Tuesday Reads: Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhofer

Yesterday, I had a guest post from Michael Meyerhofer, whose blog tour is continuing through the next few weeks. Today, I’m reviewing his dark fantasy novel, Wytchfire, the first in the Dragonkin trilogy.

If the twelve lost their focus, the Nightmare would free itself. It would incinerate not just Syros but the army in front of it, including the Shel’ai who had once been its friends. Fadarah tried to gaze upon the monstrosity shambling forward at the center of the twelve’s broad circle but quickly wrenched his eyes away, sickened. Iventine chose this. No one forced him, least of all me.

Wytchfire-800-Cover-reveal-and-PromotionalWytchfire is a multiple-point-of-view book centered on the failed knight, Rowen Locke, as he’s pulled into a war spreading across the land.

I don’t review a lot of adult fantasy on here – I’m definitely more of a YA girl – but I really enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, the characters are interesting, and the worldbuilding is gorgeous. It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into constructing

One of the things that I love about Wytchfire is that we get to see many different sides of this war and understand all of the motivations around it. The book starts out with a view of our attacking army, which is led by Shel’ai – those born with dragonmist, with magic. Humans are prejudiced against the Shel’ai on two fronts: they’re Sylv, which is another race, and they’re magical. Humans hate them. They’re not welcome in human lands, and they’re often not welcome with the Sylv, and they’re sick of it. They’re sick of the oppression. They’re angry, and they’ve created a weapon to aid them in their war – the Nightmare, who was once one of them, but sacrificed himself to become something far more powerful.

You get this POV chapter with the Shel’ai’s commander, you see into his mind, and if you’re me, you empathize with him. You become enamored to his cause a bit. Then we switch to Rowen and the Human side of things, and your loyalties get a bit muddled.

So, for that matter, do Rowen’s. The Nightmare was not the only Shel’ai to sacrifice themselves and try for this great power. So did a woman, Silwren. The Nightmare’s transition was botched because he was woken too early, Silwren was allowed to wake on her own. This lets her have way more mental stability, but the magic still took its toll. Rowen finds her, and once he’s decided she isn’t a threat to humanity, he starts to feel his own loyalties pulled towards her. This doesn’t exactly endear his fellow Humans to him, but Rowen’s a fighter that believes in honor (which makes him pretty endearing to me).

Since this is called the Dragonkin trilogy, you might be wondering – what about the dragons? I’m a huge sucker for dragons, especially (for some reason) extinct dragons, which is what Wytchfire has. People know they existed because the bones are lying around like dinosaurs, but no one’s ever really seen one. There are religious sects that super worship them, the bones are sold and used for crafting weapons and other items. Dragons may not roam this world anymore but they’re still part of it, and I liked that a lot.

The world building, story, and all around writing definitely gets Wytchfire four stars, easy, I loved it, but I do have one big criticism.

Wytchfire has a bit of a lady problem.

The main female character is Silwren, and although this is a multiple-POV novel, she never gets her own POV chapters. That’s understandable at the beginning, when she’s in a magically induced coma, but even after she wakes and is set up to become a major player, we continue to only see her through the eyes of male characters. She’s obviously very magically powerful, but there’s more concentration on her beauty and the way she arouses romantic and sexual feelings in the men than on her power, and she spends an awful lot of time passing out and needing to be saved.

The only female character to get any POV time is Aeko Shingawa – the hardcore female knight that trained Rowen, who is frequently belittled by her fellow soldiers because of her sex. She was interesting, though, and I wanted more of her. Way more. Like I would read a whole book just about Aeko.

The only other female characters with (sort of) significant speaking roles are an unnamed prostitute that sleeps with Rowen and gives him some valuable exposition on the war and a healer on the side of the Shel’ai. The male characters are all interesting, with motivation and depth, but what important ladies there are fizzle in comparison.

There’s also a TW here for rape. Although there’s no graphic, in-scene rape (the worst is a few lines of what seems to be a sexual assault), there are plenty of mentions that tell us rape occurred, as part of sacking cities, living in slums, and one of the POV characters was the product of rape.

I know the argument that, well, rape is something that happens, and is not uncommon in areas at war. That’s sadly very realistic. I’m just not sure I agree that it’s a necessary part of storytelling, particularly in a story where women play such a small role. Because there are so few female characters at the forefront, most of the mentions of women end up being about rape, which is – well, problematic.

You might not be as bothered by it as I was, and this didn’t exactly destroy the book for me. Obviously, I enjoyed it. I give it four stars. Meyerhofer is a great writer, and I look forward to the rest of the trilogy – I just hope the lady problem gets fixed.

Stars: 4/5

Guest Post: Michael Meyerhofer on Speculative and Literary Fiction

6802668Hello, friends! Adventures in Storyland is super honored to have a guest post from Michael Meyerhofer, novelist, poet, professor, and generally cool dude.

A blog tour to promote his fantasy novel Wytchfire is kicking off today, and this guest post is part of it. Click here to see other stops on the tour (which includes more guest posts, reviews, and interviews) and check back tomorrow for my Tuesday Reads review of Wytchfire.

For the guest post today, Meyerhofer shares his thoughts on something about which many, many writerly wars have been fought: speculative versus literary fiction.

Hi, Sarah. Thanks for giving me the chance to contribute to your blog! For a couple months now, I’ve been happy to plug my debut novel, Wytchfire, book one in a dark fantasy trilogy. Wytchfire is the story of Rowen Locke, a sardonic, aspiring knight set adrift in a brutal world where honor doesn’t fend off starvation and children are sometimes killed for having the wrong color eyes. This is a book I’ve been trying to write since I was… well, much younger than I am now. So seeing it in print is the kind of dream-come-true that almost has me singing pop song lyrics into a hairbrush.

Having already published a few books of poetry, though, I sometimes find myself in the odd position of someone (with varying degrees of obviousness) asking me which genre I like better. I usually respond as though they’d asked a completely different question and talk about how my writing process for one differs from my writing process for the other. After all, as different as the two genres are, for me they’re also very similar—especially in terms of the joy I get from reading and writing them, plus the emotion investment I think you need (whether you’re talking about characters or line breaks) to execute any piece of writing to the best of your ability.

I’ve spent a lot of time considering that old debate over the merits of literary versus speculative writing. I’ve never really heard these terms defined all that well but for sake of our discussion, we’ll just say that speculative fiction equals fantasy, horror, westerns, thrillers, romance, etc., while literary writing is… well, most everything else. There are exceptions and gray areas, of course. Nobody would label memoirs and travel-writing as forms of speculative prose, for example, but some would be reluctant (I think unfairly) to shelf Bill Bryson and David Sedaris on the literary side. Others are more enlightened (aka less aggravating in kitchens at parties whenever books get mentioned). Still, I have a feeling that any definition has a lot to do with book sales.

The fact that speculative writing vastly outsells literary writing (and everything outsells poetry) means that at the very least, speculative writing has some solid, undeniable appeal behind it. On the other hand, compare a passage from the Twilight books to something by Kurt Vonnegut and we can see that, yeah, there’s a huge disparity in writing quality here. I don’t think it’s fair to distinguish literary from speculative writing based solely on quality, though. After all, I’ll stack a chapter from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series against almost anything. Stephen King, in the introduction to one of his Dark Tower books (The Drawing of the Three), has an interesting take on this issue:

“I think novelists come in two types… Those who are bound for the more literary or ‘serious’ side of the job examine every possible subject in light of this question: What would writing this sort of story mean to me? Those whose destiny… is to include the writing of popular novels are apt to ask a very different one: What would writing this sort of story mean to others? The ‘serious’ novelist is looking for answers and keys to the self; the ‘popular’ novelist is looking for an audience. Both kinds of writer are equally selfish.”

At minimum, I think that writers and readers on the literary side need to surrender the notion that they’re selfless pilgrims striding ahead of the masses, waving their lanterns in the dark. Then again, we could do far worse than to view writing less as a job than a sacred (whatever that means) vocation—so long as we can do so humbly, but never so humbly that we become toothless (see the tricky balancing act?). Here I recall that Wilhelm Stekel quote used in The Catcher in the Rye: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” But I’m probably getting off track here.

In my creative writing classes, I always stress that the audience—first and foremost—wants to be entertained. Woe to any writer who forgets that lesson! Being entertaining, though, doesn’t always mean car chases and florid descriptions of heartbreak. The very real, everyday trials and triumphs of the human spirit can be just as compelling, just as exciting, as an invasion of malevolent shape-shifters—if not more so, since the lessons gleaned from the former can be more applicable to the reader’s own life. At the same time, though, using real life conflicts, ambitions, and moral shortcomings to inspire one’s fictional characters, especially in an exotic setting, is a great recipe for blending entertainment with something deeper. Personally, I find George R. R. Martin’s Jaime Lannister to be just as compelling a character as J.D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass, or Ernest Hemingway’s old man fishing in the Gulf Stream, precisely because they’re so flawed. Seeing them struggle with their flaws teaches us something about what it means to be human, sure, but it’s also damn fun to read. I can only hope that people will feel that way about Wytchfire.