Whither & Yawn

Another trip down the aisles in the local library, picking up science fiction and fantasy by authors I’m not familiar with. Today I had a look at 7th Sigma by Steven Gould. More than a look — I read through 135 of the 385 pages before I gave it up as a waste of time.

There’s a place in the world, I’m sure, for picaresque coming-of-age novels. They’re not in vogue these days, and especially not in vogue in the science fiction genre, action adventure being more the trendy thing, but I’m happy to applaud the unexpected broad-mindedness of someone at Tor Books. Evidently they’re willing to look beyond the usual confines of the genre.

The problem with 7th Sigma bifurcates, depending on whether we view it as action adventure or as a picaresque coming-of-age novel. As action adventure, it’s an utter flop. If it’s not intended to be read as action adventure, it’s an entirely different kind of flop.

The story is set in the American Southwest, in the near future. The SF premise is that some small flying creatures — possibly “AI robots” would be a better term — have gotten loose and spread across a considerable range. They’re referred to as bugs. The origin of the bugs is unknown, and nobody seems to be much concerned to figure out either where they came from or how to exterminate them. Also, they don’t seem to be threatening the rest of the country or the rest of the world.

The bugs eat metal. They apparently reproduce by parthenogenesis; when one has eaten enough metal, it turns into two.

As a result of this infestation, the remaining residents of the Southwest can’t use anything made of metal. They ride horses. Long-distance messages have to be sent out to the rest of the country by heliograph, a device that is not described but likely involves mirrors and Morse code.

This could be a fine premise for a plotted novel — but alas, 7th Sigma has no detectable plot. It’s a string of episodes (thus, picaresque) with no rising action or ongoing tension to weld the episodes together. Such a novel can succeed brilliantly; Don Quixote is the best example of that. But it will succeed only to the extent that the lead character is memorable, the episodes themselves memorable, and the writing thoughtful and well polished.

The story in 7th Sigma, such as it is, involves a 13-year-old runaway boy named Kimble. He’s taken in by an older woman named Ruth, who teaches aikido. Neither of them is highly memorable. It would be stretching a point to say that they’re even three-dimensional.

The story, at least up through page 135, moves through several unrelated episodes.

On the road to the creekside land Ruth has bought, our dynamic duo comes upon two men who have been killed by bugs. It seems the bugs don’t like being attacked. Inadvertently stepping on one is an attack. When attacked, they swarm. That seems ominous, but there’s no follow-up. We never see them swarm. This is not Hitchcock’s The Birds.

On reaching their homestead, Ruth and Kimble cleverly bury the remaining junk metal cluttering up the place so as to encourage the bugs to move on. They start building an aikido dojo out of mud brick. Soon a local drunk propositions Ruth because he thinks she’s a whore, and then starts stealing food from their property. They deal with him. He’s tried and convicted, and he’s gone.

Next, a nearby rancher is losing sheep to wild dogs. Kimble is enlisted to stay up all night and scare off the dogs by beating on a log. Soon a pack of dogs attacks, dragging down a sheep before Kimble can chase them off. A few local men band together, track them to a stand of brush, drive them out, and stab them with plastic spears, all but one dog, who seems to be made of metal. Ominous — a large metal beast! But it runs off, and we hear no more of it.

Then Ruth gets asthma, and Kimble has to ride off to the nearest town to get her some medicine. On the way back, he falls in with some other travelers and they’re attacked by bandits. Ooh, bandits! Threatening! But the Rangers drive off the bandits (with a little help from Kimble), and that’s the end of that episode. During the entire trip, nobody has encountered a single bug, much less the big metal dog.

Then a friend of Ruth’s visits them for a week. (Still no bugs.) The friend brings a young woman named Athena, who has a bad attitude. But after a few days they leave. Again, nothing has happened. At the point where I stopped reading, the kindly Ranger officer has enlisted Kimble to make friends with some lads in a nearby town in order to figure out who is importing methamphetamines into the territory. Bugs, a local thug, a metal dog, a girl with an attitude, and now a drug gang.

Paging forward, I find that the drug sting takes up less than ten pages; Kimble manages to solve the case in short order, and without any on-screen action at all. The whole episode is handled in the form of a report he makes to the Ranger. Following that, there seems to be a brief school-bullying episode, in which Kimble has no trouble coming out on top because of his aikido training.

I’d call it much ado about nothing, except that there’s not much ado either.

I’d love to pivot and think of this as a picaresque coming-of-age novel, but such a novel requires, I think, more colorful characters, and also a higher level of stylistic sophistication than Gould is able to muster. His characters are flat. The sheep rancher I mentioned earlier? Turning back to page 65, where he is introduced, I find no description of him at all — not a word. Tall, short, fat, thin, young, old, has a mustache, wears a hat, chews tobacco, missing teeth, odd speech patterns, conspicuous facial scars? Who knows? His name is Rooster, so we might imagine he’s a redhead, but even that detail is missing from the text.

When the ranchers set out to track the wild dogs, we meet two more men, Barney Spinoza and Frank Werito, and again, not a single solitary word about their appearance or mannerisms. The writing is entirely colorless.

Here’s the icing on the cake. On page 123, Kimble (who is 13, remember) is skinny-dipping in the pond with a young woman who is possibly eight or ten years older than him. And Gould reports, “He tried to think pure, well unsexual, thoughts, but his mind wasn’t cooperating.”

Steven, Steven, Steven — his mind? Really? Any other writer in the world would have written, “his body wasn’t cooperating.”

After which Kimble and the young woman engage in water horseplay, “with great gouts of water, and more than one dunking,” without a word as to where he puts his hands while dunking her, or how he avoids nudging her with his … er, with his mind while they’re wrestling. Nor is there any indication that he suffers, afterward, from even a single impure thought.

Coming of age? I don’t think so.

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Premises, Premises

Browsing in the used bookstore, I picked up a copy of a fat hardback — Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Acheron. For a buck, how can you go wrong?

It was a dollar well wasted. I’m sure Sherrilyn is a very nice person. She has a long list of published novels and a contract with St. Martin’s Press, so who am I to disagree?

The characters in the opening chapter are referred to as gods. One gathers that their abode is Atlantis. The chief god, whose name is Archon, has gotten his wife (consort, whatever) pregnant, and she’s just about to pop. Finally, after centuries of trying, he’s going to have a son. His wife (consort, whatever) Apollymi is delighted. But thanks to a prophecy, Archon wants to kill the baby. The prophecy is that the baby will grow up to kill his father and become the chief of all the gods. Shades of Oedipus! (Without the nasty bits, I hasten to add.)

Apollymi is determined to keep her baby alive, and a surreptitious glance forward at the next chapter suggests that she’s going to be successful. When the boy comes to manhood, we can guess, complications will ensue. Possibly even some of that slayin’ stuff.

The thing that steered me away from continuing to read, however, was this paragraph on page 8:

By Chthonian law, one god was forbidden from ever killing another. To do so would bring their wrath down on the foolish god who’d angered them. The punishment for such actions was swift, brutal and irreversible.

Several problems leap up from this passage. First, the word “Chthonian” hasn’t been used earlier in the chapter. If the characters on the page are gods, whose laws are they compelled to follow? Who is more powerful than the gods? Second, the pronoun “their” has no antecedent. The Chthonians themselves (whoever they are) have not been mentioned at all. Third, as a copy-editor, I would strenuously object to the contraction of “who had” as “who’d” in a sentence about creatures more powerful than the gods. It’s only a minor stylistic infelicity, but these things do matter. Fourth, “forbidden” is better mated with an infinitive than with a participle. The sentence would read better as “forbidden ever to kill another.” Fifth, if you’re going to mention brutal punishments, you really ought to be specific rather than leave the reader guessing.

But those are mere quibbles, bits of fluff lost in the glare of the big problem. The big problem is, Archon has been intent on killing his son. Being the offspring of two gods, the son would presumably be a full-blooded god himself. To kill his son would therefore subject Archon to the dire punishments meted out by the Chthonians.

Oh, and during the course of the scene Apollymi has instructed one of her demons as follows: “Guard this room from everyone. I don’t care if Archon himself demands entry, you kill him.” So let me get this straight: The chief god is planning to kill his son. His wife (consort, whatever) has instructed one of her minions to kill him if need be. And neither of them seems remotely to be concerned about what the Chthonians will think of this.

If the premise of your story is that the gods can freely kill one another, you really ought not to suggest that they dare not do so. Conversely, if they can’t do it without incurring brutal punishment, your characters really ought to have second thoughts about their murderous impulses.

The icing on the cake is the sloppy writing. I could list several examples, which popped out in the course of only a few pages. And here’s one now. Apollymi has asked her niece, Basi, to help save the baby. Basi is the goddess of excess, and is on that basis usually drunk. On page 5, “…Basi asked as she spun around the bedpost while eyeing the demons.” On page 6, Basi “was still swinging around the bedpost.” This is very odd. A bedpost is usually attached to one of the outer corners of a bed. How would one swing around it (the word “around” meaning, by default, “in complete circles”) without running into the mattress? Kenyon does not tell us. This bit of action/characterization is free-floating. If Basi herself is as weightless as Tinkerbell and is literally swinging around the bedpost in complete circles, Kenyon has not bothered to mention the fact. And if she is swinging around in complete circles, how is she managing to do it while eyeing the demons? That would cause severe neck strain, or so one would imagine.

Adding a few careful details would help the reader visualize the scene. Writers are usually advised to help readers visualize the scene.

On page 9, Apollymi has returned to her husband and sarcastically presented him with a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. (She has previously given herself a Caesarean using a dagger, although it’s not called a Caesarean because Caesar won’t be born for another 9,000 years; Kenyon got that much right.) After a sentence about how his three bastard daughters, the Fates, have “accidentally cursed her son,” we get this sentence, in a paragraph by itself:

That alone was enough to make her want to kill her husband who stared at her with a confused frown.

A comma is absolutely required after the word “husband.” The subordinate clause is non-restrictive. Every professional copy-editor knows this rule. What, then, are we to think of St. Martin’s Press, when they bring out a beautiful 700-page hardback with an embossed dust jacket after failing to send the manuscript to a copy-editor?

Maybe the Chthonians should have a word with them.

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You Bet Your Life

Maybe I’m not serious enough. Failure of seriousness can be, I’m guessing, a serious defect in a writer.

I don’t remember how The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold, landed in my Kindle. I think it may have been a limited-time Amazon freebie. It’s a straight-up Medieval fantasy, complete with horses, swords, and kings — not the sort of novel I would tend to buy. What carried me along through the first few pages was not an exciting opener. The plot unfolds very slowly. But her writing is good. That and sheer idleness kept me going.

The viewpoint character appears, at the start, to be a scruffy vagabond, though there are hints he’s more than that. As he’s sitting in the courtyard hoping to get hired on as a kitchen scullion, the beautiful young princess and her equally beautiful young friend ride in through the gate, and I’m thinking, okay, there’s going to be a romance here. In the end he’s going to Get The Girl. But even then, the action doesn’t jump into high gear. Gradually we’re drawn into a story of courtly intrigue, complete with nasty villains, sword fights, and just enough magic to stir the bubbling stew.

I won’t spoil the story for you by telling you what happens. Suffice it to say the book is a lot better than I expected. And it set me thinking about my own work.

As the destiny of the princess unfolds, as the curse of the novel’s title strikes the rest of her family and swirls darkly about her, both her fate and the fate of the scruffy vagabond (who by this time is her tutor, and somewhat less scruffy) are very serious matters indeed. The term “life-or-death” doesn’t quite cover the situation. Yes, death threatens, but it’s more than that. To borrow a metaphor from poker, the important characters have pushed all of their chips into the center of the table. They could have done nothing else. They have no life beyond or outside of the life-or-death struggle. It’s the only thing that matters.

This is an important lesson for me as a writer. I’ve been struggling with a few tough questions relating to the revisions of Book 4 of my epic. As I flipped the last page of The Curse of Chalion and switched off my iPad, it struck me that neither my heroine nor my villain has pushed all their chips into the center of the table. The outcome of their struggle is important to them both, yes, but it’s not the only thing that matters.

My heroine is betting her life, in the sense that she braves great dangers. But she could change her mind and walk away from it all. If she did that, would she feel a sense of personal failure and regret? Yes, certainly. But what’s driving her on is a sort of abstract sense of duty. There’s nothing inexorable about it.

Same deal with the villain. At any point he could shrug, say “Okay, you win,” and head back to his palatial estate in the foreign capital. He’s driven by arrogance and greed, but if he were to give up, it would be no more than a minor personal setback for him.

The first version of my epic, written more than ten years ago, was rather tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t very good comedy, but there was a fair amount of silly stuff. When I set out to rewrite it in 2015, I made it a lot more serious, but there are still a few comic elements.

Would you like an example or two? Happy to oblige. In one scene Madame Scraull, the strict and rather overwhelmed governess, has been temporarily blinded by a wizard’s spell. In a complex struggle in the aisle of a railway coach, she tries (unsuccessfully) to stab an ogre with her knitting needles. Does the ogre respond by breaking her jaw? No, he does not.

Here’s another. The travelers have been warned not to stay at Briarstoke Manor, but for reasons that need not detain us, no other inn will have them. Here is our first glimpse of Briarstoke Manor:

As an inn it had in its favor one characteristic: It was large. Several wooden structures of varying age had been appended to the main building with more ambition than architectural acumen, and outbuildings of varying decrepitude attended the assemblage like moldering handmaidens waiting upon a bride who is dead but refuses to lie down. Two of the windows were boarded up. In the front yard, tall grass had grown up around the wheels and through the floorboards of a rusting wagon. Even on a clear, sunny day the air was thick with a damp, unhealthy odor, which doubtless emanated from a pig farm that abutted the inn on one side.

I’m too fond of this paragraph, one of the very few surviving from the original version, to consider deleting or changing it. Briarstoke Manor is indeed a dangerous place, but it’s dangerous in a funny way.

If you’re writing comedy, I don’t think your characters have to be all-in emotionally. They don’t have to bet their lives. (The title of today’s little essay is taken from a comedy quiz show that starred Groucho Marx, so it’s by way of being a double entendre.) But trying to mix bits of comedy into a serious dramatic epic may have been a gigantic mistake on my part.

Comedy isn’t just about pratfalls: It has to do with a certain ironic distance that the author inserts between the story and the reader. Consider this tiny excerpt, from the very end of Chapter 1 in Book 1, The Leafstone Shield. A large and prominently placed statue has just uttered a prophecy. While enigmatic, the prophecy seems to have referred to Kyura, who thinks she’s a very ordinary girl buying supplies in an outdoor market. Oh, and while the statue was speaking, crows were flocking around it.

Worry, obscure but implacable, crept through her the way the veins of pale fire had tickled their way up and down the statue. Fortunately, crows weren’t buzzing around her head, those were only flies. She waved the flies away and went on about her business.

Those last two sentences create ironic distance. While not humor per se, they’re clearly comic writing.

I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of all the ironic distance in my story. Nor would I want to do it if I could. The question, then, is how to make my characters push all their chips into the center of the table without changing the tone of the text and cutting out the fun parts. This is going to require some careful thought.

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Take It to the Limit

It’s a profound loss that our local Friends of the Library organization no longer conducts a monthly sale of used books. They still operate a small used bookstore off the lobby of the library itself,  but the operative word is “small.” One can no longer wander up and down among tables packed entirely at random with books, one’s eye being caught here or there by something unlikely and, just perhaps, very interesting indeed.

It can only have been at such a sale that I picked up a hardback published in 1952, the spine so worn as to be entirely illegible, entitled The Shores of Light. This is a collection of book reviews, nearly a hundred of them, written in the 1930s by Edmund Wilson and first published in the New Republic, the Atlantic, the Nation, and the New Yorker, among other magazines.

Until tonight, I had never opened the book. I don’t remember buying it, but there it was on my shelf. The first review, published in 1922, is of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned. At the time, Fitzgerald was still a young writer, his best work still ahead of him. Wilson admits in his introduction that in preparing the collection he freely revised the reviews, so we can’t be entirely sure what he said about Fitzgerald at the time. All we can be fairly certain of is that he was aware in 1922 both of Fitzgerald’s importance and of his youthful imperfections.

But that’s beside the point. What struck me most powerfully, in reading the first two pieces in the book, was a quote from Alfred North Whitehead. This was in a memoir  about and appreciation of a teacher at Princeton, apparently a teacher of literature, named Christian Gauss, who had died in 1951 and under whom Wilson had studied in and around 1916. It was Gauss, in Wilson’s recollection, who had quoted Whitehead:

“[W]hen you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, … [you should] not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.”

This, it seems to me, is an indictment of most, if not all, of the discussions I have read of popular genre fiction in its modern form. Certain things are unconsciously presupposed, either to be of vital importance to the novel or to be of so little importance that no mention ever need be made of them. In the former category we might include action and overt, often blood-soaked, conflict. In the latter, morality and thoughtful criticism of society.

The writer today is tasked, implicitly but incessantly, to entertain the reader. A thoughtful consideration of anything of actual importance would make the reader uncomfortable, and that would hurt sales. In the modern genre novel, morality is either strictly conventional or (in the case of vampire stories) mocked as irrelevant.

I have no idea what’s going on these days over in the literature aisle. Is there even such a thing as literature anymore? Or is that the wrong question? Today the novels of Charles Dickens are viewed as literature, however flawed; but in his own day, in his own culture, Dickens was writing pop fiction. The terms of discourse surrounding popular fiction have changed — and not, I think, for the better.

I’m going to read more of Wilson’s reviews. The fact that he takes the whole of literature, both of his time and of earlier times, as worthy of serious discussion is a breath, and more than a breath, of fresh air. And if certain of the sentences in this little bulletin are structured in a way that demands a bit more care of the reader than a 30-second television commercial, that is not only a reflection of Wilson’s style but also an indictment of an age whose habits of rhetoric are dominated by such commercials.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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Flopping Around

Today I’m teaching myself a painful object lesson about why the motivations of a story’s characters are important. This is maybe especially true when the character is a villain, and that’s the spot where the floor is all slippery and the writer can all too easily fall down. We want our villains to do Bad Things. So rather than think it through, the writer slips the villain a little note that says, “Here’s a bad thing. Please do this bad thing now.”

Books 1, 2, and 3 of my series (see the nice cover art?) are out on Amazon. As I work on the revisions for Book 4, I’m asking myself questions that I really ought to have asked two years ago. I have a smooth and enterprising villain — the Lord Dahilio Rundel. I have a key magical amulet — the Leafstone Shield. What exactly the Shield is capable of doing is rather vague, and that’s a problem too. I ought to have worked it out in more detail. But today’s conundrum is about Rundel’s attitude toward the Shield.

At the start of the story the Shield has disappeared, so Rundel hires a top-ranked wizard to find it. From this, we can reasonably assume that he wants it for some reason. But when it finally turns up, he lets the wizard keep it. He seems suddenly not to care very much.

Not too many pages later (we’re now at the action-packed climax of Book 3), Rundel is about to flee. Things are not going his way. My intrepid heroine has dropped the Shield in the course of a complicated fight. Rundel scoops it up from the floor, sneers at the heroine, and runs off. She leaps to her feet and pursues him. And then he drops the Shield when she orders him to. Suddenly it seems it isn’t important to him after all.

The fact that he doesn’t kill her when he has the chance, and that two minutes later she doesn’t kill him when she has the chance — I don’t want to try to fix that. There are reasons, and they’re flimsy, and this is why I’m not Neil Gaiman.

The fact that his motivation with respect to the Leafstone Shield is flopping around, however, like a live tuna on the deck of a fishing boat — that I’d like to fix. And I’m not sure how to do it. I’m not even sure there’s a way to do it.

Do not make this mistake, kids. Figure out what your villains want before you start writing.

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What Hath Tolkien Wrought?

Picked up another fat book at the library this week — The Hidden City, by Michelle West. Subtitled “A Novel of The House War.” That should have alerted me. Trusting fool that I am, I took “a novel” to mean “a free-standing novel.” Set in a larger world, to be sure, but a self-contained story.

Now that I’m 150 pages into it, and quite enjoying it, I’ve taken a moment to look it up online, and learned that it’s the first of six novels in a series. Book Five is titled Battle, and has a cover featuring a man brandishing a sword. Oh, dear. That’s exactly the sort of thing that doesn’t appeal to me at all.

What I’ve been enjoying about The Hidden City is that it seems almost a novel of character, as opposed to vigorously plotted adventure fiction. We meet a bitter and cynical thief, who befriends a homeless girl — a young girl, I mean, ten years old. In the cover illustration she looks rather like Shirley Temple, although she is, to be sure, holding a dagger. By page 150, very little has happened to them. There are no monsters and only a couple of glimpses of magic. The thief has killed a couple of street bullies with a sword, but it wasn’t a battle, he just interrupted a mugging.

What appears to be a novel of character turns out to be simply the leisurely opening of a large and ornately carved door, the merest corner of a very wide canvas. What have I gotten myself into?

And what is it with series, anyway? They’re everywhere. Seven Harry Potter books. And how many Star Wars movies have there been now?

Earlier authors wrote series, certainly. Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, John MacDonald, Rex Stout (one of my personal favorites), L. Frank Baum, and of course Erle Stanley Gardner, whose Perry Mason mysteries were a veritable avalanche between 1930 and 1960. But those novels were all free-standing stories. You could read them in any order, because the series characters never changed.

The trend toward the broad ongoing saga may have started earlier — maybe some kind soul will enlighten me on this point — but it seems to have shifted into high gear with Tolkien. From what I’ve read, Lord of the Rings was never intended to be three separate books. The publisher split it up because it was judged to be easier to package and sell that way. But in short order, the trilogy became almost inevitable in fantasy.

And beyond the trilogy. Robert Jordan spun out a long series, which I’ve never bothered to tackle. George R. R. Martin, obviously. Apparently Robin Hobb’s books about the Fool comprise four separate trilogies. Gawd.

The cynical among us might be forgiven for feeling that the engine powering this trend is commercial — that authors keep churning out series novels because they (and their publishers) know readers will keep coming back for more. But there may be more to it than that. Today’s fantasy books tend to be thick. A 600-page hardback is not unusual. Rather than saying that readers want the comfort of the familiar, it might be more honest to say that readers want to be immersed. They want to be swept away, carried along in a grand drama, a Mississippi River of passion and danger, of magic and bloodshed.

So little in our lives has this grand sweep. Most of us understand all too well what T. S. Eliot meant when he wrote, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” We yearn for something more than that.

There are no coffee spoons in the hidden city.

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Time After Time

Take half a dozen likable but very imperfect young people. Toss them head-first into a really bizarre predicament — a world they don’t understand, and people who are trying to kill them. Give them each a super-power that they don’t know how to use. Shake well and bake at 350 degrees for, oh, as long as it takes. That’s the recipe for The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price.

I’ve been reading mostly fantasy lately, but fantasy and science fiction are shelved together at the library. I picked up this fat novel without knowing what to expect. I had never heard of the author — it appears to be his first book — and was very pleasantly surprised.

The Flight of the Silvers starts with the end of the world. Our world, anyway. A very few individuals, selected because of their latent special abilities, are whisked off in the very nick of time to an alternate Earth with its own history and technology. To an alternate San Diego, to be precise. All of them soon learn that they have the ability to manipulate time in one way or another — or rather, most of them do. One of them dies during the transfer, another has gone rogue, and the rogue kills a third one, for reasons that will take a while to unravel.

The remaining six are scooped up by a rescue squad and hustled off to a fancy ex-hotel, where they’re gradually educated about the world they’ve landed in. Zack can rewind bits of reality back into the past. David can see and hear the past and future. Hannah can speed herself up fast enough to dodge a speeding bullet. (Yes, literally.) Mia’s future self sends little notes to her through tiny time portals. And so on.

Before long, another bunch with special abilities are out to kill them, and the alternate-Earth equivalent of the FBI is hot on their trail. A third group seems to be on their side, but with a very strange agenda that involves casually killing people. Possibly our young friends are but pawns in a cosmos-spanning game of death and destruction. Meanwhile, the rogue is busy messing with their heads, because he hates them. On escaping from San Diego pursued by the police, the six (known as Silvers) flee across the country to New York, sidestepping danger, occasionally glimpsing their own alternate selves, and discovering the slippery and unreliable nature of time travel.

Wouldn’t you know it? This is the first volume of a three-book series. Things promise to get much, much weirder in the second book. (The third one isn’t out yet.)

Price is a bit too fond of wallowing in the emotional lives of his characters. When not dodging danger, they spend quite a lot of time arguing with one another, mistrusting one another, and falling in love with one another. They’re vivid characters, and we get to know them quite well, but more than once I found myself thinking, “Oh, get on with the story already.”

He also indulges heavily in what is called in writers’ critique groups “head-hopping.” There are frequent point-of-view shifts within scenes, and occasionally within a single paragraph. Writers are told never to do this, because it’s confusing. Price does a reasonable job of keeping the reader in sync with the viewpoint shifts, and given the complexity of the action he probably felt he had no choice. All I can really say is, “Kids, don’t try this at home.”

The magic physics in the science fiction premise is far-fetched, but it’s shored up rather well with lots of detail and quasi-realistic limitations. There were only a few places in the story that left me thinking, “Wait a minute — that didn’t make sense.” Some big pieces of the puzzle haven’t yet been explained by the end of this first book, but it’s a good guess that Price knows where he’s going.

…and now I’ve read Book Two, The Song of the Orphans, thanks to our inter-library loan system. I’d call this series sci-fi combat porn, but it’s good sci-fi combat porn. The second book features four or five extended battles, in which our young heroes are hopelessly out-matched by the various nasty forces arrayed against them. Snipers, explosions, blood, broken bones, giant aerships plummeting out of the sky, and yes, people dying.

Some of them are brought back to life after suffering mortal wounds. Others aren’t — and that adds to the suspense. Mia is shot in the chest by Rebel (who doesn’t have to aim and never misses, because he can choose a future in which every shot counts), and she’s dying. Can Zack save her by reversing the flow of time?

There’s also a healthy dose of intrigue. Who do you trust? The main villains of the story, a trio from the future called the Pelletiers, sometimes seem to be helping the good guys, but their motives are obscure and their methods tend to involve large doses of casual cruelty. Basically, the Pelletiers treat ordinary humans the way we treat lab rats, and for much the same reason. They’re trying to do something that they conceive of as good, and in order to do that, they have to shower death on the rats. Meanwhile, the rats — forgive me, I mean the good guys — are also being steered (or led astray) by a separate future-type person who seems to be their friend but may also be about to betray them.

Meanwhile, the world is going to end in four years, and those who can see the future know it.

The science premise has a couple of holes in it through which the careful reader could pilot a small aership. The Pelletiers have arrived from a distant future, a future in which their awe-inspiring powers are probably normal. Or so they claim. Yet there are no other time travelers from the future. Why not? And if the world is going to end in four years, what future are the Pelletiers from, anyway? The business of how various possible futures interact with the multiple worlds hypothesis is, again, handled in a rather slapdash manner. That’s probably inevitable; I’d guess there’s no possible way to make sense of either hypothesis.

But most readers probably won’t mind that, or even notice it. Price sets out to tell a rip-roaring good story, complete with people who can fly through the air, change the past, teleport, and/or create large fearsome animals using only their psychic powers. Plus teen romance, assorted mayhem, and songs by Pink Floyd and the Beatles. What’s not to like?

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