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…