Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Review: Owl Dance

Owl Dance
Owl Dance by David Lee Summers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because the premise really appealed to me: a steampunk Western adventure with warm, positive characters. Unfortunately, the execution let it down a little.

Firstly, the language. The book was mostly correctly punctuated, though the hyphenation needs work, and, apart from a few sentences with missing words, it was grammatical, but it was written very simply, as if intended for children or speakers of English as a second language. Also, it dwells on mundane details of what the characters did, which I soon found tedious. For example: "Fatemeh lit two lamps, then sat down and pulled off her shoes." There are a great many sentences, and in fact whole paragraphs, like this, which do nothing to advance plot, character or setting and, if they were cut, would improve the pacing.

When the author does choose a less common vocabulary word, it's not always the right one. We have compliment instead of complement, diffuse instead of defuse, telegraph used to mean telegram, tennants (which isn't a word at all) instead of tenets, and sojourn, which means staying in one place, used to mean moving from one place to another.

Language gets three stars, and it's really two and a half, because the over-simplistic style and excess of details annoyed me.

Now, the plot.

I found several aspects of the plot unlikely to the point of unbelievability. I'm not talking about the science-fictional aspects as such - I accept those as legitimate targets for suspension of disbelief - but there were actions the characters took, and coincidences that occurred, which I couldn't quite swallow.

[spoilers] For example, the main male character gets one of two reactions from people. It's either "you're a filthy Mexican" or "I trust you completely and excessively". There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. At one point, a US Army major who knows that this man is wanted by the law, and who has been helped by him in an important way in the past (but not one that seems to me like evidence of unusual character or ability), does the following:

1. Sends him a telegram in California asking him to return to New Mexico, where he's wanted, and help with a problem they have which could have been taken care of by local people. It's not clear how the Major knows where he is.

2. After the main character's been only partially successful, and is captured by a bounty hunter:

a) Stops an urgent march which he's already said he can't stop in order to return to the fort he's supposed to be marching from,
b) Pays a very large amount of money to the bounty hunter to free him, and
c) Recruits him.

This makes no sense to me. It's a plot device to get the hero to where he needs to be for the story to work. And when he gets there, his character armour preserves him, and one of his companions, from an explosion so that he can give the other characters extra motivation to capture an airship which they were already planning to capture, and the companion can let them know he's in there. One of those characters, incidentally, is a pirate who's been basically let off hanging because the female main character convinces people that he didn't mean any real harm and was just misguided. [/spoilers]

Plot: three stars at best. Two, really.

Now, characters. I've already mentioned that the main character is treated like the Chosen One who everyone either helps or opposes disproportionately, and that several characters in authority act more leniently than I found realistic. The character I had real trouble with, though, was William Bonney, Billy the Kid. According to everything I've ever heard about him, he was a vicious little punk who would have considered anyone who helped him a sucker to be betrayed, but here he's basically a misguided kid who responds to a little kindness with considerable loyalty.

I liked Fatemeh, the female main character, but she was a little too perfect, and I didn't feel she had a real arc of change. She was also inconsistent: a pacifist until something she cared about required fighting, an opponent of mining and oil drilling but delighted with the technologies those industries supported.

Characters: again, three stars at best.

Finally, setting. For a long time, I thought this wasn't a very steampunky setting at all, that it was more-or-less the historical nineteenth century with a bit of a science-fictional premise. Then we hit the clockwork wolf, and then the owl ornithopters, and then the airships, and it started to make more sense as steampunk. The problem is that some of these things aren't well-justified. The owl ornithopters, for example, are specifically said to be technologically unlikely; there's no explanation for why they exist anyway. Fatemeh's connection with the real owls, likewise, isn't explained or justified.

It's an appealing setting, though, so I'll give it slightly more than three stars and balance out the points lost on language, plot and character.

Three stars overall. I didn't dislike it, but I'm afraid I was disappointed and felt the premise hadn't been done justice.

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