Can I play? Shipping Tags

So, Bookstooge gave up on this one, but I’m bored have time to kill procrastinating dedicated to providing quality content on my blog for my wonderful readers (stop laughing), and figured I’d give it a try.

THE RULES

  1. Answer the eleven questions provided by the blogger who tagged you
    • Does it still count if I just spontaneously decide to answer questions because I have no other ideas for fresh content?
  2. Come up with eleven new questions of your own!
    • Oh….I actually kind of can do this. Stay tuned.
  3. Tag 5 new bloggers!
    • Do I even know five bloggers?
    • Who are dumb enough to do something like this?
  4. Mention the blogger who tagged you and have fun!!
    • Hey, Bookstooge!

QUESTIONS

  • Who was your first book crush?
    • Sheeesh, I have no clue. I used to really be fond of Lord Rawnblade Widestripe, Protector of the Shores, but mostly that was because I was eight and the thought of going berserk on my cousins was very appealing after they made fun of my Breyer horse collection. Well, actually, speaking of books I read when I was eight, maybe John Clayton, Lord Greystoke.
    • Or some of the dog-loving heroes in Jim Kjelgaard’s books. I read a lot of those when I was just getting into reading “actual books,” but the “boys survival adventures with dogs” genre doesn’t tend to have a lot of ship potential.
  • Who was your most recent book crush?
    • ….I honestly dunno.
  • What popular ship do you sink?
    • The last time I paid close attention to shipping fandoms was back in the heyday of Bleach. The only fandom I’m really involved with these days is The Dresden Files. So:
      • Ichigo/Rukia (I dislike Rukia because she has an abrasive personality that doesn’t appeal to me in a main character. As a side character, she’s fine, but as a lead or love interest? No.)
      • Harry/Molly, Harry/Mab, Harry/Marcone
      • Come to think of it, Harry/Lara, because Lara is a scary, inhuman monster who is going to try her damndest to push Harry’s already-dangerous mental state all the way over from “dark hero teetering on the edge” to “monster.”
  • Which unpopular ship do you actually love?
  • Do you have a favorite friends to lovers ship?
    • Harry/Murphy.
    • (sobs)
    • I guess Renji/Rukia would count. Does childhood-friends-to-lovers count? This one I actually like because when you have two abrasive, loud-mouthed jerks they play off each other a lot better in the background.
  • What ship reminds you of your relationship? Or the relationship you would like to have?
    • Oh, you know I didn’t even notice this question the first time skimming through the list. Lol.
  • What ship was just unnecessary?
    • Every YA love triangle ever.
    • OO OO OOH I ACTUALLY HAVE AN ANSWER HERE, hah! I found the Adam Reith/Zap 210 romance in Jack Vance’s The Pnume to be rather perfunctory and unnecessary given their dynamic throughout the novel as a whole.
  • Imagine your favorite ship 10 years in the future (from when their book ends)… where are they now?
    • (DAMN YOU JIM BUTCHERRRRRRR)
    • (uncontrollable sobbing)
  • Which book do you want to see adapted to TV/Movie? Who would you cast to bring your ship to life?
    • I have had thoughts about this before.
    • Red Rising would also make a pretty kickass show/movie. I dunno who to cast, though, honestly. But I have a feeling that the guy who played Lucius Malfoy would make a good Augustus au Nero…
    • Oh, actually come to think of it: the works of Genevieve Cogman (that aren’t Bleach fanfic.) Solid, charismatic actors can overcome a multitude of faults in sub-par writing (albeit not all), and then can introduce or imply personality when there really isn’t any.
      • Kai can be played by Lee Min Ho, because Lee Min Ho is an enormously talented actor and if there’s anything that could induce me to at least check out a sub-par show, it’d be him.
      • Irene can be played by Emma Watson, because she’s the only actress of that age range I can name off the top of my head.
  • What is a relationship that you wish happened?
    • ….Honestly, I really can’t name a whole lot. I tend to favor canon ships to begin with.
  • 9780689715624_p0_v1_s1200x630What character(s) have broken your heart?
    • Well, the last time I cried over a book, it was Black Gold by Marguerite Henry, when in his paddock with an injured leg and he thinks the crowd in the distance is cheering for him but his trainer is actually coming to put him down…never have I or will I ever read another sad horse book after that, again.
    • That includes sad dog books and movies, too.

One simple trick (tell me if you knew it already)

question-mark-faceSo a little while ago I reviewed The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman, a book that finally allowed me to put my finger on why, as a whole, the series failed (because the worldbuilding’s poor, the characterization is nonexistent, the dialogue is stultifying, and because there is, foremost and overall, a critical lack of creative imagination.) But this book bothered me and it kept niggling at my brain looking for a solution.

[We pause here to say FU WordPress for deleting half of my post.]

It’s really quite easy to make a cliched plot with a predictable storyline and half-assed worldbuilding nonetheless be gripping and readable, and the trick lies in three things: by making the 1) characters 2) interact with this plot in 3) understandable, predictable, realistic, or characteristic fashion. See any number of romance novels, but more particularly, see Beauty by Robin McKinley, or see the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. Neither of these have anything particularly unexpected going on in the plot department. Beauty is literally a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (with horses). But because Beauty/Honor is someone we care about and the Beast promptly becomes one as well, their story becomes important. The Kate Daniels books never have anything spectacular going on in the plot department, but because Kate herself

To break that down a bit more: 1) you have to have characters such that the audience cares what happens to them and is invested in seeing what they are going to do. 2) Your characters have to have enough self-determination and agency that they not mere paper dolls moved around by the authorial whims of the plot dictates. They have to be able to decide to do things, and these things should have an effect on what happens next. 3) Their decisions should be made for relatable, sympathetic, or merely just understandable reasons.

This doesn’t mean that everybody has to be likable, or that everyone has to have their backstory spelled out in detail. It does mean that the author needs to know what their reasons are for doing what they do. But how? People are hard! I don’t know why they do things?!

That’s where the one simple trick comes in. Ready?


stretch-reaching-hand

Figure out what your character wants. I’ve seen this described as “what does your character want to do with their glass of water.”–everybody wants something. Frodo wants to dump his glass of water into a volcano. Aragorn wants to marry his glass of water and has to be crowned King in order to do so. (Golly, this metaphor is a bit unwieldy, isn’t it?) Beauty wants to save her family. Kate Daniels wants to make money and bone Curran. Wanda wants to be happy with her lover, Vision. Luke wants to rescue his father.

But that’s only step one. Step two is (are you ready?): figure out what personality trait (not plot point –those are external factors. We’re going for internal factors here) is going to help or hinder them from accomplishing it. One of my characters, Morgan, wants freedom from her strictured upbringing. A trait that might help her achieve this is: that she’s stubborn and finishes what she starts. A personality trait that is going to hinder this is that: she’s selfish. Her self-centeredness causes her to make a series of decisions which ultimately leads to negative, long-term consequences. Here’s another: Cade wants to protect his clan/family. He’s a cunning warrior. But he dislikes people and therefore it is hard for him to gain allies or trust them. His clan loses ground. Here’s another. Corinnius wants to overthrow the corrupt hierarchy that governs his world. He’s idealistic and hopeful. But he’s internalized rules of the society that he would destroy and fears to take the necessary steps. He doesn’t move forward with what he wants to do; he half-asses everything else that he does do, because his heart is not in it and he doubts and sometimes hates himself.


Back to The Dark Archive. Fixing Irene and Kai is a hopeless proposition. They’ve had seven books and they’re both still paper puppets. But some of the new characters might still be salvaged. In text, Shan Yuan is Kai’s older brother and bullies him; he ignores and bullies Catherine, the Fae trainee, as well. He’s critical, unhelpful, and envious. Now, there is a reason provided–that he wants Kai’s position as Dragon-Library-Fae liaison–but it really isn’t enough because it exists in a vacuum of personality that makes it seem that Shan Yuan’s only purpose in story or out of it is to be a bully who makes life harder for all other characters. (A trope I particularly detest.)

Here’s how to fix it. Shan Yuan is critical of his younger brother because: he feels a sense of superiority and proprietorship over Kai, whom he (thinks of himself as) has raised. Shan Yuan wants the job because: he feels deserves it more than his little brother. Shan Yuan wants the results that the power and prestige will get him. Now, everyone wants power and prestige for its own sake, but why not do something unexpected instead? What if Shan Yuan wants kids and has no chance of being assigned a wife until he has gained more importance and a higher position, such as being the liaison between dragons and chaos. What if Shan Yuan isn’t a warrior or a courtier?–just someone who likes teaching people and explaining things. 

The character trait that would or ought to prevent him is: that he’s not patient or tolerant or mature enough to be trusted with children. –as per his interactions with Catherine, a teenaged Fae. His initial inability to recognize her as “kid” rather than “Fae scum” could, over the course of the book, be corrected. That’s what we call “character development” and it’s highly regarded.

So, anyhow, to sum up: have characters want things and maybe not be able to get them.

 

Review: The Dark Archive – Genevieve Cogman

9781529000603
Irene is not a great heroine, Grauniad.

This book was physically painful to read.  

I’ve read all the Invisible Library books so far. I’ve been patiently waiting for them to Get Good. I’ve been waiting for Cogman’s editor to get better at it. I really, really, want to like these books! They’re about people who love books and would walk to the ends of a different Earth to acquire them….right?

They haven’t, she hasn’t, and the dirty secret is that they aren’t

I’ve already written at length how Cogman a) can’t write action, b) struggles with characterization, c) has far too much dialogue. (GOD, you don’t know how much I am not exaggerating with the dialogue. There are maybe two pages in this book which are not comprised of people talking to each other); Cogman demonstrates a positive genius for taking large-scale action setpieces and then disposing of them in a couple of paragraphs; and nobody has a discernable personality. She’s even shuffled the one character who does have a distinct personality offstage for the duration of the book! What the hell, Gen? 

c) is even more of a problem than usual here, because there are two new major characters: Librarian-trainee-hopeful Catherine, and dragon prince Shan Yuan. And the thing is, for BOTH of them, the building blocks were right there. Shan Yuan is a collection of vaguely arrogant and moderately unhelpful actions. He does things and it’s for his own reasons which are annoying and sometimes harmful to the protagonists. That’s actually good, and he’s actually fairly consistent. Problem is, once he’s been set up, a little bit of time was needed to set up why he does the things he does (not, dear God, by talking about it): that is, OTHER than “to be annoying to the protagonists;” and maybe show that he has a reason and the reason is, his personality is that of an arrogant, prejudiced dragon prince who is used to doing this his own way and has no respect for his younger brother’s/the human way of doing things. 


But the really fatal problems with this series, which I finally put my finger on in this book is:

It’s not clever. It’s not imaginative. And it’s not literary. 

This series is supposedly about people who go to different worlds–from the fantastic to the technological–for books. This series started out as straight-up fanfiction, which allowed the author to slip known worlds, characters, and settings in and do fun, off-the-cuff, funny, clever things with them. This by all rights, should have continued when the books actually got published. The process is simple: file the serial numbers off the world, change the names and a few details of the characters you’re stealing borrowing reimagining, give setting and people a few twists–you know, the sort you’d have liked to see in the originals–and write a fun charming story in a world that is almost recognizable but different in a clever and fitting way.

It can be done, it can be done legally, and it can get published, believe me. There’s the Rachel Griffin books by L. Jagi Lamplighter, which riff off of everyone from Narnia to Battlestar Galactica. There’s the Mageworlds series by Debra Doyle, which is Star Wars sequels with the serial numbers filed off and very satisfying they were to read indeed. There are countless opportunities for cameos not only of literary but also historical figures to pop up!

Cogman doesn’t do this. She doesn’t use varied worlds, fresh new settings. Everything is set in a smoggy but weirdly feminist-friendly but still tea-guzzling but racially tolerant but fucking steampunk pseudo-Victorian England. With goggles. Oh God, there are actual goggles in this book and they do nothing except irritate me. And here’s the thing. Cogman doesn’t even use the really easy and helpful cheat of adapting genuine literary characters to her own ends–which would solve her problem of not being able to write people with actual personalities. You don’t need to invent what you can steal! 

At their core, these books were written by someone entirely lacking in imagination. I’d be nasty and say “in familiarity with the fantasy genre,” but that’s an unwonted personal attack. 

But. The real problem. 

The REAL problem is. 

For a series focused on Librarians. Who go to great lengths to acquire new books. Who fetishize books. Who have plot-relevant reasons for wanting to keep books, read books, and acquire knowledge.

No one ever seems to have read a book in their life.

New character Catherine is a teenager who has grown up isolated and lived primarily through reading stories. She wants to be a librarian: you know, one of those ladies who tells you about new authors and helps you find them and discusses them with you and wears glasses on a string. We know this: because she says as much to Irene. Not because she talks about books incessantly. Not because she’s ever got her nose in a book. Not because she’s entirely bored with the “someone’s trying to assassinate us” plot and keeps trying to wander off and buy books. And definitely not because she changes her mind at the end and decides that being a spy-book-thief type Librarian is much better.

At one point Kai mentions Irene always has a book in her nightstand. Irene never mentions anything she’s read in a book; never refers to book-learned knowledge; never thinks about book plots that are similar to this one; never wonders how a favorite hero or heroine would  handle the situation….throughout this entire series…once. The closest she’s ever come to it is complaining that action heroines are generally taller than her own 5’9 (….you moronic bitch) and follows up by whining that it’s hard to kick people (in the shins, presumably) while wearing full skirts. 

I’m legitimately angry at this point. I could write better stories about Librarian Spies, the Library of Babel, dragons, Fae, debauched ambassadors, bookworm trainees, the Language of Truth, super-powered, vengeful bodiless spirits. Maybe I freaking will.


And after all that, is there anything to say about the plot? What plot? Well….I could talk about what there is of plot, but I’d just lose my temper at how stupidly drawn-out this series is. It’s book 7. Irene has just finally found out that the villain whom she has faced in every single book and easily defeated each time is her

(dUn DuN duN)

(DuN dUn DuN)

(dUn DuN duN dUn DuN dUn)

….father.

As if it wasn’t bloody fucking obvious in book 1 and serially reinforced in each book after that. 

And then there’s an epilogue with a fucking mysterious hooded council of mysteriousness that runs the Library except the final line of the book implies that the Library actually runs itself and WHY DID WE SPEND SEVEN BOOKS RUNNING AROUND VICTORIAN STEAMPUNK GOGGLED LONDON, NOT RIFFING OFF OF OTHER BETTER STORIES, IF YOU HAD MAYBE TWO BOOKS’ AND I’M BEING GENEROUS THERE WORTH OF ORIGINAL PLOT YOU COULD HAVE JUST WRITTEN ABOUT INSTEAD?

What the fuck, Genevieve?

The Lost Plot – Genevieve Cogman (repost review)

So, I have read all five of these books, and none of them were worth paying money for. This review consists of things I feel justified in pointing out, because they are things I would also have problems with, as a writer or aspiring writer. I really would like to like these books. The idea is great! Spies and agents for the Library of All Worlds, dragons, eldritch abominations of chaos, cat burglars, magic, magitech, great detectives, and zeppelins. I can take or leave zeppelins, but the rest of it sounds good, right?

The problem is, it isn’t written very well, and no one has told Ms. Cogman how to play to her strengths or even what those strengths are.

Plot: The Library is trying to play mediator in a peace conference between the dragons (forces of Order) and the Fae (chaos). There’s been a murder. There’s going to be war between factions and between worlds unless someone can figure out Who Dun It. Simple, really.

Problems:
Cogman is really good at writing fanfiction. I mean, really good. I discovered her because of, uh, well, worse things have been admitted, *cough* her Bleach fanfic. And her Chronicles of Amber stuff is also really superb.

But fanfic is fanfic. Original writing is different. Creating your own world requires imagination–to make it up in the first place–thought, to make it workable–and talent, to portray it in a coherent manner. Cogman elides this step by using her many worlds as simply possible, making each or at least most of them just be a slightly more feminist-friendly (not kidding) real-world historical setting. That’s lazy writing, but it’s also fine!–as long as you either make them distinct and/or, have whatever’s happening to your characters be so interesting the background, comparatively speaking, fades.

Here’s the next problem: Cogman isn’t good at characterization. Writing your own characters requires the ability to a) make them distinct and b) make the audience care about them.  b) is less difficult to accomplish, because the audience is usually naturally on the protagonists’ side. a) is way, way harder, because it means giving them a personality and portraying that personality consistently throughout and against the vagaries of the plot.

I’m not criticizing her for lazy writing: making the Fae be “archetypes” is a legitimate cheat, because then you can insert a couple paragraphs about how the Fae in front of you doesn’t actually have a personality, just a set of characteristics which, conveniently, they are forced by Universal Narrativium to adapt to that particular scene. Annoying, but if you pull it off with enough panache (aka, make that Fae be distinct enough and consistent enough), then I, the reader, can go along with it.–especially if you don’t belabor the point too much.

But that isn’t going to work with your actual heroes. Vale has no personality. Kai has Standard Romance Hero personality, which is to say, no personality. Dragon investigator Mu Ren has no personality. Irene does have a personality, and I would hate to be petty and say that her personality is G. Cogman-in-Victorian-Britain-as-an-idealized-Librarian-Spy, but….it just kinda feels that way.

Ironically, the one person who emerges from this book (and series in general) with some distinction is Silver, the Fae semi-antagonist Sexy Bad Boy. He gets identifiable and consistent characterization, because being a) sexy, b) bad boy sexy, requires that he actually say or do things which other people/the protagonist can respond to at a physical and emotional level. There is no other parallel to this in the book. Irene and Kai are lovers. You can’t tell it from any word or action or reaction they have throughout the book. Irene dislikes and distrusts Prezkov. You couldn’t tell it from any thought or word or narrative description, either. But you do know where Irene stands with regard to Silver. (It’s fascinated revulsion–but you have to admit that he who responds to an attack of cybernetic alligators with “Johnson! My elephant gun!” has got style.) Silver is also fairly funny, which is a benefit, and Cogman is very good at humor.

Next problem: Cogman isn’t good at subtext, and this makes the entirety of this book really, really clunky. Your mileage may vary on the next section of this analysis, but I think it’s sound.

So when you have a murder, the three basic facts are: means, motives, and opportunity. The detective/hero/investigator generally finds out the means pretty quickly. Stabbed in the heart. Shot in the head. Beaten to death in a room locked from the inside. The means and opportunity part gets rounded up when you cross-check all suspects’ alibis. Who has a knife? Who has a gun in that caliber? Who has keys to the door? Who can teleport?

Those two parts are always pretty straightforward, and generally the sidekick gets to pop in and out, doing the legwork while the hero does the dramatic heavy lifting: determining the motives.

See, for a mystery novel, the classic structure is: hero asks questions, hero is given answers, hero decides how truthful those answers are and thence determines motives. This requires the hero have the ability to know (and the author to show) such complex social niceties as intent, lying by omission, hinting, eagerness to talk, reluctance to talk, genuine emotions, feigned emotions, and other things that I, a nerd, have enough trouble with in real life, let alone fiction. It requires the hero to be able to keep track of what’s actually going on versus what people are saying–and that requires there to actually be something happening.

That doesn’t happen in this book. It’s okay to be bad at something; but then, if you are bad at something, you shouldn’t write a book which especially requires that.

Cogman isn’t good at dialogue, either. Which is to say, she is good at writing long exchanges which are sometimes witty and often amusing. But she is not good at: using dialogue to further characterization, to establish motives, to raise tension, or to delineate stakes.

This damn book is a good 95% dialogue, and 90% of that is exposition….boring exposition. One or two, or three or four people, distinguishable only by the use of their names in the tags (see above: no personality), keep exchanging information with each other: the kind of dialogue that, in a different book, could be safely skipped because we’ll find out what’s going on through whatever happens next. The context of everyone’s actions, later, will keep everything clear.

Only, there is very little of anything happening. This is directly related to the next problem:

Cogman isn’t good at action. This isn’t exactly her fault–it’s her beta readers’ and editors’ fault. A good support team would really make a huge difference in the quality of these books, telling Cogman what is good, what works, why it works, and what doesn’t. There is at least one scene where everything clicks into place and there is a genuine sense of urgency, tension, and horror. But it’s all by itself and so very, very lonely out there, it finishes quickly so Irene can get back to the important business of talking to people about what just happened. (It’s the scene with the rats.)

Cogman has clearly heard the maxim about having someone with a gun walk in when you don’t know what else to do with your plot. What this book lacks is for any of these interludes to carry narrative or emotional punch. If the hero isn’t scared or threatened–or excited–why should the audience feel any of these emotions? If the threat has no further meaning or bearing on events, why did we even waste our time reading it, I’m skipping ahead until something else happens.

I don’t like this book even as much as the previous ones, which I also rated pretty harshly. There were no standout scenes except the aforementioned and quickly glossed-over rats; no characters made an impression, nothing. I don’t even think the peace talks were a good idea, myself.

Rated: I dunno, I feel bad about being so harsh and negative about this book and this author. But I’d also like to read a really good book with dragons and spies, many worlds and intrigue, honor, and romance, and action.

Four snowflakes out of ten.

The Secret Chapter – Genevieve Cogman

Maybe it’s two weeks of night watches, cold, lessened mental processing power, cold, drastically lowered expectations–I’ve been intentionally reading fluffy dreck all month–and it’s cold–but maybe Cogman is just finally getting a handle on how to write these books. With longish-running series where the first book showed raw talent but not much finesse, there’s usually visible and steady improvement. This is the case here, too. Book six does seem to be the turning point–so far (I’m about half-way through as of the bulk of this review) it’s “quite good”, and I would like to confidently predict that book eight will be excellent.

What do these improvements stem from? Cogman isn’t trying to write elaborate, complex plots of intrigue and subterfuge–so this one doesn’t revolve around a poorly-written mystery. She’s eased up on trying to portray clumsy or even non-existent subtext (Irene is a way more tolerable character when we’re not being told that she’s akshully much more intelligent and perceptive than she is). And, last but way far from least: the pacing is miles better than previously. All that stuff about having gunmen crash through the door (in this case, it’s ninjas from the ceiling) when you’re not sure what to do with your plot? In reality, that’s set-dressing–and here, it’s used appropriately. (There’s also a trap door and a shark tank). Even the characterization seems like it’s a little better, too. If you’re consciously and meta-textually using Archetypes in lieu of characterization, then not drawing attention to it every single time helps.

Also–as I’ve mentioned before–Cogman is very good at humor, and there’s often a deft seasoning where it is most helpful.  Adding an example here would be nice to prove my point, but I’m too tired to.

Plot: Irene has to save the world by getting a book, go figure. The world in particular is the one she went to school at; the book is a variant of the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, an Ancient-Egyptian manuscript once considered the world’s first fiction work (it’s not fiction and neither is the extra chapter in this particular version). The guy who has it is a powerful Fae who wants as his payment, assistance in a small matter…stealing a painting. The Raft of the Medusa, to be precise–and yes, this is more or less thematically important. So a team is assembled (and they actually are distinguishable from each other and have fairly distinct personalities. Awesome): and with the assortment of muscle, thievery, and other such knavery, there’s also a captive dragon working for the bad guy.
Said captive dragon who happens to be Kai’s disinherited and exiled half-sister. Oh, and the painting? Is guarded by dragons.

The job, naturally, goes sideways so hard it might have well have had wings. And it’s still up to Irene to save the day…

I’m not even going to ask why the job goes bad with such utterly cliched and telegraphed expectation. I mean, it’s every bit as inevitable, in context, as “the assassin who wants to retire is being hunted by his organization” or, “the spy with amnesia is being chased by his organization.” But eh, whatever. Jobs do in fact go bad (grouses the intern who has gotten five hours of sleep per night for the past two weeks).

So: problems. Before, most of my problems lay in the fact that the books were too talky, poorly-characterized, too talky, poorly-paced, too talky, showed a poor grasp of subtext, too talky, had little in the way of subtlety, and not to mention PEOPLE TALKED TOO EFFING MUCH IN THEM.

Well, the action is still scant on the ground, perfuntory and quickly elided-over when it does appear. And while there is a rather nicely done duel sequence to close off the second act, the opportunity to match and surpass it with another at the climax is totally and utterly ignored. And that’s a shame, it was a cool scene and it’s all alone and lonely out there.

But: the characterization has improved. Slightly. That is to say, some of the new guys are fairly amusing and even sometimes even distinguishable from one another. The older characters (Sterrington, Vale) are still wooden as particularly dense planks, but if you skip those scenes, you aren’t missing anything.

Better still, the pacing has improved. Things actually happen, in tolerable order and close to each other.

Rated: In a contest between very good Bleach fanfic or moderately poor originals, I sometimes wish Cogman would go back to writing fanfic…

Book Review – The Lost Plot – Genevieve Cogman

TLDR: I have read all five of these books, and none of them were worth paying money for. This review consists of things I feel justified in pointing out, because they are things I would also have problems with, as a writer or aspiring writer. I really would like to like these books. The idea is great! Spies and agents for the Library of All Worlds, dragons, eldritch abominations of chaos, cat burglars, magic, magitech, great detectives, and zeppelins. I can take or leave zeppelins, but the rest of it sounds interesting, right?

The problem is, it isn’t written very well, and no one has told Ms. Cogman how to play to her strengths or even what those strengths are.

Plot: The Library is trying to play mediator in a peace conference between the dragons (forces of Order) and the Fae (chaos). There’s been a murder. There’s going to be war unless someone can figure out Who Dun It. Simple, really.

Cons:
– Cogman is really good at writing fanfiction. But writing your own characters requires characterization, and in your own book-universe, this means giving them a personality. Writing the Fae as “archetypes” makes this easier, because then you can insert a couple paragraphs about how the Fae in front of you doesn’t actually have a personality, just a set of characteristics which, conveniently, they are forced by Universal Narrativium to adapt to that particular scene.
But that isn’t a good thing as far as your actual heroes go. Vale has no personality. Kai has Standard Romance Hero personality, which is to say, no personality. Dragon investigator Mu Ren has no personality. Irene does have a personality, and I would hate to be petty and say that her personality is G. Cogman-in-Victorian-Britain-as-an-idealized-Librarian-Spy, but….it just kinda feels that way.
For the most egregious example, there is a Fae known as the Princess. She’s a Disneyesque, waltzing-through-the-flowers, hiding-behind-the-curtains-and-getting-caught, falling-in-love-with-a-hero, capital-P, Princess-which-rhymes-with-Wimp. She has no purpose. (Princess) She has no motivation. (except being a Princess.) She has no plot relevance; any of her appearances could have been substituted for a random extra, or omitted entirely with no change whatsoever. The Princess is just….there.
Ironically, the one person who emerges from this book (and series in general), is Silver, the Fae semi-antagonist Sexy Bad Boy. He gets identifiable and consistent characterization, because being a) sexy, b) bad boy sexy, requires that he actually say or do things which other people/the protagonist can respond to at a physical and emotional level. There is no other parallel to this in the book. Irene and Kai are lovers. You can’t tell it from any word or internal monologue. Irene dislikes and distrusts Prezkov. You couldn’t tell it from any thought or word or narrative description, either. But you do know where Irene stands with regard to Silver. (It’s fascinated revulsion–but you have to admit that he who responds to an attack of cybernetic alligators with “Johnson! My elephant gun!” has got style.) Silver is also fairly funny, which is a benefit, and Cogman is very good at humor.

– Cogman isn’t good at subtext, and this makes the entirety of this book really, really clunky.
OKAY, so when you have a murder, the three basic facts are: means, motives, and opportunity. The detective/hero/investigator generally finds out the means pretty quickly. Stabbed in the heart. Shot in the head. Beaten to death in a room locked from the inside. The means and opportunity part gets rounded up when you cross-check all suspects’ alibis. Who has a knife? Who has a gun in that caliber? Who has keys to the door and/or teleportation? Those two parts are always pretty straightforward, and generally the sidekick gets to pop in and out, doing the legwork on them while the hero does the dramatic heavy lifting: determining the motives.
See, for a mystery novel, the classic structure is: hero asks questions. Hero is given answers, which differ in their truthfulness and utility. Hero, using powers of observation and logic/deduction, decides how each party’s statements serve a purpose, what that purpose is, and, from that purpose, determines motives. Then, from motives, plus opportunity, plus means, we get the culprit and from thence a frame or a trap or a chase can be arranged to provide the climax of your novel.
SO, this requires what is known as subtext: the ability for the hero to know (and the author to show) such complex social niceties as intent, lying by omission, hinting, eagerness to talk, reluctance to talk, emotions, genuine emotions, feigned emotions, and other things that I, a nerd, have enough trouble with in real life, let alone fiction. It also requires the hero to be able to keep track of what’s actually going on versus what people are saying–and that requires there to actually be something happening.
That doesn’t happen in this book. It’s okay to be bad at something; but then, if you are bad at something, you shouldn’t write a book which especially requires that.

– Cogman isn’t good at dialogue, either.
Which is to say, she is good at writing long exchanges which are sometimes witty and often amusing. But she is not good at: using dialogue to further characterization, to establish motives, to raise tension, or to delineate stakes.
This damn book is a good 95% dialogue, and 90% of that is exposition. One or two, or three or four people, distinguishable only by the use of their names in the tags, keep exchanging information with each other: the kind of dialogue that, in a different book, could be safely skipped because we’ll find out what’s going on through whatever happens next. The context of everyone’s actions, later, will keep everything clear. Only, there is very little of anything happening, let alone any context to it.

– Cogman isn’t good at action.
This isn’t exactly her fault–it’s her beta readers’ and editors’ fault. A good support team would really make a huge difference in the quality of these books, telling Cogman what is good, what works, why, and what doesn’t. There is at least one scene where everything clicks into place and there is a genuine sense of urgency, tension, and horror. But it’s all by itself and so very, very lonely out there, it finishes quickly so Irene can get back to the important business of talking to people about what just happened. (It’s the scene with the rats.)
Cogman has clearly heard the maxim about having someone with a gun walk in when you don’t know what else to do with your plot. What this book lacks is for any of these interludes to carry narrative or emotional punch. If the hero isn’t scared or threatened–or excited–why should the audience feel any of these emotions? If the threat has no further meaning or bearing on events, why did we even waste our time reading it, I’m skipping ahead until something else happens.

I don’t like this book even as much as the previous ones, which I also rated pretty harshly. There were no standout scenes except the aforementioned and quickly glossed-over rats; no characters made an impression, nothing. I don’t even think the peace talks were a good idea, myself.

Rated: I dunno, I feel bad about being too harsh. But I’d also like to read a really good book with dragons and spies, worlds and intrigue, honor, and romance, and action. Four snowflakes out of ten.