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Arie Farnam’s The Soul and the Seed is a promising start to an exciting new fantasy series. I’m not even sure where to start for this review, because there were so many things I enjoyed about this book. I guess I should start by saying: put aside any expectations you have about genre before reading this book. Yes, there are elements that many would point to and say, ‘This is YA fiction,’ or, ‘This is another dystopia novel,’ but this novel transcends those labels. The Soul and the Seed is a well-crafted tale, full of dynamic characters and showcasing some of the best aspects of fantasy literature: world building and meaningful social commentary by way of holding up a fantastical mirror to our own world. This is modern fantasy, with no vampires or werewolves or inane teenage romance, and it succeeds where so many similar books fail.

The core of what makes this novel is its focus on characters, and the way these characters’ stories feel so real. It’s this attention to detail on the level of characters that makes it easier to fall into the world of The Kyrennei. Farnam creates characters that are flawed, full of emotion, and that invite the reader to consider the gravity of what’s at stake in the pages ahead.

The narrative starts with Aranka, a teenager whose inability to meld herself into what society expects makes her an outcast. When she and some of her classmates get pulled out of school, amid claims of a dangerous outbreak, Aranka discovers that she’s part of a new generation of the legendary Kyrrenei, an ancient race of people that was exterminated by their rivals, the Addin. She’s held as a prisoner by the Addin, who want to stop the reemergence of the Kyrrenei by any means necessary. When a member of J Company, a secret organization sworn to fight the Addin, comes to her aid, Aranka becomes part of a resistance fighting for the very soul of her people.

I was pulled into the narrative early by the sincerity in Aranka’s voice, along with her intelligence and humor. She’s a character with a lot of depth, both mentally and emotionally, that seems to be sorely lacking in many teenage protagonists. I cared about what happened to her over the course of the novel, and when I finished I couldn’t stop wondering what was in her future. I was especially fascinated by her later in the story, when the introduction of other characters’ viewpoints makes many of her thoughts and actions inscrutable to the reader. Some of her biggest moments are shown through the eyes of another character, and, in this case, I actually found that to be a plus: her actions spoke volumes about her character, and I didn’t always need to hear her interior monologue to experience her growth over the course of the novel.

The second narrator, introduced in the fifth chapter, is Thanh—my favorite character in the book. Thanh is a Meikan, one of the people whose ancestors were allies to the Kyrrenei in ancient times, but he has a hard time relating to the traditions of his people. Meikans live in very tight communities, and they’re forced to practice their ways in silence as part of an old treaty made with the Addin. Thanh doesn’t participate in prayer with other Meikans, though he does respect their devotion. He’s had a difficult life, full of tragedy and loss, and he struggles to understand his relation to the modern-day practices which Meikans continue to participate in as a way of carrying on their heritage. When he comes face-to-face with one of the legendary Kyrrenei, something he once believed to be a myth of his people, Thanh’s left with even more questions than he had before. I really enjoyed the chapters narrated by him, and I was fascinated by his reflections on religion and his place in the world as he’s struggling to adapt to the mythological made real.

The world building aspects of the novel were my other favorite parts. The plot moves at a good pace, but Farnam manages to inject pieces of the language of the Kyrrenei and their ancient oral tradition. Some of the most fascinating moments in the novel come when the reader is given a glimpse into the history of the Kyrrenei—even if it’s only a few lines of an old prayer or a brief dream sequence where Aranka sees into the past. These elements never bore the reader, and there’s never a point where the text is burdened by their inclusion. I wanted to see more of it, because it really added depth to the world of the story, but I got the sense that there’s plenty more of this to come in future installments of the series. One of my favorite scenes in the entire novel was when Aranka begins to have ancestral memories of the Kyrrenei and finds that she is able to recall their ancient verses, which had been lost due to the efforts of the Addin to erase the Kyrrenei from history. Speaking of the Addin, I did wish they’d featured in the story a little more. However, like I said before, I’m guessing that they’ll be expanded upon later in the series.

If I had one complaint about this book, it would be the rather abrupt ending. There’s still plenty to be resolved after you get to the final page, and some readers might be bothered by that. For me, this was a minor thing and didn’t really change my enjoyment of the novel at all. I don’t always expect to have everything wrapped up neatly for me, especially with a series. I’m just glad the next book is coming out soon, because I would have been going crazy if I didn’t know when to expect it.

I could go on, really. There were plenty of great character moments in the novel, I liked the dialogue, and I think it struck a good balance between fast-paced action and more evenly-paced character building moments. The bottom line on this one: it’s an impressive debut from an independent author, a story filled with genuine emotion, and it sets the stage for what promises to be an exciting, epic adventure. The Soul and the Seed isn’t a perfect book, but I’m giving it the highest marks because it presents a fantasy world that is wondrous in its own way, while still accomplishing the important feat of making us take a hard look at our own dark world.

I noticed something earlier when I was sending out copies of my new story to beta readers: Microsoft Word (my word processor of choice) tracks the amount of time spent editing a document. When it calculates this time, it’s based on whether the document is open and at the front of the screen—so this includes time spent writing, reading, and making changes to the document. I never thought about this before, even though I’m sure the feature has been part of the program for a long time. So, I started wondering about some of the other stuff that I’ve written. Let me share some of what I found with you…

“Specimen 25,” a story that ended up being less than 5,000 words in its final draft, was edited for roughly sixty (60!) hours. I did change the files around a bit here and there, so that number could be off by a couple of hours either way. Obviously, these weren’t sixty consecutive hours—that would be crazy. Still, until I actually saw that number, I don’t think I realized how much time I put into that story. When I stop to think of all the revisions I made, and how I agonized over syntax, etc. then it makes a lot of sense. There were a couple of parts of that story that I spent time looking over, changing a word or two, and then having to start all over again. And then, again.

I’m willing to bet that the sheer amount of time I spent on that story is part of the reason that, A) it ended up winning a contest, and B) it is one of my favorite works that I’ve written to date. I lived with that story, for more than a full week’s worth of eight-hour workdays.

How does that compare with some of my other stories?

The first draft of my new short story already has over a hundred hours of editing put into it so far. As of right now, it’s only about 3,000 words longer than “Specimen 25.” I guess I spent more time with that one than I realized, too. I’m hoping that means it’s on its way to being another great story. Maybe I was in a trance-like state for some of that time?

Another one of my stories, which ended up being around 15,000 words, totaled just under forty hours of editing time. Yet another story, which landed around 6,000 words or so, had a total editing time of approximately ninety hours. This suggests that the length of the story, or word count, is not necessarily related to how long it takes to get it into the shape I want. I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind for the future. I’ve never made a point to time my writing (though lots of writers recommend it) or keep track of how long I work on my stories, but I think that might be something to consider for me going forward.

One more, just for fun: the sequel to “Specimen 25” is currently in a revised first draft stage, and so far, it’s got a little more than eighty-six hours of editing logged.

(If you don’t want to read this whole thing, skip to the last three paragraphs to get the important bits!)

I know I haven’t been doing too much here on my blog lately, but I have a good excuse: I’ve been writing stories and plotting a novel. I figured a good way to bridge the gap would be to talk about what I’ve been working on. The short version is: I wrote a new short story, it ended up inspiring me to write a novel, and now I’m looking for some help with that short story to make it a good as it can be. It all started with frogs…

How often do you stop to consider the animals that you meet during your daily life? Or do you even encounter that many? Depending on where you live, what kind of job you have, or if you’re the kind of person that likes pets, you might see animals all the time or not very often. Regardless of how much you and I have encounters with the other inhabitants of our world, the fact is that there are way more of them than there are of us.

It’s a rather contrived distinction, too, considering that humans are animals—as much as dogs, birds, fish, and all of the other amazing beings we cohabitate with here on Earth. A lot of us like to act as though we’re better, or more important, than every other species. Why is that? Because we have more advanced brains (supposedly)? Because we have thumbs and we build machines? You can deny it all you want, but our society really isn’t very considerate when it comes to the rest of the animals here. At best, we try to save species that are in danger of extinction or designate certain areas as wildlife preserves—at first glance these seem like the right things to be doing, and we do them for the right reasons, right? And at worst, we use animals as test subjects, for everything from cosmetics to space travel, and lock them up in zoos for all of us bipeds to go in and gawk at them.

I started paying more attention to all of the animals that I encounter every day, and I realized something: because of my job, as a landscaper, I end up killing animals accidentally all the time. For a long time, I never really stopped to consider it. Usually it’s a bunch of ants that happened to have their colony right in the middle of someone’s dry lawn, or a bird’s nest filled with unhatched eggs that fell out of a tree or shrub that I’m trimming. Sometimes it’s frogs, though. I can’t really explain it, but somehow those poor frogs are the ones that get me the most.

The more I thought about it, the more it made me feel awful. I don’t know how many frogs I’ve accidentally crushed, or worse, because they happened to be in front of me while I was using some piece of equipment or other. Whatever the number is, I wish it could be zero. Those frogs didn’t do shit to me. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, I was just doing my job and I didn’t mean it.’ Even if that’s true, isn’t that like saying my job is more important than another creature’s life? I started to pay more attention, and since then I’ve tried to be more aware of what’s in my path when I’m at work. Yesterday, for example, I was at one of our customer’s home and I noticed that there was a frog directly ahead of where I was mowing—so I swerved to the right and avoided it. Did I have to do that? Obviously not, but it didn’t cost me anything to do it, either.

The frog I saw yesterday was about the size of my palm, maybe a little smaller, and he was the colors of desert camouflage. I think his close encounter with my lawnmower might have shocked him a bit: I had to wait a minute before he finally hopped off and out of the way before I was able to go back to mow the spot he’d been sitting on.

What does all of this have to do with my writing? I wrote a story about frogs, partially based on some of the thoughts I’d been having. By the time I finished it, I realized that my story was about much more than frogs. And the protagonist of that short story, a guy with an affinity for animals, ended up becoming a character that I couldn’t retire. He’s now set to become the main character in a new series I’m writing. I’ve already outlined the plot of the first book, and I have a strong feeling that it’s going to be one hell of a story.

But before I get started on writing that book, I need to make sure that the short story which started it all off is the best possible version of itself that it can be. I need help to do that, and so I’m going to try something a little different. Different for me, anyway, since lots of authors already do it.

I’m looking for volunteers to read my short story, which introduces this new character and acts as a sort of extended prologue (not exactly, but I don’t know what else to call it) for the novel I’m preparing to write. I want as many people to read it as I can get, and my hope is that anyone who’d be generous enough to read it would be willing to take a little time afterward to let me know what they thought about the story. I’m looking for honest feedback, particularly about what people did or did not like about it, and why. For anyone who’s not familiar with the terminology, many authors refer to people who do this as “beta readers.” The idea is that a story, or a novel or whatever, will be better in the end if the author gets other people’s opinions on it before publishing the final draft.

The story is titled “Friend To Frogs” and in its current form it’s roughly twenty-five pages long. Now, since I wrote it, there’s obviously some weird stuff going on in the story. But this is a different kind of weird than what I presented in my recently published story, “Specimen 25.” There’s nothing sexual going on, and, unlike in “Specimen 25,” the weirdness of the story starts early on and doesn’t let up all the way through until the end. It’s a fantasy story, mixed with some horror elements and some humor.

In short, I’m hoping that some of you reading this would be willing to help me out and be a beta reader. If it helps you to look at it this way, just think: you’ll get to read my story before it’s published, and your feedback might have an impact on how the finished product turns out. Whether you like to read fantasy or not isn’t the important part. You don’t even have to be the type of person that reads a lot. I want my stories to be accessible to everyone, and so I need help from all kinds of readers. I want this to be a story that many people can read and enjoy, but for that to happen I need help from all kinds of people. I have a little more work to do to make sure the first draft is in good shape, but by this time next week I’m planning on sending the story out to anyone who’s willing to read it. If you’re interested in being a beta reader for this story, you can leave a comment here and let me know what your email address is, or you can email me directly at damianroache@gmail.com

I just wanted to let people know I’m (back) on Facebook. I made a page there, and I’m going to keep it updated–everything on there will be straight from me. I know some authors hire others to manage their social media accounts, but I’m not into that at all. A lot of what I post on there will be the random thoughts and ideas that are floating through my head, but I’m also going to give book recommendations, talk about writing and publishing, and a lot of the same stuff I do here on my blog. I know there are plenty of people who’d rather follow someone on Facebook than read a blog.

So, anyone who’s on Facebook, check it out. If you want to help spread the word, I’d really be grateful.

You can find my page here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Damian-Roache/1376116029345213?ref=hl

 

Also, a quick update…

I’m working on a short story that will introduce a new character. There are frogs involved, and telepathy. I’m also writing another version of that same story, which is written in the form of a series of haiku. I’ll be talking about that a little more in the near future.

I enjoyed reading Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel by Lisa Zunshine, but here’s the thing—I have a hard time thinking of reasons to recommend it. The central thesis of the book is that readers of fiction come to the novel as a way to exercise their Theory of Mind, a term borrowed from cognitive psychology which “describe[s] our ability to explain people’s behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires.” Much of what Zunshine writes about is dressed up with critical theory and demonstrated by her analysis of how Theory of Mind plays into reading well-known texts like Mrs. Dalloway and Lolita—which is great if you’ve read those books, but otherwise kind of annoying. More than the fact that she shuts out a huge section of her potential audience, what bothered me most about Zunshine’s approach is that she essentially does not tell the reader anything new about reading fiction. Though her points are laid out in a logical way, and her evidence is solid, she ends up saying a whole bunch of things that I think most people could have figured out on their own without having to read her book or understand the psychology terms used therein.

There’s nothing wrong with Zunshine’s writing, but if you’re not accustomed to reading about literature through the lens of theory then you might find yourself wondering what the hell “metarepresentationality” is and why you should care about it. Yes, Zunshine is talking about the cognitive processes behind why, supposedly, people want to read fiction. She does this is in a rather dry, academic style and uses lots of terminology that an average reader might struggle with. Normally, I’d say that this is no problem at all. The reason it is a problem in this case is that people are likely going to have different expectations about what they’re going to find once they start reading. How do I know this? A quick look at the book’s description on Amazon will prove my point. The final sentence of the description assures potential readers that the book is accessible to them (emphasis added by me): “Written for a general audience, this study provides a jargon-free introduction to the rapidly growing interdisciplinary field known as cognitive approaches to literature and culture.” This book is absolutely not jargon-free, and I’d have a hard time finding a “general audience” that would appreciate her style. Unless that audience was made up of English majors, and even then…

There are three sections of the book, which each focus on a different aspect of Zunshine’s argument. The first introduces the concept of Theory of Mind and shows how it applies to analysis of texts, the second deals with the aforementioned metarepresentationality and how it allows readers to keep track various representations within a text, and the third is a sort of case study which uses the form of the detective novel to show how readers engage in what’s called “source-monitoring.” Again, I didn’t have any problem with her argument, and I found I could easily follow her progression from the basic aspects of Theory of Mind all the way to her discussion of how some authors craft their fiction in ways that deliberately push such reading practices. Much of what Zunshine put into the book is explanation for the sake of explanation, and so I think it could have been much shorter. Or maybe some of those pages could have been used to really speak to a general audience in terms they’d understand, assuming that was truly her motivation for writing the book.

I wanted to read more about Zunshine’s own application of Theory of Mind to texts, but the book is largely filled with examples from other scholars’ work or uses well-known (and sort of boring) analyses of famous texts. The best part of the book, for me, came in the last section. She writes about some of the common parts of detective stories, and describes how these elements force readers to think critically about what they’re being given in the text vs. what’s really happening in the story. This was where Zunshine really started to apply all of the theory and ideas she’s been rambling on about for the first two-thirds of the book, but then just as quickly the book was finished. I felt like I had started to really understand the some of the more complex ways that cognitive theory can give us insight into reading fiction, only to then be cut off right in the middle of it.

To be fair, Zunshine does go out of her way to say that she’s writing about a relatively new field of study. However, she fails to fully capitalize on the opportunity she had in writing Why We Read Fiction. With so much room to explore the topic, she could have really branched out into other kinds of fiction and different stories to lend her argument more validity. As it is, with so few examples and most of those being similar kinds of fiction, I was left to wonder if her thesis would actually hold up if it was applied to different types of texts. Not everyone reads the “classics”—shocking, I know—and not all novels approach narrative in the same way.

The final word on this one is: if you’re not expecting some grand revelation about why we read fiction, and you’re kind of a geek when it comes to literature (I am), then you might like it. Otherwise, Why We Read Fiction will probably leave you wondering why you thought it was something you’d enjoy reading.