I read this book because, you know, it was free on Amazon, and it seemed like a good entry into Arenson’s oeuvre. This was, I believe, the first book that Arenson wrote and published… and unfortunately it shows.
Let’s recognize the good stuff: the setting is interesting and unique. The world is divided into two halves, a day half and a night half, following a poorly-understood catastrophe in the distant past which caused the world to stop turning. The night half of the world is expecially intriguing, as Arenson has built a fascinating culture and ecology based on a place that never sees sunlight, and he manages to convey most of how the night side works without resorting to infodump. There are some really beautifully described scenes, mostly on the night side of the world, and some excellent battles towards the end.
Furthermore, there are some very clever subversions and reversals of expectation in the presentation of the two halves. Initially we’re given to understand the inhabitants of the night as monsters, creatures who live in eternal darkness, but after a few chapters we move into the POV of one of the night-dwellers. From her perspective, the day-dwellers are demons of fire, creatures who inhabit the realm of blistering light and who emerge from the heat to kill for inscrutable reasons.
But there are numerous problems with the story. We start out in bog-standard Fantasyland, with characters who are pretty stock. We have the Clueless Farmboy who must become a warrior, the Tomgirl (complete with an foreshadowed romance with the Farmboy), a pair of Sidekicks distinguished solely by the fact that one is fat and the other is skinny, a Noble King, and an Evil Priest. All of the creativity seems to have gone into the night half of the world, but since half the story takes place in the day, that means that half of the book is dull and cliche.
The night half of the plot has its own problems: the protagonist of that half of the story leaves early on on a quest, but she’s then presented with a series of irrelevant obstacles which mostly serve to assure that she’s still in the place required by the plot when the end of the book comes. And there is a second subplot which takes place in the dark (which I won’t give details about because of spoilers), which shows up very late, never impacts the main story, and then abruptly closes with no resolution. I can only assume that that plot thread exists to set up elements of the sequel, but it doesn’t pull its weight in this book.
Overall, I would not recommend this book very highly, except as an introduction to the world. The good news, though, is that I’m reading some other books by Arenson, and they get better. Much better.
I’m happy to announce that a fantasy short of mine The Heresy of Friar Travolo will be appearing soon at Daily Science Fiction. I don’t have a publication date yet, but I’ll be sure to update this space when I know.
So here’s my big announcement: my fantasy novel The Wedding of Earth and Sky has been sold to Red Adept Publishing, and will appear sometime in 2014.
I’m really excited about this. Red Adept is a small press with a focus on ebooks and audiobooks, and I’ve been very impressed by the quality of their product and the professionalism of their editorial staff. Here’s hoping for big things.
Occasionally you’ll be with a group of people and they’ll get to talking about their favorite historical epochs, nostalgic for lives they never led. One person will talk up their childhood love of the Wild West, another reveal a penchant for Victorian England. This last one just has a thing for corsets, but it’s better not to call them on it.
When my turn rolls round I take a sip of whatever we’re drinking and look at my shoes. “The mid 90’s were pretty good,” I say lamely. “Slower internet and everything, but at least we had penicillin.”
Perhaps it’s my being a history buff, but the past sucked. For about a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe just seems like a real shit place to reside. Lots of rooting in filth until you die at thirty a half mile from where you born. Nominally the nobles had it better, but still, your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches and your pretty young bride had like a one in two chance of surviving child birth.
There’s lots of words I could use to describe this, but I’m going to be generous and just say “bullocks”. The past didn’t suck for most of the people who lived there. I know this because I’ve been there, and I know people who lived most of their lives in the past.
Yes, of course, all of us have lived most of our lives in the past. The past is never really that far away. You can travel back in time up to a few decades just by visiting rural areas here in the US. (Conversely, Westerners visiting Japan often get a sense of visiting the future.) But I know time travelers from times more distant than that. My in-laws grew up and lived a significant portion of their lives in rural Romania in the mid 20th century, which was technologically and culturally at least a century behind the modern world, even the modern world of the 1950’s. My wife’s grandmother still lives on the farm where she raised her many children, and her lifestyle and attitudes are, at best, from the 19th century. Good portions of it are quite a bit older than that. Of course the past that one finds in these places is never pure, as modernity reaches its tendrils even to rural Romania in some respects. Still, it is enough to gain a sense of what our poor, pitiful, filthy, ignorant ancestors were like.
And they were neither pitiful, filthy, nor ignorant. That’s just modern condescension speaking. (It is hard to argue with poor, however.)
This is the most striking thing about visiting the past. The people who live there certainly lack many of our modern luxuries, and their lives are less pleasant than ours in some ways. But they don’t think that their lives suck. They are happy at roughly the same levels that we are happy. Many of them are distinctly uncomfortable with the modern world when it inevitably forces itself on them. Sometimes they look down on us for our laziness, loss of virtue, and alienation. To say “the past sucked” is to ignore the happiness of those who lived there, and in many cases continue to live there.
I’m also reminded of another famous group of time-travelers, the Hmong, who were caught up in a war from centuries in the future and then had to be relocated from their traditional homes into the heart of the modern world. You should not be surprised to hear that most of them found this transition to be painful, and that many of them wished to return to the filthy, disease-ridden, hard-laboring past that we had “rescued” them from. But you may be surprised that Western medicine—one of the few things that I would have mentioned as an unambiguous benefit of the modern world—was a source of special distress to many of them. Time-travelers don’t necessarily see our best points as good points at all.
One of the more interesting ideas of critical theory is the concept of abjection, which is the attitude by which the mainstream rejects and symbolically casts out its antithesis, defining itself by what it excludes. Racial whiteness is defined by the abjection of blackness. Literary fiction is defined by the abjection of genre. And modernity is defined by the abjection of the past.
This abjection is absolutely necessary for modernity to function. We have to be ashamed and disgusted by our ancestors, for how else would we justify the vandalism of our inheritance and our pollution of the natural and social environments? By making the past abject, we reassure ourselves that we have lost nothing in the transition to modernity, that our forefathers have nothing to teach us, that we were right to leave all of that behind. Daniel “The Past Sucked” Polansky is merely participating in this ongoing project of abjection.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.