February 27, 2016

Beyond the Red- Shadowcon Mini-Views

Let me be very clear: this review is NOT a reflection of Ava Jae herself. This is a review of her book Beyond the Red. Indeed, I am as big a fan of Ava Jae as anyone; I love her blog Writability and have learned a lot about writing from her. She was the person who inspired me to actually sit down and write a first draft of my own book, and she is someone who I look up to a lot.

And I wanted to love Red! Seeing the development of this project through Jae's various blog posts and status updates was exhilarating, and her own excitement and happiness about her first book being published just made me so happy! And rightfully so, as this is a big deal and she should be very proud that she's a published author with fans who evidently love the book, and I would not want to diminish that nor do I want this to come across as though I don't think she doesn't deserve it. She does.

But the fact remains that I just didn't find this to be a very good book. And I'd like to think that Jae would much rather have me be honest about what I feel than tell her what I think she would want me to say; that is the more honest review in the end, as it is treating you like the intelligent person that I think you are. So, no, sadly, I didn't like this. And that mostly comes down to the writing, but also down to personal taste.

Here's the Goodreads synopsis: "Alien queen Kora has a problem as vast as the endless crimson deserts. She’s the first female ruler of her territory in generations, but her people are rioting and call for her violent younger twin brother to take the throne. Despite assassination attempts, a mounting uprising of nomadic human rebels, and pressure to find a mate to help her rule, she’s determined to protect her people from her brother’s would-be tyrannical rule. Eros is a rebel soldier hated by aliens and human alike for being a half-blood. Yet that doesn’t stop him from defending his people, at least until Kora’s soldiers raze his camp and take him captive. He’s given an ultimatum: be an enslaved bodyguard to Kora, or be executed for his true identity—a secret kept even from him. When Kora and Eros are framed for the attempted assassination of her betrothed, they flee. Their only chance of survival is to turn themselves in to the high court, where revealing Eros’s secret could mean a swift public execution. But when they uncover a violent plot to end the human insurgency, they must find a way to work together to prevent genocide."

Right away, this looked neat! Unfortunately, it does little with the premise and even less with its characters. However, I will start with the positive aspects of the work, as I feel that just bashing the book would be in poor taste. So, here they are:

1. This is an intriguing world- I love the planet! More specifically, I am interested very much in the history of the planet. We get a brief synopsis of how humans came to be here, and that actually carries more of a pull as a potential story than what we get in the actual book. I think a prequel to this would actually go over extremely well.

2. The end- No spoilers, but I will admit that Jae does know how to ratchet up suspense and then just leave you there! Admittedly, the actual plot of the ending and how the book ends doesn't impress me, but the fact that it does end almost mid-climax and lacks a specific coda is an interesting choice.

3. The cover- Okay, I know, it's kinda not really relevant to the actual story, but come on! Look at this cover, guys! It's so gorgeous! I have it set as my phone background and oh my god it just makes me smile!

However, these three things are not enough to redeem a haphazard debut. There are hints of an amazing story in here, but the actual book is bogged down by three things:

1. A lack of distinct voice- The book is split between two POVs: Eros, the half-blood slave, and Kora, the queen of one of the eight territories of Safara. This sounds fine, and indeed the potential for voice distinction is here in droves: two characters coming from radically different lives, one struggling with issues of belonging and acceptance while the other is dealing with needing to impress and hold an entire nation under her order, I mean, this is ripe stuff. Unfortunately, especially with Eros, we get very little character-specific introspection, reflection, or clear identity. There is a lot of saying and barely any showing; Eros says he's a half-blood and he complains that he's ostracized and how he doesn't belong, but seldom unfortunately do we get to witness him as a man carrying the emotional punch that this should bring. Kora fairs slightly better, though not by much; we do get some idea of how she feels about her role as queen, and there are inklings of her feeling sad that she and her brother are estranged, but again, none of that is fleshed out enough for us to gravitate to her as a person. All of this is due to the fact that the book is plot-driven, not character-driven, and for me, that's a detriment. I love complicated nuanced characters, so having compelling traits boiled down to simple tropes really didn't sit well with me.

2. The chemistry between characters is all physical or surface-level- I kept noting this every time the romance between Kora and Eros would rear its head: none of this feels romantic. Indeed, Kora's and Eros' attraction is entirely physical, from the moment they meet to the end of the book, it's all surface, and that is a very poor writing decision when the characters themselves are imbued with backstory and flaws that are ripe for intermixing and discussion. This could have been an incredibly nuanced look at how two people grow to understand each others' dilemmas and find romance through emotional connection. Instead we have a very physical attraction between these two and it falls flat. This is also true for Kora's betrothed, Serek, who I actually liked as a character though he could've been introduced into the story a bit sooner. He is all body in Kora's eyes though, and having her conflicted between him and Eros when all the reader has been given of her attraction is that she's physically drawn to these two men... y'know, it just doesn't have very much of an emotional punch behind it as it should. Romance aside, even the interactions between the characters on a platonic or familial level are poorly scripted. Kora's relationship with her brother started out interesting enough, but Dima quickly devolved into a one-note baddy by the end and their history and the effect that that has on Kora is left hanging. Eros' human friends and family are poorly developed, and the book leaves little time for us to care about them because of its plot-oriented drive.

3. The pacing is unbalanced- When i started reading reviews of this, a consistent praise from everyone was how awesome the pacing is. Fast-paced, certainly, but for me, this book lurched more than it soared. Indeed, the pace is to blame for most of my problems with the book: a lack of fleshed out characters, well-scripted interactions, and emotional connections all stem from how quickly the plot wants to move. This seems to be at odds with the type of story Jae wants to tell, that of a complicated chemistry between two people set in the foreground of an engaging mystery/political thriller plot. But that's not the tone we get from the pace of the book. The broad beats of the plot are there, but the nuances, the spit and polish sheen are not, and that hampers the book considerably.

When I was reading this book, I kept wanting to love it. But in the end, it just wasn't for me. As a reader who loves engaging characters and deep thick plots, this book was unsatisfying to me. I found it to be a poor demonstration of Ava Jae's potential, and I only say that because what she has to say about writing itself, the craft of it and so forth, is pretty good, and I was looking forward to her demonstrating her own skillset. I don't believe this is the best that she can do. There's an amazing manuscript by her buried in here, but the final result is not it.

Having said that, however, I don't think this really needed to be it. This is not the book that Ava Jae gets to show off and blow everyone away with; this is the book that she gets to prove can swim before she moves on to something incredible. And in that respect, based on reviews and early buzz, I think she's proved that. But that doesn't change the fact that I found this book to be disappointing. And I've never felt more sorry to say that, because I was looking forward to this so much.

My feelings about Beyond the Red do not change how I feel about Ava Jae. She's still an awesome blogger and a source of knowledge for me. She has a genuine love for the craft and an excitement about books in general that always puts a smile to my face. I sincerely wish her best of luck with her next book, because I know, as do all her fans I'm sure, that she has the potential to write something groundbreaking!

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