Only the day before yesterday, I finally finished listening to all seven Cradle books in a row. It was a...unique...experience for me, and I'm going to share some of my thoughts on the experience to try and explain why.
This is a longer post than normal, so I'll include some section headings to break it up. And to make me look more professional.
THE AUDIO EXPERIENCE
First off, I have of course re-read the books before, and I've listened to Travis' narration as well. But I've never listened to an entire Cradle audiobook sequentially from start to finish, much less the entire series.
Listening to the stories as opposed to reading them made me slow down and focus on each book more. Because I wrote them, I usually have a tendency to skim parts that I remember well, and I don't get as immersed in the stories since I'm thinking more about how they're written and constructed.
Audio helped solve both of those problems.
You can't skim while listening, so I was forced to stay engaged even in scenes that I could quote from memory. And I was far more immersed than I normally am while reading my own work thanks to the performance of narrator Travis Baldree.
Hearing his delivery of my lines and my characters gave me a new perspective on both. I'm not sure how this happened, but sometimes he even tricked my brain into forgetting that I wrote these books, so I was able to enjoy them as though I was reading someone else's work.
There was one point at which I laughed aloud at one of Eithan's lines and then immediately thought "Wait a second, did I just laugh at my own joke?"
All in all, it felt like this was the first time I had experienced Cradle as a reader rather than as the writer.
I'm going to be completely real with you guys: it was a little disconcerting how different the books looked to me this time.
INDIVIDUAL BOOK BREAKDOWN
For Unsouled and Soulsmith, I had a hard time staying engaged. I've read those two books more than any of the others (as you'd expect, since they're the oldest in the series), and I go over their notes regularly. There wasn't much new for me to remember or learn from those two.
Then we hit Blackflame, and immediately the series kicked up two notches.
I do think Blackflame is a stronger book than the first two, which is reflected in a higher review average, but boy I didn't expect how much it would grab me. I regularly found myself forgetting to take notes because I was hooked by the story.
In my opinion, BF is where the books stop feeling like a semi-generic martial arts fantasy series and start feeling like Cradle.
From here on, I want to stress again that the following is my perspective as a reader having just finished re-reading the series, and not necessarily my opinion as the writer.
Those are different things. When I say that I really loved a book, that doesn't mean I don't know what its weaknesses are, and when I say a book has weaknesses, that doesn't mean that you're wrong for liking it. Every story has weaknesses.
With me? Good.
I didn't trip on Skysworn at all.
I thought it might trip me up, because I largely agree about what the weaknesses of that installment are, but when I went from books three to four to five, it felt like a seamless journey.
I'm not sure how I would have felt reading Skysworn as a standalone, but it isn't and I didn't.
However, it didn't have many of the big highlight moments from the other books. When I think over the moments that I enjoyed the most from this recent re-read, none of them are in Skysworn.
I loved Ghostwater.
For one thing, Travis' voice for Dross is exceptional. It's not like I haven't heard it before; in fact, we went back and forth with several voices for Dross until he landed on one that he was happy with, and I heard all of those versions.
But as I listened to the whole book, I remembered that Dross adds so much personality to the series, and Travis adds so much personality to Dross.
Another factor is a clever writing construction that I only vaguely recall setting up. Remember earlier when I said reading through these was a disconcerting experience? This is part of what I'm talking about.
There are so many layers of progression in Ghostwater, each inextricably connected to the others. Lindon and the others are making their way physically through the Ghostwater facility, which is one layer. As they do, they're learning more about Ghostwater and the project that Northstrider was trying to run there, which is a second layer.
Then there's Lindon, who advances on the sacred arts as he pushes through the wells and grows in maturity and responsibility as he has to fight people stronger than him while taking care of those who are weaker.
Orthos starts off beaten and old and sick and wounded, and he regains his youth and strength as they progress. Dross evolves to a new stage with every step, gaining new faculties both magically and mentally. Even Little Blue goes from weak and exhausted to stronger and happier.
On top of all that, the world is dissolving, which keeps a time limit on the whole thing. Every time Lindon beats an opponent and forces them to use their escape rope, the dissolution speeds up, leading to an increase in stakes.
I remember designing all of that, but I don't remember intentionally tying so many different things to their progress through Ghostwater. It was somewhat intimidating, because I'm not sure if I could do that again.
Then I made it to Underlord, which is almost certainly the strongest entry in the series so far.
The gang is all together working toward a singular goal, we get more development of the antagonist than we usually do, we learn a lot more about the world, and the elements from Ghostwater paid off.
I was in the middle of the scene in Underlord where Lindon meets with Yerin in her recovery tent and they're both trying to get out what they need to say before Eithan barges in and ruins everything, and I was interrupted by a phone call.
I was so annoyed, and I recognized immediately that I was irritated because I wanted to hear what Lindon said.
Underlord is the closest thing so far to the ideal Cradle book, IMHO.
I'll have to give you a rain check on my experience with Uncrowned. My thoughts were too closely tied to Wintersteel, which I'm currently working on, so that I can't really untangle my opinions on Book Seven with the Book Eight that currently only exists in my head.
But here's the final takeaway.
THE FINAL TAKEAWAY
It felt like I was finally able to get a glimpse of the forest after years of staring at individual trees.
When I look at my own work, I usually see only the flaws and the mechanics. I can intellectually know when an element works because I can point to the fan response and the exact reasons why it works, but I don't feel it.
I only feel my mistakes and weaknesses. I know that when I wrote a particular scene, I was scared or uncertain or tired, or I was pretty sure it was going to be crap, and that emotional state sticks with me.
Being able to take a step back from that baggage and see the series more objectively was a real eye-opener for me. It was honestly disturbing, the degree to which my feelings about myself colored my perception of my work.
For the last several years, I've felt like I've been building a little sandcastle. A bunch of people come up to me and say "Wow, that castle is amazing!" and I thank them, but I know it's just a crappy sandcastle.
Then, when I got a chance to look from their perspective, I saw an actual castle.
If I had to put words to my experience, it would be something like "Wait a second, I didn't build that. Where's my sandcastle?"
My opinion of myself warps my perspective on me and my work to a greater degree than I ever realized. It's something that I've really been wrestling with this week.
If what I thought I was building was so different to what I was actually building, how did I see it so wrong? And what else about myself am I wrong about?
Also, for the first time, I was able to get a taste of what it would be like to read the Cradle series if I weren't the author.
I think I'd enjoy it.
Which is pretty encouraging!
P.S. My personal rating of the Cradle series 1-6 (not counting Uncrowned for the same reasons I stated above):
EDIT: Upon further reflection and discussion, I've switched BF and GW so that Ghostwater is now #2. I think I did enjoy it slightly more than Blackflame, but the top three are very close.
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