ARC Reviewed: Dark Time by Dakota Banks

July 23, 2009 at 10:57 pm (ARC Reviews, fantasy, negativity, urban fantasy)

This book could actually be worse, if the basic sentence-level writing wasn’t competent.

This is only my perspective, of course; the book may be much more appealing to people other than me.   I have never, for example, been a fan of bed-hopping characters of any gender – so that’s a reason for me not to like it right there.  Your mileage may vary.

But there’s a lot more to disapprove of in this book than that.  Indeed, as I slogged through to the end (only actually throwing it across the room once!), I began trying to think of it as a manuscript handed to me by a friend.  A friend I’d like to keep.  So this review should be seen as a round of constructive criticism, insofar as it’s possible to offer such a critique of an already-published work.

Especially an already-published work by a pseudonymous author who has previously had six (!) books published under a different name.  And here I thought I was reading a first published novel.  I suppose I should have known better – first published novels are generally much better than this.

Seriously, Dakota – your editor has let you down.   Your agent, too.

To begin with, facts are important.  Even in a story loaded with impossible fantastic and pseudotech elements, the details about the real world need to be correct.  Why?  Because you never know which incorrect fact will, for any given reader, strike a swift, sharp blow at your story’s credibility and even your credibility as a writer.

Nor do you know exactly how many of these errors it will take for any given reader to start questioning every potentially dubious detail – and/or start complaining about your horrible fact-checking to all of her friends.  Break the reader’s trust in your reliability and you’re halfway to losing her entirely.

Sooo, you say, what facts are you talking about, Text?  The big one is a really big one, since it deeply involves the protagonist’s entire reason for being in this book.

See, the demon got a hold on our multiply-renamed protagonist because she’d been burned as a witch (even though she wasn’t one, and was pregnant to boot) – in late seventeenth-century Massachusetts.  Dakota, honey, the number of witches burned in New England is zero.  They were hanged.  Furthermore, the likelihood of a 17th-century English justice system executing a pregnant woman is approximately zilch.  The English regularly postponed executions due to pregnancy, for offenses up to and including piracy on the high seas.  There was even a term for it – “pleading her belly.”

You can see, I think, how this undermines nearly everything about Protagonist’s initial motivation.   The fact that she miscarried the baby before her execution is immaterial – she was convinced, against all reason, that they would’ve executed her even if she’d still been pregnant. So, the entire first chapter needs to be re-worked.  I’m sure you can think of other reasons for Protagonist to be so embittered she threw her lot in with a demon.

The fact that caused me to throw the book across the room (and start questioning everything) was actually a minor detail in a flashback about Protagonist’s time in Brazil.  As part of the effort to add depth and color to the scene, Protagonist recalls that the man she’s going to see still lives in this crime-ridden favela because he’d been there back when it was still a “respectable neighborhood.”   In reality, Brazilian favelas are shantytowns on the edges of major cities that have never been respectable.  Fascinatingly, some of them have gradually achieved a sort of respectability over the years, but they are not good neighborhoods gone bad.  Happily, this fact problem is more easily fixed than the other one.

These are the two errors that particularly stood out for me (other readers may find different ones).  The latter error, especially, suggests a regrettable level of carelessness with detail.  It drastically heightened my level of skepticism about everything in the story, though to be fair, the initial witch-related error made me more inclined to be suspicious anyway.

And then there’s this other thing – not so much an error as a mind-boggling omission.  Seventeenth-century Massachusetts Protagonist never thinks about her (Christian) God.  Never prays to Him.  Is never shown jettisoning her faith in light of the cruelty being imposed on her by her own religion and justice system.  This makes no sense – and really, the whole thing would be more affecting if she did go through the faith wringer in this chapter or the next one.  But nothing of the sort occurs.

For that matter, almost no one in the novel ever mentions God or Jesus (even in the too-common meaningless interjection form).  Apparently the only real supernatural powers in this world are ancient Sumerian demons and their absentee overlord god, Anu (infodump, pp. 31-32).   And I’m not really comfortable with that, personally.  But in addition, the response of the characters in the novel who learn of this seems to be, “Oh.  That explains everything!”  Or something of the sort.  Nobody, it seems, has ever been to Sunday school, or had to struggle with such a direct contradiction of their traditional faith.  It’s incomprehensible.  This issue needs to be given a lot more thought, and dealt with directly.  It’s a novel with a demon in it, after all.  That ought to loom a bit larger than it does.

Next, the name thing.  For the first fifty-one pages, Protagonist is consistently referred to by her original name – Susannah Layhem.  At the opening of Chapter Nine, she’s renamed herself Maliha Crayne – a decision that took place some time after Chapter Eight: a decision already accomplished, and thus tensionless and relieved of any particular narrative significance, despite a fairly lengthy (action-free) pause to describe her current circumstances.  I think the multiple time frame shifts of the preceding chapters have a lot to do with why this important change falls flat, but more on that in a moment.

Several chapters later in the book, it’s revealed, indirectly, that her current public name is Marsha Winters.   Various people call her Ms. Winters before one finally mentions the whole thing.  Even though, back in Chapter Nine, it was revealed that she was earning a nice living writing popular trashy crime novels, this pen name / “real name” is not mentioned at that point.  This is needlessly confusing (though at least she never thinks of herself as Marsha).

In addition, if she never uses this Maliha Crayne name, why did she bother to adopt it at all?  And stating that she felt she needed to change her name isn’t the same as showing why it was so important to her.  This whole name change concept needs rethinking, or a better portrayal.  I know the symbolism of changing one’s name is powerful, but it isn’t shown powerfully, and the addition of the Winters name dilutes whatever effect it might have had.  But at the very least, put something about the Winters name in the same scene as the reveal about her novel-writing, instead of playing all coy with it, please.

The fact-checking and names problems are perhaps not the major issues that the number of words I’ve just spent on them might suggest; they are, however, symptomatic of the larger problem with the novel, which is a fundamental lack of coherence.

The book just doesn’t seem to know what kind of book it is.  Most of the time, after page 51, it seems like it’s being a techno-thriller; at other points, it has definite overtones of a semi-humorous caper story.  Early on, there are strong elements of supernatural horror / redemption story, but these pretty much vanish, aside from technical details, after page 51.   Starting on page 55, Maliha is being stalked by a really nasty and unnamed guy, so maybe it’s actually a crime novel.  There’s some romance mixed in, too, which doesn’t jell particularly well with all the other elements.

Oh, and there’s a quest – if Maliha can acquire the Tablet of the Overlord and the seven shards of the Lens to read it with, she’ll probably be able to destroy her personal demon (Rabishu) and his six siblings.  In fact, she does acquire the Tablet – in a flashback.  And she finds one of the shards – in the course of a minor side plot.  What’s up with that?  Why the focus on the would-be techno overlord / terrorist, instead of the big quest?  Of course, there is her ongoing quest also – under the escape clause in her contract, she needs to save as many lives as she can (why taking more lives in the life-saving process doesn’t affect the outcome is not discussed) in order to escape eternal torment.

In fact, there’s just too much going on here.   A lot if it is really interesting stuff, actually, but it just doesn’t add up to a coherent narrative.  Some of it has to go.

Part of the problem is the flashbacks – I’ve mentioned those already.  The novel zig-zags through time at intervals that make very little sense to me.  Not only are there flashbacks to crucial moments in Maliha’s progress from assassin to ex-assassin (plus the one about getting the Tablet), but each of her good buddies gets his own flashback showing exactly how they met – even though the narrative already briefly explained that, sometimes many pages before the flashback.  In fact the only one who doesn’t get one is her best girlfriend; what’s up with that?  Anyway, this zig-zagging only exacerbates the problem of figuring out what kind of story this is supposed to be.

Now, there are some good, powerful scenes in this novel, especially in the first fifty pages.  There are also events that make no sense at all (how, exactly, did she sneak onto the plane sitting on the remote runway in broad daylight?).  There are random things that annoy the heck out of this particular reader (she drives a McLaren F1?  Seriously?   Including on trips to break into two different corporate HQs?). But with some judicious pruning and alteration of plot lines – and I have to recommend playing up the quest at the expense of the the techno-thriller plot, because it’s a lot more central to the character’s purpose in life – the pretty good book that’s in here could be liberated.

I’m not sure it would be all that much to my taste even then, but it wouldn’t be such an almighty trial for me to get through.  The average Clive Cussler novel isn’t much more believable, in a lot of ways, but the man does know how to plot and I can read his books without repeatedly going, “What?  No, that makes no sense.  We’re going where now?”

I mean, I know this book is not meant to be Great Literature.  But in its present state it isn’t even a “good read.”  And, Dakota, I have a couple of things to say in this regard, which may be a little hard to take:

First, if you really, truly believe this is the best you can do, then you’re not trying hard enough to get better at what you do.

Second, if you believe this is the best you need to do – and even if that’s actually true – why aren’t you trying to do better anyway?

I could offer some more remarks on structural elements, not to mention the flat characters, but 1900 words is more than enough for a book review.  And, well, it’s already been published, and I think I’ve made my point(s).  Fin.

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Robert V. S. Redick, The Red Wolf Conspiracy (ARC)

May 12, 2009 at 9:27 pm (ARC Reviews)

Now, THIS is the good stuff.  A deep, layered fantasy world, with rare magic, Industrial Age economics, and an excellent mix of personal and political plotlines.  And it isn’t all about the ship, either.

Of course, a lot of it is about the ship: the Charthrand, a 600-year-old relic of a bygone age of magic-enhanced technology.  Not really as big as a city, but certainly comparable in size to a modern cruise liner – although this is a true sailing ship.  It is more than impressive enough to convey the peace mission from the Empire of Arqual to that of the Mzithrin, and more than large enough to hold a lot of secrets.  Which it has to be, given all that’s going on.

What can I say that won’t spoil the plot?  There are multiple point-of-view characters, and the author shifts smoothly between limited third-person and omniscient.  The most prominent characters are Pazel Pathkendle, a young ship’s boy and victim of international politics and well-meaning maternal magic, and Thasha Isiq, upper-class daughter of an Admiral and likewise a victim, at least potentially, of politics.  But there’s also Captain Nilus Rose; Imperial assassin Sandos Ott; and many others.

The world contains many humans, but also multiple other races: amphibious flikkermen; aquatic murths; and the miniature-human ixchel (one of these, Diadrelu Tammariken, is also an important character).  There is even a mention, early on, of creatures that live in the clouds, but only the hawk sees them.  And speaking of the hawk, there are also “woken” animals: ones that have somehow achieved human understanding.  One of these, Felthrup, plays an important role – I will leave you the surprise of finding out exactly what species this fascinatingly original character is.

There is a lot of human history at work in this book – not only the war between the empires that has just ended, but complex Mzithrin internal conflicts, and the past and present actions of paranoid Arquali emperors.  The larger plot takes a long time to unfold (the meaning of the title does not become fully clear until the last chapter), but in the meantime the other characters’ problems and conflicts carry the story forward most delightfully on their own.

And there is also general exploration of the world itself.  The wildly varying humans carry around prejudices against another ethnic groups (though none quite so vicious as that of most humans against the ixchel).  The book periodically takes the time to explore aspects of the world that have little to do with the plot; I was particularly taken with the description of the steerage passengers at the end of Chapter 13, full of the kind of telling detail that makes an imaginary world and place come alive.

I have a suspicion, based on admittedly limited information about flikkermen’s and murths’ knowledge of history, that humans are actually immigrants to this world.  I think there is support for this in the existence of the shape-changing mage Ramachni, who actually visits from another world.  If one mage can make such a trip, why not a larger group of humans?  Or it could just be that the humans have been more successful than the other species.  It’s hard to say.  Perhaps it’s not even relevant to the story.

But I do look forward to finding out what’s in store for this cast of characters; whose plots will succeed, and whose will fail.  A theme that winds through the novel is one of loyalty: who deserves it, who does not, and the difficult decisions that an honorable being sometimes has to make.  In that context, I wonder most of all what will become of Admiral Eberzam Isiq.

Author website:  http://www.robertvsredick.com/

Book website: http://www.redwolfconspiracy.com/ (nice design on this site)

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Peter V. Brett, The Warded Man (ARC)

April 9, 2009 at 10:08 am (ARC Reviews, negativity)

I have to agree with Terry Brooks that “[t]here is much to admire” about Brett’s writing – this novel has good sentence-level work overall (though nothing fancy), excellent grounding, and is generally absorbing, at least up until Chapter 27.In fact, up to that point I was going to give the book a strong recommendation, even though it was flying awfully low and close to the treetops for a lot of the way – and then it nose-dived into the ground. Very disappointing.

Brett has invented an interesting, innovative, and dangerous second world, one in which humans are constantly in hiding with the demons that rise every night from the Core, which is apparently inside the earth in some way (and is also why they’re called Corelings in the book). Apparently it’s always been like that, except for a period when the demons apparently disappeared, and the humans forgot many of the magical Wards that had protected them before, most importantly the fighting Wards. Then, three hundred years ago, the corelings suddenly came back, and rapidly demolished the advanced civilization that had been built up. Now the book’s region contains only a handful of cities and a scattering of smaller settlements, with mostly medieval technology, and the human population is slowly dwindling.

There is a lot of pretty good world-building here, but I do have quibbles.The demons kill and eat animals as well as humans, so why are there any left?The handwavium Brett employs works all right while the novel’s in progress, but it doesn’t hold up well to post-reading analysis.The way the Wards operate is a little problematic as well, and for similar reasons: interesting basic ideas, but they don’t entirely hold together.The society and politics are superficially complex, but I’m not wild about the Bedouin culture knockoff or the Catholic Church with the serial numbers filed off, or the rather advanced female-only medical folks known only as “Herb Gatherers.”

Then there are the characters –well-drawn and engaging, but I have to ask: do we really need to be shown, in detail, the life stories of three protagonists?I think not, except to fill out a Volume One of a trilogy.The weakness of such an approach, however well-executed, is that it can start to drag (losing altitude!) when it becomes clear that the whole point of all this narrative is to draw out the story until the three characters can be “accidentally” brought together somewhere near the end.

Then there’s also the problem of whether the characters’ development is credible.This isn’t too much of a problem with Rojer, whom we meet when he’s three and check in with until he’s about sixteen or so, or with Leesha, who’s almost thirteen at first sighting and is twenty-seven towards the end.They’re both stubborn and talented people, one a musician and the other a healer.To me, the problem is Arlen.He’s capably set up as a strong-willed, natural fighter, in terms of spirit at first, and later (after a substantial skipped interval, during which his training mostly happened) in terms of actual battle.But, I had a lot trouble buying that he’s really obsessed enough, and mentally deranged enough, to turn into the multiply-tattooed, isolated “Warded Man” who turns up toward the end of the book and joins up with Leesha and Rojer.It’s a big step, betrayal by a friend or no, from spending weeks searching ancient ruins for the lost fighting wards (some of which he did find, by the way – no point to the book otherwise) to being a misanthropic fellow who doesn’t share the wards with anyone.

And that brings us to the point where I nearly threw the book across the room.(WARNING: THE FOLLOWING MAY BE TRIGGERING.)Virginal, virtuous Leesha – who has held out against disrespectful and randy men for well over a decade – is raped by three bandits, one of whom is actually described as giant of a man without much in the way of brains.And afterwards she’s shaken, upset, and sore.

Not, I point out, bleeding.Not suffering from possible internal injuries – or, for that matter, major facial contusions or hand-shaped bruises on arms, neck, or legs.Just shamed and aching.

Of course, being abandoned more than a day’s walk from a village in a world where demons rise from the ground every night could give a woman a lot of motivation to keep walking, looking for any hope of shelter, despite considerable pain.But no, actually, the pain seems to pass off very quickly.

So quickly, in fact, that less then forty-eight hours later she’s thrilled to screw the mysterious, tattooed, obsessed Warded Man she just met, while her friend Rojer (who’s no kind of fighter but was willing to risk his life to help her, by the way) snoozes in the nearby cave.

This is where the book nearly took flight.Some men, apparently, still believe that the human vagina can’t be injured by sex, even rape, no matter how brutally or multiply the rape is carried out.That’s ignorant at best, and wilfully stupid at worst.Or, just arranging things so the plot goes in its predetermined course.I’m not even going to get started on the layers of sheer WTF? this development involves beyond the miraculous physical recovery.

I eventually did finish the book, with a much, much more critical eye than before.I couldn’t grasp why Arlen, a talented maker of Wards, couldn’t repair the village’s wards himself during the week or so he was there.Instead he spent his time trying to train the villagers to fight, with the warded weapons that he alone knows how to make.And they did fight – all night long.Eight hours or more.Barely trained villagers.Against countless hordes of (admittedly surprised at the resistance) superhumanly strong demons.It was very dramatic and all, but not particularly credible.

I wanted to like this book and give it a good review, and not just because Del Rey sent it to me for free.The writing shows considerable promise, if the author can learn to plot, world-build, and character-develop at a less superficial level.In fact, he’s so close to being very good that it’s annoying.

But not as annoying as the perpetuation of ideas that continue to help rapists believe women are made for sex, with any guy, any time, without any significant damage.I’m willing to believe he didn’t think this through – there’s a lot of that in this book.What I’m appalled about is that this particular “plot twist” made it through the editing process at Del Rey.Apparently a lot of people really are blissfully unaware of their own cruel stupidity.And that is very disappointing indeed.

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