This Land Book One: That Ribbon of Highway by L.S. Burton

The plot in this novel is a well tread one. The big evil (aliens) comes, people huddle inside of a building (monastery) trying to survive, and they end up snarling down each others throats. As is usual, the bulk of the story is how the characters cope with a nihilism-inducing crisis. Dense writing, unlikable characters, and a dour tone devoid of any hope until the last two pages of the book make this novel more tedious than enjoyable.

First, the writing. It’s not poorly done, and some stretches of the book stand out, but for the most part the author gets lost in overly elaborate descriptions of the commonplace. This drags down the pacing of what’s already a slow book, and it quickly becomes difficult to keep reading. Besides the ink that gets spilled describing every nook and cranny, the other problem is an excessive use of vocabulary that, while accurate, isn’t well suited to long prose if too much of it gets used. What works in a 5,000 word short story and a novel are two different things. Again, the words themselves weren’t the problems. It was their abundance.

Second, the characters. There are only three who stand out. The rest are, for the most part, petty little villagers who the monsters do a favor when they eat. Most of them felt like scenery to me, rather than people who I had any investment in seeing survive. I ultimately felt that their purpose was to die while Stephen,, the main perspective character, watched.

Of the characters who do stand out, Stephen, Allison, and Homer, two are utterly unlikable and the third only rises above the caricature of a senile old man for one segment of dialogue. Stephen is a man who made a lot of mistakes by being a generally bad person and came to the monastery to sort through the m. The problem is, the armor he wears is that of a sarcastic, know it all, vicious ball of disdain. The only thing there is to like about him for most of the book is his constant suffering. He deserves it.

The second character, Allison, wants to die and is willing to kill everyone else in the building so she can finish having her existential tantrum. She’s one of those people who just isn’t strong enough to make it through life but relishes tearing everyone else down until something is kind enough to extinguish her miserable self. She gets treated cruelly on many occasions and, like Stephen, she’s earned every single moment of ill treatment.

It’s rare I read a book with characters I so thoroughly despise. The author did an outstanding job of characterizing them. The problem is, Stephen is the main perspective character and Allison is the second most important one in the novel. There’s no relief from them, and, spending the whole book with them right in my face, I had absolutely nobody to root for.

Homer stood out for the one moment where he finally came down hard on Stephen and explained just how much of a miserable sack of man he was to him. I nearly fist pumped. I wanted to see Stephen destroyed. He and Allison were, given their prominence, characters to endure, not enjoy. Again, the writer did a great job with them, but there was never any other character that really served as a counterbalance. Daniel, Stephen’s ‘friend,’ never registered with enough impact to do the job. Moving on.

Third, the tone. There is almost no hope in the book. When anyone survived in the end I was legitimately surprised, because, based on the tone, I expected the whole thing to resolve with them feebly flailing against the inevitable before receiving their reward of a horrific death. The characters are cruel and petty, they never make any progress, and their trapped in an old, decaying monastery bathing in their own despair. The only humor comes from tertiary characters, and it’s not particularly funny or long lasting.

If this was a short story, that tone would be fine. But for a novel, it makes it very difficult to care about anything when the plot is just an endless parade of misery. It’s not until the very end of the book, when Stephen stops using his guilt as a reason to inflict himself on others and finally makes peace with himself, that there’s a faint glimmer hope. Without anything before that, though, it was too little, too late, to salvage the relentlessly grim, slow story.

As much as I hated Stephen, the author knows how to write well enough that, when Stephen finally had his moment of grace, I was pulled in. It’s a shame that the author used too much flowery, descriptive language and an excessively dark tone, because there was an interesting story at the heart of it. And, sentence by sentence, the writing was of decent quality. The author has the ability to write well, I just don’t think it shone through in this novel.

This one gets a 3/5.

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