I was SO not in the moon to write this weekend. No particular reason, just one of those things. Eventually I will push through the first half of this chapter and then I have a previously-cut scene to plug in and can get on, and then everything will be fine. In the meantime, I must admit I kinda made inroads on my TBR pile instead of working.
And I wish I’d enjoyed it more.
First! Bookending this little dive into my TBR pile were a couple of books I really enjoyed! So let me start with those:
ALMOST PERFECT by Brian Katcher was in fact almost perfect. In fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything about it that WASN’T perfect! It’s a contemporary YA, not a category I’m much interested in, but in fact the author handed me a copy of this book last year at a convention, and I just got around to reading it, and, well, it’s really really good.
The writing is excellent. I even liked the prologue, and I hate prologues! The dialogue is excellent. There are some HILARIOUS scenes that are just brilliant, I’m thinking of the bit with the McDonald’s toys; if you’ve read it you know what I mean! There were several lines that made me laugh out loud (really!).
The characterization is really excellent, not just the main characters but right down the line to the secondary and even the minor characters.
The plot? Well, here’s what School Library Journal says:
“A small-town Missouri boy’s world is rocked when he falls for the new girl at school, and she eventually confesses that she is a biological male. . . A remarkably “clean” book dealing with sexuality and identity, this is neither preachy nor didactic . . .”
And there you go! I know, can you believe a book with this kind of subject wouldn’t come across as preachy? But it really doesn’t. That’s how well-written it is.
And then last night? When I didn’t want to actually work on anything, I read Sharon Shinn’s book GATEWAY. It’s a minor work, in my opinion, but it is of course well written (I mean, it IS Shinn) and nicely put together. And I read it because I really, really wanted a book I would enjoy. Because in between, I tried a mystery I didn’t like (too many characters were really just unpleasant people and I got tired of it). I quit about a third of the way through. And then I tried SILVER PHOENIX by Pon, and I wanted to really like it, and I did actually enjoy some of the details, but the characters seemed so simplistic to me, and the plot seemed very episodic rather than flowing from front to back, and the writing was okay but (to me) not outstanding, and I wound up being kinda disappointed.
And then I read this one:
Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole.
Okay, I am not normally inclined to review books unless I like them. I mean, I don’t much care for negative reviews myself, right? And I hate to make someone else feel bad. And what if I run into the author at a convention sometime? Awkward much?
But there are limits, and this book ticked me off because of its wasted potential. Nothing wrong with the concept or the world, but . . .
Well, suppose you read the following first paragraphs of a novel:
The monitor showed a silent video feed from a high school security camera. On it, a young boy stood in a school auditorium. A long-sleeved black T-shirt covered his skinny chest. Silver chains connected rings in his ears, nose, and lips. His hair was a spray of mousse and color.
He was wreathed in a bright ball of fire.
Billowing smoke clouded the camera feed, but Britton could see the boy stretch out a hand, flames jetting past the camera’s range, engulfing fleeing students, who rolled away, beating at their hair and clothing. People were running, screaming.
Beside the boy stood a chubby girl, her dyed-black hair matching her lipstick and eye makeup. She spread her arms.
The flames around the boy pulsed in time with her motions, forming two man-sized peaks of flame. The fire elementals danced among the students, burning as they went. Britton watched as the elementals multiplied – four, then six. Wires sparked as the fire reached the stage. The girl’s magic touched them as well, the electricity forming dancing human shapes, elementals of sizzling energy. They lit among the students, fingertips crackling arcs of dazzling blue lightning.
Okay, your reaction is:
a) Those poor kids are just scared and confused, that’s why they’re burning their classmates alive.
b) My God, a magical Columbine – someone needs to take out those little sociopaths, quick before the body count hits triple digits!
Would it surprise you to know that the protagonist goes for option “a”?
They want me to kill a child, Lieutenant Oscar Britton thought.
And from the rest of the chapter and, indeed, the book, it’s perfectly clear the author, Myke Cole, also goes for “a”, and expects the reader to as well. So right from the beginning, Cole loses me – I’m having a problem with suspension of disbelief. I am totally out of sympathy with the protagonist, because are you kidding me?
And this problem with implausibly weird reactions go straight through the book from beginning to end.
Like, suppose you want to get somebody who’s manifested a forbidden magical talent to surrender to you so that you can train him to use his talent in a secret war. You know that it’s widely believed that people who manifest talents like this are taken away and killed, but this is actually not true. So, when you have tracked down this guy with his extremely valuable (if forbidden) talent, and he says, “You’re going to kill me anyway,” you respond:
a) “That’s for a court-martial to decide. Get on your knees and put your hands behind your head.”
b) “Oscar, I know that’s what everybody believes, but I swear to you, it’s not true. You’ve already accidentally killed people; you know you’re too dangerous to be out on your own. The truth is, you just need to switch from the regular army to, well, let’s say special forces. You can learn to control your talent. Just settle down and we’ll get you out of this mess, I promise you.”
You’d think “b”, right? Nope, the government guy in charge of bringing Oscar in goes straight for “a”, which results in Oscar running and various assorted mayhem before he’s finally caught.
Not only that, but even though Oscar’s longing for a place to belong and a sense that he’s doing something worthwhile? Every single authority figure goes out of his way to make it clear that to them and to the supernatural branch of the army, Oscar’s just a slave and a tool. Why do all the officers treat their people like this? Even though it is clearly not very practical if what you want is willing, dedicated people working for you? Ummm . . . because they’re nuts?
Also! Can we have characters with layers? Complicated motivations? No, we cannot. The guys who seem like they might be rough around the edges but maybe they have a heart of gold? Nope, they’re just straight-up bad guys. You want to be a good guy? You’re just nice right from the first moment you walk on stage. And also stupid! Spoiler here, so stop here if you care about that:
Honest to God, my dog, with a brain the size of a walnut, could tell that letting the creepy scary evil Scylla loose would be a really bad idea. Like, a really really bad idea. But it never crosses Oscar’s mind that she might possibly slaughter people like cattle, even though, hello, she said she thought of normal people like animals. And he let her loose anyway? Good Lord above, what a shock that things didn’t work out! Oscar is just so STUPID. And vacillating. Like, decide what you want already! And then STICK TO IT!
This book picked up a couple of amazing blurbs, like “Hands down, the best military fantasy I’ve ever read,” and I can only say, seriously? Or is this the only military fantasy you’ve ever read? SHADOW OPS takes place in an technologically advanced alternate contemporary world, and that may make it unique among military fantasies. Can anybody think of any other fantasies which combine attack helicopters and magic and could fall into the same category of military fantasy as Cole’s book?
Because if not, if this is the best military fantasy out there, then I suggest sticking to military SF and heading straight to Tanya Huff’s VALOR series, which, I am not kidding you, is just infinitely better.
So, you can see why after that I went for an author I knew and trusted, like Shinn. This is the second time this year I’ve been seriously disappointed by a book I got from the SFBC on the basis of their description, and you know what? I think I’ll be sticking to books recommended by actual people for a while. Like people who comment here!