My (bad) habit of reading reviews for Disciple, Part I has dropped off considerably, but I still glance at them now and then. Those that have complaints tend to say things like "never explained anything" and, as a result, "couldn't get into it."
Okay. Valid point. That's the flip side of the "I don't spoon-feed my readers" coin -- some readers are starving for explanations.
And maybe I'm not so sensitive to that because I rarely feel starved for explanations, myself, when reading a book. I can appreciate details that don't need further exposition, and I'll wait for infrequent spoon-feedings of information. Mélusine, by Sarah Monette, was a bit of a smack up side the head, in that way. And that's probably a good thing. (Paperback available on Amazon.)
No spoons, here. Monette kept me hungry.
I read the prologue and it's a bit like getting thrown against a wall. The world-building is a mass of details and assumptions encoded in a dense (but engaging, thank goodness) voice.* The author throws down her gauntlet and that's your fair warning. A couple dozen pages in, when the few scraps of explanation raised more questions than they answered, the challenge was even clearer. Figure it out for yourself.
The fine line that Monette walked, though, is that I never doubted that what I needed was in there. Enough was intuitively obvious, coupled with minor scraps of definition, that I could build an understanding of her world even with what she didn't give me. And given that I could figure out most things, what became really glaring were the places she didn't give me enough to go on. I had to choose to not be annoyed about those.
How in the heck do you present an avalanche of world-building with enough structure to reassure people that they can run with it? It's one of those Subtle Things, and I've teased out this much: some of it is repetition in different contexts so you can see the pattern, some of it is careful coding using words you have to trust the reader to know, and some of it relies on intuition -- which can fall on its face.
Repetition with context: "flat"
The first time we see this word, it's: Kethe, spare me from flats. Second: She was a flat, sure, and she was spoiled, for damn sure... Third: [referring to dangerous neighborhoods] ...but they ain't places that I'd take a flat. Those are fairly context-free, but even so it's clearly an insult in the first line. Second time, it's put on par with being spoiled. Third time, you get a sense of social context. I caught on that it was the term for those who were not living on the mean streets.
Coded with trust: "septad"
Something they don't quite teach you in school: it behooves you to know the Latin (and Greek) prefixes for various numbers and quantities. You'll pick up a bunch by way of geometry (pentagon, hexagon) and computer literacy (gigabyte, nanosecond), but you really should learn the whole list of them. Monette's trusting that we all know septa- indicates seven. In Mélusine, "septad" is a multi-purpose word indicating a group of seven. Days, feet, coins, it doesn't seem to matter. It's never explicitly defined, and it doesn't need to be.
Intuition: colloquial phrases, "thief-keeper"
My personal favorite was: If she was any flatter, they'd be paving the street with her. Also, nutty as a box of squirrels. This was part of what made the voice so engaging -- colorful, yet intuitively graspable catchphrases. Mildmay supplies the vast majority of them.
"Thief-keeper" is another word that was used without explanation. It did eventually get some context, but it was obvious enough that it only needed minor modification: child thieves, in specific, like Fagin.
Too much to handle?
You do this all the time, actually, in everyday life: pick up details because of context and tone. If you know how people speak, and you can hear your characters clearly, these details will fall into place on their own. Mostly. It's something to tweak in revision. Good to be aware of, and good to keep an eye on, but being too deliberate or, God forbid, bending the dialogue to fit it, will only look clunky.
So, as requested, those are some of the thoughts that Mélusine stirred up. I gave it four stars over at Goodreads. I'm stingy with my stars, so that's an excellent rating for me. Wasn't five because the plot did get a little bogged down and hazy around the 2/3rds mark. But it's full of wonderful imagery, dripping with voice, and the world-building is excellent. Minor caution: it does include some sexual nastiness.
*In my brief Goodreads review, I mentioned how this book reminded me of A Clockwork Orange -- that's both because of how you're tossed into the lake (so far as the voice goes) and how the first-person narrator manages to be engaging in spite of that. Mélusine's voice is, in fact, more engaging and easier to read than Orange. Not least because even Mildmay is far more likeable than Alex...