I just finished another novel I picked up at GenCon by one of the many excellent authors in Authors Alley. In this case, it was Elfhunter by C.S. Marks. The book itself is 501 pages of perfect bound binding, but the story ends on 428. The rest of the book is a series of appendices. Mostly, I ignored the appendices when I read the book, mainly because I'm not personally fond of them. (Yeah, I'm guilty of using one in Muddy Reflections but I'm already planning on striking it). But, they are appropriate to some stories. This is a good one, but I didn't feel they were really needed given the voice of the novel.
I did struggle with this book. On the levels of writing, typesetting, and world conventions, there were a lot of little things that stood out against my own expectation that I had trouble focusing on them. On the story itself, there is a little gem of a story with very nicely designed characters who have a lot of love, personalities that were just enjoyable to read, and basically a good story. The hard part was just getting through the writing style to really enjoy those gems.
Now, my focus on reviews has more than one purpose. One, I strongly believe that I see myself through others. So, things I most dislike are very frequently the things I, personally, need to change. In addition, it lets me see how other storytellers create their stories, and for me to say what I like and I don't like about it.
Start with conventions. I never really had to, but this book deviates from a few of the normal conventions its worth noting. The font used isn't one I'm familiar with and it is very readable and easy on the eye. For some reason, I also notice typographic elements like that in a story. It fits well, though I wish they matched the font of the title with those of the chapters, but you can't have everything.
The text is written in block form, which is actually the way I write, but doesn't seem to be the normal method for publishing. No first line indent and extras space between the paragraphs. While it is the style I write, I don't know many novels that actually set their words this way and occasionally it felt blocky on the eye. By the time I got a hundred page in, it didn't really jar me that much. I could easily grow to like that one, but as I said, I write that way and specifically format it the other way. It was obviously a typographical decision on their part since there are more than a few paragraphs that start with a few spaces. They were very obvious when reading but probably an artifact of the writing style.
Conversation also gave me a bit of trouble. In the book, C. S. Marks uses italics to denote Elvish language. This was really helpful from the little notice page in the beginning of the book. Now, the problem is, almost every single spoke word in the book is Elvish. I mean, they speak in Elvish, whisper in it, and do everything in Elvish. So, a lot of the book is in italics. That probably caused me the most trouble with writing conventions. Using parenthesis ("()") for whispering was fine, through there were a few sections I thought Elves were whispering in common tongue when it probably should have been Elvish, but the writer was clear enough to figure out what was going. There were a few cases of unspoken communication verses whispering that use the same conventions; those caused me a bit more trouble but they happened infrequently.
Given the frequency of Elvish verses Aridani (their common tongue), I would have probably swapped the two. I'm a strong believer in mental and unspoken communications, I used to use parenthesis myself since I thought they worked out well with So You Want to be a Wizard series which I respect. I ended up going with the angled quotes (« and ») for mental communication because I use it frequently.
The tone of this novel is past tense with an omnipresent voice. There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of cases where you'll read about someone's decision, then know what the end of their action is. Kind of like foreshadowing with a very large club. By the time you are done, you have a pretty good idea who is going to die in a later book. I found it distracting. In rare cases, this can be very enjoyable, but it seems like every couple paragraphs will tell you how it really is or how it will end. If those were stripped out, the book probably would have lost thirty pages and still kept the story strong.
C. S. Marks has a passive writing style. I never really noticed it, and I'm guilty of it myself, until I read this. There are a lot of "had" and "is" in the story. It felt very regular in format, almost a cadence in writing. It was very obvious in the beginning and near the middle-third. Its one of those places were a much more active tense would have really helped with the tone of the story.
The last part I didn't really care for the story is some of the world setting. Words have a powerful thing. You noticed when Elves all the time, but the rest of the races aren't. Elves are just about perfect, which is perfectly acceptable from Tolkein based works, but I have to really compliment C. S. Marks for not making them too perfect. They create flawed perfection and that was one of the best parts of this story. Elves get jealousy and make mistakes, they grumble and bitch, then even lust after others. You know what, I absolutely love that part. I don't care for their apparently immortal nature (don't care for immortal anything) and the persistent emotional drama they all seem to suffer. Monogamy doesn't suit this world's Elves; sorry, most of their giving of hearts and claiming the only one, given their expected lifespan of forever, is just unreasonable. Its a nice plot hook to isolate the main characters, but I got frustrated with their insistence of "love or death" theme they have going on. I'm not also big on lifemates or soulmates in general, so take that as you will.
Finally, names. I'm picky about names. When you read a large story with a good number of characters, you start to notice trends in their naming. I mean, in my stories, I have a problem that most of my characters have similiar sounding names (Maef verses Welf for example). I found most authors have a problem with leading characters. In this case, "A", "G", and "O". There are a lot of characters with names that start with that. Even the high powered seer naming an Elf with a "G" name and telling her that her child will also have a name that starts with "G".
Personally, I only know one family that does that. It's my friend Matt, who's brother Mark and Mike are all children of Martha and Matthew. Their cousins all start with "D" (Dustin, etc). This is somewhat common with a lot of writers, but its one of those hot buttons of mine.
Now, beneath those layers of frustration and struggle, I found a story. A good story. A very solid story. And that is why I finished it instead of just tossing it aside. The basis of the story is set very well with the Gorgon Elfhunter (named on the back of the book so I don't feel bad). While I don't claim that he was better than Darth Vader (who I thought wasn't that great), he was a very intelligent, forceful, and creative villain for the story. They could have just written the story from his point of view and I would have be ecstatic. It is hard to write a smart antagonist that doesn't just turn brain-dead at the end of the a story to lose. No, I was very happy on his end and frankly, if I were to read the next one, it would be primarily for him.
The other, relatively secondary character, is Eros, the horse. I like him. There is something about that horse that just made me smile and as soon as I realized I was reading about the world from his point of view, I got excited.
Otherwise, the main characters are well developed and have a good depth of personality. I felt the omnipresent voice kind of made them flatter where they could have had this bounty of secrets and desires that wasn't immediately revealed, but they were excellently crafted. There was this right about of tension between the characters, unrequited love, and realistic expectations. People keep secrets and while they were a bit free to share them, overall it was a story about wonderfully flawed, obsessive people doing the right thing.
The attention to detail in the story was spot on for me. Minor little things like the honey tied various parts of the story together, but also the specifics of the scenes around them. There wasn't a lot of scent-based descriptions (one of those things I noticed), but the details of texture and temperature were there. the world was very nice and I really found myself being pulled into the story. The underground scenes were as lush as the surface ones and I just really liked how the scenes itself were portrayed.
I liked the story and the characters. I really did. They were buried under more than a few layers of typographical and stylistic things I really didn't care for. And the big question, would I buy the sequel?
I don't know. I'd probably page through it a few times and see if there is some interesting non-drama scene, or if I found Gorgon or Eros. If so, I'd probably pick it up without question. If I can't find those, probably not. I'd check again with book three (I'm sure there will be) and if I found Gorgon or Eros, I'll pick up book two just to complete the set. It's a big book. Even at 450 pages, those little details can really stand out in your head. I would recommend it for those who don't really notice the same things as me, or have the ability to look past those things to really enjoy the excellent story within.