I think most of us agree on the characteristics of a good novel, though we may not always agree about whether a certain novel exemplifies them or not.
We long to identify with the characters--at least one of them. We must care what happens to them (plot). The backdrop--whether it be contemporary Your-Town, some historical place, or an imaginary place or time--must ring true. The writing itself needs to be strong and well-paced. Sentences need to be structured for maximum benefit; spelling and grammar errors ruthlessly eliminated.
Some writers are masters at some of these. In theory, when all these areas are strong, the writer becomes the author of a published work. And still the readers won't all agree on the strength of the various areas.
When I come back from my vacation towards the end of June, I plan to surf the CSFF blog tour regarding The Restorer. I believe that I'm not the only tourist who will strongly affirm that these areas are all very strong in Sharon Hinck's writing.
Susan Mitchell is the main character. Here's how she introduces herself:
The attic hideaway was all Mark's idea. He meant to be helpful, and I admit he had good reason to be worried about me.
I couldn't seem to cope with the little things anymore--scrubbing jam off the kitchen counter for the millionth time, carrying decaying science projects out to the garbage, answering the constant questions from two teens and two grade-schoolers. Was I the only person in the house who knew where to find clean socks?
Self-help books told me to regroup--find time to feed my soul. But when I'd sit at the kitchen table with my journal, the children would fly toward me like metal filings to a magnet.
Mark had noticed how often I'd been snapping at the kids. More troubling than my short temper, a heavy fog had settled on me. It pressed down with growing weight and separated me from everyone else. I didn't have the energy to care anymore.
You can see that Susan is not a perfect person. She doesn't have it all together. She seems remarkably like a human being. I've had my bouts with depression--or at least wallowed in some serious discouragement--so I can empathize with Susan. Right there, at the beginning of the novel, I see a hurting woman and I hope she finds the light at the end of the tunnel--and that the light is NOT that of an oncoming train.
So at that point, Sharon Hinck has covered the first two points for me. There is a character I can identify with and I care what happens to her. Not as much as I will later on when I know her better and see what is stacked against her, but the seeds have been planted.
The backdrop---ahhh. Long pleasant sigh. This is a fantasy novel. Even though it starts off in the Real World, by the second chapter Susan has been sucked through a portal into an alternate dimension of some sort. What ties it to Earth I don't know. All I know is that this isn't your typical fantasy landscape. I tend to write the more typical medieval-ish settings (although mostly sans elves and dragons), so I enjoyed seeing what Sharon Hinck's mind came up with. The land where the People of the Verses live is fairly high tech with automated trains and rooms that are lit by glowing walls. The various regions are easy to keep straight and have their own identity. The setting is rich and beautiful to look at aside from the characters dancing across the page.
The pace of the story and the mechanics of the writing are equally solid. Susan is forced to determine who is friend and foe in this strange world and it isn't always easy. She soon finds the place she has been called to fill--that of a Restorer--but not everyone recognizes her gifts in this area. And Sharon Hinck tosses her famous curve ball a few times, not that the plot was progressing too predictably before that. Even with all the curve balls, Susan's story comes to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. I say 'reasonably' because things are set up for the second novel, The Restorer's Son, due out in October 2007. Methinks I should pre-order it. Sigh. Four months.
I think the most negative thing I can think of to say about The Restorer is that Susan Mitchell drew a LOT of comparisons with the Real World, having an uncle who'd told her about this, or an experience that reminded her of that. Seems natural to try to anchor the new and absurd to what you've known before, but I once wondered if she knew something (or someone who knew something) about everything. If that's a confusing sentence, so be it. I'm trying not to give away spoilers! Honestly, it was only something I noticed a few times and then submerged back into the story, but I'm seriously trying to give a balanced report on the novel.
May I highly recommend you purchase The Restorer by Sharon Hinck?