The book I just reviewed at Black Gate made me think again about how much my reading expectations are formed by titles, cover art, cover copy, and above all in the case of K.J. Taylor’s The Shadow’s Heir, by a half-inch square of space on the cover containing the words, “Book One of The Risen Sun.” Alas for an otherwise good book, this is not a first volume of a second trilogy; it’s a fourth volume in an ongoing series. Since my review column focuses on debut volumes of new series, the main reason I picked this book out of the box of review copies was its promise to be a good entry point to Taylor’s work for readers new to her. It was many things, but it wasn’t that. Considering that the author’s website includes, as fun facts, the titles she originally gave the books in her first trilogy and the reasons her publishers changed them, I wonder who made the call about labeling The Shadow’s Heir as Book One of something.
The resulting problems with The Shadow’s Heir put me in mind of a much older book, Tanith Lee’s A Heroine of the World (1989), that I found intoxicatingly delightful. Its title was a distraction for a while, because I had a specific idea about what kind of heroine the protagonist would become. About a hundred pages in, I began to alternate between deciding that Tanith Lee was deliberately trying to expand the range of what counts as heroism, and deciding that Tanith Lee had somehow gotten stuck with an ill-fitting title. Considering that foreign editions of A Heroine of the World didn’t even try to translate the title, but went instead with the protagonist’s name, I suspect the latter. It helped that the book really was a freestanding one-volume story, but basically the mismatch between the character and the expectations raised by the title didn’t trouble me much. But the critical and readerly reception for Lee’s book has been shaped almost entirely by that mismatch.
The moment I finished reading A Heroine of the World, I rushed to Google to find out if there were any sequels. All the internet wanted to talk about was how disappointing the protagonist was in light of the title. She didn’t master any martial arts, lead any armies, conquer any nations singlehandedly, etc. She was an artist, for pete’s sake! Not an ex-artist who took up arms, but an artist who got artsier and artsier and more like herself as the book progressed. She survived two massive wars, but didn’t shape them, so how could she be a heroine of the world? Some critics even blasted Lee as an antifeminist, on the grounds that the book held up heroism-lite as the most that a woman could accomplish.
Was this a problem with the book, really? No, this was a problem with the title.
The fate of a book can turn on five or six words chosen in haste or deadline-driven desperation, in authorial cluelessness about the market or in a marketing person’s office without the author’s full agreement. No wonder we writers are such neurotic creatures.