A Light Rises in a Dark World, by M. D. Boncher (4:20)

IOD score cardToday we see that attempting to pre-empt criticism can sometimes just put readers on guard.

What I gleaned about the story: Life is idyllic in the land of Akiniwazi. A bountiful harvest is expected tomorrow, but tonight families are settling down for an evening of supper and bickering.

Find this book on Amazon.

WTF #1: Author’s Note puts me on guard.

Analysis: Immediately before the story begins, there’s an “Author’s Note” which the author uses to make two points. Both leave me feeling a little apprehensive about what I’m about to read.

The first part simply warns about the presence of long, weird Scandinavian names. It refers the reader to the glossary if they find themselves getting tripped up or worrying about the pronunciation of some of the names, adding: For some, it might even be helpful to read through the Glossary first.

This raises two concerns in my mind. First, it’s a rare book that can lay on the world-building thick enough to require a glossary to keep it all straight, but still be utterly captivating. For every A Song of Ice and Fire and OMG Your Favorite Character is Now Dead, you’ve got hundreds of projects that collapse under the weight of their world-building details. All those details, the names of cities and lineages and battles, they don’t come free. They exact a toll on the reader’s attention, their ability to sift through for important details and file them away for later.

When you hold a George R.R. Martin tome, you pay the toll because you believe you’re on the road to great things. When a reader finds an unknown author, they don’t start out with that presumption of mastery. If you’ve got such a tome, your marketing strategy might require funneling readers through shorter, more accessible works first.

The other thing is, have you ever tried reading the glossary for an epic fantasy before reading the book? It’s usually a chore. A glossary of names, places, lineages, holidays, etc., is the ultimate infodump: a dense recitation of facts, usually stripped of any of the narrative spice that makes the information palatable. Even thinking about undertaking that challenge leaves me feeling a little exhausted with the book before it’s even begun.

More briefly: I’d advise against starting with the glossary. That’s not its purpose.

The second part of the Author’s Note confused me a little:

In the interest of storytelling, the narrator, like the characters, is imperfect. This is deliberate which means just like real life, the narrator’s perception is not omniscient or perfectly reflects the reality. If you spot an “error”, it may not be an error at all, but something to ponder for the future.

The note feels a little too vague. Perhaps a concrete example would have made it clearer. I think it’s saying that the narrator will turn out to be wrong about certain details that it conveys. But is it worth warning the reader?

Narrator misdirection is perfectly natural when narration is done in third-person limited (staying close to a particular character’s thoughts and perspectives). Harry Potter sees Professor Snape threatening Professor Quirrel, and his assumptions about them both bring him to the wrong conclusions. Because the narration is from his point of view, we’re misdirected as well.

It’s also understandable when the narrator is a character in their own right. For example, Marie Brennan’s series A Natural History of Dragons is done in the style of a memoir, so the narrator is the POV character’s older, wiser self: still a person, with her own opinions, knowledge deficits, and theories about who did what. To this day, she doesn’t know the full story behind some of the events she was involved in.

In cases like these, narrator misdirection doesn’t really require explanation. As best I can tell, A Light Rises is told through omniscient narration. Misdirection from an omniscient narrator is something I’m not sure I’ve seen (leave a comment if you can think of a good example). And it’s not something I’m sure I’d be ready to give a pass to, even if the author warned me about it.

[Note from Jefferson: In my experience, these “mea culpa” notes from authors convey exactly one thing: lack of confidence. And few readers are likely eager to hand over the keys to their intimate mental theater to some doofus who doesn’t seem sure he should be allowed to have them.]
WTF #2: Telling the show, a.k.a. the belt-and-suspenders approach

Analysis: Evening is falling, and the people in the quaint farming town of Aattaettirstrond (we were warned about the long names) are settling down for supper. Inside one family’s house, a child goes tripping over some buckets of water, spilling them. The father is chewing out the boy, who is getting ready to cry. Then:

His wife, Anette, irritated with her clumsy son, crossed her arms in disappointment at Anton’s quick temper.

I had to pause for a second to figure out why the sentence felt awkward. There’s some stiffness to the prose, and it’s trying to pack a lot of Anette’s inner thoughts into it. But it’s also doing the “show” (communicating her inner thoughts via body language) followed immediately by a “tell” (explaining what that body language meant).

There’s a fine line you have to walk when you’re trying to create immersion. It helps to leave enough unsaid that the reader feels like they’re figuring things out. But you have to say enough that the conclusions the reader draws are the ones you’d intended. Here the narrative wants to be clear that Anette is irritated with her boy, but much more irritated with her husband. But it does so in a way that denies the reader the satisfaction of making an inference from the evidence presented.

And the next two sentences reiterate the point:

“Anton, not now.”

She wondered when Reimar would ever learn to look where he was going.

Between them, the narrative addresses her irritation with both father and son, so the first sentence could be pared back to: His wife, Anette, crossed her arms, without risk of misunderstanding.

The small passage exudes a lack of confidence. It’s like the prose put on a belt, then decided to also put on suspenders, just to be absolutely sure.

WTF #3: Missing dialogue tag


“This boy is a milksop thanks to your constant doting.”

“He is ten,” [she said,] exasperation plain in her tone.

There’s not much to say about this one. When the reader is trying to reframe a sentence one way and then another, trying to interpret it in a way that makes the missing part not really missing, the flow of the story is interrupted.

Final note: Even though the book didn’t survive the IOD gauntlet, it’s doing some things right. The Viking-era world has an authentic feel to it: so far my fears of ‘too much worldbuilding’ haven’t borne out, and I’ve instead been delighted by little details about the culture and environment. Reimar’s family is already showing a complicated, bickering sort of affection that sets the stage for good drama down the line. If you’re looking for a Christian-themed story set in a world of Vikings and magic, give the sample chapters a try.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

The Plan and other short stories, by Stephen Brandon (1:32)
Ghost Stories, by Ron Ripley (1:33)