Review: The Rithmatist

December 27, 2013 at 10:17 am (fantasy, negativity, teen)

The Rithmatist
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why have I been waffling over this review for months? It’s not like it’s ever going to be read by more than a dozen people or so. I expect it’s because Sanderson is a VPA (Very Popular Author) and I’m about to be really critical of this book. But you know what, Sanderson fans? Tough. These are my opinions, and you don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to read them. Go on, stop reading. Shoo!

Now, then. Oh, wait, one more thing: SPOILERS AHEAD.

This was a good read, up to a point, but flawed in several important ways. The way I see it is that Sanderson had two reasonably original ideas – animated and sometimes dangerous chalk drawings, and a colonized country made up of a vast collection of islands – and pasted them over top of a bog-standard school story and the real world circa 1890-1910. To my eyes, the paste is rather lumpy and the surface of these ideas got quite wrinkled and torn.

The book is convincing when describing the chalklings in action and even the science/magic behind the creation and control of them by Rithmatists. The larger world-building, however, is much less so. Even after 200 years of tangling with the “wild chalklings,” it seems, the general populace and also the non-Rithmatist educated elite are profoundly ignorant about virtually everything to do with them – and so is the main character (Joel) and, worst of all, so is the reader. Apparently the wild chalklings just appear from a dark tower or something, off in what might be the upper Midwest or Nevada (except that it’s all islands with ripped-from-the-real-world names) and the Rithmatists who aren’t teaching or on leave are all there, trying to keep them contained.

By the way, Sanderson did avoid the major sin of pretending that the Native Americans were never there, instead saying that the wild chalklings drove them all south into the still-surviving Aztec Empire – ooookay then. Apparently it’s still the Mighty Whities who have to save the world. With SCIENCE!

… And religion: one of the things I really balked at is the notion that what looks like the High Anglican church has made all its saints Rithmatists, despite the fact that (as far as I can make out) chalklings are apparently a strictly New World phenomenon and Rithmatism a (relatively) modern response to them. Oy gevalt, he’s thinking I should believe this stuff? Old religions are really set in their ways. – Of course, it could be a new religion that’s taken over and pretends that it’s really just the old one, but nothing even hints at that (nor is it necessary: newbetterdifferent religions seem to do just fine with claiming superiority to the old ones here in the real world, nu?). Or is it really an old religion that is somehow congruent with the science/magic needed to deal with these New World chalklings? Argh. It makes no sense.

Finally, you would think that in a region consisting of a bunch of islands, creatures that are essentially drawings would have a lot of trouble getting from one island to the next. Right? Drawings, expanses of salt water, logic. This was bothering me for a good four-fifths of the book, until the BIG REVEAL: wild chalklings can inhabit and take over human beings (and probably animals, I should think)! Water problem solved. And then there’s the SLIGHTLY LESS BIG REVEAL: Rithmatists are inhabited by what, for lack of vocabulary provided by the book, I’ll call Good Chalklings, which bear a great resemblance to ancient petroglyphs.

Now, why the heck is all this a SECRET? In fact, how COULD it be? 200 years, remember. Huge chunks of the book’s plot were spent on Joel attempting to find out what everybody (or at least every educated person) should’ve known – in other words, on finding out how the world he actually lives in works. It’s like Sanderson felt that the plot about somebody murdering Rithmatist students with chalklings and the plot about Joel learning more about his deceased chalkmaker father and the plot about Joel becoming friends with Melody-who-draws-unicorns just weren’t enough to carry a novel. Honestly, the secrets of chalkmaking for Rithmatists would’ve been interesting and much less of a plot-based stupidity than the Truth about Chalklings.

And then there’s the thing that utterly killed my enjoyment of the novel, right at the end. I’d put up with the things I’ve already mentioned well enough. I tolerated the School Story 101 material, partly because I like Melody (I like characters who stubbornly refuse to conform to expectations) and partly because it was really quite well done in an “oh look, that was really quite well done” technical way – you know how you can appreciate a good magic trick even if you can see how it was done? Like that. And I have to say that when Joel joins Melody in the dueling circle (yes there is dueling) it really is a stand-up-and-cheer moment, I loved it.

But the thing that really upsets me is that Joel really wants to be a Rithmatist, but for what turns out to be boring scheduling reasons he never had a proper “inception ceremony” in which he might have become one. (It appears, by the way, that the local priest in charge of these things doesn’t even know or care how important the ceremony proper can be – whyyyyyy?? Because plot!) With a little persistence and support from friends and authority figures, though, Joel finally gets one right near the end of the book.

And two things happened that pissed me off. First, after all the setting up and setting up and setting up this event, Joel didn’t become a Rithmatist. Apparently not every reader minds having their genre expectations stomped on by the author for no good reason, but I do. Second, the no good reason is this: somewhere around here (I was too angry for the details to stick in my mind) it was casually revealed that there are only supposed to be X number of Rithmatists at one time, so there was no point in Joel going through the inception ceremony (which you’re only allowed to do once!) unless there was an opening. Which he and his professor friend would’ve known about, since they’d been laboriously going through the rolls of Rithmatists, all without a single mention of this key fact. Unless (BIG REVEAL) the fact that a number of Rithmatists (including the apparently-murdered students) had been captured by wild chalklings, who then carried them into the inside of their human hosts, threw off the count … but there was no mention of the missing-person problem, or even of this possibility. Which, again, after 200 years of experience? No.

Yes, I’ve noticed that I’m willing to give a pass to the idea that two-dimensional creatures can capture three-dimensional beings, turn them two-dimensional, and carry them to the inside of other three-dimensional beings, but NOT to the idea that knowledge crucial to the survival of a civilization has been buried in the secret sections of university libraries for generations. The one thing is a wild and interesting idea fit for exploring in a fantasy novel. The other requires generations of human beings to be so criminally stupid that I want to drag them out of the book so I can punch them in the face.

See? It’s actually quite simple. Overall, the book was written to withhold vital knowledge from all of the characters and the reader for no better reason than SURPRISE! Or to generate extra tension. Or whatever. I hate that, and I’d give it one star except that it really was a pretty good read, up to a point.

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Scrapbook of Secrets by Mollie Cox Bryan (2012)

April 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm (cozy mystery, negativity)

This cozy mystery brings us to Cumberland County, Virginia.  (Apparently by reading a lot of these things, I’ll be able to vicariously visit the whole country.) And it’s also one of two series I’m aware of that have scrapbooking as the, hmm, creative focus of the characters.

There’s a lot to like about this book, such as: characters ranging in age from youngish moms to outright elderly; a Jewish point-of-view character who actually struggles with issues related to being Jewish in exurban Virginia; acknowledgment of racial issues (at least in the past); generally matter-of-fact dealings with issues of sex and sexuality and infidelity.  And I’m okay with the slight supernatural element (ghosts).

Unfortunately, it has no narrative tension.  The story meanders through multiple points of view, which is generally interesting but does little to advance the plot.  I think the author’s goal was to explore the repercussions of the victim’s murder and of her activities prior to her death.  Laudable, certainly, but the result is a series of incidents that connect poorly to each other and don’t create much of a feeling of progress toward the goal of solving the mystery.  This may be like reality, but reality doesn’t make a good narrative.

Also, I was really annoyed by certain characters’ decision to go off and confront the probable murderer.  They’re both smarter than that … and then the whole confrontation fizzled rather than exploding.

The bones of a good story are here; it just needed to be executed better.  I may give the forthcoming second volume of the series a chance, but I’m not sure.

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Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2010)

March 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm (fantasy, negativity)

Page 143: I’m bored. I shouldn’t be bored – Tchaikovsky’s world-building is amazing, and his writing in general is excellent – but there it is. The writer loves his world so much that he spent 70-odd pages exploring one city. And the characters and the overall situation, which required them to leave that city. Now he’s already spent another 70-odd pages exploring a different city, with the four main characters handily divided up into three groups so as to expose the widest range of its huge and chaotic society.


And there are two [ETA: excuse me, SEVEN] more volumes of this series.

I mean, seriously. This is an incredibly creative fantasy world – the conceit is that in this world, humans used to be at the mercy of the giant insects that inhabited it, but instead learned to adopt specific insectoid aspects that gave them an important edge. So the Ant kinden are linked mind-to-mind, the Beetle kinden are sturdy and industrialist, the Mantis kinden are unsurpassed warriors, etc. There are physical differences between the kinden (the Fly kinden are all very short, and unreliable), and through the “Art” most people are able to do things like generate wings and fly. The aggressive Wasp kinden can apparently generate a “sting” of energy.

Fascinating. But not enough to carry on the story by itself. Intrigue and fighting in the streets and treachery and stuff are all there, but … I’m bored. It’s taking too long. Huge events are rumbling forward (evil empire versus loosely affiliated city-states). I’m not against big, sprawling novels in theory, but I just can’t get into this one.

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The Magician King by Lev Grossman (2011)

March 4, 2012 at 3:28 pm (fantasy, negativity)

I returned this book to the library unfinished.

I’d checked it out because I’d heard about it somewhere, in positive terms. And it’s quite interesting, really, even if a lot of it’s a ripoff of Narnia. Excuse me, an homage to Narnia. There are in fact some pretty interesting things in the chapters I managed to get through – I like the clock-trees. The backstory section about Julia was sad and fascinating. And I liked the part about Quentin choosing to take the ship that had to be refloated and repaired first.

But. Every other paragraph somehow gave me a vibe of “Look at me! I’m a Fantasy Novel!” An artifact of the point of view character being a transplant from our real world? Perhaps. My actual diagnosis is that it’s really a Literary Novel transposed into a fantasy world, leaving mostly intact the detached, nearly antiseptic mode of nearly every modern Literary Novel that I’ve started to read and then set aside in detached, nearly antiseptic boredom.

Quentin’s ennui is, to me, indistinguishable from the ennui of the real-world corporate time-server or ambitionless yet frustrated housewife. The attempt to transplant this mode into fantasy does no favors for either genre.

So “It was ok” about sums it up. It just wasn’t ok enough for me, personally, to finish reading it.

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The Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan (2011/2012)

February 12, 2012 at 10:34 pm (fantasy, negativity)

Two positive reviews in a row – okay, so they were both back in December and now it’s February,  never mind that – so it must be time for another pan.

An ominous way to start, eh?  Actually it’s not all bad – Sullivan has a good authorial voice, an excellent line in witty banter, engaging characters, and a bunch of interesting ideas.

The problem is, this trilogy of books needed better editing.  I’ve gathered that Sullivan is one of the handful of authors who’ve made the transition from self-published to published, which is great for him.  But Orbit Books is not the first publisher to pass through books that need more work.

What do I mean by “editing”?  I mean having somebody (and preferably multiple somebodies) look at the aspects of the book that don’t rely on that evasive and indefinable “way with words”:  pacing, structure, plot, and worldbuilding.

Actually, I’m mostly going to talk about the first book, Theft of Swords, because that’s the one I’ve read.  My husband read all three, and laments that so many trees have died to print them.  I couldn’t bring myself to read the second and third, even though I was somewhat interested in who the Heir of Novron really was, what the Church thought it was up to, and how the approaching civil war was going to work out.

The fundamental problem is that the further into Theft I read, the more I felt that I was reading an unreliable narrative.  In a book with an unreliable narrator, the reader realizes (sooner or later) that the putative speaker is not necessarily providing a true, complete, or accurate picture of events.  With an  unreliable narrative, the reader realizes that the author is withholding information that might make the novel’s events make sense.

An engaging style and characters can only do so much; a book also has to deliver things happening, with an order and level of impact that both makes sense and keeps the events moving forward in a way that satisfies the reader.  A really good narrative develops a sense of inevitability without seeming forced, and delivers the reader to a conclusion (even in a series book) that feels like milestones have been passed and the characters have reached an important new stage.

Theft doesn’t do that, even though it concludes with Important Revelations, the destruction by fire of a large building and most of the people in it, and a fight with a not!Dragon (yes, those last two are closely related).  It took too long to get there, wandering in and out of too many characters’ heads and down side plots until I was reading the book just because I wanted to know what happened in the end (and particularly exactly two characters), not because I was really enjoying it.

It’s hard to point to specific reasons for this perception of narrative unreliability, because the effect is cumulative.  First one thing happens, then another, and then another, and the reader is still left uncertain about where it’s all going.   It’s pretty clear, for example, that the Church of Novron holds the role of Evil in this book.  But why?  The apparent reasons were a mix of ideological politics, callous self-interest, and mindless resort to doctrine.  There was pretty obviously some underlying reason, but neither the protagonists nor the reader were allowed to know what it was.

Similarly, there was no explanation of why nobody was aware that – as was revealed late in the second half – humanity’s ancient enemy, the elves, were still there right across this here river, held in check only by an ancient treaty.  It’s not credible that the Church, top to bottom, really believed they’d never cross the river again.  Or maybe there was some reason, but it wasn’t being disclosed.

Basically, information crucial to understanding what was going on was being withheld from the reader for much, much too long.  It was so well-hidden that I didn’t even know what it was, except that it most likely had something to do with the Church.

In fact, according to my husband, it takes all the way until the very end of the third book for the ultimate reason for all of the religio-political deception and centuries of conniving and human misery to be explained.  That’s what I had begun to suspect would happen.   It’s very nearly the equivalent of the “and then I woke up” surprise ending.

And it is, frankly, a rookie authorial mistake: thinking that holding back the Big Secret to the very end is the way to keep the narrative tension going.  Not in semi-gritty epic fantasy, it’s not.  Knowing the truth and seeing if and how the characters would somehow manage to make use of it?  Now that would’ve been narrative tension.  Instead, both the protagonists and the reader are handicapped by having only the vaguest idea of what’s going on.  The story appears to have no structure, because its backbone is deliberately obscured.

I’ll probably give whatever Sullivan next produces a look, though.  While voice and the style can rarely (if ever) carry a book for me by themselves, if he can get a better grip on structure and all the rest, I bet he could really show me something worth reading.

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Elantris by Brandon Sanderson (2005)

October 27, 2011 at 9:32 pm (fantasy, negativity)

I’m not going to finish reading this book.

It’s really a fascinating setting, and I’ve been trying to finish it, but there’s been one too many Dramatic Reversals, the whole thing has been prolonged by one of the main characters not talking to the other one (I really dislike that), and – forgive me – a book is getting too politically complicated when the antagonist’s struggle to stay on top of his power structure takes up a fourth or so of the wordage.

Plus, it has a Princess ex machina.  I dislike those, too.   Especially when they’re convinced they’re too smart and abrasive for any man (except the Prince!) to be interested in them.   And they’re good at everything except one nonessential thing (art).   And they think deceiving an authority figure (and only that authority figure) by pretending to be a hopeless ditz is good strategy.  And they just happen to be the one to accidentally discover the vile crime going on.   And … well, you get the idea.

Probably, if Sarene wasn’t so irritating, I’d like this book as much as everybody from Locus to Library Journal apparently did.  The reviews are why I picked it up in the first place.  The whole conceit about the highly localized power in Arelon and how it went horribly wrong is quite fascinating.

The conceit about how Arelon’s society and economy might go straight to perdition if it were taken over by merchants and legislated via the profit motive (sort of) is, on the other hand … a bit much.  Not that real people haven’t been at least as dumb, but as somebody (Twain?) once said, fiction has to be more believable than reality.   And it doesn’t help that the Prince, Raoden, turns out to be the one who figures out how to fix things (I think … it’s hard to say since I haven’t finished it).

There was real opportunity here to explore the theology of the antagonist, Hrathen, versus the one common to Arelon and some other nations, but most of the religious matters are handled in exclusively political terms.  Not attractive.   (Actually, Hrathen’s brief crisis of faith is the most interesting religious moment in the book, as far as I’ve read.  And he’s the antagonist, remember!)

I think that covers most of the major issues I have with the book.  Most of the other characters are distinct and interesting, and there’s nothing wrong with Sanderson’s prose.  I just could not connect with the major characters or the plot or substantial segments of the worldbuilding. Very frustrating, and I’m going to clear it out of my reading pile.

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Born of Shadows by Sherrilyn Kenyon (2011)

June 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm (negativity, science fiction, space opera)

I actually had my doubts about this book just from reading the jacket copy, but we’ve all read books whose jacket copy wasn’t a good fit with the actual contents.  Plus, I’ve seen this author’s name before, it was a library book, and I was in the mood to try something new.

And I’m glad I didn’t waste any of my own money on it.  I do enjoy a good space opera, but this isn’t one.

It features characters built out of quirks, stereotypes, and angst; a plot full of more coincidences than a Roadrunner cartoon; and worldbuilding containing even less logic or explanation than can be found in Star Wars.

And the actual writing is about as stylish and enjoyable as stereo instructions.  Or telegrams.  Seriously: “HE CAUGHT THE WAY HER VOICE SOFTENED AS SHE SPOKE ABOUT HER DAD STOP IT WAS OBVIOUS SHE LOVED THE MAN STOP QUOTE THAT WAS NICE OF HIM UNQUOTE STOP” (from randomly-selected page 239).

I did actually read the whole thing, mainly because I was curious about how the two main characters were going to wind up meeting, and then it had the avalanche-of-events appeal of an action movie, complete with witty banter and plot-based immortality.  Unfortunately it also has all the depth and subtlety of an action movie.

And this is a best-selling author with apparently over 50 novels published.  I have to wonder, are they all this rough, or is she just coasting at this point?


Yeah, “STOP” sounds good.  Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

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Non-Review: The Sleeping God by Violette Malan

January 17, 2010 at 8:48 am (fantasy, negativity, non-reviews) (, )

I feel a need to mention up front that the fact that I found this book unreadable does not mean that it’s universally unreadable – an obvious point, considering people at DAW must have read it before they published it in 2007.

On its face, and probably as much as four-fifths of the time, The Sleeping God is technically competent at the sentence level.  It’s the other one-fifth that’s the problem; to my ear, its rhythm, balance, and timing are off.   A huge amount of conveying information in prose is the choice of detail and the timing of its presentation.  I have a nice, clear little example of the problem from early in the book (the book itself has gone back to the library, so this is copied from Violette Malan’s website):

“The market?” Parno said dryly, bracing his feet as Warhammer, not as well trained as Dhulyn’s Bloodbone, shied slightly, pulling him forward.

My problem with this short paragraph is both minor and, multiplied repeatedly throughout the book, significant.   When I speak of choice of detail, rhythm, and so forth, I mean that this sentence would be better, to my ear, if it read:

“The market?” Parno said dryly, bracing his feet as Warhammer shied slightly, pulling him forward.

(1) The names of the two horses had been given before, so there was no reason to specify that Bloodbane belonged to Dhulyn; (2) there was no need to mention Bloodbane or the horses’ training at all.   It’s unnecessary detail that interrupts the (admittedly minor) action in this short paragraph.  Also, (3) I’m not convinced that “dryly” is the best word in this context; it means something between “wryly” and “ironically,” and all that’s happened is that Dhulyn stopped and said, “Did you hear that?”  So where did “dryly” come from?

After considerable thought, I believe that most of what I’m seeing here (and elsewhere) is a flaw in point of view.  This particular part of this scene is written from Parno’s point of view, in the close-focus third-person style that allows limited views of what’s going on in the point-of-view character’s head.  But in this little paragraph, why would Parno spare even an instant’s thought for the relative training levels of these horses?  That one short clause breaks point of view, undermining the narrative’s credibility (and incidentally irritating this particular text addict).

No writer is perfect in maintaining point of view (and Malan does handle shifting between points of view quite well, from what I read), but this insertion of irrelevant detail happens often enough in this book to bother me.

I did read far enough to be bugged by another choice of the writer (and/or editor): the antagonist’s point of view is given the occasional paragraph of unexplained diffuse malice, interspersed with the rest.   Since Dhulyn and Parno go on for some time after the dramatic opening scene not even knowing that there *is* an antagonist, these insertions served to make me frustrated that they didn’t notice what was going on.  Without them, the pair would have known something strange, unsettling, and dangerous had just happened, but their lack of understanding of the source would have seemed more perfectly natural.  The reader (me!) would have received the revelations at the same time as them, instead of hearing the ominous villain’s theme music in the background the whole time.

I would have liked to read this book, since it otherwise seems pretty good (leaving aside the appearance of another pet peeve of mine, the Significant Capitalized Noun that still isn’t a proper noun even with a capital letter on it).  I actually tried reading sections of the middle and even the end, to see if it improved, but … no.  And the end was … pretty cool in one way, and frustrating in another.  In case you want to read it for yourself, I won’t say more (except that this, too, could have been mended by not having seen bits of the antagonist’s point of view all along).

And this non-review is more than long enough now.

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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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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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