A Noble’s Quest, by Ryan Toxopeus (9:11)

IOD-ANoblesQuestToday I issue a cautionary notice: Those who choose to play in Tolkien’s backyard are standing themselves next to a blast furnace. You better bring the awesome or you’re going to get scorched.

What I gleaned about the story: There was once a great hero who fought a great battle with a great sword. Then he gave that sword away before the fight was over and somehow managed to lose the war. Fast forward to today. Now stuff is going to happen.

WTF #1: Name poisoning.

Analysis: This is another of those problems I find particularly common in fantasy. I call it “name poisoning,” although it might more properly be called “noun poisoning.” After my nine minutes, I went back and counted approximately 22 people, groups, races, and places cited, few of which were mentioned more than once or with any context. While an author needs to know their worlds in this minute detail, I find it very difficult, as a reader, to absorb that many new names, places, and groups, and get them all integrated into my mental map when they come that quickly, and without sufficient context. One might think that unnamed groups and places don’t count, but even if the labels are as vague as “some dwarves” and “some other dwarves,” psychologically, these are tokens that need to be woven into my map and kept distinct, just as certainly as if they had been called the “High Lords of Morgahrrinum,” and the “Delvers ‘Neath Crystal Canyon.” (Those are my own made-up names. Not the author’s.)

I enjoy books that start with a bang and hit the ground running, but give me a few pages to get oriented before you start the geography and history core dump, and then go slow at first. Once I’ve got a sizable map, I can absorb new things more quickly, because the mental landscape already exists. But at the beginning? Uh, not so much. I’m still calling it into existence from out of the shapeless void, and that takes time. But either way, when I have to slow down because the nouns are piling up in the “to be filed” queue, I’m paying attention to the words rather than the story, and immersion has broken.

WTF #2: Elves, dwarves, orcs, mithril, halflings, and manly men settling new lands with elf-given powers, all mentioned in the prologue = Tolkienitis.

Analysis: I love Tolkien’s work, as do most of the people for whom fantasy is a beloved genre. But as much as I cherish that world, I can no longer properly immerse into a story that is set in what appears to be a carbon copy. A large part of why I read fantasy is to inhabit new worlds. I liken it to following a friend around his spacious new home. He’s proud and excited, wanting me to see it all, and I’m happy to follow him and share in his excitement. But following someone who’s showing me around somebody else’s home? That feels like dusty museum tour. The spark and excitement are gone for me.

The only time it has succeeded for me is when the author has proven that he’s bringing something new to that borrowed world – some new and original creation that wrests my attention away form the cries of the familiar tropes wheeling in the air about me. If you can show me something glittering and new that you’ve placed into that world, and you show it to me quickly, then you can ignite my enthusiasm for you and for that thing, and I can then happily ignore the familiar background. But without that, all I see is Tolkien, and I keep thinking about how you’re not him, so the immersion is broken.

WTF #3: “It may take generations before our people sing songs of freedom, but this time will come. The human spirit is too powerful to be crushed forever.”

Analysis: The hero of the ages is on his knees, exhausted, with death and loss all around him. His companions are dead, hope is gone, and a horde of enemies is about to come pouring through the pass at his back. And then he starts monologuing like a movie trailer voice over? That dialogue doesn’t sound like a real person talking – unless maybe he knows he is on the last page of a prologue. But even then, if he knows he’s in a prologue, then I realize I’m reading a prologue, and immersion dissolves.

Flummox or Bust, by Kevin Bowersox (16:17)
Surviving the Fog, by Stan Morris (15:33)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That’s why he writes.