Saturday, 22 June 2013

Review: Strange Metamorphosis

Strange Metamorphosis
Strange Metamorphosis by P.C.R. Monk

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a very unusual book, mostly in a good way, though I will discuss some issues with it first that deprived it of a fourth star from me.

I'm no expert on the (often fairly artificial) marketing and demographic divisions of books, but I couldn't decide what age group it was targeting. The talking insects make it seem more of a children's story, the theme of a boy becoming a man suggests YA, and the vocabulary (and the large number of character deaths) suggest an older readership again.

Let's talk some more about vocabulary. I generally don't recommend authors go for a "high" style or use uncommon vocabulary, for three main reasons. The first is that it can distance the reader from the characters if they talk in a very formal way. This book avoids that problem; the characters talk in various dialects, about which I'll say more in a moment, and only the narrative tries to be "high" and formal. However, it does have the other two problems.

The second problem is that most people don't have as big a vocabulary as they think they do, and when they try to write a "high" style they use words that aren't quite the right words for what they mean. I spotted a number of instances of this, and so will other readers, thanks to the fact that on a Kindle you can get a definition of the word very easily. Readers, especially young readers, will look up words they don't know, and they'll often find that they don't mean what the author is using them to mean.

The third problem is that most people can't sustain a "high" style consistently, and will drop what I call "clanging colloquialisms" at intervals. This book has that problem too.

While I'm on language, there are a number of very tired cliches in the book as well, especially at moments when someone is giving life advice. This doesn't help to make the life advice sound profound. Rather the opposite.

The dialects serve to distinguish characters from each other, and each character does have a distinctive voice, which is a good thing, but there's not a lot of logic to the dialects, and one of them is broad Californian surfer/stoner, mixed in with (reasonably credible) attempts at British dialects. The setting is France, sometime not long before or after 1900, judging by the technology, and there are details which are authentic to France, but also a few that aren't (such as the currencies that are mentioned; to the best of my knowledge, kopecks are Russian, and ecu was briefly the name used for the Euro, before it was introduced, but long after the time the book is set in).

There are other, mainly minor, editing issues as well. It's the usual stuff, commas and homonyms and apostrophes, and I won't bore you by detailing it. It's at a level most people would find tolerable if they noticed it at all, and easily fixed.

So much for language, which is where most of the book's problems lie. Now, characters. The characters, as I mentioned, have distinct voices, not only because they speak different dialects from each other but because they have different personalities which show through clearly. This isn't easy to do, and congratulations to the author for achieving it. As I also mentioned, there's a bit of a Game of Thrones situation with the characters: you shouldn't get too attached, especially to minor characters encountered in passing, because the body count is brutal.

As far as plot is concerned, this is a straightforward tale of a boy going out and having the adventure that helps him transition into being a man. The physical metamorphosis that accompanies his maturation is a sustained metaphor for his inner transformation. While somewhat obvious and rather literalistic, I think it works. There's certainly always something happening, always fit opposition for the hero and his companions, always danger, and a clear goal with a number of sub-goals and a deadline. It's not groundbreaking, of course; it's been done thousands of times, but I think it's well done here.

Finally, the setting. Apart from the problems noted above of American colloquialisms and other non-French touches, the turn-of-last-century French setting was believable. The insect part showed that the author knows a lot about insects, how their bodies work and their place in the ecology of a field. If you accept the central conceit of "boy is shrunk, talks to insects, gradually transforms into an insect" (and isn't accepting such things for the duration of a story what speculative fiction is about?), it's a convincing setting, and reminds me a little of Watership Down in a way.

With some tuning up of the language, I think this could be a solid four-star book. I certainly enjoyed it.

I received a free copy of the book via the Kindle Book Review site, in exchange for an honest review.

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