As a writer, I read a lot. As a fantasy writer, I read a lot of fantasy.
And I have to tell you it is a mystery to me how editors of major publishing concerns choose what to publish.
Do they ever wonder why these new books fail to become long-term money-makers for them? Do they ever wonder why they cannot find the next Neil Gaiman, the next George Martin?
I could shed a little light on this, I think.
I am partway through a fantasy novel that seemed, from the blurb, to be interesting and with a slightly different premise. I opened it randomly and read a bit, and found the writing serviceable, if a little pedestrian, but engaging enough that I decided to have a go.
And it did what 90% of the fantasy novels I read do: it became, within a very short time, an endlessly repetitive stream of similar incidents with identical outcomes. It just kept bridging from one curious incident involving conflicting loyalties combated by arcane forces at war within one man to the next, nearly indistinguishable incident involving the same man, the same conflict, in the same way, with the same arcane forces described in almost identical terms and “resolved” in the same incomplete fashion, with the subject still no wiser, no more able to resist these clashes, or conversely, no more debilitated or weakened by them.
None of the instances ever really further the plot, as far as I can tell. In this particular book, the protagonist has had at least five encounters (I’ve lost count) where he has had to ward off mental attacks by the evil Master who seeks to enslave his psyche, only to be rescued by the “divine light of the true king”, and the description of the fiery blaze of pain versus the cooling, redemptive light of goodness warring within him is wearing a little thin.
I am over 300 pages into this tome.
There are other problems, but in a way, they stem from this basic one.
I am really sick of the squirmy protagonist, who still, despite their frightening regularity, doesn’t seem to expect these encounters or learn to protect himself in any way: he’s just some kind of vessel for this stuff, despite the author’s attempt to paint him as a good person who made a bad choice, once. He is supposed to be fighting the good fight, but really, he’s just the hapless battleground.
And this is crucial. If a main character has no agency, if he or she cannot even try to master the forces arrayed against him or her, win or lose, they are not a character. They are a Device. It’s really hard to cheer for a Device.
Occasionally, he is so mind-numbingly stupid as to defy belief. (Note to writers: if you are going to have your hero be a double agent, it’s probably wise for you not to write them as unable to grasp basic spycraft. As in: don’t go retrieving a precious manuscript that the bad guy wants to get hold of while the hero is in company of the bad guy’s henchmen. And so far, the importance of the manuscript has not been explained – or even discussed after the henchmen took charge of it, about 100 pages ago – so where this is going, I have no clue.)
Also: he’s not the long-lost king, but he is a “chosen one”, and the number of coincidences involved in getting him into that tricky situation is so high that my mind was slightly boggled before I was 80 pages in.
Editors, you’re killing me here. Just because the general trappings of a novel aren’t exactly down-to-the-nosehairs the same as Lord of the Rings doesn’t mean it is unusual, different, unique or worth publishing.
The damned thing has to make sense. The protagonist is supposed to learn something, somewhere along the line, and that doesn’t mean (as I very much fear this book will decide to do) that enlightenment will come in some blinding flash at the penultimate moment.
Also: just changing the expectation on who the love interest is – that isn’t really all that groundbreaking. In fact, outside of an actual romance novel, the love interest is considered a sub-plot, and confounding expectations there is actually just an annoyance.
Here’s the thing: the author set up the conflict between good and evil, and set the terms for the clashes so early in the book that each encounter sucks away any lingering hope that there is a point to this. Every time the soldier in question is asked to do anything for the bad guy side, we know that we will get the flames warring with the blue light. Every time he is moved to be a nice guy and do something for someone else – same deal.
At this point, the only question I have is when the bad-guy-henchmen people are going to decide to end the charade and kill him off horribly, because no one with their awesome powers can possibly have failed to notice what is going on.
Please. Enough. Stop wasting your efforts on this stuff. Get out there and start sifting through the indie authors, or hire new junior editors to read through the slushpile and just tell them that if the author repeats the same basic activity more than three times in succession without any variation in the outcome, no matter what the window dressing looks like, the manuscript goes “clang!” and they move on.
Or publish my books. I’m no Neil Gaiman, not even close, but in all humility, my stuff’s a lot better than what you’re selling us now.
**UPDATE: Nothing was resolved because this is only Book One. The manuscript has not been mentioned again. There is the barest suspicion that the bad-guy henchmen are just paying out the rope to see what they might get from it, although they fail, over and over, to capitalize on this. Our Hero became seduced to the dark side, only to turn his coat once again at the end of this volume, after having committed unspeakable crimes that no one could possibly forgive, but the author seems sure that we and “The One True King” will, in fact, forgive it all.
Book One. Wild horses could not induce me to try Book Two.