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.
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.
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