As you might be able to tell from previous blogs, I have an Audible account. Listening to audio books is the chief reason I have been able to introduce myself to so many books while at the same time being able to go on long walks to drop weight.
It is unsafe to read while walking, don’t do that.
Audible is good at what I would call “Toe Dipping”. Running sales on books that are the start of a series or gateway titles into an author’s work. This allows their listeners to dip their toes into a much larger pool of literature to check the temperature. No need to commit more than a few bucks, but potentially finding something great.
I have taken a few opportunities to try out authors I otherwise wouldn’t. Most recently it was Nora Roberts. A woman whose ability to bang out so many books is shocking, and I decided to try her first foray into fantasy, “Year One”. At least I think it is her first fantasy story, she has written so many books one of them is bound to have a witch or wizard in there just by accident, like how someone you know is almost certainly superstitious about something stupid, but it never comes up and you don’t notice.
Mild Spoilers, but I am not recommending the book, so take that under advisement. Also, prophecy plays apart in the narrative, if you are paying attention the book spoils itself, which feeds into my central gripe of the book’s lack of tension.
After a mysterious bird flu sweeps across the planet killing billions, Magic returns to earth. Witches, elves, fairies, and other supernatural entities emerge. How a group of survivors cope with not only an apocalypse but a complete rewriting of how they understand the world serves as the focus of the narrative.
There are scenes that are effective. A news station finally broadcasts how bad things really are to the public because the panic is causing mass hysteria… that is an effective way to end the first act. Traveling thru a subway tunnel that is full of crazy murderous wizards and people who have turned into violent rapists because of the breakdown of society is an effective and atmospheric start to the book’s second act. No one part of the book is all that bad on its own, it is more about how those parts hang together.
The Bad: Tension
The scenes do not hang together all that well. Generally, there is little tension to the narrative because not enough information is given to the audience for them to anticipate something happening. I am reminded of an interview by Alfred Hitchcock about how you can bore an audience by not giving them enough information about how much danger exists in a scene.
This book is full of LONG discussions between characters about things, and those discussions are dull. There is a tone/theme of, “How strange that we now live off the land after being city dwellers for so long… Isn’t it great?” which is fine, but it gets repetitive, and it is strange to me that there is more awe and personal soul searching about living in a rural setting than there is ABOUT FUCKING MAGIC BEING REAL.
There is also a redundancy to listing traits, I think the books tells us that the main character is a chef like 19 times and it has zero relevance to the story. She’s a doctor, he was a writer, that guy is into tech, but I rarely get a sense of people beyond their skill sets… and I guess a bunch of them get a love interest, but since the characters rarely if ever have ulterior motives or apprehensions they all seem to be in love because they are attracted by how bland each other are.
In a more interesting story a character might feel conflicted about being in love with someone because they are scared of their magical powers, feel guilty about moving on from a lost loved one, might want to leave the community and want the lover to come with them, and that stuff is almost there, but no… There isn’t even a love triangle, which would be cliché, but at least it would be something.
|This meme dead yet?|
There are scenes that have tension, violent people are seen, and then are encountered later when the characters are in a weaker and more panicked state, planting and payoff. It is the arc of the story which is not great at planting things. At least to me.
Some information is put out there related to how there is a group of dangerous people roaming around, with some descriptions of their attitudes and symbols, but their methodology, where they are or where they are headed, no mini-skirmish with them ever happens. Some refugees from their violent acts show up, but there is no first-person scene of the bad guys being bad to the characters. We have a concept of the bad guy army/community, but no visceral encounters.
There is a somewhat effective villain in the form of the Dark Angel like characters that menace the main character and her husband. They are ostensibly dealt with near the end of the second act in a clever way, it is a good magic battle which utilizes the environment well and there are stakes. When they show up again it is after no information is given about them still being alive after being “killed” in a fight with the heroes… But, they are so obviously not killed in that fight that I wasn’t surprised, I was just baffled that they showed up again when they did because IT MAKES ZERO SENSE for them to be there in that way. The inclusion of the Dark Angel characters (I am calling them that, the book just describes them as having wings) works until they come back, then it falls apart.
You do not really feel the looming threats is what I am talking about. They are there, we know of them, (as readers) we fully expect them to show up eventually because this is a book we are reading, and a confrontation makes sense, but it still feels like they came out of nowhere when they do show up. Like, “Oh yeah, those guys.”
|Tho, abrupt encounters might just be a staple of the genre.|
Some More Bad: Character Traits and Act Breaks
To go back to something I mentioned earlier about the main character being a chef, it is not a metaphor for anything, her decision to take along a set of designer chef knives when fleeing the city is not a set up for anything (I expected her to use them as weapons or part of some ritual, nope), and ultimately the chef part is just a character trait that gets referenced a lot but has no bearing on the plot. When they keep talking about her being a good cook I just don’t care, especially considering her actual role in the story that makes her important has NOTHING TO DO WITH HER SKILLS.
The book also has a weird structure for its acts.
- · Act I is about the plague and ends with the news broadcast about how bad things are.
- · Act II is about getting out of the city and meeting up with various other minor characters ending with the fight with the dark angels.
- · Act III is about the town of “New Hope” a post apocalypse colony and it ends with the whole thing being destroyed (it is cheap when it happens and that more than anything kind of killed the story for me).
- · There is then an Act IV which feels either like an overlong epilogue or like the first few chapters of another book. It is about the main character (by virtue of being the last one standing) finding someone to help her after the destruction of New Hope, it ends with the birth of the Messiah (hence the novel’s title “Year One”).
- · Then there is the Epilogue in which a wizard shows up and tells the characters something they already know to set up the sequel.
I am fine with Acts I and II, but the others do not work for me. III is especially boring and the ending does not feel earned.
Even More Bad: Magic *Yawn*
Lastly, I want to talk about the magic. Call me a nerd but I like when people spend time explaining their goofy as magic systems like it is some kind of Role Playing Game and you need to know when to drink a mana potion. I have invented my own magic systems for stories, they are fun.
The magic in this book is vague and boring. I was expecting it to be a lot weirder, because there is mention of a naked woman riding a unicorn at one point and there is a Fairy supporting character… But it gets real dull real fast. There is just talk about Dark and Light, and honestly that was simplistic in “Star Wars” which is a space-fantasy aimed at a much younger audience.
In a book there is no reason not to spend time discussing the implications of magic, how it works, how it makes you feel, but they just keep coming back to light and dark. “I feel the light within me.” That is dull.
Paradoxically it is treated like a big deal, but never feels that way, aside from some villainous characters (thin and pathetic characters clearly portrayed as being wrong) nobody really gives a shit about magic, they treat their friend’s ability to fly almost like they got a new bread maker, “That is cool, Fred… I guess. It is a bit doughy, keep practicing.” I get no sense of awe, nor any real understanding of the metaphysics at work here. It is just boring and obtuse.
|I am not so subtly making fun of my friends who own a bread maker.|
I thought this was going to be a mix of Stephen King’s “The Stand” and Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files”, and that is still my go to comparison, but the characters are not as flawed and interesting as they need to be, the threats don’t feel as oppressive and immediate as they need to, and the philosophy behind the magic is vague and dull.
It is not the worst book I have managed to read all the way thru. Maybe one day I will get around to writing a blog about Elizabeth Moon’s “Sheepfarmer’s Daughter”.
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