Saturday, 20 July 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Scars of Ambition' by Jason Letts

I really have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. It comes complete with maps of an imaginary world, with two continents with places like the Cetaline Mountains, the Seasand Desert and the Boiling Sea. There’s magic and sword-waving tribes and dragons, of a sort. So it must be epic fantasy, right? But then it has electricity, planes and trains and mobile phones (cellphones), and some kind of internet. The early chapters are focused on a boardroom squabble between two energy companies, one based on gas power, the other on solar. So it’s a corporate thriller? Energy-punk? Cyber-punk? Search me.

The story focuses around the Bracken family - Lowell, the head of the gas energy company, his ex-wife Tris, and his three children, Sierra, being groomed to take over the company, Randall, a politician, and Taylor, just off to university. They are wealthy and respected, so life seems set fair, but of course there are storms brewing. No surprise there. I found it rather pleasant to see a family as the hub of a fantasy novel. Usually the protagonist is an orphan, or at the very least scarred by his or her dark past. But these seem like normal folks with normal problems - Sierra struggling to make her mark at work and dealing with an obnoxious co-worker, and Taylor showing off to his college pals and trying to get laid.

I confess to having some difficulty with the juxtaposition of seemingly modern people and situations, yet with traditional fantasy elements in the mix as well. Much of the story concerns office politics (and some actual politics, as well), which feels just like a contemporary work, but sometimes the transition to an outbreak of magic or some difference between the created world and the real world was too jarring for my taste. It’s very difficult to invent a world which has many aspects of modern life yet still feels believably ‘other’, and for me it didn’t quite work.

A couple of problems. One is credibility. The CEO of one power company makes an arrangement to visit the CEO of his opposite number, something that’s never happened before. That would be a huge deal, with all the senior executives present, and a metric ton of minders on all the doors, just in case of trouble. But no, he walks into the boardroom unannounced and overhears a secret conversation. No, I don’t think so. Let’s not even mention the daughter who decides on a whim to take a bag lady home to live with her, just because said bag lady has a cute little dragon. Or the son who finds himself in the midst of a cult that wants to drink his blood: 'Oh, all right then...'. Who signs a blood pact without even asking any questions, like - will I survive? And will there be hideous long-term consequences?

Then there’s one power company boss’s brilliant idea to send someone overseas to buy up essential components needed by the other power company. It has to be someone who can’t possibly be traced back to the company. I know, let’s send the boss’s ex-wife, Tris. You know, the one who's never been abroad and who's only skill is in growing and arranging flowers. Just the ticket for a critical and highly secret corporate mission, and no one will ever connect her to the company... so that's really going to work well. Not.

The other problem is the, at times, heavy-handed writing style.

‘But Lux produced a much more intriguing weapon from the back of his pants: a gun with the hammer positioned to come down on a pale green stone, which was lodged against a small three-pronged rack feeding little metal pebbles into the back of the tube.
“Oh my, that’s Florjium. You can only find it in Didjubus and it’s acidic,” [Tris] said. The man glanced at her, not comprehending. “When you hit that stone to shoot the metal bullets, the toxins from the stone also hurt you!” '

Florjium - oh my! From Didjubus, even. A couple of questions arise from that: how would Tris know so much about it? A flower or a strange plant she might recognise, but a rare mineral? And, even if she’s somehow an expert, all that explanation would be much better as exposition rather than clunky dialogue. Throughout the book, the writing style seems rather flat, and loses much of the tension from the action sequences.

None of this would matter if the plot worked, but for me it just didn't hang together. A lot of things happen to the various characters, but it all seems fairly random and none of it makes much sense. Everything that happens to Tris, for instance - why? Why do the people she interacts with treat her that way? Why is Taylor (the teenage son) of any interest to the blood-drinking cult? It makes no sense. I need to understand people’s motivations to really get swept up in the story, but here I was constantly saying: huh? Why would he/she do that?

The main characters all seem rather passive, too, simply going along with whatever is happening around them, and surrendering far too easily in the early parts of the book. Some of it was just plain dull to me - the corporate skullduggery, the teenage boy at college, the political machinations... I don't read fantasy for that stuff. Now, there are moments where things get interesting, with hints of magic or the little dragon, the hooded man and the weird cult, and a cool sword fight in the boardroom (yay for swordfights! if there has to be a boardroom then let’s have swordfights in there) - intriguing things that kept me reading to find out more about them. Frankly, I could have done with a lot more of that. And there was plenty of action going on, with suitably villainous villains doing villainous things to our heroes. If the villainous villains seemed a bit on the moustache-twirling end of the spectrum for my taste, there are plenty of readers who like their fantasy black and white, with no messy grey ambiguity to muddy the waters.

As the story plays out, several of the characters change from passivity to taking charge of their lives, and this is absolutely fine. It’s just a pity that in most cases the means for them to do this is simply dropped into their laps. Taylor and Tris simply reversed into their situations, without a single coherent thought, it seems to me, and even Sierra’s moment of decision happens by chance. Only Lowell decides to take measures to make his own good fortune.

On the plus side, this is a highly original blend of traditional fantasy with modern technology, and I applaud the author for the attempt. I like the idea of basing a story around a family, and the fundamental message is a good one, if portrayed a little heavy-handedly. There are some imaginative touches which work well, and if it wasn't really my cup of tea, there are many readers who enjoy this kind of straightforward tale of basically good people trying to make the world a better place (and get rich or laid at the same time). Two stars, and a small cheer for the swordfights; all corporate mergers and takeovers should be decided by the CEOs personally using swords, in my opinion.

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