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Book recommendations: Book-in a new genre

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

A friend recommends

My favourite way to discover new books is to visit a bookshop and ask everyone with me for one recommendation. This is a great way to collect a random sample of vetted favourites; the less you know about your companions' reading tastes, the better! They don't even need to be big into books: most everyone has read something worthwhile in their lifetime, and non-readers often have great non-fiction or graphic novel suggestions.

Usually this mini-experiment results in a diverse set of options, but there is one instance in particular I thought I’d share:

While out Christmas shopping the group I was with stopped off in a XL size WHSmith. I knew two of my friends were avid readers, making me extra curious to see what they’d pick. As far as I understood it, ‘John’ was into Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Anime, while ‘Penelope’ was an English Lit Major with a preference for Classics and Contemporary fiction.

Sure enough, both played to type: John picked out a high fantasy book, while Penelope chose a domestic/historical fiction book. Here is a brief description of each:

John's pick: ‘The Assassin’s Apprentice’, by Robin Hobb.

Synopsis: Fitz is a royal bastard, raised in the shadows of the court while secretly tutored in the arts of magic and being an assassin.

Penelope's pick: 'A Thousand Splendid Suns', by Khaled Hosseini

Synopsis: Mariam, an illegitimate teenager from Herat, is forced to marry a shoemaker from Kabul after a family tragedy.

Apples and Oranges

Based on the covers and the blurbs I expected two very different reading experiences. However, I was shocked to discover how similar they were.

I will cover minor spoilers from now on, so if you like to start a book blind, consider these my random bookshop recommendations. Both are definitely worth your time.

But if you are just curious where I'm going with this, read on!

The worlds of the protagonists

Both protagonists are children of affairs, facing judgment throughout their lives despite this being no choice of their own:

Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy merchant who pays to keep her out of sight, while "Fitz" is a royal bastard whose existence discredits the 'chivalrous' character of his father.

Both lose their central caregiver at a young age, which transplants them worlds foreign to them. In Mariam's case, she moves out of her mother's tiny shack in the sticks to stay at her biological father's luxury manor in the center of town. Then, on the request of her father's wives, she is married off to an older man on the other side of Afghanistan. For Fitz, he is given away as a young child to the castle guard, where he is raised by a gruff stable hand. Then, after being noticed by the King, he is thrust into the machinations of the royal court.

Finally, in the later acts of both books, war arrives to their lands, with the protagonists unwillingly caught within the combat zone.

Character and themes

Of course, this comparison is like saying Finding Nemo and Taken technically have the same plot because in both the child of a parent is kidnapped. But '...Splendid Suns' and 'Assassins Apprentice' explore similar ideas too.

Both characters are forced to grow up too young, overwhelmed with responsibilities in their new realities. They must follow orders with little reward, regard for themselves, or even consideration as to why these rules are imposed on them in the first place. They are motivated by the stick, as disobedience carries implicit and sometimes explicit threats of severe punishment. Both stories explore how a person can become trapped: by circumstance, by those in positions of power, or worse, by our own narratives.

We as the reader see first-hand the potential of our protagonists, yet I found it particularly powerful how over time they are written to doubt and deny their own abilities and worth. This is mainly due to how authority figures exert their will onto them, by leveraging concepts such as: tradition, caste, culture and duty over self. Sometimes it is subtle like guilt-tripping, other times it is more insidious like gas-lighting, and on occasion it is blatant like intimidation and physical violence.

For Mariam, her world continually re-enforces the idea that she is a second-class citizen and her value comes only in what she provides to her husband and household, making intelligent and independent thoughts inherently dangerous and to be avoided. In Assassins Apprentice there is a great scene where Fitz has his 'skill' literally beaten out of him, but because the one carrying out the act is supposed to be his tutor, Fitz believes the failure to be his own.

It creates this interesting dynamic where the reader have a degree of separation from the events taking place, making it easier for us to see the truth of the matter. But as we have followed these characters from childhood, not only is the way they view themselves believable, given the same experience, it is easy to think you would act the same way.

It really made me think about the nature of agency and free will.

Powerful principals

I think this proves how genre is largely a marketing gimmick, a way to pitch a story to whichever audience the publisher thinks the book will have the greatest success with. Both of these books are extremely well written and stylised, with important literary themes.

Rather than certain genres being inherently 'better', this shows how effective certain narrative devices can be when implemented correctly.

In this case think this proves how universal the archetype of 'persecuted protagonist' is. The more they endure, the more we sympathise with them and root for their eventual sucess. The longer it takes to occur the more rewarding it feels. When a character has gone through so much even small victories feel colossal.

Generalisations of genre

People often find a genre of preference, and that is okay. No one wants to start a book they are not going to enjoy. But don't dismiss a genre just because of stereotypes associated with it or because you dislike one of the more famous examples of work. Also, if you find yourself in a reading rut, I'd recommend branching out to breathe new life into your reading habits. Who knows, it might not be as different as you expect.

At the end of the day, every book is just words on a page...


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