The Prince of Ravens, by Hal Emerson (40:00)

Today we see that earning a reader’s trust is crucial.

What I gleaned about the story: Born to a ruthless Empress and raised by her equally powerful and heartless elder children, the Prince of Ravens is not like the others. But it’s going to take every scrap of magic and a fair bit of luck to survive.

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Kudos #1: A prologue worth having

Details: Most prologues I see are a complete waste of time, but every now and again, one comes along that strikes me as having been worth the reading. In this case, the prologue is used to convey several crucial things:

  1. We see the brutality with which children of the Empress are judged. Not just as a way of generating sympathy for the protagonist, but also demonstrating the harsh and demanding conditions by which the ruling family is chosen. We know right away that these are not weaklings raised to power by indulgent parents. Royal children are creatures of power in their own right, and any siblings born among them who do not have such power are dispatched in a cruel and efficient manner.
  2. We are shown the strange pattern of deaths that emerged when the protagonist’s life was in peril as a baby, during his test. No connections are drawn for us, but it is clear that the baby has survived his ordeal by drawing on the life forces of other creatures, and that, by extension, he is somehow magically engaged with the forces of life and death.
  3. We are introduced to the ruling family, each of them with special powers and abilities. But the introductions are made incidentally, as they each take their part in testing the newest child, according to their individual gifts.
  4. The natural order is perturbed in an unexpected way. Even though the protagonist/baby has technically failed the last part of his test, he is permitted to live, in service to other political aims. And here we see the emergence of what will probably be the dramatic tension that drives the entire story: a prince, born into a cruel and powerful family, but somehow different from them. So even though the family has been painted in heartless terms, he is the exception. And to me that looks like the seeds of both power and possibility.

Note: The Empress has seven Children (yes, capitalized) but all of them are referred to as Princes. The first time I encountered it, I thought it was a typo, but I was wrong. I suppose that by eschewing the word “princess,” the other conveys that each of them are entirely equal in status, and that their sex bears no relevance on their role or their competence, which seems a good, enlightened position to take. But it still feels just a bit awkward to me, referring to women as Princes. Deep in the foundations of my psyche, the word prince is as strongly gendered as man, boy, and king. I’ll get used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be comfortable. And while I’m certainly not going to charge a WTF for it, I thought I’d mention the fact of my discomfort. Bear in mind that when you alter the meaning of a word, you run the risk of making readers uncomfortable.

Note: After apparently being exiled and rejected by his mother, the baby still seems to have been allowed to keep the Raven Talisman that signifies his membership in the royal family. That seems odd, but I’ve developed sufficient trust that I’m willing to let the author run with it for now. And that’s the crucial thing that has to happen when a reader takes up with a new author: that bond of trust has to form. And every editorial gaffe, every awkward font use and every tortured metaphor militates against that trust. Literature is the only art form in which the artist is given the keys to the viewer’s inner theater, and that is such an intimate act of trust that we guard those keys most jealously.

WTF #1: Conflicting descriptions

Analysis: Bummer. I thought this one might go to the wire clean, but in the 33rd minute, I stumbled. Here’s the irksome paragraph:

His eyes sprang open, and he immediately regretted it. Breath hissed into his lungs, cold and crisp, as a lancing stab of pain shot from his eyes to the back of his head, down the length of his spine and all the way to the soles of his feet, before returning to pound like a mad carpenter on his closed eyelids.

In a nutshell, his eyes sprang open, creating a pain that pounded against his closed eyelids. The contradiction yanked me out of the story to jump back and see if I’d missed some mention of the eyes closing again. In hindsight, this might have been an attempt to artfully say that he closed them again, but the damage had already been done. Either find a way to close them first, or paint the imagery of flashing pain in a way that closes the eyes, rather than presumes them already closed.

Note: This was followed a few paragraphs later with: The Prince finally managed to get his eyes open, which again jangles my happy place. He’s already had them open very recently. Maybe managed to get his eyes open again would be better.

Note: There is an infrequent but continuing rate of minor typos. Mostly missing words. For example: his head still fuzzed and he unable to decide whether this was all a dream. There’ve been six or seven similar quibbles, but the story has been engaging enough that I just blew past them, filling in the missing words as needed from the surrounding context. Fortunately, none of the problems created confusion or ambiguity. If they had, I’d have been forced to throw another flag.

Note: Ah. The Talisman mentioned above is not some amulet worn around his neck that can be taken away. It’s some kind of spell woven into him that manifests veins of colored scars around his body. See? Trust in the author is rewarded.

Final Note: After the treadmill was done, I went on to read the entire book and enjoyed it thoroughly. Strongly recommended if prince-raised-as-pauper and death sorcery tales are up your alley.

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.

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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.