Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Answering Review Request: "Within Ruin"

Darrel Drake asked me to read his dark fantasy "Within Ruin". It starts off as this king searching for a cure to a plague with his amnesiac queen and a couple servants, and then it becomes much different. I will examine plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.

WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! WARNING!

There is a major Reveal around the halfway point that radically changes the plot and colors everything that came before hand. It would be difficult to write this review without spoiling the story's true nature. Also, numerous factors came together to make the final grade complicated and so I will go into detail in order to make my feelings understood. Thus, everything below PLOT could be a spoiler. If you don't want anything spoiled, skip to the POLISH section.

PLOT

My opinion on the plot is mixed and complicated.

Battles are good. Here the elaborate style of writing adds to the sense of epic scale. It's not some vulgar bar brawl, but a poetic dungeon duel. There's one battle in the second half of the book that I particularly like. It is Virgil and Descarta vs Bromymr the earthfolk king.
 
This battle is a crystallization of one of the essences of fantasy. You have a sword and sorcery battle couple fighting this giant rock golem. There's this sense of teamwork, trust, confidence, and the writing builds up well to the climatic clash. I could see it animated in my mind as it happened.
 
While many emotion/romantic etc. scenes are over-wrought and melodramatic, there are also scenes that are genuinely touching.
-Descarta returns to Virgil's Mad Scientist lair after five years of traveling. Both of them seek forgiveness from the other for their own reasons, but at the start, Virgil thinks he's talking to a hallucination. It's a lovingly broken image. The reconciliation afterward ultimately becomes sweet after these two work out their self-worth and guilt issues.
-Hafstagg going Over Protective Dad for Descarta because he spent five years raising her after she left Virgil. It's a sweet scene because it hints at what happens in the skipped over five years and also because they had a relationship that didn't have any kind of obsession or deception, i.e. healthier than any other relationship in this story.
 
There's also a lot of funny stuff. Basically, any scene with the elf twins is likely to be funny because they are funny characters. My favorite is their ditty about brioche (a french pastry). As I write this review, it's stuck in my head.
 
As for the plot itself, I have to go into more detail. First of, I like plots that can grow beyond their premise. If nothing more happened than what the blurb contained, then the story would be dull and predictable. Those are not adjectives I'd use to describe this story.
 
The plot comes in two parts; technically two and a minor.

1. Journey for the cure
1.5 Reconciliation between Descarta and Virgil
2. Rescue the Elf Twins
 
When the plot opens, King Virgil of Elusia is going on a journey to a cure for a plague that's ravaging his kingdom. He takes with him his amnesiac queen, Descarta, because if two monarchs ask for help then then the request will be given more weight. His human steward and his twin elfin wards go as well. They travel across the countryside, fight assassins, and encounter supernatural creatures.
 
This is the start of a fantasy novel. I don't want to say "typical" or "bog standard" because those have negative associations in literary circles. The opening plot for this book is not original but neither is the coming shift. At most, it's a perspective flip. You see, Virgil is not looking for a cure to the plague in his kingdom. This is because he created both it and the plague itself.
 
An evil overlord causes great suffering for his people and stirs wars with his neighbors in order to gather misc supernatural components so he can resurrect his dearly departed loved one. I'm sure some of you reading this have heard of a similar plot before. In other cases, it is to make the villain sympathetic and give him a reason for the evil he has done. The heroes stop him regardless but acknowledge that he was a good man driven to insanity by his love. In this case, the evil overlord is the protagonist and there are no heroes to stop him. Thus, he succeeds.
 
Before I go further, I must provide context
 Virgil is five centuries old and used to go by the name of Kalthused. His queen, Ankaa, died during a war and he spent those five centuries working on a plan to bring her back. To do this he needed to create an artificial body and then plug her soul into it. This second one requires a great deal of souls so he spread a magic soul catching web over the Continent and caused up all manner of trouble to increase the death rate and drive souls into the web. Three years before he had enough souls, one of his artificial bodies came to life. This happened without his action and against his wishes.
 
This is where my plot problems start. I'll begin with the magic system.

1. It's called "weaving" because it involves manipulating The Fabric, which is something between a Background Magic Field and an Afterlife. The natural elements (fire, water, earth, wind etc.) are also "weaved" but more than that, there's magical sedation. It's interesting and all, but I don't understand how it works. Because of this, I have a dim view of Virgil's soul catching plan.

Once he has enough souls, he can either bind Ankaa's soul (called a "ribbon" in this verse) into a living vessel or he can tie Descarta's inexplicable ribbon to his own to keep her from dying. I don't understand why he needs five centuries of turmoil to gather enough components to do either of these things. Do the souls form a rope or anchor? If this is the case, won't he need to continue doing maintenance on this rope? I can't imagine the souls appreciate being weaved into such a form. I get the feeling that this method was created by the author for Rule of Drama and Love Hurts. This leads to my second problem.

2. Ankaa, the original motivation, is sacrificed for Descarta. This makes no sense to me. Surely he can find some other soul for this purpose. Even if he no longer loved her, sacrificing is too big a leap. It breaks my willing suspension of disbelief.

3. The relationship between Virgil and Descarta and how it doesn't fit within the timeline of events

According to Virgil and his notes, he raised Descarta for a year and at that point he decided to use his harvest to preserve her life instead of reviving Ankaa. Then he erased her memory and told her she was his wife. This persisted for two years in which he was cold and aloof to her, and forbid her from leaving the castle without explaining why. There are a lot of things wrong with this picture.

First of all-Wife Husbandry. Why say they were married? Since he technically sired her in a test tube, their relationship is closer to father-daughter. She's constantly referred to as "the girl" in narration, not "the woman" so I assume she's significantly younger than him. The narration also states how small she is. "Amensiac daughter" would have been easier to swallow for both reader and Descarta, and it would have the added bonus of placating the jealous elf twins.

Second, there's the fact that Descarta exists in the first place. Virgil wasn't trying to create sapient life, but a vessel for Ankaa to live in. None of the other homoculus (of which there were many) lived longer than a day, much less develop sapience on their own. It feels like some deity (or author) threw a Spanner in the Works to make his life more complicated and tragic than it already was.

Third, what's with the cold shoulder? Surely being nice to her would be more pleasant for all involved. More importantly, it would aid his plan by making Descarta more trusting of him and more willing to do what he said. The only explanation I can think of is he wanted Descarta to hate him as some kind of masochistic thing or guilt over what he's doing for her.
 
The second half of the story is more traditional: a straight forward rescue arc. Descarta has grown stronger both physically and mentally, and Virgil can no longer hide things from her so her relationship with Virgil is less like that of a man and his pet. It still has those vibes, but it's a consensual thing now (sort of, it's complicated).

On the other hand, it is so far removed from the original premise that it feels like a sequel. It's a "Baddies strike back" sort of thing because it's about antagonistic characters enacting vengeance.

Also, it's sparse on details in a way unlike the first part.
The first part had this description of the earthenfolk capital; lots of detail and lots of world building. The second part didn't have anything like that. For instance, the elfin city Vanaheim doesn't get the same treatment. What is there is a short criticism of how mercantile they have become.
I get the sense that Virgil is teleporting them from place to place because of the way the scene transitions are handled. They're in one place, wavy line scene breaker, and then they're in some other place.
The meat of this second story are the roller coaster emotions of the main couple. Lots of stuff about how Virgil and Decarta feel about each other. It gets boring and stagnant, however, I like the progress from the first story; more of a happy, if dysfunctional, couple. Also, petnames like "dear despot" are too cute to hate.
 
 
I like the ending. It has this element of closure that I think is essential for any novel (especially ones in a series). It also has this low grade happiness mixed with sorrow. It's odd; a water and oil sort of thing. If you look at it one way, it's a traditional happy ending complete with a child for the main couple. If you look at it another way, it's a funky living situation for a bunch of strangers.

As for "challenging morality", nothing so presumptuous is done here. The idea of unconditional and infinite forgiveness is an old one (at least two thousand years old). Endless devotion is similar. Go to Tvtropes and you'll find a spectrum of anti-villain behavior. Virgil would fall into the "Always Save the Girl" camp.


CHARACTERS
There are no heroes here, just by-standers and varying degrees of villains. Virgil has his Evil Plan and everyone else is either helping or ignorant of it.

Virgil is an Evil Overlord because Love Makes You Evil. Tvtropes would call him a Villain Protagonist. His nature as such is only hinted at until the big reveal around mid-book. He's a heavily self-deprecating character but his guilt never stops him from fulfilling his obsessions. In the second story arc, where takes up an unarguably heroic goal, he still thinks of himself as a villain who could never do anything remotely good.   

Amil and Merril are elf Twins driven insane by a horrifically bad life. It involves their parents declaring them taboo and a presumably long time as sex slaves. Then Virgil uses them as research material. Somehow they make a transition from that to his queens and then to his wards. Thus, another strange lover/child relationship. They're basically his tykebombs.

Descarta is a homunculus created to be a vessel. She's the Load for the first half and then a Lady of War after a five year time skip. I would have liked to see those five years in the second half of the book instead of the elf kidnapping thing Afterward, she's similar to the twins in that she's Virgil obsessed. When the three of them share a body in the end, the only difference is her embarrassment at the things they do with her body, and even then Virgil says they can't do anything that she would be dead set against.

Josiah is a charming bard who seems like a nice guy. He's truly more like a creepy stalker with date rape drugs. Violah convinces him to help her assassinate Virgil by promising him the elf twins. He keeps them locked up and sedated in the dungeon.

Violah herself is deceptive. She's sympathetic early on because Virgil scares both the shit and the modesty out of her. Later on, she considers killing her subordinates because Virgil told them an embarrasing story about her. The only reason she's there at all is pett revenge and a misguided attempt to please her new king.
After six years she decides he's a security risk? This guy was the supreme weaver! He killed two mages of her standing without effort or remorse. She had a great plan and it worked well but it was a tremendous risk for little reward.

Hazael is the mildest here. He's the rightful king of Elusia and after he does his part in the Evil Plan, Virgil will give it to him. He is a trustworthy and efficient partner in the meantime, and when their deal is closed, he does not consider Virgil a threat to his position. By all indications he's does a splendid job as king.


The one exception is Hafstagg, at least after he mellowed raising Descarta. He has no part in any of this nastiness and becomes father-like to Descarta.

POLISH

This story is heavy with the Purple Prose. It's hard to find one sentence without hearing about "glowing blue cauldrons" i.e. eyes,  "rouge flesh" i.e. blush or "free hanging hazelnut curtains" i.e. hair.
It makes the story confusing. I'm an author myself, and an English major besides, and I regularly had to look up words. For instance, "Riposte" is used whenever someone makes an "answer", a "comeback" or a "wisecrack". That happens a lot.
It sounds pretentious. You do not prove your "mastery" of a language by using flowery sentences or obscure words. Instead you prove that you're more interested in showing off your vocabulary than being understood.
It makes the book longer. The second edition has less purple prose and is about twenty pages shorter than the first edition. There may have been other changes but I was only told about the reduction of Purple Prose.

It's tolerable if only the characters use it, because it can add to characterization or fit into a setting. However, when Virgil goes on a paragraph long gush about Descarta's beauty, it gets annoying. When the narration uses it, you get the above problems.


At least there aren't any spelling or grammar problems.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Within Ruin" a C ± (I both like and dislike this story. It's complicated.)

Click here for the next review request: "Angeions"

Click here for the previous review request "Phoenix Rising"

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