Monday, 15 July 2013

Review: The War Against Love

The War Against Love
The War Against Love by Matt Posner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave the first volume in this series five stars, but I'm liking them less with each subsequent volume. There's no one reason for it. In fact, there are many, which I'll go into below. This one, though, only makes it to four stars because I can't give it three and a half. It's well-written and the setting is compelling, but the issues are accumulating.

Firstly, each of the books has a number of typesetting errors (misplaced quotation marks, mistyped words and the like), but this one also has the odd homophone error and misspelling as well. There's "censor" for "censer", "emperil" for "imperil", and "a tabby cat with long gleaming whispers". There are also a few commas where they don't belong, especially after the second of two adjectives: "A horrible, horrible, writing style", "a tall, thin, man". The word "undersexed" is used where I'm fairly sure "oversexed" belongs. "Nickname" is written as two words. In general, the editing seems to be getting worse rather than better.

In each of the other two books, I've noticed a factual error (there may be others, but I've only noticed one in each book). Here we have another. During a scene I'll discuss more below, a character asks rhetorically about C.S. Lewis whether he was "a Roman Catholic or a Roman pagan". He was, in fact, an Anglican. It was Tolkien who was the Catholic, and the difference was a point of tension in the two writers' friendship. I considered the possibility that this was supposed to be character ignorance, rather than being the author's mistake, but if so, I would have expected it to be corrected.

As well as this, a chimera turns up, and is first described as having "a furry ram's head". Traditionally, the third head of the chimera is a goat's head, and indeed all the other description after the first mention refers to a goat's head. Rams are, of course, not goats.

I notice that the moas which (as I pointed out in my review of the previous book) were in the wrong part of Oceania are now referred to as "elephant birds", which are from a different continent entirely.

All of these are relatively minor, but I think I'm more aware of them because of the more significant issues, which are reducing my immersion in the story. Firstly, there's the author's occasional literary experiments.

In volume 2 of the series, there was an extended sequence in a version of Lewis Carroll's Alice setting. It was quirky, it was well done, but I felt it went on too long. Here, we have a chapter in which two malicious fellow students attack the main character with fantasy books - the physical books, thrown at him - while giving snarky potted reviews of each one. (That's where the Lewis-as-Catholic error occurs.) While some of the reviews are clever ("Donaldson writes female characters like an anteater makes jewelry"), again, for me, the sequence went on far too long. It doesn't really lead to much in the book as a whole, and there's also a moment (really two moments) of fourth-wall breaking which annoyed me considerably.

The other experiment is to drop in a random chapter written as a film script, rather than in the first-person narration of most of the book. (I say "most" because the narrative sometimes strays out of the first person to show events that the main character was not present for, but was told about afterwards, something that I find very mildly annoying. My feeling is that if you're going to use first person you should commit completely, otherwise use third-person limited.) The only thing this chapter appears to give us that couldn't have been done in the same way as the rest of the book is a very mild bit of dramatic irony: the audience knows for a fact that something was done which the main character is only told about, and doesn't necessarily believe. It's rendered moot before the end of the book anyway.

To me, the effect of dropping that chapter in a completely different style in the middle of the book was as if you were shooting an action movie and suddenly, for one scene, had the entire cast do an in-character musical number, after which you went back to the action movie as if nothing had happened. It doesn't work for me.

It doesn't help, either, that I'm disliking the viewpoint character more and more as the series goes on. He's not emotionally warm, and he's increasingly anti-heroic in his actions. He also, in this book, has a romance that I found unconvincing, for the classic reason that a romance is unconvincing: I didn't see anything attractive in his supposedly perfect love. Perhaps it's just that I personally am attracted to sane women with some kind of emotional stability.

As well as those issues, Simon, the main character, is too high-powered. He does go down a couple of times early in the book, when ambushed, but when fighting presumably more powerful and more highly trained enemies he seems to have no serious difficulties, doesn't get badly injured and is able to defeat them handily. He casts a complicated spell on a ring that does four different very useful things, and describes it as taking "about 10 minutes". Sure, he had prepared some of it beforehand, but that seems too easy.

Perhaps it's because he's so powerful that he's able to say "get out" to a teacher he finds in a classroom and suffer no consequences. In fact, School of the Ages seems to have no disciplinary penalties for students, no enforcement of respect for teachers, and certainly no mechanism to keep male and female (underage) students from sleeping in the same bed. It's surprising that there aren't a rash of teenage pregnancies. I suppose it's possible that the internal mental discipline taught to the students takes care of the problem, since Simon, for one, doesn't seem eager to go very far sexually, but it does seem unlikely (and inconsistent with the lack of outward discipline).

The final thing I'll mention is that Simon completely forgets about a prediction made in the previous book (that is, less than two years earlier) until after he fulfills it. I found this unconvincing. Certainly I'd forgotten about it, but I'm not the character who was upset about it when it first came up. It was quite specific, too, naming the city where it occurred, so I would have expected him to remember when going to that city was first proposed.

Overall, I'm not as enthused about this series as I was after finishing the first book. I'll still read the next one, but if it continues the trend that will be my last, I think.

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