This was an interesting and unusual ride through an interesting and unusual fantasy world. The story itself—and the way the story is presented—is odd enough that I think I’m still kind of processing how I feel about it. The Chronicles of Otherworld by A. S. Aramiru is decidedly unique, however, and that could give it an enviable ability to stand out among the largely indistinguishable hordes of self-published fantasy books.
The Concept: B
The premise here is something that a casual fan of fantasy (like me, for example) has probably seen before. There’s another world that inhabitants of our reality can travel to. This world has all the best trappings and staples of fantastical fiction: a mostly medieval setting, sword fights, sorcery, monsters, powerful gods, richly violent histories of the kingdoms in play, and so forth. It reminded me a little bit of Everworld, a series I loved to pieces when I was a teenager.
But what sets Otherworld apart from similarly-conceived stories is the way it’s dressed up. For example, when a native of our world travels into Otherworld, his hand is adorned with a stamp-like wound. The wound fills with color as its owner kills people and a fully-filled stamp can grant him superhuman strength and ability. If it sounds strange, that’s probably because it is strange, but it helps keep Otherworld from becoming bland and forgettable fantasy fare.
There’s also a bit of a horror angle to the story, especially in the chapter during which Camilla is held captive by a hideous, pig-like man. There’s a visceral atmosphere of dread and a shocking level of unabashed gore that should give this novella some serious genre crossover appeal.
The Execution: D
I feel bad giving the execution of the concept such a low grade because it’s clearly ambitious and I admire the attempt. But Otherworld is a little confusing and needs to be read extremely carefully.
Each chapter (or episode) focuses on a different narrator than the last, but it also focuses on a completely different story than the last. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be reading this as a collection of short stories that all happen to take place in the same fantasy world or if it was a collection of plotlines that would eventually converge. I think it’s neither. Or maybe it’s both. The emergence of recurring characters and plot devices helped slowly tie things together, but for presenting itself as a “season,” this novella doesn’t feel as cohesive and as tautly helmed as a season of a typical television show. I get the sense that there were a lot of mysteries about Otherworld that the reader is supposed to wonder about for a while until the author chooses to answer the burning questions, but for me it was a bit too heavy on the mystery and a bit too light on the exposition.
I’m also not sure I understand the rules of this new world well enough to grasp all the implications of the exciting finale, although it’s obvious that the ending is of major significance to the characters involved.
My other issue with the execution is that there are a lot of grammatical errors. They’re not the clumsiest of mistakes because in almost every case it’s quite easy to tell what the author meant to say, but another careful pass with an editor’s pen would do wonders for the book’s presentation.
The Writer’s Voice: A+
I love Aramiru’s voice. His style seems to rely a lot on the dry observational humor of his first-person narrators and on short, meaningful sentences that aren’t technically complete sentences (although that’s not what I counted against him when I was whining about grammar because in these cases it was clearly done intentionally to achieve a specific effect). Otherworld also contains plentiful profanity, but it’s not done in a way that makes it sound like the author crammed as many cuss words in as possible in an attempt to seem edgy. It’s very organic swearing, and that’s honestly the best way to do it (if you ask me).
The other thing I like about the writer’s voice is that, on occasion, A. S. Aramiru sneaks in some slyly profound lines:
We rarely get what we deserve. But there’s a comfort in the idea that what happens to us has nothing to do with what we deserve.
The X-Factor: A
The special ingredient here is the plot. It can be obtuse and difficult to pin down, but when Aramiru throws a curveball, he throws one hell of a curveball. As ambivalent as I felt while reading parts of this book, there were a couple of surprises that, when I stumbled across them, demanded that I read on. The overarching plot of the series is still emerging, but it’s emerging as one with some killer twists.
The Season Wrap-up: B
For all of its rough edges, this novella is a promising start to what could be an epic fantasy series. The world seems detailed, with its complexity merely hinted at in this first installment. The characters are varied. The initially unrelated plot threads started to come together slowly over the course of the book, and it gives a final sense of unity heading into what I assume will be referred to as Season 2. And the presentation is unusual enough to inspire enough curiosity to keep me reading.
It’s not a platitude to say that I’m really interested to see where this series is going.