Tone-Deaf

I’ll make this short. It’s late, and I’m tired. One of the more destructive things a writer of fiction can do is insert a sentence that breaks the tone of a scene. And here we have a fine example.

As I mentioned in my previous bulletin, I’m reading Book 3 of Michelle West’s House Wars series. We have now reached the hugely dramatic climax. The setting: the dark and grimly magnificent warren of tunnels that lie beneath the city. On one side, the good guys: the two kings, the three high priests, a small group of wizards, a bunch of bards (who can sing magic stuff), one seer, the kings’ stalwart guards, and an undetermined number of armed and armored men. On the other side, the bad guys: Three demons from the depths of Hell.

There has already been a skirmish with some lesser demons that left five of the good guys dead and another fifteen injured. Peculiarly, West has left that encounter offstage. But now we’re ready for the main action. One of the three big demons shows up, evidently with maleficent intent. The viewpoint character here is a guy named Devon, but he doesn’t have much to do. The only other thing you need to know to appreciate (?) this passage is that a fellow named Meralonne is the chief wizard, and an important character throughout the story. Aaaand … here we go:

With fire came light; it was an orange light that shed heat and twisted the air as it moved. In its wake, Devon thought, mouth drying, legend walked, cloaked in flame. It was not human, nor had it ever been; no one could mistake the creature for anything but demonic. It was taller than the tallest man present, perhaps double the height, and wings of flame, with hearts of ebony, spread from either side of its back, its large shoulders. It stood like a man — like a giant — on two legs, and its arms, burning as its wings burned, rested a moment at its sides.

It had no eyes but fire, and when it opened its mouth, fire flew as well.

“This is ill news,” Meralonne whispered softly….

When I hit that last line, I laughed aloud. Faced with a ten-foot-tall fire-breathing demon, Meralonne makes a soft comment that would be fitting in a conversational scene in a genteel drawing-room. We can almost picture him pausing to light his pipe. This is tone-deaf dialog with a vengeance. In a single brief phrase, Michelle West has turned her dramatic battle scene into a rubber bath toy.

The preceding paragraph is, I have to add, pretty typical West. It’s badly over-written, and yet curiously unfocused. Orange light is twisting the air. Devon thinks about a legend, and the only hint of the awful fear he must be feeling is that his mouth is getting dry. That’s not a good detail. Sweat and heart palpitations I would buy, laced perhaps with a little anticipatory loosening of the bowels. Dry mouth, not so much. And those hearts of ebony in the wings of flame? Not a clear visual impression.

She can’t be satisfied with one phrase to describe something; she has to keep piling on repetitive description — “taller than the tallest man present, perhaps double the height,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, “like a giant.” It’s not enough that the wings spread from its back, she has to mention the shoulders too. She does this sort of thing throughout the story.

“It was not human … but demonic.” Well, duh. And note the authorial intrusion: “nor had it ever been.” West does a fair number of those little intrusions. At first I thought it was a sophisticated technique, but by now I’ve concluded that she just can’t resist telling us more stuff.

Ah, well. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

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