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SPECIMENS

Comfortably Germinating

By Rhodeworks, author of Not All Heroes

Mar 8, 2018: This is a review of the first two parts (the first fifteen chapters). There may be mild spoilers.

Specimens. I’m still not sure what to say about it beyond the obvious: that it feels like Worm but with plants instead of insects.

The author admits to the story being inspired by Worm on the about page. Additionally, the broad narrative strokes of what I read feel very similar. Is this a negative? I’m not sure.

As far as the prose itself is concerned, the writing is not bad. Grammar seemed fine and I did not see any obvious errors. However, not bad is about the extent of my praise for it. The writing itself doesn’t pop, I don’t hear a distinct authorial voice, and the framing sentences of each chapter—first and last—do not often feel particularly strong. Given that this is a first-person perspective work, I am unsure whether this is a deliberate element of the author’s style or simply an issue inherent to the protagonist’s worldview.

I do think I’d learn a fair bit about plants, though.

The protagonist, however, is somewhat irritating. She’s very placid, feeling more like a camera, taking in every detail one by one, without feeling like she’s a person, much less reacting as one (feeling very apparent in 1.02). I feel the first-person perspective works against the story.

Character descriptors are much the same. They’re presented lifelessly, like a laundry list. Here is a tall skinny girl, here is a blonde girl with long hair, here is a tall, tanned muscular guy. A lot of the characters feel like caricatures, including particularly Lisa’s mother and father, and the first two bad guys she encounters. Dialogue, too. I found myself predicting how the next set of lines would play out and found myself rarely surprised, whether she was talking with her parents, bad guys, or the police officer she encounters early on.

There’s a lot of exposition and a lot of it feels clunky. For example, there is a live interview in 1.02 that utterly disrupts the chapter. What’s doubly unfortunate is that imediately prior to it, I was feeling some palpable tension from the prose, but the tension evaporated entirely upon contact with the exposition.

Even with that all said, I wouldn’t call Specimens bad, poor or unreadable. It’s just a bit flat.

So, onto some of the particular bugbears that leapt out at me.

Repeatedly, the author will inform us that Lisa ‘struggles to avoid’ doing something, or ‘tries to do’ something or that a character will, from their perspective, ‘completely miss’ something. This always sticks out to me. If a character does not do something, they do not ‘struggle to avoid’ it—they don’t do it. If a character tries to do something, they do or they don’t. If a character completely misses something, then it’s strange to put it in the prose if they’re our viewpoint character.

For example, a character does not ‘try’ to reach a ledge in and of itself. A character reaches out with their arm, muscles straining, fingers clawing . . . 

This is the flatness I feel suffuses Specimens’ prose. We are told things but not how. A character ‘makes a face of disgust’ (how, in what way?), another character has a voice like a movie villain (how?), and so on. Some might be okay with that style of writing, but it bugs me.

If I had one thing that I feel is a solid negative against Specimens, it is what I saw in the first two interludes. They repeat scenes we’ve already seen from another perspective, but don’t exactly do so in a way that provides a twist or additional context. There is one particular exchange in an interlude where a character says to another ‘I think he has bad news for you . . . ‘ then, a few lines later, that character they are talking about says ‘I have bad news for you.’ So, not only repeating what we’ve already seen, but being repetitive in the chapter itself.

Additionally, a few things about terminology leaped out at me. If a specimen with technology-related powers is called an Engineer, then what do you call a generic engineer?

Is Specimens bad? No. While I did not like it, I cannot rate it any lower than Worth A Look. I said to myself I’d read the first ten and ended up going through the first fifteen. It is an okay work and these issues may be ironed out or otherwise improved upon in later chapters. In fact, many readers might enjoy the easy ‘young adult’ style of writing. Writing is all about that improvement. Personally, I have not written Specimens off entirely—if someone was to tell me that it improves later, I’d definitely consider giving it another look.

I just hope that Specimens can step out of the long-shadow of what inspired it, as opposed to being content to comfortably germinate there.

edit: And, upon a very brief perusal of some of the later parts (9 and 8) I feel comfortable saying it does improve.

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