Monday, September 7, 2015

NZ YA SF Sequel Review + Interview: Stray
Stray, Rachael Craw
Yes, I created a thicket of abbreviations in my post title.  Deal wit' it, it's very Spark of me; abbreviations are how we keep reading through the science without stalling on the big words, folks.  I'll break 'em down for you here though; Stray is: by a New Zealand author, Young Adult, Science Fiction (my jam)In case you missed it, Craw's first book in this world  -- a ripper of a debut -- was very much my cup of sci fi and I cover what I like about the overarching premise and world of both books in more detail there.

What I loved about Stray:
  • The maternal-character in both books doesn't read like a weak extra or place-holder.  She is likeable, intelligent, important...and possibly my favourite.  I connect with her more than I do Evie...and I like Evie.
  • There are new characters.  I like them.
  • I think Book 2 is just as strong (or stronger) than the first book -- somewhat of a rarity in YA trilogies.
  • I love love love that this has significant SF content, as opposed to a sprinkling on top of an essentially generic love story.  
  • Great descriptions of non-verbal communication or thought-snapshots continue to add more colour to dialogue-rich scenes.  The contradictory, unspoken after-thoughts are a treat.
  • Superrrrr pacing, once again; I couldn't stop from mid-way.
  • Also still true: contains a little swearing, never disruptive, lazy or shocking. I'm glad Rachael doesn't feel a need to pepper her pages with profanity.
  • Sensuality level = rising.  The first book was pretty steamy, but things were kept PG.  Things heat up in Book 2, but again without indulging in teenage sex scenes.  I enjoy the love interest arc, and appreciate the story's young adults aren't raging in the sheets.
  • There is some violence, but it was a good level of action for me; female assassin-types in Destroyer Mode are always a delight, aren't they?
  • The art.  Both covers are great. 
Overall: loved it; happy.
You'll find more of my thoughts on Stray within my questions in my interview with Rachael, below.

What I'll admit (although I'd prefer to mostly cheerlead, on this one)
  • I think one of Spark's greatest strengths is its dialogue.  Initially, I found the dialogue in Stray lacked the polish Book 1 shone with -- maybe it was just me, needing to settle in.  I found myself having to reread exchanges between characters more than I had to in the last book.  But then things came together (or I got in the right zone), and we were away.  By no standard is the dialogue bad at any point.
  • The first scene isn't my favourite.  I thought, "Really?  Is this what we're doing?"  It doesn't feel very Evie -- but maybe that is part of the point.  I felt a knee-jerk dislike for how normal she is attempting to be, because I felt that even before she sparked she was not your average teenager, and the opening felt average teenager.  As the narrative progressed, I began hoping so hard for something in particular to happen, and that hurtled me past my petty dislike for party scenes.  So I hoped.  And then what I hoped for came to pass, and it was glorious.  In short: the jarring banality of the book's opening is forgivable as soon as the story takes its first turn; the break works.
I still think you would love these books if you like the cyberpunk sci fi series Dark Angel OR if you loved these books, I think a binge-watch of Dark Angel is in order.  Then, if you find yourself craving even moooore, the series Beauty and the Beast (2012, with a genetically enhanced soldier "beast") might just be what the blogger ordered. 

Interview time!

SK: I understand Spark's title came after a few other ideas, was the title Stray a lock after you went with Spark or did Book 2 have some other titles you could share with us, as well? The Craw: The very first draft of Spark was saved on my laptop as “By the Border River”. Then at some stage during the first draft I changed it to “The Keeper.” Back then the genetically modified characters were called Keepers, Seekers and Triggers. These labels stayed right up until the last 6 months before Spark went to print. Bearing in mind those were names I came up with over five years prior to publication, it would be fair to say they were looking a little ‘old’ and ‘tired’. By that time there were other books in the market using both Keeper and Seeker in their titles and the marketing team sensibly suggested I brainstorm for a new title. I had planned for each book to be named after one of the genetic modifications. When I changed the role from Keeper to Shield I knew I would need to change them all. It was a tremendously invigorating experience, creatively, and it brought me very close to my Dictionary App and online thesaurus! Spark was the next word that came to me to replace Trigger and then I realised I was on an alliteration pathway. Stray came to me, like the gloriously creepy thing it is, to replace Seeker. It’s probably my favourite of the titles.  Spark became book 1’s title because the whole story is about whether or not Evie can save Kitty, her Spark. I also loved the connotations of ‘the beginning’ and also the romantic element of the ‘sparks of first love’. It also suggests conflict and drama and sparks flying.  Stray works as the 2nd title as the whole story revolves around the issue of Strays, the attitude of the Affinity Project towards Strays and Evie straying from the prescribed path laid out by protocol (my alliteration is officially out of control here). Also I just love the word Stray and all the things it evokes. Shield, I like for book 3 because it addresses Evie’s identity within the organisation and explores themes around sacrifice and protection.

Which character are you most surprised to find people caring so much about? Is there someone in your story you never anticipated to grow as he/she did, or attract the fanbase he/she has? (e.g. What kind of following/fan art has impressed you, and why?) Am I allowed 3 answers for this? People love Miriam and Leonard. A frequent comment that surprised me in reviews of Spark was how much people enjoyed seeing parental characters fully engaged within the narrative. To be honest I didn’t know enough about YA to be aware then that adults are usually side-lined in teen novels. They are frequently absent, dead, neglectful, dim witted or oblivious, or marginally involved, or used as plot conveniences. Now that I’ve read LOTS of YA, I guess I see where people are coming from but I don’t find that trope bothers me if it’s handled well. In fact NO tropes bother me if they are handled well. But it was delightful to see Miriam and Leonard getting so much love and enthusiasm. There is a character in Stray who I believe people will be surprised by – someone I did not expect to fall in love with but I won’t breathe a word, I don’t want to give anything away.
In terms of fan art, most of it revolves around Evie and the covers. I am constantly amazed by the creativity and time spent and love given by the #SparkArmy. Lots of graphics and even a few brilliant gifs!

You seem to really stay on top of communicating with your readers and keeping the GoodReads community injected with energy; how would you sum up your work hours, as an author? I have no restraint. I’m addicted to Twitter. I’m pretty much always plugged in. I need an intervention. No I don’t. It’s part of my life. I love it. Also, writing is pretty lonely. I hardly ever leave my cave so getting online is a great way of getting out of my head and having a laugh and relaxing. I write during school hours and pop in and out of social media. After dinner I edit and deal with emails and more Twitter.

The combat content in Book 2 is one of its highlights, for me. Where did you draw information/inspiration for your action scenes? I didn't do any research for the fighting, but I am a very visual person and the books run like movies in my head. So, when it comes to combat scenes I simply write what I see in my mind’s eye. I find them challenging to write, especially scenes with multiple combatants, because it frustrates me being trapped by 1st person point of view narration. I need to keep all the players active while focusing on whoever Evie’s beating up.

I think your stories work great over in America -- where I can buy into a project like Affinity functioning and having an intricate web established.  New Zealand? Unlikely. Do you feel any pull to set a future story in New Zealand, or will story always come first and the setting follow? And have any new stories begun to percolate in the wings now that you're working on the final book in this series? Is more SF or magical realism more likely, if you had to choose? I agree that the Spark trilogy makes great sense in an American context and it never occurred to me to try and make up a reason for it to be set in New Zealand. Considering the original experiment was launched in the 1970’s with the intended application of military, corporate, industrial, commercial espionage, it didn’t seem to fit a kiwi context. However, there are people who’ve disapproved or assumed the setting was a mercenary ploy on my behalf to ensure American marketability. If only such things did open doors! HA!  I love your question about whether setting will be determined by obligation, desire or story. I’m afraid the story always wins. I will set my next book wherever it demands to be set whether that is Timaru or Timbucktoo. I have a few seeds of ideas for future projects beginning to send out roots into my brain but for now all my attention and creative energy is focused on finishing the Spark Trilogy. Yes, I am very keen on magical realism – I would love to try writing it!

Which sci fi texts (film, literature, radio) have you especially enjoyed?
I have read very little in terms of adult science fiction. A little bit of William Gibson, which I loved, but that’s about it. I hadn’t read any YA sci-fi until after I wrote Spark but I loved sci-fi films. I’m especially fond of grimy near future societies in decline, built on the detritus of obsolete technology, like Blade Runner. Other favourite sci-fi films: Star Wars (originals – obviously), Dune, Total Recall, Matrix, Terminator 2, I Robot, Minority Report, Aliens … should I go on?

Thank you, Walker Books team and Rachael, it has been scrummy.   Bring on Shield!
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