Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reader Expectations & The Thrill of a New Story

THE PROMISE OF KIERNA’RHOANLike any reader, I love the thrill of a new story. When scouting for science fiction romance ones, I skim or even avoid jacket copy and reviews in order to avoid spoilers. This is especially true for books I’ll want to read soon. I only want the very basic premise, like if it’s about an android in love. In fact, even while reading, if I’m worried my eyes will inadvertently pick out information prematurely in the paragraph following the one I’m reading, I’ll cover that part of the page with my hand.

In that regard, I’ve been thinking I don’t have any definite expectations for SFR, other than that an author can spin a tale in an entertaining fashion. Right now, if you tell me only that a story blends steampunk and romance, or features a heroine space pirate, I want to try it. But upon further reflection, I realized that I was conflating being open to most story types with a lack of expectations. While I’m game to try almost anything, I do have expectations specific to this sub-genre.

Apart from basic expectations like good (or at least competent) writing, strong characters, creative worldbuilding, and a solid plot, I have ones specific to science fiction romance and I wanted to explore them in more detail. The story I’m going to use to illustrate the process is Isabo Kelly’s THE PROMISE OF KIERNA’RHOAN (Samhain Publishing, available both in print and as an e-novella) which I recently finished.

But first, here’s what I knew about the story beforehand, because I think that plays into the expectations I built up:

I’ve known about the author for some time. In fact, before I’d read any of her work, I’d read quite a few online comments wherein readers praised her work. Then I had the opportunity to read her fantasy romance short story The Last Guardian from SUM3: The 2006 Zircon Anthology of Speculative Romance (it’s out-of-print, but you can still find copies for sale online). So from all of the above, I knew she could write well.

Then I set my sights on THE PROMISE OF KIERNA’RHOAN (gotta love the instant gratification of purchasing an e-book!) In this case, I had already skimmed the blurb on Samhain’s Web site for blog research. But I had already decided to read the book so the blurb’s marketing woo-woo wasn’t a factor, except perhaps to confirm the tone of the story, which is one that interested me.

Upon reflection, I realize tone is a significant expectation I have. I expect an author to take the sub-genre seriously. The story can take all sorts of paths into the weird, the fantastical, or the sensual, and I will follow as long as I feel the overall tone is one of seriousness. This doesn’t mean lack of action/adventure or humor by any means. It’s an expectation that the author clearly enjoys writing such tales and doesn’t distance herself from them by employing certain plots, stylistic devices, or even word choices.

While I may gravitate toward certain elements, in general I want to expand my reading horizons as much as possible. One major expectation that I have for SFR is to encounter the unexpected, not only regarding the science fictional elements but also the romance ones. For example, I expect that the heroine and hero will be truly shaped by their world, and only the science fictional elements in this world will make their relationship possible.

So as I was reading this novella, I was evaluating the “fit” of the hero and heroine in their world. I felt that they did, especially given that there were many details to which Kelly had obviously given a lot of thought. To me, the worldbuilding felt fresh. I didn’t feel as though I had read this story a thousand times anywhere else. There were elements that were familiar—the story features “Shifters” and that concept in and of itself isn’t new—but they didn’t feel recycled from other stories.

When I know very little in advance about a story, I discover that I sometimes have to make a decision when it comes to SFR stories that blur the lines between science fiction and science fantasy. I’m a fan of both, but I do notice a certain moment when I have to decide if I can suspend my disbelief more than I already have when a story veers unexpectedly into science fantasy.

I had one of these moments during THE PROMISE OF KIERNA’RHOAN. The quality of the writing can make a real difference for me. And again, here is where tone matters. Even if I think a certain element isn’t plausible, or becomes more fantastical then I was anticipating, I’m willing to continue if I’m convinced there’s a sincere effort to entertain, as opposed to Insert Plot Point X Here. Ultimately, I’d rather read a story that defies or forces me to re-evaluate my expectations than one which plays it safe.

THE PROMISE OF KIERNA’RHOAN reinforced my love of the sub-genre in that I had the opportunity to read a unique story that had elements of both SF and romance and yet became more than just the sum of its parts. It’s the type of story that I wish more publishers would take a chance on. Hmm, there’s another unexpected expectation: that every book I read will leave me hungry for more.

What are your expectations for science fiction romance? Are there any particular books that revealed them for you?

Just a quick note here to let you know I’ll be going on blog hiatus for the Thanksgiving holiday, but this Tuesday I’ll be featuring an interview with Isabo Kelly. At that time, you can enter to win a copy of THE PROMISE OF KIERNA’RHOAN!

Joyfully yours,