Five First Kisses

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Fiction, even the bloodiest and grimmest of bearded Viking fantasy, is a fertile place for romance. You can find love among the laser blasts, or heartbreak in the shadow of a castle siege. It might be vast and all-encompassing, or tiny and discreet – sometimes barely a hint – but it’s usually around someplace. Stories are about characters, and characters must necessarily relate to each other. Some of these relationships might include friendship, or hate, or camaraderie…or love.

Not all of my examples are from YA novels, but most are. This is because young adult fiction, in particular, is full of first kisses, which makes sense. After all, YA is all about teens discovering themselves and their place in the world around them, making difficult choices, and often saving the day along with all of that. Finding love (however ephemeral), and all of the heady emotions that follow, is often a key part of this experience.

Lila and Kell (A Gathering of Shadows, V.E. Schwab):

Schwab’s lovely characters share a bare brushing of lips in the first book, but their true first kiss takes place almost at the end of the second book in the trilogy. By now they’ve fought together, fought each other, escaped death and caused it to others, and this kiss is every bit as dramatic as their lives have been. You can just feel the pent-up passion and frustration jump from the page, and it’s everything that Lila and Kell (finally) deserve. They’re at a ball, at night, fresh off an argument – nothing unusual for these two – and Kell storms off onto an outside balcony. Lila follows to talk about the fight they just had, and emotions finally boil over:

            ‘They crashed into each other as if propelled by gravity, and he didn’t know which of them was the object and which the earth, only that they were colliding. This kiss was Lila pressed into a single gesture. Her brazen pride and her stubborn resolve, her recklessness and her daring and her hunger for freedom. It was all those things, and it took Kell’s breath away. Knocked the air from his lungs. Her mouth pressed hard against his, and her fingers wove through his hair as his sank down her spine, tangling in the intricate folds of her dress.’

The scene goes on, kisses that turn to biting, bodies pressed up against the wall. And ends like this:

            ‘He kissed her until the cold night fell away and his whole body sang with heat. He kissed her until the fire burned up the panic and the anger and the weight in his chest, until he could breathe again, and until they were both breathless.’

There. I think we’re all a little out of breath now, right?

Ronan and Adam (The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater):

After the longest build-up ever (seriously, it took almost an entire series for Adam to really see Ronan), fans of the Raven Cycle finally got their reward in book 4. I love this kiss scene for various reasons: the first is that, by the second book, Ronan Lynch was already my favorite character. Prickly as a hedgehog, but so vulnerable underneath, he absolutely deserved his happily-ever-after. I also love the way Stiefvater handled the scene. It’s quiet, understated, with no huge fanfare, but so beautifully intense. Adam is sitting on the edge of Ronan’s bed in broad daylight, holding a model car and thinking, when Ronan walks into the room. He sits beside Adam, and holds out a hand for the car. A moment later, he leans over and kisses him. What makes it such a great scene is what comes next:

            ‘Ronan let out a breath, put the model down on the bed beside him, and kissed Adam.

Once, when Adam had still lived in the trailer park, he had been pushing the lawn mower around the scraggly side yard when he realized that it was raining a mile away. He could smell it, the earthy scent of rain on dirt, but also the electric, restless smell of ozone. And he could see it: a hazy gray sheet of water blocking his view of the mountains. He could track the line of rain traveling across the vast dry field toward him. It was heavy and dark, and he knew he would get drenched if he stayed outside. It was coming from so far away that he had plenty of time to put the mower away and get under cover. Instead, though, he just stood there and watched it approach. Even at the last minute, as he heard the rain pounding the grass flat, he just stood there. He closed his eyes and let the storm soak him.

That was this kiss.’

Ahh. Beautiful.

Harry and Ginny (The Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling):

The Harry Potter books aren’t really known for their romance, but there are lots of great moments in there, nonetheless. And one of my favorites is Harry and Ginny’s first kiss. It’s so very much them. Harry’s character, for all that he’s the hero of the series, has an odd, quiet sort of passivity to him, possibly from years of trying to make himself invisible at the Dursleys. And Ginny is everything but passive. She’s one of my favorite Weasleys – the only girl and the baby of the bunch, who can give as good as she gets, and even out-hex her twin prankster brothers. So it makes sense that their first kiss would be all about Ginny riding the emotional high of a Quiddich win, and throwing herself into Harry’s arms – something he’d probably never get around to initiating himself. Ginny takes charge, and it’s every bit as awesome as she is:

            ‘Harry looked around; there was Ginny running towards him; she had a hard, blazing look on her face as she threw her arms around him. And without thinking, without planning it, without worrying about the fact that fifty people were watching, Harry kissed her.’

Pen and Espel (The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock):

Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy isn’t as well known as the other series I’ve mentioned here, and it really deserves to be. Check out my review here. The books are full of great characters and rich worldbuilding, and one of my favorite characters is Pen, a Pakistani teen from London brought up in a traditional household. In the first book Pen is sexually abused by a teacher, and later becomes terribly injured in a supernatural battle.

In this second book, she stumbles through to a mirror world where her face full of patchwork scars is considered the height of beauty instead of something freakish. When Pen finds herself attracted to another girl, it’s a shy, tentative thing – perfectly written considering where she’s coming from, and the issues she carries around. Their first kiss is equally tentative, and I love it for the way it reflects not just Pen’s uncertainty, but the uncertainty of most teenagers (and probably many adults) facing a first kiss with someone they like.

            ‘Pen put her hand over Espel’s temple and wound her fingers into her hair. She hesitated for a fraction of a second and kissed her.

Espel inhaled sharply. There was a terrifying, paralyzed moment, when Pen was certain that Espel was going to push herself away, and then that breath came out again and the steeplejill’s lips gave way under hers. They held the kiss for long moments, Pen’s heart loud in her ears, and then Espel stepped into her.’

You can just feel Pen’s relief when Espel reciprocates. Nicely done, and with very relatable feelings, too.

There are so many great kisses in fiction. These are just a few of those romantic moments that – however brief – can help warm a plotline and add character depth to a story. I promised five, so here’s the last; this one’s a little tongue-in-cheek (sorry! Sorry. Bad kissing pun…) but I just had to include it.

Buttercup and Westley (The Princess Bride, William Goldman):

I’m always surprised by how many people love the movie but have never read Goldman’s masterpiece. This book is so much fun, and worth picking up if you’ve never given it a chance. And here it is, the (alleged) best kiss in history (according to the author):

            ‘He reached out with his right hand.

Buttercup found it very hard to breathe.

“Good-by.”

She managed to raise her right hand to his.

They shook.

“Good-by,” he said again.

She made a little nod.

He took a third step, not turning.

She watched him.

He turned.

And the words ripped out of her: “Without one kiss?”

They fell into each other’s arms.

There have been five great kisses since 1642bc, when Saul and Delilah Korn’s inadvertent discovery swept across Western civilization. (Before then couples hooked thumbs.) And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy, because although everyone agrees with the formula of affection times purity times intensity times duration, no one has ever been completely satisfied with how much weight each element should receive. But on any system, there are five that everyone agrees deserve full marks.

Well, this one left them all behind.’

Have Book, Will Read #15

Summer is crawling to an end, and the cooler weather brings the promise of blanket-smothered tea-fuelled book binges. Of course, I did get some reading done while the kids were on school vacation. How about you, read anything good over summer? Let me know in the comments!

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Recent Reads: Magic, swords, and trickery.

V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light, last in her Shades of Magic trilogy, has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, and I finally got around to picking it up. I love Schwab’s crisp yet pretty prose, and the cast of characters in this series is fabulous.

This last book finds Lila, Kell, Rhy, and Alucard facing the possible end of Red London, and indeed their entire world. From the battle on the streets of the city, to a frantic adventure at sea, there was so much I loved about this novel, and it was a perfect end to the series that first brought Schwab’s work to my attention.

Another novel by a favorite author that had been waiting patiently on my bookshelf was Shadowcaster, second in Cinda Williams Chima’s new Shattered Realms series. Her first books in this world – the Seven Realms series – are among my absolute favorite fantasy stories. This new series is set a generation later, and although it takes the tale in new directions, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Shadowcaster introduces new characters we didn’t meet in the first book, Flamecaster, and, likewise, some of the characters we met in the first book are absent here. I love Chima’s writing, and thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I confess I’m looking forward to having all the characters come together in – hopefully – the third book in the series.

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows has been on my to-read list for a while, and when my daughter picked it as her summer reading for school, I jumped at the chance to get my hands on it. I had read Shadow and Bone, the first in her Grisha trilogy, a while back, and really enjoyed it (I’m not sure why I never finished the series; perhaps it’s time to revisit it). Likewise, Six of Crows is a great novel and deserves every bit of the great press it’s had.

Six of Crows is set in the same world as the Grisha books, just in a different part of it. It has all the sorts of elements I love: a skilled band of thieves, a tricky heist, magic, mayhem, and great characters. It’s YA, but will definitely appeal to adult readers, especially fans of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series. I already have the sequel (and last book in the duology), Crooked Kingdom, lined up and ready to go.

Now Reading: Virtual excitement.

I’m currently around a third through Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The book had been on my radar for a while, and when I saw the movie trailer the other day I thought I’d pick it up from my local library. It’s a little slow at times, because there’s a LOT of worldbuilding information thrown at the reader’s head, but the premise and story is so interesting that I’m finding I really don’t mind. Things are just beginning to heat up, and I’m looking forward to see where it’s all heading.

To Read: Phoenix, and Tiger, and Fairies, oh my!

I picked up a three-part serial by fantasy author Thaddeus White called Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger – Episode 1, called Phoenix Rising, is up on Amazon for free as a taster, if you’re interested. The series is pitched as ‘Ancient China meets Robin Hood’, and since I’m already familiar with White’s work and his skills in writing adventure tales, I just know I’m going to enjoy this one!

I also have Jo Zebedee’s new fantasy novel Waters and the Wild on my list, a deliciously dark story set in the Glens of Antrim, in Northern Ireland. I read a very early draft of this one, and I can’t wait to see what the polished, finished story looks like.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

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This one is special. This one is really special. It’s been on my mind since I read it a while back, and honestly? I can’t stop shouting about it. With a second tale in the Wayward Children universe about to hit the bookstores, this is the perfect moment to catch up on this fantastic award-winning novella by Seanan McGuire.

So, what’s so great about Every Heart a Doorway? To start with, the premise is fabulous (especially for those of us who grew up reading Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland, and all the other portal fantasies out there): what happens to the children who find the gateways from our world into other places when their part in the story is over? When the book ends, and these children go tumbling back to their own world, what then?

That not all these world-hopping travellers would be happy to return makes a lot of sense. That many of them might feel lost, estranged in the world they were born to, their stories dismissed as flights of fancy or hallucinations of a troubled mind, is a leap of logic. For the lucky ones among them, this might mean an invitation to study at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children – outwardly a school dedicated to rehabilitating troubled teens, but in fact a safe haven for travellers like Miss West herself, who long for nothing more than to return to the strange lands they journeyed to.

New girl Nancy is one of these children who have returned. She’s not happy about it, but at least in Eleanor West’s school she’s surrounded by others who understand her yearning for the magical land she lost. But when tragedy strikes shortly after Nancy’s arrival, she and her fellow students have to face the length and depth a person would go to in order to get to their deepest desire.

Every Heart a Doorway is a beautifully layered tale. We have, at surface level, a murder mystery set in a school. We have Nancy’s story, of trying and failing to fit in. And then we have wider ripples that touch many of her fellow students: the struggle to hold onto a newly acquired identity that does not match the neat little box that family and society has attempted to fit them into.

This is the heart of the novella – identity. Finding out who you truly are, despite what those you grew up with might say, and learning to reshape yourself and the world around you to fit this new identity, even if those who are supposed to love you best refuse to accept it. The child who would rather be a scientist than a princess; the assexual child who keeps getting pressured to date; the child who refuses the serious, responsible role she’s given; the transgender child. All those who keep getting forced into the wrong skin, so to speak, until they travel to a different world and have a chance to find out who they really want to be.

This is a truly lovely story of discovery, and refusal to submit, and the search for acceptance. It’s dark and unsettling at times, but that’s as should be, and it’s definitely going on my list of favorites. I can’t wait for the next book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones!

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones will be released by Tor.com on June 13th, 2017.

Have Book, Will Read #14

After a ridiculously long hiatus, I’m back with more mini reviews. Have Book, Will Read has been on hold for way too long, and I figured it was time to dust it off and let it out of the dark, dismal e-basement its been hiding in. I’ve read a lot of great fiction since my last book update, and here are a few of the highlights.

Recent Reads: A little bit of this, a little bit of that… A little bit of everything, really.

First off, something I don’t read a lot of nowadays, though I’ve definitely read my share in the past: romance. Suzanne Jackson’s The Beguiler is a fantasy story, set in a world and time reminiscent of our Regency period. Told in Jackson’s clean and elegant prose, this is the tale of Rebecca Vasteer, a young witch living in a society that has outlawed witchcraft. On the run from both the town marshals and the feared Rangers, Rebecca is saved by a Witch Trader with reasons of his own to stay out of the Rangers’ way.

This isn’t a light and summery love story. Jackson’s world is rich and dark, filled with tales of witch magic and the brutal Ranger skills that aim to contain that power. The story is deliciously unpredictable – every time you think you have the plot figured out, it twists away once again, keeping you guessing every step of the way.

I finally got around to reading the last book in Jo Zebedee’s terrific Inheritance Trilogy. The third and last volume, Abendau’s Legacy, does a great job of tying up Kare Varnon’s epic story in a wonderfully realistic manner that’s neither too neat nor too pretty. This is the final confrontation in a war that has lasted since before Kare’s birth, and what a ride it is!

As always, one of Zebedee’s strong points is that she does a great job of showing us the consequences of her characters’ actions, crafting tales with just enough of a dark underbelly to please both ‘grimdark’ fans and those who like a lighter touch to their space opera.

I’d read the first two volumes of Claudia Gray’s YA Firebird series last year, and been blown away by this exciting tale of multiverse hopping and true love. The concluding book, A Million Worlds With You, hits the ground running after the cliffhanger she left us with in Ten Thousand Skies Above You.

Marguerite Caine and her allies across the multiverse have to stop the Triad Corporation before thousands of worlds are doomed to annihilation. But Marguerite is faced with additional challenges: an evil doppelganger from an alternate dimension, intent on her destruction; and the battle to keep her beloved Paul from completely falling apart after his soul was splintered and put together again.

An interesting – and challenging – read was Nik Abnett’s Savant. The first few pages are hard going: Abnett throws us straight into the deep end in her world, and its highly specific language and terms. But once I settled into her tale, I found I was fascinated by this story of love and devotion at a time where everything is highly compartmentalized, institutionalized, and methodical.

Savant is set in a future version of Earth where a living mind mesh cloaks the planet, defending it from alien invasion. When one of the ‘Actives’ that maintains the shield is compromised, global government races to stabilize the system. This is not an easy story, but it’s definitely one well-worth reading. You can read my SFF World interview with the author here.

For fantasy lovers in search of something a little more traditional, Exile by Martin Owton is a good bet. This first book in the Nandor Tales introduces young master swordsman Aron of Darien, an exile without a homeland, and with an oath of revenge to fulfill. Aron gets sidetracked into a quest to rescue the heir of Nandor, and soon finds himself in the thick of another land’s problems.

Duels, daring rescues, subterfuge, magic, and the (lovely but distracting) temptation of love. In Exile, Owton delivers a nicely polished tale, with all the classic elements that fans of epic fantasy will enjoy. The second volume, Nandor, is already out, and I look forward to continuing the story.

I need to mention a non-SFF ARC I read recently. Out in June 2017, Carrie Firestone’s The Unlikelies is a contemporary YA with a lovely, feel-good, summer vibe to it. This is the story of a group of high school kids who become friends at a Rotary Club ‘Home Grown Heroes’ lunch, and decide to put their summer vacation to good use with a series of ninja-style anonymous good deeds.

Firestone’s novel deals skillfully with some pretty dark themes (bullying, heroin addiction), balancing them out with friendship, romance, and some incredibly funny moments. Her snappy dialogue shines throughout, as do her diverse and lovely characters.

Now Reading: Guts and Glory.

I’m currently in the middle of Snake Eyes, by Hillary Monahan. Part of the Gods and Monsters series by Abaddon Books, this is the story of Tanis, a lamia who gets tangled in a war between her own kind and the vengeful Gorgons. I was a little reluctant about this one at first, as I know of Monahan’s reputation as a horror writer, and I don’t really do horror. But – dark, bloody, and foul-mouthed as it is – this is more of an urban fantasy, and I’m finding it hard to put down. The pacing is relentless, and Monahan’s descriptions and dialogue have me straight out laughing aloud at times.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve also been dipping in and out of Journeys, a fantasy anthology by Woodbridge Press that has one of my own stories in it. With a stellar line-up of authors, this is a great read for fantasy fans – and not just because I’m in it. There’s a bit of everything, to please all tastes, and it’s been interesting seeing what directions my fellow authors have chosen to take.

To Read: There’s magic afoot…

I currently have a ridiculously long to-read list – and that’s just considering what’s already loaded on my Kindle, or sitting in paperback or hardback on my bookshelf. So here are just a couple that I can’t wait to start.

I’m a huge fan of Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus novels, and the last one left Alex in a really dark place. I’m part excited for and part dreading the new volume, Bound, because Jacka is a master at making his characters suffer. If you love urban fantasy, and haven’t tried Jacka, please do!

Another urban fantasy novel I recently picked up is the latest in Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series, Magic For Nothing. So far, McGuire has introduced us to Verity and her brother Alex. Now it’s time to meet the youngest Price sibling, Antimony. Ever since Book 3 in the series, when we switched from Verity’s story to Alex, I’ve been hoping for a closer look at the infamous ‘baby’ of the bunch, so I was delighted when I found out who the protagonist of Book 6 was going to be.

A quick shout out to Rick Riordan, whose latest novel, The Dark Prophecy (Trials of Apollo, Book 2), recently landed in the bookstores. I’m a absolute fan of Riordan’s work, and my kids know that their mother always gets first dibs on any new novel. I’m sorry, did you say ‘It’s a kids book’? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my unapologetic fangirling.

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I’ll get there, eventually!