Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig.

Stars: 4 out of 5

I rarely read and review young adult books, but I had read Chuck’s Atlanta Burns which I also reviewed and loved it. Plus the premise of this book sounded interesting. Carnivorous corn? Dystopian society? Heck yeah! So I requested Under the Empyrean Sky from NetGalley when it became available.

I liked it. Less than Atlanta Burns, but it was still an enjoyable read. The world is interesting. Who would have thought that the world would be destroyed not by a plague or natural disaster or alien invasion but by genetically modified corn that turns carnivorous? Most of the land is covered in it. It’s so virulent that it kills all other plants, so that’s the only thing that grows anymore. And it’s not even edible to bout!

This world has a very clear separation between the have and the have nots – the Empyreans living on their floating ships sailing high above the corn and dictating their law to the few people who still live in the Heartland. The Empyreans have everything: the best technologies, the best food, the best healthcare, while the Heartlanders live on scraps that sometimes fall from the sky.

The Heartland is a bleak, hopeless world. There is no future for those born amongst the corn. The only jobs available is to grow, harvest or process the corn. Cancer and other diseases are rampant due to the highly toxic chemicals used to process corn and keep it away from the villages. There is no school, no sports, no entertainment. Even marriages are arranged by the Empyreans who send down a list of who will marry whom on Obligation day. The only way out is the Lottery that is held once a year and which gives one family a chance to relocate into one of the Empyrean flotillas. Only everyone knows that the Lottery is rigged, though it doesn’t prevent people from hoping…

Cael and his crew are salvagers. They have a glider they use to scout the sea of corn around their village for broken harvesters they can salvage for parts or anything else that could earn them a few ace notes. Cael’s dream is to become rich and famous, to build a better life for his family, to be a better man than his father whom he sees as weak and incapable of providing for his sick wife and his children.

Even though I found Cael’s narrative to be a bit too angry at times, I could understand it and even empathize a little: I still remember how it feels to be a teenager in full rebellion.  Everything is either good or bad, black or white. There are no shadows or demi-measures. Cael is at that age when he is at odd with the rest of the world. He thinks that adults don’t understand him. He doesn’t want to conform to their rules. He wants the freedom to find his own path. The fact that his crew is the ultimate underdog in this town doesn’t help either. No matter what they do, it ends up in disaster. All their small victories morph into failures and things go from bad to worse.

So yes, I understand why he is angry, but this is also something that didn’t sit quite right with me and why I gave this book only 4 out of 5 stars. Since we see the world through Cael’s eyes, all the bad people are horribly bad, with no redeeming qualities. The Empyreans are painted in such thick dark colors that they could be demons feasting on poor Heartlanders’ souls for all I know. I find that a bit heavy handed. I like my worlds to be more nuanced and my villains to be a little less of a caricature and a little more real. Real people have both good and bad in them, and they can do bad things for entirely honorable reasons.

But other than that, I did enjoy Under the Empyrean Sky quite a lot and I would definitely recommend it. And I will certainly read the next book in the series.

PS. I received a free copy of this book from NetGAlley.

What I love about starting a new story – worldbuilding.

Creating new worlds.
Creating new worlds.

I have taken yet another break from editing because I got bitten by a rabid plot bunny that just WOULDN’T LET ME BE! It was stomping all over my poor brain until I finally gave in and decided to work on it in preparation for NaNoWriMo 2015. On minus side – Of Broken Things are sitting in a drawer again. On the plus side, I have another exciting story to tell!

So today I want to talk about what I absolutely love in the process of developing a new story – the worldbuilding. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than grabbing the newly born story idea and pulling on it. It feels like I’m slowly unraveling a big messy ball of yarn and knitting a beautiful blanket with it… or a sweater… or a piece of art… you see the picture lol.

In the case of this new story, the premise is simple – boy meets girl. She shakes up his small and familiar world and makes him question his believes and his place in this world. It’s been done almost to death before, I know. But the important thing is not what the premise is, but how it’s presented and brought to life.

That’s where worldbuilding is so important. This boy can’t exist in a vacuum. What world does he live in? What does he believe in? What family does he come from? Who are his friends and his enemies? What does he want in life? Who is this girl and why does she challenge him so much?

All those questions need to be answered before I can even begin to think about the story itself. And all those questions bring with them even more questions, all of which serve to slowly paint the picture of a bright new and hopefully unique world. And I feel like an adventurer setting foot on virgin soil. I’m the first one looking at that world. Nobody has ever been here before! It’s a heady feeling.


I usually write up to 40k words in worldbuilding alone, and most of those will never be included in the actual story, because they are for my eyes alone. But I never consider that a waste of time. To me, it’s one of the most interesting parts of working on a story. I get to write anything that strikes my fancy.

So my protagonists are from different social backgrounds, but what exactly are those backgrounds? After a few hours of surfing the Internet and lots of writing and rewriting, I came up with a whole new caste system where the first letter of your First Name and your Surname immediately indicates which caste you belong to, whether you were born into it or joined it later  in your life, as well as what family you married into and what family you came from. So in this world people know almost everything about you social status as soon as they hear your name.

Then I got to thinking what kind of world would such a rigid set of social and naming rules exist in and that netted me another 10k words in backstory and world description alone. And it was absolutely fascinating.

It’s a world where most of the land is a wilderness that belongs to spirits and humans live on specially allocated territories with rigid borders. There are only so many roads connecting different human lands and straying from them into the wilderness without a special guide is equivalent to suicide.

The spirits in this world are not like the ghosts we have in our Western culture. They are more similar to the definition in Japanese Shinto religion. They aren’t good or bad, they just are. A bit like rain and snow, summer heat or a wild fire and a tornado. In this sense, they are very similar to the mushi from this excellent Manga. Some spirits are completely alien in their forms and their mentality, some are more similar to humans. Some are interested in human affairs and even help sometimes. Some are absolutely indifferent as long as humans don’t infringe on their lands.

The human lands each have a ruling family that derives their power and authority from the Mandate they have signed with the spirits. It’s a lot similar to the Mandate of Heaven from the Chinese mythology. Only in this world, the Mandate has a tangible confirmation in the form of a glowing Stone placed in the Temple of each Capital. As long as the Stone is unbroken, the ruler (and the country) have the spirit’s favor. But once it’s broken… let’s just say that wilderness can claim a valley in less than a day.

The Shadow Hunters are people who went through the initiation and became more than human, but not entirely spirit. They act as intermediaries between humans and spirits, since they are the only ones who can understand the spirits. They are also the only ones who can travel through the wilderness unharmed. In exchange, they act as guards, protectors and “game keepers” for both the wilderness and the human lands, striving to preserve the balance of this complex ecosystem.


That is the world in which my next story will unfold, and it’s different than anything I’ve written before. The more I find out about it, the more fascinated I get. Now I just need to sit down and figure out what story I really want to tell that would be as interesting and captivating as the world it takes place in.

That’s a work in progress, so stay tuned.

What Korean dramas can teach us about storytelling.

I went on a Korean drama bilge watching spree lately and I have learned a few interesting and surprising things along the way that will, hopefully, make me a better writer.

I admit that I approached Korean dramas with a bit of a preconception at first – the few that I had seen in previous years had been cheesy, clichéd and badly acted. I had to be talked into watching the first one by several of my internet friends and I started it after much grumbling and dragging my feet. It was City Hunter and it blew my mind and you can see in this post and gifted me with a wonderful story idea that I’m developing now.

I have since watched several more series and two more grabbed my attention – The Master’s Sun  and I Hear your Voice.

I also finally managed to put my finger on why these shows resonate with me so much while some of the American and European series leave me indifferent, despite the fact that they have a bigger budget and better-known actors. It’s because all three series are have much more depth than first meets the eye.

City Hunter

On the surface, City Hunter  is a story of revenge, pure and simple. 28 years ago, a man watched helplessly as his brothers in arms died at the hands of their own soldiers and vowed to kill the five men who knew of the mission and gave the order to shoot. If the show had been just that, I doubt that it would have grabbed my heart and dragged it over hot coals for 24 episodes.

No, it manages to raise some very deep questions, like how far is going too far and at which point the good guys become so warped up in their revenge that they end up even worse than the bad guys? Can revenge justify stealing your best friend’s infant son and bringing him up as a killing machine, sacrificing his childhood and any hopes for a normal future to fuel the fire of your obsession?

It’s also about love in all its different manifestations: romantic love between a man and a woman, fatherly love and acceptance, the love of a mother for her lost child that she never gave up on, grudging respect that morphs into friendship between two strong men… It’s also about sacrifice and the hard decisions one has to make in order to keep the people he loves safe, even if that decision is to walk away from them.

Masters sun

The Master’s Sun masquerades at your typical romantic comedy: girl can see ghosts and is terrified by them, because they haunt her endlessly, not letting her live a normal life or even get a good night’s sleep. She meets a guy who can make those ghosts go poof the moment she touches him. Of course she would stick to him no matter what. Add to that that the guys is a total jerk and you would expect lots of laughs and shenanigans…

Well, this show gives you most of that, but also so much more. All the ghosts stories are touching and serve to teach the characters and the viewer something about themselves along the way. The romantic line is not as clear-cut and one-sided as it seems either.

But most importantly, this show is about healing. The healing of physical and psychological wounds that we all carry. All the characters have to go through a lot of trials but emerge stronger at the end, beginning to accept themselves as they are instead of being ashamed of it. And Gong Sil has the biggest character growth of them all: she goes from being terrified out of her mind and unable to take a step outside of her tiny apartment to firmly standing on her own two feet and not needing anyone else to make her ghosts disappear.

I Hear your voice

I Hear Your Voice looks like a procedural drama paired with a hopeless crush a young man has on a much older woman, but in reality is the most complex of the three shows. It’s about personal growth: a boy becomes a man. A rather jaded and selfish woman learns compassion and empathy. A naïve and earnest defense lawyer learns to stand up for his clients and his decisions…

But it’s also about people, and their stories, and all the big and small reasons that make them do the things they do. It’s about the difference having even one person who listens to you when you are in your darkest most desperate moment can make for the rest of your life. It is rather scary to see how close Pak Soo-ha comes to following in the footsteps of Min Joon-gook, the man who had murdered his father. Soo-ha wants to protect the woman he loves, even if it means becoming a murderer himself. It’s rather heartbreaking to learn that Min Joon-gook was faced with the same choice all those years ago and fell off that ledge of no return. Soo-ha is saved from this decision by the presence of Jang Hye-sung in his life and her conviction that if he goes through with his plan, he just becomes a murderer and all their reasons and justifications for hating Min Joon-gook would become moot… I must admit that this idea that having even one person by your side no matter what can become the light that guides you out of the darkness resonated very deeply with me.

And also, as cheesy as that sounds, about how love can be all-encompassing and unwavering and make both you and the person you love better. It’s shown the most with Soo-ha, who starts with this one-sided crush on a girl who testified against his father’s murderer 10 years ago and that he vowed to protect no matter what. Needless to say that this crush doesn’t stand a chance and shatters into pieces when he meets a grown up Hye-sung and discovers that she is nothing like the woman of his dreams… and progressively learns to love and accept her just as she is and never gives up. But all the other characters also undergo their own transformations and learn to love in their own ways. Hye-sung finally admits that she loves Soo-ha despite the age difference and her fear that he will come to his senses and leave her, and decides to embrace the relationship and be happy.

All of those shows bring to the viewer a lot more than promised and, more importantly, make us think about some very important topics. I love the fact that it’s also done with subtlety and tact, with a lot of things just hinted and left to interpretation. I also love how all the characters turn out to be complex and “real” so much so that you end up rooting for most of them, even some of the episodic characters. Heck, by the end of I Hear your Voice I almost felt sorry for Min Joon-gook, even after everything he’d done to our main characters.


After I watched these dramas, I realized that THAT’S what I want my stories to be like. I want them complex and layered. I want not only to entertain my readers but also make them think. I want to make all my characters “real” and if not lovable, at least relatable, even the antagonists. I don’t want simple stories. I want complex tales that challenge me and make me think and feel something. So thank you, Korean dramas, for making me want to become a better writer!

Late Eclipses (October Daye 4) by Seanan McGuire.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

This is my favorite book in the October Daye series so far. It’s well written and the plot is fast-paced and keeps you on the edge of your sit until the end. I think it’s because the problems that October faces in Late Eclipses are a lot more personal than in the previous books.

This time, she isn’t investigating a murder on behalf of her liege, Duke Sylverster Torquill, or trying to save lost children. This time, disaster strikes a lot closer to home – Lily, Lady of the Tea Gardens and October’s closest friend, gets struck by a mysterious illness, leaving her fiefdom in disarray. What is more, someone is very determined to pin that on October…

We get a bigger insight into the world of the fae and their hierarchy in this book, which is always interesting. I love how Seanan McGuire manages to weave her fae into the modern world without it feeling cheesy or unbelievable. Her world is complex and interesting, and it’s one that I enjoy exploring with every book.

October undergoes a tremendous leap in character growth in this book, probably because this case is so personal to her. She is forced to face her own fears about being a changeling, finally decide on her place in the world of the fae, come to terms about her feelings for Tibald and face an old enemy.

In the end of this book, October emerges changed both physically and mentally, but I think she becomes stronger and more mature. And we finally discover why she is always referred to as Amandine’s daughter. The answer wasn’t what I had expected, I must admit!

I’m also glad that we finally got to close one of the long-running story lines – the kidnapping of Sylvester’s wife and daughter, that had started this whole mess in book 1. We don’t know the whole story just yet and the main perpetrator hasn’t been caught, but at least, everybody got some answers… and some heartbreaks.

I am interested to see how October will handle her new status and the fact that she now has a fiefdom and people who depend on her. I am also looking forward to watching how her relationship with Tibald will develop. I would also like to see the path May, October’s fetch, will chose for herself now that she isn’t an exact copy of the original.

All in all, I absolutely loved this book. This series just keeps getting better and better.

Write what hurts.

revision angst

The more I edit, the more I tend to agree with the statement that putting your first draft away for at least a month (and longer if you can) is a must. I also recommend writing something else to clear your head in the meantime, preferably in a different genre. That way, when you come back to your story, it feels like a stranger and you rediscover it like a reader would. Let me tell you that all the flaws and inconsistencies will jump right at you from the page!


Another realization I came to after almost 2 years of doing this and 3 completed first drafts in various stages or revision is that I have a much clearer picture of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer now. It’s one of those weaknesses that I want to talk about in this blog post.


Let me be plain – all my first draft endings suck. The last third of each story always requires the most changes to beat it into shape. I was flabbergasted by this realization at first and ran to my beta extraordinaire for some advice. Well, okay, it’s more like I ran to her in a panic saying, “Oh my God, I suck! Why did I even think I could be doing this for a living? I want to burn all my drafts. Somebody shoot me now!”


Thankfully, she managed to pull me off the ledge and screw my head back right… and she also explained why I kept dropping my endings. She said, “You’re too nice to your characters.”


I went back and thought hard about it and realized that she was spot on. I like my characters so much that when I need to let them go through something painful, I cringe and pull back. Yes, I spare their feelings and their lives sometimes, but I also lower the stakes, kill the conflict, but most importantly, avoid that cathartic moment that’s the lowest low before the character’s final rise. Because I love them so much, I don’t let them crash and burn like they should. But a phoenix can’t rise unless it immolates itself first, right?


That’s why my advice today, for myself and for my readers is “Write what hurts.”


Yes, you love those characters, of course you do! You wouldn’t have decided to stick with them for months, telling their stories if you didn’t. That’s precisely why you can’t soften the blows when something in your story will hurt them. In fact, that’s precisely why you SHOULD write it. Don’t just light a bonfire, burn the whole damn house down. Make your characters go through fire, flood, heartbreak and despair. Sink them low, because that’s the only way they can rise as better human beings.


You can’t wrap your characters into bubble wrap and expect to write an interesting story. If your readers like your characters, they need to be worried about them. They need to cry with them and for them; they need to rage against the injustice they are facing with them; and they need to be released for them once they emerge victorious.  This can only happen if the stakes are high and the odds are seemingly insurmountable.

Laughter can keep darkness at bay, even if you are laughing through tears.
Laughter can keep darkness at bay, even if you are laughing through tears.

And for that to happen, you have to write what hurts. In fact, if it doesn’t hurt to write something, then it’s a good indicator that your story took a wrong turn somewhere. I admit that I still cringe at the thought of doing that to my characters, but I reassure myself with the idea that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for them (and no, it’s not an incoming train), and all the suffering only makes the ending more sweet.


And now I just need to dive in and totally rewrite the last two chapters of Mists to make it right. Then I need to go back and rewrite the ENTIRE last part of Broken Things as well. I’m in for a lot of pain… But isn’t that what writers do? They suffer with their characters.

Korean drama and plot bunnies, or my mind works in mysterious ways.

Image courtesy Badgirlzwrite.com
Image courtesy Badgirlzwrite.com

So I have been merrily editing my way through Chapter 18 of Broken Things when I decided to take an hour break and watch City Hunter, a Korean drama that several of my friends highly recommended. Plus, I had a valid reason to watch it, I swear! Just like my novel Of Broken Things, it deals with revenge and how it alters people. It raises some important questions. How far would you go to get your revenge and still be able to live with yourself afterwards? Where is the line after which you lose your humanity? How can you survive when your quest backfires and hurts your loved ones? Does the goal really justify the means?


Anyway, I had just intended to watch the first episode before going back to editing, but it was just so gosh darn good that I decided to watch episode 2 as well… There went my three day weekend, my sleep and my sanity.


This show rocks, people! The story is solid and fast-paced. The characters are fully developed and believable (and lovable). The actors who play them did a wonderful job of showing us the tragedy of the situation without falling into cheap pathos. I rooted for them I was scared for them, and I cried when one of them died. I hadn’t been this engaged with the characters of a series since Buffy or Firefly, so that’s saying something. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the main male lead, Lee Min-ho should officially change his name to Lee Min-HOT. And boy, can he act.


But I digress. After watching 20 one hour episodes in less than three days, I woke up on Sunday morning with a rabid plot bunny gnawing on my brain. You would think that after City Hunter, the story idea would be about revenge… and you would be wrong. No revenge at all. Zilch. Nada. And it’s not even set up in our modern world. The only thing it took from the Korean drama is the Asian-inspired setting. Even then, the spirits in this new story have more similarity with Japanese mythology than Korean.


And the biggest surprise is that this plot bunny jumped into my brain already half-grown and well-fed. Usually, I just get a scene, or a glimpse of a character or two, maybe a vague idea of the world. This time, I already have a pretty good grasp on the world structure, mythology and topography, and even a bit of historical background. I have two fully formed protagonists, each one with their own backstories already.


More importantly, I KNOW exactly what this story will be about. No, I don’t have a fully-formed plot just yet, though I do have a scene that I know will be pivotal in the story. But I know the MESSAGE this story will tell. This is a first for me. Usually, the actual message emerges somewhere in the last quarter of the first draft or even during editing. Here, I already know the message and I haven’t even started planning or outlining yet!


And another big surprise: it’s a Young Adult story. I’m floored. I don’t usually read YA, and I certainly don’t write it, at least not intentionally, because Mists of the Crossworlds turned out YA in the end, but was certainly not planned like that.


This new story starts YA from the beginning. It’s a coming of age story. A story of self-discovery, self-improvement and even self-sacrifice. Oh, and it’s definitely a love story…


So after watching 20 hours of contemporary drama about revenge, my brain came up with an idea set up in a magical / steampunky world with not a single revenge plot in sight. Inspiration, you sure work in mysterious ways. Maybe I should cast Lee Min-ho as the male protagonist, just to pay tribute to the series that jolted my brain into overdrive?


Anyway, I spent most of my Sunday frantically typing all my shiny new ideas into Scrivener. Good news – I think I have my NaNoWriMo 2015 project pretty much locked down. Bad news – I haven’t done any editing at all this weekend.


What I mostly wanted to show with this story is that it’s good to expand your horizons sometimes, to venture out of your comfort zone. That’s where the best ideas lie in waiting. I was unfamiliar with Korean dramas and rather skeptical when I started watching City Hunter, yet it gave me a precious gift: the makings of what will become a wonderful story.

Image by Van Assche -Embarcadero
Image by Van Assche -Embarcadero

Rubberman’s Cage by Joseph Picard.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

I have been lucky to read some good books lately and Rubberman’s Cage is one of them. When I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, I was a bit cautious at first. The title and the cover looked a bit ominous. I knew it would be either post-apocalyptic or dystopian, but I was afraid that it would be dark and dreary as well. I’m glad that this fear turned out to be unfunded.

This is the story of a young man named Lenth who has lived his whole life in a room with his three Brothers and a Rubberman watching over them through the grated ceiling above. This room is all he’s ever known. To him, that’s the extent of the world. But one night the shackle that they all have to put before they go to bed malfunctions and one of his Brothers is shocked until he dies. He is gone the next morning and there is a stranger sleeping on his bed instead. Everyone else takes this change in stride, but Lenth just can’t let go. He wants answers. He wants to find his missing Brother, and he wants to see what’s beyond the grated ceiling that the Rubberman walks.

The book follows Lenth’s journey in search of his missing brother while he explores this strange world full of rooms with Brothers and Rubbermen. It is a coming of age story, because Lenth is as innocent as a child. He can’t read; he’s never seen a woman and doesn’t know what they are; he has no concept of death. He is told that his brother died, but when he can’t grasp the fact that death if final, that you can’t repair a dead person. He thinks that he just needs to find him and wake him up…

This is also a chilling tale of a society how has regressed so much that they are reduced to repeating rigid tasks and protocols that had been set up years ago and the meaning of which has long been forgotten (and became obsolete). Nobody really knows why they need Rubbermen, or why men and women are kept separately, or how all the machinery really works. They know just enough to maintain the status quo. The sad part is that nobody questions it. Brothers think that Rubbermen know what they are doing and why. Rubbermen are persuaded that the Providers have that knowledge because they are clueless themselves, and so on.

So it was an interesting and rather endearing read. The book is well written and I liked Lenth, with his child-like candor and curiosity while he explores this ever-growing world. My only gripe is that it almost seems too easy for him to do so. He manages to get from level to level without too many problems and none of them really life-threatening. And everybody treats him well, considering. You would think that in a society where Brothers are constantly shackled in place (in bed, in the shower, on the treadmill, at the workstation) and shocked when they disobey, the reaction of those who find one just wandering around would be more violent.

All in all though, I think it’s a solid and entertaining story that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I would definitely recommend it to my friends!