Less than Noble, by J.M. Riou (40:00)

IOD score cardWhen a book’s opening gives the reader pause, the clock is already ticking. At that point, there isn’t much time to win them back, but today we see that it can be done.

What I gleaned about the story: An odd coupling of mercenaries do the king’s dirty work, but seem to spend as much time fighting each other as their enemies. A scandal-plagued duchess, more comfortable among the lower ranks, returns to mingle among nobles who don’t trust her at all. Being suspected of murdering your husband can impede grand ambitions.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: This is the second book in a series. The first book, More than Monsters is (last I checked) free on Amazon. With one exception (more on this later) the sequel stands well on its own, and gave me the context I needed without too much backstory.

WTF #1: Opening on a scene of mud, vomit, cussing, and douchebaggery

Analysis: The book opens in a memorable way:

Menton’s belly clenched and bent him double, making vomit explode out of his mouth and nose. The spasms continued, splattering half-digested ale onto the street three more times then Orthane slapped him hard enough to make him stagger into his own mess.

“Can’t hold your cheap rotgut ale, hey, boy?” Orthane said, viciously proud of his hit.

As Menton regained his footing, Orthane stepped up and shoved, knocking him sprawling.

Then Orthane cusses Menton out as he slaps him around some more.

This could well be an entirely Bryce-specific reaction. It could definitely be interpreted as dark comedy slapstick. But sometimes petty, pointless cruelty is off-putting in a way that a more substantial evil would not be.

Since Orthane and Menton starred in the first book, it’s likely that whatever makes their relationship work–or at least makes the clear dysfunction more explicable–got fleshed out in Book One. But as I dove into Less than Noble without that context, all I’m seeing is one sadistic dude beating up and cussing at another dude who is puking his guts out.

It’s not pleasant to watch. My distaste for the scenario was enough to break my immersion, while I paused to consider whether I actually wanted to wade into the puke-fest. I’ll mangle the words of Beloved Leader Jefferson: the opening page is sacred ground. And the flag I see planted in that puke-covered soil says, “Beware, Bryce. This is not a world you want to escape into.”

Spoiler alert: by the time the scene ends, their relationship does make a whole lot of sense, and the opening provides a pretty good window into it. So I left the scene as an engaged reader, but there was a rocky moment there.

Kudo #1: Description with a point

Analysis: After Menton gets up from his bludgeoning and they walk off, there’s a description of Orthane, followed by a description of Menton, including his clothes. The description is well-written, including a couple of choice lines like Orthane had a face for scowling. But just at the point where the description had run long and the second WTF flag was starting to teeter, we get to Menton’s jacket. The one with the numerous holes that let the rain in:

The water still penetrated through dozens of holes. They’d been created by swords, arrows, musket balls, monsters’ claws and teeth, and wizards’ spells. Every time he’d returned home each new gash received tight stitching and patching, but the jacket was no good in this weather. Healing potions and spells had sealed his skin without a trace of injury, but there was no such repair for his clothes.

Description for the sake of comprehensive description often leaves me flat. Description that helps round out a character’s history or display facets of their character is much more engaging. Description that promises monster fights ahead? Priceless.

Later in my reading, I discovered that the heavy reliance on description was not going away. But it seemed to fit better in the context of a high-society ballroom, and it was written so well that it was more a help than a hindrance.

Kudo #2: Street brawl!

Analysis: Action. Violence. Fisticuffs. Punchy-punch. It’s an easy way to keep your readers glued to the story, and if a fight scene can shoulder some extra weight by showing how your character manages a high-stakes situation, all the better.

Orthane and Menton come across a gang of ruffians. They appear to be robbing a pair of immigrants, with extreme prejudice (in both senses of the word). Because Orthane is a crappy excuse for a human being, he wants to walk on by, but Menton intervenes. Cue the fight scene, and we’re off to the races.

Immersion-wise, once the fight got going, there really was no turning back. By the time the narrative moves to high society (a pretty dramatic change in setting and tone), the writing has already earned my trust.

So what did this fight scene do right? First, the main characters engaged in it in very different ways, both being true to their own characters. So the fight is already doing more than just sprinkling the story with a bit of excitement.

Next point: a fight with two people taking on five people, plus two more people to protect. If you’ve ever tried to word-choreograph a scene like that, you know it’s not easy. There are plenty of ways a scene like this can go off the rails. You can end up misplacing a fighter or two. You might simply drown the reader’s interest under a barrage of extraneous, blow-by-blow details.

But the prose is up to the task, even makes it look easy. Admittedly, it gets a little blow-by-blow in a couple of places, but the blows are usually pretty visceral. When you hear bones snapping and feel joints snapping loose from their sockets, you most likely have the reader’s full attention.

Another pitfall of writing a fight scene like this: how do you keep the attackers straight in the reader’s mind? Do you even bother making them distinctive? The low-effort route is to make them basically interchangeable. It’s not a particularly engaging way to go, but it helps keep the scene short and to-the-point.

The narrative here tries something different. Since none of the muggers have announced their names (the first rule of Muggery 101), Menton uses things like prominent features (or later on, prominent injuries) as though they were names. It helps keep everybody straight, and given the way the fight concludes, the effort put into making the attackers distinct individuals pays off in extra oomph.

In conclusion, I think this is a promising book, and while it stands pretty well on its own, you may want to check out Book One first.

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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