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.

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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?

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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.