Did Not Finish: The Wizard and the Rat

Note: Normally when I make these posts, I try to read about 25% of the book. I feel that by this point I have given a book the best possible chance at winning me over. As I did not reach my own threshold, I had decided to reach out to the author who contacted me by e-mail instead so I could still provide him feedback. He expressed interest in sharing the e-mail with others to discuss. In light of this, I am posting what I sent so that he may share this with those he thinks may find it of interest. The original e-mail has been edited for clarity and I am adding some annotations to better suit a blog post and to provide the author with some additional thoughts, but the heart of the content remains unchanged.

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Summary:

Wizard Master Thed Hyral Clearwater has been rendered temporarily powerless by the very tools he needs to complete his assigned task: to defeat a powerful ex-protege who is practicing the forbidden craft of necromancy.

He travels to the ironically named city of Haven, where a broad class divide, corruption,and systemic violence leave the underclass fighting for scraps – and they’re the lucky ones. There, a young thief called Rat sees an easy mark. Or so he thinks.

Rat needs one big score to pay back an enormous debt. Failure means living as a slave and prisoner of Haven, a fate Rat considers worse than death. So when Thed invites Rat on his mission, the boy accepts. But they are falling into old patterns that may doom them both.

Review/E-mail to the Author:[For a bit of context: before starting the book, I had a discussion with the author. He mentioned to me that he has had other people mark his book as Did Not Finish.]

….So you know (and what you may not be surprised at) is that my breaking point was the relationship between Cat and Rat. At best it’s emotionally abusive. At worst it’s emotionally and physically abusive. It’s utterly painful to see Rat swear to his love to a man who uses sex as a punishment and that may well be a breaking point for a lot of potential readers. I will say that I like the idea of a homosexual narrator, as it isn’t something seen in more epic/traditional fantasy and because fantasy does often deal with these kind of issues in sublimated ways (like the homoerotic nature of vampires). The thing is, if you’re going to go there, you need more subtlety. This is not a contemporary piece and a character that that openly muses on why society doesn’t like the “butterflies” feels way too modern and can be a bit jarring.

I stand by word here: I do think that the LGBT community is underrepresented in modern, mainstream fantasy fare and I would love to see a more traditional fantasy story have characters with a non-heterosexual orientation and I hope someone will make the attempt. Still, as with any other element of fantasy, it needs to be incorporated carefully so that it feels natural within the context of the story and that simply isn’t the case here. 

I also want to say that unbalanced relationships like Cat and Rat can be an interesting read but it takes very deft handling to pull it off. I’m honestly still not sure whether the author even sees the relationship between those characters the way that I did, but I do think that a LOT of readers are going to be turned off at the thought of Rat worshiping Cat (who openly admits to another character, Knife, that he sleeps with Rat (and I’m paraphrasing here) “because Rat looks like a girl from behind” to be more than a little creepy. The set up of this story is one that clearly indicates that Cat is not going to a central character to the plot. If you aren’t going to commit to it and really explore this, you probably just shouldn’t go there in the first place.

That said, it is your story and you can write your characters however you like. I will say that if there is anything you do take to heart: if you can, I highly recommend investing in an editor, because this book (like my e-mail in hindsight) really needed some editing. There are some fundamental formatting errors here. For example, in location 336,

Rat was relieved when she spoke again. “I knew of a girl from one of the neighborhoods who was grabbed by a crew…” Kelli looked at the street.

All of this is in a single paragraph. Basic formatting demands a new paragraph when you change speakers so your reader can keep track of who’s talking. I honestly thought it was Rat talking when I first read it.
These kind of errors aren’t game-breaking, but it does make a book more difficult to read and ultimately gives off an air that a book isn’t polished. These are the kinds of errors that are simple enough to catch in a re-read and really shouldn’t make it a final edition.
I also feel like there’s a super-quick, almost staccato nature to your writing style. It almost comes off as breathless and it made me want to tell Rat to take a deep breath and slow down. I think an editor might help you to better group your thoughts so you can scale that back some.
This is more of a “your mileage may vary” gripe, but ultimately too many short paragraphs can be just as hard on a reader as too many long ones.
You also have some errant sentences that just don’t belong. For example:
“The other three crews and their leaders numbered twenty-two.
One per coin.”

Honestly, who cares? And more importantly, who counts when a mob is forming on your door step? I’m going to guess it might have been an attempt at foreshadowing, but it was just awkward.

I know I can nitpick more than most, but this still came off to me as something that meant to be profound but really just left me scratching my head. Small things like this are what can take a person out of a book especially if nothing before or nothing after points to those lines having significance.
On a less technical level, I do think your world needed a bit more cohesion. The names were driving me insane. You have characters named Bahsa, Erit and Solvar which sound like plausible fantasy names. Then you have Kelli, the only modern name of the group, and then you also have Cat, Rat, Knife, and all the one-word animal named constellations. Pick a naming convention and stick with it so characters feel like they belong in the same world.
I don’t believe all authors need to go to extremes such as creating languages for their worlds or anything like that, but you do need to go with fantasy-ish or all objects or go for broke and use all normal/modern names. Every society has a convention that they more or less stick to. Yes, the US has kids named Apple and Inspektor Pilot, but the parents are generally ridiculed and considered self-indulgent for giving them such names. Consistency needs to be there mainly for the sake of flow, but because it shows some thought went into it. The randomness of the names again gives the book an unpolished feel.
Two of your characters – Rat and Bahsa I felt like you didn’t know what you were doing with them. Rat goes from being VERY meek to being VERY smart-mouthed and back again faster than you can blink in a way that doesn’t feel like it makes sense. Rat knows how dangerous Solvar is, yet sasses off at him while throwing himself at Cat’s feet when Cat is equally angry at him? Bahsa is supposed to be “playing” slow but acts like someone who isn’t all there. Which is it?
Characterization. This is the first thing that will make or break a book for me. If you don’t know understand what you are trying to accomplish with your characters, your audience won’t either.
Ultimately It just feels like this book wasn’t ready to be published yet.

I wish you the best of luck going forward.

I feel like the author was always in for an uphill battle for this book for a number of reasons: the plot is extremely basic fantasy, the main character is gay  and it is self-published at a time when self-published books tend to have a negative reputation. If a book like this is going to have a chance to stand out in the right light, the execution needs to be flawless and it just wasn’t. A professional editor isn’t within the reach of all aspiring authors, but so much can still be caught and corrected without spending a dime, if you’re willing to take the time and go through it. I hope that this was of at least a little help to the author.

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