Reviewing Some Award Winners – Part the Second

As promised, I’m reviewing the opening of the winner of a different award this time around. The genre is more or less the same, but beyond that, there’s very little the two works have in common. As I did last week, I’m not giving the name of the work or the author, because I want the focus to be on the work rather than who wrote it.

Quoted text is italicized, my commentary is not.

Dad, how many universes are there?”

This isn’t a killer opening, but it’s a decent one. There’s a hint to what I suspect is one of the major themes of the work, and at least two people, a father and his child.

Only one, by definition, son,” he answered. “Hence the term universe.”

There’s a hint that the father has a sense of humor here, and a strong suggestion the son is an adult, or at least mature enough to recognize the humor. The father is also rather obviously avoiding a direct answer, which suggests that in this novel’s world there may well be more than one universe.

Spread out on the couch, still in his gear, my father spoke in a weary monotone, not raising his head, not opening his eyes. I was surprised to get even a grunt out of him, much less an answer, even if it was an answer that was not really an answer.

This paragraph trickles out a little more information. The prose so far is simple, focused, and hints at a lot more than is present on the surface. The author is showing the father’s tiredness in the way he speaks, the fact that he’s still in “gear” – without revealing what that gear is (and this makes sense because the son is obviously used to his father getting back from whatever it is he does, and being very tired).

I prodded the fake log with a poker, but no sparks flew up. I tried to keep the frustration out of my voice. Depending on his answer, I would either be back upstairs asleep in ten minutes, or running wildly out of the house into the wide darkness before the dawn, at top speed.

Four paragraphs in, and we’re aware that something the father knows is critical to something the character finds massively important, but which could be a complete bust (the “asleep in ten minutes” comment). The character’s nervousness shows in his poking at the fireplace and trying not to sound frustrated. There’s also a hint of discordance – what kind of job does the father do that he’s getting back from work (which isn’t openly stated, but strongly implied) in the hours before dawn?

It might be too late already. I wanted to take out my phone and look at the time but I feared I might glimpse the message that was still glowing on the little screen.

Here the author ratchets the tension up a little, suggesting that whatever this message is, it’s got the character in quite a state.

Let me ask it another way. What is reality?”

This is a clever way to show that this work is not part of everyday life: there is no aspect of normal life where something important enough to have someone running off into predawn darkness can be answered by this question. More than that, in what kind of weird place and time is this question something you ask your extremely tired father?

He heaved a weary sigh.

And in what kind of world does the extremely tired father respond with the kind of sigh that, although not explicitly described as such, you just know is one of those “why me?” things?

This is a very good example of using simple, unadorned prose to foreshadow strangeness to come and drop hints about the nature of that strangeness, while at the same time drawing a broad thumbnail of the father-son relationship. There’s a lot of depth layered into the deceptively simple handful of paragraphs that act as teasers for what is to come.

And then the author shifts gears.

Before you ask, it was because of a girl. Before you laugh, tell me a better reason to dive headfirst off the edge of reality.

Motivation, right up front and smacking readers between the eyes, as well as hinting that the character is a tad impulsive.

Her name was Penny Dreadful. Unless it wasn’t. I was in love. Unless I wasn’t.

And infatuated if not in love. The kind of family who would name a child Penny Dreadful is left to the imagination, while hinting that the name is an assumed name.

Penny was a very pretty, witty and brave girl, as bold as a Marine platoon storming Iwo Jima. She was famous and rich, and way out of my league.

I like this mix of cliché wrapped around the decidedly not-cliche simile of the Marine platoon. It’s more vivid than avoiding cliché entirely would have been without threatening to send readers chasing down a thesaurus.
It wasn’t her fault. It’s not like she asked me to save her. Heck, she did not even know I was alive. Well, technically she knew I was alive.

She saw me every day. She just couldn’t remember my name.

The character has now been established as potentially unmemorable – at least until the next two paragraphs.

It’s Ilya, by the way.

Ilya Vseslasvyevich Bessmertniy Saint Mitrophan Muromets.

And the brief suggestion of unmemorable is followed by a name that completely overthrows my initial guess and leaves me feeling sorry for the poor sod.

Quite simply by this point I was hooked (and damn it, I really don’t need more in my to-be-read queue, which is getting to the point where it’s going to form a literary black hole soon). This is one of the better examples of a teaser opening I’ve read, where the author does the equivalent of tickling the fish… ahem… reader towards the shore where they can be landed and neatly gutted… um. That may be taking the metaphor a little too far.

At any rate, this particular work is, on the strength of its opening, a worthy contender for the award it won (yes, yes, this is my opinion only). There’s no clumsiness to the prose, no faux-literary flourishes, but there’s a whole lot of depth packed in to what seems simple.


      1. I thought so. The character name sounded vaguely familiar.

        Blast it, there’s no copy available in my local library and they have already rejected my request to get a copy. _sigh_ I suppose I could break down and buy a copy, but I was saving my pennies for that new MHI Anthology coming out.

        1. If it helps, it’s in KU and the ebook is “lending enabled” so you might be able to borrow it from someone.

    1. It’s a balls-to-the-wall insane literary fantasy straight out of Shonen Jump.

      Tired of the idea that literature has to be slow, difficult and depressing? Tired of stories that are not stories, heroes that are not heroes, and worlds that are not worlds? Tired of books ashamed to be fun, ashamed to be accessible, and ashamed to tell the stories that millions have loved for generations?

      John Wright’s Somewither is Narnia where Harry Potter is too busy punching out The Lord of the Rings for you to more than feel the depth.

      By far the best book I read in 2015 that was published in 2015.

      Trigger warning for Catholics, Jews, and a divinely powered many worlds model straight out of The Bible.

  1. I just finished it last week, and it was phenomenal. While it was not at all similar in plot or characters to Lewis’ Space Trilogy, for some reason it kept reminding me of That Hideous Strength as I read it, even though it has been literally several decades since I read the Space Trilogy. After finishing it I realized if I had read it before voting in the Dragon Awards, I would have voted for this book. I suspect this book will wind up a classic.

  2. Hah — I guessed this was Somewither!

    Comparison between the two books: in this example, the prose is smooth and flows evenly, it doesn’t get in the reader’s way. The previous book seemed to have lots of literary pretensions, which I find more difficult to read — I need to stop and re-read or think carefully about what I read. Sometimes that works, but most often (in the paper days) the book would discover the theory of flight.

    A good analogy, just based on the two samples we’ve seen is comfort food vs. the latest foodie fad. People like comfort food because they can just relax and enjoy the meal (along with all of the memories wrapped up in Mom’s recipe for X, etc). Foodie fads take a bit more effort: you’re usually busy dissecting what’s on the plate, why are the portions so small, what’s up with the odd combination of tastes, what *is* that? As you move through the meal, enjoyment only comes after a great deal of analysis, and how many of us go to a restaurant to analyze food (okay, aside from restaurant critics)?

    Many of us read for enjoyment, and books that cause us to struggle with the prose, stop and re-read (or even re-re-read) just to understand what’s being said suck the joy out of our relaxation time. I’ve only gone back to one book where where I had to work past the prose (Cyteen); all others got tossed and donated/recycled.

    1. I think it’s more the difference between a Foodie fad, and the cooking of a top notch chef. The former you’re dissecting everything because every piece smacks you upside the head. With the top notch chef, you don’t dissect it but you find that all the little bits have worked their way into your head: a little sweet, a little salty, a little savory so that afterward if you care to think about it you can pick parts of it apart, but at the time you were so busy enjoying the whole that the bits and pieces (which were there and necessary) simply added to the whole, so you come back again and again because you notice something new to enjoy every time. With most comfort food you don’t want new little bits and pieces to get noticed, you want it just the way you expect it to be. (A good thing, but slightly different category.)

      1. Exactly like that. There are layers and depth you don’t analyze in the first reading because the pacing and tension pulls you.

        It is like Kratman if he was more accessible and written for a young adult audience.

    2. Yeah, Cyteen/Regenesis is the one chunk of Cherryh that I don’t look forward to eventually rereading (otherwise, she is my 2nd-most-reread author, after Jack Vance). When I did, it was because I needed to fill that gap in my grok of the Union/Alliance universe. [Tho I am very tired of the domineering-mother-as-motivator trope, which by this point she’s overused. See Foreigner series and Heavy Time/Hellburner.]

      I haven’t read all of _Somewhither_, just the big sample chunk… it was just interesting enough to keep me going. Repeatedly, the almost-infodumps would nearly lose my attention, then at the last moment it’d do something to bring me back. So I’d have preferred that slightly more integrated. Going somewhere odd, tho, that I can see. Eventually I’ll read the rest.

      1. I think that Cherryh is the only author I will slog through because I know that I will eventually get a feeling of satisfaction. I’ve read everything of hers save for the Fortress series. I just can’t get into it.
        She can somehow create characters that I don’t particularly like but do care about.

      2. I’m not sure I’d see the ilsidi’s mother as a domineering mother… more like Elizabeth Moon’ s hardcase aunt.

  3. It’s in my pile, now moved to the top of it.

    I understand completely about the literary black hole thing. Fortunately, the Kindle hasn’t yet run out of memory.

  4. *massive kitty grin* The first sentence told me. And yes, it really is that good. Not a rapid zoom through brainless fun book, but one that hooks you to the point you’re willing to work a little to get to the good stuff (kinda like a Tootsie-pop (TM)).

    1. Okay. I am AGGRAVATED.
      As long as she keeps writing them, I’ll keep reviewing hem, but DANG!!!!!!! WHY have the works of Alma Boykin not attracted more readers and reviewers? I just don’t frappen get it.
      Well, I have a review of “Ivan the Purrable and the Twelfth Dancing Princess to write.
      Look for it!

  5. Okay, the cover hadn’t hooked me. And much as I like the author (who is a great guy), and his wife (Who is a complete sweetheart), I tried and didn’t get into some of his earlier books. So I didn’t look at this one… but now that you’ve flirted that opening past me, I’m interested enough to go pull the sample.

    Which is, indeed, the function of the opening paragraphs, isn’t it?

  6. I was reading this out loud to my husband; and he tells me that he and our son had this conversation earlier our morning, and son mentioned universes, plural. This resulted in his sire correcting him regarding the breakdown of the word verse. Unlike the example though…

    Son: But Uncle Aff* says in his multiverses, he is God!

    Daddy: That’s ‘multiverse’ though, not *the* Universe.

    * our housemate David; who I write books with. So technically true for the fictional ‘verses we write about. I am curious what the conversation between them was about though…

        1. In your son’s universe, obviously. Kids have all kinds of interesting characters. One of mine was made by a kid.

  7. I have to admit I didn’t care much for Awake in the Night Land – found it too depressing – and I almost passed on Somewither. That would have been a major mistake. Somewhither is a fantastic and fast paced romp.

    1. Did you read the original “The Night Land” by Hodgson, which is available on Kindle free, from Amazon? After I finished that, Wright’s book made a lot more sense.

    2. You might try reading The Night Land, the original, a free Kindle download. Wright’s book makes a LOT more sense after that.

      1. Bear in mind that some folks find Hodgson’s actual prose to be a bit of a slog (which is not usually a fault attributed to Wright).

        “[Hodgson] had the most supreme imagination in his stories even though he had some awful faults in them. His stuff is hard to read, dreadful, and yet the world would be poorer without him, ” — Edmond Hamilton

    1. Actually it’s here.

      The earlier link is to an earlier draft — among other things, Penny Dreadful is named differently. Perhaps calling her “Miss Anthrope” was too foreshadowy?

  8. Wright’s fantasy The Iron Chamber of Memory is also very good. It’s one of those books where you read something and it keeps getting deeper. It’s also one where you start making a mental objection, and you find out in the next chapter that the objection has been met, or used for another purpose, or is a clue to the secret truth of what’s going on. But you can also just read the sucker.

    Readers like to be delighted and intrigued, to be bowled over with scope or made to care for characters’ personal lives.

    Sigh. The last couple of weeks, I really tried to read the first Ancillary book, but it’s just such a slog that I can’t get very far. And my mental objections to plot points never seem to get answered. I would be more forgiving of the errors and silly stuff if the author would just pick up the pace a bit, but she hasn’t yet. I’m not in any hurry to renew this particular ebook. I have a much more exciting TBR pile. Heck, I would rather watch a really generic anime.

    1. It took a while for me to get through Iron Chamber of Memory. The beginning caught me, and then something in the middle didn’t quite mesh with me, but it picked back up and I tore through to the end. I suspect it was that I developed a deep dislike for the female protagonist, which feeling was explained clearly later on (as Banshee says so well.)

    2. I dutifully started in on Ancilary Whatsit. It was a Hugo vote, and I began with high hopes. AI space ships, evil empires, could be good.

      I stopped when I found out what an “ancillary’ was. It’s a disgusting concept, and I did not want to find out more about that world. In fact I was moved to invade that world in my own book and give them all a truly legendary ass kicking. One of those ‘not even slightly fair’ contests where the good guys win without losing a single fingernail.

      I think in fiction I really don’t want to know that much about the bad guy. He’s there to be a problem for the people I’m interested in, the Good Guys. Them I want to know about. If they have feet of clay, they better shake that sh1t off before halfway through too.

      If you’re going to employ a thoroughly disgusting concept, best to keep it vague, off-stage, and let the bad guys be the ones doing it. They’re supposed to be bad, that’s the point of them.

        1. A corpse technologically animated and run by an AI.

          Yes, the empire of the Radhch uses literal armies of walking dead, and yet some readers seem to have trouble realizing they’re bad guys.

            1. They are the bad guys, and that ought to become clear from reading the first book.

              Good ideas, flawed execution IMO. Let down by poor pacing and clumsy prose, especially in the first part of the book.

              1. Poor pacing. Yes, definitely. Almost all the exciting stuff that happens is in the back half of the book. Also (while avoiding spoilers by being vague), if you have the hero running into a secret war, you can’t just have them get defeated the first time you see the villain doing his thing, and then have them win the second time. If you have a secret war, you need at least three different struggles for the MC where things turn out differently. Probably most of the book should be the MC dealing with the secret war.

                Also, if you are going to have exciting parts, you need to keep the non-exciting parts short. Similarly, if you are going to have a mean character that gets better, that person should have some kind of pleasant qualities early on, even if they are revealed only to the reader. (Amusingly snarky narration is a common way to get readers to keep reading about an otherwise unpleasant person.)

                But mostly, it’s silly to say that an incredibly intelligent AI which has all sorts of medical knowledge about humans, would be constantly confused about whether they are male or female humans. If you can tell what emotions people are feeling by their hormones or brain scans, there is no logical excuse for not making distinctions of sex, or having a hard time with grammatical gender.

                The only way this would be explained would be if the AI were programmed to have a block on the subject. However, nothing like that ever came up in Ancillary Justice.

                The general feel of the book is that Leckie originally wrote a short story or novella about just the events at the swamp city, with some kind of colonialism message. When she decided to turn it into a novel and added a lot of new elements, she didn’t balance out the pacing. Then she tried to alternate chapters between the main character’s past in the swamp city and the main character’s present, which wasn’t a bad idea. The problem was that by not shortening the swamp city stuff to what was actually needed, while revealing the ending of the swamp city stuff so late in the book (which wasn’t wrong), she was stuck with stretching a very short sequence of events in the character’s present to cover a very long stretch of book. All the exciting bits no longer came together within a short span of time.

                My feeling is that the big reveal of the villain’s secret war should have happened about a third of the way through the book, maybe sooner. When the main character was traveling toward the denouement, there should have been some kind of run-in with the villain’s secret war where the MC managed to do something different from either the first time things happened, or the final time.

                The other way this could have worked is that the story could have had the MC investigating what happened in an earlier encounter with the secret war, but not recognized. Since an earlier encounter is said to have happened, I’m not sure why the MC didn’t at least try to investigate this. Yes, there was some kind of block, but there’s also such a thing as character ingenuity. Some of the “likable” but not-much-used characters could have helped with the investigation, instead of having us be supposed to like or dislike these people based solely on conversations that weren’t particularly interesting.

                A lot of the AI’s musings came across as padding, frankly.

          1. I didn’t get far enough to care. Main Character is a robot slave working with zombie slaves for bad guys, I’m out. I don’t like pervasive misery in a book. If I want to see that I just look at Drudge Report.

  9. Well, the first few sentences didn’t trigger my gag reflex, nor my “KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!!!!” reflex, so that’s a major plus.

    Having a dead kid on the first page, that’s not a good sign, you know? Having a live dad and a live kid, much better. And a kid that doesn’t hate his father? Very good sign. Makes me wonder about this girl he likes. Maybe I would want to read the next page, to see where it goes.

  10. Both Somewhither and Changeling Island gave authentic voices to teenaged characters. Those who criticize, have forgotten.

    1. This. Exactly this. Wright gives voice to 16 year old kids beautifully. When you find yourself sometimes not liking the protagonist completely, then you, or at least I, just remind myself that I wouldn’t like my 16 year old self all that much either!

    1. Comment for Comments, when you want to track what’s going via e-mail. You may also see it turn into variations on a theme (C4C, 2D6 or 2D20, B-52, H2SO4, You sank my battleship!, and so on)

        1. You’re welcome. I *gulp* probably need to put together a FAQ for this site the way I did for According To Hoyt. But not this weekend.

      1. And if people would just sign up for a free wordpress account, they wouldn’t need to do it, and could find all their replies and new comments on the Dashboard page.

  11. BTW, Kate, I finally finished the second Con Vampire book. Did you know you have two tables of contents in the back of the book? If it weren’t for the lengthy book recommendations after that, Amazon would probably ding you for the TOC being at the end.

  12. WordPress appears to have eaten my prior effort to post this, so I will try again. I am not on my normal doesn’t even use the same operating system.

    However, what is being quoted is actually not where most readers actually begin. Most readers begin with the cover, the title, the strap line, and the back cover. Those peices can matter.

    I will try to give an example. I will pull a couple of paragraphs from the current draft of my novel not making progress, not making progress because my real computer was eaten by the Windows 10 big update. I have to type them, because the backup disks are someplace in my backup filing cabinet, so it’s another rewrite you are getting.

    After you get the first couple of paragraphs, I will give you a cover description, the title and strap line, and the back cover text.

    The Invisible Fortress
    January 11, 2018

    I awoke at half past dark. To put it mildly, I hurt. Some places hurt even more than others. Yes, I was doing mind control on myself, so I didn’t exactly feel the pain. That meant I could sleep. I still knew I hurt. A lot. “Hurt” was better than the alternative, which involved being dead.

    Suddenly I remembered. Atlanticea. It was the most wonderful memory in the world. I’d solved the Maze, the Maze that defeated Julius Caesar and Cortez and Jackie Fisher and the French Imperial Guard. I’d reached the Tomb, and matched wits with the Martyr himself. I’d recovered that palm-size sphere of crystalline sky, the Namestone, the Key to the Earthly Paradise. No one else in the history of the world had every come close. Now the Namestone was mine.

    Those are the opening paragraphs in the newest draft.

    However, readers first saw the cover, title, strap line, and back cover:

    Cover Outer space, black, lots of stars, planet Earth covering bottom left quarter.

    Facing somewhat away or in profile, a figure in blue jeans and long- sleeved polo short, the hair being fairly short and silver white. The figure is hovering in space seemingly, not inconvenienced by the lack of air. The arms are stretched out to the sides, palms up, an apple-size ball of blue fire hovering above each hand.

    Title: The Girl Who Saved the World
    Strap Line (under development): Could even her powers meet the challenge?

    Back cover: Black. Lots of stars. Text

    Meet Eclipse.

    She’s hardworking, bright, self-reliant, good with tools. She also flies, reads minds, and is not afraid of necessary violence.

    She’s twelve years old. She just captured the Namestone, the Key to Paradise. And everyone in the world will be happy to kill her to get their hands on it.

    Does the outside matter signify?

  13. I purchased a copy of your first award winner, reviewed below, but comments on it are frozen. I felt obliged to read the thing before I commented. Actually, from a rapid scan, there are some interesting plot elements, but the writing is even worse than the parts from which you quoted. For starters, it wanders between third person present and second person present (Chapter 15, opener: “You reach ‘the place with all the orogens’ and it;s not at all what you were expecting.”)

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