Wednesday, May 2, 2012

forced ignorance

Worldshaker by Richard Harland
Rating: 1 star (out of 5)
Genre: childrens, steampunk
Review: This book gets one star for having an interesting premise (a juggernaut on wheels that travels the earth after Europe is devastated in an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars).  Beyond that, though, this book is terrible.

Every author is faced with the question of how to convey needed information to the reader.  After all, the reader must somehow learn the background of the characters and something of the world in which the book is set.  Some authors choose to do this through the voice of the narrator, others use dialogue and allow one or more characters to explain what's needed to another.  Both choices can work if done properly, and each has inherent narrative pitfalls that must be avoided.

The biggest problem that an author who chooses the dialogue approach must overcome is that of the ignorant character.  This character must be believably ignorant (so that the explanations come in the natural course of the narrative), but not so ignorant as to become unsympathetic.  This is the trap into which Harland falls.  His main character (Colbert) is the grandson of the Supreme Commander of the Worldshaker (a person second in significance of the juggernaut only to the queen and her consort).  The book opens with the announcement that Colbert is to be his grandfather's successor.  Colbert is 16, and so ignorant as not to be believable  He's never met any of his peers in his relatively small social class (even though it's clear they've all met each other) and has clearly never received any kind of instruction in social skills, let alone in how to run a city-sized juggernaut.  If Colbert were actually written to be an idiot, I might have found this easier to believe, but he's not.  It turns out that he's a smart, thoughtful boy, who, if he were better-written, would have asked the questions that come up in the book long ago.

Harland would have done better to have a little more faith in his reader and not assumed that his readers are as forcibly ignorant as he makes his main character be.