Saturday, February 06, 2010

Book Review (Sorta): An Idle King by J. W. Benford

It’s uncommon for me to have problems finishing a book. I’ve disliked several books over the years for various reasons: a silly premise, an ending that leaves too much open, or the more common “this really isn’t my kind of book” excuse. But last year there were a handful of books that I gave up on entirely because the writing was so utterly wretched I couldn’t get through the first chapter without wanting to hurt someone. An Idle King is one of those books. Benford isn’t a bad writer, per se; he manages to write clear, coherent sentences, his paragraphs are logical and the pacing is not overwhelmed by poor transitions or downright poor plotting. The problem, however, is that Benford demonstrates precisely why every writer needs to learn the golden rule. You know the rule I'm talking about. It's so oft repeated that its repetition makes people cringe. The dreaded "show, don’t tell." The first chapter alone is a monument to ignoring the age old rule. Each page is littered with random explanations of, well, stuff, whether they be attempts to explain why someone acts a certain way, or how someone feels who isn’t the central POV. When I say random, I mean random. The first chapter, for instance, revolves around the main event: some strange attack occurs on the main character’s home world, and he is whisked away from destruction or something to somewhere else (the past, if I recall correctly). But what might have been really interesting is lost in a two-page description of a city (the first two pages, actually), the characters recollecting past events in a way that allows the author to justify a reaction by those characters, random descriptions of things, feelings, etc. for no apparent reason than to make them seem like more than they actually are, or to demonstrate the author’s interesting world-building skills. There’s a reason why we talk about the “show, don’t tell” rule so much in the writing world: if you don’t listen to it and learn how to manipulate it, you end up with stories that tug the reader all over the place in a way that isn’t beneficial to the reading experience. I can forgive the occasional jump from one POV to another or the somewhat ridiculous use of fantasy world-building conventions in a science fiction “epic.” I can even forgive a little bit of telling, as most of us do whenever we read a book. Most of the novels we read today do have a sizable amount of telling, but what makes them work has more to do with timing and authorial finesse than anything else. But, I can’t forgive a book that willfully dismisses the “show, don’t tell” rule to the extent that the actual story (the plot) is marginalized. That’s not a novel; we call that a personal world-building wiki. That might make for interesting reading in the same way that Tolkien’s notes might be interesting today, but engaging fiction it is not. There are other problems with this particular novel, but this one point seemed sufficient enough, for me, to drop the book completely. P.S.: I'm willing to admit that being a graduate student and a reviewer makes reading time rather limited, resulting in a particularly high standard when it comes to how much time I'm willing to spend reading. Others may be less stringent.

1 comment:

Sullivan McPig said...

I agree that too much telling can be very annoying. It's the reason why I didn't finish 'Dead Witch Walking' by Kim Harrison. She just kept on trying to explain her world too much in the first couple of chapters. If I read an urban fantasy/paranormal/sf story I expect strange beings and stuff like that. The writer doesn't have to explain every tiny little thing that's different from the real world.