Monday, May 12, 2014

About Face: Lauren Skidmore's "What Is Hidden"

Welcome to my regular visitors and a very special welcome to anyone who's just here for Day 3 of the blog tour.  I hope you come back if you fit into either category.

What Is Hidden

 It is my great honor and pleasure to host this book--and, by extension, Lauren--on her inaugural blog tour.  I haven't known Lauren Skidmore nearly long enough, but I hope to know her for years to come.  I was told that I should be her friend well before I saw the contents of her bookshelves and spent a Saturday afternoon watching Legend of Korra at her apartment.  I tried to run into her at Salt Lake City Comic Con events, but she was one of the incredibly hard-working volunteers who kept things running smoothly.  If you are an older reader of this blog, she is the poor person on whose doorstep I collapsed nine hours before I left for Europe and she lent me an ice pack.

These are things that make her wonderful before I even consider that she's a writer.  I anticipate being a Skidmore fan and turning just a little bit hipster in years to come when I say that I liked her stuff before she made it big.  A word of explanation on that:  I really mean that because by the time I left her apartment on my first visit, I was in possession of her very marked-up bound copy of this manuscript.  She was in the process of finding someone to take an official interest in her book and she was nice enough to not make me wait that long to read this intriguing story. 

 I originally thought to focus my blog tour post on the differences between the two manuscripts.  When I go to her event at King's English, I plan on returning that copy that we accidentally forgot to return when moving in January.  By the time I got halfway through my review copy, though, I turned to my ages-old hobby of reading a lot between the lines.

A word of introduction

I am a fairly regular fixture when it comes to papers for Life, the Universe and Everything (BYU's science fiction/fantasy symposium).  I've presented academic papers on things like "Why an aristocrat will never save the world" and "How to mentor the Chosen One."  When I was 18, my senior Bible class teacher assigned us the topic of "Why the Force is not God" for our final exam.  This means that I can and have found undertones of salvation in Despicable Me.

Why do I bring this up?  Part of my intent is to give you a good laugh.  Another part is to prepare you for the comparative literature discourse that I'm about to take you on. 

The Book in Brief

Don't worry, friends.  I do not intend to spoil this book for you.  I will set the scene briefly.

The city is Venesia, the time period unspecified.  If you suspect that the name is familiar, you're correct.  The city is built around canals.  The population has a thing for Venetian masks.  The market stalls remind me of the street vendors that I saw everywhere I went in Italy.  I swear that I must have haggled over the price of jewelry with a few of these characters.

 Into this world, Lauren introduces Evelina "Evie" di'Pietro and Aiden.  In Venesia, every person wears a mask and Evie is employed in her father's mask-making trade.  She is barely of age, but she has spent years learning her father's craft and developing her own style.  All is well until the night that a famed villain robs her family home and leaves her life in shambles.

I really can't reveal much more because I don't want to rob you of the experience of discovering the intricacies of this multi-faceted mystery.  You now know enough that you should be asking someone to borrow their copy if you don't buy it yourself.  And if you know me in a context beyond this blog, you know that I'll soon be trying to lend you a copy.  Or I could be asking Katey for hers if mine is checked out at that moment.

On with the show
This is, above all else, a blog on writing.  I would be remiss and out of character if I went any further before I indulged in my fascination with comparative literature. 

I have a vast library in my head that works a little bit like Netflix.  I tell you to read a book and if you like it, I tell you what else you should like.  In this mental library, if you gave What is Hidden a favorable rating, I would point you in the following directions:

Gail Carson Levine
Diana Wynne Jones
C.S. Lewis
Hayao Miyazaki
Mark Twain

I admit that this is a diverse list, but I will clarify matters in a minute.

Let's start at random with Miyazaki.  When reading this, a number of elements called such titles as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle to mind.  (The latter is obviously why I listed Jones, but I'll address that later.)  Miyazaki excels in deceptively simple story-telling in which characters are both noble and naive, fantastic and slightly flawed.  They have pure hearts and a need to occasionally backtrack.  There are friendships without an over-arching need to define them as a romance.  And there's always an over-arching mystery that might not be completely obvious until it's solved cleanly at the end.

Evie is one of these noble characters.  Her motives are pure and when it's not a matter of life and death, she is guileless.  I like to read books with a movie adaptation in mind and the only barrier that I could see to this being adapted into an anime style is that I would probably spend the entire movie harrumphing over the changes they made to the costumes.  I am sometimes displeased with my ability to solve a crime before the main character, but I was satisfied with the hints along the way that led to the conclusion.

Moving on, let's discuss the hero's quest in general.  Diana Wynne Jones and Gail Carson Levine share a common trope:  Their heroines are the last to discover that they are saviors of sorts.  In my two favorite books by those two women, Ella and Sophie go about their duties and their quests because it is in their nature.  They have goals, but an epic quest takes a back burner to the need to take their places in society.  Again, without going into too much detail, Evie finds herself stumbling from the wreckage of the life she's known to a life of servitude.  She is first content to become good at her work as a servant, but seeks to excel when she is given the chance to become more than that. 

I mention C.S. Lewis, not for Narnia, but for 'Til We Have Faces.  In that book, the protagonist's eventual epiphany is one of discovering the noble and divine within herself.  Aiden comes to accept his own--for lack of a better word--destiny, while Evie discovers that she is not meant for anything but greatness.

And finally, Mark Twain.  In my AP English Literature exam, the final question asked me to discuss a single truth from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:  In order to find personal truth, you must separate yourself from society.  In What Is Hidden, Evie does nothing as drastic as going down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave, but it is when she is forced to leave her past life behind that she starts to come into her own.


I adore characterization in general and am constantly in search of a fresh approach to character development.  I can confidently say that one of the most outstanding aspects of this book is that it achieves just that.

As mentioned before, Venesian society features masks.  There are colors for each trade.  The quality of the materials in the mask indicate a person's station in life.  Masks even vary according to occasion--Evie is bewildered at one point by a half-mask with a veil until she realizes that it is a mask that permits the wearer to eat while remaining hidden.  The prince of the kingdom is so protected from view that not a single inch of his skin is ever shown.

It is a literal interpretation of the ages-old idea that we all wear masks to give ourselves a new identity or conceal an identity that brings us shame.  Going beyond this, the masks in this story allow the character's perspective to mature.  At one point, she marks the colors of a fisherman clan and is surprised that a high-born woman of that trade would be a servant.  She then thinks with respect of the skill that the person must have, not the lowliness of the person's position.

One of the finest moments of the book, for me, is the first unmasking.  The taboo against going bare-faced is so stark that there are private rooms where a new mask can be fitted by an artisan.  In a life-threatening situtation, Evie searches desperately for a way to mask herself and then runs from a fire.  In the first unmasking, a villain strips another person of their mask and I blanched as profoundly as I did when reading a rape scene in J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy.  There is barely any physical contact in the scene, but the act of violation is an almost allegorical one. 


I could go on for a while, but I have to wait for my friends to read it now so I can get them to read far too much into it as well.  Thanks for stopping in and I hope you join me in the Skidmore fanbase soon if you haven't already.  Here are some links to keep you going: (Lauren's website) (Where you can find the other stops on the blog tour.) (The events page for tonight's signing and reading at King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City.)

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