Drowning Mermaids

I just finished reading a book called Drowning Mermaids. I’m not sure why I finished it; several times I set my electro-book thingie down and asked the ceiling, “Why am I still reading this?”

I don’t have a good answer. My first warning came on the second page, when a veteran sailor refers to the ‘washroom’ on the boat. First note to writer: If you’re going to write scenes on a boat, take a little time to learn about boats, and the vocabulary of sailors.

This may seem like a nitpick, but it’s an indicator of the poor polish and care of the writer. Later, we learn that this industrial fishing boat had a bathtub. I don’t expect everyone who reads these words to know how absolutely ridiculous that is (although… come on), but I expect the writer of this story to know.

On the other hand, I was entirely able to accept the genetic branch of the human species that enabled under-water breathing. Scientifically it’s preposterous, but in this context played just fine. Crazy species are popping up all the time. I needed one more mutation to make this story work, however — a human in arctic water has about thirty seconds to live, and it has nothing to do with oxygen. Odd to make underwater breathing scientific, but resistance to cold magical.

Structurally, the story isn’t bad. If each chapter were rendered with half the words, we’d have a good start on a decent yarn. Those chapters, they need trimming. They just drift along, whacking on the same points over and over. Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be another way to beat that horse, you’re treated to another few paragraphs of the same stuff. Even the individual points reviewed repeatedly are unnecessarily long-winded with each iteration, often using the same language each time. It just keeps going on. Kind of like this paragraph. It gets annoying fast, doesn’t it?

I am fully aware of the irony of me accusing others of rambling, but when Main Dude asks Main Chick for forgiveness for the third damn time in the chapter, and gets the same answer each time, you have to think that maybe things could have been tightened up a smigde. Here’s a digest of that conversation:

“I’m sorry I was such an asshole.”
“It’s all right.”
“Are you sure? I mean, I’ve been a monumental asshole.”
“I love you, and I have to take the good with the bad. You are forgiven.”
“But… I’ve been preposterously assholish. You can’t possibly forgive me.”
“How many times are we going to go around this subject? Believe you’re forgiven and shut up, or call me a liar and get the fuck out. Asshole.”

That last line is not an accurate representation of the story. At all. That conversation? It took several pages (whatever ‘page’ means these days) in the book, as each party internally reviewed stuff we already knew, reacting the same way they did the last time they internally reviewed it, picking at the scabs over old wounds. Sharply-written dialog, a couple of telling gestures, and all those pages of smoke can be compressed into a half-page firecracker.

Tightening the narrative would have reduced the number of times I paused to look at the ceiling to wonder if I should go on. By the end of the book my pauses were longer and more frequent, and the only answer to “why am I still reading this?” became, Because it’s almost over. I’d made it this far, I would see it to the end.

Even that motivation almost wasn’t enough. The big confrontation is going down and our main mermaid has an opportunity to spend five frickin’ seconds to simplify her situation dramatically. The narrator tells us “Aazuria knew that she should stop and XXX, but…” and a lame excuse follows. (Five frickin’ seconds!) You know what that phrase really says? “The writer knew she should find a better way to resolve this situation in a way that propels the plot forward, but she didn’t bother.”

Those are the moments that separate the pros from the amateurs.

To tie with my comments about brevity above, Aazuria stops to review her unbelievable decision in the next chapter as well, accomplishing nothing but chewing up words to remind us that we got to this point in the story through artificial means. The writer’s guilty conscience peeks through again.

Ultimately this is a romance story, so all that other stuff is subordinate to the relationship between Main Mermaid and Boss Fisherman. There’s good news on this front: There was a point that I actually doubted the outcome of the romance. That’s a huge compliment for the writer, considering the contract romance writers make with their readers. Love damn well better conquer all in these stories; that’s why people read them. Probably if I was a more regular consumer of the genre I would not have had my (enjoyable) moments of doubt.

Uh, I guess that was a spoiler. But come on. Love conquers all.

Side note: it’s almost comical how much the people on the cover don’t resemble the descriptions in the story. Especially the dude.

Hey, do you mind if I slip a couple more spoilers in here? If you think you might be reading Drowning Mermaids then you’ve probably already stopped reading this review, so I’m not too worried. But things get even spoilier from here on out.

The writer flirted with daring on a couple of occasions. Big Names Die… almost. They will all be back for the sequels, but now we know that they are safe. The writer has squandered the ability to make us worry for the fate of the major characters; they could be boiling in acidic lava while sharks eat their entrails and I’d be pretty comfortable betting they they would be back before the denouement for that episode.

Speaking of episodes, here’s something I must recognize: This story had an ending. Kind of crazy that I have to mention that as a plus, but these days it’s no slam dunk that a story will reach some sort of conclusion when the pages run out. There’s plenty of stuff still going on, Big Danger on the horizon, but we get to a place where specific issues have been resolved. It’s a good stopping point, and the underlying structure shows favorably.

I wasn’t going to bother providing a link to the novel on Amazon, but the cover is worth a chuckle. I’ll be adding the image shortly. Unless I don’t.

H & R Crock

I just saw an ad for a major tax-preparation company. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. They have a series of ads out right now that assert that if every citizen in the United States would just let them prepare their taxes, then taxpayers would recover an extra one billion dollars of cash money. That’s a lot of dough. The ads are centered around trying to get people to understand just how much money that is.

So in this particular ad, palettes of (fake) money are displayed on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier running at full steam. The stacks of money are, one by one, pushed into the sea. Because that is what happens to unclaimed tax refunds.

They are illustrating a reasonably good point, in an effective way.

BUT…

How many tax dollars were spend making that ad? I’d bet dollars to donuts that the tax boys did not pay the full operating cost of an aircraft carrier for a day of filming.

Sure, the whole thing could be CGI these days, but while I’m no expert I didn’t see the signs. I think they managed to “borrow” an actual frickin’ aircraft carrier (at taxpayer expense) to tell us that they could save taxpayers money. Nice to have them looking out for us like that.

1

If I Ran the Sharks Tonight

I’d tell Calgary beforehand, and I’d put my fourth line on the ice for the first shift, as a gesture of solidarity. Tortorella is the best thing to happen to the Canucks for a while, but sending his troops in for an all-out brawl before the puck had time to hit the ice is going a little too far. Sure, he has to protect the Sedin sisters, but I think he could have found some balance.

1

A Quest of Heroes

I have just read the sixty-fourth virtual page of the 400+ virtual pages of the first volume of a series of ten (and counting!). I have just met the Sword of Destiny. I have some predictions.

First there’s Thor. No, not the Norse God of Thunder, but a farm boy less strapping (and less loved) than his brothers. Let’s give the author credit for not even trying to hide the fact that Thor is the Chosen One. Argon the kick-ass druid told us so, in that wizard-not-revealing-things-that-will-break-the-plot kind of way, before vanishing. Thor seems like a good kid.

Interesting wrinkle: When Thor first discovers his power, it’s after praying (at a time of distress) to Big-G God. Not very druid-like; it remains to be seen if that’s going to be a theme or if that was just the writer accidentally slipping monotheism into the text.

And yes, the Top Druid in this story is named after an element. I’m waiting for Xenon to show up and challenge him. But while that remains unknown, there are many certainties.

Thor is a loyal subject of Good King. The lands of Good King have known peace for a long time; geographically, the kingdom is well-protected. Good King rules half of a circle of territory surrounded by a circular valley and a magical barrier, which keeps the unwashed barbarians without at bay. Inside, Good King has only one rival: Bad King. In the story they have different names (Scottish ones, actually).

I’ve read to the point in the story where the King is regarding the Sword of Destiny, which is almost literally the sword in the stone of Arthurian legend. Good King hoped to be the guy to lift it from the spikes or whatever-the-hell is restraining it. No dice.

So here’s what’s happening right now: Good King’s elder daughter is getting married to Bad King’s son. It’s happening in the capital city of Good Kingdom. Lots of Bad King’s people will be in Good City. Barbarians seem to be gathering for an attack outside the magical barrier. Somewhere far away, Thor has decided to say “Fuck you, dad! I’m going to force the army to take me!”

So, the predictions: Treachery! Bad King uses the happy occasion to overwhelm Good City! Somehow, his Evil Druid (Xenon?) finds the magical switch that turns off the barrier that protects both their kingdoms from the hordes outside. Our kid Thor arrives to find the city in turmoil. Events, fortitude, and whatnot bring Thor to the palace.

Good King will be killed. He will die with honor.

Remember when I said Good King’s elder daughter is getting married? That implies a younger one. There has been no hint of her in the narrative so far, but it’s a slam dunk that Thor will be in the palace, assholes will be sniffing around her ankles, and the Sword of Destiny will come to hand. And shit will go down. A princess will be impressed.

All of which has me ready to be a little disappointed. You see, Thor’s brothers are all about living by the sword, while Thor has developed a near-supernatural skill with the sling. I’m going to be a little sad when Thor surpasses his brothers by being better at the sword rather than rendering the sword obsolete.

I might hope that the writer could surprise me, but a key formative moment has already been lost. Thor doesn’t like killing things. He’s a gentle soul. When a terrible creature has one of Thor’s sheep in its jaws, Thor’s first bullet is to kill the sheep, to end her suffering.

So then it’s ON between Thor and this huge-ass killing machine. Thor’s taking a right beating until he prays to big-G God and finds the power he needs to survive. This was a pivotal moment for me, as a reader. “How much do you value life?” I asked through the text. Thor killed the thing. Given the time and context, an obvious decision. Not even a decision, really, just the way things are done. Mankind asserting its dominance over the world.

But in that context, how powerful would it have been if Thor had let the predator go free?

It’s not fair, really, to ask those questions of someone else’s work. It’s just that Thor has been presented as a champion of life, and when faced with the ultimate predator he has to accept that most lives feed on others.

____

Time has passed, pages have turned, and while structurally things are moving in the inescapable grooves reserved for fantasies like this, grooves that have been gouged in the rocky soil of storydom over the years, etched in the very bedrock by the passage of countless interchangeable plots, many of my predictions above proved, while not wrong, to be impatient. Bad King and Outer Hordes are definitely going to attack. Sword of Desitny will end up in Thor’s hand. Younger princess (who has been chosen to rule the land when Good King dies) has arrived and is definitely sweet on Thor.

The story reads like a novel aimed at middle-school kids; the sentence structure is very basic and the vocabulary is limited. More than that, the plot seems more geared toward gratification than conflict. Thor’s trajectory has been steadily upward, and he’s started to collect plot tokens.

Ojects appear out of nowhere when needed and disappear again when inconvenient. One of Thor’s mystical plot-token pets, a white leopard cub, has only been fed a mouthful of beer as far as I can tell, despite Thor worrying about caring for the beast.

Then there’s the second sun, which doesn’t seem to have a name, and doesn’t affect the world much at all. It may be some sort of variable star, because plenty of times, the day is delimited by the position of ‘the sun’. Singular. Note to the writer: if you’re going to add a romantic detail like two suns, you need to work it. For instance, some days Big Sun (man sun?) will rise before Little Sun (woman?). Other times, it will be the other way around. In a world bound by prophesy and destiny, you can get a lot of mileage out of stuff like that.

Despite those warts, I’ve been enjoying the read, up until last night. What can I say? Sometimes I like an easy read geared toward gratification. But last night…

This is going to be a spoiler, if such a thing can possibly happen when discussing a story like this.

… last night as I read, Thor learned that Good King was going to be poisoned. Thor must warn GK! He goes to the castle, but Good King is out. The warning will have to wait.

Not long after that, Thor is talking to Good King’s youngest son. Thor doesn’t mention his fears to someone particularly well-suited to help prevent the catastrophe. Then Thor talks to another guy who could help, but doesn’t bring it up. Instead, Thor volunteers to spend the entire fucking day riding far from the castle – so far he might not get back in time to deliver his warning.

Oh, and he easily could have passed word to Good King’s Eldest Son somewhere along the way.

In exchange for this horrible plot contrivance, we do get a very good treatise on the nature of chivalry and heroism. Rough paraphrase: “Don’t work to be better than the other guy, work to be a better person than you are now.” I liked that part. The titular Quest, it turns out, is more internal — the quest to always be better than you were yesterday. That, kids, is how you turn the theme of your story.

But then I thought about the context. While Thor is hearing this lecture, he’s being incredibly derelict. When he learned the King was not in the castle, did Thor go and try to find him? Nope. Sure, ditching his training might have got him kicked out of the army, but that’s exactly the kind of sacrifice he should be willing to make.

I’d actually talked myself into paying for the second installment of this escapist fluff, but now I’m not so sure. It’s the convenient forgetting-of-things that’s undermining my pleasure. The last one, forgetting that Good King is in deadly peril and that Thor’s every act should be to thwart the plot, is the killer.