Slow Flow: Thoughts on Six Books Where the Narrative Momentum Didn’t Take Me

(spoilers for starts, natch)

Wotcha there, and welcome to some more thoughts on writing and stories based on what worked for me and what didn’t work for me.

Here I’ll be looking at books that left me standing on the quay when the book’s plot took off from Start Harbour and took off for the Middle Seas, and trying to draw some commonalities. As said, this is what worked for me and what didn’t; it draws off semi-objective ideas of craft as commonly held in the Anglosphere at points, but these are just my opinions and shit yo.

The six books by author alphabetical order will be

The Dragon’s Path Daniel Abraham

The Bone Ships RJ Barker

Mask of Mirrors MA Carrick

The Shadow of What Was Once Lost James Islington

The Stone Knife Anna Stephens

The Bone Shard Daughter Andrea Stewart

Let me point out now that all of these books are ones where I’ve got friends who think highly of them, often where I’ve enjoyed other books by the author, sometimes where I know the author a tiny part and think they’re great. Some books you give tries and shrugs. All of these I tried really hard to love but couldn’t.

So let’s crack on

The Dragon’s Path Daniel Abraham

So, straight up, I have an acknowledged tendency to dislike multi-strand openings (tick) and terrible people (tick). I ragequit this book after a piece of casual bigotry from Dawson (which also seemed to signal great stupidity coming) and with hindsight, I’d have done it again in a cooler mind as it seemed a pretty fair indication that what Abraham wanted from his characters and what I wanted from them.

I would also add that The Dragon’s Path has a prologue, one that I enjoyed a lot more than the opening chapters, so I was always a little “but-but-but” about them.

Is this the entirety of it? Not quite. I’d been ho-hum for a while before I quit. There was only one arc where I was that bothered by what happened next and that was Cithrin’s. Wester felt too stock; the Kalliams’ intrigue was interesting enough (and I liked showing the husband and wife working as a team) but never seemed to spark for me (and also seemed to be obviously the tale of how things went wrong, which reduced need to know). Geder wasn’t charismatic enough for me to find his lowlife weaseling interesting. Cithrin, the banker’s apprentice in tough straits, was interesting. But, as we started to get into the middle, she seemed stuck in limbo with little obvious direction, and the anticipation grew less. Her situation intrigued me a lot more than her character; when the situation stopped intriguing me, the character did.

The Bone Ships RJ Barker

I finished The Bone Ships, but quit the series on the next book because I was uhm’ing and aah’ing on it. This is a huge shame as a ton of people like it, and the prose is great, and the setting is interesting, but… any other author and I’d have DNFed it fairly early. Why? I’ve never been quite sure, but I’ve had a few ideas while thinking.

There’s a common piece of advice that the PoV character should be the one with the most at stake. That’s frequently not Joron, our PoV character, but his captain Meas. Now, the narrator besides the great person works with Watson and Holmes, but there’s always uncertainty about what Holmes will uncover next. I got less uncertainty with Meas, who’s not discovering mysteries, and is also highly competent and heroic. So maybe I didn’t get enough tension there.

There’s also the matter of who Joron is in conflict with. The answer is obvious of course; it’s himself. Which is well and good, but I’m in genre fiction because I like the answer to be “himself *AND* something external and cool”. I don’t think I got my something external and cool here, which I think is kinda the point because life doesn’t always work that way, but it’s a point that made the story less interesting for me.

Related to that, I found the rest of the crew very forgettable. Which is fine-ish if you’re writing Sharpe and there’s a lot of enemies on the other side, but this wasn’t Sharpe. And even that, Cornwell’s talked a lot about how villains like Hakeswill have made that series. Joron could have used a Hakeswill, both for above and just to make the crew memorable and fun.

Add it altogether – and the deliberately vague nature of the threat ahead of Joron – and I struggled to enjoy one scene as much as the next. Some scenes with Joron and Meas were awesome (okay, I probably did get enough tension there). Some with Joron and the crew were meh. And that meant the overall momentum was weak.

Mask of Mirrors MA Carrick

I haven’t DNFed this one yet but am strongly considering it, despite believing the Marie Brennan part of MA Carrick absolutely flawless before this. And no, it’s not on Alyc Helms, not from what I’ve checked on the writing process. So what’s going on here?

First off – constant switching between PoVs with very long chapters (well, they feel very long) just feels like it has me coming and going in terms of switching focus, deciding how far to read each time, and so on. This might be a tiny thing but it’s felt like a real barrier in terms of getting invested. I like PoV switches, but that’s usually come in works with no chapters/short chapters, which seems to help.

Or maybe that’s just something that comes up when I’m not enjoying myself. Why am I not enjoying myself? It’s well written, it’s got an interesting premise…

I guess if I’d point at two things, one is that it’s got a very drip-drip approach to worldbuilding and seeding the plot. At times it makes it fascinating. At times it leaves me a little “well, cool, where’s the hook”.

The other is I don’t get a sense of voice. It’s crammed full of detail and there seems to be a bit of formality and the characters just don’t seem to get the killer lines or a chance to breathe.

Stick it together and I get a book that reads slowly because I’m constantly taking things in, but the things I’m taking in aren’t the things I care about most. I don’t like to read slow. It leaves me prone to getting distracted, hence that first complaint. And if I’m reading slow on a drip-drip book, there’s a good chance I’m not going to get to where the drip-drip becomes a flood quick enough.

One final note – this is a tiny thing, but everytime I see the term slipknot, I stop to laugh. Which distracts me. And stops me from getting the momentum.

The Shadow of What Was Lost James Islington

Name matter. They stick in the mind. Rand Al’Thor and the Aes Sedai. Gryffindor. Hobbit. Jedi. You get it right?

Augurs, Seekers, Gifted and Non-Gifted – feel so mundane. What’s more, the near complete omission of second names leaves me with a lot of names that sound a fair bit like each other to remember. I feel like this book is complicating my enjoyment of it at the most basic, petty level.

Beyond that… it’s hard to criticise. It’s clear about its stakes, it builds mysteries, it reads quickly.

Ultimately, I just don’t get an aesthetic style that separates it from a great many other books and that brings that necessary added touch of joy. I would struggle to tell you the characters’ defining characteristics and flaws. I see people compared this series to Wheel of Time without the bloat. All I can say is it must have been the bloat that I loved about Wheel of Time, which to a certain extent I said before. Fat brings flavour. Flavour is the winner. If Mask of Mirrors is an overload, this just doesn’t do enough for me. I haven’t DNFed this one either, but I’m thinking about it (althoug the fact it goes down easy just might save it).

The Stone Knife Anna Stephens

Another ARC I’ve yet to DNF but am thinking about. I’d like to like it as Anna’s great but I suspect I won’t.

First off, this is one where culture matters, because I don’t hear a bunch of Aztec names and I don’t think I remember them as easily as Chinese or Indian or Eastern European (nevermind British) names that I’m more used to. I don’t think that’s playing a huge part here – a lot of my thoughts I made with Godblind – but it’s there and it’s on me.

I think this one is a case where I can’t really point at anything wrong – in many ways, this is the one I’m most likely to continue – but where I just don’t think I like what’s being sold. Are the stakes clear? Yes, very. Are characters distinct? Yes. I’m even quite invested in Xessa, the deaf monster hunter. It’s just… I dunno. I think there’s something in Stephens’ writer’s voice that means I never quite fully gel with and invest in what’s going on. The more I think about this book, the more the idea is very Gemmell-esque. Is this failing because it lacks enough raw violence in the characters’ souls, enough hammerblow criticisms of the futility of it all? Is it like Abercrombie, but minus the snark that elevates it?

Or is it just good and I need to let it be its own thing.

I honestly don’t know.

Wait. One little detail. It feels like most characters are undertaking simple, straightforward tasks for the good of all. I’m sure more complexity will be added, but I like seeing characters being pulled between two poles, and I like characters with deeply personal motivations, and with none of that there it feels a little ordinary. That might be it.

The Bone Shard Daughter Andrea Stewart

I’ve gone into a lot of detail on this one on the blog. The multi-arc start, the way Phalue and Ranami don’t quite match the adventurous and nuanced tones of Jovis and Lin, all that. I’ve hinted at finding Lin a bit bland to begin with, which I did. She was doing what she had to with little sense of panache or personal motivation; she grows out of that. In fact, The Bone Shard Daughter is the boat that came back to pick me up; it really built Narrative Momentum after the start. So I’ll leave it there.

Is there any overarching thing here, other than don’t write for picky people (too bad, we’re all picky)?

Maybe.

I think a few of these make mistakes (for me) that the others don’t. The Shadow of What Was Lost just didn’t have enough going on; I can’t accuse the others of that. The Dragon’s Path gave me an excess of PoV characters to actively root against, which I didn’t think with the others. Mask of Mirrors frequent PoV changes, slow reveals and heavy detail change makes it by far the slowest, more attention beating read in the six.

The big commonality I’m seeing is just failing to love characters. Sometimes I love worlds, sometimes I don’t; sometimes I love prose, sometimes I don’t; but I don’t think I’ve talked about a single book here where I’m thinking “I really like the characters but the book isn’t working for me.” If the characters have an interesting world view or voice, if they’re going an interesting direction, if there’s a mystery about them that looks fun, the book more or less automatically works. When it doesn’t – well, could I do another post of books where I failed to love the characters but was still on board for the plot? I think so. So, it’s not an auto fail. But I am looking for other things to rescue the book.

That can be anything. Frequently it’s a nice smooth prose style that makes reading each page easy and means I’m slipping over to the next one without thinking. Or a setting detail that I really love, or really works for me.

But that, I think, would be a subject for another blog post.

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