The Chained Adept, by Karen Myers (4:50)

IOD score cardToday we learn that it’s hard to engage with a story when the narrator won’t tell the reader what’s going on.

What I gleaned about the story: Penrys is wrested from her workshop, into a tent full of people who seem to be frozen in place. It’s very likely she can kill you with her brain.

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WTF #1: Disorienting opening

Analysis: A woman named Penrys gets teleported from a workroom to someplace else. The transition is sudden: we see her working on a machine for a split-second in “her well-lit workroom,” then boom, she’s falling onto the floor of what turns out to be a large tent.

She has an understated reaction to the surprise teleportation, only uttering a curse in a foreign langauge. It might help to know if “thennur holi” means “what the hell?” or “ow, the pain,” or (the old potted-plant standby), “oh no, not again.”

Penrys, as the POV character, is supposed to be our eyes and ears, our travel guide in this new world. But I’m left guessing what’s going on in her head. Maybe she’s in shock over what happened, or used to this sort of thing but angry because she almost had the thennur holi contraption working, or enjoying the change of pace. But the narration isn’t helping me decide.

Even her physical surroundings suffer from neglect. We learn she’s in a tent, lying on some sort of rug. But while descriptions can be used to convey emotions: wonder, longing, apprehension, etc., the descriptions used here aren’t doing that.

Not knowing how Penrys feels, and not sure how to feel on her behalf, I pressed onward.

WTF #2: Taciturn Tour Guide, Part II

Analysis: I was already sensitized by WTF #1 when I read:

She saw the people, then, and froze, stifling a sneeze, but they didn’t seem to have noticed her. No, that’s not it. They aren’t moving at all.

A bunch of people frozen in place, seemingly stuck? The author has grabbed my attention. Now it’s time to lay on some deets.

But her attention immediately moves elsewhere, to a voice speaking nearby. In rushing past so quickly, the narration omits details that could get me oriented and invested. How many people? Are they frozen sitting around a table, or in the middle of a barfight? Do their clothes hint at who they are? Do they seem friendly, or do they have the cold, dead eyes of serial killers?

What I’m especially hungry for is a sense of just how weird a turn Penrys’ life has taken. Did she drop into a semi-familiar part of her own world, or a nightmare dystopia where cockroaches rule over humans and ride them around like horses?

Compounding the problem, the scarcity of details about the world our heroine came from makes it impossible to eyeball the size of the gap between old and new.

Fantasy novels are forever dragging their heroes out of modern suburbia and landing them in all manner of strange and surprising worlds. What the character recognizes (or fails to recognize, or recognizes-but-why’s-it-got-purple-feathers) lets the reader know just how unfamiliar the setting is, and possibly how deep the character has just stepped in it.

I respect that the narration is trying to open quickly, but I’m wishing it would slow down and plant a few clear guideposts along the way.

WTF #3: Surprise superpowers

Analysis: After hiding, then overhearing someone speaking through a sort of magic mirror, we get: She steadied her breathing, then, and reached out with her mind to the people in the tent with her.

Seconds later, Penrys communicates telepathically with one of the frozen people, who requests aid. She then “raises a mind-shield” to protect this person from the freezing force, then they work to rescue others.

Up to now, there’s been no suggestion that Penrys has any sort of powers, and the reader has to guess about how and why she’s doing these things. It’s a bit suspicious that she’s popped into the middle of a crisis, holding the exact-sized psychic wrench needed to fix it.

The coincidence could use a bit of explanation, especially since the previous WTFs have made me sensitive to all the information I’m not getting. Even a hint of context would make it easier to accept: she only just discovered the powers now (lampshading the weirdness), or she’s a guild-trained mindhacker, or she’s been hiding these powers her whole life.

As for the ‘why,’ there’s no mention of why Penrys gets involved. She’s in a dangerous situation, and could be excused for high-tailing it. It was hinted that the frozenfolk are the victims of some new weapon, suggesting she’s landed in a military conflict. In taking action, she’s taking sides in a war that she may not understand at all.

You can invent motives for intervening. Maybe it’s her nature to help, even at her own peril. Or maybe she’s an absent-minded tinkerer, hypnotized by the challenge of ‘breaking the spell.’ Perhaps the men are wearing the uniforms of her country’s military, so she has a patriotic duty to aid the cause. Maybe in her youth she was trapped by the gaze of a wild mind-chicken, so she has extra sympathy for their plight.

But while she acts immediately and decisively (a good attribute for a novel heroine to have) her motivations and the risks involved shouldn’t go unexplained. Penrys and her world are still blank slates, so I don’t know how to interpret what the narrative is giving me.

I expect that many of my questions get resolved later on, and that Penrys will become more conversant. But it takes a strong opening to persuade the reader to stick around for those answers.

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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