Some thoughts on the reviews of Masks

Untitled-10One of the…um, eye-opening…things about having novels published (and at this point, under both this name and others, I’ve had quite a few) is the realization, as the reviews start to come in (if you’re lucky enough to even get reviewed), that not everyone thinks you have written the most amazingly wonderful book of all time. Some people will sing its praises, to be sure. But some will be lukewarm about it, and some will absolutely despise it.

Some authors simply do not read their reviews. My ego does not permit me to be one of those authors. It’s exciting to find out what other people think of something you’ve labored over essentially in solitude for months. It’s gratifying when a reviewer reacts exactly as you hoped readers would react when they were finally exposed to the prose that has had such a long gestation.

But, of course, it is considerably less than gratifying when a reviewer is bored by the book, or dislikes the main character, or objects to this or that plot element…sometimes violently.

I’d prefer everyone like my books, of course, but I understand you can’t please everyone. I would prefer the reviewers that hate the book were a little less forthright in their judgements (“toilet paper” seems a bit harsh, and also impractical: I really don’t think books today are printed on paper absorbent enough, or soft enough, to be made use of in that fashion…not without running considerable risk of irritation). But setting aside my immediate murderous thoughts on reading those kinds of reviews and donning my Mr. Spock air of cool detachment, I am beginning to see what elements of Masks, in particular, elicit strong negative reactions in a (thankfully small) number of readers, and am finding it intriguing.

I’m not linking to any specific reviews in this post because…well, you just can’t argue directly with reviewers as the author. I did stick my nose in one comment feed on one review just to answer a very specific question, but otherwise, I have thus far resisted the urge to answer each and every negative review point by point. It’s a natural reaction to defend yourself, and it’s the entirely wrong reaction that, especially on Goodreads, often results in a violent backlash. You don’t want to end up a cautionary tale in Publishers Weekly.

What I’m really doing below is thinking out loud: my reaction to readers’ reactions to Masks. I appreciate all the reviews (will, almost all), even the less-than-positive ones (well, most of them) because they are at least a sign that people are reading my books.


WARNING: The comments that follow contain mild spoilers for the novel.

First, in overview, something I’ve said before: some of the interesting reactions to this book arise from the fact that it both is and isn’t a YA book. It is, in that the main character is 15. It isn’t, in that the book was not published as a YA book, but as an adult fantasy book of the type DAW is well known for. Plenty of reviewers think it’s a great YA book (School Library Journal, for example) and treat it as such. But I’ve seen a couple of reviewers who are taken aback by its content in the context of a YA book. On the flip side, those approaching it thinking it’s going to be George R.R. Martin will definitely be disappointed. It doesn’t have that level of complexity: for one thing, it’s relentlessly single-viewpoint. Aside from the prologue-flashback, we experience everything through the eyes and mind of Mara. It is what it is: both YA and not-YA, and I think that has confused some reviewers.

One strain of dislike appears to arise from the nature of Mara herself. Mara has just turned 15 and has been torn from her loving and rather idyllic childhood home and exiled to a slave labor camp. She is uncertain and confused and frightened and yes, she makes some really dumb decisions as the story proceeds. Some reviewers find her too unheroic for their taste; others appreciate the fact that she is not an instantly capable heroic figure, but stumbles her way through her terrifying new life just trying to do the best she can and discover what she is capable of…rather like most of us do as teenagers. I find both reactions interesting, and since I know what’s coming for Mara over the next two books, I’m going to be even more interested in reactions going forward.

Now, on the next complaint I confess to being of two minds. Here’s the thing: I often say I’m a fantasy writer with the mind of a science fiction writer. I like writing fantasy, but I have a hard time not thinking about the nuts and bolts of how things work. This is one reason that the magic system in my Lee Arthur Chane novel, Magebane, makes passing nods to the laws of thermodynamics–in the world of Magebane, you need an energy source to perform magic, so the Palace, which uses a lot of magic, also has huge coal-burning furnaces to provide the energy for it–and why in Masks, magic is something that can be mined and collected like a precious metal or crude oil, and there are hints that the black lodestone that is essential to collecting and storing it arrived in Aygrima in the form of an asteroid strike in prehistory. That’s the SF writer in me poking through the fantasy.

So. There’s this thing that never gets talked about in heroic fantasy, or hardly ever: where do people go to the bathroom? In Masks, I made a decision early on to be upfront about that problem. Mara is thrown into a holding cell. There’s a bucket, and there’s no privacy, and both of those are one of the earliest examples of just how drastically her life has changed (you’ll notice there’s no mention of bathroom arrangements until that moment). Once having decided to talk about that, though, I felt I needed to keep talking about it. So no, I don’t describe every time people have to relieve themselves, but I do mention it more often than you’ll probably see in most novels. To me, it was a way of grounding my fantasy very firmly in reality. It also provides a few humorous moments and is handy to the plot. Some reviewers have really latched onto this and find it odd. I’m of two minds about it because it is entirely possible I overdid it a bit, but once you start mentioning bathroom arrangements, you pretty much have to keep mentioning them. (And yes, in Shadows it comes up again, though not nearly as often: it doesn’t figure into the plot as much. I’m still writing Faces, but I think it will hardly be mentioned at all in the third book. Perhaps the characters relieving themselves less often will, ironically, relieve reviewers more.

Finally, there’s a thread running through Masks that some reviewers object to, and that’s the threat of sexual violence against Mara and others. “This is not a YA book,” one reviewer proclaimed, primarily because of that. Another thought it was the “easy” choice and seemed to find it sexist that rape was one of the biggest threats the female characters faced instead of other, more heroic challenges. But once again, the nuts-and-bolts let’s-make-this-as-real-as-possible writer in me was telling me that that threat had to be there.

See, when the Mask fails, Mara literally ceases to be a person in the eyes of her society. At one time, a Mask failing was an instant death sentence. The only reason the unMasked are kept alive now is to serve as slave laborers in the mining camp to which Mara is exiled. That camp is run by male Warden and an all-male staff of guards. The women in the camp are non-people. When I envisioned that, it seemed clear to me that women would be sexually threatened at all times. They have absolutely no power, no legal resource, no one to turn to. They are literally at the mercy of men who have absolutely no reason to show them mercy. I think the threat of rape that runs through the book is entirely realistic. (And far from the “easy” choice, I actually debated it quite a bit–especially one particular scene where Mara disposes of an attacker in gruesome fashion.)

But, yes, it does make the book rather dark, although to those who think it too dark for YA readers I can only say, “Have you actually read any YA recently?”

(Ironically, in view of all this, another strain of complaint is that nothing really bad happens to Mara in the book: she escapes being scarred, her friend suffers the attentions of the camp guards but she doesn’t, etc. Since in my mind the whole book is nothing but bad things happening to Mara, and there’s worse to come in the next two books, I don’t quite know what to make of that complaint…except urge the complainers to read the next book and see if they still feel that way.)

The reviews for Masks continue to show up (I saw a positive one last night, a very negative one this morning). Shadows is on its way. So is my new YA fantasy series The Shards of Excalibur (written as Edward Willett) from Coteau Books, with both the first book, Song of the Sword, and the second, Twist of the Blade, coming out this year, along with the (as-yet untitled) sequel to my science fiction novel Right to Know, published by Bundoran Press.

With four novels coming out this year alone, and three that I know of for sure (and maybe more) in 2015, I suspect I will continue to find plenty of reason to remind myself of that old adage, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

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