Wednesday, March 17, 2021

McCoy, A Promise of Iron; Sullivan, Bound; Gilholy, Game of Mass Destruction (2020)

Self-Published e-Book Round-Up:
Brandon McCoy, A Promise of Iron (Echoes of Illyria #1). Self-published, 2020. Pp. 355. ASIN B08R6CHF4J. $7.99.
P.L. Sullivan, Bound. Self-published, 2020. Pp. 420. ISBN 979-8-57794-744-6. $2.99.
Chloe Gilholy, Game of Mass Destruction. Self-published, 2020. Pp. 227. ISBN 978-1-5272-3388-1. £5.99 pb/£0.99 e.

Reviewed by M.L. Clark

The aim of this column is to discuss recent SF&F self-published works, and to explore topics more relevant to books produced in this fashion. Self-publishing frees up authors from certain industry constraints, not least of which being beholden to the trend cycles established by larger presses. However, it also presents new challenges, including the author taking on the full costs of cover-art, editing, and marketing, with no guaranteed return on investment. Self-published works are rarely professionally reviewed, and many venues that do review are pay-to-play. This makes it especially difficult for texts to find an audience, and for authors to learn from the publishing experience. Today I’ll be reviewing three recent texts, Brandon McCoy’s A Promise of Iron: Echoes of Illyria: Book One (2020), P. L. Sullivan’s Bound (2020), and Chloe Gilholy’s Game of Mass Destruction (2020): in part, to offer constructive comment on the contents and their delivery; in equal part, to suggest a target audience for the works in question.

McCoy’s A Promise of Iron is easily the most cohesive of the three, but it also establishes a highly niche audience in its stereotypical portrayal of women. This more-sword-than-sorcery fantasy begins with a frame narrative establishing a female reader for the story to follow (a reader so delicate that she needs the book to tell her when to rest while reading), but the story itself begins in a tavern with a classic barmaid conceit. Here, a woman smiles and has breasts, and these two details are apparently enough to warrant extensive analysis from our protagonist, Faerin of Forhd, as to why he could sleep with her, moderately nice-looking creature as he concedes that she is, but won’t. The purpose here is four-fold: to establish Faerin as a) desireable, b) virile, and c) selective, on account of already having a True Love; while also d) establishing the randy character of his associate by contrast. But it also makes clear the text’s intended—niche—audience.

The tale then follows Faerin’s struggle for iron and status to make up for the low ‘salt’ of his birth—and here, the pacing reflects solid craft. Faerin’s sword-wielding adventures range from scrounging and scrapping for currency, to embroiling himself in political intrigue and critical historical mysteries, to playing out the bastard-turned-noble arc (with a lot of love shown to attire and arms), to embarking on major campaigns in foreign lands with fantastical creatures.

At its heart, though, A Promise of Iron is a love story for the sort of reader who’d chuckle at the protagonist cracking jokes about a fate worse than death in battle: coming home to be “nagged” by the missus. Even Faerin’s True Love, a woman exalted at length as beautiful, clever, and generous beyond compare, is written to fit that supposed ‘ideal’ of femininity: spending the whole book interested in him, which we see in part through how often she chides and is upset with him.

In other words, A Promise of Iron is classic trad-masc fantasy-romance. Nothing more untoward happens to Lira, though, than that she’s silenced with a gentle kiss for “talking too much,” so with all the giggling and grinning that most of the main cast partakes in, the whole adventure retains a lighthearted feel through its stereotypes. Fluffy and familiar.

Conversely, Sullivan’s Bound is brimming with ideas, and therein lies its greatest weakness. There are enough worldbuilding concepts here to fill a trilogy, at least, but their compression to one volume creates problems with pacing and momentum. In this world-hopping military-action-thriller, we’re given a civilization of alien peoples (the Polis) united in Consensus, a network that ostensibly creates harmony across far-flung planets by joining experiences of empathy. Except now there’s a threat to the peace: the Madness, which comes upon certain individuals seemingly at random, and throws them into terrorist violence. Luckily, the monarchy that runs this supposedly egalitarian system has a specially designed species of soldier, the Keld, which supports its First Contact Teams—so now it’s their job to figure out what’s causing this Madness, before the ostensibly peace-oriented civilization will have no choice but to destroy a new Prospect world before its outbreak of Madness infects the whole Consensus.

Oh, but we’re not done yet! Among the Keld there is also a soldier unique for two reasons: first, she was born Keld to Polis parents; and second, she’s a Bound Keld, meaning that she has two minds sharing one body, and a continuity to her consciousness that spans lifetimes. When Adin is ascendant in the body, Shennan’s in the background, able to support Adin’s fieldwork. Then, when the body dies in the line of combat, Shennan gains ascendancy with their resurrection, and Adin steps into the background to heal. They can also alternate as they wish within a given lifetime, and fuse to become one personality. Also, the Madness reveals the presence of a new species, yielding a new war phase for this civilization. Partway through, our Adin/Shennan protagonist is then joined by Lyssa, a lover from a past life, taking the narrative helm. Then Case, another past lover, gains a POV, too. Then the new species has a super-special link to Adin/Shennan—and the path to that development involves an unnecessary rape scene on a ‘primitive’ Prospect world.

This is, in other words, a restless narrative, probably meant to be zipped through when reading. The way the chapters are structured, with significant time lapses between dramatic events, we’re certainly not given much chance to see how this worldbuilding would play out in full—but still, as a series, with more space to breathe, a lot could be done with the many ideas presented here.

Another work that packs a great deal in is Gilholy’s Game of Mass Destruction, an e-book that could have used a more tasteful cover than one with a real photo of stacked skulls: a poor fit for the story’s goofy gameshow massacre. This cover is one of many issues that would have been addressed if a sensitivity reader had been involved, though, because although the narrator routinely signals an overt interest in inclusivity, the book still codes many of society’s underlying ills in deeply prejudiced ways. (Calling “prostitution” part of one character’s culture, for instance.)

The writing’s inspiration points are clear enough, though, from a level of theatrics that one would expect in a written version of a hyperviolent anime—with all the same melodramatic narration for each contestant of a brutal Big-Brother-meets-Battle-Royale-with-robots TV-show, as well as for the show’s creator. This book is best read through that exaggerated lens: an intentional giving-over to hyperbole for each larger-than-life character, backstory, and interpersonal drama.

Fealty to the story’s 2060s timeline, for instance, isn’t as important as these characters getting digs in at late-season Game of Thrones, mentioning Netflix, referencing old PC games, and invoking LGBTQ+ ‘issues’ in rough, if well-intentioned strokes. (NB: Major mainstream publication, Ready Player Two, was far more misguided in its attempts at inclusivity, but ‘transgendered’ gets used here instead of ‘trans’ or ‘transgender,’ rape is used as an [off-screen] plot point, and society has shown zero inclusivity progress over the next 40 years.)

When the actual game-show action begins, the story keeps to a good clip, and all of the book’s many characters maintain their distinction, even if those distinctions manifest in fairly ‘loud’ (and sometimes deeply problematic) character traits. Likewise, many of the robots’ deaths are quite well orchestrated for comedic effect.

Game of Mass Destruction reads as if written for an audience attuned to media forms where exaggeration is a feature, not a bug. With some serious time in the hands of a sensitivity reader, the core of this tale could easily have carred forward only the best from its source materials.

Taken together, though, these three texts reveal issues more common—but by no means unique—to self-published works: issues with pacing, representation, structure, and secondary media. Above all, though, they reflect the dangers of writing in an echo chamber, with few institutional supports to help even the most well-intentioned authors self-correct. Paying for a sensitivity reader or developmental editor might help, but the solution doesn’t automatically need to involve further financial investment. Rather, writers seeking to share creativity on their own terms (and indeed, all three texts depict vividly imagined worlds), would do well to make “identifying personal weaknesses” a critical part of their self-publishing practice going forward.

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