Having just started reading David Dalglish’s A Dance of Cloaks, I was thinking about amazing cover art and its role in my becoming a reader of fantasy. That in turn reminded me of a short essay I wrote for my readers advisory class, a reader profile with several specific examples of books that exemplify trends or tastes in my reading. I shall share it here because it was a fun essay to write, and in glancing back over it, it’s a piece of writing I’m fairly pleased with.
I have always been a voracious reader. My Head Start teacher could seat me with a stack of board books to wait for my mother to pick me up, and I would read straight through the stack and start again at the beginning when those were done. As I grew older, there were summer reading challenges and Book-It rewards for doing something I had already learned to love: reading books. Over time, my tastes shifted; fairy tales gave way to several years of nearly exclusively reading Babysitters Club books, veered off toward science fiction and fantasy, leapt headlong into reading the books I felt I “should” read (i.e. classics), and gradually settled into today’s still-evolving tastes.
Proverbs advise not to judge a book by its cover, but covers were largely responsible for my discovery of fantasy fiction as a teenager. The dramatic landscapes and costuming of the characters made me pick up the books; the world-building kept me hooked. While male protagonists and their hero quests were enjoyable, I was delighted to discover Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn, a post-apocalyptic, dystopic fantasy series with a strong, believable female protagonist at the center of ancient prophecy. The cover art, of a young, dark-haired woman standing, dwarfed, against an ornate pair of doors, compelled me to pick it up to see what it was about. Until that point, I hadn’t really seen that combination of some of my favorite elements in one book, and the self-described Misfits with their varying psychic abilities gave my alienated teenage self characters to relate to. Elspeth felt authentic to me as she struck up conversation with her companion cat Maruman and struggled with confusing emotions that didn’t seem to come as naturally to her as they did to others. As the novel unfolded, it became clear that the radioactive wastelands of the world were the remains of ours, and I kept reading to see how events came to pass and whether Elspeth would be able to save the world. While I have since seen similar themes and plot elements in other fantasy series, this is a series I still revisit and continue to collect installments as they come out, plagued by delays though they have been.
After the height of my fantasy reading stage passed, I went on to college and majored in English. If a person were to ask me to sum up my tastes at that point, the word I would have used would have been “literary,” comprised of classics and noteworthy contemporary authors. One of these authors was Cormac McCarthy, and after reading the violent, almost-Biblical Blood Meridian, I explored his other works and fell in love with The Road. The two books were almost polar opposites in their use of language—the former was lavish and sent me to the dictionary frequently, but the latter felt stripped down to only the barest necessity of words, rendered with a poet’s touch. I have always loved how post-apocalyptic stories put human nature under a microscope and show both the best and worst of what humanity is capable of, the mere act of survival conveying truths about the world. Here, the language plays into the world-building as the broken world is described in broken, fragmented sentences, losing the trappings of even dialogue tags. My copy is marked up with favorite descriptions underlined or dog-eared. At the heart of the story is a post-apocalyptic story of a father and son that broke my heart and made me cry in places. Sometimes, a reader just needs a book to wallow with, and The Road serves that function for me.
After graduation and then grad school, I returned to genre reading. I had read my share of “should reads” and determined that life was too short to waste on books I didn’t like. Because I work in a public library and want to be roughly familiar with different genres, I do make a point to read widely, but for my own personal, selfish reading, I have found myself returning to fantasy. Brandon Sanderson has been my latest favorite author, beginning with a friend’s recommendation to read Mistborn, the first book of a short fantasy series. Here is again the rich world-building I love, with another believable female protagonist headlining a rich cast of well-developed characters and snappy dialogue; this epic doesn’t begin with a prophecy or a quest but instead a heist. What most fascinated me about this world was the magic system though; it is described so logically and concretely that I was halfway through the book before I realized that it was that particular world’s version of magic. At that point, I began to see how Sanderson was manipulating the tropes of fantasy fiction, sometimes in deliberate, predictable ways and other times using them to mislead readers’ expectations masterfully.
In my liberated, post-school status, I determined not to read books I didn’t enjoy. Sometimes, however, one slips through. When I discovered Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine series, urban fantasy about a tough necromancer initially hired by Lucifer to hunt down a rogue demon, I loved the books and raved about them to friends who also loved strong, capable, demon-hunting protagonists, action-packed urban fantasy, and moody world-building. By Saint City Sinners, though, the fourth book, I was beginning to regret my enthusiastic book evangelism. What had been smoldering romantic chemistry between the protagonist and the demon who fell for her turned abusive and controlling (also dominating large portions of the plot), and Dante herself began to lose the strength and agency that made the first books so appealing. The inconsistent characterization and emotional crippling of what started as such a strong character completely turned me away from reading anything else by the author even though I had to read the final installment of the series for closure. It has also, unfortunately, made me wary of a genre I loved, particularly as paranormal romance has exploded in popularity and frequently overlaps with urban fantasy. I don’t mind reading the occasional romance, and I don’t mind reading stories with romance subplots, but when a romance subplot (much less an abusive or otherwise questionable one) takes over what initially appeared to be an action-packed dose of monster-bashing, I become a cranky reader.
As a reader, I will give almost any book 50 pages to pique my interest. This means I have discarded a fair number of books partway through, but it also means that any book I attempt to read has a chance to prove itself worthy. While my genre preferences are strong, several features seem to be recurring in my tastes: world building (or breaking), character building (particularly strong female leads), and writing that engages my mind, whether through skillful word use or manipulation of tropes.