Burnt Worlds, by S.J. Madill (40:00)

IOD score cardToday we have a survivor that shows us what a star empire run by Canadians might look like. And it’s every bit as fascinating as it sounds.

What I gleaned about the story: Lieutenant Dillon wakes up with a massive headache and no captain. In fact, the entire senior staff was killed when their experimental jump drive blew up, and now the junior officer is in charge of the ship, light-years from home and with no idea where they are. It’s up to him and his surviving crew to patch things up and find their way back. And if it’s not too much to ask, without starting a war in the process.

Find this book on Amazon.

Intro: This is another installment of the series I call, “From the Firehose,” in which I pluck a book that catches my eye from the stream of recommendations and promotions that cross my inbox every day. In addition to talking about the immersive reading experience of the story itself, I also comment on the marketing and how it managed to get my attention.

What drew me in: I found this title advertised as a free promotion on The Fussy Librarian. The cover is a bit rough around the edges but it was decent enough at thumbnail sizes. Not strong enough to pull me in, but nowhere near the dreck the pushes me away either.  What did the trick for me was the blurb. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of the underling who suddenly finds himself in charge. It’s one variation of the more general trope of “throw a little fish into a big pond and see if he swims or gets eaten.”

The beauty of this kind of story premise is that it’s got its drama built right in. Readers don’t need to wade through a chapter of buildup and backstory to find their hooks into the world. They can start rooting for the little fish the moment the smoke clears and the situation is revealed. And from that point on, the story has instant adrenaline. What the hell caused that catastrophe? Where’s the big boss? Who’s supposed to fix this mess? Me? And so on.

As an added bonus, it’s also perfectly natural for our little-fish protagonist to be out of his depth in this kind of tale, so whatever exposition we get rarely feels intrusive—it more often comes as badly needed intel. (This can still be executed poorly, so it’s not a magic bullet. But with exposition, half the battle is making it feel necessary, and when you pick this trope, that feeling of necessity comes woven right into the premise for no additional cost.)

So with the hard part already having been done by the choice of trope, all the blurb really had to do was convey the broad strokes of the story without managing to run into a tree, and this it did quite effectively, which leaves me with the promise of a juicy problem in the offing and a treadmill warmed up and waiting. Time to dive in.

WTF #1: A little confusion goes a long way

Analysis: The story opens at a well-chosen moment, with a minor lieutenant regaining consciousness to find a crippled ship in chaos around him. But by the bottom of the first page, I had been through five variations of “Lt. Dillon hears/sees/smells <some isolated sensory detail of the chaos> and wonders if it’s important.” A screaming crewman, a blinking red light, etc. Muted inputs from the cacophony around him coming through in blunted form, to which our befuddled hero reacts with dazed befuddlement.

Each of the examples given was a good choice—nice details that help to sell the mayhem—but taken together, they struck an annoying, repetitive note. By the fifth one, I was rolling my eyes. I get it. His bell was rung. He’s disoriented. Unfortunately, by that time I was no longer emoting along with the unfortunate Lt., and was instead muttering, “Get on with it.” When I caught myself actually jumping back to count how many of these sensory muddles there had been, I realized that my immersion was broken.

WTF #2: Distancing language

Analysis: In the middle of the second page I hit: the smell of medicated oxygen assaulted his nose.

I see stuff like this distressingly often with indie fiction; frequently enough that I’ve developed a violent twitch whenever I encounter it. The problem is that your nose doesn’t experience a strong smell; you do. I don’t know anybody who has ever walked into a room reeking of cheap perfume and commented on how the smell hit their nose. They talk about how the smell hit them. We all know that the nose is the organ that perceives it, but when you’re trying to convey the intensity of an experience, relating that experience to anything other than the self immediately diminishes it; makes it less personal and thereby less momentous. That smell hit your nose? Well where were you when this happened?

There’s another form this often takes that irks me just as much: when a narrator talks about an idea invading, assaulting, or infiltrating their mind. It’s the same problem, distancing the character from the immediacy of the experience and making me wonder why they’ve isolated themselves from it and placed it into a specific body part. Is this some defense mechanism? Are you afraid of owning your feelings?

It pops me out of the story every time it happens.

Kudos #1: Characters with a life prior to page one

Details: Despite those two early stumbles for immersion, the events being described were still thoroughly engaging. I particularly enjoyed the feeling that the characters in this situation knew each other and had a history. Too many indie books fail to establish that sense of connection between their characters and come off feeling as though the entire world was created at the top of page one. So by dropping me into a situation with established relationships, Burnt Worlds made me want to be part of that camaraderie.

Final Note: By the time I’d reached about page five, I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. And though there were some minor quibbles that continued, none of them was strong enough to pull me out the story, so I sailed on to the 40-minute mark without even noticing.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I put my afternoon on hold and finished the book. I was particularly delighted by the very Canadian sensibilities of this particular space-faring future. A crew that fixes their problems with duct tape and hockey sticks? Yes, please! Between that and the crew dynamic, the whole thing felt a bit like a Star Trek future, run by Canadians.

Give it a try at Amazon and tell me what you think.

Cautionary Note: This book very nearly didn’t get onto the treadmill in the first place. Why? Because DRM. One of the reasons I am such a stalwart fan of indie fiction is that I hate being locked into a cage by the bookstore that sells me the book. Being forced to use the Kindle or Kobo reader is like buying a book and then being told that the bookstore will keep it for you, but relax because you can come back any time you like to continue reading. To put it bluntly, fuck off. I want to read my books using the app I’ve chosen that suits my reading style, not forced to use the one that serves the bookstore’s agenda. Fortunately, most indie fiction avoids the DRM trap, allowing readers like me to read however we want.

But sadly, Burnt Worlds is tightly chained to its corporate overlords and this was almost a deal-breaker for me. To be honest, the only reason I persisted and subjected myself to the Kindle cult was because I noticed that the author was Canadian. So I decided to take a bullet for the team and try it anyway. I’m glad I did, but I don’t do it very often, and authors should be aware that when they turn on that DRM flag, they are isolating themselves from a sizable portion of their potential audience. DRM has consequences.


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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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.