Review of “The Witch Watch”…

Shamus Young of Twenty-Sided Tale fame recently self-published a couple of books. One of those was “The Witch Watch”, a fantasy novel set in Victorian England. Now, I’ve commented before that I like Shamus’ writing and joked that I want to be like him when I grow up (despite the fact that we’re about a year or two apart in age) because he does and likes to do a lot of things that I do and like to do, which would include writing novels. It’s only the fact that I currently, at least, have a steady job that makes me not go out and write a novel myself, which Shamus is blessed to no longer have. That being said, he’d probably be willing to trade the novelist for the steady job …

Anyway, I saw I think the character preview or comments on the novel and was a bit nervous, since it didn’t quite sound like my type of book … even though it probably should have been given the content. However, I made a point of browsing for it on Amazon — the Canadian version — every so often, and it came up. So I bought it, even though it was a bit more expensive than I’d normally be willing to pay for a book of that type, mostly because I wanted to support Shamus who is having some financial trouble. (Or, at least, was having some financial trouble. He might be rolling in the dough and lighting cigars from $20 bills from the proceeds from the novel for all I know, since he doesn’t talk about it much and while his wife did talk about that at times on her blog in the recent reshuffle of his site he lost the link to her site — a trackback to a post she’d made referencing his “About” page — and he doesn’t link to either of her sites directly. I mean, seriously, how can you not link to your wife’s sites on your blog? Especially when one is even relevant? Shame [grin]).

Anyway, I was in the middle of “Legacy of the Force” when it arrived, and put it on hold, at least in part because of the nervousness I had about from before. And then I finished “Legacy of the Force”, and needed a new book to read, thought about it … and then went to re-read “The Order of the Stick” instead. Finishing that and still having nothing that was just light fiction to read — although there are a few philosophical texts outstanding — I decided to bite the bullet and sit down and read it, despite my trepidation. Now, the reason I’m telling all of you this is to get my bias out there; I was already expecting to be disappointed when I started to read it, so you can take my comments in that light.

I was disappointed by it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the basic idea is good. It all starts from basically a random thought — according to Shamus — about how odd or funny it might be to have people try to raise someone from the dead and get the wrong person. I might not have chosen the path Shamus took with this, and can think of at least two other ways that I might have liked better, but it’s an interesting idea and if his take was implemented well, it would have been an interesting plotline. And the characters focused on are interesting as well, or at least had the potential to be, as is the political situation in London where he mostly sets it. So there’s a lot of good that could be built on.

If I had to sum up my problems with it — and I guess I’ll have to sum up my problems with it in a review — it’s that the implementation breaks up the narrative flow too much. And this is a major problem for me, because everything follows from the narrative flow. You get the plot — and get interested in the plot — because of the narrative flow. You get sucked into the plot and just want to keep reading and reading because there aren’t any natural breakpoints, which is how you end up with books that you start and then read all the way through until 2 am and you finish it (long training, BTW, has allowed me to resist that, but I still like a good narrative glow). It’s also critical for characterization, because you only really start to feel for and attached to the characters when you’re immersed in their lives and so you aren’t able to simply think of them as characters, but start thinking of them as people. If the narrative flow is disrupted, then it seems that you get less involved. You’re reading it an awful lot like you’d read a history textbook or even a philosophical work, where you have moments where you are deeply engaged and other moments where you aren’t because it’s mostly listing off facts or basic prinicples. And, for the most part, I felt this way a lot when reading this book.

In my view there are three main issues that cause this to happen, at least for me:

1) Chuck (something or other, I can never remember his last name) over at SFDebris I think describes Kenneth Biller’s work as “Something needs to happen to advance the plot, and so it does just because it needs to, even if it can’t actually do that when the plot doesn’t demand it”. That’s close to what I see happening here, although it isn’t as bad. It’s not a case of “The impossible has to happen, so let’s make it happen”, but more of “I want this scene to happen, and so I have to get from here to there, and so I’ll do this”. Basically, it looks to me like Shamus had a number of scenes in mind that had to happen, and then he tried to link them together. Which, to be fair, is basically to me what writing is, so I won’t fault him for that. Narrative flow, in fact, is precisely doing this: linking separate scenes together in a seamless way. The issue for me is that the linking is not seamless. There are a number of cases where the links don’t seem to make sense. For example, in one part in order to make a scene happen, the characters have to take a 3 week long sea voyage. With the villains on the same ship. Which requires them to do something on the ship. That can take 3 weeks. It seemed to me exactly like Shamus was caught up in having that scene, and then realized what the rest of the novel would mean to that, and then instead of reworking the initial construction so that it made more sense reworked the scene to work with the issues. However, sometimes you just need to drop a scene or rewrite some of the premises to have things make more sense. Now, I’m not sure that this is what happened — I am not a mind reader — but that’s just how it struck me.

Another — and less spoilery — example is the introduction of Lord Moxley, head of the titular Witch Watch. He comes around to get a report on what has happened, and when he finds out that they have an “abomination” he says he’s going to stay away to maintain plausible deniability. Sure, makes sense. But then he comes around the next day to berate them over the nobles they arrested. In the same operation. That they didn’t brief him on? Really? It would have worked out so much better to have him come around to berate them over the nobles, hear about all the details, leave to claim plausible deniability, and then only reappear when the plot demands it later. That way, you’d have one scene that covers off his introduction and role, without forcing in a mostly pointless additional scene later. It would have allowed more focus on the primary characters and helped maintain the flow better.

And this happens quite a bit, at least in my opinion.

2) The exposition — and there is a fair amount of it — doesn’t blend nicely into the narrative flow. It’s mostly done through letters at the end of some chapters, and through asides that relate the life of Gilbert (the dead guy). The problem is that these are all outside of the narrative flow. Even though Gilbert starts with no memory of his past, there’s no hints early in the book that what we are seeing are his recovered memories (although it’s implied later, but that’s too late in my opinion). So what we have is a scene where the main characters are doing something and then it gets interrupted for basically a flashback scene, and then we jump back into the action. It breaks the narrative flow, and that’s so easy to fix. Take, for example, some of the initial memories. Simply have Gilbert and Simon running away, and then drop into the flashback. Do it in italics to make it clear that this is a flashback memory. And at the end have Simon interject with “Sir? Can we (puff) rest for a (puff) bit?”, making it clear that this was Gilbert simply slipping into recovering his memories while running, which would have both set-up and demonstrated that as an undead he now doesn’t really breathe or tire, and worked the memories into the narrative flow better. And there were a number of cases where Gilbert had the time to think about his lost memories and try to recover them, that we know he’d be interested in.

Adding to the problem here is that these asides end with the interesting memory of how he died and thus ended up being raised by mistake … which is about half-way through the book. So this isn’t something that we trace all the way through the book, but is instead something that ends up being mostly dropped half-way through. That means that we don’t even have something that we can expect to see all through the book, and so we can’t redefine our narrative flow as “Present/Past/Present/Past”, which has been done quite effectively in a number of other works. So it ends up being a bit jarring. Especially when you consider …

3) There are a lot of questions answered that don’t need answering. Relating this back to point 2), most of the things that we needed to know could have easily been done in the narrative when they became relevant. What the longer scenes showed were events that were used, but only as minor points, and as ones that we didn’t really need explained. It almost seems at times like there was a game of “Well, how did this happen? Well, like this. Okay, so then how did this happen?” and on and on and on. But we don’t need everything explained. We also don’t need to know the full backgrounds of the characters. Having a full background for a character is nice to have and is something that a lot of really good writers do, but they don’t try to make sure that we, the readers, know all of it. It’s there to help them build a consistent character with consistent motives, but they only bring in the details that we need to know, and leave the rest in the background until bringing it up fits into the story. There seem to be a lot of details of Gilbert’s and even Alice’s past that only set-up minor points, and we can even see this when Alice feels the need to describe Moxley to Gilbert despite the fact that even he notes that he’s unlikely to actually ever meet him and so have to worry about it. In essence, there needs to be more “show” and less “tell”, which should help with answering questions that the readers don’t need to know and with maintaining a good narrative flow.

Ultimately, this book is not as bad as some of the books that I’ve started reading and never finished. In fact, it’s not actually a bad book. However, if I wasn’t planning on doing this review, I would have stopped reading it, mostly because reading it felt like driving in a standard vehicle with someone who is just learning how to drive a standard: there’s a lot of jerking that breaks you out of a smooth flow. That made it a very frustrating read. The good news is that all of these things can be fixed; it’s a matter of experience and writing and re-writing and re-writing until it all flows nicely. So, it’s just a matter of gaining experience and working it all out.

A couple of minor points:

1) I really liked the consistency in the “panic with the staff” parts. It’s actually an example of how to fit small details into the narrative nicely that add to the work.

2) When describing “Grayhouse” for the first time, he notes that people think that it just describes the colour of the house or that people think they spelled the name of the colour wrong. The problem here is that the English — meaning, in England — spelling of the colour is “gray”, which I know because Canadians spell it the same way. It’s Americans that spell it “grey”. Grayhouse, being in England, spells it right. It would have been better to have Gilbert muse on this instead of the unseen narrator/author, because if the author makes a mistake and we note it it, again, reminds us that we’re reading a book, which is never good.

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