Saturday, July 14, 2012

On the importance of world-building

OR: When is a YA novel just a YA novel?
When D13BC met to discuss Timepiece, I had forgotten all the things I loved about the book (which I included on my goodreads review). In my defense, I had been sucked into other books earlier that week, and didn't make time to re-read Timepiece. Not unlike a student who shows up to class without having done the reading, I grasped at the things I did remember, and went into critique mode.

My first issue
I think Kaleb & Emerson's voices are too similar. It was almost impossible to tell the difference between them as narrators, which is problematic for me as an ADHD reader; I prefer not having to backtrack to figure out who said what. Too distracting. Maybe I’m a writing snob, but I think characters should have unique voices—literally unique. 

My bigger issue
Granted, I may have been feeling the aftereffects of my own pontification, but I left our book club discussion feeling vaguely unsatisfied. On the drive home, I realized that the problem I experienced with Timepiece was one of world-building (or the lack thereof). When a novel is set in a world that resembles the readers’, s/he doesn’t have to do much world-building, because the readers already know what they need to know in order to sink into the story. On the other hand, when an author invites readers to a world that differs dramatically from our own, s/he has a responsibility to orient us to the time and space in which the novel takes place.

Timepiece is set in the contemporary US—which I don’t need explained—but includes science-time travel-factoids which remain under-developed and/or unexplained. I know at least one reader with a strong science background who did not struggle to figure out the ins-and-outs of time travel as depicted in Timepiece. I am not that (kind of) reader. I am the kind of reader who skips parts of novels that make me squint in confusion. Unfortunately, I squinted at, and then skipped, whole chunks of Timepiece.

Don't get me wrong: I love reading books about things I don’t already know. I just need some scaffolding along the way. For example, I recently discovered the genre of urban fantasy, and am in love. What I like most about UF is when authors successfully integrate magical / paranormal elements, characters, and/or events into worlds I recognize (e.g. the London of Midnight Riot or the New York depicted in Hard Magic--neither of which is a YA book). I am perfectly content to suspend disbelief as long as the author provides enough details to render the paranormal plausible. Without sufficient world-building, Timepiece is a novel about young love masquerading as something else, which left me longing for less paranormal and more romance.

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