The Crystal Ordeal is a young adult fantasy novel following the adventures of Leone, a new graduate from the school for mages, and her companion Falchion, a graduate from the school for fighters. At its heart, the book aims to be a straightforward romp through a fantastical world with just enough mystery to keep the reader turning the page. While the author does a good job endearing Leone and Falchion to the reader, the pacing of the novel, a writing style that tends to give too much away, and an awkwardly built world prevent the book from coming together the way the author envisioned it would.
First, the pacing. Right from the get go, Leone and Falchion get caught up in events beyond their control and careen from one adventure to a next. While this is certainly not a bad structure, there’s never really enough time in the book for the reader to catch up. The instant one ordeal is done, another begins, and the reader never really has enough information to put things into context until the event in question is over with. Even then, a character just ends up narrating all of the important stuff that would have been much more fun for the reader to pick out had there been enough information. For a mystery of any sort to be engaging, a reader has to have enough information to solve it if he or she is particularly clever.
Additionally, the characters have a lot of adventures, but most of them amount to exciting things that happen while they’re travelling that don’t really add to the plot. There’s one section in particular dealing with a magic river and an underground water city being converted into a theme park that, while entertaining, doesn’t serve a purpose besides its own existence. Even though Leone and Falchion are running for their lives, it doesn’t feel like it. Instead, it feels like the plot is on pause.
The reader never really knows what the characters are heading towards. We get a destination, but no real sense of what may happen once Leone and Falchion arrive. Each time the characters get a goal, someone else gives it to them, so even though they work out the details of its execution they don’t feel as if they have much agency overall. Thus, the reader gets bogged down in a journey that’s significance isn’t readily apparent. All we know is important things are happening, someone told the characters to run for their lives, and theoretically it’ll all work out when they get there. It’s just not enough information to provide a context to make the journey interesting.
Concerning the writing style, M.G. Deckle has a habit of telling the reader exactly how everyone in the world thinks and feels at any given time. There are times later in the book that this makes sense in Leone and Falchion’s relationship, but overall it detracts from the story. There are very few instances in which the author actually shows the reader how people feel. Instead, we get adjectives like ‘shocked’ or ‘angry’ and adverbs such as ‘nervously’.
Further, there are paragraphs of what amount to inner monologues, of walking the reader through how a character arrives at a given conclusion, and of telling the reader what the character knows. In general, words like ‘knew’, ‘thought’, ‘believed’ and the like should be avoided. Anything that directly tells the reader a character’s mental state, rather than showing it, detracts from the sense of mystery and constrains the exercise of the reader’s imagination.
The last major issue with the book is the world itself. Almost everything the reader learns about the world comes in blocks of narration, or in narrative dialogue, that bops us on the nose. It’s clear that the author has a vision for this world and deeply cares about communicating it, but the way it’s presented via big chunks of description and the like tells readers about the world rather than drawing them into it.
Also, I never could figure out the technological development of the world. On the one hand, there are spotlights, sirens, and ice cream carts, on the other, a suicidal cauldron-jet propelled taxi service, and yet on another medieval weapons. The magic fills in some of the blanks, so everything that’s happening is feasible, but there’s no common aesthetic or uniting theme. It feels more like what the author believed was entertaining at any given moment than it does a unified vision.
Where the author succeeds is in endearing us to Leone and Falchion. The fact we never really get to figure out what they’re thinking and instead have it told to us doesn’t help, but in spite of that the characters are genuinely likeable, and they have that spark of charm and life that no amount of technical writing can accomplish. M.G. Deckle puts the soul there. If the other issues with the book hadn’t been as severe, Leone and Falchion could have carried it on their own.
One thing I wanted to see that I didn’t was a little bit of naughtiness. Over the course of the story, something happens that, for two teenagers, would lead to a lifetime’s worth of blushing. Nothing indecent mind you, just an ongoing situation that I felt the author didn’t have enough fun with. It was much more brother-sister than anything else, which really didn’t fit. I’m not suggesting anything graphic, but there was a big opportunity to do some subversive, amusing things that I feel passed by.
In summary, the book never quite comes together despite the charm of the two central characters. The author clearly has the talent to give characters a soul beyond the words on the page, and I’d like to see more writing from M.G. Deckle that builds on this solid foundation. You can pick up a copy from Amazon here.