Of Cinder & Bone, by Kyoko M. (2:00)

IOD score card

Today we see that character descriptions are supposed to be helpful and easy to read. Not mineralogical treatises.

What I gleaned about the story: Two scientists with gemstone fetishes exchange verbal banter. Presumably more will happen later.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: This marks the beginning of a new series of reviews in which I’m dipping my toes into the world of free indie ebooks. All the usual IOD conditions and procedures apply, but for these books, instead of taking titles that have been submitted directly, I’m pulling books from the stream of either BookBub or FussyLibrarian email newsletters. The criteria are simple: I’m only taking books that are free, and I’m only taking ones with covers or blurbs that intrigue me. In addition to the usual IOD commentary, I’ll also be commenting on what aspect of the marketing caught my attention, and whether or not the book delivered on the promise of that initial appeal.

Note: In this case, I was drawn by the cover art. The text elements are a bit delicate, considering the imagery, and I’m not in love with the decorative corners, but the dragon art is strong, providing a good focal point upon which to imagine a story. The dragon looks fearsome and wild, and the title suggests that this will not be one of those cuddly, pet dragon yarns. My expectations are up and I’m ready for some carnage. Cover me. I’m going in.

Note: The book opens with a poem. Generally speaking, I ignore poems in fiction. Call me a Philistine if you like, but I need to be in an entirely different headspace when I’m reading poetry, and its incompatible with adventure prose, so I rarely even try. But it’s a common enough practice, so no WTF charged. I’ll just do my usual thing, sliding by with a brief glance at it.

WTF #1: Unexpected capitalization

Analysis: Have a look at the opening sentence: “I swear to Vishnu, if this doesn’t work, I’m going to stab you in the throat with a Pipette.”

I actually liked this line. Odd capitalization aside, it was an engaging way to meet the person who I assume is our POV character. That single line of dialogue tells me at once that he’s involved in something important, that he’s either frustrated or at least tense about it, and that he has a playful demeanor that tends toward hyperbole.

But when I hit the word “Pipette” (which no source I consulted treated as a proper noun) I stumbled. Why capitalized? Is it something other than the slender glass tube I normally associate with the word? Are we in some other world in which swords or kitchen forks or marshmallow-roasting-skewers were invented by Dr. Pipette? But no. As the scene continues, it seems clear we’re in a familiar kind of scientific laboratory. So the capital P appears to just be a typo. And having spent so much time trying to rationalize it, my immersion was clearly broken.

WTF #2: Obstructive description.

Analysis: To me, the purpose of a character description is to give the reader a quick sketch of who they’ll be spending their time with. Most readers don’t care much about the precise details, because they’ll be looking out from that face, not back at it from the outside. All that really matters is a quick sketch of the approximate shape. Male or female? Tall or short? Fat or skinny? And a quick note of any important physical features that might actually play a role in the story. A scar on his knee? Who cares? But if the entire leg is missing below that scar, maybe mention it.

But most importantly, the description should not slow me down. It’s like a sign on the highway about what city is coming next. Great info, thank you very much. But if I have to pull over and take out a reference manual to decode the city marker, I’ll be fuming. The same is true with orientation details at the start of a book. Readers are anxious to get into the meat of the story, so any barriers to that happening quickly had better be important.

Case in point: I should not have to run to a dictionary to discover that you’ve uncovered a rare and almost-extinct word to use to describe eye-color, which is what appears to have happened here. Here’s the passage in question, which comes in the second paragraph:

He merely removed his sinhalite-hued eyes from the microscope and arched an eyebrow at his companion.

What the hell is sinhalite? Turns out it’s a kind of gemstone in the yellow-pink to brown-pink hue range, often flecked with both hues. The fact that I had to stop reading and consult a dictionary in order to understand what color I was being told about feels like an entirely unnecessary interruption. The exact opposite of what I want in an introductory character description.

It wasn’t till after I had unpacked the color reference that I even noticed the secondary issue: removed his eyes from the microscope. When I came back from the dictionary and re-read the passage to get back up to speed, I was immediately struck by the unintended comedy of that image. Our hero plucking his eyes from the plate of the microscope like two cherries he had been studying.

I’m not going to charge a second WTF, since it’s exactly the same passage, but authors should be aware of treating eyes like disembodied objects. Often, it’s the protagonist’s gaze or attention that you really want to be talking about.

WTF #3: More unhelpful eye descriptions

Analysis: Two paragraphs later, the other participant in this opening dialogue is mentioned: Dr. Kamala Anjali rolled her own smoky-quartz eyes. Oh, come on! More minerological color references? In my experience, quartz is normally clear, or when unpolished, has a whitish tone. And smoke is almost always black or gray. So what color am I intended to infer from this? Clear? White? Gray? Maybe flecked combinations of the two, deriving from the often fragmented structure of quartz? Again, I have no idea what to do with this description. All I can imagine is that the author is trying to create an air of mystery, or perhaps ethereal beauty, by associating the eye colors with gemstones. But the effect for me was to leave me floundering with no clue what actual colors were being described. So the one apparent point of the sentence misfired completely.

Note: Sigh. So here I am, all primed for a great dragon-ravaging-the-world story, and I’ve hit three immersion busters before the characters have even finished saying hello. I did learn a new word—sinhalite—so I guess that’s something. But did the story deliver on the expectation set by its cover? I have no idea. And that’s the problem with a rough beginning. You don’t just send readers on their way; you send them away disappointed. And that’s no way to build up a career.

But what about you? Care to download the book and see if your mileage varies from mine? You can check it out here.

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.

Crime, Conflict & Consequences: Short Stories 1, by Heather Burnside (1:35)
Becoming Estevan and Other Science-Fiction Tales of Love & Obsession, by McCamy Taylor (0:17)

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.