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Emotionless and Alienating. All Telling, No Showing.
on 23 October 2013
First of all, I have to admit I couldn't finish 'Kingmaker'. I got about two thirds of the way through before giving up for good - and I really, really hate not finishing a work of fiction - so make of the following what you will based on that information.
A lot of sci-fi and fantasy novels I've seen on Amazon lately have been (as far as I can tell at least) the work of self-published authors, works that might be somewhat generic or derivative but nonetheless enjoyable if they weren't rendered all-but inaccessible by a horrendous lack of editing, or even proof-reading: poor grammar, incoherent narratives, and sometimes simply terrible writing abounds. As such, I was pleasantly surprised by the extremely high level of language on display in 'Kingmaker'. Not only does Cantrell seem to have a much better grasp of the English language than a lot of other writers competing in this increasingly-crowded market, 'Kingmaker' also gives the impression of having actually been proofread, which was a nice change. In addition, near-future sci-fi it might be, but 'Kingmaker' seems to take a lot of its inspiration from cyberpunk, creating a rich and coherent world in which to set its action.
However, this is where I took issue with the novel: much of this (admittedly fascinating) world is presented to us in huge chunks (often at least five pages on my Kindle) of flat description in the narrator's voice, rather than via exploration or through the eyes of the characters - that is, there's a lot of 'telling', and not much 'showing' - which not only broke up the narrative, but also made the world seem somewhat dry and distant, rather than vibrant and living. This touches on my second gripe: we're frequently told what 'Kingmaker''s characters are doing, but not why, or what they're feeling about what's going on. Indeed, I was frankly mystified as to the protagonist's motivations for anything he did, at any point. Clearly there's some sort of plan underpinning his actions, but without knowing what was going on in his head, it was impossible to empathise with him on any level. Given the very character-heavy focus of the book, this was extremely alienating, and between the lack of emotional depth and the pages-long enumeration of weapon-systems and political histories, I couldn't help but mentally apply the adjectives 'slightly autistic' to the text as a whole. (Or at least those parts of it I ended up reading.)
Finally, there's the problem that several other reviews have raised: the timeline of events described in 'Kingmaker' is beyond confusing. While I'm appreciative of the attempt to employ something other than a simple linear progression of chapters, as the novel progressed it became frankly impossible to know where in the book's timeline any given scene was taking place. If this had been deliberate (or at least not interfered with my understanding) then I could have lived with it, maybe even enjoyed it. As it was, however, I found 'Kingmaker''s narrative structure frustrating and obstructive to both my comprehension and my enjoyment.
A big question for me whenever I read a book I don't like by an author I don't know is 'would I read another book by this author?' Usually, the answer's an easy 'no', but in this case I might be willing to give another work by Cantrell a read - provided it's not a sequel to 'Kingmaker', at any rate, as this book gave me absolutely no reason to care about what happened to any of its characters.