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The Eye of the Storm by William L. K.

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

I'm always somewhat hesitant when an author with whom I'm not familiar approaches me about reviewing their self-published book. Occasionally it'll turn out that the person has written a quirky but delightful book that's been unable to find a home at any regular publisher because it didn't fit neatly into any of the little boxes the marketing department expected. But all too often, I find that the story simply isn't ready for prime time, and the gatekeepers of traditional publishing were right to turn it away at that time.

And that's what makes it difficult to review this book. It so badly wants to be a Great and Significant Book, addressing deep philosophical questions of the nature of being, in the tradition of Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The sort of story that'll be taught to generations of literature students in high schools and universities around the world.

Unfortunately, the text as it exists is not really reaching those high goals. It's easy to point at obvious "beginner blunders" that one frequently sees in a writers' workshop, things like purple prose and excessive static description of the physical attributes of the characters as a substitute for insights upon who they are on the inside. However, even if all those problems were fixed and the prose were polished until every word glistened with perfection, I'm not really convinced that it would make this book work at the level it's striving to be.

There are the problems with the worldbuilding of Stritonoly, which really doesn't work the minute you really start thinking about it. We've got the elite family of the Czar, who rules the planet, and his court. We have the artisans who sculpt the famous rocks. And we have the acidels, the dwarflike aliens who mine the stone, enslaved and despised because their bodies exude a sweat that has druglike qualities when ingested by humans (yuck!) But we have no sense of the people who actually do the work that makes a society run -- the people who raise the food and build the houses and all those mundane things that we're simply not seeing anywhere in this story, not even by inference.

And there are the story threads that don't resolve, or resolve in ways that are apt to frustrate readers. My own trigger-point was the so-called rescue of the acidels. Sure, they were spared genocide, but only to return them to slavery with new protocols to protect humans -- but no acknowledgements that these are intelligent beings who might actually have rights.

But even if the worldbuilding and story-structure issues were resolved, I'm still not sure that this story would be able to fulfill the role it's reaching for so hard. Part of it is the presentation, which alternates between the far-future world of Stritonoly with its vaguely Russian-derived society and scenes on contemporary Earth in a way that is apt to be confusing. I had to read the first few chapters several times before I even had enough grasp of the story to go on.

The explanation in the end makes it clear that the story is intended to show the philosophical idea of the interconnectedness of lives and souls across time and space. In Buddhist thought it's described by a term that's often translated "bundles" -- that souls, rather than being monolithic as they are regarded in Western religious and philosophical thought, are in fact made of component parts that may be redistributed between incarnations so that any given living person's soul may be made up of components that formerly belonged to many deceased individuals (which also helps explain how multiple people could have memories that seem to belong to the same person).

Unfortunately, with this problematical execution, the deep philosophical meaning is apt to get lost in the haze. Ideally, the philosophical significance of a story should never need to be explained at the end -- the author should not need to come on stage and break the fourth wall to address the reader directly. Such a presentation is apt to come across as pompous, even pretentious, and instead of impressing the reader may well turn him or her off.

And that's often the problem with stories that consciously try to be Great Literature. The harder they try to be Profound and Significant, the more apt they are to instead come across as Pompous and Pretentious. If you look at the history of literature, very few works now commonly regarded as Great Literature weren't written for the ages, and many of them were created for very ephemeral reasons. Charles Dickens ground out many of his greatest books chapter by chapter to be serialized in popular magazines, purely for the money -- and if he was running short on funds, he was known to write a few additional scenes in order to get a bigger payment. Even William Shakespeare, who is often portrayed as one of the greatest paragons of Great Literature for its own sake, was for many years of his life a member of a traveling company of players and often would rewrite his plays from performance to performance in response to how the last audience responded to it.

When it comes right down to it, the best way to write a great work is to put out of one's mind any thoughts of writing Great Literature and concentrate on telling a darned good story that people will want to read again and again.

Review posted October 30, 2011

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