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THE RULES CHANGE

Didn’t Jibe.

By Wildbow, author of Ward

Feb 18, 2014: A kingdom struggles to adapt to the recent loss of magic, with starvation rampant and the population scared. An heir struggles to get by in a camp of refugees who are scraping out a living in a dwindling time.

When I start any series, I strive to go in with expectations high. It’s a rare story that I can’t give the benefit of a doubt, and I don’t tend to review those stories. If and when I find that those expectations were too high, I feel a kind of disappointment.

I felt fairly disappointed in ‘The Rules Change’, and I felt disappointed on enough fronts that I’ve had to sit here and struggle to figure out where to begin.

Let me start with the beginning, then; to spoil the first two chapters, I’ll explain what happens. A mob gathers, complete with pitchforks, torches, pipes and weaponized broomsticks. There’s very little emotion in the scene, beyond a few exclamation points. No explanation of what the character is feeling, or the mood, or the ambiance. No sign that the mob is angry and furious or if they’re steadily marching with purpose. Little description of damage being done or the gravity of this incident. The chapter segues to a local Governor, who hears about the mob, doesn’t give much of a damn, and exposits on recent politics and economy for a time. When he’s reminded of the mob and he does go to deal with it, he shuts them down with a few stern words. The mob does the equivalent of stare ashamedly down at the ground and scuffing the ground with their feet, and break up.

It doesn’t make sense. Details aren’t filled in, and in large part, the pieces didn’t feel like they fit together, on any level. This is a recurring problem throughout the work. Things are established (people are enslaved) and the reader is expected to take these things at face value. Women and little girls are effectively enslaved and put to work weeding a grassy field for days on end. They’re okay with it, some actually enjoying the work. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not elaborated on, and the justification or context for them being okay with it isn’t provided.

It took me some time to realize that The Rules Change was a sequel. Unlike many sequels, it doesn’t really explain things. You get a bunch of names and references to things like Tracing and the Khyzer, as well as certain politics. Not much of this is really elaborated on, requiring even more inference and reader suspension. At one point in the story, the heir of Khyzer is caught jumping the fence to the enclosed (and off-limits) women’s refugee area. He’s awarded with a leadership position working with the girl he was trying to visit in the women’s area. A justification is provided for the guard’s actions (the boy is identified as the heir; someone who can be used), but our protagonist doesn’t twig to the fact that this is really, really strange?

Use of cause and effect is an important tool for writers. You can convey a great deal about how much power a character has, in social, political, charismatic or physical terms, by showing the aftermath. A character who puts in very little effort for huge results may well be powerful indeed. Superman flicks a finger and destroys a building. But this is a fine line to tread. When it ceases being believable -as with the governor stopping a mob with a handful of stern words- the reader can see behind the curtain and it works against the story. So it is here, again and again. As I haven’t read the work that preceded The Rules Change, I’m not sure if the Khyzer are supposed to be possessed of a logic-defying ability to influence others, but it doesn’t feel like a good device at work.

The narrative is rife with these headscratchers and groaners. The actual story structure kind of left me feeling flat – I had the impression of a book chopped up into pieces rather than a serial. Scenes are cut in half (or thirds) to be uploaded in two pieces, often with little feeling of conclusion at the end of one or a feeling of a beginning at the start of the next. Cliffhangers struggle to hold any kind of tension, and only one of the twenty-four or so chapters caught my interest, though I find myself struggling to recall what it even was, now that I’ve finished.

On the mechanical level, I found that far, far too many sentences began with ‘And’, ‘Then’, ‘So’, or the like, with ‘And’ starting something like seven out of ten sentences in one pair of paragraphs. -ly adjectives (Suddenly, slightly, poorly, confidently) are abundant. Delete these ‘ands’ and ‘suddenlies’, restructure if necessary, and the sentence is stronger, in 99% of the cases. Writers often use these sorts of words to imply immediacy and continuity in the flow of things, ("Suddenly, he attacked! Then he swung his sword!"), but the fact that you’re reading this sentence -right now- means it’s happening in the story -right now-, anyways. (Better to say "He attacked! He swung his sword!") In short: the immediacy and continuity are already built in. Ironically, an author actually makes the story a lot slower and more stilted by trying to structure things that way, and John Bahler does this quite a bit.

A similar trend emerges in dialogue, with every other sentence being marked with some sort of accompanying action. The oft-used explanation is that the author doesn’t want the constant repetition of ‘he said’ to seem boring, so they elaborate. Half the time, the governor doesn’t just say. He says something with a pen bobbing in his mouth. He says it while clenching the railing or he says it while smiling. Again, the irony is that this makes the reading experience more tiresome. A simple unadorned ‘he said’ becomes largely invisible over time, and keeps the dialogue flowing.

The lack of context makes it hard to care about the refugees (especially when they’re paradoxically happy with their situation, and more unhappy with how happy they are than about being slaves), or about the heir’s situation or any of that. There’s little tension in the scenes, because it’s too easy to see behind the curtains and see the author making a character unreasonably good at commanding or manipulating others without justifying that trait. The structuring of it makes the reading a bit more of a slog than it should be.

But at the end of the day, my big issue was simple – it’s a fantasy story about a world with dying magic, with the fallen noble protagonist as the one can still use that magic, for some reason. It’s been done before elsewhere, it’s been done better, and for that reason, I can’t recommend it.

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THE DOCTOR'S ASSISTANT

The good writing continues

By Fiona Gregory, editor

Nov 23, 2013: Bron and Calea’s adventures continue (from The Select’s Bodyguard), and I was kind of amazed this sequel is written by a different author (from The Children of the Wells writing team) and yet they are so seamlessly the same characters. It wasn’t like reading another writer’s interpretation of them – it was, hello again, Bron and Calea.

This novel has a new character, Nyasha, who plays off the initial two in interesting ways. In contrast to these two intense, serious characters, Nyasha is a bubbly, practical no-nonsense young lady, but she is quite young, and bereaved, so there’s a naivity and vulnerability in her. If you’ve read the Select’s Bodyguard, and been yearning for someone to stand up to Calea, here she is! Also, Nyasha may have a bit of a crush on Bron.

There are some dangers and challenges for the characters to overcome, but in terms of the overarching plot of the Children of the Wells series, this novella doesn’t move us very far forward. I suppose it’s too soon to hope for any clues as to why all the magic disappeared from the world. The end is a bit of a low point, clearly a segue into the next Bron/Calea/Nyasha offering that will appear in the series, but doesn’t give the feeling of a self contained novella as much as The Select’s Bodyguard did. One thing I would like to see is more emphasis on worldbuilding. Outside of the Select and the Wells, it seems a rather generic world.

Overall, this was a well-written and enjoyable read, with character development and interaction as a strong point.

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THE SELECT'S BODYGUARD

An excellent threshold into a promising series

By KC Shi, member

Nov 7, 2013: The novella-length first entry in Children of the Wells is fast-paced and action-packed. The opening is immediate and engaging, as the reader is thrust into the head of the eponymous bodyguard as he searches a city that is crashing and burning around him. I say "thrust into the head" because the style of the prose is incredibly immersive; I didn’t notice the blunt, simple sentence structure of Bron’s passages until after the first POV switch, but once I did I realized just how much it contributed to the reader’s ability to see the city of Jalseion through the eyes of such a single-minded man.

The two principal characters, Bron and Calea, aren’t what I’d call immediately likeable characters, but they are certainly engaging and interesting. Both of them are strong, forceful personalities; other characters are mentioned in passing, but the focus of the story is squarely on these two and their relationship. The story’s chronology is slightly nonlinear, following the past from Calea’s perspective and the present from Bron’s, and both angles shed new light on Jalseion and the world it inhabits. (As it happens, the setting of Children of the Wells is far from standard sword-and-sorcery: magic-powered automobiles and prosthetics give it a distinctly magitech feel.)

The plot itself is somewhat sparse, a simple tale that reads as the first arc of a greater epic, more than a complete story in itself, and there are many tantalizing details sprinkled throughout that have yet to see resolution in the first book. As it is, The Select’s Bodyguard opens the rest of the series beautifully: not too complex or wrapped up in its own conceits, but with a depth that begs for exploration and two characters the reader can’t help but pay attention to. Definitely worth a read for any fans of epic fantasy, and strong enough to warrant a general recommendation as well.

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