I quite randomly found this book while scrolling through Twitter. In fact, it was the highly stylized font and title of the second book in this series that caught my attention. We’re all a fan of a good cover, no? With curiosity piqued, I did a little search on Amazon to read about Vanity in Dust, and was drawn by the idea that pixies were not glitter coated sing along partners. In fact, I am a sucker for stories in the dark fairy tale genre. Maybe it’s because I love being immersed in the extraordinary and the artistic, often beautifully described worlds, or maybe it’s because it’s something I could never commit to in long form. I truly appreciate the craftsmanship and detail that comes with creating a high fantasy world. After reading Low’s debut novel, it was clear to me just how deep she falls into what she creates, and her dedication to detail really paid off.
As a fellow writer, I think we tend to read books differently. We notice small style flairs and efforts. It’s a blessing and a curse I think, or maybe it’s just me being a dissecting maniac. That could also be the case and I’m not afraid to admit that. I was excited to bite into a story that was taking a different look at classic features like a wolf’s nobility, or a pixie’s inclination for magic. I love being in the headspace of other writers, especially when the story being told is a darker reflection of an otherwise kind exterior. It’s just proof of how complex we are as humans, and not to be biased (though I totally am!), especially as writers. With that being said, my spoiler-free review from a writer’s perspective:
As I mentioned, I was a big fan of the stylized font and was not disappointed to see it carried on in chapter headings. I could easily see this produced as hardback in the future with shining, embossed letters to further relay the indulgence so many of the characters partake in. I do believe the cover art is best displayed in e-book format, though this in no way hindered my desire to get to the flesh of the story.
Low wasted no time in allowing you to understand exactly what you were in for. Her first sentence clearly paints an incredible image of character and scene. I found this to be a skilled execution, and destroyed whatever skepticism I had going into a debut novel. It was easy to sink into the darkly off center world of The Realm, and its well developed community. (Because of this immediate imagery, Ferrin is actually my little gem, even though he is just a catalyst to the the larger plot.)
Vanity in Dust is set within the three provinces of a realm ruled by an elusive and controlling Queen who is mentioned enough to make a presence without killing curiosity or annoying the mystery that surrounds her. Each province has defining characteristics, class separation, and a hate for one another. Though each bloodline ruling these provinces have unique physical traits, they all tend to fall into the same habits and fashions of the time, which I’m sure is an underlying message to our own society. The problem they all face is the danger of angering the Queen, and a sudden production of bad dust (which is the addiction to magic monopolized by the Queen). While everyone carries on in their dust induced stupor, Vaun, our love to hate to love main character, starts to wake up and question the strange events happening around the use of the Queen’s magic. A couple twists and turns and secrets are revealed, scratching the surface into the nitty gritty of the series arc.
I like that the characters are diverse and complete. They contain depth and I find them to be interesting in their development throughout the novel. It definitely allows you to become attached to the ones you relate to, and I am on the hook to watch how they evolve. The pacing was in typical fashion for a fantasy work, and I like to give the first 100 pages for a fantasy series to truly get going. This is because I understand the necessity of building a world into realism and normalcy before asking your reader to keep up with all the problems and plot twists inevitably approaching. The only issue I had was a weird snag in the middle of the story arc that totally stopped my flow. In my opinion this entire chapter could have been deleted and saved for book 2, if I’m understanding its purpose correctly, however I do get why it was there, nonetheless.
Overall this was an excellent read that I would recommend to others. It is well written, immersive, and has original aspects. I like that it’s got many fantastic elements and merges them together to make what would otherwise be ordinary feel new. It kind of felt as if Gaiman and a Grimm Brother got married then named their baby boy Alice. I want to know what happens next, and if that isn’t a success for Low as a writer, then I’m not sure what is! I had the pleasure of getting to know Cheryl over the period of my reading and have included her responses to some of my questions.
Writer to Writer with Cheryl Low
What inspired you to create this world/story?
Vanity in Dust, and the rest of the Crowns & Ash series, was a creation of obsession. I wanted the hint of fairy tales warped by time and a fantasy world with cars and electricity fueled by magic. I played with the ideas for the world and characters for over a year before I started working on the first book. It began with the city and ghostly wolves running the streets to bring the Queen the souls of traitors and grew from there. I looked at everything around me and wondered how that would work in the Realm.
Which characters are you most attached to?
I’m attached to so many of them at this point! Mostly everyone Vaun loves.
Fay Dray Fen, Vaun’s sister, is one of my favorites to write. She’s dark, bitter, and absolutely unyielding. She’s a princess, unloved by her Queen, who creates and upholds her own legend—making her one of the most powerful figures in the Realm.
Which was the hardest character for you to write/get in the headspace of?
AviSariel was, easily, the hardest character for me to really get into. She’s lost in the Realm, in a world I made, and at odds with most of the other characters, characters I love. She’s deeply jealous and unsatisfied and it wasn’t easy for me to delve into her at first. But the more she evolves, the deeper I get into her character, the easier it gets to write her.
Do you have a process to get into The Realm before writing it?
At this point it comes pretty naturally. I do have playlists though, for the different books and even for a couple of the characters. I also have a fun one for when they’re in teahouses and clubs, to set the mood. I almost never write without music. It gets to the point where, if I put one of the Crowns & Ash playlists on while I’m out walking or shopping or at the gym, I’ll start plotting scenes for the series.
Which province would you live in?
Vym. I want to say Belholn, because everything is a little more extreme there—grittier and even more dangerous than the other provinces—but if I’m being honest, I’d be a Vym girl all the way.
What’s your writing background?
Writing is the only thing I wanted to do. Even when I was a kid, I didn’t care where I was going to live or what sort of job I’d have to pay the bills. I just wanted to write books, to make worlds, to contribute to the creative ocean. I finished my first novel when I was a freshman in Highschool. It was awful, but it taught me that I could finish a story. So, I just kept writing them until I had something worthwhile.
What was your biggest struggle in producing this novel?
Getting it done and streamlining the plot. Vanity in Dust was my debut novel. I finished the first draft in 2012 and it took me at least two years to write it. I was winging it, and I’m not a clean writer. It was a hot mess. After that, I just patted myself on the back and wrote the next two. And then some other books. I had figured out the best methods for me to write books, but I still had no idea how to go about editing or publishing one. But I had so many ideas and so much love for the world of Crowns & Ash. I was incredibly fortunate that Laura Harvey at World Weaver Press saw potential in my work. She gave me pages of revision notes and absolutely slashed my manuscript with her ruthless red pen work. I loved the whole experience and I’ve learned so much from it.
What writers have inspired you?
I’ve always been a fan of Anne Rice and Tanith Lee, inspired by their art as well as their careers. I’m also particularly inspired by Gail Carriger, her world building and the way she goes about her social media. She’d incredibly accessible but still professional. I don’t know if I can ever achieve that, but I am inspired by it.
Though I think, the writers that have inspired me most in life are the ones I know personally—many of which aren’t published yet. They show me again and again that brilliant writers are all around us, many not yet published, and it’s a privilege to get to read their work before the rest of the world.
What is your favorite book of all time?
Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee. It blew my mind when I was a kid and I’ve just never shaken it.
For readers interested in purchasing your work, what books would you compare to?
This question always throws me. The Crowns & Ash series is a dark fantasy with modern themes. It’s a fairytale world through a kaleidoscope. If you enjoyed the Dark Jewels Series by Anne Bishop, Thief with No Shadow by Emily Gee, and any soap opera, you might enjoy Vanity in Dust.
-Any advice for other writers?
Treat it enough like a job that you get it done, but not so much that you look forward to the weekend. It’s been said before but, write something you love—something you want to read—that way you’ll always have at least one happy reader.
Anything you want readers to know as a writer?
It turns out Amazon reviews are super important, so do your favorite books a favor and leave a review.
Detox in Letters, is the second book of the Crowns and Ash series. Look for its cover reveal on June 27th and its release later in September. You can purchase Vanity in Dust on Amazon. Follow Cheryl at the links below for further updates!