Friday, 13 September 2013

Review: The Pyrite War

The Pyrite War
The Pyrite War by Blake M. Petit

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me start out by saying that I'm a fan of Siegel City and its superheroes, having loved [b:Other People's Heroes|1792929|Other People's Heroes|Blake M. Petit||1791912], and I remain a fan after reading this book.

Let me continue by saying that it has definite flaws.

Firstly, the editing. Most of the errors I spotted (which I'll pass on, as I usually do, to the author so he can correct them if he wishes) were typos. Now, everyone makes typos, but there were a great many of them, about one per thousand words by my rough calculation. And then there were the errors which I wouldn't expect an author who's a former newspaper editor and a current English teacher to make: the excess apostrophe in the phrase "first things first" and a couple of other apostrophe errors; "diffuse" instead of "defuse", "crevasses" for "crevices" and "pouring over information" instead of "poring"; "may" used in past tense narration instead of "might"; a dangling participle. Characters' names are spelled inconsistently, as well, which is a surprisingly common mistake.

To me, one of the things that separates professional from amateur writing is whether the writer knows and consistently applies this rule: if someone is addressed by name or title in dialogue, there should be a comma before the term of address if it isn't at the beginning, and after the term of address if it isn't at the end. But we get "Mr. Ruston it's not like that" and similar breathless sentences. That's an error that never fails to jerk me out of the story and leave me shaking my head and sighing, the more so in this case, since the author should know better.

The book is set in 1939, but to me it lacks a sense of that time. It makes frequent reference to the looming threat of World War II, and mentions the Wizard of Oz movie (released 1938), but it's in the small details that it doesn't ring true: names, slang, social differences. A teenage boy describes himself as "freaked out" (an expression first used in the 1960s), and the narrator uses "warm fuzzy" (1970s). A socket on a radio is called a "port". There's a reference to military body armour, which, while it did exist at the time, was too bulky to be practical and wasn't used in the field. A young female superhero wears a "cheerleader-style skirt" of a type not used in cheerleading until the 1970s. Five minutes after people stare at a black couple emerging from a car with white people, they are sitting "shoulder to shoulder" at a soda fountain and nobody bats an eye. There are characters called Samantha and Jason, both common names now, but rare before the 1960s. Again, individually minor errors, but collectively they destroyed the sense of authenticity of the time period for me. None of this is hard to check, either, with Google search, Ngram Viewer (which shows when phrases began to be used), and You just have to be aware enough to think of checking it.

One more category of complaint, story flaws, and then I'll start praising it. There's a continous sequence in which we somehow go from "people have just arrived" to "they've been here three days" with no transition (during which the narration briefly drops into third person from the first person that it uses everywhere else).

That's just inattentive rewriting. What's more serious, and harder to fix, is that a couple of times there's something in the story that to me is clearly there for plot purposes, and not because it makes any sense whatsoever. The first one is that the mad scientist can't miniaturize radio transmitters, but can miniaturize a recording device (so that the device can be destroyed and the heroes are left with no evidence, although since the villain didn't actually say anything clearly incriminating I don't see what difference it makes). Given both the real technology of the time and the technology that the same scientist has already used at that point of the story, this is pretty much nonsense.

The other flaw, the biggest in my mind, is near the end, where a group of the heroes does something that anyone can see is completely idiotic, with tissue-thin justification, apparently solely in order to allow the tension to be ramped up. Of that, I am not a fan.

What I am a fan of is how Petit plays with superhero tropes, without ever going too over-the-top in the winks and hat-tips. The premise is "What if Superman was not just a dick, but actually a homicidal lunatic pretending to be a hero?" The powers of the supers are a combination of nods to the classics and fresh ideas (as in Other People's Heroes). The actual story, apart from a couple of stumbles which I noted above, is well-paced, well-plotted and satisfying. The author does a fine job of making the stakes both important to the world at large and personal to the narrator, and I enjoyed the narrator's voice and the voices of several other characters (though I'll admit that a couple of the minor characters blurred together for me, and I had a hard time remembering which was which).

Because of those strengths, and because there aren't enough good supers books, I'm giving this four stars despite its flaws. Consider it three and a half rounded up.

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