Upriver, Downriver, by Aaron Ward (4:53)

IOD-Upriver_DownriverToday we are reminded that the job of narrator is a sacred trust. Betray that trust and he’ll be trapped alone forever in his dark and unread book.

What I gleaned about the story: Three boys crossbred between spiders, humans and vampire bats are taking it easy at the ol’ fishing hole.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: There are a number of oddities with this one before I even hit page one. There is no table of contents data in the file. The cover was provided in a bizarre, non-standard file format. And the printed edition of this book is almost 800 pages. Not a single one of these counts as a WTF, but when so much seems to be out of the ordinary, I can’t help but raise my subconscious weirdness shields. The book will either be refreshingly original, or painfully unconventional. I can’t wait to see which way it leans.

WTF #1: Confusing start

Analysis: Each of the first two sentences seemed to bait-and-switch me, starting off with a simple apparent meaning in the opening clause, and then throwing things into confusion with the second. Let’s take a look:

The sky was clear blue and cloudless and had been persisting in that way for a while, a summer coming and sticking and overlapping into the next summer and then the next. The heat and the dry took the color from the trees and the ground like they were shrinking against a vampire.

Sentence #1 starts out to say that it’s been a long summer, then it tries to elaborate but only confuses the issue for me. Am I being told that this has been a single, but unusually aggressive summer? Or has summer literally stretched out over several years? The distinction between these two seems an important one, so I’m troubled by my inability to tell which meaning is actually intended.

Then we get to the second sentence, and again, the image starts out fairly plain: the summer is hot and dry, but then I’m given a simile to follow that, which likens the dryness to the trees and ground “shrinking against a vampire,” and I don’t know what to do with that. What does “shrinking against” mean here? It appears to be trying to say that the heat drained the colors like some kind of color vampire, but I can’t see how “shrinking against a vampire” gets me there. So maybe I’m wrong about the intended meaning. Could vampires have some other metaphorical purpose here? No, I’m pretty sure my initial read was correct, and all I can surmise now is that the author must be employing some unusual definition for the word “against” in this context.

Regardless of intent, however, the fact that I’m grinding my wheels over non-standard word usage means that I’m definitely no longer immersed.

WTF #2: Convoluted sentences

Analysis: Here’s part of the second paragraph:

Three boys swam in the river. Then, after they had swum and the water in their clothes had dried up into nothing, they fished. It was only nine rowboats across where they fished, two down at its deepest, and the sun burned high and warmed the water. Sweat stuck their shirts to their backs, their clothes ragged and newly outgrown with the sudden affliction of puberty, two of the boys aged fifteen, and one fourteen, each with their faces lightly turfed by the wispiest of hairs.

The first few sentences seem straightforward, and include a quaint measuring system that feels appropriately boyish. But then that last sentence just takes off and doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. At the start, it describes the boys sweaty shirts, but then a very conspicuous sentence splice diverts the whole thing into the history and consequence of pubescence. I had to back up and run at that twice before I realized that I had not misread it. And when I’m playing semantic bumper-cars, I am definitely not engaged in the story world.

WTF #3: Surprise mutations

Analysis: Not a lot of stories tackle non-standard humanoids as protagonists, so this one should be commended for taking us into fresh territory, but we really needed to know about the wings before Boy #3 flapped away. Up to this point, the entire story has been working overtime, trying to paint the prosaic scene of three boys swimming and fishing down by the old fishing hole. So in that time, I had created a very traditional mental image of the boys.

Then I got to this:  Laughing, Biscuit seized the fish in one hand, his pole in the other, and with a strong flap of his wings, flew to shore.

WTF? There had been one earlier mention of one of the boys having extra eyes, but I wrote that off as a humorous reference to him maybe wearing glasses or even with some kind of video cameras mounted on his head. But then, BAM!, somebody unfolds actual wings and takes off into the sky.

When something like that happens, I immediately blame the narrator for not doing his job properly. As the reader’s camera into the story world, the narrator’s primary function is to act as our eyes and ears, relaying all the pertinent facts about the story world he can see that impinge upon the story. And a detail like “these boys have wings” is something he definitely should have mentioned. I’ve been watching these boys for some time now, doing all kinds of things. I actually saw them do it, in my head. So to discover later that what I saw was horrifically inaccurate filled me with a sense of betrayal. Sort of like, “I trusted you, man. I gave you the keys to my eyes and let you run wild in the private playground of my imagination, and you do me over like that?”

And once a narrator has dropped the ball like that, the wise reader never lets him have those keys again.

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.

Short Stories, Crimes, Cults and Curious Cats, by Jonathan Day (2:40)
My Delicate Destruction, by Jillian Ashe (11:25)

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.