Friday, September 09, 2011

Second Book Syndrome

We had a substitute ballet teacher last night, and it was quite a change that I'm feeling this morning. Our usual teacher is pretty laid back and knows we're doing this for fun and exercise, not to become great dancers (but she was out, since she had a baby that morning. What a slacker, huh?), but the sub reminds me of the Strict But Secretly Caring Old-World Ballet Mistress from just about every dance movie or book ever. She corrects even the most minute details, so, being the perfectionist that I am and being the usual target of substitute teacher corrections, for whatever odd reason, I was working overtime to be perfect. Fortunately, there are a couple of people in the class who are entirely new to dance, so she had a lot of work to do with them, and that meant I mostly stayed under the radar, for a change. But this sub is nicer and more gentle with the corrections than the Ballet Nazi we had a few years ago, and she's really slowing things down to focus on precise positioning and technique, which is a good reminder. And that's also why my whole body is a little stiff this morning (though not sore, which is good).

Last night after dance class, I finished reading the second Locke Lamora book by Scott Lynch, Red Sails Under Red Skies, and it seems to be following a trend I've noticed lately for me in fantasy, where I like the second book in the series best. Second books often get a bad rap, for various reasons. Often, the second book is weaker because the author spent years crafting and perfecting the first book, then gets a two-book contract on the basis of that book and has to write the second book in less than a year. Or if it's the middle book of a trilogy, it constitutes the "sagging middle" of the whole story, where it doesn't have the freshness and launching into the story of the first book and doesn't have the climax of the third book.

But in the series I've started following lately, I've generally found myself enjoying the second book more. That doesn't mean the second book is actually better or that other people would agree with me, just that the second books have been more to my taste. They've been more fun. We've made it past the character introductions and set-ups in the first book but we're not quite at the more serious, dark stuff that tends to happen as the story arc really gets going in the third book. The second book is where the characters just get to establish what their lives are going to be like after their world changes due to the events that kicked off the series in the first book. The screenwriting book Save the Cat refers to a section of a movie as being "The Promise of the Premise." This is the part that comes after the story has been kicked off but before the second major turning point where things get serious. It's where the writer gets to play with all the fun "what if" questions that arise out of the scenario of the story -- what are all the things that could happen if you put these people into this situation? I think that's what's going on in these second books I've liked. They're the "promise of the premise" books, where the main series plot arc is mostly lurking in the background as the characters adjust to their new roles or situations.

So, in the KE Mills Rogue Agent series, the first book establishes who our main character is and what he is, and that lands him in the position of being an undercover magical troubleshooter. And meanwhile two of the other characters have gone into business together in a magical agency.The second book is mostly a fun romp in which he's on assignment and they're on a case, and their paths cross. The third book gets more drastic and dark, and it's very layered and deep and complicated, but that second book is probably the one I'll re-read most often. I found the same thing with the Legend of Eli Monpress books by Rachel Aaron. The first book establishes the main character and his antagonist/ally while setting up the overall series conflict and the third book delves deeply into the mythology and one of the more dangerous situations in the premise, but the second book is more of a pure caper.

I don't know what the third book in the Locke Lamora series will be like, but I imagine from the way this one ended that it will go darker. This second book isn't "light" by any means. There's a big cloud hanging over everything and some seriously bad stuff happens, but it still feels more like a caper and less like "our entire world is being destroyed." I do think that the cover copy does the book a disservice because it doesn't really reflect what the book is actually like. It focuses entirely on the initiating action that then becomes something of a subplot while leaving out the main action. The story mentioned in the cover copy is not something that generally appeals to me, and as a result, the start of the book was slow going for me. Then there's a twist that sends the story off in an entirely different direction, and once we got there, I loved it. So if you read the cover copy and think, "So, they're going to scam a casino? Yawn," you should know that due to repercussions from the first book they themselves get kind of conned, and they end up having to pretend to be pirates, so that most of the book takes place on a pirate ship. Yes, we get a fantasy Oceans Eleven taking place on an actual ocean.

There is one element of these books that bothers me, and since it also seems to come up in many of the reviews I've read, I feel like I should warn my readers. The language is rather coarse, and I think gratuitously so. I think the idea is to convey that these characters are tough, hardened criminals. I can see that these characters wouldn't be saying, "Gosh, golly gee whiz, that didn't happen according to plan," but in real life the people I usually hear talk this way aren't so much tough as they are ignorant or even stupid. I don't think that's the impression the author is trying to convey. This language is also used indiscriminately, with almost all the characters and in all situations. Language in a book -- whether four-letter or otherwise -- needs to be precise and specific and used consciously for a particular effect, and when swearing is just scattered around freely it loses any effect. For instance, it keeps the characters from having distinct voices. The main character is a former street kid who joined a gang of thieves at about the age of six because it was better than living on the street, and you'd expect him to have a rougher vocabulary, even though he was later educated and trained well enough that he could blend in among the nobility. But his best friend/sidekick has a totally different background. He was the son of a prosperous merchant who only ended up in the gang of thieves when he was orphaned later. He had a conventional education up to that point. This is an interesting character because he's both the muscle and a nerd. He's a huge guy with a hot temper and a lot of martial arts and weapons training, but he can also do complex calculations in his head, loves to read and has large amounts of what I get the impression is supposed to be this world's version of Shakespeare memorized, so that he can bring out a quote for any occasion. You'd think a character with that much not-Shakespeare in his head would have a different vocabulary than the street kid and use language in a different way, no matter how tough he is. Then there's the fact that these guys use the same level of cursing to complain about something minor as they do for something major. When you're already using language that would make George Carlin cringe to complain about your bathwater being cold, there's nowhere to go when you're in a situation that would make me swear, like having everyone you care about viciously slaughtered.

Or maybe I'm just being a middle-aged church lady here. But if you are a middle-aged church lady (or think like one), this is something to be aware of before you take my recommendation that these books are enjoyable. If very strong language offends you and you can't just tune it out, you may have problems with these books.

1 comment:

Cora said...

I read parts of a very early draft of the first Locke Lamorra book before it was published and my main criticism at the time was that the characters swore all the time (I'm not overly sensitive to swearing, but this was excessive) and that they mainly used one particular swearword that seemed a bit incongruous in that setting.