A SEA OF BROKEN GLASS by Sonya M. Black (SPFBO Finalist Review)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
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Welcome to our seventh SPFBO Finalist review: A Sea of Broken Glass (The Lady and the Darkness #1) by Sonya M. Black.
Secrets have a price.
After enduring weeks of torture and being convicted of witchery, Ris escapes, only to discover the Darkness and the Lady are hunting her. They need the magic that sings within her.
Creator of all, the imprisoned Lady needs Ris, her last vessel, to find the Heart of Creation. The Darkness seeks to corrupt the vessel and retain his hold on the Lady, and with it, the world.
Ris finds help from a pair of Paladins of Light who aid her in cleansing the evil taint from the lands. As her power grows, so do her questions. How can she restore balance to the world and free the Lady? Should the Lady be trusted or is she as much at fault for the evil in the world as the Darkness? With powerful demons War, Ruin, and Plague at her heels, Ris struggles to stay alive as she tries to unravel the secrets hidden within her before it’s too late.
Secrets that may cost Ris her soul even if she does succeed.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
The cover benefits from being more specific to the story than others I have seen, though it is a bit confused and I find myself picking out different elements in the cover after having read the book, rather than being drawn into the book through seeing the cover. Also, I’m not sure about the title font, eye-catching certainly, but possibly hard to read especially in thumbprint.
I hadn’t really paid much attention to the cover to begin with – it just seemed a confusion of colour and I didn’t really bother to look closer. But like Theo said, when I finished the book there were elements of the cover that jumped out to me and I finally realised what they meant. So although it does reflect the story better, I don’t think it’s attention-grabbing at all. Although, unlike Theo, I do love the title font!
Production values are strong with good accurate line editing. This creates a positive impression of a commitment to quality and professionalism. There are some nice descriptive lines:
“A sheet of rain blotted out the horizon, marching ever closer. Waves crested in tall, white caps before they slammed into the waiting beach.”
To be honest, my first impressions weren’t… great… the opening should be really interesting and gripping – we’re thrust into the trial of our protagonist as she’s accused of witchcraft. But I kept getting distracted from the story by the over-description of little details. Some of the descriptions I loved:
“Women huddled like gossiping hens in their bustles and lace trimmed dresses. All starch and feathers with no substance.”
Others just felt a step too much:
“I stared at the polished brass buttons that ran in twin lines from collar to waist.”
Obviously, this would be quite an emotional process, but there was so much emotion charging through this opening for a character that I was only just meeting, that a lot of it felt lost on me.
I really liked the opening. Like you said, Beth, it was a bit full-on, and perhaps tried to convey a bit more information than it needed to, but I found it engaging enough that I’d reached 14% without even realising it. I’d also made it through a POV change and back without ever losing interest (quite the opposite, in fact), which says a lot about the strength of the writing – and especially the pacing.
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?)
We have four PoV characters, one of whom, Ris, is the female first person protagonist. The others, told in third person, are three of the four superpowered male protectors assigned to keep Ris safe. All of them have secrets in their pasts, but I felt these were telegraphed too overtly, spilled too readily, and at times the tortuous navel contemplation of guilt felt a little indulgently unsubtle. That’s not to say they didn’t have trauma in their pasts – just that the way it was presented and attention devoted to it felt more like performance art for the reader’s benefit than character development to drive the story along. Perhaps that’s why the character I most engaged with was the one whose head I never saw inside, the fourth protector called Cre.
I found it so difficult to connect to the characters. There was very little exposition in this story – it felt like we’d arrived in the middle of a story that had already been going awhile. On the one hand, it was great that there wasn’t any info-dumps etc; but on the other hand, I felt like I’d missed out on something (I even researched to see if this was definitely book one of the series) and, more importantly, all the connections in the book (bar one important one) had already been made. It felt like all the characters already knew each other, which of course is a common enough element in story-telling, but I never had that sense that I myself was getting to know them too. I felt like an outsider trying to peg along.
As Theo said, there was a great deal of contemplation and internalising. I think confronting one’s insecurities and overcoming them with the help of those closest to you was an important message within this story, but the presentation of the agonising was quite blunt. We’d stray away from the story whilst the character asked themselves questions about what they were feeling:
“I held the satchel tighter. Should I tell him the truth? Could I trust him with it? The Darkness could use me as easily as the Lady. Not that I was willing to let either have me. That would lead to the end of the world.
Whose side was Michel on? Bran had sent him, but how much did Bran trust him?”
I kind of felt the opposite, Beth, in that I enjoyed being thrown in to the story and learning about these pre-existing relationships as we went along. Seeing the characters immediately responding to dangerous situations felt like a smart way of giving the reader insights on their personalities without compromising the pacing set by the opening chapters.
I usually love this in books, I love getting thrown into a story. I floundered a little with this one though for some reason!
However, I did find myself occasionally getting the male characters mixed up since their backgrounds were so similar, and agree with Theo that their tragic pasts didn’t pack quite as much punch as they ought to have. While I appreciated they each held a different role – Shield, Sword and Cloak – I felt that at least one of these characters could possibly have been removed (Bran in particular felt a bit redundant, to me at least).
One other thing I had an issue with was the depiction of Ris’ PTSD. She’s understandably scarred from her traumatic experiences at the hands of the inquisitor, and this leads to flashbacks and even discomfort when in close contact with other people. However, this is really inconsistent: she flinches when she’s first reunited with Aeron, who is like a big brother to her, but is perfectly fine being embraced by Michel, whom she’s only just met. While I did appreciate the attempt to present the ongoing effects of mental trauma, it just felt too surface-level to me, as though the author only remembered to include it sometimes (and then presented it in the tell-rather-than-show ‘navel-gazing’ Theo alluded to).
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?)
Pacing is quite good, to the point of being almost exhausting. The chapters are fairly short, the PoV switches brisk, and the action/peril almost continuous. For those who like to be swept along with barely a pause to catch your breath (eg the sequences in Terminator 2 Judgement Day), this is good. However, at times I did yearn for a bit of space between the trauma and the peril to show us a bit more of the world and the characters. One of my biggest “yeah” moments was when Ris complains “We’d been dealing with an endless string of demon attacks from the moment I’d left Greendale and I was sick of it.” I sort of got where she was coming from.
Ha, yes! Despite the many fight scenes, by the 40% mark I was really starting to feel like the book was dragging. I was feeling quite bored of the constant running. By 55%, I was beginning to wonder why the characters were so scared and running for their lives, when they had little trouble dispatching the enemy each time they faced them. The sense of jeopardy wore thin quite early on – like the boy who cried wolf. I stopped feeling worried about demons and ghouls.
The plot itself felt a bit thin in places. I heard echoes of other stories in the saga of quest for lost relic, search for balance, pursuit of world healing and escape from the corrupted central authority. However, there are some interesting premises in there. A god who, in choosing to walk the earth, allowed evil in. People who cannot help but host some of the darkness within themselves and must struggle to control it, before it controls them. However, some of those subtleties are lost in a blunt portrayal of homespun good characters offering succour and leering evil characters overheard discussing their evil plans. At times the plot reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, even down to the number of protagonists, and now I think about it, Cre – the fifth character who goes unrepresented by a PoV – does have a dog as his avatar.
The plot was quite simplistic, but that just meant it was refreshingly easy to read. There were elements in the first half of the book that I really enjoyed, the mystery of The Voice and the Bastion and who could be trusted. Unfortunately, I think cards were played a little too early on, so there was very little mystery left in the second half; you could sit back and let the story sweep you along, and not have to think too much about it. I’m also not sure we really needed as many PoVs as we had, and the fact that Ris’ PoV was in first person, and everyone else’s in third, was sometimes quite disorientating. Ris’ chapters felt a lot richer and descriptive in writing style, which was a nice enough differentiation without needing to change the narrative voice also. I found it a little frustrating that all her role models/body guards – her father figure, her ‘brother’, her lover – were all male. Without wishing to spoil things too much, the notion of a chosen-one female requiring protecting and saving does get turned on its head; but I’d have loved to see more ambiguity in gender. The protectors were male. The corrupted forerunners were women. I’m not sure why any given group needed to be any particular gender, it didn’t seem plot relevant. Whereas by blurring those lines, it could have been a strong message that anyone can be a protector, anyone can be corruptible, and anyone can require saving.
The brisk pacing worked really well at the beginning – it certainly kept me hooked for a good while – but yes, I agree that some variance would have been nice. I think Ris’ chapters suffered most from this. Since she’s the main POV, we should be spending more time with her, and we should also feel more invested in her arc. However, while I liked her as a character, her development felt very rushed. Her confrontation with Ruin (for example) had barely been foreshadowed when it was over in the blink of an eye, and the concept of Ris ‘unlocking’ new types of magic was also very sudden. It’s as if you’re starting out in a new video game and have multiple abilities thrust upon you rather than leveling up gradually and becoming familiar with the ones you started with.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
The magic draws on four traditional elements, each associated with different skills. It’s also interesting that the magic is associated with musical instruments or rather with sections of an orchestra, so Ris’ healing magic is all brass section, while Michel’s more attacking magic is about the string section. So magic battles have a lot of clashing music. Beyond that though, there is a sense of magic simply being a well of power that the characters draw on and hurl around rather than being an intricate but logical system of individual spells.
It definitely put me in mind of Teresa Frohock’s magic in the Los Nefilim series. Though, like you say, there unfortunately doesn’t appear to be all that much nuance here.
I loved the magic system! I loved that it was something spiritual, something that couldn’t necessarily be tamed, but rather incorporated and enticed into a song. I loved the idea of the different elements working, literally, in a harmony.
I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the notion of it being a bad thing that the magic of two of the characters was mixing together as a kind of romance built between them. In itself, I thought this notion somewhat questionable at first; it was almost like that Disney love-at-first-sight thing, whereby their magic was bringing them together. It seemed they were not falling in love with each other based on any other merit. But the characters then do fight against this, on that exact principle, so I felt reconciled.
The author has built up an interesting lore for this world, but we don’t get to see that much of the world whilst the characters are running through it.
At first, I quite liked the link of the Welsh name Bran with his namesake – the crow. But unfortunately, that’s as far as the Welsh link went, and whereas there were other Welsh names it felt like they were because they sounded “more fantasy” rather than because there were other links the author wanted to make.
I personally liked that we only learned bits and pieces of the world. The epigraphs (I love epigraphs) and the prologue painted enough of a picture to keep things feeling cohesive, and the allusions to sinister-sounding places and entities (the Bonelands, the Bastion, the Voice, the Void, etc) as well as the ‘Lady and the Darkness’ theme brought to mind Glen Cook’s excellent Black Company.
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
There are some nice lines – the prose shines best in its descriptive moments
“The mining outpost was an ugly place filled with squat wooden-sided buildings and loud equipment.”
“Evening wasn’t far away. The edge of the horizon was dusted in coral before it stretched heavenward and mixed with the deeper shades of blue.”
“The shadow stretched long fingers across the small valley, covering it in muted tones while the hills and sky bled bright orange.”
I usually read books without thinking about what the intended audience might be, but A Sea of Broken Glass reminds me of some overtly YA books (eg The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green) with its relatively un-nuanced characters driven by emotions of love, guilt and duty. While there is a fairly hectic pace, it is also a fairly unvarying pace, a stagger from one danger to another which maintains a certain momentum, but not so much depth. If the story were a meal it would be more a high-calorie sugar-rich rush of a meal, than a balance of all the major food groups. (It is possible that I am overworking that analogy!) Anyway, it is well crafted in what it does and how it does it, but I would have liked to see more depth and complexity of plot and character.
I found myself enjoying some moments of this one, but then sometimes feeling dissatisfied also. I agree with Theo that more complexity would have given us a more fulfilling story. And characters who were more than the sum of their guilt and insecurities. However, I didn’t find any inconsistencies or moments of illogical plotting that left me feeling exasperated. I liked it well enough, but I didn’t love it unfortunately.
A Sea of Broken Glass is engaging and original, and the first few chapters in particular hooked me in a way none of the other finalists have. However, it wasn’t until we started discussing the book in detail that I realised the main thing that kept me reading further was the pacing rather than the characters or story. This is an admirable feat for any author (pacing is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of writing to get right, and is a key reason many bestsellers become bestsellers), but I have to agree with Beth and Theo in saying that I’d like to have seen more emotional depth to the protagonists – and the antagonists, for that matter.