Friday, 3 August 2012

Review: Blackstone & Brenwen: The Mirror & The Meretrix

Blackstone & Brenwen: The Mirror & The Meretrix
Blackstone & Brenwen: The Mirror & The Meretrix by Andrew D. Mellusco

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to review, because there are two sides to consider. Almost like a trial, really.
The case for the defense is that I read it all (and it's not especially short) and never considered stopping, despite the considerable issues which I'll get to in a moment. As a story, I thought it was well done. The setting is quirky, even whimsical, but in a good way; the adaptation of fairy tales shows an excellent familiarity with the genre and is well-handled; the mystery and the trial are well-paced.
This is a very unusual mashup of fairy tales and a legal thriller, and yet it works. It's filled with fairy-tale creatures (centaurs, giants, honest and idealistic lawyers - just kidding, they do exist, I know some personally), with references to classic fairy tales like Snow White, Rose Red, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as less well-known examples and other literary and mythical genres. But at the same time it's the story of a legal defense in a murder case. It's set in a World Tree of multiple realms in which magic is in everyday use, but it also deals with insurance investigation.
This mixture of the magical and the mundane mostly works. But here's the case for the prosecution.
The book is in terrible, desperate, crying need of an editor. I was an editor for Hodders years ago, and I don't remember ever seeing a manuscript as bad as this come in, even from a journalist (you think I'm joking, but I'm really not). On the other hand, I've seen something with nearly as many errors of language and a less enjoyable and engaging story published in paperback by Harper Collins (and it won at least one award), so the huge number of errors doesn't need to be fatal. What it is, though, is intensely annoying.
At one point, I wondered if the author had English as his second language, because of the oddly-phrased sentences and multiple basic misspellings. (T-H-R-O-W-N is not how you spell the thing the king sits on, to give only one of literally dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of examples.)
When I checked his biography it told me that he in fact teaches English as a second language, and one of my friends who has also done this tells me that teaching English in a foreign country for a long time can impact your own English grammar. I'm going to assume that this is the reason for the badly phrased sentences, but I don't think the spelling can be excused that easily. Another reviewer mentioned finding only three mistakes; I can only assume they were talking about just one page of the book. I even wondered if the author was blind at one point and had never seen words in their written form, since the only person I know who makes these mistakes so often is blind and uses a text-to-speech reader.
Some people, I know, do have a lot of trouble with homophones (words that sound like other words). If you know that's you (and I can't believe the author doesn't), please, please find someone who doesn't have the same problem and get them to go over your manuscript before you publish it. Or use a dictionary. Don't just guess, and guess wrong on about two pages out of three.
Ironically enough, one of the plot points in the book turns on a homophone mistake, which amused me greatly.
If you use a word that isn't in everyday use, also, please make sure you know what it means. I'm pretty sure that the author thinks that "courtesan" means "a member of the King's court". It doesn't. It means a prostitute.
Another thing that makes writing look amateur is poorly placed or missing commas. Look at this sentence from the blurb: "Meanwhile Blackstone's lawyers, Sandman, Vincent Traum and, Fire-Nymph, Fury..." Remove the commas after "Sandman", "and" and "Fire-Nymph", and you will have a properly punctuated sentence. And then take those commas, multiply them by several hundred, and place them in sentences like these: "Only you can break the spell Briana". Put them before the person's name or other term of address. The author does this sometimes, but very rarely, and the lack of the comma makes the sentences sound breathless, and look like they're written by someone who doesn't know how to use their basic linguistic tools.
So much for the language, or at least the English language. (I could criticize the Latin, as well, but when the English is so bad I don't think we can expect correct Latin singulars and plurals.) Oh, one more language problem as a transition to the world-building. Referring to the female centaur as a "Mare'ess" was something I found incredibly annoying. Not only because of that ridiculous apostrophe (although that was extremely annoying), but because the word "mare" is already feminine. It doesn't need the "-ess" ending.
So, worldbuilding. As I mentioned above, the setting is a World Tree, and for the most part it's a good concept and I liked what the author did with it. There were some undigested infodumps which could be better incorporated, but overall, not bad. The timekeeping, though, was irritating. I can accept "ring-years" instead of "years", fine, it's a World Tree, there's a different astronomical situation, though what that is and what rings have to do with it is never clarified. But if you have lengths of time that are the same as hours and minutes, call them hours and minutes, not "hour-turns" (or, occasionally, I think, "ring-hours") and "minute-turns". I assume the "turns" part has to do with sand timers, except that sand timers don't seem to be present and all the timekeeping devices that are mentioned are mechanical clocks. It's a difference that makes no difference, and is simply distracting, which when the language usage is already so distracting is not a good thing.
My verdict, in the end, was three stars. I gave the third star a little reluctantly, because there are so very many basic issues with the language. But if those were corrected it would be a cracking good book, easily worth four stars, and I want to encourage the author to get this and his next book professionally edited so that it shines as it ought to.

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