Games of Chance, by William L. Hahn (20:51)

IOD-JudgementsTaleToday we see that it can be disastrous to let style trump clarity.

What I gleaned about the story: A young boy from the land of Heroes lands on the shores of the more agrarian Lands, alone and ill equipped, but with seemingly vast knowledge of many wonderful things. A great evil hangs over the Lands, however, a dark lord, who tosses the lives of the people about like play-things, to amuse his idle and cruel curiosities. Something tells me he and the boy are gonna have a rumble.

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WTF #1: The gypsies watched him still an hour later near dusk and by the light of the burning pyre. Munching apples and crusts, they took in his every move, like watching a play: the boy piled the planks in a half-pyramid, put his father’s body on the keelboard, and hauled it to the top with driftwood-rollers and all his strength. He had set the flame and now stood leaning on a half-length of the skiff’s mast, serving him as a thick quarterstaff.

Analysis: Normally, I can let a single botched verb tense slide, but in this case, it caused a time slip that confused me, jarring me hard enough to pop out of the story. At the very least, “they took in his every move” should have been “they had taken in his every move.” Without that signal, it is not clear that we’re jumping back from the present, in which the pyre is already burning, to recap the events of its construction. And so, on first read, it appeared to me that the gypsies watched him – by the light of the pyre – as he built the pyre and then lit it.

Kudos: “As the flicker-toothed fire ate the setting sun,…”  I quite liked that image. Very nice.

WTF #2: Within the Hopeward, beyond the maze-halls and their shifting doors of glass, past basalt guardians and broken bodies of the ages-slain, on the central bridge that forms its purpose and sustains the rules allowing it to exist, here waits a being near-made of evil, drenched in time and sodden with Despair.

Analysis: A lot of the narration felt just a bit stiff and bombastic to me, written in a slightly archaic and formal style. I was able to run with it at first, while it was just descriptions of people watching the boy on the beach. But then we reached a section of historical exposition, and the sentences got more convoluted, like the one cited above. On this one, I had to stop and reread it twice, to be sure I understood what was going on. Reading it felt like unraveling a puzzle.

I hope the author won’t be offended if I unpack how this sentence unfolded for me, because it’s a useful illustration of how style can get in the way of clarity. Stripping it down to the bare elements, I read it as, “Within one place, beyond another (with stuff), past yet a third place (that had its own stuff, too), on a fourth place (that has one job, er, make that two jobs) there waited a thing.” (Finally! I now know what object the sentence is talking about. It’s a thing.) “The thing was evil, and old, and sad.”

Unfortunately, the stylistic voice threw four subordinate clauses at me, each one confusing me further, as I forged ahead, waiting for some clue to what the sentence was about, but every time I found a concrete noun, it turned out to be a red herring and I had to press on. By the time I got to the being, I had lost track of all the other things I’d passed along the way, and then I worried that I might have skimmed past some important detail about it, so I had to go back to check.

WTF #3: Proper noun poisoning.

Analysis: The next two pages contained references to a dozen or so names of people and places for which I didn’t have sufficient context. And since it was all about this new “being” guy, and not the lonely boy, or even the gypsies, I had insufficient emotional stake to lead me to care.

Derelict, by LJ Cohen (20:21)
The Journeyman, by Michael Alan Peck (40:00)

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.