This Week, I Read… (2021 #38)

#111 – Stalking Darkness, by Lynn Flewelling

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Darker in theme and content than its predecessor, more polished in terms of plot and pacing, more cohesive from start to finish. Still not without its problems, but I liked this substantially more, more even than I expected to.

Still, I’d rather talk about the problems rather than endlessly gush about how much I adore my best boy Alec. Because I could. But I won’t.

So, those problems:

  1. Micum. He was a major side character in the first book, and this plot would have me believe he’s one of the mystical Four that are needed to save the world from the Big Bad. But he’s not present at all in this book until Seregil goes to fetch him from home 2/3 of the way through, and even when he’s around, he’s not really doing much. The page-space I expected him to fill here was entirely taken up by the military subplot featuring his daughter Beka, and given the triumphant-but-not-perfect way the ending falls out, I honestly don’t see why she couldn’t have taken over his role entirely, even in the prophetic sense.
  2. And while I like Beka and I understand the point of her arc, honestly, the military maneuvering was boring compared to the rest of the story, and it was hard to be invested in the various injuries and deaths among her troops, because I didn’t have time to get to know them, and meanwhile in another plot thread my favorite character was being psychically tortured by an evil, vengeful necromancer. What can stand up to that, in terms of engagement?
  3. Certain aspects of the ending were not just foreshadowed, but telegraphed, to the point where I have a hard time believing Seregil didn’t see it coming…
  4. Which is tied to my dissatisfaction with Nysander’s constant insistence that everything related to the prophecy must be kept strictly secret on pain of death, until oops Seregil figures out a bunch of it on his own, so then Nysander is like “lol I guess you can warn the others then.” And that’s before Alec falls into enemy hands. Why the sudden change of heart? Nysander acts like not telling them is mostly to spare them the dread of knowing that “a terrible Something,” as Seregil puts it, might happen–but then after the fact, Alec is pleased that he couldn’t tell the enemy anything important during his torture, because he didn’t know anything important, despite Seregil explaining the prophecy. The prophecy that was the enemy’s plan in the first place, so didn’t they already know? And the actual information that needed to be kept secret wasn’t something Seregil ever knew, exactly, and wasn’t revealed to the enemy by him, but through the murky Ylinestra/Thero subplot at the beginning. I’m genuinely confused by the ways secrets are regarded and handled in this story, because I can’t figure out why they’re vital sometimes and less dangerous other times.
  5. Maybe not so much a problem, exactly, but this ties up all our plot threads pretty damn neatly, so if I had read this at the time of its publishing, I would have dusted my hands together and said, “Cool ending, that’s taken care of.” But there are five more books. I own the next one and glanced at the author’s note at the beginning, which repeatedly and pointedly declares that “This is not a trilogy.” So where do we go from here? I love Alec and Seregil and will be happy to read more about them, but I feel like the Big Bad is vanquished, and the war that got started in this book may not be over but wasn’t particularly interesting without the mystical evil, so…

#112 – In Her Wildest Dreams, by Farrah Rochon

  • Mount TBR: 92/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What I expected based on the blurb: friends-to-lovers romance between two people highly committed to their jobs.

What I actually got: two lengthy, detailed job descriptions with ancillary characters attached, who eventually fall into bed together after arguing a lot.

I’m not convinced they fell in love as the plot moved forward. I’m not convinced they were friends to begin with, since Gavin was a stew of barely restrained lust mixed with anger that Erica wasn’t already his girlfriend, and Erica just seemed to be using Gavin for free chocolate and someone to listen to her whine.

When you get right down to it, I barely believe these characters are readable as real people, because they’re both essentially the same stereotype–“My job is the most important thing to me, to the point where I’m a control freak about it, and I have no other interests, hobbies, or people in my life worth mentioning.” Erica has a mother she supports but doesn’t care much for, a plot thread that seems important at the beginning but is dropped extremely quickly. Gavin has a comically evil ex-fiancee, and a “friend” who only interacts with him about trying to get Gavin to come work for him, so I’m going to count that as job-related and not an actual friend, because he never serves any “friend” purpose in the story.

I’m supposed to believe these two don’t actually loathe each other for being too similar and sharing the same major flaws?

And the dialogue, spare me this dialogue, where they flirt coyly for a minute and make each other uncomfortable, then communicate honestly for about ten seconds before one of them gets instantly offended by something and overreacts and the whole thing becomes an argument. They’ve constantly got their wires crossed to the point where, again, I don’t see how these two consider themselves friends, never mind being able to fall in love.

On top of all of that, the writing style itself is poor, too. I knew I was in for a bad time when the first chapter opens by setting the scene like so:

“The heady aroma of rich, dark chocolate enrobed Erica Cole the second she walked through the doors of Decadente Artisan Chocolates. She inhaled a lungful of the slightly sweet, slightly smoky-scented air, letting the intense fragrance permeate her senses.”

  1. “Enrobed” might be laying it on a bit thick, since that’s a word you see a lot in descriptions of fancy chocolate, but I could probably forgive that, without the rest.
  2. “Slightly” both doesn’t need to be used twice (if at all) and directly contradicts “intense” later in the sentence. The smell can’t be “slightly” anything and “intense” at the same time.
  3. I’ve never smelled smoky chocolate in my life. Smoked things smell smoky, like cheese and sausage and bacon and fish; some alcohols I’ve encountered certainly qualify as smoky. But chocolate? Is Gavin actually smoking his chocolate? Do people do that? (He does lots of things to and with chocolate throughout the story, but I never saw him put it in a smoker.)
  4. Also, “smoky-scented” is awkward. Drop the -scented. Oh, wait, then you’d be implying there was actual smoke in the air. Change it to “sweet, smoky aroma” or something like that. See? You don’t need the “slightly”s.
  5. Cut “a lungful of.” It’s just not necessary.
  6. “Permeate her senses” doesn’t work, because it’s just one sense. Smell. She’s smelling the air. She can’t hear or see the scent, and yes the air is touching her, but she can’t feel the scent on her skin in any significant way (I hope.) If you wanted to make the case that the scent was so strong “you could almost taste it in the air,” I could see that working, but then we loop back to the “slightly/intense” problem I’ve already described.

So I have six editing notes for just the first two sentences of this novella. And the writing does not get better from here.

#113 – Go, by Kazuki Kaneshiro, translated by Takami Nieda

  • Mount TBR: 93/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At first I was compelled by the simple, direct language and the protagonist’s tendency to solve everything with violence, but as soon as the romance began, the narrative became a long string of pop culture references that I quickly tired of.

If this is a deliberate choice by the author to show that our confused teen is floundering about to find his identity in an attempt to define himself by what he consumes…then it’s kind of brilliant, if tedious.

If it’s not a deliberate choice, then it’s just lazy writing, because about 90% of the romance arc is the two characters recommending stuff to each other, or exploring new media together. Which is not unrealistic in the slightest, but the realism of it doesn’t make it inherently interesting to read about.

Whether or not the love interest qualifies as a true Manic Pixie Girl would require me to re-examine the text more closely than I care to at this point, but if she’s not strictly the archetype, she’s at least adjacent to it, in that she doesn’t have a lot of personality beyond the cool/quirky vibe that makes her attractive to the protagonist.

As for the story’s exploration of racism and xenophobia in modern Japanese society? I knew about their attitude towards foreigners in general and Koreans in particular, but not just how far it goes, structurally. I wasn’t aware of the citizenship issues, or the oppression in employment, or the separate schools. It’s institutional racism on a level that certainly echoes what we have had (or still have, in far too many cases) in the US toward non-white people. So I did learn something.

But I learned it through a story vehicle that I didn’t end up enjoying all that much due to a lack of character development. If this is both a coming of age story and a romance, shouldn’t I feel more connected to these characters? I can’t be, because it’s leaning so hard into the social commentary aspect of things that it distances everything else.

#114 – Bad King, by M. Malone

  • Mount TBR: 94/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Most of this story’s problems stem from its too-short length. It wants to cover more ground than 149 pages can handle (minus bonus materials at the end, I think the story actually ended at around 81 or 82% of the file, so call it more like 122 pages.)

In that tiny space is crammed:

  1. Olivia trying to convince herself that she should start a relationship with her male best friend despite a complete lack of sexual chemistry, because he’s a good guy;
  2. Olivia having a semi-tragic backstory about a strained relationship with her parents and how her pride cost her “everything,” plus her current money troubles;
  3. Olivia embarking on the sort-of fake dating adventure with King and the entire wild “romance” arc that comes from that;
  4. King’s intended personal arc from “everything in my life is about my career” to “I want to be a good boyfriend, actually;”
  5. King’s sister Georgie trying to liberate herself from the narrow romantic/sexual life she’s been living not entirely by choice, plus some implied tension with/attraction to one of King’s friends who is not her fiance;
  6. King also having a somewhat strained relationship with his father and sort of getting to resolve it, but not really.

Doesn’t that seem like too much plot for 122 pages?

Everything in this would have benefited from slowing down and letting it breathe. Everything happens so fast it gave me tonal whiplash at times. The leads go from strangers to lovers in about 24 hours. Little sis Georgie wants to be instant best friends with Olivia and trusts her with a pretty big secret after very little acquaintance. King’s heel-face turn from cold business man to quality boyfriend material seems to come from basically nowhere, he’s just so into Olivia (based on his fantasies about her plus a single party where they spent most of their time apart) that he wants to make over himself to be a better person.

None of these are bad ideas in general–I think the plot fits together quite neatly, in fact, aside from the failed attempt at romance with the best friend–but none of them are given enough time to develop naturally. It’s just rush, rush, rush ahead through the checklist of plot events until we get to the happy ending, but it doesn’t feel earned.

Give this story another 50-60 pages of room for the characters to have personalities and thoughts and feelings, instead of zooming straight to the next conflict, and this could be great.


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