Is this a kissing book?

One of my… let’s call it a “characteristic”, that’s a neutral enough term… is that when it comes to fiction, I always finish what I start. The reason I have so few played-but-uncompleted games in my collection is that I am constitutionally incapable of setting something aside until I’ve seen the end. Once I’ve put a certain amount of time into something, I feel like I’m owed the end, so I’ll push my way through to the finish.

The drawback here is that quality doesn’t come into play. I have no doubt that if someone had tricked me into reading Twilight or Eragon, I’d have read the whole series by now. Sure it sucks, but I have to know what happens.

The irony of having this characteristic while being unable to finish any of my side projects or keep a consistent blogging schedule is not lost on me, I assure you.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because I’ve been listening to audiobooks at work over the last several days. Free audiobooks, which should set off warning bells right there. The part of my brain which detects quality is screaming at me to stop, but, well… I’ve come this far, and I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.

I can’t even say that I’m not enjoying them, really. The books tickle the nearly-suppressed part of my subconscious which has an almost childlike infatuation with schlocky airport fantasy. Most of the fantasy I’ve been reading in paper form these days has been of the modern, somewhat nontraditional take on the genre, but this stuff almost wallows in conventions. It’s like I’ve fallen back in time twenty years… and Stockholm Syndrome is taking hold.

One, Murder at Avedon Hill, is a murder mystery, but the author was very obviously weaned on those old SNES RPGs where you had to perform a half-dozen fetch quests before you could get anything accomplished, and so you ended up spending about ten hours just trying to get a bridge fixed by the most roundabout method possible. The book takes a prologue+six chapters before the characters even begin to actively work towards solving the mystery which is the book’s main plot thread. They need a letter of introduction to get into a manor to talk to the lord to convince him to lift a roadblock, but the only person who will write it for them needs a certain kind of moth, which lives in a cave in the wilderness… but only a living moth, which is out of season right now… you get the idea.

I understand the point of all this, of course; it’s a way to set the scene and introduce characters who will be important later on without being too obvious about it. You can’t just line up your major players and have them tell the protagonists who they are and what they do… except the author does that anyway later on, but anyway…

The point I’m driving at here is that fetch quests are effective in games when used well because they’re a method of exposition that allows for player interaction. Instead of just having some asshole tell the player that things are pretty crummy in Shitsville, you contrive some trivial errand that sends the player to Shitsville and they can see just how crummy it is for themselves, and hopefully become more motivated when the time inevitably comes to do something about it. It’s not as effective in literature, where it just feels like padding.

The book’s got other problems as well… there’s the exceedingly irritating perspective-hopping issue I’ve complained about before. It’s got a pretty serious case of the burly detective syndrome, exacerbated by the fact that the two main characters have inexplicably similar-sounding names. It’s also heavy on the infodumping, which would be tolerable if the world did not appear to be stock Tolkeinesque medieval. The mashup between high fantasy and a down-to-earth Law-and-Order police procedural is a strange mix, and one that I’m not entirely sure works particularly well in this case. (I’ve seen it done well, but you kind of have to emphasize the hard-boiled noir aspects of the setting. Placid small-town charm clashes with the tone.) It’s kind of hard to get invested in the search for clues and the grilling of suspects when you have a sneaking suspicion that vampires are behind everything, you know?

The other book… well, I’ll decline to mention the title since I’m about to spoil it rather heavily… has different issues. It’s much better-written than the other, keeping a consistent viewpoint and having fewer noticeable language issues. The major problem here is that its plot twists are all entirely predictable. It’s unbelievably frustrating to work out all the mysteries literally whole books before they come to fruition and having to listen to the characters fumble their way through it. The moment the main female character was first described my immediate thought was “there’s a refrigerator with this woman’s name on it.” It took two full books, but lo and behold. I actually felt bizarrely happy when it finally happened, because it meant I could stop anticipating it every time she stepped out of the main character’s sight. I was fairly certain the author wouldn’t kill her off in sight of the main character, but rather that he would come back from some adventure to find her ripped to shreds or strangled to death with her own hair or something and set him off on a quest of righteous vengeance.

Farewell, [redacted]. You were too good for both this world and this story. But hey, at least in passing you’ll be spared the hokey “revolution against the evil church” plot the book seems to be drifting towards, which is more than you can say for me.

That’s another thing that bothers me about the plot here… The religion here isn’t even secretly evil like most evil churches, it’s obviously evil. It openly condones what amounts to the sacrifice, enslavement, and cannibalism of obviously sentient beings, but what tips people off to the idea that this isn’t A-OK is the revelation that OMG the dragons aren’t really gods!? I dunno, guys, seems like you’d have a bit of resistance even prior to that. It was almost cute watching the book clumsily hint that the high priestess might be evil. Figured it out on first sight, thanks.

The book also does that annoying fantasy thing where it stars nonhumans, and so feels the need to replace the words “man” or “men” (even species-neutral words like “person”) with an equivalent phrase every… single… time. I get that this helps the fantasy flavor, but it’s unbelievably distracting and even a little jarring, since you have to do the mental translation every time it comes up. We already know they’re not speaking English in-universe, so why not extend your translation a bit?

There’s one more that I’ve been listening to off and on, Nina Kimberly the Merciless, which I downloaded just because I was intrigued by the premise (the barbarian hero’s spoiled teenage brat of a daughter trying to follow in his footsteps and live up to his legacy), but I was immediately turned off when the title character’s personality did a complete 180 not two chapters in. She’s supposed to be a fearsome warrior, but hot-tempered and short-sighted. Imagine my surprise when she goes on to lose every fight she participates in and solves most conflicts with level-headed diplomacy. Go figure.

There’s also a clumsy romance which just goes on… and on… and on. I’ll be waiting over here when they’re done giving each other soulful looks across the campfire.

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