In an interview for Book Talk (here), I was asked if I had any questions for the readers. So I asked: “What makes you, the reader, call something a “good” or a “bad” book? What makes you call a book unforgettable?”
The “good stuff” from readers who commented included:
**characters who are good enough to feel as though they might live if allowed out of their current novel milieu;
**well-thought-out settings and backgrounds;
**drama, intense emotion;
**a storyline that is meaningful, insightful, or that has something to teach;
**the kind of ending that makes you want to pick up the book and start reading it again from the beginning.
Eh. You guys don’t ask for much, do you?…We writers just have to write about real people in real places who feel real emotions and learn (and therefore teach) real life lessons, and then wrap it all up all pretty with a bow on top before we hand it over. Uh….! Okay.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” is possibly the best book I’ve ever read, and I’ll use to illustrate some of the points raised above.
Characters who are real enough to feel as though they could step out of the book and shake your hand…? This book has them, in spades. These are people who have lived their lives, every second of them, and who bear the scars of it. Nobody here is Superman; even the most powerful characters have their weaknesses that are found and ruthlessly exploited. Conversely, even the most harshly used and weakest characters have unexpected and soaring strengths.
The characters are towering accomplishments – some of them, like Dianora, rise to true tragedy, the kind that squeezes your heart with sharp claws while you learn to understand the things that shaped her, and then broke her. Oh, that woman. She makes me weep and cheer at the same time. The writer who created her is a god.
The setting and milieu and background of “Tigana” are another extraordinaryry accomplishment. There is nothing in this book that breaks the spell, nothing that makes you believe for an instant that this world has never existed. It is all perfectly, sublimely, completely real. You have the strangest feeling that you could reach through the page and touch a brick wall, a trembling leaf, the quiet surface of the sea, a horse’s sweaty flank… and you could actually feel them there. That perfect. The history and the geography of these lands are ancient and deep, and bear its fractious present – the point in time at which we join the novel – with elegance and grace. You enter here, and you will become a part of it all. If you’re a writer and you have trouble with worldbuilding, read this book – because this is how you do it. Precisely like this.
The story is so full of drama and of intense emotion that it is entirely possible that you might find yourself overwhelmed by it. For myself, the thing that broke me was Alessan’s toast – “Tigana, may the memory of you be a blade in my heart.” I do not know how Guy Gavriel Kay knows what it means to lose your country and your soul – but I do, and this pride, this grief, this bottomless well of passion NOT TO FORGET WHERE YOU CAME FROM, where your bones were knit and the bones of your ancestors were buried, this is true. This is TRUE. If you read “Tigana” you will understand this pain. This book and I are now bonded forever through this shared emotion. This… is pure magic.
For all the emotional storms, you bond to this story in ways you don’t even begin to understand. When you turn the last page, you scream and cry because it is over, and feel as though someone has just thrown you out of your own heart’s home – so you flip the book over, and you start again, because you don’t want to leave this world, you don’t want to leave these people, you don’t want to LEAVE.
As a reader , I am profoundly grateful when I come across books like this. As a writer… some day, when I grow up, I will write a novel like “Tigana”.
What about you? If you were to describe a book as “unforgettable”, what factors would be part of that accolade? If you could pick ONE book to exemplify your choice, what would it be?
This an abbreviated version of something I wrote for Storytellersunplugged.com. See the whole thing here.