Details Do Matter

Once upon a time, there were editors. Or, to quote Cole Porter’s song, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes!”

Somebody was raving about a YA fantasy novel by a new writer — Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. I like discovering new writers, so I thought I’d have a look.

Before I go on, I have to say, first, that I am thrilled to see young African-American women writing fantasy and science fiction. This is fantastic! Children of Blood and Bone is set in a fantasy version of Africa, and that’s also reason to applaud. Medieval Europe is so very, very overworked as a setting. The book is full of action, so I’m sure teen readers will like it. The conflict between good and evil is a bit stark — not much nuance, at least not in the first hundred pages. And that’s all I plan to read. One can take only so much.

Adeyemi is described on her website as Nigerian-American. I was inclined to cut her a bit of slack as a non-native speaker of English, until I read the next sentence and discovered she has a degree in English literature from Harvard. I’ve been told she’s an American, but quite irrespective of that, by the time you graduate from Harvard, you ought to be able to get it right.

I was drifting along, reading uncritically, until I hit a problem near the top of Chapter 4. Zelie, the main character, and her brother Tzain are riding from their little village, Ilorin, to the capital city on the back of an animal of some sort. (Description of animal: vague.) “…the city of Lagos comes into view. Surrounded by a gate crafted from the heartwood of the jackalberry trees, the capital is everything Ilorin isn’t.” Wait — this is a large city, and it’s surrounded by a gate?

Once upon a time, there were editors.

Or consider this description of Ilorin, from Chapter 2: “Ilorin rises with the sun, bringing our ocean village to life. Waves crash against the wooden pillars that keep our settlement afloat, coating our feet with mist. Like a spider caught in the web of the sea, our village sits on eight legs of lumber all connected in the center.”

Two problems leap up here. The first sentence has a dangling participle. “bringing” is meant to refer to the sun, but that’s not how English grammar works. Since participles usually grab hold of the nearest noun, I’ll build a random sentence constructed similarly to illustrate what’s going on here: “Bob held the dog’s leash tight, keeping the children safe from its fangs.” In this example, the agent of “keeping” is clearly Bob, even though the nearest noun is “leash.” In Adeyemi’s sentence, then, Ilorin is bringing itself to life.

If we replace “our ocean village” with “itself,” the sentence is perhaps not quite so absurd, though a good editor would have suggested simplifying it to “Ilorin comes to life with the rising of the sun.” But the phrase “our ocean village” makes it abundantly clear that Adeyemi thinks “sun” is the agent of “bringing.” It’s not. This is a grammatical error.

The other issue is the words “pillars” and “legs.” Pillars are vertical structures, as are legs. If the village were built on pillars, the pillars would be sunk into the floor of the bay. The village would not be floating! What the author seems to have meant is that the village sits on (or between, her later descriptions of the structure are vague) eight long, floating logs that are joined to one another in a hub at the center.

I’m having a little trouble with the physics here. If the logs are hardwood, the weight of the houses and people will most likely submerge them. They’ll never be seen, and waves won’t crash against them. On the other hand, if the logs are light — pine or balsa — they’re going to get waterlogged, and they’ll probably crumble before long and need frequent replacement. Also, if planks join the logs, providing a flat surface on which homes can be built, the planks will prevent the crashing waves from sending spray up onto people’s feet, and again, nobody will see the logs, because they’ll be underneath the planks.

On the whole, this seems a not very sensible way to build a village, when the land is only a few yards away. Oh, and also, waves won’t be crashing against more than the seaward ends of two or three logs. The landward logs will see very little wave action, because the other logs will be in the way.

Flipping forward to Chapter 9, we get much the same grammatical problem in reverse. “The village sets with the sun, making way for a calm night’s sleep.” What the author seems to mean is that when the sun sets, village activity quickly dies down. The first half of that sentence is an awkward, stilted metaphor, but not flawed if standing on its own. The second part of the sentence turns the metaphor into a disaster. The village makes way for sleep? The natural meaning of “makes way” is “steps aside” or “goes somewhere else,” so here the village itself appears to be getting up and walking away. If she had said, “The village’s hive of activity dissolves in the sunset, making way for a calm night’s sleep,” that would work nicely, because it would be the activity that was making way. The village itself making way? No.

Once upon a time there were editors.

Back to Chapter 2. Shortly we learn that there is a “floating market in the center of Ilorin.” But wait — the center is where those eight logs come together. “Surrounded by a rectangular walkway, the stretch of open sea swells with villagers haggling inside their round coconut boats.” Apparently the logs (pillars?) have disappeared. Also, if the water is surrounded by the walkway, it’s not a stretch of open sea. “Open” is a word that has a meaning. Failure adequately to visualize a setting is a common difficulty among new writers, and there it is, on display. And “open sea” is a cliche. Adeyemi went for a cliche rather than describe the scene carefully.

One might also wonder why these villagers, who live in huts that rest on planks, have bothered to climb into their boats in order to do their marketing. How do they even get the boats into the market area, when the area is surrounded by a walkway of planks? “Market day, honey. Guess me and the boys will have to haul the boats up over the walkway so we can set down in the water there and do our barterin’.” That’s not a quote from the novel; I made it up. But doesn’t her description of the market imply something of the sort?

The coconut boats are mentioned in several scenes. Clearly they’re not made from real coconuts, they’re just round boats — sort of hemispherical, that’s the implication of the phrase. I’m not an expert on nautical craft, but it does seem to me that setting out to go fishing in the open ocean would not be at all efficient in a round boat. It won’t be stable in high seas. Steering will be difficult. If they’re large boats, you won’t have much room for oarsmen, because for too much of the circumference the oars would be banging against the sides of the boat if the oarsman took a long stroke. And why would fishermen go to sea in one-man boats, when they could so easily build larger boats that would hold more catch, using planks carved from those quite evidently available large logs? How will you haul a net full of fish over the gunwale of a hemispherical boat without capsizing?

Still in the opening chapters (the real plot crisis not yet having reared its head), young Zelie’s father Baba, who is somewhat addled, manages to almost drown, but her brother dives in and saves him. Then we get this: “Six minutes. That’s how long Baba thrashed out at sea. How long he fought against the current, how long his lungs ached for air. As we sit in the silence of our empty [hut], I can’t get that number out of my head. The way Baba shivers, I’m convinced those six minutes took ten years off his life.”

The most obvious problem here is that these villagers do not, as far as we can see, have clocks. Why would they even have a concept of “minutes”? They certainly don’t have wristwatches — and even if they did, while Baba was thrashing around in the ocean it’s rather unlikely that Zelie would have bothered to look at her watch to time his distress. No, Adeyemi is trying to crank up the tension by emphasizing that Baba was submerged so long that he almost drowned, but she’s doing it in a modern, anachronistic way.

A more subtle problem is that if he’s thrashing, he’s on the surface. If he’s on the surface, he will have air to breathe. If he’s underwater and his lungs are aching for air, he won’t be thrashing. Jamming the two disparate predicaments together like that in one paragraph is, again, an indication that the author has not truly visualized the scene. She’s gesturing at an emergency rather than showing it to us.

Flipping back to the previous page, we find this description of Baba’s plight: “Almost half a kilometer out at sea, a man flails, his dark hands thrashing in desperation. Powerful waves ram against the poor soul’s head, drowning him with each impact.”

No, I’m not going to complain about “kilometer.” We’re past that. The thing is, I’m pretty sure that’s not actually what happens when you’re out in the open ocean. If you’re on the surface at all, a wave will lift you or perhaps, if it’s a really big wave, roll over you, so you submerge on one side and emerge on the other. It won’t ram against your head, not unless the seas are awfully ferocious — and if the seas are that ferocious, they’re going to be tossing the floating village around so vigorously that the villagers will have more to do than stand around gawking at a man who is flailing away in the water. Also, the word “drowning” is ridiculous here. If one wave drowns him, the next will make no difference; he’ll have been drowned. He’ll be dead.

Two fishermen are rowing toward Baba in their coconut boats (that is, one fisherman per boat, as noted above). “The force of the waves pushes them back. They’ll never reach him in time.” But all is not lost. Zelie’s brother Tzain dives into the sea. He “swims with a frenzy I’ve never seen. Within moments he overtakes the boats. Seconds later he reaches the area where Baba went under and dives down.”

The human body floats. Baba will sink only if he has lead weights tied to his belt. Also, Baba has lived in a fishing village all his life, and certainly knows how to swim. Somehow he has gotten swept half a kilometer out to sea, which I think is rather unlikely. Rip tides will sometimes pull someone out to sea (usually less than half a kilometer, I suspect), but rip tides are found only where there’s surf bringing water in toward the shore. Adeyemi never mentions surf hitting the village. (And she lives in San Diego. I learned about rip tides when I was living in San Diego at the age of ten.) In the absence of rip tides, a current is going to sweep a swimmer laterally along the shore, not directly out to sea.

Setting all that aside — though it’s a lot to set aside — let’s see if we understand this scene. The boats can’t get to Baba because of the waves, yet a swimmer is able to overtake them. Is the swimmer immune to the force of the waves? The book is about magic, but the author gives us no indication that magic is involved in this scene, and indeed magic is presumed to be dead until a later chapter. Also, Baba is, you’ll recall, almost half a kilometer away. Half a kilometer is the length of five football fields. Tzain has swum perhaps 200 or 300 yards “within moments” and reaches Baba “seconds later.” Hell of a swimmer, that young man.

Come to think of it, if there are high waves, how can they even see Baba thrashing around out there? Why didn’t the author think to tell us that Baba was visible sometimes and not visible at other times?

Okay, just one or two more items, and then I’ll go play a game on my iPad. In Chapter 3, we have a different viewpoint character, the princess Amari. A big problem has reared its head in the throne room. Admiral Ebele has brought bad news. “Beads of sweat gather on his bald head as he stares at everything except Father.” How many eyes does the admiral have, that he can stare at everything in the room? Or is his head jerking around rapidly? And really, would an admiral — an admiral! — who has just brought bad news to the king, who can quite casually have him put to death, be so flustered that he would be visibly in a panic, his head jerking around, avoiding eye contact with the king? No. The admiral’s shoulders would be stiff and his jaw set, and he might flinch rather than meet the king’s eyes, but he would not be looking away from the king. He would be striving with all his might to look as if the king can have every confidence in him. The writer is gesturing at a character’s emotion without having considered how the character himself would deal with his emotion.

On the next page the admiral is still rather distraught by his confrontation with the king: “Admiral Ebele all but trembles.” If the admiral were the viewpoint character, this would be weak writing, no worse than that — but this sentence is from the point of view of Amari, who is across the room.

Okay, class — raise your hand if you can imagine what it looks like when someone “all but trembles.” Anybody? No?

Once upon a time there were editors.

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