In Fire Country, David Estes begins his companion series to the Dwellers Saga, and begins the story of those that remained on Earth’s surface after an asteroid strike 500 years earlier. This reader enjoyed the first three books in the Dwellers series and, as that saga and Estes’ Country Saga come together in a joint finale (The Earth Dwellers) the author encourages reading the companion series before embarking upon Earth Dwellers.
A solid, interesting novel on the whole, Fire Country is plagued by a plot hole that made it difficult to stay in the story. Stay with me here:
Fire Country follows Siena, a 15-year old member of the “Heater” tribe which inhabits a swath of desert not terribly far from the glass city introduced in the Dwellers novels. As Siena approaches her 16th birthday, she faces some consternation since all female members of her tribe are required to take a randomly assigned mate at the age of 16 and produce a child through a process called “The Call.” Childbearing, in fact, is to occur every three years of the woman’s life (at 16, 19 and 22) until a woman has borne three children. Aside from the fact that Siena is horrified at the prospect of a random mate and not ready for children, there is an additional complication: Siena is in love with her best friend, Circ. Since males don’t participate in The Call until age 18, even chance won’t help Siena here.
Complicating matters (even) further, Siena’s father, Roan, is the supreme leader of the tribe, and through a combination of abusive behavior and general meanness, he intends for Siena to follow the laws of the group despite her concerns. Roan’s insistence goes beyond mere tradition in that tribe members live 30-32 years on average and the mating arrangement is therefore designed to ensure the tribe’s population remains high enough to be sustainable in the often deadly environment. Siena’s mother is not helpful in the beginning, demonstrating fear for her father’s temper (though there is a twist later). Siena’s only hope seems to be in a rogue group of females called the “Wildes,” but given that they are rumored to kidnap tribe girls when they reach Call age, Siena is somewhat wary of this prospect, despite nudging from a friend of similar age. This is understandable, given that the Wildes apparently kidnapped Siena’s older sister, Skye, three years earlier on the eve of her Call.
And (look close), yup… there’s the plot hole! Siena is the product of her mother’s second childbearing, meaning that her mother was 19 when Siena was born. That makes mom 35, well beyond the life expectancy of 32. (Dad, by comparison, is at least 37, a full seven years older than most males endure.) Sure, the life expectancy is just an average, but Estes does little to alleviate this problem, in fact it is exacerbated by the plot. That is, it’s not just Siena’s parents that have far outlived their time—references are made to other specific characters of Siena’s age and their (living) parents. Siena’s best friend, Circ, for example, has a living father, who must be at least 34 (if he fathered Circ at the minimum age of 18). But, references are also made to the commonality of parents escorting their children to The Call. In a society where at least half of all members die by age 32, it seems unlikely that many would be around for their first child’s Call, let alone their second or third. While Estes throws in a plot twist that explains Roan’s advanced age, it is clear that this circumstance doesn’t extend to the population at large. And so, plot hole.
Let’s put that aside for a minute. How is the book otherwise?
Well, the writing is solid and the world-building is interesting. Main characters seem well-rounded and fairly well-developed, but very Estes-typical (more on that in a moment). The plot itself is interesting, though somewhat predictable. One would hope, for example, that Estes could find a plot line that didn’t center around two teenagers falling in love despite circumstances stacked decidedly against them. After all, this was the entire underlying plot of the Dwellers Saga, so now it’s feeling a bit tired when the reader sees it again (and lest we forget, there are another two books in this specific series, plus a dual-series finale, so it’s probably time to brace for more of the same).
The characters themselves are also tired. Is Estes capable of a main character who doesn’t get so lost in his or her own thoughts that dialogue is interrupted for pages at a time? It appears not. The internal monologue of the main characters in the Dwellers series was somewhat distracting, but here it is taken to a new level. Estes, at least, characterizes Siena as a daydreamer to explain some of this, but that itself gets a bit old. (Come on, not every instance of this girl having a thought needs end with her losing touch with reality until someone else repeats their line!)
On the plus side, Estes creates an engaging world, and the book is a page turner. Estes has also created colloquial language for the tribe, which adds some flavor to the work and allows for colorful language (i.e. cursing of a sort) acceptable for the YA crowd. While some readers found this annoying or confusing (see reviews on Amazon), it did seem appropriate in my eyes, a good risk on Estes’ part to add a fresh element to the work. There is (at least on Kindle) also a glossary of the terms at the beginning of the book, for those that may have trouble deciphering. (Though most of the words can be easily figured out from context.)
So, the bottom line: Exciting and engaging, but beware the plot hole if you’re an analytical reader. Highly recommended for those who’ve become enamored with the Dwellers Saga and crave this piece of the story before moving on to the finale. Not recommended to read this first—may leave you not wanting to read the other series, which is better. For this reader, some hope remains that this series, like Dwellers will improve with subsequent books (we’ll see).
Get Fire Country on Amazon.
Having just read Allegiant, the final installment in Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, and being slightly underwhelmed (though on the whole pleased) with it, I came across a list of books suggested for fans of that series. The Moon Dwellers was one of those listed, so I gave it a try.
In The Moon Dwellers, David Estes introduces us to the Tri-Realms, humanity’s new underground world, carved out of solid rock in the 500 years since the surface of the earth became uninhabitable. Life underground has intensified the divisions between economic classes with the aid of a corrupt political system in which a dictator-king is called the “president,” a title passed down among family members.
This installment of the Dwellers Saga focuses heavily on the Moon Realm, essentially a middle class section of society, but much more-impoverished than that moniker usually connotes. Within this realm, main character Adele leads the reader on a journey filled with quick, action-style scenes as she escapes from prison and sets out to reunite her family which has been convicted of treason. Friends Twani and Cole assist in her journey, which takes place just as a larger revolution breaks out.
Alternating chapters are narrated by Tristan, the eldest son of the President and heir apparent to the title. Unlike his father, Tristan is disenfranchised with the political and economic state of the majority of Tri-Realm inhabitants, but it takes him a while to translate this discomfort into his actions. An odd connection is established early on between Adele and Tristan, and both seek to explore the meaning behind it, with Tristan essentially abdicating his position of power to search for Adele. Though, at first conflicted, g-rated romance eventually ensues between the two and this, in somewhat trite fashion, spurs young Tristan to understand he must adhere to his own values, rather than those of his father.
As dystopian post-disaster novels go, this book has a lot to offer. Underlying commentary on the fragility of egalitarian political and economic notions in society is seamlessly integrated into the plot (the messaging around same is somewhat predictable, though perhaps that is to be expected). Estes has crafted a fascinating scene (setting), such that the reader (or at least this reader) consistently craves more detail about the setup and minutiae of the Tri-Realms. And the plot does contain some interesting twists, delivered deftly through character development and basic story structure, which heighten the engagement of the reader and foreshadow that there is more to each player than what is initially presented.
On the downside, metaphor (and overall symbolism) in the novel was somewhat less sophisticated. As a result the power of these elements was not fully realized. Word choice on the whole also left a bit to be desired, at times seeming a bit…well… immature. And though categorized on Amazon as YA fiction (among other things), the writer shows his ability to resonate with that audience in a more sophisticated and mature way at several points throughout the novel, which leaves this reader wondering why there are inconsistencies in these areas.
But it’s worth the read. Overall the literary quality appears strong and seems to indicate promising things to come in the remainder of the series. The writing is clear and well-structured, the text itself free of the pesky grammatical and spelling errors that might take the reader away. As an added bonus, this particular novel, being the first of a four-part series, is priced to move, with the Kindle edition ringing in at under a dollar on Amazon, (and available free to Prime members). Thus, if you’re not sure this particular author is/will be your cup of tea, such minimal investment allows you to get a feel for his style and the overall direction the rest of the series might take. (Note also that with the remaining books currently selling for under $4 each, it could be argued that your overall investment would be minimal anyway).
4 / 5 Stars
Get The Moon Dwellers at Amazon.
There are these “commandments…”
Conventional wisdom is that good writers “write what they know.” This is one of many commandments imparted to us authors by the almighty in-the-know ‘experts’ out there. (I’m still not quite sure who these ‘experts’ are or what qualifies them—perhaps they received these rules on some mountaintop somewhere—but that’s another blog post entirely.)
Lately I’ve been questioning the applicability of these commandments to the indie author. Whether the ‘experts’ are truth-sayers or not, their advice seems—to me at least—more applicable to those that have the luxury of a reliable income from their writing. Most indie authors don’t – or at least they don’t start out with it.
The problem with these commandments, with any commandment really, is the absoluteness of it. Logically, we know there are exceptions to every rule. Sometimes it’s fun, or necessary, to “sin” (but, again, that’s another blog post entirely). In all seriousness, the reality of the writing process informs us that nothing is truly absolute. But that aside, the other reality—the reality of the digital age—is that every reader is a critic with a platform—and every critic knows these commandments exist (though not necessarily how to apply them).
“Write what you know,” is a commandment that gets under my skin in a very particular way. Certain others are close behind:
- Take for instance Commandment the Second: “Write an hour every day.” Because, face it, all indie authors have time for that in between the day job, family obligations, oil changes, haircuts, grocery shopping, etc., etc. ad nauseam , sleeping and, oh, actually having-a-life…
- Or the Third: “Show, don’t tell.” Which, while nice in principle, seems to have become the ubiquitous ‘I-hated-it-because…’ mantra of every amateur digital-age critic. And really, what do they mean? Do they even know what they mean? Here’s some snark they should read before penning their next Amazon review with the aforementioned prominently in the title. (I’ll admit, they’ll probably write the review anyway, but it’s an interesting point, nonetheless.)
But I digress, and this isn’t a blog entry about bad reviews or unrealistic expectations.
Commandment the First: “Write what you know.” And stop there?
I think I knew at some point in my teens that I had a passion for writing. And, to be honest, as a teenager I didn’t know anything about anything. So, what then was I supposed to write about? I suppose I could have penned an ill-advised teen romance, but that’s been done.
Instead I wrote this. (Note: This is the un-modified raw work). Eventually I developed it further (the outcome is in need of some real revision before I’d ever publish it—and I plan to get there someday), but this piece is what really started me down the path of writing. There are themes here that I had no experience with at the time. There are implications that, probably, made those in charge of my education wonder if a call to social services was advisable. (It wasn’t, and thankfully, they didn’t.) The point is, I took a risk with my writing and went beyond my comfort zone, beyond my base knowledge. I daresay that what I wrote was better because of it.
Losing my religion?
My work since, especially my published work, is a bit of a blend. Life experience has allowed me access to the raw themes and the basic plot elements that I include in my work. But I haven’t stopped with “what I know.” Does any writer really do that? Well, any one worth reading? Perhaps I’m the only one willing to try and bend the stone tablets…
…But I think not. Certainly writing is about exposing the reader to what you know, and to the perspective from which you view that particular “knowledge.” But I’d submit that good writing also takes some effort by the author to expand beyond what is known, and to explore that unknown in a way that presents something the reader must consider. I’d also submit that some level of risk-taking on the author’s part is necessary to achieve that end, and that often that risk comes in extrapolating into the unknown (on the author’s part).
This exploration (it is important to point out) is substantively different from say, sloppy (or lazy) research. It’s different from just making s**t up, too. This exploration is intentional, difficult, and perhaps the essence of what we call creativity.
Fellow authors: Am I way off? Going to writer’s hell? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you only write what you know? What writing commandment do you find most annoying or incongruent with your own process? I bet we can come up with more than 10 of them.
Every so often, I get this kind of comment from people: "I'm really enjoying your work. It's better than I would have expected from an indie writer. Have you ever tried getting an agent?"
It's quite flattering to hear, and I'm very happy to be getting this kind of feedback from readers.
But on the other hand, there's just a bit of frustration that I feel as well.
One might say this novel is about “try[ing] to keep myself away from me.” (Counting Crows, Perfect Blue Buildings)
No? Okay, let me try to explain it this way:
Imagine, for a moment, being so incredibly terrified that you cannot function. Imagine being paralyzed with fear– the ravenous urge to get away from what scares you; the contemplation that the fear itself might, literally, result in your death if you cannot escape it; and the complete inability to realize this escape you crave.
Now imagine that the cause of this fear is you. Your mind. Your own thoughts.
Angst, a novel by Victoria Sawyer (not to be confused with a short story of same title by yours truly) takes the reader to this very world. It is the world of a college freshman prone to anxiety and panic attacks with a severity beyond conception. Attacks so debilitating that the main character (also named Victoria) nearly ceases to function.
It’s a lot for the reader to grasp. But Sawyer, in this elegantly crafted novel, brings these issues to the fore and ultimately elicits what can only be described as utter and complete comprehension on the part of the reader. She accomplishes this by submerging the reader so entirely in the emotion and thought pattern of her character that true empathy (read: you become this character) results almost instantly.
Sawyer’s prose is raw and often stream-of-consciousness in its construction. Perhaps a gutsy way to write a novel–especially a first novel–but the writing style (complete with uncensored expletives that pepper the internal monologue as well as the dialogue) will shatter the reader’s expectations insofar as it is surprisingly effective. As a result, one is inside her character’s head from the outset, and cannot escape the complex emotions that are revealed to be within. Any attempt to convey this differently would have failed miserably (in this reader’s humble opinion) and Sawyer seemed to know it. In short, she nailed it stylistically, and despite (or maybe because of) the mode used, this work often reads as, well… poetic. (And that’s apart from the actual smatterings of poetry included in the book.)
In many ways this could have been your typical coming-of-age / adjusting-to-college / YA novel. It would have been easy for Sawyer to dumb it down, surely. She could have made the emotional spectrum more comfortable, dialed back the language to be more palatable for a wider audience, or even played up the romance aspect that exists as a subplot to appeal to the booming genre-fiction market. But we’ve all read (and rolled our eyes at) those books (be honest, haven’t we?). I suspect, she chose instead to be true to herself and her vision for this work–and I feel fortunate as a reader that she did.
This is a serious work, one with real literary value. Angst challenges the reader to think differently about what constitutes “normal” and what the term “mental illness” really means. It explores openly themes of inner strength, seeking help, medication, self-medication, depression, and self-worth (amongst others). Before it’s over, the reader will find more in common with the main character than he or she initially thought possible–and really that’s the whole point. Sawyer seems to make a bold statement about the value of acceptance in our society and alludes to an even bolder one about our failings as civilized adults to offer that acceptance without precondition or prejudice.
So ultimately, what am I saying? Well, it’s hard to boil down a work that is this moving and this amazing, but here goes:
Angst is a marvelous piece.
Sawyer has crafted an emotionally charged, refreshingly honest, and ultimately relatable first novel that (ahem) everyone should read. Providing a candid view of often glossed-over subject matter (mental health and disorders), while making said subject matter something that any reader can will care deeply about is no small task, and Sawyer has done just that. Furthermore, without resorting to the magical, formulaic, happily-ever-after ending so (gag) common in this type of work, Sawyer still manages to leave the reader with a sense of (realistic) hope at the end of it all.
I highly recommend this book, and hope that Sawyer publishes another soon–she’s a voice that has been sorely lacking in contemporary literature.