it's a great life, if you don't weaken (matociquala) wrote,
it's a great life, if you don't weaken

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Book 16: Alexander C. Irvine, A Scattering of Jades (spoilers)

I am still reading this, so these are preliminary impressions.

I so badly wanted to like this book. It has all the elements of a profound triumph of the Cool Shit Theory of Literature school of writing. It has Aztec mummies and the rabbit in the moon, Tammany Hall and doughty newspapermen and abolitionists, snake oil salesmen and plucky orphans. The writing isn't brilliant, but it's certainly not bad, and there's an occasional really craftsmanlike and shiny sentence.

And I just fail to engage. I dunno if it's a lack of tension, or failing to connect with the characters (I really like Stephen, but nobody else is doing it for me, and I don't believe Archie for a minute--especially the part where his daughter supposedly died in a fire and he won't believe that the girl--who *has burn scars*--is his daughter because of the burn scars?) Also, I notice that the book tends to duck any scene of real emotional impact in favor of describing it afterwards in narrative, as if the author was made uncomfortable by all this emoting. A show don't tell problem, in other words, that I think contributes strongly to my lack of engagement... especially as it's combined with a really odd blend of fairly large infodumps and opacity about a number of the more esoteric subjects the book deals with. So, two pages on Aaron Burr, but a pile of Aztec words in the first few pages, none of them initially defined.

I think I can identify why the prose doesn't spark. As I said, it's not bad prose, but there's a lot of offhand cliche (on a random page in a couple of randomly selected paragraphs--"ghosts shrieking and gibbering," "their noise nearly loud enough to drown his thoughts," "paying scant attention."), and the verb use isn't as strong and specific as it could be. Also, there's a lot of scaffolding. So, we're not talking howlers or even clunky prose, but just prose that isn't taut. Which slows things down.

Combined with the sometimes hesitant prose (the author also pauses the narrative stream a lot to remind us whose POV we're in and reinforce line of direction with unnecessary prepositional phrases), this undermines the reader's impression of auctorial mastery and confidence. So the overwhelming impression is of a lot of summary, a lot of introspection, a lot of exposition, and not very much action.

(Please note, by the way, that I'm responding to these books as a writer and reader. There's no attempt here to create a balanced critique or even a review; I'm just looking at what they can teach me.)

That said, I would really, really like to like this book better. For example, the Cool Shit factor is incredibly high. Coincidences between the Aztec and Delaware calendars, cave explorers, the abovementioned snake oil salesmen, a really detailed picture of a different era in American history. The prose is speckled with really good, keenly observed images ("shadows growing and twitching on the walls," the description of a man in a broad-brimmed hat as "[looking] like a man with a toadstool for a head"), and I think Irvine is a writer with talent, whose work will improve a lot with practice and more manifest confidence in his prose and his ability to handle a dramatic scene on camera.

Tags: 52 book challenge, literary wank, writing craft wank

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