SPARK CITY by Robert J. Power (SPFBO Finalist Review)
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It’s been a while since we concluded phase one of SPFBO 5 with our finalist announcement. But we’re finally back for phase two with our second finalist review: SPARK CITY. Unfortunately, this one really didn’t click with any of us…
Robert J. Power
The Hunt is Coming.
Despite his warriors’ lineage, Erroh would rather waste his potential stumbling alone from one tavern to the next, drinking and gambling. Fate, however, has greater plans for him.
After decades of peace, a great war draws near, and though he doesn’t know it, he is standing in the way of the first wave. What is more, and very much to his dismay, he’s about to find out he’s not entirely alone either. But Erroh has a plan, a simple plan.
It’ll never work.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
Theo: The cover is all right. I can’t say it grabs me especially, but it conveys the key elements of the story. This is about a mysterious man – Erroh – with a sword, going to a city.
The story itself has a slow start, so I didn’t really feel I knew where the plot was going within the first 20% or so. There are some nice lines of description – for example, “The shattered moon’s light caught the leaves of the one tree hanging over the perimeter wall. It swayed in the breeze sending eerie, skulking shadows across the courtyard like giant roving fingers.” And, “Onwards came the ominous rumble, building in intensity. It owned the darkness.” – but there is an indulgence of description and of exposition masquerading as the protagonists’ internal reflections/reverie.
The opening encounter speaks of tension, but this disappears initially because we are repeatedly taken out of the tense moment by Erroh’s reflecting mid-crisis on the events that have led him to this point, and then finally because nothing happens. There is no consequence to this tense “caught in the act of cheating” moment.
Beth: Excellent point, Theo. I found this quite frustrating and it left me thinking the protagonist was quite melodramatic.
On a point of formatting, I would note that time jumps within a chapter need at least a line break if not a little trio of asterisks. There were several occasions where the very next paragraph was a different time and/or character point of view, and without that clue of a line break the reader is left with a sense of narrative discontinuity and a bit of a struggle to recheck what has happened.
I guess the intention of these early sections is to “show” us what kind of person Erroh is with a focus on him and his journey. But given that he spends so much of it on his own, we don’t get to see him much in interaction with others, and it ends up quite tell-y. The time Erroh spent with “rock” felt a bit like Tom Hanks’ Castaway – man alone with the elements, even down to the ultimate personification of the rock like that of Wilson the inscrutable volley-ball.
The author brings a certain motif of juxtaposition to the prose and I can’t work out if it is sincerely attempting to be funny or self-deprecatingly so:
“May I join you?” he called out quietly, They were fine words. He’d taken quite a time to form them.
“Why am I here?” he asked carefully. It was a fine question; he’d worked on it for hours.
He’d fallen out of the habit of smiling. He was very good at it he recalled.
And then after a few moments of nothing much happening, something happened.
Julia: I won’t say much because Theo and Beth already said it all…
I quite liked the cover and went in with high hopes! But sadly for me this one was a really early DNF. I read 5 chapters, so I’ll stay here in the initial thoughts section of the review, because I didn’t read enough to get any deeper insight. But sadly those 5 chapters already felt like a real chore to me.
The prose felt rough at times. Especially repetitiveness is something that annoys me – and this one had a lot of that. I didn’t click with the voice at all, and I found myself rolling my eyes, and sighing a lot. Especially the attempts at humour simply weren’t my cup of tea at all…
Beth: Was it a fine cup of tea?
Theo: Dare I say a fine jest, Beth.
Julia: I really don’t like the main character one bit. I don’t even especially dislike him, I simply don’t care for him even the slightest bit, which made reading tedious.
Adding in that I constantly found myself putting down the book and doing anything else, and never having the drive to actually pick it back up, aside from “You gotta read this for SPFBO,” I simply gave up – it’s not for me.
Laura: There isn’t much I can add that hasn’t already been said. The cover is attractive and professional (though the main character looks a bit confused by the fact that he’s holding two swords), but within the first few chapters it became obvious this wasn’t a book I was going to enjoy. (I managed to stick with it until the 75% mark, but found it too frustrating and infuriating to continue with.) I’ll say more about my reasons for DNFing in the relevant sections below.
Beth: [Shuffles her notes. There’s so many notes…]
As the others have said, the cover is very strong and intriguing, but I think misleading. I thought we were in for a story about assassins in what looks like a Renaissance Italy-inspired setting. Which it isn’t.
I didn’t enjoy the opening scene in the pub at all. Theo has already explained about the formatting issue, but it took me a couple of chapters and switches in time to realise what was happening; at this point it seemed like there was a lot of head hopping going on between different character perspectives – it was very disorientating and not at all a positive introduction to the story. Straight away we discover that the language being used is “females” and “mates”; further on it becomes a little clearer why this is, and I’ll discuss this in the Worldbuilding section, but by page two this book had made me grimace twice. I struggled to get my head around the narrative voice. It’s as if the author was going for that kind of third-person omniscient narrator you’d find in Pratchett:
“He instinctively blamed the absent gods, even if he struggled to believe in anything other than his own actions. The absent gods however had quite the faith in him but rarely did they let him know and when they did whisper thoughts in his head, he was disinclined to hear them.”
I felt it didn’t work because it was neither fully one thing or the other? These moments of omniscience were too few and far between to make it a valid ‘voice’, and instead just seemed like random moments of strange interjection.
Like Julia, I continued because I had to, I didn’t get the sense that I wanted to continue reading, that this was a story that had piqued my interest.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
Theo: I can’t say I ever found myself liking Erroh, which is of itself not necessarily a bad thing, but worse than that, I don’t think I cared about him. I was irritated not amused by his reflection on the “fine jests” he would say in the middle of a fight/argument which turned out to be neither fine nor jests. For example, an apparently brilliant bestiality gag: “I’ve heard they practice on horses before they mate with their own kind.”
Laura: In the opening chapter, I did actually feel some sympathy for Erroh, as well as curiosity as to where he was going. However, the head-hopping between characters, as well as Erroh’s thoughts pinging around like a pinball machine, made it difficult to understand his motivations, and, ultimately, impossible to care about him. Which sounds harsh, but the further the story progresses, the more this becomes true, to the point where I DNFd this book during its final quarter.
One of the most infuriating things – apart from the fact that none of the characters, except perhaps Lea, were likeable in any way – was the way Erroh regards women. At the slightest insult from one, he internally refers to them as bitches or whores, which… is not okay. Even were he fourteen years old – which he is not – this would still be jarring, particularly since it continues throughout the book without him ever realising how misogynistic his outlook is.
Beth: Such an important point Laura!
Laura: When he’s not thinking of them in these terms, he refers to them as ‘females.’ Not women; females. Using the term as a noun rather than an adjective conveys the sense that the narrator is superior to them, and sees them almost as subhuman. This was just one of many things that grated on me, and prevented me from ever feeling a connection with the protagonist.
Beth: Once I was past that opening chapter, I began to like Erroh. His journey intrigued me, although I wasn’t looking forward to him actually reaching the city, with all this talk of “alpha males” and “mating”. I found I began to dislike Erroh when he came into contact with other people. His description of the first woman he comes across, for example, was particularly cringeworthy. Erroh’s male gaze is very heavy, and although it’s clear this is a person who has been on his own for a long time and that has skewed his perspective on things, it was still very annoying to read. One can understand what the author wants to convey, but that doesn’t necessarily make it an enjoyable read. For example, this description of Lea:
“Tying the dark strands up in a ponytail. She wore it well. She wore everything well.”
It’s a ponytail. This was exasperating because, by this point, it felt like nothing was safe from his Male Gaze. Laura’s point about his not realising how misogynistic he is, is key here – presenting this kind of misogynistic character who has a lot to learn is one thing, but if there isn’t any challenge or criticism to it, if there isn’t any growth out of this behaviour, then you’re not making it clear that this behaviour is bad. For example, had Erroh had these thoughts, internally called Lea a bitch or a whore for slighting him, but then followed this up with guilt at his gut reaction, or an admonishment such as “His father would have never stood for such thoughts”, then it would be a clearer message that although this behaviour and mental attitude is rife, it is not condoned.
Erroh’s time in the city made me actively dislike him. Again, I could recognise that this is a person unable to mentally cope with their new environment and the unfamiliar social expectations upon him; but he seemed like a completely different person to the boy who, on Mea and Jeroen’s farmstead, knew his place and seemed to have a brain. From here, I just became more and more frustrated with both him and Lea and their frankly unconvincing enmity, so much so that I reached 45% and couldn’t force myself to read more of it anymore. Having just saved Lea from drowning, the following really was the last straw for me:
“He took a moment to enjoy the view of the half-drowned damsel wearing next to nothing shivering pathetically.”
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
Theo: Boy seeks city, meets girl – or, more to the point, appears to be taking part in an episode of Paddy McGuiness’s “Take Me Out” TV show. Other stuff is happening, but at that point I couldn’t tell if the story was about finding love, cultural acceptance amongst his kind, or protecting the weak.
By the 40% mark it was starting to feel like Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew combined with Rainman as an ill-matched couple with some serious communication issues go on a road journey.
Laura: I mentioned above how much I disliked Erroh’s character. This proved problematic, since the majority of the book – the first half, at least – is focused on him. I found myself rolling my eyes and even cringing at his internal monologue (particularly at the author’s overuse of the word ‘fine’, as Theo already mentioned), which made me feel as though I’d been reading the book forever. Slow-burn romances can be brilliant, but only if you actually care about the characters, which I didn’t.
Beth: I’m not sure I can comment very much on the plot? I had thought the plot was going to be Erroh in the eponymous City as he goes through this much afeared and mysterious Cull… but at 45% he’s been through that, got the girl he wanted but is pretending he didn’t want (I can’t understand why no matter which angle I look at that from) so I presume the plot is now how they go from enemies to lovers? I do hope there is a redemption arc here, that Erroh does learn a lesson and stops thinking things like “He would never hit a female. Not even if she deserved it.”
I’d have loved the plot to have had a stronger focus on the strange army moving across the land, what that might mean for the politics of Spark City, what role Erroh would have in that and any possible play his father might have in it all. And less on whether or not it was ok yet for him to get his leg over.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
Theo: The notion of separate lines – the Alphalines and the lowerlines – at first made me think this was an elf-versus-human kind of distinct society. But it appears that the difference is about a kind of purity of inheritance of lineage within an overall human race. The condescension of the winged folk towards the humans in A Tale Of Stars and Shadow is an easier prejudice to read about and confront. If there is a prejudice of one kind of humans over another then this needs careful exploration. To be fair, Tye, the most overtly prejudiced character, is properly dismissed by everyone – including his parents – as being a little shit.
Some aspects of geography and technology irked me – a great city should be easy to find, especially as Spark City makes no claim to Gondolin-style isolationism. Roads should lead there without too much trouble, but Erroh struggles to find a way there, stumbling incompetently through a forest. He is then amazed to discover that more than one road has been built leading to the city? Additionally, Spark City has electricity – OK, mix the technologies – but it still has straw mattresses?
Laura: I also found it a bit jarring that the city was advanced in some ways (like electricity) yet not in others. (Although I did appreciate Erroh’s childish delight upon discovering how the light switch worked.)
For me, though, the biggest issue was with the inconsistency between what we’re told and what we’re shown. We’re told that in this region, women rule; the leader of Spark City is a woman, and women are the dominant sex. Yet what we’re shown is those same women paraded around in front of potential mates; Erroh initially has the chance to reject any of them based on appearance alone, and none of them seem happy to be engaging in such a ridiculous mating ritual. Even in a (supposedly) matriarchal society, women are reduced to objects – walking wombs, whose sole purpose is to be a companion to her mate and, eventually, a mother to his child.
Sorry, but fuck that.
In addition to the city’s female leader (see how I used ‘female’ as an adjective there, not a noun) upholding the most toxic ideals of the traditional patriarchy, we also see very few women outside of the context of the Cull. (Aside: the name ‘Cull’ itself reflects that the only people who lose out are the women, i.e. those who are ‘culled’ from the competition for not being ‘good enough.’ Again, fuck that.) Instead of a gender-equal society where women hold all kinds of roles, as one might expect from a story that never shuts up about its strong female leadership, we see hardly anyone not wearing silk dresses and makeup. Tavern owners, guards, soldiers, merchants – all men.
I could go on, but I won’t. I almost want to apologise for the harsh things I’ve said during this review, but since it’s my genuine, honest response to reading the book, I won’t.
Beth: Welp, Laura said it all basically!
There were elements about the world building that I thought could be interesting. I interpreted this as a post-apocalyptic society; there was mention of a large forest where there was once wasteland, there were some words which seemed like perhaps they were bastardised from older ones (‘fuk’ and ‘coffe’, but these were the only ones, so if that’s what they were doing, it was poor representation to have only two examples. I presume ‘beo’ is a typo and not one of these instances), and the presence of electricity in an otherwise regressed society spoke of technology they no longer had the wherewithal to produce.
There was also a line that made me think this was a society brought back from the brink of something – “Oh well, sacrifices needed to be made for the rebuilding of a race.” And, to some extent, “They took mates to create a stronger line for this new world.” – which explained the reductionary language of “males” and “females”, “cubs”, “mates” and “mating”. “Alphas” and “alphalines”. But again, it didn’t make for an enjoyable read. As Theo has highlighted, there’s a distinct prejudice. It almost puts one in mind of Hitler’s desire for a “stronger” Arian race. Again, similarly to the issue of the misogynism, there’s no challenge to it. Arguably, one could picture a society in which importance is placed on breeding – The Handmaid’s Tale would be an excellent example – but there’s no challenge or criticism of the system. Simply assuming your readers will see this as a flawed perspective is not enough. There are plenty of people out there who think this way, and upon reading these issues portrayed in this way in their escapist fantasy novels, will feel validated. It’s not just about fair representation. It’s about presenting and challenging things which are the norm but which shouldn’t be.
I wholeheartedly agree with Laura’s point on the contradictions between what we’re told and what we’re shown. For example, women are strong and can fight and hunt and are important to society. And so I assume the stereotype that she’s packed far too much for the journey, including an unnecessary amount of shoes, is supposed to be humour?
Laura: Not to mention the fact that she’s supposedly trained in survival, but doesn’t even bring her own water bottle along on the journey…
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
Theo: Quite a few of Erroh’s jests misfired for me, despite being telegraphed in advance as jests to come. But there was another more gentle innuendo of the kind I like. When Erroh discovers an attractive woman had been watching him as he bathed in a pool earlier in the day, “He wanted to argue that the water was coldest in the morning.” Yes, that one gets a two-aubergine award for a subtle knob gag.
Beth: There were some lovely descriptions, for example this simile:
“Running between them were narrow streets with smooth cobbles, and people flowed through like swelling gushing currents in the Great Mother’s drift.”
But then there were moments like this:
“A young female walked by carrying a blade and scabbard in her hands, it did not match her yellow dress in any way, but she didn’t seem to mind.”
Because the sword was at odds with a dress? Or the scabbard clashed with the yellow? Either way, it made me roll my eyes.
Theo: There are a number of books I’ve read or heard of which revel in a distinctive particular style of writing that is part of their effect; The Silmarillion, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Princess Bride, Mercedes Murdoch Yardley’s Pretty Little Dead Girls, and Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus. In different ways they defy conventions. Spark City seems to aspire to the same kind of distinction, a kind of naif writing style that feels more like fable/fairy story than novel. Is it self-deprecating? Mocking? Or is it just indulgent? Ultimately I’m afraid I found the style grated far more often and loudly than it amused.
I could say more, but I’ll mention just a few points – namely the author’s overuse of “fine” as an adjective, with lines like “It was a fine jest.” “It was a fine question”, etc. In exasperation, I used the Kindle search function to find out there are over 250 uses of this one adjective – so many in fact that I almost sighed with relief when the adjective “good” was used instead (160 uses). And as for adverbs, well, wonderfully enough, there are over 500 of them – beyond my Kindle’s capacity to count.
There is a story in there, some characters to generate a little curiosity, some lines I smiled at (e.g. “You drown really loudly.”) I think it strives to be a love story, but the rest of the world has the artificiality of a minimalist stage set, with its disconnected cities, expendable side characters and the marauding big bad robber band whose only function is to provide threat and emotional trauma. Sadly I found the central love story more irritating than intriguing and the writing felt clumsy where it might have aspired to be clever. So, for me, I’m afraid Spark City ended up being less than the sum of its isolated parts.
Laura: I absolutely agree. The ‘love story’ in particular bordered on irritating at the best of times, and outright abusive at the worst. I think the main issue for me was the entire non-consensual nature of Erroh and Lea’s relationship, on both sides. It made me uncomfortable. This, along with everything I mentioned above, meant that I can’t honestly say I enjoyed Spark City at all, and I DNFd it at 75%.
Theo: I think Laura is absolutely right. The romantic element just makes you “uncomfortable” as a reader, not just because of the clumsy writing but the cattle-market-with-consequences premise on which the whole thing rests.
Beth: Theo and Laura have both summed up perfectly my issues with both writing style and voice, and the nature of relationships and representation here. I very much wanted to like it – post-apocalyptic regressive societies are one of my favourite tropes – but it was just too uncomfortable a read.