Wizenbeak by Alexis Gilliland
After I finished Chrysalis of Death, I warily scanned my bookshelf. I needed something that wouldn’t hurt me like it had. I waffled over a few titles before I spotted Wizenbeak, and from the cover I knew that it couldn’t be a torturous book of hopelessness and death.
So I scooped it up, plopped into bed, and read the first page.
No, Wizenbeak would hurt me in an entirely different manner. By the second paragraph I was struggling, and on page two I wanted to call it quits. Looking for any means of procrastination, I googled the author. Wikipedia tells me that Alexis A. Gilliland is a science-fiction author and cartoonist and that he lives in Virginia.
Which makes this fauxfemfan, and outside of my purvey. I’m done.
I didn’t get far enough in the book to write a proper review, but I did read enough to have a lot of opinions. Instead of my normal spiel, I’m going to critique everything I read, with my hot-takes as they happened, real time. As I’ve spent a lot of time critiquing work for the benefit of authors, my comments will be in that format.
Slumming in Cymdulock
Night, and the mists rising from the river, softened the aspect of the mean and tawdry streets huddled about the walls of Cymdulock, capital of Guhland
This is a rough opening sentence. It seems like its true intent is to set a scene: the misty night air softened the unpleasantness of the town of Cymdulock. Is it essential that we know it’s the capital of Guhland? I don’t even know what Cymdulock is yet, so the unnecessary information about Guhlad is irksome, like a mosquito.
Also, could the night / mists soften the aspect of Cymdulock itself rather than soften the aspect of the mean and tawdry streets that huddle about the walls of Cymdulock? See, I’m not sure if Cymdulock is a mean and tawdry place, or if only the streets that huddle around the walls are mean and tawdry. The first sentence, and I’ve got the wrong sort of questions.
Lantern in hand, the tall clerisiarch—
Okay, hold up. Clerisiarch? Am I just really uncultured (likely) or is that not really a thing (also likely).
Well, I’m 100% correct, because I just googled ‘clerisiarch’ and the only hit is this novel. Okay, so here we are, sentence two, and again I’m perplexed. Is a ‘clerisiarch’ merely a cleric or a clerk? If so, this is a red flag and a well-known no-no of fantasy. Here’s my made up example:
“Oh no! ratsters have gotten into the grain!”
“You know, small rodents with long naked tails—”
“You mean a rat?”
“No! Ratsters are green and their ears are pointed, not round. Duh.”
JUST CALL IT A RAT.
Is a clerisiarch not a cleric or a clerk? Then why name it something that is so closely aligned to words we know?
Okay, fine, whatever, it’s sentence two, I gotta keep moving. He’s a clerisiarch.
Lantern in hand, the tall clerisiarch walked past taverns and bathhouses, pawn shops and dance halls, barbershops and cheap lodgings.
I feel really detached from this moment. Listing businesses he passes doesn’t anchor me in the moment. If he catches a whiff of sweat and alcohol from a dance hall, and it makes his stomach twinge—now that’s what makes me feel like I’m inhabiting the moment.
Hold up. We’re three sentences into this book, and those sentences haven’t been updating us on an arduous journey. Nothing has transpired long enough to warrant a ‘finally.’
Finally he came to a battered green door next to a cobbler’s shuttered workplace.
Much like the list of passed businesses, this is telling rather than showing.
So the green door is battered. How? Has countless rainy seasons warped the wood and left the paint bubbling? Have insects bored lines into it? Does it look like it’s been hit or beaten down? Does it have notices nailed into it, or is the wood rotting?
If the fact that it’s battered matters, it’s worth taking a few extra words to paint a picture. If the fact that it’s battered doesn’t matter, omit this entirely.
Also: the cobbler’s shuttered workplace. Unnecessary and distracting.
Holding the lantern close to the door, he found a small wooden plaque, written on with a heated stylus: Madam Irenji, Fortunes Told, 2nd Floor.
Still telling rather than showing, but at least this information clearly matters. Moving on.
The clerisiarch nodded and pulled at the bell rope, making a distant jangle.
Could he pull the bell rope rather than pull at the bell rope? I tend to agree with Strunk and White: economy when writing often leads to better reading.
After a time a peephole opened, and he obligingly raised his lantern to his face.
Does it have to be ‘after a time’? Could it simply read, “when the peephole opened, he obligingly raised his lantern to his face?”
If the ‘after a time’ matters—ie, if this clerisiarch is in a hurry so even a second or two feels like an eternity, then that needs to be called out.
An old woman in a black shawl opened the door, and jerked her head for him to step inside the hallway, which was cleaner than might have been expected.
Jerking her head as a means of indicating that one should enter a building is an awkward thing to portray via the written word. Could she just say ‘come in?’ or step back and hold the door open?
If the point of this sentence is that this clerisiarch (I still hate that term) enters the building, the aside about the cleanliness of the hallway is distracting in a confusing way. It’s a mosquito like the the fact that this city is the capital of someplace I can’t remember. If it’s important that the hallway is cleaner than might have been anticipated, delegate the sentiment to its own sentence.
“Let me check your sword,” she mumbled.
He rested his hand on the two swords thrust into his sash and withdrew the longer, which she took carefully in both hands, placing it in a rack at the back of the hallway.
Is this important? So far I’m over halfway through the first page and there’s nothing exciting, no hook, no mystery. I don’t need a ton of intrigue, but the specifics of how/where she stows his sword makes me groan because I just don’t care.
When she returned, she slowly preceded him up the stairs.
Why slowly? Does she have a limp, or move with a certain bone-weariness? Is this clerisiarch (dear cod I wish I knew his name so I could stop using that word) in a hurry and her slowness is irritating? Is he being chased and her slowness is potentially deadly? Is he worried about her?
Without some reason to care about why she’s moving slow, there’s no reason for her to move slowly.
Madam Irenji’s studio was cluttered with all sorts of magical paraphernalia of the grosser sort, props to impress of the bulk of her trade. Lit only by the coals glowing in the fireplace and the tall man’s lantern, it conveyed a sense of controlled power, of menace and hidden malice, together with a certain cheap theatricality.
This is starting to get interesting, though the use of ‘the tall man’s lantern’— a description from an outside POV since the clerisiarch wouldn’t think of himself as ‘the tall man’—makes it appear you want to keep a distant perspective on this clerisiarch rather than inhabit his POV. I think this is a mistake.
Imagine starting the book here rather than with the night mists, or whatever. And if we got into the clerisiarch’s POV, you could have him actually looking at the gross paraphernalia. Like, the book could open with him staring at a milky-white eyeball in a jar, or a stuffed bat, or whatever, and then respond to it however he normally would.
If he’s a skeptical sort, he could chuckle and think about how such theatricalities would impress the average idiot off the street. If he’s a superstitious sort, he could sweat a little and try to tear his eyes away. Whatever. It would tell us something about this clerisiarch which would help me care. It would also start the book in a much more interesting place, and get us to what I presume is the hook of the novel sooner. Win-win-win.
Madame Irenji pushed through the beaded curtain at the back of the room, and lit the candle on her desk. She had never been beautiful, but she had large, dark eyes painted to look larger and darker, and considerable presence.
That “considerable presence” bit at the end feels flat after the longer clauses before it. How about: “She had never been beautiful, but she had considerable presence and large, dark eyes painted to look larger and darker.”
“So Heiby,” she said, seating herself behind the cluttered desk. “What mischief do you bring me now?”
Okay, so they know each other, and based on the lack of communication thus far and the ease with which she started talking to him, I presume he’s been here before. So why did he hold up a lantern to check the signpost on her door?
It now feels like that was 100% because we might thrill at the promise of a fortune teller. I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t thrill, and now what small intrigue that did exist in that moment feels hollow because it wasn’t natural, it was done for the readers’ benefit.
The clersiarch produced a vial. “Nail clippings, some hair. From a Ghola of all things.” A Ghola was a dead man who walked and spoke and did the bidding of a living will.
Could we call him Heiby now? Please? We know his name, he doesn’t have to remain ‘the clersiarch’ forever. Also, a Ghola? This is a lot like Clerisiarch—very close to a word we know, but not quite the same thing. So juuuust different enough to be confusing/annoying. I’m wary.
Also-also, the aside that defines a Ghola feels really weird and will be trouble later, because if the story-telling can tell you anything you need to know, it feels really cheap when it withholds answers from you just to heighten tension.
“Heiby …” she said, “are you sure this is what you think it is?”
“Positive,” he replied. “I, myself, obtained the hair, and the clippings came from a most reliable source.”
Irenji took the vial and examined it. “From a Ghola? I doubt it, I really do.”
There are so many fluff words/phrases/thoughts here. You could kill a lot of these words and have the exact same impact:
“Are you sure this is what you think it is?”
“Positive,” he replied. He’d helped collect it, after all.
Irenji examined the vial. “From a Ghola?”
If the important take-away from this scene is that she’s skeptical and he’s certain, those bases are covered.
So do I, thought Heiby—
Hold up. Since when are we allowed into his head? Up until now the POV has been very distant, giving us a stark summary of events. Hell, up until this sentence, he was known exclusively as ‘the clerisiarch’ or ‘the tall man.’ And now we get super-chummy with him? If we were going to get into his head eventually, the book should have started in his head. POV switches like this are jarring.
—but Prince Kahun believes that the king is dead, a Ghola kept on the throne by the will of the Queen Shaia, his stepmother.
This is an overly complex sentence. Sure, it’s easy to understand, but there are too many clauses. It reads lumpy, like you can’t decide which part of it is the most important part.
Also, I’m over the books making out the Queen of some medieval-styled world into villains for trying to keep what power she has. When the system sucks, you do what you gotta do. How about a book about a Queen who usurps power somehow to, like, do something good? Or to just let things be status quo, except she doesn’t have to pathetically melt into the background and spend the rest of her days embroidering?
And Kahun wants his father to lie down and be … what did he say? “At rest.”
Wanting someone close to you who has died to be ‘at rest’ isn’t exactly an unusual turn of phrase. Maybe just kill the ‘… what did he say.’ Also, the fact that ‘At rest’ is in quotes makes me wonder if he said it aloud.
Like some fool courtier, I told him that would be an act of filial piety, and nothing would hold him after but trying some new spell to unknit the dead flesh from the living spirit that animated it.
What? I double-checked that I copied that over correctly, and I did. I have no idea what’s trying to be said here. This is page two, and less than one full page’s-worth of text. Sentences like this shouldn’t exist in a book period, but this early in a book everything should be polished beyond reproach.
If I the plot intrigued me, or if the characters excited me, or if the writing were beautiful, then I might be able to excuse this sentence. So far, though, I’ve been somewhere between ‘meh’ and ‘ugh’ on everything. A sentence so ponderously bad underlines all of my other concerns and undermines my faith that the book will be worth reading.
And now I need to find a good book because I don’t think I can handle another let-down.