The OF Blog: A few more thoughts on the "competent" novels

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A few more thoughts on the "competent" novels

I have been reading quite a bit during this long, dreadful waiting period for job interviews and return messages. While I haven't had the time to organize my thoughts as I would have liked (and I know I have a huge backlog of reviews to write for this blog of books coming out later this month and March), I just thought I'd share a few thoughts on a few books that I did read recently, without going into my usual explorations.

"Bad" books are the easiest to detect. The sentence construction is so sloppy, the characterizations are so flimsy, and the pace of the story is so plodding or dull as to make for a truly non-enjoyable reading experience. I don't review those books here and I usually refuse to mention them, as I follow the maxim that any publicity can benefit a book. However, when reading "flawed" books, I struggle to define just what it was that made that book so unmemorable. Unmemorable - that's the word I probably should use here to describe those books that fail to rise above the sum of its parts. Sometimes it's a matter of unremarkable prose that tries to be as "invisible" as possible and often succeeding too well at that goal (Jeff VanderMeer wrote something about that recently) and other times, as I blogged about last week, the characters are either too "weak" or "mismatched" for the story's needs.

For the first, Nathalie Mallet's debut novel, The Princes of the Cage (2007, Night Shade Books) almost was a real good read. Its main character, Amir, was placed in a mysterious, Arabian Nights-like setting of a sultan's palace/prison for the Sultan's hundreds of sons (who were engaging in a Social Darwinistic struggle to prove that one of them was the most fit for having dominion over the sultanate), with a murder mystery occurring. The ingredients were there and Amir had some potential as a character, but the prose was rather unremarkable. Things were described, events happened, 1-2-3, dominoes fall in place, and the story marches straight through to the end, with only hints of any dynamic plot developments. The writing was serviceable, but again, it was damningly unremarkable. The story just felt like an extended outline or sketch of what could have been a truly gripping tale. In the end, it was adequate when it could have been much more.

The second novel, Ann Aguirre's debut SF novel, Grimspace (February 26, 2008, Ace Books) was even more bland than the Mallet. The main character, Sirantha Jax, is supposed to be remarkable for her longevity in the field of "jumping" (via a genetic trait) ships through a sort of hyperspace called "grimspace." But one day an accident occurs and she is the only survivor but is accused of murdering the others. The blurb describes her as being "on the verge of madness," when someone mysteriously shows up in her cell, offering her a place in a rogue group. While this set up might sound intriguing, the Jax character is so devoid of "life" that I didn't feel as though she ever was truly "on the verge of madness." Couple this bland character with equally "transparent" prose and you get a story that is "just there." There is nothing overtly "bad" about it; it just is forgettable.

Now I am not one of those people who reads constantly in one genre or storytelling style, so it's not as though I feel I'm "burning out" on reading genre novels. However, one of the things that I have noticed (as have a few others here and there on the blogosphere) is that there just doesn't seem to be as much of an emphasis on writing evocative prose. Style isn't just some optional sauce that one puts on the narrative meal, but rather it is the key to making an author's story stand out among the crowd. I am much more forgiving of a distinctive novel that has some flaws in characterization and pacing than I am of a dull, competently-written story. It is a shame that more and more novels in multiple genres that I read seem to settle for being "everyman" in their prose than trying to write a memorable story that has its risks.


Robert said...

That's a shame about "Grimspace". I was kind of looking forward to the book. I thought it had a nice concept. "The Princes of the Golden Cage" on the other hand, seems to have gotten as many negative reviews as positive ones, so I was kind of torn about reading it. I might someday, but it's not a book that I have to read.

I understand what you're saying about writing style though. I just finished an urban fantasy novel that really impressed me--despite numerous tropes--because the writing had such flair!

Larry Nolen said...

It may be a case where I read the Aguirre book at the wrong time, although I'm just more inclined to believe that the story was nothing special - not "bad," just not anything special, which I guess is a more damning thing in the end.

Which urban fantasy novel was that, by the way?

Robert said...

Sorry for the slow reply. The book is called "Happy Hour of the Damned" by Mark Henry. I'm not sure if it's up your alley. I described it as Sex in the City meets Shaun of the Dead meets George A. Romero's Living Dead series...

Larry Nolen said...

Hrmm...sounds like a book full of irony, which is hit-or-miss with me, usually.

Anonymous said...

I think expectation matters a lot a bit like TV. Some are comfort watching and some are programs that challenge and alter you and sometimes they beat expections. But when they fall short you end up disapointed or at least I do. That's the double edged sword with hype. It raises your expectations.

So as long as I'm not expecting too much competent novels can be quite comforting.

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