The Fire Eye Refugee, by Samuel Gately (34:11)


Today we see that if you want your fantastical world to seem “long ago and far away” you should probably stop filling it with “here and now.”

What drew me to this book: This may be the most drop-dead gorgeous cover I’ve ever seen on an indie novel. It’s evocative, it’s dramatic, and it immediately made me yearn to be in that place. So without even reading the blurb, I was already pretty sure I wanted to check it out.

Then there’s the title. So many indie novels have drab, unimaginitive titles. I’m talking about the books that serve up a fantasy-word cliché salad but provide nothing whatsoever that implies story. You know what I mean: The Blood of the King’s Dragon Sword etc.

Well, today’s candidate gives us something a little meatier than that. What’s a “fire eye?” And if there’s a refugee, what is that person fleeing? Where are they fleeing to? It’s just a taste, but it ignites curiosity, and if you can get me asking questions like that with your cover or title, then there’s a very good chance I’m going to come in for a closer look.

What I gleaned about the story: Kay is a fetch; a sort of private detective who finds missing children, and the fact that such a job exists and has a name tells you that children probably go missing a lot in this world. Well, she’s on a new case now, and this one is starting to look like it might get her killed.

Find this book on Amazon.

WTF #1: Anaculturism

Analysis: This is going to seem subtle, but it’s something that pulls me out of books frequently. I have a very sensitive ear for language, and when a character or narrator uses a word or expression that seems out of place, I can’t help but notice. For example, suppose you were reading a news article about Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Speech, and she was quoted as saying, “The assholes among us must be given a good shit-kicking.” That doesn’t sound like Liz, does it? In fact, it seems so out of character that you’d probably want to double check the source to see if maybe you were reading an article from TheOnion, or one of those rabid-right shouting blogs. The point is, out-of-place language disrupts the mental image you’re constructing as you read and makes you question your understanding of the greater context.

So in today’s book, I found two such disruptions fairly early. In the opening prologue, our hero is being rescued from a burning building when his rescuer says: Focus, Joah. You want to give this guy another clean kill?

I have two problems with that. First, being burned to death in a fire isn’t really what “clean kill” means. Normally, I see that phrase used in reference to single-shot executions with minimal splatter, resulting in a kill that leaves little mess—literally clean—although it’s often extended to imply clean in a sense of leaving little forensic evidence. With either definition though, burning somebody to death in a house fire is pretty much the exact opposite of “clean.”

The second problem I have with this phrase is the anacultural bit. In my ear, “clean kill” is a very modern term. According to Google’s N-Gram Viewer, the term has had two major surges: once around WWII, and then rising again over the last 30 years. So when I hear that phrase uttered by a mystic in what is trying to be a quasi-medieval setting, it snaps me out of the world to wonder why he’s suddenly talking like a Hollywood military assassin.

(In addition to “clean kill,” I also tripped over the casual use of the word “guy.” And again, the N-Gram Viewer shows it to be extremely rare prior to WWII, and only really becoming common since the 1980s.)

WTF #2: Pointless prologue

I always try to give prologues a fair chance. In theory, there are some stories in which the reader simply must experience a particular element of the backstory for themselves if they are to fully appreciate everything that happens later. And in such cases, I have no problem with a quick and efficient prologue to convey that experience. Unfortunately, very few authors seem to have a purpose behind their prologues, and they end up feeling like a false start, a herky-jerky start to the action. And that’s no fun for anybody.

So when I encounter a prologue these days, I roll my eyes, tighten my flak jacket, and dive in. Unfortunately, I take damage to that jacket far more often than seems reasonable. Far more. It’s getting to the point where I’m almost ready to declare prologues an automatic WTF, and a lot of publishers and agents have gone on record with that very policy, for the same reason. I’m going to keep trying them for now, and hoping, but it seems like a lost cause. I think my current count is somewhere around three satisfying examples out of about a hundred attempts.

And sadly, today’s prologue was not one of the three.

At the close of that establishing fire scene, I found myself wondering why it was included. We saw a guy tied to a chair, waiting to be consumed by the fire that was set to kill him. We then saw a woman walk into the fire to rescue him, apparently using some sort of magical or alchemical power over the flames. But that’s about it. The only other thing we see is that there is some kind of social apartheid going on between the “Farrows” and the “Gols”—whoever, or whatever, they turn out to be.

The prose was pretty tight, aside from the minor anaculturisms I cited earlier, and the imagery was good, but I’m not left with the sense that this was something truly important that I had to witness in order to understand the motivations of the protagonist, or the stakes of the story, or some key aspect of world lore around which everything later revolves. This is my razor for deciding whether a prologue is warranted, and sadly, the Fire Eye Refugee takes a slash to the throat from it.

Kudo #1: Cool phrase

The flip-side of my over-sensitive ear for language is that, when a word or phrase really does fit, I get all kinds of goose-bumpy about it.

In this particular case, our protagonist is talking about a mysterious person who’s asked for a meeting and says: She had no idea where his money was born or where it slept. That’s strikes me as a really cool way to express that she didn’t know his business, while staying entirely consistent with the established world.

I also really like the term the author has invented for the kind of investigator Kay is. She finds lost or stolen children and she’s called a “fetch.” It’s simple, descriptive, and just the tiniest bit archaic sounding. Exactly what the doctor ordered for this kind of story world.

WTF #3: Anaculturism

Damn! And we were getting so close! Sigh. As mentioned above, Kay is a sort of private investigator, from a very low-status social class, in what appears to be one of those low-technology, magic-friendly worlds that pervade much of fantasy literature. She seems to be ostracized by society, and, while good at her job, not particularly well off.

So it felt entirely out of place for me when she went to her office and consulted with her receptionist.

Let me say that again. A poor, outcast, street urchin detective went into her office. And consulted with her receptionist.

WTF? How do those concepts fit?

And then, to shine an even brighter light on this incongruity, we find she also has a guy on long-term retainer to do some of her leg work for her.

This leaves me with two big irritations: First, a private investigator with a business office seems entirely out of place for the culture that has been otherwise established for this world. I would expect a poor refugee fetch to call the streets and alleys their place of business.

My second problem is that having a support staff seems totally at odds with her apparent social status. It feels too formal and way too expensive. To me, it would be much more believable if her “receptionist” was some crippled girl who hung around the town fountain, taking messages in exchange for food and a safe place to sleep. That would fit both the culture and the social context. But a girl sitting at a desk, waiting for people to drop by? I’m completely thrown by that.

Thrown hard enough that it popped me out of the story just before reaching the finish line.

Final note: So the title and cover drew me in, but conflicts between the broad strokes and the details in the world rendering kept throwing me out. But if you have the good fortune to be less a slave to language cues than I am, it’s otherwise pretty good and might be worth your time to check it out.

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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.