awesome writing, the kind where you read a sentence and then pause to think, wow. What a beautifully crafted sentence. It’s hard for a book to live up to such high expectations, of course, and this one didn’t make that kind of impression on me. The writing is very good, but it’s not something you notice sentence to sentence. It’s in the world-building, which is crafted as well as any immaculate sentence, and strong world-building is on most SF/F editors’ wish lists.

The kingdom of Gorred in Seraphina is a strange medieval town, where knights have been banished and dragons walk around as people, with only a silver bell to distinguish them. An additional “garden” within Seraphina’s mind is even more complex with grotesques who each have unique talents that keep the garden clean and tidy. The outlying lands beyond Gorred, home to dragons or to foreign people of eastern cultures rather than the typical european that you see in SF/F, complete this fascinating worldview so unique in YA fantasies (with the exception of a few authors, like NK Jemison).

As unique as Seraphina’s world was, Rachel Hartman crafted it in a way that felt natural. (I mean, of COURSE there’s a secret speakeasy where rogue dragons and humans drink beer together!) This is something that takes time and understanding. It’s very similar to crafting a deeply character-driven novel. The author must get to know the characters and write them the way they demand to be written. In the same way, Hartman knew every inch of the kingdom, its politics, stereotypes, religion, and customs.

In an interview with The Enchanted Inkpot, Hartman said she had been writing in this world for eight years. She wrote a comic set in Gorred with different characters, so she has characters in the world that never made an appearance in this book, but she knew what they were doing, and what was happening in their kingdoms. This knowledge about every piece of the the society allowed her to show the world to the reader without explicitly explaining how things worked in Gorred. I encourage you to really think outside the plot as you’re writing. Develop minor characters to find out what their ticks are, build neighborhoods that your leading lady might get lost in down the road, and let your imagination, not your plotline, determine what happens as you explore the world you’ve created.

It’s hard to review this book without giving too much away, because with each page, the reader learns something new about the plot. But I think I can say this much. Seraphina’s mother was a dragon and her father was human, which makes the girl’s very existence something immoral and illegal among both species. As the kingdom’s music mistress, she’s right in the thick of politics and fear when the royal prince is found dead without his head. She must hide her tell-tale scales, but a little bit of romance, and a lot of concern for her kingdom and its people prevents her from staying in the shadows. She’s a true heroine in a fantastic conflict between dragons and humans, emotions and logic, art and intellect, love and persecution.

Dissecting a Debut: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Genre: Historical Fiction
Page count: 320
Publisher: Riverhead (Penguin)
ISBN: 9781594488450
Pub Date: 9/4/12
Agent: Jenni Ferrari-Adler
In Brief: Elsa never felt a particular urge to leave her family’s homegrown theater in Door County, Wisconsin in the 1930s, but she does feel the urge to act. So when an opportunity to arises to marry an actor on his way to LA, Elsa takes it. She slowly sheds Elsa’s life as she takes on new roles and a new name, Laura Lamont. But the old Elsa continues to surface with people from her past, and Laura is torn between who she was and who she has become for Hollywood.

In an early scene of this book, Elsa accompanies her husband to a party that his studio is throwing. While he hurries off to join his actor pals, Elsa is left alone — about 7 months pregnant and wishing she could look more like the actresses walking by — while she contemplates the crowd and her own dream of becoming part of it. This moment, right before the studio owner walks up to her to say he’ll make her a star named Laura Lamont, that quiet, lonely moment stands out to me. Because every star starts there, don’t they? Every actress at an LA party, every writer at writing conference or book party, they all start in a room of successful people, wondering how to get there. This book focuses on the getting there … and then perhaps more humbling, the after.

Fame is an interesting choice for a debut novel. I attended the release party a couple weeks ago at BookCourt, where the author Emma Straub has worked for several years. If Straub had ever had a moment like Elsa’s, where she is standing alone in a crowd of fabulous strangers, it came long before the release party. Editors, journalists and friends of Straub crammed the room, weaving through cliques of literary elite, holding champagne bottles above their heads. In the middle of it all, Straub was beaming with a pink puff of feathers dancing on her head as she signed copies of the book held out by excited readers. It was every author’s dream release party.

Of course even authors in the spotlight struggle beneath the surface. The sales have only started to take off, and there’s always the question of how many will come back in returns, of whether the author can’t quit that day job after all. And an internal struggle; was this the book the author actually wanted to write? The one she dreamed of publishing in adolescent musings of future accomplishments? If Straub was struggling with these questions, she was keeping them at bay for her readers, giving them insight to Laura Lamont’s struggles instead.

Laura Lamont plays the part of an actress well, and she uses this mirage to face her father’s death, her husband’s death, betrayals by her friends and family, the growing scrutiny of the industry as she ages. She begins to lose sight of who she actually is, and tapers that worry with anxiety pills. Straub carefully builds the crescendo of Laura’s loss of self, as she mires into depths of drug and denial.

The book is beautiful in its vintage scenery: Hollywood, the home theater on the Wisconsin farm, the dazzling mid-century homes, but those places all feel like a mirage. A reviewer on Goodreads said that Straub glossed over Hollywood, that Elsa would have — in reality — slept with an executive to become Laura Lamont. I agree that Straub only dusted over the controversies of the industry, she depicted Hollywood through the rose-colored glasses of a fond memory. However, she did tackle the controversies of self, something that can be set in any time period and ring true.


Laura reaches her personal climax in a botched half-attempt at suicide, followed by a decision to take responsibility for those around her. She reconnects with her inner-Elsa in a stage performance, coming to an understanding, I think, that she and Elsa had always been the same self. It felt like a soothing harmonic tone at the end of the rising crescendo. I had been expecting a clash of cymbals. Laura Lamont’s fairy tale ending after all of her strife felt like a deeper lie to me than her rosy Hollywood.


Despite my disappointment in the ending, this book is a clear winner in terms of publishing potential. The vintage Hollywood details would catch the eye of any editor. The analysis of self — public vs. private, mother vs. actress, country girl vs. city star — is an obvious topic of discussion for reviews, book club gatherings, panels. On top of this, as a staffer at a prominent independent NYC bookstore, Straub has connections in publishing. Editors like to publish the work of people they know, not because they think it’s better or they want to keep their circles tight, but for the same reason that the average reader would buy a book written by someone from his hometown. It’s an interest in what’s familiar and a gesture of support.