City of Ghosts – Victoria Schwab – A Review

Life has a way of happening, you know? As it turns out, so does death.  City of Ghosts is V. E. Schwab’s first book in her new Y.A. book series, narrated by Cassidy Blake. A girl who, after drowning in a river, comes back to realize she can cross the veil separating our world from the personalized purgatory of ghosts. Oh, and her best friend is a ghost named Jacob who can read her mind.

This strange ability is making life interesting enough, but then her parents get a T.V. show deal that lands them in one of Europe’s most haunted cities, Edinburgh, Scotland. There, she meets a girl who shares her peculiar gifts, discovers her purpose, and goes head to head with an urban ghost story, The Red Raven.

A quick side note, this book isn’t available to buy, yet. (It will be very soon.) I was fortunate enough to get a signed, uncorrected proof during my last minute book con dash that involved a lot of luck and magical timing. You can read that adventure here.

Now, Onward with the review!

I do not believe in a reality where I pick up a Schwab book and go away dissatisfied. That being said, this was no, “Kell wore a very peculiar coat.”, either. What I love about

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Personal artwork loosely inspired by The Red Raven.

Schwab’s work is the seemingly effortless way she draws you fully into the setting and world of the characters. (Anyone who writes knows it is not, in fact, effortless but sometimes grueling and soul-sucking.) She does this not by plastering saturated words over soggy loaves of prose, but by finding the essence of a place and breathing life into with a few well-placed sentences.

 

She does the same in City of Ghosts. I’ve never been to Edinburgh, but when I’m following Cassy through the dreary haunted streets, I feel like I have been. I feel like I know the smell in the air and cobblestone streets and the gift shops and the ghost tours. It’s a delicate skill that she’s mastered.

Another thing I always look forward to in Schwab’s work is character. There wasn’t a single one who I didn’t love. Cassidy’s parents, the ghost hunter and the professor, were delightful. They didn’t get much time in the book itself but the few pages they had dedicated to them made me smile. I adored Jacob the ghost. He is the epitome of the ghost all of us aspire to be one day. If I have any complaint at all it was that I didn’t get to learn more about the main protagonist, the Red Raven.

In a small way, it also felt like a head nod to Vicious what with the whole, coming back to life with strange powers. I’m not complaning. It’s lovely to imagine that these two series take place in the same universe.

On the whole, it was an enjoyable, if not slow start to what is going to be a fun adventure in future books. It does what the first in a series if supposed to do. The characters are fleshed. The setting is shifting. The plot dice are rolling, and I’m eager to find out where they land next.

Happy reading.

-Side note: Have you ever heard of Shelf Love Crate? Every month you get a themed box shelflovebox1based on different Y.A. Fantasy novels. You get a signed book, and tonnes of other fun things like puzzles, books marks, candles, socks and more. My next review is going to be on the Y.A. book, The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen that I got in my July crate. Check out their website here if you’re interested.

How Atmosphere, Suspense, and Foreshadowing can make or break a scene

I’m a sucker for a scary book. Or a scary scene. Or a particularly chilling snippet of dialogue. Something about it gives me chills of pure delight. When reading we pick up on these notes in a very unconscious way. They are where they’re supposed to be. That is – in the background not unlike the stage props on Broadway. I know I know, when it comes to writing a lot of us learn unconsciously through reading but when you know the mechanics behind what you’re doing it means you get to twist things in new ways instead of relying on all that intuitive learning that lead us to mimic the greats.

So, in honor of all things horribly delightful, I want to talk about atmosphere, suspense, and foreshadowing, and how they can make your prose too delicious to put down.

Atmosphere comes across mostly in setting the scene at the beginning of chapters and it’s all about word choice, and consistency. I think it tends to be the most intuitive of the bunch. Chances are if you read, you’ll end up having some idea how to set the atmosphere for the book.

A Darker Shade final for IreneThe easiest way to do this is through description. Take a look at this passage from V. E. Schwab’s, ‘A Darker Shade of Magic.’

“- every inch of the city, day or night, summer or winter, bore the same pall, as though a fine coat of snow – or ash – had settled over everything. And everyone. The magic here was bitter and mean, and it bled the world’s life and warmth and color, leaching it out of everything and leaving only pale and bloated corpses behind.”

Bitter. Mean. Bled. Leaching. These words have a sinister edge to them, right? One that paints the harsh unforgiving nature of both the place and the people. It sets you up to be on guard and a little unnerved. Can you imagine if she said, and it milked the world’s life and warmth and color?

Paying attention to powerful and descriptive words will get the reader amped up. Kind of like foreplay. Or taking a bath vs taking a bath by candlelight with rose petals and a glass of wine.

Suspense can be a little more tricky, but I think this has a lot to do with what we see in horror movies that rely – most of the time – on build-up music and jump scare. In that way, I think a lot of writers (myself included, unfortunate I know) believe suspense is in hiding information to later jump out and startle the readers. Suspense is actually created when you give information to the readers. One of the best ways I had it explained was in the book, ‘Troubleshooting Your Novel,’ by Steven James.

“Mystery concerns the past; suspense concerns the future. In a mystery, the characters try to solve a crime, piece together a riddle or resolve a conflict. In suspense, they try to stop a crime or tragedy. Mystery appeals to readers’ curiosity, suspense to their concern.”

In other words, if the reader knows the scary thing is in the closet, but the protagonist doesn’t, we’re going to be worried as hell about them every time they get close to that closet door.

On the other hand, if we don’t know what’s in that closet, there’s no build up to when the protagonist finally opens the door and confusion over whatever jumps out. A lot of suspense is triggered by giving a damn about the characters of the story, but I’ll leave that little diversion behind for another day.

Foreshadowing is kind of like a thief isn’t it? (I do love a good thief) Only, instead of taking things it goes back and leaves little treasures behind. A reverse thief. The best thing about it? It saves you from a little pitfall (one I constantly fall into) called coincidence.

Coincidence is when someone passes out during a climactic scene and one of the characters declares, “Let me through I’m a doctor!” Convenient, right? And it takes away all the suspense.

Foreshadowing is when, in an earlier and inconspicuous scene, that same character had the reason or need to show or mention that he was a doctor.

The trick to this is making sure those scenes are, as I said, inconspicuous. One of my61XfS2XCw3L._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_ favorite examples of this is in N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.

There are people referred to as Roggas who can shake the earth (literally) and, also, stop shakes. There are places called node maintainers to stop those devastating shakes from happening.

I won’t get too into it, but let’s say the kids who get relocated there, are fully aware and completely incapable of so much as blinking let alone changing their heart-rending situation.

How does she set up the moment where our main character stumbles into this atrocity? No more than an earlier conversation in which someone (who knew the truth) casually asked, “You’ve never been to a node, I take it.”

So, what are some ways to foreshadow effectively?

If a character has a skill that’s going to be needed for those big moments, make sure it’s oh so subtly addressed beforehand. Kind of like that doctor I mentioned up there.

If there’s an item or relic, introduce it in a discreet manner beforehand. It could be something like a pen a character is always holding until that moment it’s revealed to contain a deadly poison that saves their lives. Or, you know, something along those lines.

Foreshadow who will be present. Instead of having a rightwing hero swinging into the rescue out of thin air to make everything all better again.

 

That’s all I have for you right now. This is a re-boot of some advice I’d written on my abandoned blog back on Blogspot.

I hope it was helpful.

Take care and keep writing.