What I gleaned about the story: A miller’s younger son dreams of living a life of adventure, and hopes somebody will give it to him.
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Analysis: As I’ve said before, I’ve got a short attention span for the more common opening clichés, and there are none more common than the “morning ritual.” When a boy shaves and runs down to the breakfast table for a Norman Rockwell family meal, I cringe. At least it didn’t begin with “He opened his eyes.” But it’s still the same old familiar beginning, that I’ve seen far too often. So often, that I can’t immerse into it. Instead, I find myself watching it like a tour guide, pointing out all the familiar features to myself as it unfolds. “Here’s the bathroom. There’s the snarky sibling….” It’s still possible for a morning ritual opening to sneak past me, I suppose, but it would have to be so gripping in some dimension of the story or prose that it distracted me from the familiarity of the structure. “Oh, and speaking of that, here comes the long-suffering mother of teens. Ritual complete.” So with my eyes locked on the pattern, immersion broke.
Analysis: In this case, a second familiar form teamed up with the first. The “let me pause to think about my life situation” info dump. While shaving, our young protagonist thinks conveniently for us about his brothers, his parents, and his ill-starred lot in life as a second son. Let me try to convey why this opening gambit turns me off, aside from the mere fact that it is so commonplace. Imagine you’re at an old style hotel – the kind where several guests share a common bathroom. You get out of bed and go into the facility on your floor, and there’s a guy standing at the mirror, shaving. Now. Without benefit of introduction or even having seen each other before, he begins to tell you about the problems he has with his father, as he continues to shave. He tells you about how unfairly his brothers treat him. And what he plans to do about it, including where he is going to go when he finishes shaving. He may even articulate some side comments about his own appearance, and the ugly mole that stares at him from the center of his forehead every morning.
What’s your reaction?
If you’re like me, you are already backing toward the door, trying to avoid eye contact, but not daring to look away, due to the very real chance that this idiot might try something.
Well that’s exactly how I feel when a character I’ve just met starts monologuing about his existence. I don’t know him from Adam, and I sure as hell don’t care about his problems yet. There’s no free lunch. I will only care about him after you’ve shown me a reason to care, and then allowed me to form that caring bond for myself. Once you’ve achieved that, I’ll be happy to hear about his troubles. But not before. At this point, I’m still trying not to make eye contact.
And how do you achieve it without having him monologue at me? By showing it to me. If I had walked into that bathroom and his older brother had been holding him down, shoving his head into the toilet, I’d have instantly sided with the wet kid. Same facts, different presentation. But the differences are crucial.
Analysis: There were a couple of minor editorial gripes that I let pass, although I have to mention that I am seeing a surprising number of books lately with either a reluctance to use perfect past tense when it’s needed, or an unclear understanding of where/when to use it. The issues I noticed with it here weren’t quite enough to jerk me out of the world, but it’s a trend worth noting.
And then we reached the job fair, where two issues lassoed my attention.
First is the very premise of the fair itself. Apparently, young teens come to the fair in the hopes of being selected as short-term hands by established tradesmen, who come looking for such. If it works out, that casual relationship might later be formalized into an actual apprenticeship, but if not, the teen returns home with a bit of money to contribute to the family finances. And that’s my problem. Money? Paid to a kid who wasn’t even good enough at the try-out to graduate into an unpaid apprentice? In an apprenticeship culture, it is usually the apprentice (or their parent) who pays the master for the child’s training. It makes no sense to me that a kid trying out to be an apprentice – and failing – would be given anything other than a kick out the door. Paid for what? For incompetence? Too often I find story worlds that unconsciously embed things from our world that have no place there – and this strikes me as one of those accidental anachronisms.
Then there is the attitude of the protagonist himself. He dreams of adventure. He longs for a life of heroism and great deeds. But instead of actually doing anything about it, he goes to the job fair. And then hopes that a knight or, I don’t know, maybe an itinerant hero looking for a comic relief sidekick, will come along and take him away from his life of tedious misery. I think I was supposed to hope along with him, but I found myself wondering more and more about the practical economics of this job fair. Why would a miller let his son go off to play-test some other career, when there was plenty of work to be done at the mill? What kind of world is it where a knight might be expected to cruise these strange village meat markets to select a volunteer try-out squire?
On the whole, I simply found too many implausibilities about how such an economy could make sense. World building is about more than simply choosing a setting or a social convention. It’s about following those choices through and integrating them into a sensible whole. Successful worlds feel right. They feel proper. They feel as though their system for doing things, while different from our own, could actually work. But one thing is certain: when I start grumbling about economic theory, immersion has definitely broken.