The first draft is just you telling yourself the story – Terry Pratchett
A first is a beginning, the start of something remarkable. A first is an achievement that opens you to a world full of new possibilities that you not been considered before. Every now and then, I come across a new author and story that takes me by surprise. The way the characters are portrayed, the situation they are in or simply the use of language sucks me into a world that I am incapable of leaving. So, I decided that I would mark some of my personal favorite tales by debut authors, if only to point out that a new perspective can tempt our mind into new possibilities.
The concept of an arranged marriage is an old one, a practise that is still used to this day. In most cases, the couple do not meet until the wedding and the very notion of love is not even considered. Yangsze Cho however takes this notion one step further in her tale of the Ghost Bride. Li Lan is the daughter of a wealthy family that has fallen on hard times. Her prospects are few, until the Lim family selects Li to become the bride to their recently departed son, a practise known as becoming a ghost bride. While a very rare practise, ghost brides are often used to appease spirits who haunt the living. This arrangement will guarantee Li’s future (and relieve the family of nightly hauntings), yet at a high cost. Once inside the Lim’s mansion, Li is haunted by her new “husband” and pulled into the afterlife, a parallel world where customs and lifestyles are no different than our own world, except here they have a sinister undertone. The only way to be free from what could very well be her own death is to discover not only the Lim family secret, but her own family’s past. I must say, I was completely sucked into this book. The Chinese practise of burning paper money and goods to send to relations comes alive with descriptions of the other world, where everyday life mirrors our own right down to a house, servants, money and food. Every comfort is given, but only to those who can afford it. This insight not only into the mythology, but cultural practises of the Chinese was truly beautiful and haunting. I hope that there will be a sequel in the near future.
From the Far East, it’s time to start moving to the West. Jennifer Laam’s Secret Daughter of the Tsar, is another tale that takes place out of time and space. Yet rather than being trapped, Veronica, Lena and Charlotte are connected but both fate and circumstance which pulls them through an interconnected web that influences the future as much as the past. Veronica is a modern day historian who searches for new insight into the Romanov’s and their fate. When she encounters a man claiming to be a living descendant of the Romanov’s, Veronica’s investigation may well lead to ghosts of her own past. Lena lives a life that is unnoticed as a servant within the Imperial household. Until one day, Lena’s path crosses with a desperate queen willing to do anything to ensure that she will conceive a son. But the treachery of the court is nowhere near as fierce as that of Charlotte trying to survive World War II in occupied Paris. Charlotte is determined to escape the city along with her son, only to realise that they are being pursued by a man obsessed with the Romanov legacy. As each woman digs into her own history, they become united by not only their struggles, but by the secret they all carry. The intertwining narratives left me curious and frustrated at the same time, as each piece of the puzzle is dangled tantalizingly slowly by the author. All the pieces are there, yet it is not until the very end that the picture is complete.
Apparently I have a theme of ghosts and the past haunting the living running through this blog. Then again, time has a way of not only affecting the present, but the future as well. Travelling a bit further west, we head to Sienna, Italy, in Anne Fortier’s Juliet. Julie’s life has just been rocked to its foundation with the death of her aunt. Facing an uncertain future, an inheritance in the form of a key to a safety deposit box in Sienna takes Julie on a quest of self-discovery. Sienna is filled with beauty and culture. Yet, Julie soon discovers that the history of Sienna is closely tied with her own family in the form of her ancestor Giulietta, who fell in love with Romeo, creating a legendary love that was one of the inspirations for Shakespeare’s tale. Cutting across time, with flashbacks to the past couple and Julie’s current mystery predicament, the question that remains is how much of the past will take hold of the future? Similar to the Secret Daughter of the Tsar, there is a fair amount of interweaving of time between medieval and modern Sienna, yet the story does not lose any vibrancy in using this technique. The characters are caught between their ancestors’ war that has led to their current dilemmas and the only way to break this family curse may be to rewrite the ending of Romeo and Juliet. Personally, I prefer Fortier’s second novel, The Lost Sisterhood, a little better since there is more of a drive to solve the puzzle then Juliet has. However this does not detract from Fortier’s excellent ability to pull the reader into another world and remind the reader that the past will always impact the future.
People often say that there is nothing original anymore in the world; merely remakes and reiterations of past concepts in new forms. Just because the idea may not be original, it does not discount the author’s ability to transport its readers to new places where new ideas spring forth. When we read a romance, we expect the lead characters to fall in the love at the end; a mystery will have the murder solved before the kettle has boiled. There is reassurance in knowing that the ending will be as you expect it to. But what makes a novel, novel as it were, is the journey which the author takes us on.