Once Humans: Vol. 2 of the Daimones Trilogy by Massimo Marino

This book had an interesting premise, but a poor English translation completely gutted it. The result was a linguistic jumble that was a chore rather than a pleasure to read through. I expect the author is a far better writer than this book indicates, but all I have to work with is the translation that is in front of me. Were it not for the translation, this book could have been an interesting take on how galactic society could view and deal with the human race.

Besides the translation, there are three major issues with this novel. First, the pacing is more of a rambling internal monologue than it is a proper story. Second, the characters are neither interesting nor engaging. Third, the underlying story is presented as something far more complicated than it actually is.

First, the pacing. The book veers between Dan’s personal reflections, his relationship with his family, and the larger events going on in the world. This isn’t a problem if done well, but here it turns into a rambling mess. It felt like the author didn’t know what he wanted this book to be about, so he tried to throw everything in instead of drilling down to the essentials.

The book drug, it repeatedly and inelegantly jumped between different themes, and the tone and direction of the plot abruptly changed several times. It was a fight to read more than five pages at a time.

Second, the characters. Dan can read other people’s emotions, so most of his interactions with other people don’t involve careful observation but rather a news ticker of what each individual feels at any given time. This sucks the passion and mystery out of the characters and transforms them into sterile unites of plot. It’s always a bad idea as a writer to explicitly tell the reader what every single character feels. You can do it here and there, but taken too far, it sucks the joy out of finding out about the characters.

Worse, there’s little to Dan that makes him interesting, which is a problem given he’s the only perspective character in the book. He cries, he rages, he broods, but he does all of this in rambling prose that leaves nothing to the imagination. No matter how many times the author told me that Dan cared for his family and friends, no matter how many times he cried over a loss, I couldn’t bring myself to care. When Dan took a passionate stand to save someone he loved, it impacted me less than ordering a bacon cheeseburger.

To be fair, I love bacon cheeseburgers, but an airport lunch shouldn’t have more emotional resonance than a novel in which the main character’s wife gets a severe brain injury and nearly dies.

I suspect some of the problems stem from the atrocious translation, but the author has a tendency to flatly announce how a character feels. You can write a character crying as much as you want, but if you can’t provoke a sense of sympathy or empathy in the reader, said tears are pointless. Also, characters abruptly shift moods as if the author couldn’t see past the paragraph he was writing to the chapter, or even the page, as a whole.

Third, the story presents itself as full of twists in turns, but at its heart it’s about as simple as these things come. A bunch of aliens wipe out most of humanity for our own good, genetically modify a few human beings to be the seeds of a new species/golden era, etc. The big twist: maybe something about the genocide of an entire species wasn’t done on the level. That’s pretty much it. It gets a little clearer towards the end of the book, but not by much.

Worse, there’s Dan, a character that suffers from a Chosen One complex. By that, I mean the only reason things seem to happen to him is because they’re supposed to, not because of any skill or intelligence on his part. He’s special. About the only trait he has the stands out is that he’s empathetic, and that doesn’t really count because he can literally use space-powers to read people’s emotional states.

At the end of the day, I can’t say how good this book is in its native language because I don’t speak it and was sent an English translation of the text. But based on that translation, there’s nothing here to recommend to any but the most devoted fan of the author’s previous work. I give it a 1/5.

You can take a gander at this book, or the others in the series, at Amazon here.

Death and other Taxes: Part 1 by Robby Miller

At its heart, this book is about Wit’s, a young boy, journey through the land of death after his untimely demise. It’s an interesting premise to launch an examination of death from, especially in that it focuses on the dead, rather than the living, but severe problems with the pacing, coherency, and writing render the book unfathomable, rather than intriguing.

Before I start running through what didn’t work, I do want to make it clear that I am personally not a big fan of allegories, and I consider books like Pilgrim’s Progress to be an exquisite form of torture conjured up by high school teachers to punish students for daring to enjoy the written word. I have a special place in my heart for Chaucer, but even then just particular stories. So, take what follows with a grain of salt.

First, the pace of the book is that of an abstract meander. There’s no sense of urgency to drive the plot forward. Wit’s primary goal is to live again, but he essentially has all of the time in the world to do it. On top of that, he spends most of the book confused and learning life lessons. There are long dialogues about why people act the way they do, about the balance of power in the world, about poverty.

Each one of these is an issue worthy of examination, but they’re presented back to back with very little to break them up. There are periodic bursts of forced adventure, but it always rings hollow simply because what danger exists is of the generally vague, trippy sort that never quite clicked with me as legitimately threatening.

In short, the book itself is a vehicle for a series of allegorical stories connected by Wit’s curiosity and the various ways he tries to make it back to the world of the living. This in itself isn’t a problem, but the stories themselves are so indecipherably dense that it took a force of will for me to turn from one page to the next. Also, the material connecting them was so bizarre that I really couldn’t latch onto anything to orient myself.

Coherency is a big problem in this book. It demands a level of attention from the reader that’s usually reserved for discussing the vagaries German administrative agencies and the obscene alphabet soup they generate. Most of the time, I simply couldn’t read through even one paragraph quickly. I had to stop, frown, and puzzle my way through.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing, in moderation, but almost every paragraph was its own logic problem to be worked out, and over the course of a book, that’s an extreme amount of work to subject a casual or even focused reader to. I never felt like the author didn’t know what he was talking about, but I often got the sense that he didn’t particularly care if I followed him. The best analogy I can offer is that I felt like a ten year old having string theory explained to him in terms of mathematical proofs.

The author tried to cover too much ground in too small a space and without enough explanation, and as a result it made parts of the book almost unreadable for me. Again, this is also a type of book that I am already not the fondest of, but even so, this book was a particularly difficult example of the genre for me to process and enjoy. I didn’t feel like I had a reasonable grasp of what was really being discussed until the last chapter, and as a reader I simply couldn’t bring myself to do the work needed to follow the author’s train of thought from start to finish.

The writing style compounds this problem. The author relies on puns, word play, and alliteration to the point that I was walking on the walls. None of these things are bad when used in moderation, but the torrent of them in this book vastly exceeded the amount I could comfortably enjoy.

The way the author puts together the basic sentences seems intentionally designed to go over the reader’s head, even without the issues mentioned above, and he seems perfectly willing to adopt his own language and force the reader to either learn it or remain perpetually befuddled.

An example: “‘Well these mushrooms are growing all over the show,’” said Wit with superfluous eloquence. ‘Maybe they all weep if you poke ‘em?’ And he walked to the next to indulge his elegantly satisfying theory of elephants and fish for tea.”

This is the sort of book that the path to enlightenment in a land of oatmeal would be called the Whey, with those upon it carrying the Wait of their sins, while trying to avoid falling Weigh Down into the Wrong-Way Sea.

Add to this a few instances of missing quotation marks, periods, commas, and the like, and reading the book was a vexing exercise that left me feeling drained after a handful of pages.

All of this is tragic, because there are a lot of interesting, valid messages in this book, and the framework itself is one that could work quite well. And towards the end, I was able to see the book the author meant it to be. Even then, it never got there, but the last segment started to present things in a way that were more readily grasped.

Ultimately, this book tried to do something very interesting, and the surreal world the author tries to present could have been truly fascinating. Poor pacing, a tendency to jump onto any opportunity to confound the reader, and excessive word play rendered large swathes of the book almost unreadable and incredibly frustrating. I give it a 1/5.

If you want to give it a gander, and check out the book page to see what some other reviewers think, I’d suggest checking it out on Amazon here.

The Acolytes of Crane by J.D. Tew

The Acolytes of Crane is one of those books that never quite coalesce into something coherent. There’s an interesting premise at the heart of it, namely pitching the battle between God and Satan as a battle between two advanced alien factions, and the main character has a promising start as a child from a broken household. Unfortunately, the pacing of the plot, the way the author presents the larger picture, and technical issues with the writing cripple the story before it can get started.

The pace of the story is a slow one that lingers in odd places. The initial bit Theodore, the main character, escaping from his broken home and finding a mysterious amulet is paced well enough, but then the story lingers for a long while in an attempt to build up the sense of mystery. The problem with this is that not enough besides the occasional unexplained event is really happening to keep things interesting.

There’s a good bit about how the character interacts with other children, what some of his issues are, and how he’s dealing with life in general, and in a different work, this would have been fine. Here, however, it was not intended to be the focus, and thus it drags on for too long. The real point of the book is Theodore and his friends getting swept up in an adventure, but the sweeping doesn’t really happen until the last third of the book.

Even then, the characters, instead of jumping right into the action, end up stuck on a ship treading water, and after that, in the climax of the book, the author begins jumping between perspectives, which slams on the brakes. The actual climax of the book hits right at the end, and there’s never a good denouement to tie it all together.

The second issue with the book lies in how the author presents the material. There’s a lot going on, but instead of letting the reader, and the character, feel out the world at an organic pace, the author relies on strings of paragraphs that outright tell the reader what’s going on, at times referring to future events. I’m not a fan of any story that jumps around time, even if it’s just in a quick, referential paragraph. It takes a lot of skill to pull something like that off, and the author doesn’t manage it here.

Worse, once the real adventure starts, the author throws a bevy of made up words at the reader in dense, two to three page paragraphs that rapidly become incomprehensible. There’s a lot of fun to be had in naming things as you write, but it’s important to show some restraint. Here, the words the author makes up never have a chance to really settle in.

In about five pages, I learned about five or so alien races, a bunch of fake technological jargon, the names of several planets, and a version of hacky sack. Used well, new words, like ‘fracking’ in Battlestar Galactica, can do a great deal to flesh out a world. In this case they end up being excessive, and most of them sound a bit silly when said aloud.

Now, on to the biggest issue with the book: the writing. It’s rare that I focus on the writing itself, since it’s a bit technical and really takes practice to improve. In this case, the issues were fundamental enough that they bear mentioning.

First, the sentence structure is incredibly convoluted. Given how I tend to write, that’s the pot calling the kettle black, but the way the author put the sentences together made it very hard for me to get through the book. Occasionally, the author also has paragraphs that stretch for several pages, most of which are exposition dumps given in dialogue form. The fact that the author messes up the grammar here and there, misses capitalization, and gets verb tenses wrong substantially exacerbates the issue.

Second, the author’s word choice routinely baffled me. An example: “I was simply adding to a massive collection of wounds to eternalize my fun those days.” That’s how the author says the character scraped up his hands climbing a tree. Now and then, that could slide, but almost every paragraph has at least one sentence like that. It’s difficult to read, and the words frequently don’t line up quite right into something intelligible. True, I can decipher what the author intended, but almost every sentence could have been simplified and made into cleaner, comprehensible writing.

Finally, there were parts of the book in which the writing made it difficult for me to follow what was happening. Once I figured it out, the events themselves were pretty straightforward, but the way the author technically presented them via diction, sentence structure, and paragraph structure (as well as a bevy of the made up words discussed above) baffled me. This shouldn’t happen in any book. The reader should only ever be confused when the author expressly wants him or her to be, and even then it should be done sparingly.

I don’t say the following to be cruel or snarky, but I’m a law student. I’m trained to extract obscure information from dense legal opinions. I spend a lot of time critically examining fiction, or writing it, each week. And there were parts of this book that, despite my best efforts, I simply couldn’t follow.

The book has issues with its pacing and how the author builds the world, but what ultimately kills it is the author’s technical writing. It needs a substantial amount to be of the necessary quality to tell the story the author wants to. It’s a shame, because the basic premise of the book would have made for an interesting adventure.

If you want to take a gander, you can pick up a copy from Amazon here.