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TWISTED COGS

The best of a plot-driven story

By Tartra, author of The Other Kind of Roommate

May 12, 2015: Let me explain what I mean by five stars.

‘Three stars’ is ‘This is a decent story. I’m not going to keep reading it because of the writing style/grammar/plot/what-have-you, but it’s written at a level where I can see the effort.’

‘Four stars’ is ‘Wow. Well done. The premise interested me or the plot worked great or the writing was strong. I’ll check in every now and then or, if it’s not my thing, recommend it to other people.’

But ‘five stars’. The full house. The ol’ * followed by four more *s. The Cassiopeia (it’s a five star constellation; there, I saved you the trip to Google I made for the purposes of writing that).

‘Five stars’ means ‘I am foaming at the mouth, where is the rest of this, I am psychotically invested in what’s happening that I am reading this during work and bedtime and one time in the shower ‘cause my phone is waterproof but the steam made it tricky so I stopped but only due to technical limitations’.

I don’t want to stroke an ego more than I have to, so let that glossary do it for me. What I will say is that Twisted Cogs, as of its most recent 5.7 update (arc 5, part 7), is exactly what I hope for from a story. Not a web serial, not from some book that’s been self-published or traditionally published – no, ignore the distribution method. As a story, and only as that, this is it. This is what gets diehard fans.

Okay – let’s break it down. Worst first, as always. Please take your time to read the serial’s summary because I’m not really going to recap it. This is a long one (again).

The style of writing, I’m going to say, is nothing revolutionary. I mean, it’s good; there are a few typos here and there, but nothing that throws you, and for the ones that do, the author’s quick about fixing it. The prose isn’t the main appeal. It’s just a proofread, third-person narrative that switches from the main character, Elena, to a handful of the more prominent supporting characters on occasion.

Personally, the story could have been written without switching POVs and ultimately felt the same, if not stronger. The changes happen without warning and do one of three things: a) tell a scene from someone else’s POV when Elena is literally standing there, better suited to explaining the situation to an audience who doesn’t know what’s happening; b) show or hint at a plot we’re nowhere close to getting into and whose relevance already comes through when necessary through Elena’s chapters, or; c) actually provide new insight. Unfortunately, the serial is lighter on c) than the other two, so most of the other POV chapters had me nod and say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’, then quickly move on to the next part. It more or less became my rule of thumb to skim what wasn’t Elena.

There are also several interactions that fall either flat or seem awkwardly cheesy. In one early scene, we have our main character, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed artist whose bitch of a mother is written to pull on your ‘Ugh, Elena, I totally feel for you’ heartstrings, hitting the town with Arturo, who makes it known he’s into our MC in an everyone-except-her-is-aware-of-what’s-going-on way. It comes, then goes, playing the sweet and innocent card a little hard for a girl who frequently mentions how super totally affectionate Arturo is. Then we don’t see Arturo again for any reasonable length of time. He kinda skydives in and disappears afterwards, very much like Elektra in that one scene from Daredevil. Not Daredevil the show, but the movie. The bad one.

I ran into this problem a few times, of the interactions falling flat just because it hammered in the concept too hard. Another one is when Elena meets a sculptor, Frederica, for the first time. Now, Frederica later became my absolute favourite in the cast, but when we first meet her, she’s quite one note. She doesn’t like Elena, and man, oh man, the high school claws come out. I read it, but it came off as so needlessly aggressive that I all but wrote Frederica off. Then there’s Elena’s bitch-mom, who I mentioned earlier. She’s a woman who starts as someone proudly nuanced, whose stick up her butt is really a pen trying to ink a solid future for her family. This is the Tiger Mom who’s so obsessed with success that it’s abusive, but tempered by the idea that deep down, she’s doing this for Elena’s sake. Then we get a scene where, ‘Oops, no, she’s just a bitch’, and the nuance fades away to become a stock Bad Mom character.

This, I was disappointed by, and while I freaking love Bad Mom characters – and believe me, once I adjusted, I dearly enjoyed the trickle of comeuppances that befell her – the loss of her depth was a hard blow. Thankfully, in a twist no one saw coming, all that complexity soon appeared in Frederica, who fleshed out from fairly cartoonish to intriguingly defensive but passionate about her art; as harsh as she was, there was a clear motive for it, and it unlocked a spectacular woman-crush from me. Frederica is a strong and driven young woman, whose ambition shrieks with such purity, it practically becomes noble.

All that to say, while there are some fun characters, you aren’t reading this for their personalities. It’s a story where one notes are the sweetest notes because they don’t distract from the plot. I lucked out with Frederica, having someone I could attach to so well, but if she had remained the Regina-from-Mean-Girls person she’d been at the start, I – and I cannot emphasize this enough – absolutely would have continued reading.

Actually, I’ll emphasize it one more time:

Twisted Cogs is not about the characters! Don’t get hung up on the characters – even if you like them! The characters are a bonus, and if you’re only reading for that, you will 100% miss the sheer beauty within this text.

My God. Not since Game of Thrones, which wasn’t since Ender’s Game, which wasn’t since the Chronicles of Narnia, have I found a world so, so, so, so, so (eh? Five ‘so’s! Thematic~!) complex and clever and imaginative and insanely thought out that fits this well together, builds on its rules, and just keeps freaking topping itself with limits it can stretch to.

For any of you who have ever liked puzzles or riddles or brain teasers; for any of you who like to solve things or strategize – you Professor Layton people, or Phoenix Wright gamers, or goddamn Sherlock enthusiasts; for anyone who loves the thrill of going, ‘My God, that’s brilliant!’, this is for you.

There is always something happening. Characters move from this place to that, powers kick in to this or that extent, alliances are made, alliances are broken, there’s betrayal and deceit and raids and collusions and fight scenes and – more than anything – the immense satisfaction that I know I felt watching Elena find new ways to apply her powers. She’s one of those keenly underpowered characters, the Heart of this universe’s assigned Captain Planet abilities. Keeping with the art theme, we get a beautifully defined list of powers each relating to a visual or physical variety: sculptors, painters, archers . . . and then Elena, who’s riiiiight almost at the bottom of the ‘I’m useful!’ list. The story teaches that, Stormtouched or not (‘superpowered’), she’s not as special as the other special people. When she does use her abilities, it’s through small but charmingly resourceful measures. That charm kicks up to impressive, then awesome. I mean the classical sense of ‘awesome’. ‘Awe-inspiring’. The things this girl cooks up . . . 

As for the rest of the Stormtouched characters, it’s not enough for the author to give us a few good mentions of what they could do. She puts her cast to the task: a major arc follows these individuals coming up with the most fascinating and interesting demonstrations of what they can possibly do – on fear of expulsion, which is as good as social death.

Ohhhhhh maaaaaaan. I like what these guys can do. When the focus shifts from essentially school projects to coordinated battles, I am in love with what they can do. Twisted Cogs does not hold back on that. It follows its rules to a T, and then shows that while it was saying one thing, it meant something else entirely. Its promises of what it can deliver are always humble. Yeah, well, spoiler alert (not really): it’s not the sweet, innocent story it’s pretending to be. It’s a wickedly creative experience that is only hindered by mini-arcs when we move away from exploring it.

I cannot recommend this to people enough, who like to learn the rules of a game and then break ‘em as arguably legally as possible. I will caution again that this is not about the characters, and I’m gonna go back to my Game of Thrones reference: you will learn about each character while you read, as in GoT, but ultimately the focus isn’t on what they say or how complicated each one is, rather on what shenanigans they get up to. That is what gets the three-dimensional treatment. That is what keeps the pages turning (er – buttons clicking). That is what keeps me hooked even when I step back and think, “Wow. This person bothers me. I hate them.”

Put it on your list, people. There’s a reason I wrote this much about it.

Oh, but no pressure, Maddirose.

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