The road to writing professionally (or at least capably) is filled with more pitfalls than the first five minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the deepest, spikiest, most cunningly disguised of these is, in my opinion, understanding what really makes a book great. It’s not how unique your world is, or how thoroughly-plotted its history. It’s not necessarily the quality of the writing, though that certainly helps. It is not, ironically, the story itself.
It’s the characters.
We’ve all heard a great story mangled by the dullness of its protagonist, and conversely, have had something utterly mundane turned epic by a gifted narrator. In so many of our most beloved novels, it’s the “Voice” that captures us, beguiles us, keeps us turning page after page when we’re supposed to be writing our own books, goddammit! Inevitably, the best of these voices contain a perfect alchemy of characterization coupled with the author’s own personality. Be it Locke Lamora’s rapier wit, Kvothe’s romantic sentimentality, or [insert Joe Abercrombie character here]’s acidic pragmatism, these characters make it impossible not to feel an empathy that makes their victories so much sweeter and their defeats downright heartbreaking.
My point? There is a brand new star in the constellation of my most beloved fictional voices: Nettie Fucking Lonesome.
Which is not to say Nettie’s world isn’t interesting (it is), or her story isn’t incredible (it soooo is), but it’s the way she interacts with her world that makes her voice so compelling.
Wait–I’m getting ahead of myself aren’t I? My proverbial horse is squinting at the cart rolling down the road ahead of it. Okay, from the beginning, then.
Wake of Vultures is the first in a series called The Shadow, by Delilah S. Dawson (writing under the name Lila Bowen). Its protagonist, Nettie Lonesome, is a mixed-race, bisexual woman who self-identifies as a man, and was essentially a slave for the entirety of her childhood. Sort of the EXACT POLAR OPPOSITE of fantasy’s beloved straight white male whose adoptive parents love him unconditionally (likely because they suspect he is the Chosen One–which he invariably is). Nettie inhabits a world much like ours, where bigotry and racism run rampant, and so, she comes to realize, do monsters.
A scuffle with a…huh…you know what? I’m going to try and not spoil anything–even the book’s first pages–for you here, because you’d damn well better go read it as soon as possible. It will suffice to say that, as with many great story structures, Nettie knows so little about her world that she and the reader learn about it together, which is a perfect device for building that aforementioned empathy. Fantasy books (and sci-fi books more so) have a tendency to drop you into a complex world and let you swim or drown, depending on your perseverance. This can be immensely rewarding, assuming you’re in the hands of a capable author, but a deterrent to many. In Wake of Vultures, the reader fights, rides, and socially stumbles along beside Nettie right from the beginning, and the result is a character that, despite being the opposite of, well, me, I felt extraordinarily attached to.
*Heart tugs on pant leg* “Hey, is it time for the pretty lines now?”
Me: “But I’ve got to dissect the–”
*Heart opens its eyes great big and wide, and thrusts out a quivering bottom lip* “Pweeeeze?”
Me: “FUCK! FINE!”
So…I’m a sucker for well-crafted sentences and beautiful lines, and I can’t tell you how many authors I’ll likely never read again because I’ve gone through an entire book without dog-earing a single page. Actually, it’s like three–because I chose books wisely. The point being, my copy of Wake of Vultures is positively riddled with pinned corners. In fact, I once tried to fold one over but couldn’t because I’d already marked something beautiful on the page before! This is all well and good, but also irritating, because I’m quite sure Delilah writes about 2000 more words a day than I do, so I wish they weren’t SO GODDAMN GREAT.
Anyway, here are a few of the many gems that delighted me along the way:
“Holy Crow, but she’d never felt so free. Like nothing could stop her. Like she could run forever on the endless plain. Like she could fly. Like the word stop suddenly held no meaning, and walls were just something to knock down. She inhaled the wind and breathed out fire, sucked in life and spit out the bones.”
Ah, geez. And this…
“But she’d also held, somewhere deep down in her heart, that she was special. That she was more than an unloved child, an unpaid servant, a dark splotch on their dirty white life. She’d figured maybe the homestead would catch fire and she’d drag out the drunk old coots and suddenly find out what a hug felt like.”
This one just gutted me. It’s out of context here, but still…
“Was it possible [he] could see exactly who she was? And was his destiny all twined up in hers like she hoped it might be? She let her fingers almost graze his where they lay on the ground. It wasn’t enough. Nothing ever was.”
And because I’m a sucker for swearing in any book...
“His face was fine-featured, with sharp planes and high cheekbones and an intelligent, thoughtful look to it. He was probably twenty to her sixteen but carried himself like he was forty and the president of a goddamn bank.”
Here was a doozy, though I’ll remove the name to keep it spoiler free:
“[It] was a nightmare, a hole in the starlight holding a silver spike. [It] was the absence of wind, the sound of no sound, a feather left in an empty cradle. Nothing like an apology.”
I mean, seriously. The only thing better than the second-last sentence in that paragraph is the LAST FUCKING SENTENCE. And now for something more frivolous:
“Nettie scanned the shed for anything useful, but all she saw saw were big clumsy things, like hoes and plows and men.”
And here’s a line I loved just because of its offhanded brilliance:
“She took a sip of the coffee, just to show him she could, and he settled back and spit a stream of tobacco juice at a fractious grasshopper.”
Fractious grasshopper!? Good goddamn I wish I’d thought of that!
So, yeah, I loved this book. I loved the character, and am now firmly aboard the Delilah S. Dawson bandwagon. Hell, I’m sitting on the baseboard swilling whiskey and haranguing the horses already! But in all seriousness, tackling the tropes of fantasy can be a tricky thing, especially when a white writer takes on the perspective of someone whose world is defined (in a negative way) by their race, and the colour of their skin. Bringing diversity to our genre has to be a group effort, from the publishers and agents choosing the tales of tomorrow, to the readers themselves, who, if they like stories that challenge the familiar, should support the hell out of them. It will also require authors straying from their comfort zones, making a real effort to create worlds and characters that people of every race/gender/sexuality can relate to, and be inspired by.
This book has certainly inspired me. Not because I could see myself in it, but because I could lose myself in it.
Dan’s laugh was short and harsh. “Because you were raised by ignorant people. They taught you to use things before you understood them. To kill things before you recognized them. To hate things before you knew them. But you’ll appreciate a thing better when you know where it comes from, when your hands know the shape of it.”
Thanks for reading,