Hello! Welcome to what’s probably going to be my last Blog Tour post for a long while. It should have technically been a review, but my 3-star review of this book is going to go up later on, because for today I wanted to do something different and focus on the positive.
From the moment I saw the cover of Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, I knew I had to read it. Silhouettes in red and black and gold, fading into glitter, a mystery appearing through the curtains and demanding your attention. And it’s so red. Maybe I’m biased because that’s my favorite color, but this cover called to me instantly. And I can say that it fits the story perfectly.
The more I read, the more I realize that color is one of the most important parts of descriptions for me. It’s not just there to tell the reader how things look like; it’s one of the most effective tools in the writer’s arsenal to set the tone, give layers to the atmosphere, craft effective symbolism, and help the reader remember things. When I say that the descriptions in a book were vivid, this is usually what I mean: I can see it clearly in my mind, and the colors look like they’re ready to burn the imaginary canvas.
And that’s something Where Dreams Descend gets. I’m not an artist, but there were scenes I would have painted if I could, that I remember perfectly not because of what happened in them but because of the use of color. Kallia in her green cloak and red boots, standing in the snow, surrounded by the people of the ghost city Glorian, all dressed in muted tones. Kallia in red, descending from the sparkling chandelier, flames dancing around her – so much of the best symbolism in this book is tied to fire; no wonder it’s so red.
What I am is a synesthete: color has always been a vital part of remembering things for me. I learned numbers and the alphabet in color; their very essence can’t be separated for the color I see them in. Which is why, for me, books that rely on this kind of writing result particularly memorable for that alone.
One such category of books are those based around spectacles and circus-like settings, as Where Dreams Descend is. The glamour of them exists to conceal, to draw the reader’s attention to the appearances and away from the tricks below, the mystery in waiting. It’s not a case this kind of attention to color is common in this subgenre – just think about the black-white-silver color scheme of Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, with only the occasional drop of red, like petals falling on a stage or maybe blood. Think about Stephanie Garber’s choice of making the main character of her YA fantasy book Caraval have a form of synesthesia that conflates color and emotion.
A non-superficial use of color also serves to set your book apart. The color schemes of the books I mentioned are all different from each other, but what they have in common is that they don’t feel like an encore of the Generic Fantasy Aesthetic. Which I guess would also help if you were the kind of reader who knows how to make aesthetic posts tumblr-style (I, again, am not), because they wouldn’t feel the exact same as every book before in their genre. What I can say is that I sometimes may end up disappointed by the actual plot of these stories – not all mysteries are as interesting, not all surprises are as satisfying – but I remember them in a way I wouldn’t otherwise.
There are many other ways to use color deliberately – not only as a superficial descriptor – to make a story work better:
Color-coding: sometimes the worldbuilding has many different categories for one reason or another, and the reader is going to forget and confuse all of them unless you make them easy to remember. One of my favorite ways to do so is color-coding them. I know I would have never been able to get into Mo Dao Zu Shi had the many different sects not been color-coded in the adaptation, as the cast of character is neverending; I loved the symbolism of the kefta among the various Grisha in Shadow and Bone, color-coded according to their powers; or the Hexarchate factions from Ninefox Gambit, which without the faction colors would have made the book even more difficult to follow.
Memorable symbolism: so you have significant symbols in your story and you don’t want them to feel too banal; what you want is the reader to remember them. Give them a color that would make them stand out! Another book I described as vivid this year was The Empress of Salt and Fortune, a novella that knows the importance of using color to make its descriptions effective in the little space it has: I still remember the red lake and won’t forget the specific significance of black salt.
Setting the tone: maybe I’m yet again biased because red, but I remember how different from the rest of the book the scenes in the Red Room from The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz felt. The Red Room is a special, magical place, and it feels like one. As the main character Mercedes says, red loves you back. It’s one of my favorite books for a reason, after all.
Colors also have cultural significance, which adds another layer to the previous points – keeping of course in mind that every culture has its own ideas about colors’ meanings, if you’re writing outside your own. For example, there’s a certain blue = sad correlation in English, but we don’t really have that in Italy or in the Italian language.
Have you read any of these? Is there any book you remember specifically for how it used colors?