Silk Roads and Shadows by Susan Shwartz
Alas, another book I’m shelving without finishing it.
I was excited about Silk Roads and Shadows, too. I have a particular soft-spot in my heart for quest / travel novels of the fantastical persuasion, and the low-key premise of Silk Roads and Shadows leaves so much room for characterization and world exploration: Alexandra, princess of the Byzantine Empire, opts to take the long, dangerous hike to China to try to steal some silk worms to replenish Byzantine’s dying stock rather than be married off to some random royal.
I knew I was in trouble almost immediately. The prologue starts off in a close third person POV, where a royal cousin is trying to talk to the king but rebuffed by an upstart underling. Then the story races forward in what almost feels like a montage. He helps the princess Alexandra escape from a royal convent turned to black magic. More surprisingly, she has reason to suspect this black magic has been to the detriment of the king and his son. They rush back and uncover that indeed the head of the convent was trying to usurp power via witchcraft and together break the spell. The prologue ends with the royal cousin and Alexandra standing with the emperor after the traitors are publicly executed, and they talk about the future.
That 13 page prologue could have been a novel on its own.
Knowing that prologues are often the weakest part of a book, I pushed on ahead—into more of the same.
Everything moves quicker than is reasonable to allow the reader to feel the weight of a situation. Danger appears out of nowhere, mounts, collapses, and is dealt with before you have much of a chance to fear for a character’s safety. Characters die before you have an opportunity to get to know them. A character’s long-held beliefs are put on display the exact moment they’re discarded, meaning that you feel none of the agony of questioning long-held convictions.
This is compounded by the way time and movement is handled. You know how in a dream, often-times one second you’re someplace banal like a grocery store and the next you’re someplace like a tree-house and while the transition somehow exists in the dream, it’s not really clear the specifics on how you got there or how long it took? Well, that’s how Silk Roads and Shadows rolls. I made it 50 pages in and I’m not sure if a few days or a few months have passed. At one point a character has an out-of-body dreaming experience and I thought she was literally floating around looking at shit until the writing explicitly stated it was a dream.
Unfortunately, those aren’t the only problems I struggled with. Silk Roads and Shadows takes place in a heavily fictionalized historical setting and we’re watching through Alexandra’s point of view. The problem here is that Alexandra knows a lot more about geography, religion, geopolitical posturing, and social expectations than we do. Most books would get around this by having someone on hand for Alexandra to talk to who is closer to our understanding of this world so there’s a logical reason for these gaps to be filled in. Alexandra even has an outsider she could talk to—but she doesn’t. I’m not sure if the author thinks we all learned more in our collective history classes than we did, and thus thinks we know more than we do, of if the author doesn’t realize that there are important pieces of information seemingly completely absent. It doesn’t really matter either way. All of the places where Alexandra jumps to a conclusion that I didn’t understand put a little more distance between me and the story.
So, I’ve bagged on plotting, pacing, and relaying information to the reader. I have another complaint: just-plain bad writing.
Take, for example, a character swept off a mountain pass by an avalanche. He somehow survives and hikes into a valley to seek help. An unknown amount of time later (so frustrating) he stumbles across a horn on the ground and bends over to pick it up. When he puts it to his mouth to blow on it, though, his chest twinges with pain and he realizes that he broke some ribs in the avalanche.
I’ll give him the first few minutes of clawing out of the snow—adrenaline and endorphins and whatnot would dull the senses—but he hikes for a good (if unknown) amount of time then bends over to pick something up. If his ribs were broken he should have noticed before he decided to blow on a trumpet.
Another example is strictly technical:
“My horses!” Alexandra cried, and ran forward to take the bridle of the first one. Not all of them. That would have been too much to expect.
It helps to know that she lost her horses an unknown amount of time ago. Even with that in mind, though, I read this and for a second thought “she grabbed the bridle of one of the horses but not the others. Is that important?” before the next sentence made me realize that “Not all of them” was meant to apply to “My horses!” not her grabbing of bridles.
Am I picky? Undeniably so. I don’t think I’m unfair, though. Take, for example, The Wizard’s Shadow. It is a book with plenty of flaws, including poor technical writing (on occasion) and un-ideal plotting, yet I both finished and enjoyed it. The difference is that The Wizard’s Shadow worked hard to make me give a shit about the characters and the world. Silk Roads and Shadows didn’t.
Cover art by Mike Embden: