I am back to pondering people’s personal tastes in reading. I was thinking about the fact that, despite the many books I read every year (my Goodreads total is approaching my year’s goal of 120 quickly enough that I may add on books to carry me through December), it’s rather seldom that I discover an author who perfectly meets my needs and expectations when it comes to preferred reading.
It takes us back to the eternal conundrum of “good” versus “popular,” and also to thinking about how many people are exposed to which kinds of books and why. For instance, I heartily acknowledge that Joyce Carol Oates is a fine writer. But despite my great admiration for her immense skill with words and her always eclectic choice of subject matter, I have never read a single one of her books from beginning to end, even while making sure to purchase copies for the library where I worked—and believe me, I have tried. But…novels, short stories, poems, essays—they all leave me cold. She’s not “my” author.
On the other hand, I have somehow been able to make it through the admittedly creative but nonetheless poorly written and quite clichéd oeuvre of Stephenie Meyer, mistress of sparkly vampires. Okay, yes, partly for my job…but I didn’t really have to read all four volumes of the Twilight saga in order to maintain credibility with my teenagers—the first book probably would have done nicely. And that willingness to persist despite the obvious flaws makes me wonder about the relative readership (and sales) of each of these authors.
This is not to initiate a discussion over whether books are objectively good or bad; as Betty Rosenberg, first editor of Genreflecting (classic textbook for readers’ advisors), first said in 1982, “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” My goal here is rather to discuss the fact that there are authors in the world about whom you have never heard, but when you venture to read one of their books you immediately recognize them as one of yours—a person who makes up a character, builds a world, tells a story just as you would do if only you could, a person who writes specifically for you, whether they know it or not.
There are, of course, levels to this. There are authors whose works I read over and over, either gaining something new or reveling in the precious familiarity every time I approach them again. There are others whose works I will never re-read, but will always remember with happiness whenever I reflect on the experience of discovering them.
I had that experience this week, from an e-book I got for free as part of my Kindle Unlimited subscription. These books have been such a mixed bag of unexpectedly excellent (The Good Sister, by Sally Hepworth) to truly tedious (Her Perfect Family, by Teresa Driscoll) that I am deeply suspicious of every book on offer for free. But occasionally I grab one anyway (I do pay for the subscription!), either intrigued by its blurb or pulled in by the reviews of others. This week I read Curse Painter, by Jordan Rivet, and am now deep into the sequel of the Art Mages of Lure series, Stone Charmer, with no cessation of delight.
I am always surprised that there are still fantasy and science fiction writers whose names are totally unknown to me; while I certainly can’t claim to have read every one, I nonetheless usually recognize the name. But I have never previously come across Jordan Rivet, which is wild since she writes in not one but two of my favorite genres and, on the science fiction side, specifically pens post-apocalyptic fiction!
This series I am reading however, is pure fantasy, and what a fun concept and execution it is. I was initially drawn to the title, being a painter myself, then to the description of the protagonist and her rather controversial calling—using her skills as an artist to curse both objects and people. I adore the idea of magic being based around different types of art, the art mages being painters, singers, fortune-tellers, and sculptors. But I think the point at which Rivet really sold me was when her main character, Briar, started explaining the Three Laws of Curse Painting. Ever since reading Isaac Asimov as a teenager and absorbing the Three Laws of Robotics, I have adored writers who develop new magical or science systems to explain their world. Having to work with the Law of Wholes, the Law of Proximity, and the Law of Resonance makes for some entertaining story-telling as curse painters feel their way around magic’s limitations. Rivet also evolves a system of paint colors and explains to what curse or action they each correspond. I get so tired of both fantasies and sci fi that are either sloppy about their methodology or just flat-out glaze over any explanation of the science in favor of the action, so when I come across someone who understands the importance of rooting their fantasy in solid ground, I’m both thrilled and intrigued.
These books have a solid Robin Hood vibe, with their band of thieves and opportunists led by Archer, co-protagonist and a former noble turned rogue who puts the people’s interests above those of the elite. But although I appreciated that aspect of the books as well, for me the artistry is in the artistry. The descriptions of the pictures and runes Briar applies, the haunting and devastating effects of the voice mages as they sing protection or destruction, and the creativity of the stone charmer, are the heart of the stories.
I am so pleased to know that when I am done with this series, there are five others by this same author to experience. While they don’t (so far) quite rival the immersive quality of Robin Hobb’s FitzChivalry books, they come damn close, and it’s so exciting to be flailing around acquiring books at random only to discover one of “your” authors in the mix.