Book Reviews, Front Page

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson is the first book in the Thieftaker Chronicles. It’s an alt history, fantasy story which takes place in 1765 Boston. The main character is Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker which means people hire him to track down stolen property and return it to them. He’s not the only thieftaker in town as he has a rival in Sephira Pryce. However, their paths rarely meet as her clients are the upper crust of Boston society. While Ethan operates within the law and tries to avoid harming the people he captures, he does have a secret weapon: He’s conjurer. This means he casts spells. Since the story is set 18th century colonial America, being a conjurer is akin to being a witch and so the threat of being hanged or burned as one is very real. Yet a surprising amount of people know about Ethan’s abilities even though he doesn’t go around advertising it.

The novel starts with Ethan tracking down a jewel thief. After recovering the jewels and warning the thief to leave Boston ASAP, the next morning Ethan’s approached by one of the wealthier citizens of Boston to recover a brooch stolen off his dead daughter’s body. But Ethan is puzzled why he’s contacted when Sephira Pryce usually handles the more exclusive members of Boston. His new client explains Ethan was recommended by Pryce because of his abilities and something is off about his daughter’s death. When Ethan conducts a couple of spells, he quickly realizes that whoever killed her is an incredibly powerful conjurer for he or she has been able to cleverly disguise not only the cause of death, but also the signature color each conjurer has. Ethan realizes recovering the stolen brooch is irrelevant and something to throw off who the real killer is.

Solving murders is not Ethan’s area of expertise so initially he’s at a lost at where to start. Matters are not helped as Pryce and her goons beat him up several times as a warning to stick with just recovering the brooch, but he doesn’t listen and soon the killer stalks and attacks Ethan. Everyone from the deceased woman’s betrothed to Pryce to several others, including a couple of members of the Sons of Liberty, try to pin the murder on a known rabble-rouser. But Ethan doesn’t believe it as none of the evidence supports the claim.

I loved this book. Not only for the historical aspect of it, but how seamlessly the fantasy elements work within the world. It’s natural, not over done, and when spells are cast it’s not over the top. I also love how Ethan is not a super powerful conjurer. He’s got skills for sure, but admits more than once he doesn’t know everything and seeks help in another conjurer, Janna as she specializes in a different kind of conjuring. This makes the final battle between Ethan and the real killer more exciting because he struggles, racking his brain for any little trick he can use to gain the upper hand. The way conjuring is used is pretty neat. Each spell caster has essentially a ghost or guide that appears. Ethan’s happens to be a grizzled, middle-age man he refers to as Uncle Reg as guide doesn’t talk. But what he doesn’t say, he makes up for in facial expressions, and comedic moments. The reader gets the impression Uncle Reg is a reluctant guide and doesn’t care much for Ethan but those changes throughout the book.

Another thing I enjoyed were the characters. The villains are well done especially Pryce as she’s almost throwback, good old-fashion villain with her thugs and who enjoys what she does. I look forward to seeing more of her and Ethan’s interactions in the series. I appreciate Ethan is a straight up, pure hero. While he may come from a privileged background, he’s done things in his life, criminal things, he has paid a hefty price for. It’s easy to feel sympathy for him and is the kind of character one wants to keep reading about. Also he has moral limits when it comes to conjuring, but is forced to push and cross those during the course of the book. Ethan is definitely not the brooding hero type that personally I’m getting a little tired of seeing. Another I also like about him is that while he does try to keep his abilities secret for a variety of reasons, word still gets out no matter how careful he is.

The supporting characters are also wonderful. From Ethan’s kinda best friend Diver to his girlfriend Kannice to his sister Bett to the minister-in-training Mr. Pell and everyone in between, it’s a cast I can’t wait to see more of. Relationships are complicated, but not needlessly so. And while life is certainly hard and times are difficult with riots protesting the Crown and the Sons of Liberty making a name for themselves, these people aren’t depressed which sometimes I see in books set during transitional time periods.

The world of Thieftaker is vivid and the reader can tell lots of research went into bringing pre-American Revolution war Boston to life. Again, everything in the book is just natural even when incorporating real life characters, such as Samuel Adams, into the narrative.

I honestly found little to complain about with this book. When pressed I guess I did notice some of the descriptions of when either Ethan or the real killer would use their power seemed repetitive. And sometimes I admittedly did get lost as to what exactly was going on and how people were able to do what they were doing. But that’s probably more on me as the reader rather than a defect of the writing.

Overall I give Thieftaker four pencils out of five and will definitely be picking up the next books in the series.

Front Page, Musings

Weekly Musing: Purple Rain. Wait, I Mean Purple Prose.

A topic of some discussion every once in a while amongst writers is Purple Prose. The definition of which is a bit nebulous. Purple Prose is generally defined as extravagant, flowery, and ornate language loaded adjectives and metaphors. Some would argue that such prose ultimately draws more attention to itself rather than the story. Still further it has been argued Purple Prose slows a story’s pacing and can come across as pretentious. As you can imagine Purple Prose is heavily discouraged if you want to write anything other than literary fiction. Apparently then it’s okay and pretty much expected.

But is Purple Prose a truly bad thing? The definition given seems quite subjective. What may be too many descriptions for one reader may very well be just right for another. Also the usage of the term flowery is problematic. It conjures up images of sweet-nothings whispered on a page, but could not constant descriptions of a depressing wasteland, such as can be found in Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands, also count?

Granted too many intricate sentences and long paragraphs containing them is tiresome and tedious. Purple Prose is probably why many modern readers have difficulties reading the classics. Many of those authors certainly suffer from an overabundance of flowery, tedious sentences which can tax even the most patient of readers. Yet those works endure. Much of their appeal comes down to themes explored and unforgettable characters, but I’d argue the biggest reason is due to the author’s usage of language. The poetry, cadence, and construction of sentences which conveys so much emotion. Can it be melodramatic at times? Of course.

When it comes to genre and modern works there’s this push to banish even the faintest hint of Purple Prose from works by beginning writers. To me this creates the potential to suck emotion from a piece and creates a situation where so many authors have the same generic sounding voice. It’s bland writing, bland reading, and bland characters.

As a reader the biggest thing I respond to, and the biggest thing that makes me jealous as a writer, is when an author digs deep into what the character sees and feels. Often this has manifested itself in what could be considered Purple Prose. I thoroughly enjoy it when an author uses several concrete, descriptive adjectives to show the reader what a character is seeing and feeling. Or when one uses metaphorical descriptions. For example, someone in my writers group once included the following sentence in their piece: “Blue eyes dancing with vigor.” Personally I loved visual. Logically eyes cannot dance, but that’s okay because the author was probably trying to get across this character’s eyes lit up with joy, that the character is probably a happy person, or has just seen something or someone which brought joy to his or her life. Yet one of the critiques was it was too purpley and should be rephrased.

Books which read as if the characters are reporting and only vaguely reacting to whatever’s going on are the ones I’m bored by and forget. Can an author inject more emotion without resorting to Purple Prose? Of course and I’m not saying it’s the only way to bring out the depth in a story. But to actively discourage it, scoff at it, or relegate it to literary fiction where pretention supposedly reigns supreme seems to be missing one of the fundamental points of literature: the joy and beauty of language. Think about many of the break out authors. Those who grab readers and are nominated or win prestigious awards. It’s due in large part with word usage. Writing and reading are all about words and a piece of advice I see over and over again is when revising be a better wordsmith. Choose strong verbs and adjectives. Sometimes in order to accurately convey what a character sees and feels more is needed.

When it comes to Purple Prose it really is a subjective thing. What may be overkill to one person may be just the perfect amount of beauty. Perhaps instead of pushing this notion of stripping down sentences to their bare bones, maybe more of an effort should be made to encourage bringing back the beauty of language. I know in this age of 140 characters or less, short posts are better than longer posts, texting, and short attention spans literature is unfortunately following suit. While literature should be a reflection of culture and society it has a critical job to improve language skills. Reducing everything to bite-size pieces like the Halloween candy already out in the stores, runs the risk of dumbing down language even further. Complex sentences, flowery language, metaphorical language may make us stop, pause, and re-read in order to comprehend is a good thing. The human brain should be challenged and in a small way Purple Prose can do that.