The Northland Chronicles: A Stranger North is a post-apocalyptic action piece focusing on the adventures of John Osborne, a bearded, six-shooter toting ex-soldier with a bionic arm. The novella has several problems, however, that prevent it from drawing the reader in. The pacing is off, John has an inconsistent and puzzling personality, Mr. Olsen tells the reader what the characters are thinking, and the ending doesn’t quite gel with a work of this length.
The problem with any novella is that it has to strike the delicate balance between being a short story and a novel. Short stories generally have one point that every single word in the story builds towards. There’s not much room to flesh things out, and even a handful of excess paragraphs can foil an otherwise good tale. A novel, on the other hand, has to do more work to build a sense of place, give the reader periodic breathers, and incorporate a more nuanced plot structure.
Unfortunately, in this story the author never quite finds the balance he’s shooting for and ends up caught in a mix of a short story and a novel rather than a novella. Too much happens in the story, which clutters things up. There are more characters, places, and the like than there really need to be, and one in particular gets several chapters to herself that don’t serve to advance the narrative. They flesh out the setting a bit, but not enough to justify their inclusion.
On the other hand, although the author thoroughly describes everything, the world never develops to the point that it feels real. He injects a lot of technical detail about survival in the woods that, although interesting, doesn’t contribute much. Additionally, there are routine information dumps about the Desolation (a mix of nuclear war and plague) and how it changed the world. These tend to break up the action or drag out scenes longer than necessary, and given the sort of story this was the details really didn’t matter. It’s enough for the reader to know that something wiped out the civilized world. In a novel, it would have been worthwhile to explore the subject and there would have been room to do it, but here there simply wasn’t enough space.
The main character, John, has an irregular personality that prevents the reader from ever getting a sense of who he really is. The prelude to the adventure pitches him as a sociopathic killer, essentially murdering someone because the man is a drunken jerk. Later in the story, however, he easily adapts to small town life and expresses a clear willingness to go out and help someone he’s hardly met. There’s never really an arc that takes him from one point to the other; he starts as a vicious loner and ends up a small town hero without the reader ever feeling like the necessary ground has been covered. His personality also tends to change scene to scene. It feels less like different aspects of the same character and more like different characters altogether.
This isn’t helped by the author’s tendency to tell the reader what’s going through John and everyone else’s heads. The author regularly has the characters deliver quick, italicized thoughts in the middle of the action that gives away what they’re thinking, or he uses descriptive language that does the same thing. It’s too direct, and it takes the life out of the characters. For me, I have most of my fun figuring out the characters and being surprised by them, so being outright told what kind of people they are and what they’re thinking takes that away. Also, it never really helps clarify John’s back and forth personality.
The end of the novella leaves too many questions open and immediately sets John on the path to his next task. There’s no sense that something has been accomplished or that feeling where, as a reader, you can close the book, take a deep breath, and feel like things have settled up for the time being. Instead, the status quo is much as it was before the story took place, and the reader is left without that critical sense of resolution.
It’s similar to an ongoing TV show that keeps dropping a handful of new twists at the end of each episode so the viewer never has a chance to catch up. That’s not to say that the structure is necessarily a bad one, but in this case the novella was too long to really make it work. Had it been short, perhaps around 10,000 words, or part of a book being released as a serial one fairly brief chapter at a time, it would have worked better.
Mr. Olsen’s work ends up caught between being a short story and a novel and never finds the happy middle ground. The author gives too much of the wrong sort of information about the characters and the world, which clutters up the story and breaks up the narrative, and John seems like a different character scene to scene. The story has an interesting premise, but it never becomes what the author wants it to.