Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review: Something Red by Douglas Nicholas


Something Red is a horror/historical fiction/fantasy mash-up from long-time poet and first-time novelist Douglas Nicholas.  Here’s what Amazon has to say about it:
During the 1200s in northwest England, in one of the coldest winters in living memory, a formidable middle-aged Irishwoman and the troupe she leads are trying to drive their three wagons across the mountains before the heavy snows set in. Molly, her powerful and enigmatic lover, her fey granddaughter, and her young apprentice, soon discover that something terrible prowls the woods. As the group travels from refuge to refuge, it becomes apparent that the mysterious evil force must be faced and defeated—or else they will surely die.
An intoxicating and spirited blend of fantasy, mythology, and history, Something Red features the most fascinating of characters including shapeshifters, Irish battle queens, Norman knights, Templars, pilgrims, Saracens, a Lithuanian noblewoman, warrior monks, strong—even dangerous—women, and ten murderous mastiffs, as well as an epic snowstorm that an early reader described as “one of the coldest scenes since Snow Falling on Cedars.”

First off, let me say that this is the type of book I love.  History is kind of a fantasy anyway (in that, in reality, history is always more complicated and convoluted than the simple codified versions that make it into the history books), so whenever you can mix historical settings with fantastical elements—especially when set in Medieval Europe—only great things can come of it. 

Of course, those “great things” alone can’t make a book shine.  You also have to have the basics:  plot, characters, dialogue, imagery, etc.  And Nicholas had some of those—almost all of them in fact.  The imagery and diction were almost poetic in their lyrical quality (no surprise, considering Nicholas is a poet first and foremost).  He did a wonderful job describing medieval customs, and his flair with accents and archaic dialogue was delightful.  The characters were good—not earth-shattering or anything, but solid characters and characterization.  The one area where Something Red fell short, though?  Pacing.

Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that a novel has to start with a bang and keep rocking you non-stop till the finish line.  I actually like books that take their time and slowly build the characterization, suspense, and intrigue (see my review of Company of Liars for an example).  But there’s a difference between building suspense and beating your meat for half the book.  OK, well maybe that’s a little strong.  And there was no wanking involved—literally, anyway.  The group just travels in their caravan, stopping at various places along the way, finding some dead people every once in a while, and talking mysteriously about whatever monster is doing the killing.  Oh, stuff happens along the way, it’s just that none of it did much to build the story and keep this reader engaged.  Mostly it was explaining medieval customs or the interaction between supporting characters I didn’t give a crap about.  Nicholas also spent an inordinate amount of time describing the troop’s meals and their musical endeavors and their games of leisure.  All of that is fine in small doses, but it felt like that kind of crap took up the majority of the book. 

Fully 40% of the novel went by before I actually got interested in the story.  That was when bandits attacked the main characters’ caravan and they had to do battle to fight them off.  It didn’t have all that much to do with the overall plot, but at that point I really just needed something to freaking happen.  After that, none of it really grabbed me until the showdown with the BBEG (big bad evil guy), and even that was like a $5 fireworks show—one big bang and then the sound of crickets chirping. 

Douglas Nicholas
There were also a couple of POV shifts that rankled me.  Almost all of Something Red is told from Hob’s point of view (the young apprentice, remember?), but every once in a while Nicholas slips and describes the way another character feels or thinks or views a given incident.  Such shifts are jarring and don’t add anything to the story, so why include them?  Overall, though, it didn’t happen that much, and if the pacing had been better, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it.

So yeah—Something Red didn’t knock my socks off.  It may have been me, though.  There are certainly enough glowing reviews out there to invalidate my opinion.  Maybe I just wasn’t in a receptive mood at the time.  Maybe the mangling my ebook suffered at the hands of Netgalley put me in a foul humor (really, this was the worst formatted book I’ve ever received from Netgalley, and that’s saying something).  That’s the thing about this book reviewing gig.  It’s subjective.  There’s some good stuff in the book, and you can tell that Nicholas has done his research on medieval history, but I can’t bring myself to give Something Red more than three stars.  I just didn’t enjoy it any more than that.

Some of you may remember that this was the book to which I had pinned my hopes of getting a review quoted on a dust jacket (an actual possibility considering I got my copy months before the official publication date).  And for a minute there I was tempted to swallow my pride and softball the review in deference to that goal.  But in the end, I simply couldn’t.  I had to stick by my guns, which is to say, honesty in opinion above all else.  And in sticking to my guns, I might have just shot myself in the foot.

Oh well.  I’ll heal.

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