NETHER LIGHT by Shaun Paul Stevens (SPFBO 6 FINALIST REVIEW)
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As you will see from the discussions within our Hive reads reviews, and indeed by comparing what the different blogs have said, reviewing books can generate a vibrant diversity of opinion.
But SPFBO is, I think, a particularly gruelling process for authors – the more so as you reach the pinnacle of finalist status.
The nature of the competition means books get a detailed critique whether or not they are to each blog’s cup of tea. In the run of more normal book blogging we might decide not to post any review where a book hadn’t sufficiently fired our enthusiasm. However, with SPFBO we do have to say something on every book and – while it is always going to be a bit of a mix of positives and negatives – the balance isn’t always going to be in the author’s favour.
We hope to explain at least what elements we did like and why we didn’t like other parts, sometimes the very things that put us off will be the things that make someone else want to grab a book.
Certainly across the blogs’ reviews you will see how some things that were deal breakers for one blog were barely noticed blemishes (if not actual benefits) for others. I remember one Amazon review that gave a book a one star rating for “excessive” use of the f-word; being somewhat potty-mouthed myself, that was actually something of an endorsement for a book which I went and bought and enjoyed.
So, we hope our reviews give you a sense of each book, and the angle we viewed it from. Something to help the readers see how it may or may not work for them, and to help the authors see where and why their writing did or didn’t land with one sample of their audience.
Shaun Paul Stevens
Take a journey through a world punished by a dark, imprisoned magic. A world where children are given poison. A world where your talent is decided by the state.
A world where reality is breaking down.
When refugee Guyen washes up in the land of his enemy, he knows he will fight, but soon finds himself falling down a well of wonder and improbability.
Can he survive a system designed to oppress him? Can he tame his anger to unleash his potential? Can he see his enemy for what they truly are?
Theo: I liked the opening section which had a sense of tension and conflict as two infants were about to be subjected to a process of “binding.” I also enjoyed the immersive approach where the author didn’t actually explain or exposit things about the nature of this world. However, it did feel like a bit of a jump when we leapt forward seventeen years leaving that tense moment (along with a couple of deaths) completely unexamined until much much later in the book. There was then a shipwreck that also made limited sense – I mean warships firing on a boat full of refugees fleeing to a better life – in what kind of cruel insane world would that be a politically acceptable option (<cough>Home Secretary Priti Patel<cough>).
The prose does have an idiosyncratic style that I found a bit hit and miss. Eg “Sky opened up and a torrent of wind and rain bore down.”
There’s also a plot point that is interesting but left me a bit confused initially, where the author is describing the protagonist Guyen’s suddenly discovered ability to see “future echoes” of things that are yet to happen. It’s a clever concept and the idea of a magic that involves visualising and manipulating future probabilities is really quite cool, but it is quite tricky to describe in a world which actually has a multiplicity of interesting aspects that I’ll describe more under world building.
Following on from that initial disconnect, the initial plot felt a bit like a sequence of isolated disconnected events. There is the binding question, then (17 years later) the flight of the refugees, then the journey to a relative’s house, then search for employment. Each of those early scenes felt as though they had a plot function to advance Guyen’s story arc in some way, but that was the only connection between them. E.g. the shipwreck was needed to enable Guyen to find a key piece of kit, but apart from that the story proceeded as if they had just disembarked normally and without trauma in a port.
Nils: I agree, Theo. I felt many scenes happened for convenience sake, rather than having bigger implications.
Theo: This may be a reflection of the author’s focus in trying to keep a long book (638 pages) within reason but it did mean some parts felt like pieces of different jigsaw puzzles.
Beth: That’s such a good point Theo, the weird disconnect between characters and events was so strange. Traumas and deaths do not seem to have a lasting effect on the characters.
Filip: That struck me as strange, too. I don’t think Stevens meant to create this sense of detachment in his characters–it harms the illusion every author aims to create, of characters that seem as if they might pop off the page at any moment. If our main character Guyen doesn’t care about what’s going on to his close ones, why should we?
Julia: I’ll stay mostly in this section, because I couldn’t get past page 100 of this one. I hate to rip apart books, and I couldn’t write anything even a fraction as well as this, so still kudos for writing a novel like this! But this just didn’t work for me at all. Instead of hating on it, I’ll just try and give you examples of what was problematic for me – you might not mind the same things as much as me.
I couldn’t really get to the plot or story, or enjoy the world building, as I felt myself barred from immersion by the prose. The world and plot and magic all have potential, but I just couldn’t get into the story as the prose itself just constantly kept grinding on me.
Especially the first chapter was very repetitive in sentence structure.
“Olvar jumped up. The junior Overseer pulled his sword. Olvar raised a placating hand.”
Nils: This was my issue too! There’s a string of exposition which felt overdone and jarring.
Julia: There were also sentences like this, spoken from husband to wife:
“Don’t worry, woman, it’s just a scratch.”
I also don’t especially like this:
“That was the kind of thing you noticed if you did a lot of noticing, which he did. Unfortunately, another noticed thing had been the boson’s manifest, a stolen glance over the man’s shoulder on the day of departure suggesting over two hundred souls aboard.”
Beth: Now, actually I quite liked Stevens’ phrasing there, I felt the repetition was done purposefully for humour and it did make me smile.
Julia: or these:
“He grunted a contemptuous laugh”
“Smiling at the three daughters, nine, twelve and fourteen, at a guess.”
– quite an exact guess… Some phrases felt way too modern to fit the setting:
“Chairs being at a premium”
“So you can’t accuse me of being sexist now, can you?”
“Passive-aggressive comments about the incompetence of foreigners”
“Have ideas to make real dough”
“Staring at his clone”
In a scene with two mothers in one room, it isn’t the best choice to use “Mother” like a name. “She turned to Mother”, “Mother smiled tightly” – whose mother exactly now? Yes, I assume the POVs mother, but as it isn’t first person, it just didn’t feel smooth.
Some bits just didn’t make sense to me – like escaping a slave ship and the first night with a roof over your head after, you go “This would be a trial, what with father’s snoring” because you have to share a room?
Or like being freezing cold, especially mentioning a coat that was lost with the ship. Finding the wreckage at the beach, and leaving all clothes that are even mentioned, instead lugging a big random chest with you. Because the one who used to own it had money – you know that because you got a gold coin from them. Only a few chapters later it’s a counterfeit coin, and you knew it all along…
Add to that quite some moments with actually inappropriate words being used (fermented rebellion being a favourite of mine) and I just couldn’t get past the writing to make it to the actual story sadly.
Nils: Like Julia, I only made it to 21% of this book (I’m not sure how many pages that is but I think it’s well over a hundred) and then unfortunately I just couldn’t continue. First of all, reading is subjective, what will work for one reader won’t work for another, and therefore the aspects which I particularly disliked may be something another reader will love. All I can do here is explain why Nether Light didn’t work for me personally.
From the first few chapters I found the prose to be jarring, and often rather confusing. Time would often jump, we’d hop from one event to the next, and I found that Stevens had a tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. He also tended to use odd similes:
“Guttural thunder shook the boat like a toddler with a disobedient toy.”
Or odd attempts at humour which didn’t quite fit the dark tone of the book:
“He’d lost part of his skull. You didn’t get much deader.”
I also found the dialogue to be quite forced, the characters didn’t interact with one another in a way that flowed like natural speech would:
“What’s your game, duck?”
“You need more staff. Another.”
“This ain’t an alehouse.”
“I am aware.” He pushed the glass and a further copper towards her. “Fill it up please. I’ll go for the red stuff.”
The dialogue also felt inconsistent – most of the time the two brothers would speak quite formally, almost archaic, but then they’d begin to use swear words which felt so out of character. Myself and Beth particularly disliked ‘arsewipe’.
All of these aspects made it very hard to immerse myself into the story, so from the very onset I was disappointed.
Filip: I read Nether Light a little over a third of the way through – a page count greater than some entire novels. I’m afraid my issues very much mirror those Julia and Nils have so carefully laid out. The quality of the prose leaves much to be desired; the writing is simply too stilted to enjoy, and the characters, as you will read, are little better.
Beth: Well initially I quite liked Nether Light! Like Theo, I found the opening intriguing. I was really curious about this society and the way it was potentially restricting magic use? I was looking forward to finding out if that was the case.
Filip: An interesting premise, I’ll grant you that.
Beth: Again like Theo, I also found the ship wrecking exciting and again, I was intrigued by what was happening to Guyen and whether it was a result of what happened to him as a baby. I quite liked the author’s writing style at this point, I found the truncated sentences and unusual language choices quirky. As Julia has already highlighted, sometimes the language choices broke the verisimilitude of the story and so I didn’t feel immersed. Things like that an editor would normally pick up on, and it’s understandable that the services of a freelance editor aren’t available to all.
Nils: Great point, Beth. Access to editors is not always feasible for every author.
Beth: Once the refugees reached safety, I also couldn’t help but make parallels with current events. I found Stevens affective in portraying the injustice of a country pursuing conflict and creating refugees, then scorning them and putting them in as much of a disadvantage as possible whilst also expecting them to be grateful.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Theo: I seem to be going through a phase of being irritated by young whiny male protagonists, and Guyen – with his rush to anger, tendency to see people (particularly women) in terms of their physical attractiveness, and occasionally stupid choices – is not the most appealing character I’ve followed.
Nils: I also had this same issue. I hoped his character would improve as I read on, I hoped the circumstances in which he found himself would mature him, yet as the novel progressed I felt he became increasingly worse.
Theo: However, he does have the advantage of being as mystified by his condition/curse and his location as the reader is. This aids the immersion and the sense of discovering the world, the story and the magic through the character’s eyes.
I found the two main women characters, Mist and Ariana more interesting, one a knife wielding assassin and the other an academic lawyer type. I did wonder what either would see in Guyen though and why they would go out of their way to help him.
Beth: Ha! I wondered this too. We seemed to see one side of Guyen, but the characters all seemed to see a very different side to him? It felt like there were two different Guyens.
Filip: And only one, alas, available to us for examination.
Theo: I liked the way Rossi’s character arc bent round, though his redemption from Draco Malfoy style villain to useful ally felt quite abrupt, not so much following an arc as turning a right angle – which stretched credibility a bit.
Vale and Yannick – the bad guy’s muscle came across a bit like pantomime villains, the fat one and the thin one often to be found in cheerful conversation about their respective hobbies while dealing out sadistic murder and mayhem in the service of … well who exactly? I felt the author may have enjoyed writing them so much that they got levered into sustained roles in parts of the story which made less sense.
Nils: Up to the parts I read the focus was mostly on Guyen’s character who I failed to become invested in. I found that his character resonated with a typical teenager at the beginning, one who could be petulant and whiny but knowing that he was young, and that the narrative would take a coming of age arc, I wasn’t too bothered by this.
However, as the story progressed, Guyen seemed to become much more immature; he became quick to anger, selfish (he wasted money on drinking when he knew their family were struggling), and he was even outright nasty to people – for example, he frequently called women a ‘bitch’ if they ignored or made a slight towards him. Considering the tragedy Guyen faces and the responsibility he is burdened with, instead of stepping up he acts like a complete prick! Now I can’t say for certain whether he changes soon after 21% but even if he does, I just couldn’t be motivated to continue reading about such an unpleasant character to find out.
Beth: Redemption arcs are tricky things to balance!
Nils: I don’t feel that within the opening Stevens explored the other characters such as Guyen’s twin brother, Yemelyan, enough for me to give any kind of comment here. They all felt a bit shallow to be honest.
Beth: My comments are going to be very similar to Nils’ I’m afraid! I have to confess, I wasn’t able to finish this book either, more on why later. I read to 34%, the end of chapter 23. At first, I rather liked Guyen’s angst-ridden personality. It felt like he had a lot to be angry and bitter about, to be fair. But it soon became apparent that his personality didn’t deviate from here, and in all honesty, I did find that tiresome.
Nils: Yeah, his attitude became quite tedious.
Beth: Theo ran through some of the other characters quite nicely, but none of them made any particular mark on me unfortunately. Everyone just seemed there to prop Guyen’s story. Even his own twin brother; I questioned whether he was even necessary to the story.
I really liked the notion of the simulacrums, Guyen’s is named Toulesh and he presented quite an amusing personality. But I became increasingly frustrated that the further into the story I was getting, I still had no idea what he was. His presence lacked continuity, which I couldn’t tell was deliberate or not (for example, was he a magical being and something in Guyen’s life was affecting his ability to manifest?); the not-knowing, even after quite some investment into such a large a book, was frustrating.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
Theo: It’s complicated.
Beth: Your opinion or the plot??
Theo: I do like complexity and Stevens throws in a few interesting twists and surprises.
But these are mixed in with some parts that felt illogical or were left unexplained, or simply had characters being a bit stupid. There were rebels, there was political intrigue, there were diplomatic problems, there were lots of double crossings, enough to make a reader’s head spin, and secret plots and hidden connections. However , on several occasions, people (spies) who you would expect to be careful with information shared it rather freely in a way that felt it was being used to inform the reader as much as Guyen. There were a number of occasions where Guyen had to be rescued from himself.
The story progressed to an intriguing denouement but the conspiracies and collaborations that had brought the characters together then felt a little forced. I doubt the actions and choices of some individuals would stand up to too rigorous an analysis. On the whole I felt the story seemed to be about manoeuvring Guyen into different situations that would allow him to display/experience/explore his curse/gift/talent.
Nils: I’m going to be brutally honest here: half the time I didn’t even know what was going on.
We jump from scene to scene, from A to B to C then back to A or C, completely forgetting B, and I just couldn’t keep up. Like Theo, I’m also used to complex narratives, and I love having to puzzle things out, but with Nether Light there were so many ideas all colliding with each other, with very little depth given to one single story arc, it just failed to hook me in. I lost interest very quickly. I was discussing this with Beth as I reached the point where I didn’t want to continue reading any more and my overall feeling was why is this book so big? It doesn’t need to be this long. I think the narrative could do with a heavy edit, a tightening, so that we focus on just a few ideas, such as the poverty the characters’ face, the prejudice and the mystery behind the ‘binding’ in greater depth.
Beth: Yes! At the point I stopped, that was still a big mystery for me too.
Ultimately, that was the problem with this book from a number of angles – it needs editing. I found myself thinking, there is so much going on and yet nothing is going on. We follow Guyen through a series of events which, in hindsight, appear to be the build up of his backstory. An actual sense of a story doesn’t seem to kick in until Guyen is taken away to another city and entered into some form of university. The story up until that point could have been cut into occasional flashback interludes to fill in the details of this person we’re getting to know, rather than dragging the reader through them first hand.
Nils: Interludes would have helped so much. The narrative would have felt less jumpy, and we could have gained a better perspective.
Filip: I struggled greatly with an aspect of what you illustrated, Beth. A lot of what goes on in those 40% of Nether Light I read happens to Guyen; he seems very rarely to have agency. I understand this to be in part because of his lot in life, unfair as it is, and yet there are better ways to capture brutal inequality than by allowing the character to be driven by external events.
Beth: At around the nineteenth chapter, I began to really struggle with the story, as I couldn’t see what our protagonist was aiming towards. It felt like we were tailing Guyen as he went through one day after another and witnessed events happening, but there still no sense of Guyen aiming towards something or looking to solve something. It lacked a hook to keep me reading unfortunately.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Theo: For me this – or more specifically the magic system – was the strongest and most creative part of the book.
Beth: I agree!
Theo: As I mentioned before, Stevens takes an immersive approach where the reader discovers things alongside the protagonist and I enjoyed that, though I did find myself almost composing a personal glossary of key Nether Light terms, based on my gleanings. I found some parallels between Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with Stevens’ “Simulacra” being a bit like Pullman’s “Daemons” and “Faze” feeling a bit like Pullman’s “dust.”
I liked the idea of probability based magic with Guyen able to draw on a range of possible futures and either choose or combine them. That felt a bit like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the infinite improbability drive, although Stevens has explosions as side effects of Guyen’s probability manipulation, rather than Douglas Adams’ spontaneously appearing sperm whale and bowl of petunias.
The concept of stem dust also appealed with connotations somewhere between stem cells with their ability to become any tissue and nuclear fuel with its potential for explosive chain reactions and radioactive fallout. These were all interesting ideas for the narrative to play with.
The world too has its sense of conflict and a complex six fold leadership that is part Hogwarts style houses, part government ministries, with some tense political and social intrigue between them.
Nils: Much like the plot, the magic system also left me perplexed. Without repeating myself too much, I think Stevens tried to include too much, and didn’t really establish what the basic magic system was in the opening chapters. However like Theo has mentioned, that is because we learn as Guyen learns, but even when his character begins to understand it, I was still frustratingly left with too many questions. At this point though I had lost patience to find the answers.
Beth: Again, I had the same problem as Nils. I began to get the impression we were supposed to understand certain elements, and I didn’t still. I couldn’t let go of the opening chapter; so whenever Guyen talked about being thread bound or not being thread bound, I was confused about which one he actually was, which one he thought he was, did he know what his parents had done… I couldn’t connect that opening scene with the rules of the society and how they affected Guyen, and this really disappointed me as it interested me so much to begin.
Forbidden magic is a trope I absolutely love.
The society felt sometimes quite dystopian; I wanted to know more about the complexities of it, it felt like there were secrets there waiting to be uncovered… It just wasn’t enough of a draw in the end.
Quotations that resonated with you
Theo: The prose sometimes stutters with clipped sentences and misused words, but here is a bit of banter from Mist that raised a smile
On first meeting with a teacher she introduces herself
“Mist to my friends,” Mist said. “Please, call me Emeldra.”
And later when the same teacher discussing the morality of politics – or rather the necessary absence of morality in politics
“I do not presume to know what is right for you, Guyen, I merely point out that our moral superiors, the do-gooders, are destined to be dealt weak hands, whereas the more flexible amongst us get to play with picture cards.”
Theo: I can see promise in the Nether Light, but despite the flashes of creativity in it, I feel it needed more discipline and structure to make a really satisfying and truly coherent story.
Nils: This book just simply wasn’t for me. Thematically I thought the portrayal of poverty, prejudice and hardship were very interesting ideas to explore within a fantasy setting, I found the magic system held a promise of being utterly fascinating, yet the petulant main character, and general lack of depth all round, unfortunately let it down.
Filip: This book did not click for me. It has myriad issues, and though the premise is promising enough, a book of this size needs far more than premise alone to win me over.
Beth: This was one of those books that had a lot of interesting themes and theories, which unfortunately were let down by execution. I didn’t feel like I was being told a story, and ultimately I wasn’t immersed enough in this world to invest in its characters. It’s clear that Stevens has created a complex world, with what is potentially a very clever and unique magic system. From what Theo has said, there is a story in there, I was just unable to follow its thread.
(to nearest half mark)
Placed 10th in the Hive’s Finalist List.