At least one of the books in the Humble Bundle of books I recently snagged is not a short story anthology. At least three of them, actually, because they’re a trilogy. Or the first three books of an “arc,” at least. Whether they’re also the last three books of that arc, I don’t know. What I do know is that Scourge of the Betrayer is the first of them, and I’m going to be giving that book a poke. Here is our opening paragraph:
My new patron clambered down the wagon, dark hair slicked back like wet otter fur, eyes roaming the stable yard in a measured sweep. He fixed on me briefly before continuing his survey, and it occurred to me, just as it had a hundred times since accepting the commission, that this would be unlike any other job I’d done.
I had to copy/paste that into a word processor in order to get the first two lines to be visible. Smart Publishing should consider getting a better formatting guy. Like, minor formatting errors are one thing. Still kind of unprofessional, but things slip through, no one’s perfect, so long as everything else is firing on all cylinders, I don’t even notice. This is the very first paragraph of the very first page.
The next two pages are a storm of proper nouns unmoored from any meaning. New characters are introduced on a nearly per-paragraph basis, making keeping up with who’s who basically impossible, and a handful of place names are introduced as well. I know there’s some kind of caravan, a military captain is in charge of it, a stable boy and a nomad who seems vaguely Mongol are part of it, and that our viewpoint character is a scribe. Some number of soldiers are involved, but I’ve lost track of which ones are repeat characters and which ones are newly introduced.
This lasts for several pages as the caravan seeks lodging at an inn. The narrative does eventually settle on the captain and the nomad being probably the most important characters. A few setting details do get teased out: The captain is a sort of soldier called a Syldoon. In general they are not very nice, and neither is he, although they don’t yet seem to be full on evil empire stormtroopers. They’ve also only been onpage for ten minutes, though, so we’ll see where that goes. The Syldoonians all have noose tattoos around their necks, so in order to travel incognito, which they are, they have to wear hoods. Because hoods cover the neck, I guess.
The narrative then spends, like, five pages establishing that our scribe is super excited but also terrified to be chronicling this Syldoon expedition, which will apparently involve the end of a “body politic.” Neat and all, but dear God, does it feel the need to reiterate this point a lot. I am on page 13 and less than 500 words of review have come of it, principally because the sum total of what has actually happened is that a caravan has sought lodging at an inn. Characters sit around a table swapping stories which, I guess, are supposed to help establish who’s who? Hardly a dozen pages in, it’d be pretty presumptive to say that this is necessarily wasted space, but I feel confident in saying that it’d have to be doing something fairly weird in order to not be wasted space.
On the other hand, it is at least well-written. Characters have noticeably different personalities, and the initial fog as to who is who is slowly beginning to clear with prolonged exposure (which could be the purpose of the extended introduction, although I question the necessity of having all the characters in such an extended ensemble introduced and established before anything actually happens).
Back on the first hand, here’s an excerpt from a story being told in dialogue:
“But the closest tough, he hadn’t been expecting much in the way of resistance, he’s slow to react. He whips his own weight around on the end of his lash, but the captain’s already slipping left, takes the weight a glancing blow on the temple. Then he whips his flail around, taking off the top half of the tough’s head. Another tough moves in, lash ball coming down, but the captain steps into the blow, catches the leather with his free forearm, ball spinning around, and the captain’s flail is on the move again, coming down hard. Snaps the tough’s collar bone like an old broomstick. Drops him like a stone. But the lash was still wound around the tough’s wrist, pulled the captain off balance some before he wrenched it off the tough’s arm. The other two, if there was any time to bludgeon the captain bloody, that was it. But they seen enough. Both tear off into the dark, lash balls trailing behind them like tails, not looking so tough after all.
Firstly, we probably could’ve used an extra paragraph break in there somewhere. But secondly, that is super detailed for someone explaining a fight after the fact in dialogue.
And also, these soldiers tell a ton of stories while I’m waiting for the plot to get going. They tell stories about their captain killing some street thugs, and about a particularly awful plague, and about a soldier in their company who had really weird taste in whores and wound up dying by being smothered by a particularly fat one. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that whenever this story’s plot finally shows up, it’s not going to hinge on the captain’s flail skills, the horror of plague, and the death of a soldier at the hands of his own weird kinks. I get that the story feels the need to establish that these soldiers are crude and ribald, but it’s taking a lot of time to do that.
Most of the patrons I’d penned for were doing their best to elevate themselves, to impress, to solicit the attention of the caste above. And though it was difficult to admit, even to myself, but my own experience was little different—growing up a bastard, I was always conscious of what others thought, and did my best to overcome any prejudice and earn as much approval as possible, especially since my own livelihood depended on me pleasing and placating my benefactors.
The Syldoon couldn’t care less what anyone thought of them, and that was refreshing. If gross.
Not only did it takes us 23 pages to get here, it’s also a lie. The Syldoon absolutely care what others think of them. They don’t tell all these stories because there’s some vital exchange of information going on. They tell them because they want to impress or entertain other people at the table. The Syldoon want to cultivate a different kind of reputation, trying to come across as intimidating and rough, and casual violation of taboo helps to reinforce that: They’re so hard that doing things that soft people take offense to comes naturally. But it’s still a reputation they’re trying to cultivate. Someone who actually doesn’t care what other people think of them acts without explanation except where necessary to coordinate efforts and will come across as cold and friendless.
A couple of “Hornmen,” who are some other variety of soldier, start harassing the wait staff, and something resembling a plot briefly threatens to appear.
She started to leave but the curly-haired soldier grabbed her hair and pulled her back, saying, “Whoa there, calfling. We got use for those yet.” Scolin tried to restrain him but the drunken soldier shoved him away and pulled her hair again. She tripped over a chair leg and fell to the ground, mugs of ale overturning in all directions. The drunk soldier kicked her backside and she slid forward in a puddle of ale. “You stupid bitch.” He reared back to kick her again and found a blade next to his throat. Braylar’s.
Braylar being the captain of the Syldoon. Braylar threatens the drunk soldier into standing down. And then the Hornman tries to stab him in the back, gets beaten senseless, and Braylar quips his way out of any trouble with his comrades. Good for him, I guess, but that’s not going to stop this kind of thing from happening in the future, so really all this scene’s doing is making a clumsy attempt to make Braylar look badass. If we hadn’t already come off a story where Braylar fought his way past four street thugs single-handed, I might care, but as it is, it just comes across as protesting the point way too much. The author is so enamored with this character that it’s beginning to feel Mary Sue. It could be worse. Braylar at least does talk his way out of a confrontation with the other Hornmen rather than just beating all of them up or slaughtering them. Still, the entire twenty-nine pages of the story so far seems to be dedicated relentlessly to how awesome the Syldoon in general and Braylar in particular are. It’s perfectly sensible that the waitress then follows up with effusive gratitude, but it doesn’t help with how relentless the narrative is with the whole “isn’t Braylar just so cool?!” thing. He beats up all the drunken louts and he’s clever and quippy and he sweeps all the girls off their feet and OMG!!!1!
There’s not really chapters in this book, but there is a weird old-timey naught symbol with the slash through it that indicates a scene transition, so I’m going to call that the chapter. So far this book is in a weird place, exactly the opposite of what I often review, where line-by-line it’s perfectly well composed, but its overall structure seems to have no idea where it’s going and the only point of the book seems to be to evangelize how cool its characters are. We’ll see if it gets going anywhere.