THE HUNT: A Devil’s Isle Novel by Chloe Neill (which is technically my December pick for this post category) is yet another book where the cover (art by Blake Morrow, all rights with current holder) is just the protagonist staring at us; all we know is that it’s got a redheaded woman in it. Which is not the fault of Neill, but it’s still uninspired.
THE STORY: When the Otherworld invades ours, New Orleans is hit Katrina-class hard. In the aftermath the government is rounding up paranormals, both Otherworldly beings and people like protagonist Claire, who’s acquired TK from the magic incursion. When her boyfriend Liam is framed for murder, Claire and her friends set out to clear his name without being captured by the paranormal hunters.
MY REACTION: I really liked that magic has had a major impact on the world, rather than having masses of magic in a world identical to our own. And I think that made the government rounding up magic feel less X-Men that such things usually do to me. Unfortunately one significant character introduced mid-book could have been lifted straight out of Marvel — they might as well have been Bolivar Trask (and Sociopathic Emotionless Scientist is too hoary a cliche to work for me). All that said, I didn’t like the book.
WHAT I LEARNED.
As I’ve mentioned before, I hate seeing worldbuilding. While the setting is good, Neill is constantly showing it off. We get discussions of relationships and what the government is doing and what life is like in New Orleans now, and it gives the book an aimless, uninteresting feel. And there’s that first chapter which is nothing but scene-setting and filling in backstory for newbies like me. All I really need to know is that the invasion happened, New Orleans is ruined and paranormals are hunted, the rest could have waited.
I need something to grab me. It can be a plot hook that has to be fixed, or an emotional issue to be addressed, but we get neither. Claire’s feelings about Liam aren’t shown as intense enough for me to care and the mystery of who framed him doesn’t grab me either. I can accept “whodunnit?” as a hook in a mystery novel, but even there I’d need a more compelling mystery.
Shocking news: Giving readers information is hard! One of the advantages of first person is that the narrator can simply include a lot of information — “So I went down to McGinty’s, where I saw my buddy, the reformed Wendigo turned avant-garde sculptor.” Pretty much every urban fantasy I’ve read does this (as do series mysteries); even though it’s Telling Not Showing it doesn’t bother me if I like the book. If I don’t like it, it grates on me. Still it’s a workable approach but only if the information is worth knowing, and if it’s not delivered too much at one time (as it was in Chapter One).
Another is to have the POV character be a newcomer, as in Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guide to New York. Protagonist Zoe stumbles into the supernatural world, so she needs lots of explanation. Of course, this can go wrong too: Charles Stross’s first Merchant Princes book has the protagonist spend (or so it seemed to me) 60 percent of her time asking for explanations which is why I’ve never read the second book.
A third approach is simply to have the author tell you what you need to know as quick as possible. Henry Kuttner’s “Eye in the Sky” starts with a murder, then we get several paragraphs explaining how the police can scan time to find out who committed any crime. This felt much quicker and faster than any alternative approach (as it’s a third-person book, the first-person tactic wouldn’t help). And it helps that the concept of the Eye is actually interesting, so it’s not just backstory.
All of which basically amounts to “any method can turn readers off if you do it wrong, so do it right.” I’m not sure that counts as an insight.