writing

The Chronicles of Otherworld: Season 1 by A. S. Aramiru

otherworldThis 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+

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.

Writing Women

More than ten years later, my tenth grade English teacher’s stern words still echo in my memory:  “Charles Dickens just wasn’t good at writing women.”

Her harsh indictment of someone revered as one of the greatest writers of all time scared the crap out of me.  If Dickens could bungle Madame Defarge’s characterization so colossally, what hope did I, a young aspiring novelist, have at ever escaping this kind of criticism?

I’m not immune to criticism, of course, but I’m much less petrified of it now than I was when I was fifteen.

Most of my protagonists have a lot in common with me.  They’re all male, they’re all approximately my age, and they tend not to be overly macho.  But I’m interested in branching out.  I don’t want my work to be populated solely with nerdy straight white American males.  There is so much variety in the world and while I think it’s important for me to keep my writing grounded by writing about what I know, at a certain point too much me becomes boring and exclusionary.  I’ve written characters who were women, or gay, or not white (although I guess I need to work on the international thing, as I don’t recall any foreigners), but they’ve never been the central focus of the story.  That’s why I was so excited when I was recently struck with some promising inspiration for a future story that would be centered on…wait for it…a woman.

Crazy, right?

My biggest concern with having a female protagonist is becoming guilty of implicit or accidental sexism.  I generally write first-person narratives, but I’ve never been a woman.  How do I narrate from the point of view of something I’ve never been?   I’m worried that in my efforts to make my protagonist convincingly female, I may inadvertently exaggerate her attributes in ways that will make her seem like a caricature more than an actual person.  One small section of my first book was narrated by my protagonist’s love interest and it was surprisingly difficult to make the writing a little more feminine without making it sound like I was trying too hard to sound feminine.  I haven’t heard any complaints about that section being offensively girly or anything, so hopefully I was successful.

When I start working on this female-narrated project, I expect that I’ll simply need to make sure I have my protagonist’s characteristics carefully worked out beforehand.  If I go in thinking, “crap, she’s a woman, I need to make sure she sounds womanish,” I’m doomed to failure.  If I familiarize myself with her as a more complete character with plenty of traits and problems and motivations and habits that exist independently of her gender, I can go in thinking, “She’s Sarah, I need to make sure she sounds like Sarah.”

Except I really doubt her name will be Sarah.

If anything, this will be a fun challenge.

“Bad Blood” and Lyrical Laziness

There’s a radio at work.  I have no control over it.  I’m frequently subjected to music that I dislike and from time to time, if a song is popular, I become intimately acquainted with music that I loathe.  Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” is an excellent example of the latter.  Musically, it’s simply not my cup of tea.  Lyrically, on the other hand, it makes me fly off on these angry rants that probably make my coworkers wonder if I’ve skipped any important medications lately.

I don’t know who wrote the lyrics.  It could have been Ms. Swift herself, or maybe she had some help from her army of songwriters.  Regardless, it’s nobody’s best work.

The song begins with the word because.  Technically, I suppose it’s ’cause, but it still baffles me why this word choice is supposed to make any sense.  It’s the first word of the song.  Nothing has been said at all yet, much less anything that indicates a cause-and-effect relationship requiring an explanation.  And it’s not as though this relationship is explained in the tail end of the sentence (“Because you betrayed me, we have bad blood.”)  In fact, instead of the cause of the situation following the word because, the effect (having bad blood) follows our opening conjunction.  This implies that the cause of the circumstance is whatever Taylor said before her microphone turned on and started recording in the middle of a sentence.

Even after that baffling opener, it’s all downhill from there.

The lyrics make a weird attempt at sounding hip, which is a feat achieved by ignoring most of the rules the average person is taught in a middle school English class.  The first line (and many others) uses got instead of have, the second employs the slang definition of mad, and the third line…ooooh, that pesky third line makes my fists clench and my teeth grind:

So take a look what you’ve done

This little gem includes a prepositional phrase that is heroically devoid of prepositions.  All this line needs is two little letters:  an A and a T.  Sure, saying “take a look at what you’ve done” would throw off the rhythm of the vocal delivery, but that just means you should tweak or rewrite the line, not just skip a word and assume it still works.

got to be kidding

Sorry, Doctor. She released the song, so I think she’s serious.

The pre-chorus similarly ignores acceptable conventions of communication, and I’m not saying that to applaud its bold, out-of-the-box artistry:

Oh, it’s so sad to think about the good times, you and I

The way I’m reading it, the words you and have been pointlessly tacked on to the end of an otherwise acceptable declarative sentence in an effort to extend the melody and give it a chance to resolve itself.  Or perhaps the comma isn’t supposed to be there and the chorus literally interrupts the pre-chorus without letting it finish its thought with a simple had or enjoyed or maybe even shared.

In a number of places throughout this messy composition, extraneous words have been thrown in to force the rhythm to be consistent.  This is done frequently in music and, depending on the delivery, really isn’t a problem at all.  But this song is one of the worst offenders I’ve seen in a while.

My personal favorite is “salt in the wound like you’re laughing right at me.”  The word right is completely unnecessary to the meaning of the line and, in fact, makes it bizarrely specific.  Apparently the lyricist felt compelled to indicate that not only is someone laughing at the narrator of this song, but that the laughter in question is arriving on a direct and undeviating vector from its source.  Because we were all worried that maybe it had stopped to buy gas or something on its way to reach the ears of the narrator.

going mad

Also, the comparison between salt in a wound and mocking laughter should probably be explained more adequately for those of us who may not see any salient similarities.

The cliché blood/cut/knife/scar motif also seems clumsily executed.  I’m a bit baffled about why a cut results in “bad” blood.  Cuts can cause blood to flow, sure, by why is it bad blood in this case?  The literal and the metaphorical sides of the symbolism don’t jive at all.  It’s probably supposed to be simply a little bit of wordplay relating two concepts that both involve blood.  If that’s where it had ended, it wouldn’t really bother me…but the bridge overreaches:

If you love like that, blood runs cold

Here is another concept involving blood, but this one has nothing to do with anything except that it continues the blood thing and it almost rhymes with a previous line.  Blood running cold points to fear or horror.  How, exactly, does loving in a way that is not clearly indicated by the text fill a person who is not clearly indicated by the text with dread?  Even giving the benefit of the doubt by assuming Ms. Swift is trying to call someone cold-hearted, it still means the symbolism is all over the place.  Is the blood bad or is it cold?  Or is it salty?  Just because all this imagery has to do with blood doesn’t mean it’s all thematically relevant.

It's too late, Josh.  God help us all, it's too late.

It’s just too late, Josh. God help us all, but it’s too late.

The bridge contains two lines that I think actually have a nice ring to them.  Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes is perhaps the most poignant part of the song.  And If you live like that, you live with ghosts has a contemplative, regretful wisdom to it…except I’m not convinced it was written in for any other reason that to sound cool (and, of course, to almost rhyme with the preceding statements).

But then the song blasts back into the awful chorus a few more times for its grand finale, driving home the hopeless moral of the story, which is that “now we got problems” and “I don’t think we can solve them” and “now we got bad blood, hey!”  If you were hoping for some kind of resolution or emotional payoff from this song, you will be left wanting.  All Ms. Swift is saying, essentially, is that we have problems.  There’s no attempt made at resolving them and there’s not even a suggestion of a termination of the relationship.  It’s simply a pointless observation about the state of things.  But rest assured, dear listener, if you’ve learned anything from this, it’s that now we got problems.

I’m not a Taylor Swift fan and I never have been, but this song just feels so beneath her.  She’s better than this.  I honestly miss the days when it was just a girl with her guitar, cranking out heartfelt (if somewhat hackneyed) melodies about fairy-tale romances.  There was something so much more musically genuine and lyrically endearing about those tracks, and I’d gladly listen to “Teardops on My Guitar” or “Love Story” a thousand times if it meant I would never again be subjected to “Blank Space” or “Bad Blood.”