A Conspiracy of Shadows, by Randy Nargi (8:43)

IOD score cardToday we see a fascinating hiccup in the ImmerseOrDie system.

Note from Jefferson: Due to a scheduling mix-up, this book ended up being reviewed twice—once by myself and once by Bryce—but completely independently of one another. (See Jefferson’s report here.) 

But rather than suppress the minority report (whichever one that is) we decided to publish both. As a result, we have this rare opportunity to jump behind the eyes of two different critical readers and see just how much truth there is in the notion that no two readers experience the same story.

Take it away, Bryce.

What I gleaned about the story: Tobin Leroth has been murdered in a memorable way. Bander, a former Imperial investigator, has quit his job to take long walks around the kingdom. But he’s needed back home.

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WTF #1: Muted reaction to physical pain

Analysis: Poor Tobin has awoken to find himself bound hand and foot. He tries to tap into his magic, but is being prevented by the magic-neutering chains around his wrists. His captors are talking. They seem to be waiting for something. Then the something happens.

“Well, he woke just in time, I’d say. Make the preparations.”

An intense pain jabbed into his gut, horribly burning his insides.


Strangely, this is the last time Tobin thinks about the acid burning away his innards. To be fair, he doesn’t have much longer to think about anything. His captors seem to be on a tight schedule. But if his insides are being “horribly burned” as the narrative says, the pain should preoccupy him. He should be trying to scream, or thrashing around. It should be hard to hear his captors speaking through the haze of pain. In short, his reaction should be ongoing and proportional to the severity of the injury.

Shortly thereafter, Tobin is shown doing a mind-clearing exercise, but rather than trying to focus past the pain, he’s simply trying to make peace with his fate.

His fate comes quickly.

WTF #2: A precisely calibrated POV

Analysis: The captors’ ringleader gives a signal. It’s time for Tobin Leroth to meet his grisly, memorable fate.

“Now,” the authoritative voice commanded.

Tobin Leroth’s body jerked savagely and he was flung 100 yards into the air.

Now, usually the number would be written as ‘a hundred.’ But the deeper problem—one I might have skimmed right by were it not for the minor editing gaffe—is that there’s an inherent point-of-view violation. Tobin, our POV character, is blinded by the bag over his head. We shouldn’t get information that he doesn’t have access to, and it would be impossible for him to even guess how far he’s being thrown. The specificity of “100 yards” just puts more (ahem) distance between what he should be able to tell us and what we’re being told.

Kudo #1: Death by catapult

Analysis: Conspiracy seems to be structured as a mystery novel, and there are two surefire ways for keeping a mystery lover’s attention. First, keep raising questions that the reader needs answered. Second, kill people off in interesting ways. Now the question in my mind is, “Why did they kill him with a catapult?” Consider both boxes checked.

WTF #3: Too-clever plot device

Analysis: Sometimes a plot device seems absolutely ingenious, until you turn around and look at it from the perspective of the character who set it up. Then you realize that, given the other character’s motivations, capabilities, etc., the plan doesn’t make a lot of sense.

First, let’s tell Bander’s side. He’s spent the last three years (since retiring as an Imperial detective) walking around the kingdom. His journeys take him on the same 6,000-mile loop each time, and he’s secreted away bags of coins near major cities to make it easier to travel light (and avoid taxes). So far the setup feels a bit contrived, but I’m not too bothered by it, and long walks do sound nice.

He gets to one of his stashes. The bag’s contents have been stolen, replaced by a bunch of rocks and an odd crystal shard. He makes a halfhearted attempt to figure out which way the thief might have gone, but knows the odds of apprehending them are nil. He sits down to inspect the crystal, and it starts scrying at him. A woman named Vala, from the city of Waterside, needs him to return. So Bander meets someone in the city, and that someone creates a portal so Bander can return to Waterside.

As a mechanism for sucking Bander back into his old life, it’s more fun than simply having a rider track him down and give him a message. But when you look at it from Vala’s point of view, starting with her goal of getting Bander back to Waterside, there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. First, she needs to find Bander. The scrying crystals make cross-continent communication possible, so she’d probably scry around and ask who had seen him recently. So far, so good.

From there, you have the obvious, boring approach: send riders out looking for him. Or you have the convoluted approach: send someone to find one of his secret stashes of gold (the fact that this is even possible makes stashing the gold a bad idea), have them replace the gold with an extremely valuable scrying stone (a paper message would work as well), then direct him to the city he was already heading for (instead of just having someone keep a lookout by the gates).

Not only does the plan place unnecessary obstacles between Vala and her goal, it’s a much more fragile plan than the more obvious alternatives. What if Bander changes his travel plans, or decides he doesn’t need the money this time around the loop?

As a storyteller, it’s definitely worth your time to look for non-obvious ways to move the plot forward. If you have the choice between the obvious-and-dull way and a fun way that introduces some of the world’s magical technology, it might be good to do the latter. But in this instance, it feels like it sacrificed too much believability and raised the wrong sort of unanswered questions.

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