GOD OF SMALL AFFAIRS by Olga Werby (SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist Review)
The sixth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is almost reaching the end of round 1, and some of our fellow blogs have already started announcing their finalists!
As you know, we’ve cut our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, and for the rest of this week we’ll be reviewing – and eliminating! – each of these books in full before eventually announcing our SPFBO 6 finalist on Friday.
Yesterday, we said goodbye to The Pygmy Dragon by Marc Secchia.
God of Small Affairs
Jon Uolan is the grandson of First Nation tribe elder. His assignment is to bring home a god. Not the omnipresent god or the god that set the weight of the proton and the rate of universal expansion, but rather an everyday kind of god, the god that lives among her people, the god of small affairs, Ay-Tal Blue.
An easy assignment turns into a nightmare when Ay-Tal gets accidentally shot and Jon becomes a suspect in a murder investigation. And while Jon is in prison, a huge earthquake and tsunami wipe out his home village. His grandfather dies in the disaster. With his people scattered and living apart, the whole tribe might cease to exist. The new generation just is not interested in the old tribal ways. Ay-Tal is no longer there to help and guide them.
What is Jon to do? How will a new path into the future shape the people who got mixed up with a god of small affairs?
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
The subject of the cover came up quite a lot in our mini announcement-review. Having now finished the book, I can see how well the imagery on the cover ties in to the story – I’m not really sure how you would convey this story on a cover… but it is a shame the cover is so unappealing! I think it’s the mix of the colour palette and the face staring at me that does it for me (yeah I know, Beth’s on about faces again…)
It’s ok, Beth, I’ll sit and grumble about faces on covers with you, I don’t like them either!
Thanks Nils! My initial impressions, as I mentioned in our previous review, had been quite mixed. I was intrigued by the plot, but there were some occasional aspects of the writing that I hadn’t liked.
I did feel the writing style, on the whole, flowed very well. When I returned to the book to read it fully, I found myself able to fall back into it with ease and I was struck by how well balanced the dialogue and narrative was. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel this standard was sustained throughout the book as a whole but I’ll come back to this later.
Yes I think we have laid into the cover quite heavily already and it is a difficult balance between being eye catching and yet also conveying some intriguing element of plot, setting or character. While there is a virtue in daring to be different the basic practicalities of colour and legibility, even at thumbprint size, are important.
At a copy-editing level I found the book sound. There weren’t any typos glaring enough to catch my eye. There is a certain naif style to the prose – unadorned descriptions of actions, emotions and events. In some places that terse-ness could feel a little clunky.
Arrow jumped the waist-high fence like it wasn’t even a barrier. Roberta and Saga had to climb over it. They were shorter than Arrow. He did help.
I felt very much the same as Beth and Theo regarding the cover. I also thought the prose had been edited well, I didn’t spot many typos or grammatical errors, yet I did find it more on the simplistic side. There was a nice balance between ‘showing’ and ’telling’ though, I noticed quite a few scenes particularly when they involved the character Saga where I could easily feel and sympathise with her emotions.
I was drawn into the book initially, mostly because I was taken by surprise by the premise of a shapeshifting god journeying back to their tribe in Alaska, and I became thoroughly excited to see where it would all lead. However, as the book went on, I felt myself become less invested.
Not saying again just how much I disliked that cover (and it goes on with illustrations before you ever make it to the text, some of which also were a bit strange…)
For the start of the book then – I found the first scene really weird and was expecting nothing much of the book due to that. Soon after though the story itself got going and the prose was fluent and engaging enough to hook me rather quickly after all! Definitely the strongest point of the whole story.
I did find about 5 typos or so, which is rather clean compared to most other SPFBO books I’ve read by the way. Usually I am the one who misses them!
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?)
There is quite a cast of characters, and I felt Werby was able to make her characters distinct from each other, but I didn’t feel they were necessarily complex? Emotionally, they each seemed to have the thing that drove them – and whereas that emotion or motivation was well developed, I didn’t feel they ranged outside of their cue cards very far. Having said that, I did feel Saga was very well portrayed, Werby quite skilfully created in her a teenager who was clearly vulnerable and emotional, and yet displayed intelligence and courage; I felt it was possible to envisage Saga beyond the confines of the story, I can picture her in various next steps of her life.
I was very taken with Saga too, Beth, and you make a great point, she’s clearly vulnerable yet it didn’t cripple her ability to think rationally and find ways to get out of the horrid situation she was in.
Where I felt perhaps a little disappointed was in the characters of Jon and Ay-Tal. It felt like Jon was only ever the product of his circumstances; we’re told he’s a strong leader and he’s well regarded in his home community, but the necessity of the story meant we only really saw him fighting to prove his innocence and protect Ay-Tal and then Saga… I almost wish I could have met him outside this story. I’d have loved to see him in his home, in his element, I’d have loved to see what aspects of him would have shone through. With regards to Ay-Tal, although I found it quite clever how Werby was able to convincingly portray them as a different character when it applied, I did feel this very process robbed us of the opportunity to get a true sense of the timelessness of this character, and the very many things they must have experienced. We’re told some of these in passing, but their ‘powers’ were somewhat latent for the majority of the story.
I agree with Beth that the characters, although quite ferociously driven, seemed to have a limited set of gears and motivations. I too was disappointed in Jon who felt shorn of agency as the story developed. Too often he seemed to be commanded or led by others, or waiting for something to happen.
Ay-tal had promise as a character but then disappeared from view for much of the key sequences in the book and their re-appearance was more like a macguffin turning up to fix the plot, than a character. I think the notion of eternal gods guiding the paths of humankind for hundreds of thousands of years is fascinating. The original colonisation of North America at the close of the last ice age is still a subject of some debate – The notion that there was a corridor opened down the spine of North America allowing migration across the Aleutian islands, Alaska and down towards the plains is fascinating. Throw a minor god or two into that setting and you should have some story magic. But sadly this episode in Ay-Tal’s godhood was a little more prosaic.
This was also an issue for me, Theo. Within the first 20% we were presented with an extremely fascinating character, Ay-Tal, an ancient god whose purpose was to lead people on safer paths. I was very much hooked into this premise and was eager to discover more about their powers. I’ll go into more detail about this in the next section, but having Ay-Tal disappear for almost the entirety of the rest of the book really disappointed me.
I’ll have to agree with Theo and Beth on Jon Uolan. As the story progressed, Jon’s agency diminished to the point he was little more than a vessel for the reader.
I struggled with Ay-Tal’s disappearance, as Nils did. The god’s role is what makes this a contestant in our competition, after all. I think–and my fellow judges will agree–the problem is one of promises made and unfulfilled. The opening hints at the further exploration of all these mystical elements, which tie into the title of the novel. But before the world blossoms before us, we are dragged back to the small town Jon and Ay-Tal just got away from. The story slows after that, the fantastic elements giving way to human drama.
That was exactly my issue with it!
There’s something Stephen King-esque to the characters this book is invested in; many of them are tropey in just the way you’d expect in a King novel. There’s the priest at the heart of the community; the powerful, petty bully; the fucked up teenagers; the neurotic older woman who cares about social capital more than people; add to this a guest appearance by a tough detective that’ll be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed some form of thriller over the last four decades. None of them are bad–but they are all familiar.
I’m a bit more critical of the characters than most of the others, as I thought most of them were just a bit too stereotypical and could have used a bit more depth behind them. Saga as was already mentioned definitely was the one that I related to most, but the others just stayed a bit blank as it seemed they were mostly just that one driving motivation instead of a mix of different feelings and attitudes. They were well enough that it didn’t annoy me overly much, but it made the book feel a bit simplistic, when otherwise it could have been a favourite of mine! (Also I was hoping to see more of Jon’s culture and his people, but alas, that was just my expectations that weren’t met, not the books fault….)
You’re not alone with those unfulfilled expectations though Julia!
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?)
This is, unfortunately, where I struggled somewhat with this book. I felt like perhaps Werby had an idea for a story involving a tribe and their god, and another idea for a town being controlled by twisted people who a sympathetic character needed to escape from – and she merged the two together.
Exactly! It really did feel like two separate stories, which I would arguably say didn’t work well merged together.
They really didn’t unfortunately.
The story did read well, I found myself wanting to return to it to find out what would happen next – the pacing was very good and I certainly cared enough about the characters to find out what happened to them. However, I felt like it wasn’t quite the story I’d been wanting to read. I would have loved to have been immersed in the Inuit culture; I’d have loved to have been whisked off to Alaska to see how this god had immersed themselves in this tribe. That’s where I thought the story would be going. Instead, we return to the rainy little typical American town.
I was also somewhat concerned with the message conveyed by the final resolution of the story. I could appreciate the messages of growth and evolution, the fact that Ay-Tal had been ‘leading’ these people for centuries from one place to another. But I couldn’t help but wonder what it said about removing the tribe from their home environment and their land, and into the neat little boxes of ‘civilised society’. I didn’t feel that was a positive outcome? I don’t intend to pretend for a second that I understand the Inuit culture and what is and isn’t erasure or community integration, but these were certainly things I questioned when I finished the book.
Like Beth I struggled with the plot. At the 20% point it felt like it could have gone in any number of directions, but shortly after that it collapsed down to a more limited story encapsulated in this line when Jon says:
“This town is sick, and I want to find a way to help.”
So the fantastic elements took a back seat to the investigation and resolution of Wilkins’ dark secrets. This notion of a town named for its founders which then bestows a certain regal authority on the founding family is something I only recently became aware of through the delightful Schitt’s Creek. Like Schitt’s Creek, Wilkins is in something of a decline, its population shrinking under mundane economic and generational pressures. As Beth noted Jon’s own Inuit people are suffering similar pressures so there were parallels, but in its resolution I felt the story stretched those links a little too much.
The plot itself twisted and turned in ways that at times felt more convenient than logical. Police appeared and disappeared in rather surprising numbers and I thought that the investigation of a potential federal murder (I mean it involved crossing state lines) fell too often in the laps of just a couple of named traffic policemen.
I understand Beth’s reservations about the story’s resolution and the fact that we saw nothing of Jon’s home in the North, as the whole story got squeezed into the civic boundaries of Wilkins, including even the answer to Jon’s people’s plight. There were some contemporary issues that the book paid tribute to, around forced migration and the treatment of refugees. However, the production line upcycling of charity goods felt a little odd to me. It may be that this is part of American mid-western culture. Certainly the setting, on the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, resonated more with my dim UK based awareness of American geography, given current news from that region.
Theo makes the exact point I was going to make too – the fantasy aspect of this book takes a complete backseat, and this was something that as I’ve stated disappointed me no end.
Like Beth has also mentioned, I too felt Werby had initially led us to believe that we would explore Inuit mythology, tribal culture, and the stunning setting of Alaska. Had I known within the first 20% that we would remain in the town of Wilkins, I wouldn’t have been eager to continue. In fact consequently at around 60% I stopped reading because I just wasn’t invested any longer.
Now the missing fantasy elements didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did others, but I did think it went from possible Urban Fantasy with different cultural backseat to more like a crime drama?
Nevertheless I enjoyed the tone and voice a lot, and the plot was intriguing enough to keep me reading even on high anxiety days, when usually my brain simply won’t allow me to focus on a story. This is also the reason why I didn’t manage to finish the whole book on time for this review (I’m at about 80% right now), and why I can’t really comment on the ending of the story. What I did read from my fellow judges doesn’t appeal to me as much as I was hoping for until now.
Let it be known so far they avoided spoilering me! I read their thoughts on my own volition right now.
The tone is enjoyable, as Julia mentioned, and cruising through the chapters is very easy. God of Small Affairs is among the lightest reads I came across this SPFBO, and if you’re looking for something that doesn’t demand too much of your attention, it’s a fine choice. My problems are of a similar nature as my fellow judges’; what is true of the characters is true of the pacing and the worldbuilding, as well. The short of it is, Wilkins isn’t all that engaging a setting, and its characters don’t offer enough narrative tension to make of this a gripping story. Solutions pop up when they’re needed, without the necessary build-up; this is particularly egregious towards the closing of the novel. I have to wonder if another hundred pages wouldn’t have given Gods the necessary breathing space.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
Again, I felt this was an aspect that let the book down. This is a fantasy contest, so obviously we’re focusing on the fantasy content; and I don’t think there was enough of it in God of Small Affairs. I think it had the potential to have plenty – I was expecting something along the lines of American Gods or possibly Good Omens. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that Ay-Tal’s magic was as strong a focus for Werby. Obviously, it’s important, but there are a number of other elements and issues at play within this story… they’re just not particularly fantasy-orientated. Outside of this competition, that’s perfectly fine, but with the SPFBO in mind, I do think there needs to be a greater focus on what makes a story a fantasy.
The fantasy element was subtle to the point of invisibility for large tracts of the book. My initial excitement at the innovation of this strange grey god creature who could take on human form with the appropriate footwear faded somewhat as the story wore on. The god’s powers were mostly of persuasion, of influence, their immortality somewhat suspect, and their transformations inconsistent.
Early on we are told
“The Change was never easy, even under the best of circumstances”
But later on, when it suits the plot, Ay-Tal transitions between forms apparently as easily as taking a coat on or off, indeed they even have a wardrobe of different “disguise” inducers in the back of a van.
This was one of my biggest struggles with the end. The author breaks the rules she’s set up — and that makes for a stab of annoyance.
It’s those kinds of things that made me feel this was born more a pantser than a plotster style of writing. That is, a key initial idea that stimulated a story and which the author was happy to run with, rather than a plot that was begun with already sketched out key moments and end points. Which is not to say that the panster approach is in any way wrong, just that it is more likely to benefit from a structural edit to resolve inconsistencies and pull the plot strings a bit tauter.
I don’t have much to add really that Beth and Theo haven’t already brought to light. I also struggled with the lack of fantasy, as I have with a few of the other entries we’ve had in our SPFBO batch this year. Had Ay-Tal not disappeared for so long we might have got to explore the god’s powers more, their limitations, their stories throughout history, and more mythology.
This was definitely my biggest disappointment, as I was definitely hoping to learn more about the Inuit and see a lot more of their culture, and the two gods we met. While it was well enough written to keep me engaged plot-wise, the worldbuilding felt quite flat and uninspired, especially when the start of the book was set up expecting something very different!
Quotations that resonated with you
There were quite a few nice lines to make me smile – here a little reflection on ways of knowing someone.
Roberta might not know us as well, Sagha decided, but she knows us better.
Or here in the use of brushing.
People crowded around her, touching her gently, brushing her with soft words and caring smiles.
The book has some excellent lines, such as:
Each human community had a nexus, a pivot point around which individuals and events turned.
I did enjoy God of Small Affairs, particularly the commentary on that kind of community spirit that’s keen on doing good for the sake of looking like you’re doing good. I’ve had first hand experience of those kinds of people, so I felt like I really connected to that critique that Werby explored with her citizens of Wilkins. I did feel at points that perhaps it was a little heavy handed, and that a point of contrast – a citizen who did good deeds genuinely for the sake of helping – would have helped balance the situation and shown an understanding that not every community project is like that.
When we started to reach the climax of the story, it began to feel quite rushed and there was even an increase in grammatical and spellings errors – things that perhaps a spell-check wouldn’t pick up on, such as “Nice you meet you,”. I also thought that the story dragged on a little further than it necessarily needed to; it felt like a little too much time was spent tying up the happy endings. For me, Saga in the hospital room would have been a good ending point. As it was, the actual ending occurred mid dialogue with very little warning, and came as something of a surprise. These are all things that an editorial pass could fix though.
Ultimately, although I enjoyed the book, I did not think there were sufficient elements of the fantasy genre to carry it further in a fantasy contest.
This was an easy read and I was happy to be swept along by the character’s journeys. As Beth has said, the fantasy elements did not build up quite as much as I would have hoped to see in this competition. I was interested in the focus on small town life, the decay of a population as youngsters moved on or out, and the things such communities do to bring themselves together and to hold onto their civic identity. There were bad guys who duly got their come-uppance but without it quite building the life or death tension that I expected. Like Beth said, the handling of the town’s characters felt a little heavy handed and, although they were discrete people, they didn’t feel very nuanced. Ultimately, for a story that started with Jon as a passenger on a train, I just felt he continued too much in passenger mode.
Oh that’s very nicely put Theo!
Unfortunately, I was less captivated by God of Small Affairs than the rest of my fellow judges, and that really is a personal preference issue rather than a judgement on Werby’s writing as I found the book well-written. It just wasn’t the story I had expected or wanted.
Even if I didn’t manage to make it to the very end in time, I definitely enjoyed this book a lot.
For me it definitely isn’t finalist material, as it just lacked a bit of depth and well-roundedness for the characters and the fantasy aspect was a bit lacking for an SPFBO book. As I said I also expected a lot more from the worldbuilding. (Theo said it much better than I ever could already…)
I did however really love the tone and voice of the book, and it was a quick, easy and interesting read. While the characters could have been written better, I did care for them and want to know what happens to them next! I will probably finish it tomorrow, as I am definitely hooked to the story, despite its flaws, and I would absolutely recommend it to those who don’t need a big amount of fantasy in their books and want something a bit different!
This was one of the first books I was excited to read. It could’ve been more than it was–more ambitious, more fantastic, more consistent. But God of Small Affairs has its strengths, and it might very well appeal to you. It’s worth taking a chance on.
***Commiserations to Olga Werby and God of Small Affairs.***
We’re now down to four semi-finalists. Check back TOMORROW for our next elimination!
Who will be our SPFBO 6 finalist? Find out this Friday!
If you’re following SPFBO 6, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
Stay tuned over the next few days as we review our remaining semi-finalists and eventually pick our FINALIST (exciting!!), and check out our introduction to round 1!