Leaves of the World Tree is a book gifted to me by its author in hopes of a review. That was, like, half a year ago, because this blog is not always the best at updating. But what I lack in alacrity, I make up for with implacable determination.
Leaves of the World Tree is a short story collection, and if I recall the author’s pitch correctly, each story takes place in a different time period. Story the first is called “Olaff,” and takes place in a time before creativity had been invented.
Like many Olafs before him, he was named Olaff. It was not a bad name by any means. He shared his name with four others born that year, and he would share it with seven the year after. Olaf was then, as it had been before, and would be for generations to come, a common name.
This is the first half of our opening paragraph. These are the lines that have to sell an audience on the first page. Now, reading one page isn’t a huge imposition and it’s not that hard to convince your audience to do it, but even so, “our protagonist has a common name” isn’t a strong foot to be starting on. It is only half the opening paragraph, though. Here’s the rest:
It was as though his parents had expected him to be average. Growing up he never felt as though he were different from the other boys. He was not scrawny and smart, or muscular and dumb, nor better or worse at most things. He threw the axe at the tree and hit five times out of ten, and his spear landed smack in the middle of everyone else’s. It was only when they taught him how to write his name that he realized he was unique. His mother, being the literate one, had spelled his name with an extra “f.”
Apparently the society Olaff is from is one with a perfectly centered bell curve of throwing axe proficiency. So at least we’re setting our story firmly in some kind of viking-ish era. That’s not nothing. Here’s the rest of the first page:
Not every day was spent sprinting into battle. Like most of his days, he spent one in particular rowing. He sat on a long bench in the center of a large group of benches that were nearly identical and only distinguishable by their varying degrees of mold. As could be expected, if anything at all could be expected of such a regular person, he sat in the middle. Smack in the middle of everyone else, on his bench, between Vjolf and Bjorvak.
This story has spent a lot of time letting us know how boring and unexceptional the protagonist and his life is, and if I hadn’t gotten a review copy of the book, I would be strongly considering not reading any further. Lucky for our author, I did get a review copy of the book, so we’re gonna see if this story is boring all the way through or just a slow burn. Well, not really lucky for our author. He sent it to me, so it wasn’t really luck so much as a direct and predictable result of actions he took.
Olaff’s rowing mates are supposed to be more unique and special than him. One is tiny and vicious and dual-wields a scimitar and a make-shift sickle-spear, and the other is humongous and wields an anvil wrapped in chains like a flail. They’re good friends, but Olaff sits between them on the rowing bench, apparently because the only thing stronger than their friendship is their dedication to narrative symbolism.
After a full two and a half pages explaining how boring Olaff and his life is, the plot arrives, in the form of the rower in front of Olaff getting his head torn clean off. Somehow Olaff notices a speck of blood on his beard from this event before he notices the motion or noise of the impact. He was crossing his eyes because that’s the kind of hobby you have when your only noteworthy trait is being the most boring person on the boat, but still.
The ensuing melee is…not well described.
[Olaff] grasped hold of his steel and was about to roll out from under the bench when Vjolf hit the deck in his path. He was covered in blood but there was none on his on his blades [sic]. Vjolf flailed but he was not going anywhere. He never would. Protruding from his neck was a trident. A weapon like a pitch fork with wide blades for prongs.
This is a one-man Amazon published book, so I’m not as annoyed by the typo as I ordinarily would be. This is the kind of operation that can’t afford an editor. The main problem here, in any case, is how sedate the diction is. We spend an entire paragraph just describing the fact that Vjolf has been speared by a trident, including a sentence explaining what a trident is, and it really kills the momentum. Olaff is supposed to be retrieving weapons in a panic, but spending an entire paragraph on a single split-second event (the spearing of Vjolf) makes it feel more like he’s taking a calm and measured assessment of the situation, especially since emotions are only vaguely implied, not directly stated, by the narrative. You can take some time to dwell on rising panic or confusion or horror at the loss of Vjolf (are he and Olaff even friends? How is Olaff reacting to this?), or you can omit that to instead focus on the unfolding events, but you can’t spend an entire paragraph on the purely mechanical consequences of a single attack.
With Vjolf sprawled out gurgling blood in his way, Olaff had to crawl out over him awkwardly. Olaff went out on all fours, placing hands only where there was no blood that might slick his sword grip. He stood hastily, taking only enough time to make sure he was not standing on Vjolf. Olaff’s head snapped left and right soaking in the scene. As he should have expected his foe to be, in the middle of the ocean, it was the merfolk.
That’s kinda neat, although I’m not super confident in our author’s ability to execute the idea.
My shield! He thought, with a pang of panic.
Olaff had left it under the bench in his mad rush to retrieve his weapon. He spun quickly on the blood slicked ground. Before he could think to retrieve his shield, however, he stopped. Slithering along the top of the bench was the long green tail of a merman. His first instinct won out over common sense and Olaff stabbed it, hard, pinning his sword through the bench.
So he thinks about retrieving his shield, and then something happens before he can think to retrieve his shield? This prose is trying way too hard to be poetic with this kind of phrasing. Also, what’s the merman doing on the boat? Why not keep taking potshots from the water, where you can get to safety just by diving a half-dozen feet? They have a clearly demonstrated ability to kill foes at range.
After everyone else except Olaff dies, he enters into a berserker rage and kills all the remaining merfolk. It’s about as gripping as the rest of the fight. There is a particularly weird bit where Olaff hesitates to finish off the boss fight:
Why did I stop? Will the blade not work? No, of course it would. I’ve seen Vjolf cut plenty of throats with this, it should be especially suited for women… Then what’s wrong?
Pretty sure women’s throats slit the same as men’s, buddy. The diction through this whole story has been so weird that I really can’t tell if this is a clumsy attempt at a joke referring to Vjolf being a fucked up murder-psycho or if it’s actually trying to suggest that men and women require different implements for throat slitting. Also, Olaff is apparently so much on auto-pilot that he has no idea why he’s taking his own actions, and yet conscious enough to wonder why his auto-pilot actions are or aren’t being taken.
So anyway, the thing that’s wrong is that Olaff is in love with the mermaid, but also she hit the deck so hard that she’s already dead, Olaff’s just running too high on emotion to realize it. When he starts coming down from the berserk rage, he realizes two things:
- He is very good at being a berserker, and
- He has taken several quite fatal wounds and is definitely going to die.
Which he does.
The story has a cool concept but is really poorly executed. The merfolk are sporting enough to engage in melee despite having a significant advantage fighting at range, so they don’t end up fighting much different from any regular human foe. The entire story revolves around Olaff discovering that he is a berserker, but going berserk is an emotional state and Olaff’s emotions are badly underdescribed both before and after he enters the rage. There’s that weird bit at the end where Olaff is suddenly lovestruck by the mermaid he’s just killed. The story has a reasonably interesting premise and that’s it.
This bodes ill for the rest of the collection.