Category Archives: Book Review

The Flaw in Catching Fire

[Spoiler Alert:  If you haven’t read Catching Fire, book two of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, you will want to correct that deficit before proceeding.]

Fiction writers:  beware surprise.  It is a two-edged blade that ships, by default, without a hilt; a poorly trained cobra that stingeth like an adder; and, all too often, a cheap thrill purchased at the expense of characterization and the internal logic of a story.  Catching Fire is an example of a book that got burned when it went chasing after a surprise of epic proportions.

The surprise in Catching Fire is that there is an escape plan:  a plan that will get both Katniss and Peeta, as well as various other tributes, out of the arena alive.  In order to surprise the reader with this, Katniss must be kept in the dark regarding the plan.  That, in turn, requires that Haymitch be a dolt, introduces fake conflict and tension in place of the real commodity, forces Katniss to act out of character at a critical moment, and requires a variety of coincidences in order for everything to turn out (more or less) according to plan.  That’s an expensive surprise.

Could the surprise be abandoned?  Is there an alternative?  There is, and the real surprise is how little the book changes as a result.  Imagine that Haymitch tells Katniss and Peeta about the plan sometime after they arrive in the capital.  Taking that approach, the first half of the book remains exactly the same.  Inside the arena, the dangers remain the same as well:  we still have the poisonous fog, the jabberjays, the mutated monkeys.  Which is to say, the bulk of the time in the arena remains unchanged.

We would lose Katniss planning to kill Finnick, which is good, because the reader (certainly by the second time through) knows this is a false concern.  We would lose the bizarre scene where Finnick tells Katniss to run to the beach just before the lightning strikes, followed by Johanna bonking Katniss on the head so as to dig the tracking device out of her arm.  Losing that incomprehensible sequence of events is wonderful, because none of it makes any sense.  At a minimum, bonking Katniss on the head at such a critical moment places the entire operation at risk.  What if she hadn’t recovered in time?  What if she’d gone chasing after Johanna, looking for revenge?

With Katniss ignorant of the plan, there are too many coincidences that have to line up in order for the operation to succeed.  She can’t kill Finnick.  She has to swim after the tube of golden wire, with her only motivation being that the weird, geeky guy seems to think it’s important.  Worst of all, when she returns to the lightning tree, she has to stop and mull over the golden wire, an action which is out of character for her.  As far as she knows, the alliance has been ruptured, the plan to electrify the beach has failed, and now Peeta is gone.  Why in Panem would she stop to investigate this wire?  The answer is:  she wouldn’t.

If we eliminate the surprise, then in place of the false plans to kill Finnick, Katniss would instead have to worry about her performance.  Acting isn’t her strong suit, but if her behavior in the arena isn’t convincing, the whole operation might be blown.  She also has to worry about Prim and her mother, Gale and his family, as well as Peeta’s family, because if she escapes from the arena, retaliation of some sort is guaranteed.  Best of all, when Katniss ties the wire to her arrow and shoots it through the force field, she is making a conscious, informed decision to pursue rebellion rather than race after Peeta.  It’s a wrenching decision, one that saddles her with the guilt for Peeta’s capture.  But it’s a decision she might reasonably make, so long as she understands the larger picture.

Keeping the main character ignorant of critical bits of information is a time-honored approach to writing fiction, but this approach should be used sparingly, because the surprise that results can actually weaken the book as a whole.  It can be painful to watch characters thrashing around cluelessly, lucking into the right solution in spite of – rather than because of – their best efforts.

The next time you’re tempted to withhold some critical piece of information from your protagonist so as to perpetrate a surprise, take another look and make sure the result is worth the cost.

A Vanishing Protagonist

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan is a military fantasy that – after a “peek at the future” prelude – spends the first half of the book following the adventures  of a young boy, Vaelin, who – following the death of his mother – is placed in a military training academy by his father.

The premise here isn’t anything new, but the execution of this part of the story is impressive.  The level of detail is high, making the story more believable even as it adds a level of uniqueness to a familiar scenario.  The various characters seem to have real personalities, while the child characters evolve as the story proceeds.  Meanwhile, the overarching plot (graduate!) helps tie the material together, thereby smoothing over the “collection of related short stories” feel that would otherwise have prevailed.

At the end of the training, however, the book stumbles.  Vaelin (actively, aggressively) ceases to be a protagonist.  He effectively tells the King, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, no matter that it runs counter to everything I hold dear.”  And that’s what happens.  The King becomes an off-screen protagonist (a.k.a., an excuse for why things don’t make sense), while the POV character becomes a puppet, going around doing things that he doesn’t agree with, believe in, or fully understand.  The result is a sequence of events that the reader at best finds painful, but more likely finds unconvincing and uninvolving.

After all, if the POV character doesn’t really care about what he’s doing (or would rather be doing something else), then exactly how is the reader supposed to feel?

At one point, Vaelin argues with the Voice of Fate (literally).  “I didn’t ask for this…  I never wanted it.”  To which Fate replies, “Want is nothing….  You are a plaything of [the plot outline]….”  Vaelin attempts to rebel but fails:

“I’ll choose my own fate,” [Vaelin] said, but the words were faint, empty, a [puppet’s] defiance….

These quotes remind me of various push-back moments in the Harry Potter series, where Harry complains about his lack of skills or his being excluded from the main plotline (see my book Destiny Unfulfilled for more details).  In both cases (with Rowling and here with Ryan), I believe we’re seeing the author’s subconscious crying out “This is WRONG!”  As writers, we have to be sensitive to what our characters are telling us, because often they speak with the voice of our inner elves.  Those elves will do what you tell them, but it’s a good idea to listen when they mutter about orders that don’t make sense.

Protagonist = Plot.  And to be a protagonist, a character must have a goal that they pursue.  Their own goal, not someone else’s.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey is a five star book with a five star gaffe in it.  The writing is superlative, the prose flowing with grace and panache.  Descriptions are spot on, dialog is believable, the pacing is strong, and the white knuckle, page-turning factor is high.  The premise is somewhat familiar (gifted people in an Us vs. Them conflict with normals), but the execution is good enough to make this a worthwhile read even for the jaded.

The protagonist is an active force, driving the story forward.  He’s recognizably human, his motivations believable and clear, his range of emotions wide.  He has a moment of forced petulance at one point, but the book (thankfully) doesn’t try to wallow in that state, and that was the only place where I noticed characterization being actively subverted for purposes of the plot outline.

The descriptions of various settings, from D.C. to Wyoming, from country to woods to city, inside and out, are believable and well done.  In a few spots, the story puts too much description all together in a clump, but that only happens a couple of times.

The plot is intelligent, some of the individual steps along the way impressive.  And then, there’s the gaffe….

Unfortunately, the gaffe hurt.  It hurt a lot.  It was like going to a five star restaurant and finding a cockroach in the soup.  The gaffe is this:  one of the “gifted” has made too much money day trading on the stock market.  So every government in the world shuts down every stock market in the world.  And keeps them shut down.

Wow.  Luckily, this stinking whopper arrives after the cut-off point of the free sample.  I truly wonder if I would have plunked down the coin for this book had it been otherwise – and that would have been unfortunate.  Still, this isn’t a simple oops, it winds up appearing in several places in the book, including at one spot that might be called a turning point.

The reader’s trust in the book is damaged.  For some, I suspect it’s impossible to get past such a ridiculous idea.

Let’s go over this, just in case it isn’t clear.  Shutting down the stock markets permanently would be catastrophic.  They wouldn’t do it.  They just wouldn’t.  It would be akin to saying “We’re shutting down all the banks, because they put us into this global recession, and they need to be taught a lesson.”  It doesn’t matter if they plan to open the banks again in two years or whatever.  There won’t be any government left to reopen them.  Society (the few million who survive) will have been forced back into a hunter-gatherer existence.

Shutting down the markets maybe isn’t as obvious, but it’s there.  Most billionaires and millionaires would be rendered insolvent.  Investment companies, insurance companies, banks:  devastated.  Millions of retired individuals who have their retirement accounts locked up in mutual funds:  screwed, homeless, helpless, bereft.  From there, watch the dominoes fall.

No.  It won’t happen.  Look, if they want to stop the day traders, it’s easy:  you set a minimum holding period on all stock, bond, and futures transactions.  Once you buy it, you can’t sell it again for two days, two weeks, two months.  Pick a timeframe.  If you don’t like that, then just set the tax rate to 100% for any stock, bond, piece of real estate, etc., held less than the specified time.  Investors like Warren Buffet would probably applaud the idea.  Actually, I recall the man saying he wished the market would be open one day a week (or something like that), to give people more time to think about what they’re doing.

Legislate:  maybe.  (Probably not, because if they were going to, they would have already.  Think about the number of crashes spawned by people who use the markets as a gambling device or a get-rich-quick scheme.  It’s been a problem at least since the 1500s.)  But total shut down, no.  And if they did, there wouldn’t be people driving the highways, filling up at gas stations.  There would be people learning to chip stones to turn them into axes.  It would make the Great Depression look like a period of economic prosperity by comparison.

Sorry for the rant, but that’s the effect this sort of “you’ve got to be kidding” idea has on certain types of readers.  Look, we may be unstable, but our money’s just as green as anybody else’s.  Please give us a revised edition that doesn’t have this … this madness in it.

Conclusion:  this is a great book held back by a jaw-dropping goof.