Karl Beer asked me to read his story "Crik". I will examine plot, character and polish and then determine a grade.
The Amazon blurb says little about the setting or the plot so it is difficult to say much here without spoiling. SPOILERS AHEAD! There, you have been warned.
When I first received this request and started reading this book my impression was "familiar elements in an unfamiliar plot" and that remains my opinion. No single element here is original but the way they are put together is unique. For instance, there are many stock super powers such as Beast Master/pest controllers, Dream Walker, Necromancy, Green Thumb etc. but this is mundane. Everyone in the village has one and this has been the case for generations. There is a creepy man living alone in the woods that has a sinister purpose but the mechanics of this verse give him a degree of distinctiveness. There is a quest through the Unknown World through which the "hero" becomes wiser and more mature but he hardly counts as a hero for most of it.
When I say the powers are mundane, I mean that they are treated, in-universe, as mundane. There is nothing special about having powers. Having powers is normal. Indeed, Bill is called a "freak" by some because he doesn’t have powers similar to how powered people would be called freaks in stories where having powers is rare. What Mr.Beer did with Crik is less common than the flip side and that is partly why I say it is creative. I certainly do not mean the powers or situations are "boring". Few indeed are the parts in this book that can, in my opinion, be considered "boring".
The other reason I say it is creative is because of the mechanics of how the powers work. Jack's Living Shadow, for instance, has a lot of details in how it works. The strength of nearby light determines how strong Yang is; stronger light casts a darker and more defined shadow which means Yang is capable of more while weak light makes him pretty impotent. Complete darkness is where he is at his strongest, which is something I did not expect. The following explanation made perfect sense; in complete darkness Yang is everywhere at once. He can come down on something (or someone) like a thunderbolt and smite them but he also has less control in this form because he is essentially formless; no hands or fingers. Therefore, he needs a light source for delicate work. In fact, he deliberately stays motionless every night because he is afraid of accidentally harming Jack. Yang is essentially Unskilled But Strong or Weak But Skilled depending on the situations. He has other powers besides these depending on the color of the local light; standard candles or sunlight gives him standard abilities. Purple light enables him to speak and other colors enable him to perform Exposition Beams.
This sort of detail is something that I love to see in fantasy novels. The part where Yang explains all this to Yang is one of my favorite parts of the book.
In addition to the powers, there are other mechanics of the verse that I like. The Narmacils are fascinating. Their life cycle, why they need human hosts, and the ways they can stretch their powers; all of this shows the thought Mr.Beer has put into the fictional species he has created. While Super Empowering is not a new idea (even the more specific version that tiny creatures are providing the power to human hosts is not a new idea) Mr.Beer has put his own personal spin on it. That is a clearer mark of a talented author than attempts to create something entirely new (it is a fool's errand to try).
The final battle is awesome. Here we have a village of diverse Talents vs plate mail warriors and ghosts with a zombie army reinforcing the former. It reminded me of a video game, a strategy-action one like Dynasty Warriors, where players had to move across the battlefield and fight different enemies in different situations.
There are a lot of characters here; a lot of named characters with individual powers and varying levels of skill in combat. Mr.Beer transitions between them well to give a good sense of the battle while also conveying the general fear and confusion of the villagers and Jack in particular.
The scene where Inara shows up with her zombie reinforcements is another one of my favorite moments. Coming up over a hill, riding her Noble Wolf guardian, flanked by the undead and she does this in response to a ghost walker's You And What Army moment.
The resolution is good; conflict resolved with a fitting aftermath. I like stories that have an aftermath, denouement, whatever you want to call it. It shows that they are more than just their climax; that they can continue beyond the high action. I suppose I like seeing where the sticks lie after the dust settles. In this story there is the intensely personal of Yang and Yin/Jack's reconciliation and the more wide-scale repulsion of the Ghost Walker Invasion with other threads like Inara finally going home to reunite with her family and the way the villagers react to a third secret let loose by the invasion.
This is the part of the review where I talk about the things I didn't like or the narrative weaknesses I see. There is a difference.
The Amazon blurb is misleading. The "horrifying secret" is indeed horrifying but it is hardly a secret. There are grave stones in the community's graveyard marked "ghost walker" and the protagonist knows tales about them. The part about Jack's shadow being his greatest enemy is simply Jack's paranoia; this is never remotely the case. The narmacils aren't a secret either. Parents tell their kids about them when they're 18 years old; it's a coming-of-age thing like the Birds and the Bees.
This is not a narrative weakness; it is something I dislike. It has nothing to do with the book.
-----> My next point is the narrative thrust of this book. Jack leaves the Known World, faces Trials and Tribulations, Descends into the Abyss, the whole Hero's Journey nine yards all because of the irrational belief that his narmacil is evil incarnate and has been subtly controlling him towards a mysterious-yet-definitely-sinister purpose. The book itself foreshadows their reconciliation but even without that it is easy to see The Blue Bird of Happiness resolution coming.
---> Adding to this effect is that the entire plot only happened because Jack was able to see a forest giant enter Crik and bury a narmacil egg at night and during a heavy rain storm. I kept thinking " a lot of people are going to get hurt or worse because of this kid's paranoia".
----> For sure there is positive stuff; Inara's rescue, the baby narmacil's rescue, Knell is no longer tormented by the Birdman, and Jack reconciled with Yang in a more powerful way then a talk with his mother would have been. It wasn't a pointless journey.
---> This is a narrative weakness. All Jack has to go on for his "narmacil are evil" belief is that his shadow has be engaging in petty mischief for years. Based on his interest, one would think that he'd be a Nightmare Fetishist. If the story can be averted by asking one's mother, with plenty of opportunity to do so, about were your powers come from that is a weakness. The wait-until-they-are-18 thing is also a weakness and Jack recognizes that it doesn't make sense. There's no explanation.
It is unfortunate that these points involve the protagonist and the reason for his quest. For me personally, they slowed down and made more unpleasant a story that I otherwise think is a good one.
---> I don't like Jack. He has the same interest in the macabre as Yang yet he takes Yang's interest as proof of evilness and then blames his own interest in it on Yang. This makes him a hypocrite. He has no evidence or indeed any reason to think Yang or other narmacil are evil and yet he adamantly believes so. This makes him paranoid and irrational. He wants to search for the house of someone he doesn't know exists and abandon his friend in the woods, of which his friend doesn't know how to navigate. This shows a lack of concern for others. He occasionally realizes how selfish he is for doing this but brushes it aside. This underscores his selfishness. He occasionally wonders if his distaste is based on Beauty Equals Goodness but brushes that aside as well. He refuses to listen to Inara, who has proven herself to be more knowledgeable about narmacils and Crik wood in general. This marks him as closed minded.
---> His fantastic racism in particular made this hard to read. I don't mean this in a political-real-world-analogous sense. It was boring and tedious and annoying. Rarely one page passed without him thinking through the 3rd person limited narration or dialogue about how the narmacils are obviously evil and that he is the only one rational for thinking this way.
---> I give him credit for overcoming the fantastic racism, at least in regards to Yang and the narmacil in general. He certainly doesn't lack for courage at any point in this narrative.
I like Inara. After all the torture and horror she experienced in the Marsh House she remains more reasonable, more friendly, and more optimistic than Jack. This is a sign that she is a tough girl, both emotionally and mentally. At the same time, she's not a Pollyanna. She certainly has been traumatized, such as the experience making her unable to appreciate things such as a beautiful day like she used to and wondering if her parents will still love her despite her new deformity. Personally, I find her view on necromancy to be interesting but, in this case, I can understand why Jack would find it abhorrent.
Bill is interesting for a number of reasons. He doesn't have a Talent so he has a different perspective on them then both Jack and Inara; a third voice in the debate. He is the only one without a Talent and so he is a "freak"; yes, the "normal one" is not normal because Crik's idea of normal is different from the reader's idea of normal. A third point is how his beastmaster power works; it's basically mind-control that only works on non-human and non-supernatural creatures. If his control slips then the Noble Wolf protecting the group suddenly reverts back to a Savage Wolf. There's also his academic interest. In contrast to Jack, he has read a lot more than comic books. This turns up on several occasions.
There is a rotating cast of villains: Krimble, the Ghost Walkers, and the Birdman. Three villains generally means a cluttered narrative, but not in this case. Mr.Beer does a good job of making all three of them distinct, relevant, evil-sinister in their own way. This is accomplished primarily by giving them each their own arc within the overall adventure.
I found the prose to be long-winded and occasionally purple. One time I read a paragraph and then had to re-read it before realizing that it doesn't actually say anything. I much prefer the dialogue. The dialogue is often powerful, emotional, and heavy with characterization.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Crik" a B
For any who are confused by this rating, I provide the following two lists of positives and negatives. Hopefully, this will resolve any confusion.
1. Creative use of classic tropes such as Stock Super Power, Lost Woods, and the Hero’s Journey.
2. Well-thought-out original species (the narmacil); their life cycle, their need of hosts and the powers that they grant.
3. Skillful use of villains; all three are relevant and important without cluttering the narrative or making them bleed together.
4. Inara is all-around fantastic.
5. Bill provides a useful third point of view between Inara and Bill regarding the narmacil.
6. Awesome climatic battle.
7. Strong conclusion.
1. Jack’s baffling and tedious Fantastic Racism (because he is the protagonist, there is a lot of it in the narrative).
2. Could Have Avoided This Plot regarding the nature and origin of Yang (this underpins the narrative and so it affects everything).
As you can see, the positives outnumber the negatives 3-1 but the negatives are more noticeable and prevalent because they involve the protagonist’s personality and the reason he goes on his quest.
Click here for the next review request: Gold Dust
Click here for the previous book review (not a review request): Seinfeld And Philosophy
Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).