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Never the same river twice

We’re always told that if we want to write well, we should read widely and voraciously, and I totally agree with that—if you haven’t absorbed the rhythms of good prose and are unfamiliar with the conventions of your genre, the chances of you producing something awesome are greatly reduced (though not impossible). I certainly devoured books when I was younger and had more free time on my hands, but since I got published I find myself juggling two careers (author and web developer) and having to carve out reading time whenever I can find the headspace. Because it’s not just time that I require in order to enjoy a book nowadays; I find it very hard to focus on other people’s stories when I’m working on a draft because my own is constantly clamouring for attention.

Still, I love reading and I do want to keep up with what my peers are doing in fantasy, so I read as much as I can during lulls in my writing schedule. This summer has been a good time in that respect: the final revised version of The Prince of Lies was handed over in May, and though I was working on developing a new project, I was content to let that simmer in the background during the week and only give it my focus at weekends. Hence I’ve been catching up with a bunch of books that have been sitting in my TBR queue for a while (about 5 years in the case of Red Seas Under Red Skies!).

Given my time constraints, just reading a new book is a luxury, never mind re-reading—but when Marc Aplin of Fantasy Faction announced he was doing a read-along of both of Scott Lynch’s books in the run-up to the release of The Republic of Thieves, I couldn’t resist joining in (you can join in too, on the Gollancz blog). I only had time to re-read The Lies of Locke Lamora, and in any case Red Seas Under Red Skies was still fresh in my mind, but the experience was something of an eye-opener.

When I first read LoLL back in 2007, I gave it a mere 3 stars on GoodReads, mainly because of a torture scene that really freaked me out and spoiled the experience of the book for me (I had gruesome nightmares the night after reading it). The re-read benefited from the fact that I was able to skip the scene in question, but also I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride much better than on the first reading. The trouble with being a voracious reader is that one tends to race through a book just to find out what happened, and though you enjoy good prose as much as the next person, you may miss the subtler aspects of the story. The biggest change, though, was one I hadn’t really thought about: I am not the person who read this book back in 2007.

Back then I was an unpublished writer with a mere single novel draft under my belt (and that a rough, half-revised mess of a thing), with all the cockiness of someone who thinks they know what they’re doing but still lacks experience (see Dunning-Kruger effect). Also, I’d read extensively in my younger days but I really wasn’t up to speed on the kind of book being published in the fantasy genre in the twenty-first century. Hence The Lies of Locke Lamora came as a shock to the system: visceral, sweary and populated by some of the nastiest villains I’d come across in a long time. I liked it, but it made me too uncomfortable to love it.

By the time of my re-read I had two novels out and a third in production. I knew just how damned hard it is to put together 130k+ words of good prose—and to repeat the act to order. I’d also read a few other so-called gritty fantasies, such as Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. I guess you’d say I was desensitised, but in a good way. As I mentioned, I still skipped the torture scene, but the rest didn’t bother me nearly as much—and as my readers know, I’m not afraid to put a few four-letter words in my own prose these days!

I was thus able to focus more squarely on the book’s other qualities. Armed with my knowledge of how to put a story together, I was able to appreciate Lynch’s back-and-forth narrative instead of finding it a distraction, and I revelled in the little details (like the squid-and-tomato soup served during a combat display pitting prisoners against a deadly tentacled sea-monster). All in all it left me stunned and awed that this was a debut from a relatively young writer (he was 28 when it was published), and I immediately upped my GoodReads rating to a 5 🙂

Finding time to read is still an issue for me—the next three or four months are going to find me slaving over the first draft of my new novel—but I do hope I can fit in a re-read of another good book next year. If only my TBR pile would stop growing…