Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Answering Review Request: SHIAM Conspiracy

Joesph Heck asked me to read his novel "SHIAM Conspiracy". It starts off being about investigating the theft of a prototype android and then develops into something bigger. I will examine Plot, Characters, and Polish and then assign a grade.

My favorite thing about this book is the blending of genres and tropes. This is story set in the future and features sci-fi tropes such as virtual reality, laser guns and space travel. This is also a story where elves and orcs and goblins share the world with humans and everybody is practicing magic. In fact, magic is so common there's an automatic spell to dry people off as they enter a building after a rain storm. It's a fine grained blending; no big deal sort of thing. This is reality. 
It also adds for some comedy when Zak demands "scientific answers" when, as far as I can tell, magic is science.
A third point in Mr.Heck's skill in blending genre is how the genres interweave. First we have investigating how high technology was stolen (sci-fi), then how magic could be used both to steal and then to track the thieves (fantasy), then flying cars driven by elves to a crime scene (sci-fi), then investigating a portal that contains a monster which could have been used to bypass security (fantasy) then the use of virtual reality to further investigate (sci-fi).

There's a lot of talk about "instincts" and "bad feelings" that lead to plot points and keep the story moving but this is NOT a narrative weakness; not a contrived coincidence or plot device or anything like that. It could have been but Mr.Heck builds a justification into the setting of his fictional universe.  The people who talk about this sort of things are an elf and a half elf, and all elves have a natural connection to T'eh which is like Fate and or the Collective Unconscious. These "instincts" and "bad feelings" can then be described as passive psychic powers. There is a whole paragraph where Zak describes what it is like to really tune into this T'eh, this "One Mind", and how he used to use it to detect threats back when he was in the military.

Even Zak's Eleventh Hour Superpower is subtly set up for explanation instead of Deus Ex Machina. There is just enough hinting in the first act about him leaving this elfish spiritual warrior order under mysterious circumstances, and how he admits to himself that he isn't honest with himself about where the power comes from, that it could be explained in the next book and make sense. As it is, it is easy to argue that it comes out of nowhere.
The ending on this story is complicated. The initial conflict, that of the stolen SHIAM prototype, is resolved well and good but the SHIAM was a side note starting in the second place. The main conflict, that of the portals to an alternate universe causing trouble, is also resolved.  The demonic invasion that turns up, is resolved as well. However, the root conflict, that which was behind all three, is brought up at the ending. In other words, the climax starts off a new conflict which makes the book feel cliffhanger-y, except it has been developed in the background and instead becomes a sequel hook. It's even mentioned in the foretelling about a third danger to the world with the portal and the invasion being only two of them.


Zak is the protagonist. I don't like him. I find him an annoying and hypocritical jerk scarcely more sympathetic than his Evil Counterpart, Vennhim.  He's racist to elves for a mysterious reason that's likely tied to his Daddy Issues, he's racist to SHIAM because they're artificial life forms, he's racist against orcs because his mom was killed by orc extremists, and while he's not explicitly racist towards humans, his only praise of them is basically "they're not elves". I feel like he has a pet dog simply to prove that he's not racist to everything.

His racism towards elves is baffling. While against orcs is understandable and his elfish senses can explain his feelings about SHIAM, there is nothing about elves. There is some vague stuff about how he's estranged from his father, a full elf, but nothing more than that. This is particularly head scratching because if he didn't hate elves than his life would be much better. He would use magic which would make his job safer and his missions easier, he would not have dropped elfish spiritual practices which would enable him to better control his emotions so he's not perpetually angry, his relationship with Megan would go smoother, and he wouldn't look like a child for constantly trying to demean elves. 

Furthermore, while he calls elves in general arrogant and stubborn (and they are) he himself is no better. It takes until the final act before he stops saying "humans are better than elves", automatically to Megan in response to her saying "elves are better than humans". In addition, he turns his apartment into a forest with his gardening and gives his dog an elfish name. "Twice Unresolved" indeed.

I like Vennhim because while he is a nasty and ruthless piece of work, he doesn't make excuses for it. Unlike Zak's "I'm not racist, I just hate elves for being elves" stance,  Vennhim is upfront about how he feels and what he does. When Megan scathingly calls him a nasty name, he just shrugs and says he has been called worse. While he has an extremist goal, the fact that he has a goal and is passionate about this goal makes him a more admirable character than Mr. Twice Unresolved and emotionally constipated.

I like Megan. When she was introduced, I was afraid she was just in the story for fanservice because Zak's narration wouldn't stop about her attractiveness and her magic abilities didn't accomplish anything but keep her and Zack dry during a storm. Then she demonstrates greater depth of character than "rebellious and attractive rich girl". For one, she does a better job about being professional than Zak, despite being younger than him. She doesn't have a problem with him being half-elf (or half human) while he refuses to work with her for being an elf before he knows anything else about her. For two, she can both "repel" against her culture and her father while at the same taking pride in them, in contrast to Zak who makes clear his hate of anything and everything elfish at every opportunity. She also demonstrates some more effective magic.

I like Jonas. He's a Nice Guy in that he is friendly (not just polite but friendly) to everyone. He's also adorkable. It shows in his scholarly interest in elfish culture and the fact that his favorite pastime is a Dungeons and Dragons style MMORPG.
Due to the mystery nature of the story, there is no bad guy; no Big Bad. That one demon had a delightfully contrasting personality  but he is a small presence


There are a couple grammar problems such as missing words. There's also word cruft in that events often "seem" to happen when the scene is describing something literal. On the other hand, there is no purple prose, the romance is kept tasteful but not prudish, and scenes are plenty descriptive.  

Trickster Eric Novels gives "SHIAM Conspiracy" a C-

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