Well, we’re only 2 months into the new decade and I’ve already abandoned 3 books from my “to-be-read shelves”. I don’t know about you, but I always kept my Did-Not-Finish piles in the “one day I’ll read this” fantasy dream. But, now that I have a tiny human to take care of alongside the daily realities of work and independent research (i.e with little to no leisure time), I feel the world’s too short to have a to pile of books looming over me, judging and shaming my failure as a reader.
Interestingly, I actually LOVED one of the books that I gave up on. So, being an academic and critic, I couldn’t simply accept the idea that I didn’t like something. I had to dwell deeper. Into the why. and the what. and the how.
The first book, Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World (2004), has a typical Call to Adventure (Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces) that seems to promise some blood and mayhem at least. Unfortunately, I didn’t even make it that far. The main character is introduced as “Smith,” an anonymous, generic name that matches the make-up of the character. That is, he doesn’t seem to have a character. In the early pages, he serves as a vehicle to carry the story, and reacts to rather than drives the narrative. His personality, former profession, associates, etc, is all tied up in this anonymity so that we know nothing about him. Now for some, this question might be enough to spur them to continue reading (See my discussion of Jess Smith’s Bone for a quick crasher on how micro and macro questions makes for a page turner). However, the summary on the book jacket threw in another complication: the story is described as the tale of Smith, and “the large extended family of Smith”; but it becomes clear very early on that these characters are not related in anyway, and that “Smith” is just a generic title that they have adopted in order to hide in anonymity. It’s unclear whether the copy on the book jacket was just sloppy editing or whether it was deliberately written to hide a double-meaning in the words; either way, the muddled synopsis left a bad taste in my mouth.
Character and narrative voice are key in inviting a reader to continue on with the story. You can have an exciting action-packed opening scene, but if you don’t connect with the voice from the start, then reading becomes a chore. K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter (2017) is another novel I added to my DNF stack due to my lack of engagement with the character/narrator’s voice. The story is conveyed as an embedded frame narrative through a series of letters between the two main characters. As a result, the main narrative is told in second person throughout. Second person voice is a hard sell. It CAN be done effectively (i.e. see N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, 2015-2017; for fear of spoilers, I won’t go into details of why the second person viewpoint served a dramatic purpose in all three novels, but let me just say that utilizing the second person voice to serve a purpose was sheer brilliance on Jemisin’s part). Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case for Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter. The story (at least in the first few chapters that I read) is simply told as character 1 relaying the events of their past to character 2 in a “remember when we did x? I’m going to tell you the story of it anyway in this long letter because I love the story so much.” This style of writing seems forced, as if the author wanted to use the letter-style of writing but couldn’t figure out a way to justify its use. Consequently, the letter-writing simply serves as a vehicle to tell the story, instead of using it as a medium to further explore nuances of theme and voice. It would have made more sense if the letter-writer had revealed some unknown fact or perspective that the letter-reader was previously unaware of; or it would have been more interesting if the letter-reader had reacted to the perspective of the letter-writer in some way, perhaps with their own interpretation of events, or an emotion of guilt, or nostalgia, or something. But this didn’t appear to be the case, and I sadly added it to my DNF pile. It was a shame, because I had such hopes for the story (the narrative concerns the romantic relationship between two strong, competent women, both daughters of equally strong, competent women). But as I kept waiting for the “main story” to start, and only realized (after a quick Goodreads search) that the letters was the main narrative, I couldn’t bring myself to continue.
On the surface, The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (2018) bear some relation to The Anvil of the World and The Tiger’s Daughter. Like The Anvil of the World, The Tangled Lands is novella collection. But, like both Baker’s and Aresnault Rivera’s narratives, this structure is not made clear on the book jacket synopsis. (In fact, The Anvil of the World is advertised as Baker’s first Fantasy novel, which is clearly incorrect.) Now, while I have nothing against novella collections, I would like to be made aware of the structure before I’m a quarter of the way into the book. Knowing the structure and medium of a text is important. It allows the reader to anticipate the peaks and valleys. Hit a peak or valley too soon or too late, and it puts the reader on the wrong footing. What do I mean by this? As I was unaware that the book was a novella collection, as I started reading the first “part,” I immediately felt that the pacing was too fast. It was building too quickly towards a climax, with the stakes being high very early on. Had I been aware that the narrative was a short-story, I would have approached it differently. I would have been prepared for the sprint, rather than settling in for a long, slow journey.
But more frustrating is that I became too emotionally invested in the characters. I had geared myself up to join them on an epic adventure, and befriended them early as a result. I worried for them and feared for them, in a way that I didn’t with my first two DNFs. Bacigalupi (who writes the first story in the collection) does an incredible job of creating characters with depths and high stakes with just a few brush strokes. The main character is presented to us with a history, one who has fallen and suffered great lost. It’s easy to feel worry for him and his young daughter as they dabble in things that are too dangerous for a simple craftsman. And so it was that when I got to the end of the first short story, I felt disappointment, as if I’ve been cheated. I wanted to know what happened to them, and wanted to continue joining my new friends on their dangerous adventure. Unlike the first two books, where I wasn’t invested enough in the characters to continue reading their stories, here I felt like I had lost new friends that I had only begun to discover. And so I may yet return to The Tangled Lands to read again. But only after my grief has time to mellow and heal.