The worst fantasy novel I ever read (and what I learned from it)

Ladies and gentlemen, let me present to you the most awful piece of extruded fantasy product that I’ve ever had the misfortune to read in its entirety:

Man, this thing was awful

A March into Darkness by Robert Newcomb. If you’ve read this book, then you know what’s coming. It was just… I mean… words fail me. This was bad in nearly every way that it is possible for a book to be bad. I would never have read the entire thing, except that at the time I was under unusual circumstances: I was stuck in a room with nothing else to read for an entire weekend, and one of my fellow room-sitters had this book with him. It was either read this book, or stare at the wall. I chose to read the book.

In retrospect, staring at the wall may have been less painful.

Let me quickly run down the book’s faults, before we move on to the one thing that the book did well.

  1. The protagonist was a complete idiot, and a grating, indulgent whiner at that. Main character stupidity was the main driver of the plot for the first quarter of the book.
  2. The worldbuilding was a fourth-generation Xeroxed copy of a Dungeons and Dragons cliche guide. There was nothing inventive or surprising about any of it. (Well, except for the invisible flying magical manta ray army. That was kind of cool.)
  3. The dialog was awful. It was so banal and so predictable that I learned to just skim the pages of dialog looking for the longer-than-average paragraphs, because that was where the exposition nuggets were buried. Everything else was the most juvenile, cringe-inducing conversation that you’ve ever read.
  4. The characters were factory-built from plastic parts. I can’t remember a single one of them aside from their most generic specifiers: “the protagonist”, “the girl” (there’s only one of significance), “the wizard”, etc.
  5. The plot problems were all solved by a combination of coincidence and application of magical technobabble. The main antagonist is supposedly invincible because he has a kind of magical martial arts training that takes centuries to complete. A major plot point is the protag trying to find the ancient monastery where this technique is taught and begin training, so that he has at least a chance of standing up to the baddie. And then, about 100 pages before the end, they discover a magic spell they can cast that will allow them to skip straight to being a grand-master. And why did we spend all of this time reading about the %!#$&^ training?

But there was one saving grace. One thing, one thing that kept me turning pages instead of going back to the comforting tedium of wall-watching.

The plot moved like a crack money on rocket skates.

Had I been reading under normal circumstances, I probably would not have kept reading long enough for the book to get its plot hooks into me. And even after I had sunk a few hours into the book, I looked up about once a chapter and said, “Why am I still reading this dreck?” But I kept going. Not just because I had nothing else to do, but because I actually wanted to know what happened next. When I had to put the book away for an hour, I kept thinking about it. The girl was in danger! The wizard was going to discover something magical! The protagonist was angsting about something! Would the girl be saved? What did the wizard discover? Will the protag stop being such a putz? I was aware—painfully, eye-gougingly aware—of the fact that every one of these plot points was a cliche. But nonetheless, I cared. Not about the characters, and certainly not about the setting, but about what happened next.

In part, the relentless nature of the plot is what made the later betrayals so galling. When I wondered How would the protag overcome the baddie?, the answer turned out to be By using a magic spell to make the previous 200 pages of martial arts training irrelevant. This made me mad, because I was actually invested in the answer. Not very invested, mind you, but invested enough to be upset that the resolution was so stupid. In fact, it was only as I reached the end of the book that the novel’s full stupidity began to weigh on me, because I realized that the one good thing in this trainwreck was itself going to be derailed, as all of the dilemmas of the plot were resolved in the cheesiest and most obnoxious way possible. And so I resigned myself to skimming over page after page of banal, repetitive dialog and burning through hordes of doomed redshirts on my way to the climax, knowing that it, too, was bound to be a disappointment. And it was a disappointment.

But I did learn some things along the way.

First, plot matters. Many readers get their fix from character, ideas, or prose more than plot. I would normally count myself as one of those. But even a convicted setting-and-style junkie like me couldn’t help but be taken in by the sweet plot crack that Newcomb put into his book, and I kept coming back for another hit. Even after it was clear that the plot had been cut with some nasty stuff, and even after I was sure I was going to regret it. I still wanted more. After a while I started to hate myself, wishing I could kick the habit, but the book would not let me go until I had burned through to the very last page.

The second point is don’t disappoint your reader. If the conclusion of the book had actually satisfied me rather than dissolving into a mushy pile of cliche and frustration, I might have tentatively recommended it. I mean, for a certain kind of reader, the kind who doesn’t care about characterization or prose style or anything else, this could actually be a good book. The opening is kind of interesting. At first it seems like it’s going to go somewhere compelling. If there had been any follow-through, if the author had actually tried to solve his plot problems rather than just hand-wave them away, it might have been kind of okay. Not great literature, mind you, but a pulpy little fantasy romp. Instead it was a disaster.

It turns out that Newcomb’s publishing contract was cancelled after the sequel to this book. I can’t imagine why.

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