This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
It’s been six months since my last expedition into the realm of ultra-disposable ebooks so it’s past time for another dose of Kindlefluff. This time around, I’m tackling two self-published books whose authors offer them on Amazon for a comparatively cheap price (the first one for only 77p, in fact), but which I picked up for free on a flash sale. If the rapidly increasing volume of posts on the various “free Kindle books” blogs I have on my RSS reader are any indication, this is an increasingly popular business model for Kindle authors. I guess the rationale is that if you let a small proportion of readers – those who happen to catch the limited-time-only sale – get your book for free, then hopefully at least some of them will give it good reviews and generate some positive word of mouth for it.
Well, time for me to undo all of that good work. Sorry, guys!
Queen of Arlin
Queen of Arlin is the first book of the Cyber Chronicles, a self-published series by T.C. Southwell which currently stretches to some 9 books. The general approach taken seems to be science fantasy; the story revolves around the Kingdom of Arlin, a nation on a planet which has by and large forgotten that it is in fact a colony planet of a wider galactic civilisation and has reverted to a roughly medieval cultural and technological level, and the few people who are aware of and use higher technologies are regarded as wizards – a reputation some of them deliberately cultivate.
The story opens with the ailing king Litham consulting with his advisor Pervor. Specifically, it opens with this line:
”More monsters have come from the Death Zone, Sire.”
Which, frankly, is so awesome it constitutes 99% of the reason I tried to read this thing in the first place.
Anyway, to deal with the horrors coming out of the Death Zone Pervor has reached a deal with the mysterious wizard Manutim, who has promised to provide to the rulers of Arlin a devastating weapon capable of combating the monsters. The king, however, has other concerns – he fears for his daughter Tassin, who despite her fiery temperament just isn’t good enough at swordplay to really measure up to the warrior queens who ruled Arlin of old. Charging Pervor to do whatever is necessary to protect Tassin, the king swiftly and without fuss expires to allow Southwell to shuffle the plot along at a fast clip.
So, Tassin is queen, and she’s unmarried, and in a classic case of “Why do we even have that law?” this means that if she refuses to get hitched with all due haste one of the neighbouring kings can force her to marry him. The Rape Law is, if I am reading between the lines correctly, evidently some sort of principle of international law to which all the kingdoms adhere, which forces me to ask me two things related questions: where the fuck do these laws come from, and why do the kingdoms stick with them?
Seriously: it seems bizarre to imagine that the kingdoms voluntarily consent to these laws, because what monarch in their right mind would sign up to a rule which seems designed to allow their daughters to be raped and their kingdoms to be effectively conquered through said rape? Is this really something that a line of warrior queens would agree to? And who enforces this shit in the first place? It is clearly meant to be a principle of international law because if it were just the law of Arlin then Tassin could just get out of it by changing the law – that is, after all, how absolute monarchy as per the medieval era worked. Sure, people might grouse about the law of the land being fiddled with in this way – they always do in Crusader Kings II – but if the alternative is violent annexation, the sieging of the capital and the ravishing of a popular and beloved queen I think the populace could be brought around.
And yet, at the same time there is no suggestion – at least in the chunk of the book I read – that there is any sort of international body enforcing this law. There’s no powerful Church to excommunicate you if you break the law, the wider galactic society presumably doesn’t intervene on the planet otherwise more people would know about them, and the idea of medieval kingdoms setting up Ye Olde United Nations feels anachronistic and unlikely. Essentially, the war that breaks out in this book feels like a bunch of kingdoms banding together to collectively squash poor Arlin. The height of absurdity (and the point which actually made me stop reading the book) is the bit where it is mentioned that international law also stops kingdoms conquering each other, because the Rape Law seems to legalise a particularly nasty and vicious variety of conquest. It’s like saying that murder is illegal but then passing a law to say it’s OK to kill people if you do it while dressed as a clown.
So, anyway, Tassin refuses to marry any of the neighbouring kings because they are all old and boring (bar from the villainous Torrian, who is hot but also a woman-beating rapist), her most likely suitor from her kingdom didn’t even show up, and the rest of the eligible bachelors are too intimidated to volunteer. Torrian therefore leads the other kings in a war on Arlin as per the Unraped Queens Act of 554, and Pervor decides that it’s time to mention that superweapon in the basement to Tassin.
The weapon in question turns out to be a cyborg, or a “cyber” as he calls himself. Mishearing him, Tassin dubs him Sabre and expresses her great disappointment that he’s just a dude; Pervor, however, proves to be wise to the ways of cybering, because he is able to input commands into Sabre in order to give him an overriding duty to protect Tassin to the best of his ability. So it is that when the castle is breached by the besieging Rape Army, Sabre zaps a bunch of them with his lasers, grabs Tassin, and hauls her off, beginning an epic cross-country flight to safety.
What I read of the novel after that followed a fairly predictable pattern: Tassin is alternatingly staggeringly rude to Sabre in a “remember, reader, I am a spoiled little princess” sort of way and completely confused by his attempts to explain who and what he is. Sabre plods along obeying her commands until danger threatens, at which point he shoves her into a corner so he can take the spotlight and do some fighting. I suspect the pattern continues in the part of the novel I haven’t read except with Tassin gradually warming to Sabre as well as toughening up and not being such a whiny brat, whilst Sabre begins to ask questions about this thing you humans call “love”; that’s how these things usually go, after all.
To give Southwell credit, she’s far from inept as a writer. True, the prose did vary between a workmanlike modern YA tone and more flowery language, but the latter was quite well done and if Southwell could have just chosen a style and stuck with it they could have done well on that score. In terms of the space technology itself they’ve clearly sat down and thought about how cybers work; a neat touch is that Sabre has indicator lights in his forehead to show how he is functioning, and I guess an attentive reader over the course of the book could learn how to interpret his indicator readout appropriately. All of the characters in the book have a distinctive voice and mannerisms, even if these are utterly cliche.
Where Southwell falls down – if you set aside the utterly nonsensical framework of international law, the tedious “woman is threatened with rape, big strong man protects her” premise, the inability to stick to a particular prose style for a whole chapter, the fact that a third of the way into the book there still hasn’t been a single notable consequence of these monsters emerging from the Death Zone, and so on – is in the plot. It’s unusual for me to suggest that the plot of a fantasy novel is progressing too quickly, but it really does seem to be the case here; the book is so desperate to get the story out at a rapid pace that major plot events rush by at speed whilst the occasional more plot-light scene seems overinflated in importance by dint of the fact of the page count allotted to it. The betrayal of Tassin by her uncle, for instance, has almost no impact because we barely get to know the old chap before he turns traitor; meanwhile, Tassin’s rudeness towards Sabre is highlighted so often it almost seems to be the most important and defining feature of her character, since few of her other traits get a comparable airing. I guess this is how Southwell is able to crank out so much material – she just writes at full pelt without thinking about what she’s saying. If the spelling and grammar were a bit less consistent I’d suggest she doesn’t even get this stuff proofread, but actually I didn’t note any typos so they clearly so some care in reviewing their work, though a more critical eye scrutinising it for internal consistency or sanity might be helpful.
The shakiness of the plot also damages the worldbuilding and the characterisation. That goofy legal setup clearly exists primarily to allow the plot to happen as it does, and likewise Tassin’s behaviour seems intended for the same purpose. It’s mentioned at one point that Tassin could escape the Rape Law through the simple expedient of abdicating in favour of her cousin, who she is on good terms with and can probably expect to be treated well by, but she refuses for… Well. No detailed and convincing reason is actually given – not even sense of duty or pride – possibly because on some level Southwell vaguely acknowledges that there’s actually no rational reason for Tassin not to abdicate. She clearly hates the pressures and responsibilities and constraints of being queen, and she despises the idea of sending good soldiers to their deaths in war simply to protect herself. The latter point in particular sticks in my craw; she clearly considers these deaths too dear a sacrifice, but she refuses to perform the simple act of abdication which would both save her from her personal predicament and would simultaneously avoid bloodshed. Why does Southwell even bring the idea of abdication up when all it does is reveal plotholes, and establish Tassin as someone who is so stubborn about holding onto the throne that she is willing to let people die by the score in order to resist being overthrown despite it being too great a sacrifice even in her own reckoning? How are we supposed to sympathise with her when she is responsible for so much needless death in the name of solving a problem which a simple resignation could have dealt with?
Still, at least letting other people die for the sake of your personal safety is the sort of bad habit you expect of absolute monarchs. The protagonist of today’s other bit of Kindlefluff has far stranger habits…
The eBook version of George P. Saunders’ Monster Vice usually goes for £1.28, but thanks to a limited-time-only offer I was able to read it for the princely sum of free. It seems to have been self-published too, but unlike Queen of Arlin (which, again, seems to have had a decent proofreading job) the book has a fair number of typos waiting in the wings to jump out at unwary readers – for instance, at one point the Tungsten Method (of which more later) is referred to as the Tellerman Method, and there’s a particularly endearing misspelling of bureaucratic as “beaurocratic” at one point. I know that it can be a bit catty to demand professional standards of amateur self-publishers, but I have few qualms here because a) George expects people to pay for this shit and b) some of these errors could have been picked up if he ran a spell checker over the final draft once, so there’s really no excuse for putting “beaurocratic” on the market.
Still, I wanted to give this one a fair chance because the premise seemed hilarious. Detective Dick Pitts is an ex-Marine turned cop on the mean streets of LA. He earned a reputation as a hard-edged sort who could be relied on to get the job done in Homicide, so after a cosmological phenomenon unleashes monsters and demons of legend across the globe he’s transferred to the LAPD’s newest and most dangerous department – Monster Vice, the cops charged with tracking down and exterminating the creatures of the night. It’s a difficult life for Dick which only becomes harder to bear after his brother Bill, bitten by a werewolf, lures him to a park at night so that Dick can gun down Bill and save him from a life as a woof. Bill was an Episcolaplian priest and hadn’t stepped off consecrated ground that evening, which makes Dick concerned that there might be a woofle out there who isn’t dissuaded by holiness to the same extent others are. On top of that, Hanson – his partner in Monster Vice since the division’s formation – has been killed in a battle against a Master Vampire and his minions, and the top brass want him to work with a new partner – Curadel, an incognito and almost-anagrammatic vampire of no small fame (it’s fucking Dracula, OK?) who wants to help the cops bring his unruly brethren down. And on top of all that you have Dick’s own condition: having been drained to the point of death by a vampire in the past and saved only in the nick of time, he is perpetually on the edge of crossing the border between life and undeath and becoming one of the very monsters he is out to destroy, and the only thing keeping him human is daily applications of the Tungsten Method.
So, how exactly do you fuck up a buddy cop story in which one of the buddy cops is Dracula? Well, although the typos did annoy me, they aren’t actually the main problem with the book. Part of the issue is that Saunders is incredibly cavalier when it comes to, for instance, having Dick in the narration say something flippantly homophobic (“John Wayne – well, he was nothing more than a limp-wristed, bow-legged, horse-buggering cross-dresser who sat to pee”) or otherwise saying stuff which makes me think there’s going to be depressing sexism (“even though I’m not in sexual predatory mode at present” – I don’t want to see what happens when Dick Pitts goes in sexual predatory mode, thanks) or uncomfortable racial appropriation (“My brother […] occasionally commutes into the language of Black Panther Gangstah’ when he wants to make a point”, said of a decidedly Caucasian individual) coming down the tracks. These things slide into the text casually enough that it doesn’t feel like Saunders is specifically trying to do anything specific with this stuff and it’s just how he wants his super-cool detective protagonist to talk, and I felt deeply disinclined to explore further to find out whether it gets any better.
The thing I disliked was just how seriously Saunders wants us to take him – specifically, the fact that I have no idea whether the book is meant to be taken as a gritty urban fantasy action thriller or as a comedic romp. When you are dropping stuff like “I was a creature of the moment, like the muse Terpsichore” on the reader it feels like the narrative voice of a crude, hard-drinking, brooding horndog cop has been momentarily overridden by the author’s desire to sound erudite. It’s not that I don’t think a character of Dick’s socioeconomic background necessarily wouldn’t know who Terpsichore is, but most people who do know that also know that the reference here is way too esoteric for most people to get – even people who are kind of into Greek mythology are rarely going to be able to rattle off the names of all nine muses and recall what they are associated with off the top of their heads – and the tone of most of the narration has been of a cop wanting to tell his story in such a way that most average joes will be able to follow what he’s yapping about.
If the book consistently kept up that level of seriousness then that would be one thing. It’d make reading the thing a little like sitting through a game of Vampire: the Masquerade curated by an especially pretentious Storyteller, but there’s a space in the urban fantasy market for such things. Equally, there’s space in the genre for ultra-violent monster-hunting romps and comedic stories underscoring the absurdity of your typical “monsters among us” setting. You can even, as Saunders is attempting to here, try and offer all three of those things in the same story. What you can’t do unless you’re right on top of your game is offer up all three at once. You need to have a firm idea of what sort of tone you are going for in any particular scene and you really need to avoid dropping unintentional or intentional hilarity into sequences which are actually meant to be especially maudlin or tense. Here, though, Saunders wavers uncontrollably between the three extremes of mopey, glum personal horror, tense and gory action and ridiculous farce without ever quite convincing me that the tonal shifts are anything but random.
For instance, Dick’s tense and mysterious walk through the park in the first scene segues into a life-or-death battle with a werewoofle when Dick steps into some woof poo, which I think was meant to be comedic but doesn’t really do it for me. On top of that, his name is Dick Pitts, which is alright for parody but isn’t helpful for those bits where I am meant to try and take him seriously. But the thing which really made it impossible for me to take the book seriously – and thus made turns of phrases like “a creature of the moment, like the muse Terpsichore” feel like non sequiturs – is the exact nature of what Dick gets up to on a daily basis in order to stay human. You see, the Tungsten Method is a process more than a few of you might be aware of, although you probably call it by a different name – indeed, Saunders wheels out a wide range of euphemisms for it, about a dozen or so in the brief span of the book I could stomach.
Personally, I call it “having a wank”.
I am not joking here. For some reason, which Saunders delivers with an awful lot of pseudoscientific waffle which reads like it was copy-pasted from an encyclopedia, the delightful glowy thing a good orgasm does to your brain chemistry turns out to delay by a day or so the process of turning into a vampire. (Apparently, this was discovered as part of research into manual stimulation of heterosexual men. Why specifically heterosexual men? Are gay handjobs different from straight handjobs? Are gay orgasms different from straight orgasms? Are gay people in more or less danger of turning into vampires due to lack of orgasms? I can’t write my Monster Vice fanfic if I don’t know the answers to these questions!) Consequently, Dick can save himself from turning into a vicious predator by making sure he shoots his load daily, ideally before midnight. He’s single at the time we pick up his story, so this is really something he has to take care of himself. He also seems to be rather forgetful about this; in the opening chapters the midnight deadline is bearing down on him and he’s still not had a chance to go and attend to himself. This creates a ludicrous situation where the two primary sources of tension in the first vampire hunt we get to read about is, on the one hand, the constant threat of being murdered by vampiric superhumans, and on the hairy-palmed other hand the necessity to get the job over and done with quickly so that Dick doesn’t suddenly go vampire from the wank-shortage and maul his fellow officers.
Is this being played for laughs? I honestly can’t tell. The regular use of euphemisms for Dick’s penis (like “Trouser Mouse”) or his applications of the method (such as “Pound the Python”) should, in principle, tickle the funny bone of my inner 12-year-old, but in this context it doesn’t; it just adds a sordid and juvenile undertone to a narration of events that Dick ought to be taking very seriously. Likewise, the bit where Dick shuffles off after the pyrrhic victory of the vampire hunt, shaken by the death of his brother and his best friend in the space of a few hours, to have a gloomy sadwank in the corner is so ridiculous that you can’t take Dick’s mourning seriously but at the same time so morbid that it doesn’t seem to be intended in a comedic fashion.
The situation in question is also incredibly contrived. Set aside the sheer unprofessionalism involved in jizzing up a crime scene; if the narrative is to believed, Dick can crank himself from grieving to spurting – even in an unsanitary environment in the immediate aftermath of horrendous events – in under a minute, so why on Earth didn’t he knock one out super-quickly before the raid? The narration suggests that he considered it but thought it better not to but given that he was running the risk of going vamp in the middle of a mission I can’t help but think that this is insanely irresponsible. On top of this, how do you get in a position where you’ve been told daily masturbation is necessary for your continued survival and you still haven’t handled your business this late in the day? Surely most men with healthy and happily functioning genitals would be able to stick to a sensible treatment schedule. You could make it part of your morning routine: wake up, jerk off, shower (this step and the previous one can be combined if you’re in a rush), shave if necessary, get dressed, grab breakfast if there’s time and go to work. A considerable number of men already start the day like that anyway.
The Tungsten Method nonsense is symptomatic of the book’s constant efforts to not make a whole lot of sense. (Why “Monster Vice”? Are the monsters involved in drugs and prostitution? I thought the main problem was that they killed people so why not “Monster Homicide”?) More troublingly, it acts as an excuse for Dick to be casually misogynistic a lot of the time – for instance, he spends a fair amount of time at the vampire hunt salivating over squad member Kellerman, because of course fantasising about fucking your squad mates is exactly what you would be concentrating on in a life-or-death situation like that. The fact that Kellerman is female and attractive and occasionally flirts with Dick constitutes more or less all we ever learn about her, which makes it hard to really feel that a flesh and blood human being has been cruelly struck down in their prime when she dies. Even more disturbingly, the first thing we see Dick do in the novel is shoot a succubus in the head after she approaches him in the park and tries to seduce him by showing up naked and saying “Wanna fuck, handsome?”. Dick takes care to mention that he “cannot ignore the shaved mons between her legs” (yes, Saunders, that’s where it’s usually found) before he pulls out his gun and shoots her in the head, making the sequence especially disturbing.
Stuff like this made me suspect that the author has a Thing about women which would make persisting at reading the thing a headache, and a quick check of his other books on Amazon seemed to confirm this; his other works include The Art of Whoring, which appears to treat the subject without even a facade of ethical considerations and also inspired this edifying exchange concerning a sexually abusive act described in the book. Between that, The Man Book (which is apparently some sort of gender essentialism joke book) and The Last Harem (a lurid account which supposedly describes how one of his ex’s ended up being sexually abused by the Sultan of Brunei), I came to the conclusion that a story about a chronic masturbator written by this guy couldn’t possibly end anywhere good and tossed it next to Queen of Arlin in the Kindlefluff mass grave.