This is a critique of the first story in the steampunk anthology ‘Mechanized Masterpieces’ edited by Penny Freeman. The purpose is not to show all the mistakes and short comings, or say that I am a better writer, because clearly I’m not. This is simply an exercise in critical reading with the goal of improving my own writing, and encouraging great writing from any reader that passes by.
There will be lots of SPOILERS here. You have been warned.
**Edit: After receiving comments on my critique I realize that I should have mentioned that this story is based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, a great piece of literature that I have NOT read. Therefore, in some respects this critique cannot be complete, although it does provide the perspective likely to be shared by some other readers like myself.**
This review is of the story ‘Tropic of Cancer’ (ToC) by Neve Talbot. Overall, I really enjoyed the read, mostly because of Talbot’s fantastic skill in drawing you into the scene. However, this is also the story in the anthology of which I will be most critical.
Right from the opening line Talbot hooks you into the story. Of all of the writers in ‘Mechanized Masterpieces’ I think that Talbot possesses the best skill in evoking emotion and empathy in the reader. This is mostly due, I think, to excellent writing in which showing is used skillfully over telling and each element of the given setting adds to the emotion that the author is trying to convey. I really think Talbot did a great job in this respect. Now, on to the criticisms.
I have two major issues with ‘Tropic of Cancer’ that center more on the big picture of the tale than on the details at which Talbot excelled. The first is that as a tragedy, ToC fails to convey any sense of direction or purpose to the misery. This may be a hip thing to do, I don’t read enough modern tragedy to know, but if I’m going to watch a character fall into failure and misfortune I want either to empathize with him in the injustice, or find a moral truth through the events. ToC doesn’t really do either. We start out with a passionate romantic bent on earning the right to love his chosen. But she ends up marrying his brother and later dying of a miscarriage. Next, the main character finds out the woman he married (who he doesn’t love) is cheating on him and forces her to stay with him through bullying and manipulation. She turns out to be insane and causes the death of several other characters. In the end the main character is left with little more than an insane wife and a perhaps illegitimate daughter (who is thrown into the last section for good measure). Through the course of the progressively dismal tale I struggled to identify with the main character because he frequently changed from being altruistic and devoted to brutal and stoic, then back to benevolent and gracious. This was true of most of the characters, who were often introduced one way and then changed before having the opportunity to act as initially presented. It was hard to get a read on the characters and without well developed characters it is very difficult to pull out the meaning or the metaphor in their relationships and how they handle the tragedies that befall them.
The second gripe I have is with the plot. If I had to guess, Talbot had a significant series planned that told the tale of the main character through one or more novels. However, faced with a short story sized word limit, large chunks were chopped, leaving only the beginning, a slice of the middle and the end. In the beginning we start out focusing on two characters who die before the real conflict of the story arrives, and add very little to motivate that conflict or climax. The characters that are actually are involved in the conflict and climax are not meaningfully introduced (in their final presentations) until nearly half way through the story.
If you take the story apart from back to front, you find that the conflict and climax are all about the hell bent destruction and chaos brought about by the main character’s lunatic wife and how he tries to deal with the misery and destruction that surround him. The first half of the story has no real bearing on this except in the confusing existence of the protective pendent belonging to the main character’s true love, which as far as I can tell does little in relation to her while she is alive or after she dies. In fact, nearly everything we need to know for a satisfying tale begins when the main character’s brother arrives about half way through the tale. This is where, in my humble opinion, the story should have begun. The spurious detail of the true love, the crystal, his hatred for and neglect by his father, his early loveless marriage, all could have been either left out or summarized in a few paragraphs. The word count would have been better spent on expanding on the details from the introduction of his brother’s visit forward.
I may be coming off a little harsh, but I really think the author is a great writer that is going places. I just know that I’ve personally tried to cram an epic series into a short story before, and it just doesn’t work. I’ve learned that it’s so much better, as an author and a reader, to focus a short story down into its essential parts and make those golden. Giving the reader an understandable story with a plot that they can enjoy chewing on long after the book cover is closed is far more valuable than getting all your thoughts and details about a character and his world out onto the page.
No doubt about it, Talbot is a better writer than I am. Each and every scene was exciting and engaging, but I think there is room for improvement in connecting those great scenes together to create a better plot and solid character development. Give ‘Tropic of Cancer’ a read in ‘Mechanized Masterpieces’ and see if you agree with me.