Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Review: The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree
The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree by S.A. Hunt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's start with the disclaimers. I know the author on Google+, which is why I read the book. I'd picked it up on a free promotion, and when I realised I didn't have the up-to-date version, he kindly sent me his latest build. We've corresponded about some questions I had (which he cleared up, so they won't appear in this review), and I'll be sending him some more notes too. Based on his response to me so far, many of the issues I identify may well be fixed soon, so there may be things I mention below that are no longer problems in the later version that you buy (because I hope you do buy it).

I actually started reading this book twice. The first time, I got through the part where the protagonist/narrator gets back from deployment in Afghanistan, and his wife has left him, and then the phone rings and his mother tells him his father's died... and I stopped, because I thought it was going to be too dark and tragic for my taste.

Then I kept reading Sam's posts on G+, and realised that he's a very accomplished writer, and decided that I did want to read it after all. And, in fact, after that second shoe drops, apart from the scene where people are being dragged down to be consumed by an evil god it's mostly not that distressing, despite the "dark fantasy" label.

When I say "very accomplished writer", I mean that he has a feel and a skill for language that's unusual in the indie writers I read. His prose is not without flaws, though. He's over-fond of the semicolon, his imagery can shade towards the purple and, sometimes, the incoherent, and he does the Steven Donaldson thing of dropping vocabulary words every few pages, which, taken all together, comes across to me as maybe trying too hard.

Unfortunately, too, the words don't always mean what he seems to think they mean, and occasionally mean the opposite. He describes two characters as having "reedy" voices, for example. From context, he means big, booming voices, but "reedy" means thin and weak. "Sojourn" is twice used to mean "journey", but it means staying in one place (that's a common error).

Then there are the florid descriptions which leave me unable to imagine what's being described, like "a black frock coat swarthy with curly pinstriping". If it's black, it's already swarthy, and what on earth would "curly pinstriping" look like?

Very few people have the vocabulary to pull this kind of writing off, and even those who do, I think probably shouldn't attempt it. I know it's a classic way of writing fantasy, but I find it distancing even when done well, and annoying when done badly. Here, it's not done terribly, but it could be done better. It's possible (though difficult) to write lucid, straightforward prose that's also beautiful and evocative. Emma Bull does it, Ursula Le Guin does it, and I wish more genre writers did.

When we come to characters, there's some good news. The protagonist/narrator is based on the author, but he is definitely not Gary Stu. He's in poor physical and emotional shape, he gets scared, he freaks out. Things don't fall into his lap; he struggles, he suffers. He makes meaningful decisions, he's loyal to his friends. I'm happy with him as a character.

The secondary characters are not as clearly drawn. In particular, the minor characters in the other world I found difficult to separate in some cases, or remember who was who, perhaps because a lot of them are introduced in a short span of time. I'm sure they'll gain depth in the second book.

The premise is interesting. The main character's father is a well-known fantasy author, and it turns out that he wasn't making up his other world; he'd lived there, and was more a biographer than a novelist. The protagonist goes to the other world and becomes involved in defending it, and by extension our world, from other-dimensional villains.

It's a good premise. Portal fantasy is out of fashion, for some odd reason, but I've always liked it, and of course the fictional-worlds-are-real trope is a popular one (see Jasper Fforde for perhaps the best-known of many examples). I think the author does it justice, though with a couple of reservations which I'll mention next. He also does a nice job of including quotations from the father's books, which are in a subtly different style, though I didn't always see the relevance of them to the chapters they preceded.

I wasn't that happy with the worldbuilding. The narrator says that "there are very few analogs between Earth and Destin when it comes to culture", but there totally are. Destin is basically a mashup of classic swords-and-sorcery fantasy with the Old West, and the two elements don't blend well. Shields and sixguns. Characters who wear doublets and jeans. Yes, those are actual examples. It didn't work that well for me, technologically or historically. Or linguistically; I have a degree in English language, so I know how contingent and random the development of the English language was, and having another world in which people speak a version of it is unlikely on the face of it (though I'm willing to give it the Trope Pass, reluctantly, so that we don't have to struggle with language learning and translation to the detriment of the story).

The big, all-too-common worldbuilding gaffe, though, is this. One of the characters, an Earth person who's familiar with the other world from reading the books, says at one point, "There's no Christ. No Bible. Why would there be a Christmas?" And then roughly a thousand words later there's a minor character called Joshua. I understand why authors don't want the Christian religion in their books, but if you're going to take it out, take it all out. (The thing is, it's so entwined in our culture, to a degree that most people are unconscious of, that unless you base your books on a non-Western culture, you can't take it all out. This is an enduring problem of fantasy worldbuilding.)

Anyway, so much for the world. What about the plot? This is the first of an epic fantasy series, and as is often the case with such series, it's not a complete story in itself but an introduction to the world and the characters and the situation. That's not to say that nothing happens, by any means, but there's more a sense of beginning at the end than there is a sense of ending, if that makes any sense. Thinking back on my experience of reading it, I remember more explanation and exploration than I do action, though there are certainly several well-written action sequences, spaced well throughout.

One of the important questions to ask, when talking about plot, is "What do the characters want? Do they strive for it?" What the characters want is reasonably clear. The main character, Ross, wants to investigate the mystery, possibly avenge his father's death, and rescue and defend his friends. His friends want to visit the world of the books they loved growing up - and this weaker motivation leaves them as weaker, less interesting characters in this book, though they'll no doubt strengthen in future books thanks to the revelations towards the end of this one. Stakes are both cosmic and personal, which is a strong combination, and shows promise for the series.

Overall, this is definitely an above-average first novel, though for me it has some (non-fatal) issues. With more discipline applied to the language, and better integration of the different elements of the worldbuilding, I can see this becoming a classic series in the future.

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