Saturday, 8 December 2012

Review: Pay Me, Bug!

Pay Me, Bug!
Pay Me, Bug! by Christopher Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this enough that I considered giving it four stars, but there were enough issues that I rounded down to three.

The good, first of all. This is a heist novel. I love heists, rogues and capers, and this was an amusing one, with action, banter, daring, unlikely plans and protagonist haplessness. The dialogue was fun, and the relationships between the characters were varied and convincing. It's also a space opera in the classic mold, and although the genre is starting to show its age I still enjoy it on its own terms.

Now, the issues. There's a list.

I'm currently reading [b:How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide|2360064|How Not to Write a Novel 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide|Howard Mittelmark||2366831], and one of their pieces of pithy advice is "If there is a plan, events should not go according to it." The reason is that you lose tension when the protagonists succeed all the time. This is probably the biggest, certainly the most widespread, of the issues I spotted in Pay Me, Bug. The author writes himself into a bit of a corner with it, in fact, because there's a schtick where everyone in the crew dreads the captain's Plan Bs. They're terrible, everyone says. So, for most of the book, Plan A succeeds, and therefore there's not much tension. When a Plan A finally did go wrong, I'd been conditioned to expect that it would work out OK anyway, and so there still wasn't as much tension as there could have been - and the Plan B worked perfectly fine, and had obviously been at least partly prepared in advance, even though it was described as "improvising".

There's a similar inconsistency with the captain's ability to shoot. At one point, he's escaping with some other characters and his fire is incredibly inaccurate. It's at Star Wars Stormtrooper levels of inaccuracy. Yet in another fight later, he shoots very competently and successfully. It's as if the author was setting up a flaw in the character's abilities to keep him from being a total Gary Stu, and then had to drop it later for plot reasons.

Now, the jarring moment. The significance of the title is that an alien crew member, referred to as Ktk or "bug", keeps betting against the captain with one of his colleagues, and losing. It's a kind of superstitious thing with him, like taking out insurance. (There's a nice bit of writing skill, by the way, with Ktk's dialog. Because he's kind of a Chewbacca character, who can't physically speak English but can understand it, and the rest of the crew understand his language without being able to speak it, all of his dialog is in free indirect speech rather than inside quotation marks. I enjoyed that.) At one point, Ktk manipulates events to produce a win for himself which seriously endangers the captain and delays their rather time-critical mission, indirectly leading to considerable problems, but the captain is completely unbothered, giving as his reason that he was also betting against himself. I found this jarring and unlikely.

Something else I found, not jarring exactly, but annoying. The bad guys, the Radiant Throne, are uptight Christian hypocrites. Now, I realize that in the USA at the moment, at least in certain circles, this is a shorthand way of characterizing bad guys, like having the villain kick a puppy. I'll even admit that there's some justification for the stereotype. But it is a stereotype, and as someone who's indirectly slurred by association, I find it mildly offensive. The fact that they're Christians has no other significance to the story, it's purely a quick way to cast them as unimaginative and humourless villains, and it reminds me of 1930s pulps, where making someone Jewish or dark-skinned achieved something similar. It struck me as a cheap shot. I may be misreading it completely, but that's how it seemed.

Finally, I'll mention the editing. The sentence-level writing is above the standard of most indie novels. It's vivid, fresh and vigorous. But the author doesn't know exactly when to use a comma, writes "discrete" when he means "discreet", and has a few other similar issues scattered through the text. As indie books go, it's in the top 20%, maybe 15%, but that actually isn't a very high bar, sadly.

In summary, I enjoyed it, but could have enjoyed it so much more if there'd been more tension, more consistency, less facile villainizing, and better editing. As it is, it's a toss-up whether I'll bother reading a sequel.

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