Is Our Writers Learning? Year One by Nora Roberts

I love Nora Roberts’ work as JD Robb, a dark cops-and-serial killers series set in the future of 2050 (a lot further away when she started). So at the library I picked up her first book in the Chronicles of the One post-apocalyptic fantasy series.

THE STORY: A couple of families spend Christmas hunting at a lodge in the Highlands. One of them spilled blood in a local stone circle years ago; now he does it again. Result: he becomes the carrier for a pandemic, the Doom, which wipes out much of the world in the days, months and years following. As the survivors struggle to keep surviving, they discover the Doom also triggers supernatural powers or amplifies them in practitioners. Some of whom are good, some evil. And soon a child will be born who will be the Chosen One, who can save the world from the dark powers. If she lives long enough.

WHAT I LEARNED:

Realistic exploration of the fantastic is a good thing: In contrast to the Left Behind series, Roberts has put some thought into the way people cope with the apocalypse. The breakdown of society. The loss of technology. Things that are suddenly no longer possible when too many people are dead to keep things running. There’s an interesting discussion pointing out that even if someone successfully mastered a vaccine, time and logistics guarantee the death toll will be in the billions. I think Roberts handles the details better than The Stand, which shot more for Mythic than realistic (for the record I hated The Stand, though not for that reason).

Roberts also does a good job exploring how the end of the world we know affects the characters: Arlys, a reporter, keeps on reporting, even as society collapses. She believes it’s a good thing  — that people need to know what’s happening even if they can’t do anything about it. She’s one of the better reporter characters I’ve seen in a while. Then there’s the mourning of the dead, and the realization that there’s no longer any way to reach people alive but living too far away.

Doing something new with something very old is tricky.Much as I enjoyed the realistic touches, I’ve been reading stories about surviving/rebuilding from the apocalypse since my teens, and they go back way further than that. It’s a YMMV reaction, but I just felt that part of the book has been done and redone.

Multiple points of view can be a problem. As I found out in early drafts of Southern Discomfort, having too many characters reduces the impact of any one character. That’s not necessarily bad (I still have quite a few), but it works against Year One. The good guys are believable characters, but none of them are particularly distinctive. None of them stands out enough to grab me or interest me. Focusing on one or two characters might have worked better.

Recycling cliches is worse. And lord, the fantasy stuff is cliched. The powers are conventional, mostly resembling psi/metahuman abilities (i.e., to work magic just point and will it to happen) — thirty years ago, she could have done them as radiation-induced mutant powers and not change much. The characters who turn evil are all unsubtle; they seem one instant away from laughing maniacally (“He thinks his soft, white, weak power can measure to mine?”). The Chosen One is a very well worn trope, though I don’t hate it the way some people do. Mutie-haters out to kill all the mages are even more cliched and I hate that shtick).

Magic or metahuman powers suddenly manifesting in the real world is an old trope too. Shadowrun. Barbara Hambly’s Magic Time (which also deals with magic manifesting post-apocalypse). Larry Correia’s excellent Grimnoir books. Heck, even Flash‘s metahumans and Agents of SHIELD‘s Inhumans. I don’t think it’s a used-up idea, but it doesn’t work in this setting. With a death toll of seven billion and the breakdown of society, neither the evil mages nor the mage-hunters seem to matter.It gives me some respect for The Stand in that Stephen King makes Randall Flagg a convincing threat even in a similar pandemic.

#SFWApro. Cover design by Ervin Serrano, all rights remain with current holder.

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