What I gleaned about the story: Raised as an orphan by a maiden aunt, Aera the healer learns that her parents were not the simple professionals she had been told. In fact, they were secret agents. And if the world is going to survive this latest threat, she herself may have to step up to take their place.
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Note: Several typographic conventions caught my eye. First, the book is laid out using the British convention of single quotes instead of double, but then uses the American convention of putting punctuation inside the quotes instead of outside. On top of that odd pairing, the typography also employs flush-left paragraphs with a blank line between, a practice I call paragraph gapping. In addition to being a visual distraction, this practice also annoys me for a practical reason: it allows less text on each page, so I have to flip pages on my e-reader more frequently.
But more importantly, paragraph gapping also triggers my expectation of a scene break—especially if a paragraph ends in some kind of revelation or declaration that feels like it might be a closing cadence. Many books are published with the convention that a gap between paragraphs signifies a scene change. So subconsciously, I see the gap following a strong paragraph beat and think, “Scene over,” only to pass the gap and find the action just sailing right along, completely uninterrupted. It feels a bit bait-and-switchy to me.
These are all minor irritants, I grant you, which is why I didn’t charge any WTFs for them, but they are irritants just the same. And as I’ve said many times before, irritants on the first page are always magnified, because at that point, readers are still trying to judge whether your writing is worth their time. So it just seems natural to want to remove as many of them as we can.
Analysis: The first few scene feel rather perfunctory.
Consider the opening scene. It’s a bit reminiscent of Hagrid’s first meeting with Harry Potter. (“Yer a wizard, Harry.”) Like Harry, our protagonist, Aera, is told some startling truths about her family history and her own abilities. But unlike Harry, we aren’t given any ramp-up before that revelation. Here, it’s just dropped on us out of the blue. As a result, the revelation feels out of place to me. Uncomfortable. Because I don’t know this woman.
It’s also hard for me to drum up any emotional resonance for her situation, because I have no idea who she is. Things happen to people I don’t know all the time. I’ve gotten used to that idea, and it’s what allows me to distance myself from all the dramas of the world that would otherwise exhaust me. As a psychological defence mechanism, I only allow myself to give a damn about the people I know. So it is absolutely paramount, I think, for authors to let readers get to know their characters, and care about them, before subjecting them to your pre-planned emotional roller coaster and expecting them to relate. Without that preliminary bonding, your characters are just strangers, and emotional engagement is unlikely.
Not only does Aera’s revelation come too soon, but it contains virtually no internal dimension or analysis. She meets a mysterious stranger, he takes her to lunch, he reveals his information, and then he leaves. It all happens too quickly. And then the second scene does the same thing. Aera takes her new information and runs to ask her guardian aunt if it’s true. She tells the aunt what happened. The aunt confirms it and then walks away. Conversation over. Scene over.
Again, we get no real reaction from Aera, nor any indication that this reportedly loving aunt has even the slightest sensitivity to Aera’s emotional state. It feels as if the plot is a play being staged by robots. They walk on, say their lines, and then leave. And that’s not dramatically engaging.
Analysis: There are a number of mismatches that are starting to gather in bunches. We are given hints to tell us that Aera is a compassionate woman. After all, she has chosen healing as a career. She also mentions her aunt Me’lia with a tone of love and respect, which she implies is mutual. But then we are shown entirely opposing actions. Me’lia crushes Aera’s world by confirming the stranger’s story, and then she just walks away.
Or even just look at how Aera refers to her aunt in the narration. Not as “Me’lia” or “auntie” or some other pet reference. Even after we’ve met the woman, she is always cited as “her aunt”. That language is so distancing and antiseptic that it completely contradicts the earlier claim that they were close and affectionate, or that Aera is a warm and nurturing person.
Unfortunately, when the story tells us one thing and shows us another, it sets up a cognitive dissonance that can be extremely distracting. It becomes an itching in the mind that has to be scratched, which constantly drags us away from the story to puzzle over the apparent contradiction. And there ain’t no immersion happening when we’re confused like that.
Analysis: Here we go again. The third scene is just long enough to tell us that a bomb went off and many people were killed. The scene was not dramatized for us. It was simply reported from afar, in the narration. There was no experience of the chaos of the moment, no witnessing of the terror and confusion that follows a bombing. Just a quick fact-drop and then on we go to the next scene.
The thing that really bothered me here is that Aera is a healer, who works at a hospital. This could have been such a great place to let us see the person inside the robot. That one scene could have told us so much about who she is and how she ticks. Characters are not developed and revealed by what they say—they are developed and revealed by how they respond to adversity.
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