Our author today is CJ Olsen, whose previous work on Amazon is almost entirely non-fiction stuff, which is almost entirely about the LDs church, because Utah. He sold me a copy of the book at the Salt Lake Comic Con, and since I have no idea if it’ll be any good, I figured it fit well into the whole “let’s find out how good this book is together” theme I have going on this blog. The book also came with a free bookmark, which, like, I didn’t realize people still did that. I thought we’d reached the point where the idea that free bookmarks aren’t really effective in advertising your book had reached total saturation. It’s right up there with “begging book stores to let you host a signing” on the list of cliche things authors do to feel more successful that don’t actually help. I guess I just read ebooks so often these days that it doesn’t come up.
I think if CJ Olsen ever reads these blog posts, he might regret selling me a book.
That’s never a good sign.
People following these as they come out will be aware that this came out a couple of days late. I bring this up because the fact that this prologue has kind of a boring opener definitely isn’t the reason why it’s late. It’s late because my Sunday video was late, and my schedule slipped from there. But this book does have an opening line that could’ve used some more workshopping:
The cool morning breeze blew through a narrow canyon ruffling light green weeds protruding from the hillside.
Hold onto your hats, this book has light green weeds in it. I’m compelled to read on.
The first line of the second paragraph gets us to the part of the scene we care about:
A bulky airship rested anchored close to the canyon’s side, its slightly rusted, dull iron exterior a sharp contrast to the naturally formed rock to which it was tethered.
Nothing about this airship leaps out as particularly special among airships or anything, but there’s an audience for “this book has airships in it” in a way there is not for “this book has weeds in it.”
But, okay, the first line isn’t selling the first page, but while there is definitely some number of readers who peace out when the first line doesn’t attempt to pry their eyeballs out of their skull with the ferocity of its desire to keep their attention, most people are willing to give the first page a go just on the basis of having opened up the book. I don’t want to overflow my Amazon copy/paste ability (since, yes, I did get an Amazon copy in addition to the paperback I bought at the con once I decided I’d review it for the blog), but let’s look at that entire first page:
The cool morning breeze blew through a narrow canyon ruffling light green weeds protruding from the cliffside. That same, pleasant wind abetted birds from small crevices throughout the steep wall of rock, the sun just peaking over the horizon to illuminate its glorious red stone. The air filled with bird song and rustling foliage… and the steady pulse of something mechanical.
A bulky airship rested anchored close to the canyon’s side, its slightly rusted, dull, iron exterior a sharp contrast to the naturally formed rock to which it was tethered. The airship’s bulbous nose and stubby fins caused it to look like a mechanical fish that had left its ocean for the skies above. Smoke billowed from an exhaust pipe in the back and the engines could be heard idling their determined ballad. The ship’s propellers lazily spun keeping itself airborne, the name The Ephrait painted on the side in faded, cracked lettering.
A gust of air slipped through a hole in The Ephrait’s exterior, most likely from cannon fire. The airship was lined with scorch marks and dirt that had settled in the main walkway. Machinery of all different shapes and sizes lay strewn across the metal floor, oil leaking from bent tin pans. Bolts, cogs, and nuts of varying sizes and shapes were scattered in disorganized piles. Pipes dripping with oil and condensation ran along the corridors with periodic strips of cloth tied around them, barring steam from pouring out uninvited.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. We have an airship, it got shot by a cannon at some point (“most likely” – does our omniscient third person narrator not know?).
The point of the first page is to sell the audience on the first chapter. Once someone’s read the first chapter, you can relax the marketing and just focus on making sure the book itself is good, because very few readers put a book down in the middle unless it’s interminably dull (or if something interrupts their usual schedule and they don’t read for a much longer interval than usual, in which case they may have forgotten where they were, not want to reread, and pick up something else – but you can’t control things like that). So the rest of this prologue is about the sleeping captain of this ship being awakened when cannon fire showers rocks onto him from further up the canyon, and he has to pull his hunk of junk into working properly in order to flee. It’s not bad.
Of course, the principle problem is that this is a prologue, so now it’s time for something completely different.
“The phrase, ‘Alchemy is an evolutionary science,’ has prompted many to ask: ‘Does that differ from any other of its kind?’
This is not actually a bad opening line. Which is kind of funny, because I get the feeling the prologue was added in order to try and ensnare readers with a promise of excitement, and yet its opening line is totally sedate.
I often retort with a question of my own: ‘Does your science exist and you simply have to discover it? Or does it grow in front of your eyes, creating phenomena that did not previously exist?’”
“Alchemy is no mere act of nature or prearranged set of rules. It is a creature, living and breathing, devouring knowledge and generating new, previously unfathomable events. No, my fellow scholars, Alchemy is intelligent, creative, expansive, and dangerous beyond belief.”
Charlotte finished the chapter and quickly turned to her notes, scribbling with eager ferocity. Spots of ink spilled across the parchment as she dipped her quill in the inkwell and continued her feverish scribbling.
“Dr. Grevishau’s explanation of Alchemy is vague, like many before,” she mumbled, writing intensely. “But if dissected, I believe that what the author is implying is that all that can be discovered about Alchemy has been discovered.”
This feels like the opposite of what those first two italicized paragraphs were saying, that not only can more alchemy be discovered, but that the discoveries available to alchemists are somehow more special than those available to physicists or biologists or whatever (note that real world technology, naturally, come from these real world sciences, so it’s weird to insist that these sciences do not “create phenomena that did not previously exist”).
This isn’t a bad first page, though. Our protagonist is in some giant library pursuing an academic interest in technomagic. I don’t know the steampunk audience well at all, so maybe the demand for action is way higher than I would anticipate, but this seems like it should be perfectly capable of selling people on the first chapter. Maybe the first chapter in general is a dud?
It doesn’t seem like it. The main thing here is that Charlotte is being followed around by something called the Stalker, which apparently doesn’t want cute boys flirting with her, as the cute boy who tries to do so flees upon realizing who Charlotte is and that the Stalker is following her around.
The entire city of Callan held a complex system of tunnels that allowed the chimera to follow Charlotte wherever she went. To stalk her and to protect her.
The Stalker is some kind of alchemical creation, right? It’s not completely clear, but that definitely seems to be the implication, what with it being some mysterious deformed creature and all the talk of alchemy so far (I’m actually kind of lying here, because the author told me it was an alchemical creature in person, but I’m doing my best to examine this book on its own – most readers did not have even a brief conversation with the author). Why, then, does the Stalker need a complex system of tunnels, rather than simply being designed to follow her through many different types of urban terrain?
Charlotte had heard visitors and tourists talk of how strange it was to be inside a city that was one large building. Callan Castle stretched for miles across the Eternal Plains. Some spoke of cities where there weren’t ceilings and walls covering the roads, where buildings were separate and not just a collection of massive rooms. She had never travelled beyond the walls of Callan.
This is a cool concept, but it only reinforces the lack of any need for a complex system of tunnels. The Stalker seems to be pretty good at walking on the ceiling, considering that’s where it hangs out all the time, and if there’s no locations without ceilings, that should be good enough to allow it to follow Charlotte anywhere, provided it’s fast enough. If you really don’t want it using regular doorways when it has to move from room to room, you could instead construct very simple doorways on the ceiling wherever there’s one on the ground.
Towards the end of the chapter, we get a description of Charlotte.
She was strikingly beautiful, with the ideal figure of a woman.
Oh boy here we go.
Tall, slender, and well endowed. Long legs, a small waist, and large breasts were all genetic attributes of Eternal Harthum’s daughters. She wore a plain tan skirt with a black vest and white blouse underneath. Her shoulder-length brown hair was held by a golden comb, her bangs falling across her forehead. She wore, as a means of rebellion, large, round spectacles that were frowned on by her older sister Lindris. Most in the city would argue that she was the fairest of the seeds of Harthum, but all agreed she was the oddest. Charlotte had never truly fit the expectations of others, like a rogue puzzle piece never to find its place.
I’m probably being a little unfair because, having semi-recently come off of Legions of the Dead which described both of its female characters principally in terms of cup size, I’m more aware of the whole “she breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downward” thing. CJ Olsen isn’t describing Charlotte exclusively by her breasts, and breasts are in fact a thing that women have that you might reasonably describe. At the same time, every physical attribute she’s given – not just breasts, but waist, legs, general build – seems to have been chosen specifically for sex appeal, with the sole exception of her hair, and while hair isn’t exactly erotic for most people, it is part of what makes a girl pretty. Even the whole “she’s an odd one” thing comes across like a kink rather than a personality trait, because the reason for her oddness is never given. Just like “naughty nurse,” “sexy nun,” and “innocent schoolgirl,” “nerd girl” is a genre of sexual fantasy, and without some defined features of her personality to flesh her out, left only with the shallow impression of “she’s an odd one, alright,” she comes across like a collection of tags on PornHub rather than a character.
But I don’t want to give the wrong impression, here. This is not a good paragraph, but it is one paragraph. I’m seeing red flags, and while often those red flags come to terrible fruition, I’m not passing any verdict on Charlotte as a character or CJ Olsen as a writer until we’ve reached the end of the book or else crossed some event horizon so terrible that nothing else in the book’s contents could save it. This paragraph isn’t nearly that bad, and there’s plenty of pagespace left for Charlotte to develop past this clumsy introduction. Hell, even the previous pages have done a decent job. “Academically interested in the local Brandon Sandersen knock-off magic system” isn’t enough to form an entire personality on its own – by itself, it’s more symptomatic of an author who wishes they were Brandon Sandersen – but it’s a start. It’s a perfectly reasonable personality trait for someone to have, and it’s a specific personality trait, so, y’know, let’s see if we add anything to that.
And while I’m reasserting my commitment to judge the book fairly and not condemn it because other books by other authors have been unworthy of the fair shake they were given, I’ll point out that the idea that her “ideal figure of a woman” was selected for her by some kind of sinister overlord could be interesting.
Also, is the whole “puzzle piece” thing supposed to be a reference to autism? It’s the symbol for autism used by Autism Speaks, and my understanding is that the autism community in general fucking hates Autism Speaks, but still, the symbol is out there and an author might use it. But an author might also come across that particular metaphor on their own initiative, and not every person who doesn’t quite fit in is automatically autistic.
Anyway, Charlotte’s walking through the corridors of a large market whereupon she happens across an obvious scammer.
A dirty man wearing trousers too short for him, revealing bony ankles, stumbled into Charlotte causing her to drop her satchel.
“Me pardons, Milady,” the dirty man said nervously as he scrambled to pick up Charlotte’s books and papers that had cascaded across the market floor. “I’m v-v-very so-so-rry,” he stuttered. “It’s this left eye o’ mine. I can’t very much see out of it any more on account of a mining accident that left me nearly dead and all, which my family can eat nothing but dirt due to my unemployment. Which’s why I’m here, Milady, to find work so that I can feed them you see.”
Surely nobody would be this forthcoming about their woes to a total stranger if the goal wasn’t to extort some cash, right?
Turns out, no, this is just Charlotte’s fate-mandated save the cat beat:
“What’s this?” barked a deep male voice. A sturdy boot kicked the beggar in the ribs, sending him tumbling to the side with a gasp. “Filthy maggot trying to accost this beautiful woman,” the man scolded. He was a young member of the city constables. He wore black trousers and jacket with a mantel and short cape. His cap was worn low, covering his eyebrows. He gave Charlotte an arrogant smile, then pulled out a thick wooden baton and stepped forward to beat the cowering beggar. Charlotte stood up.
“Stop that this instant,” she demanded, setting her hands on her hips.
She humiliates the sinister constables, loads the beggar up with food, and advises he not be seen around here for a long while as the constables will likely be looking for revenge. And that last bit is more thought than a lot of these moments get, since it demonstrates some real, long term concern for someone else rather than just taking advantage of an opportunity to swing her social position as Sauron’s princess around to feel good about herself. So, points for that.
Ending the first chapter on a cliffhanger or revelation of some kind is not a bad idea, because you haven’t got a reader safely in your sinister authorial clutches until they’ve started reading chapter two. This early on, having the “revelation” just be introducing a bit of information that the protagonist already knew can even be acceptable. After all, it’s going to take some amount of pagespace to catch us up on everything an inhabitant of this world knows about it, so it makes perfect sense to save the most important things for the end when they can serve as a hook for the next chapter. None of Charlotte’s motivations so far are driven by the end-of-chapter revelation I’m building up to, here, so that’s all kosher.
The problem is that it’s all so damn vague that I mostly just roll my eyes and would strongly consider putting the book down if I hadn’t already bought it:
Charlotte had left the depressing atmosphere of her rooms early that morning, retreating to the libraries to get away from this feeling of imprisonment. But it was a fool’s quest. After all, this would be her last month of freedom. A freedom she cherished above all else.
Sure, I want to know what’s happening in a month, but I can also feel the hand of the author withholding that information from me, and it doesn’t put me in a charitable mood.