Review: Science of Storytelling

I first heard of this book whilst listening to an interview Tim Clare did with the author. Will Storr gave an excellent interview and even within the podcast he made some amazing points about storytelling that blew my mind. I went out to buy the book almost immediately and I would highly recommend you check out the interview at the very least.

A lovely cover!

The Science of Storytelling is a relatively short book, listed as 288 pages and there’s a fair chunk of notes and references in the back as well, but it is absolutely saturated with insight and lessons.

This book felt different to the other writing books that I’ve read before. It starts by explaining how our brains create the worlds we live in then moves on to the flaws that define us, the question every story needs to ask and then plots. Finally, it gives some writing exercises to help you create a story with a strong protagonist at its centre.

As I say, this book is saturated with information. I had to stop reading to be able to find a pencil to highlight all of the passages that illuminated some fresh part of storytelling and character creation for me.

I think one of the things that I most enjoyed and found most useful about this book is how it frames the flaws that we see in our characters. For some reason I think I have always struggled a little to come up with a flaw for a character that they learn to fix throughout the story. Something in my mind turns away from thinking of it like that, but Will Storr phrases it as the Sacred Flaw.

It’s not a flaw that needs to be fixed (as far as the characters are concerned) it’s something that they’ve molded themselves around and used to build the world they inhabit.

For example, a political leader who always thinks that they’re the smartest person in the room. It’s certainly a flaw that they think that but to them it’s a strength and what has given them the drive to catapult them to the very top of the political agenda. But once they’re there and begin to interact with their political equals who need to be treated with respect then we can introduce conflict and create a story from that.

The way that Will Storr explains all this and more in this book blew my mind and I am incredibly excited to put it to use in my stories.

I absolutely recommend this book to anyone writing stories in any medium.

[The Science of Storytelling on Goodreads]

Reveiw: His Majesty’s Dragon

Ideally, I’d do a review a book on its own but I’ve actually powered through the first four of these books before I realised (staying up far too late far too regularly).

Instead I’m going to give some impressions and thoughts on the first four books and the series in general. I’m going to try and keep this as spoiler free as possible, I should only go into general plot details, but I can’t promise anything!

The UK cover for book number 1
The UK cover for book number 1!

Temeraire, or His Majesty’s Dragon as it was titled originally, is essentially the Napoleonic War plus dragons. I know, right.

The main story begins when Captain Laurence, captain of a ship in the British Navy, they seize a French ship and it turns out there’s a dragon on board. Thing is, this dragon egg’s about to hatch and when an egg hatches it needs a handler and there’re no Aviators aboard. Aviators are a bit shunned by everyone else because you know, no one wants to be eaten by a dragon, but in the twists and turns of it Laurence ends up with this dragon: Temeraire.

I figure that’s enough context without giving away too much of the first book.

As per usual I’d like pay some service to the cover design. Unfortunately I’m not a fan of the US covers, they’re not really my thing as I generally prefer more stylised covers. The UK covers I think are absolutely great. I think they easily convey the tone and setting of each book and have a really nice, bold uniformity that shows you it’s a fantasy book and a Temeraire book.

Novik’s writing feels like a lesson in brevity, which let’s be honest is something that could be sprinkled into some fantasy novels out there. It’s a great way to deal with some of the long time periods that are a necessity of the travel and the time period. We skip over weeks and months of travel at sea or over land in a few paragraphs and sentences, and it works on a smaller level which was just really refreshing. For example, Laurence at some point (I’ll be honest I can’t remember what point in what book) is trying to figure out something that most Aviators know and raises a query to a fellow non-Aviator. I feel as though in a lot of works the bridge between the question and the answer would have a paragraph or two of ‘Laurence pondered this as he walked away … he walked up to Granby…” etc. But Novik skips literally from the question to the answer with barely a full stop in between.

Not only does that help to deal with these long time periods but it also keeps the pace quick and is the main reason I’ve managed to devour four of these books before lack of funds stopped me.

The first few books do feel a bit plot driven and the characters are reacting to other events but I don’t see that as a bad thing, especially with the setting there’s little else that the characters can do. And, equally, this isn’t to say that the characters are bad; as a double act I love Temeraire and Laurence.

Laurence is a duty-bound Englishman and Temeraire is full of doe-eyed (dragon-eyed?) innocence as he comes into the world and starts having his own ideas about duty and what it means to follow duty. They play well off each other and serve to both challenge and compliment each other as characters.

So far each of the books has dealt neatly with a different issue, and oftentimes setting as well, but still retaining an overarching plot. The first book was a lot more self-contained but definitely left me wanting more, and then as we’ve gone further out into the series we’re exploring different parts of the world and how they interact with dragons and also pulling away from a plot driven storyline as the characters have more of an effect on how things turn out.

One bad thing I’ve noticed, which is a little annoying as it’s not really a comment against the writing so much as proofreading, but there are some errors in the text. (Sidenote; this could just the version I bought for my kindle as well, so if anyone else has noticed this in print let me know) These are just small errors; some extra quotation marks so I thought someone was still speaking and got confused, one recent example went something like this (talking about some dragons flying above a ship) ‘the two dragons were an X, a Y – traded with the French during peacetime -, and an X.’

It doesn’t sound like a lot, and in the grand scheme of things it isn’t, but it’s enough to pull you out of the story for that split second.

But that’s a small gripe and hardly takes away from my enjoyment of the series, I have been recommending this to most people who’ll care to listen and I would highly recommend that if you’re in the mood for a book that is well written (apart from some proof reading errors) and has a load of dragons in it with some good old fashioned gentleman then give this a go.

Novik does do a good job of characterizing each of the players in her novels and you’ll love and hate them, the world building is great as she folds dragons and dragon rearing into the histories of the world. If you’re after a fun read that’s fast paced with good characters and the all-important dragon element then I heartily recommend this series for you!