I have read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Crimson League by Victoria Grefer and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness in parallel. Well for some time, since they are very different in length. All of them are really great, despite being very different. I felt really lucky to have picked up three great books at a time. But what actually makes them great?
Trying to track down those magic ingredients of greatness, is the purpose of this post. I will briefly review each book and then jump onto answering the big question, what features should a book possess to trigger my buttons?
A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls was a recommendation by a fellow blogger. As recommended I bought the paperback version. It wasn’t actually more expensive this way and the great illustrations are worth flipping real pages – and a lot more.
I admit, I was weeping badly. The last time has been some years ago, I guess. As a result, my head ached the days after.
Theory: because of reduced inner-eye-pressure? Well, unlikely!
Thinking about the book turns my eyes wet again. Oh shit. I’m not just getting old but also sentimental. That said, it becomes clear that the book tells a really sad story, but mixed with hope and relieve, so it’s not everything bad.
It’s about thirteen year old Connor, his ill mom, his over-organized grandma, his dad, who left for America and a new family, some bullies at school and of course a monster.
Seven minutes after twelve. That’s the monster’s time. It comes for Connor, because of Connor. But he is not scared. He has a nightmare that is a far cry scarier. But only hinted at, as The Nightmare. The monster is intrigued and wants him to tell his story, in exchange it will tell him three of it’s own stories first.
The writing is great. The illustrations are marvellous. The tension is overwhelming. And the end heartbreaking. A future classic.
7 out of 7 stars
The Crimson League
The second book is written by a fellow WordPressian and my current Kindle read. Victoria Grefer has an awesome blog about, well of course writing, and after hesitating for some time, I finally started reading her Herezoth series – naturally starting with the serie’s first book: The Crimson League.
It’s classic fantasy. Set in a world of swords, kings, creatures and magic. Though the majority of Herezoth’s population has no special abilities and is suppressed by a sorcerer who killed the rightful king in a cleverly executed coup. The common public traditionally holds deep rooted fear of magic. The current king makes it even worse for those with übernatural abilities.
The POV character is Kora Porteg, a common seventeen year old girl, that occasionally becomes the Marked One: the long ago prophesied rescuer of the nation. She becomes a member of the resistance, the Crimson League. Which is led by nobles that survived the coup three years ago. They are working on removing the usurper and restoring the old order.
The writing is really good. But the story is sometimes a little bit too stretched. The book too long as a result. The characters are great, logically evolving and the unfolding love story is believable. Magical and physical forces are well balanced out. The world and it’s struggles feel profoundly thought through.
But, there is one thing I absolutely dislike. The Crimson League is often planning and preparing for their encounters before-hand, literally for weeks and in great detail, but each time their plans are deeply flawed and turn out absolutely worthless. The attack on the Crystal Palace for example, any reasonable strategy would have included a distraction, drawing the main force, maybe even Zalski away from the palace.
6 out of 7 stars
I was reading The Alchemist in front of my elder son’s room. We have a going-to-bed ritual that involves me waiting in front of his door for a few minutes. There is a bookshelf, and I randomly picked up The Alchemist and began reading. My wife must have bought it ages back.
Me lucky one.
It is basically a treasure hunt, with a little bit of fantasy mixed in.
It’s already a classic and part of the world literature, I guess. It deserves it, despite the ongoing discussions. I didn’t realize that there are discussions until Victoria Grefer pointed that out for me (see the comments). I checked some Amazon reviews and two points are pretty often picked up by the reviewers:
- It touches religion … I guess that’s enough said. It’s fiction you morons.
- It touches philosophy – I don’t see it as a very philosophical book. It holds some wisdom, granted. But it’s not very original and deep in discussing it’s worldview. It’s meant as fiction you pedants.
As I started reading the book, I had heard about it before, but only briefly and I expected nothing.
It’s about a young shepherd, that decided for his profession, because he loves to travel. So he travels with his sheep for some years throughout Andalusia. One night he dreams the same thing for the second time: he finds a treasure on the base of the Egyptian pyramids.
He thinks dreaming the same thing twice has to mean something and decides to consult a dream reader. Her interpretation: “you should go to the pyramids and find your treasure”. She expects a fair share of the treasure as gratification for her service, in case he finds it.
He is naturally not very satisfied. But shortly after he meets a mysterious old man, that claims to be the King of Salem. The old man wants ten percent of his sheep for an advice on how to proceed, on how to allow his destiny to unfold. He gives him two mysterious stones and says, that he only has to see and follow the signs.
At first hesitating, the shepherd (naively) decides to sell his remaining sheep and go to the pyramids. A very interesting journey unfolds.
The Alchemist is greatly written. Every word in every place makes totally sense, from a reading/writing perspective, not because it holds THE truth.
It’s not a philosophical book, it’s not a book about religion, not about how everyone should live, neither. It’s a really good fictional story, extremely well and coherent presented.
7 out of 7 stars
The Ingredients for Greatness
!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!
It’s not the genre. It’s not the writing style. It’s not the emotional density. Each of the books presented above is very different regarding those aspects. But there are some commonalities that make them great in my eyes:
Tension – it’s important for me to be left in the dark for a good part of the book. There have to be at least two possible ways how it all might end. The characters motives, the story’s background and the future should be revealed late, by showing not telling (where possible) and only to some minimum degree.
A Monster Calls: Is there a cure for Connor’s mother, in the end? What actually is Connor’s story? What will be the next thing he and the monster might wreck?
The Alchemist: Is there really a treasure? How comes nobody has found it yet? A treasure at the pyramids, that’s a pretty big cross marking it. Who actually is the Alchemist, the title refers to? Is there really some magic going on?
The Crimson League: What does it mean to be the Marked One, is there something more to it? How does it help Kora? Do the Crimson League win out? Who’s the next one to die? Who will survive in the end? How will the capitals population react on the attack of the palace and the usurpers death?
Surprising twists and revelations – there need to happen some disruptive things and mysteries unexpectedly revealed. But it has to be believable. There shouldn’t be a lengthy explanation afterwards. Twists should be unobtrusively prepared throughout the prior pages.
A Monster Calls: Connor’s story. The ending of the monster’s story about the witch queen. Wrecking grandma’s living room.
The Alchemist: Loosing all his money right at the beginning of his journey. Meeting and falling for Fatima. Being the one the Alchemist expects. Becoming the wind. The actual location of his treasure.
The Crimson League: The fact that Kora possesses magic. The revelation about Kora’s heritage. The surprise attack where Sedder died. The power of the old general and his sudden death. The new general slaying the king.
Engageable – the protagonist or the circumstances he happens to face should be relatable. I must be able to connect to the story, so that most things, the important things, have a meaning to me.
A Monster Calls: An aunt of mine died because of cancer not so long ago. I guess everyone has relatives or friends that were/are suffering from this disease. So the connection is easily made. Everyone was a teenager once and might have memories about his emotional instability, as well.
The Alchemist: The hunt for the meaning of life and the uncertainty it is linked with, might be the oldest and deepest motive common to humans all over the planet.
The Crimson League: Suppression by an unrighteous king and being the rebel, the chosen one, the prophesied, that fights despite the odd chances, with the deep urge to change the situation for the better or willingly die trying, that’s the stuff tales are made of. The fight between good and evil has ever been an engageable subject.
And finally: get the basics right – Zero or close to zero spelling mistakes. Clean grammar and structure: clever paragraphs and manageable chapter sizes. No plot holes. Connecting the open threads and questions in a meaningful manner. A logical and believable flow. Not too slow paced. Confidence in the author’s voice.
Future book reviews will be build around this Ingredients for Greatness.
Do you have anything else to add to the recipe? Or do you prepare your meal differently?