Friday, 11 January 2019

Cruce Roosters by Brent Michael Kelley


I have read almost 100 books this year. I've not had time to review many of them. I made an exception here because, just as I was getting fatigued by reading the same stories again and again with little invention, or coming across invention that wasn't backed up by good prose, I then started reading Cruce Roosters. I fell in love with this book almost immediately. At every level the first 60% absolutely gripped me and took me into the world.

So, the story. It does two things right. And these are the two things that all books need to get right, but few do. Firstly, it is wildly inventive. Almost every page there was an element that felt fresh: a turn of phrase, a world description, a new name (I loved the Longdongers team), a character, a bit of dialogue, or even a formal element (such as the adverts and inbuilt sponsorships). It was a delight. The second element is that we need a character we can identify with so that the stakes matter. We need a character that takes actions which are believable; and yet for the actions to lead to even greater stakes as the world reacts. We get this with Molly Most, whose arc goes from selfish success to loving disaster. Up to the 60% mark it just got better and better, because her successes lead her to garner attention from the horrendous all-powerful Prophit King (and even the purposeful misspelling ties in to the story and characters in a delightful way). Then we learn more about him and Molly's fate, and I reached a high of emotional investment. I was reading it on a train and arrived at my destination, yet wanted the journey to go on longer so I could carry on. This first 60% is some of the best and most inventive fiction I have read all year. I can't praise it enough. If the whole book had been like that then I'd have championed it to the hilt, forever.

(As an aside, I should also add that the third thing a book needs is good writing, to give the reader confidence in the author, and we also have that in Cruce Roosters. I loved sentences such as "Pretending to be sick all morning had really taken the energy out of her." There were a few typos, but here they didn't stop me because I was so invested in the story. Hopefully they'll disappear from later editions - I'll send the small list to the author).

So, why do I keep mentioning 60%? Well, at that point things reach a high. Molly's actions and the world's reactions have taken her to the point of realising all her options are terrible, yet she has to choose. She is in her hotel room, having had more of the world revealed in gruesome fashion, and she makes a decision. We know we're on a ride and there are many twists and turns to go.

But at this point things changed. The book was still good, but just a notch down from what had gone before, which was mildly disappointing because what went before was stellar stuff. I'll explain a bit more, because this book has earned my time.

Up until the 60% point, Molly has been active. All good characters need to be. They make choices to achieve goals, and the world reacts, and the goals may change, or the stakes go up. This is what makes compelling fiction. Let me give one example from Cruce Roosters. Molly has been "invited" (told) that she will be collected and taken to the repulsive Prophit King. Chances are that he'll molest her, yet to refuse is to invite retribution that's even worse. What a dilemma. But she doesn't give up. She decides to smoke a pile of cigarettes, hoping to put him off close contact. It's a great ploy, and it works (temporarily), keeping her safe even in the midst of multiple dangers. But he warns her not to smoke again and shows her some horrible things instead of molesting her - so her decision drives the plot, but also raises the stakes, and reduces her future options unless she adopts even more extreme measures. It's all great stuff.

At the 60% mark she makes a huge decision. This is the Winston Smith moment of rebellion, and the reader knows it could go either way, but probably badly for the protagonist. However, from the moment she chooses to get out, things change. There is some action, some world-building, but she becomes a mostly passive figure, with things done to her rather than her being the actor. All of the minutiae of her actions and the world fade away to a more passive kind of story. She stops being Molly. The new elements (aliens, Gwetch, parasites) are all still inventive, but not as much as the stuff that has gone before. In fact, in some cases they raise questions that threaten the story. But the biggest weakness is the protagonist's new passivity. She has no more meaningful choices to make. A metaphor could be when she is discovered by a potential danger in a Cruce arena at the end and she could lie still or struggle, but she openly admits the outcomes would be the same, "get her killed". She is saved by deus-ex-machina (not her own actions) as the danger is called away. And then it happens again, "and Molly was powerless", again needing saving by things beyond her control. But, to highlight the none-choice even further, we discover that the danger is actually a help, and whatever she did, she would have still been fine. The delicious action-reaction of earlier has been negated. Even at the end, she is controlled by parasitic bodily modifications which limit her choices to just repeating a message. And all that stems from the decision made at the 60% mark. Almost half the novel follows with limited actor plot-driving.

After the 60% mark we also mostly lose some of the elements that had been driving the novel. The horrendous Prophit King takes a backseat until the finale; the tense and revolting situations and interactions between him and Molly fade away; the fascinating game of Cruce and the Roosters also drops away until the finale. Instead we get new elements (aliens and Gwetch) that are still good, but just not as good as what we already had. They feel almost like a separate, but related, story as new characters, new settings, and new world elements are revealed in linear fashion.

I know it seems like I'm hammering on criticisms here, but it's also high praise. This novella is really, really good. That's a rarity. But it had the potential to be completely amazing. If the last 40% had been more of what had gone before, escalated in level and reaction, with new elements and inventiveness appearing, I feel like it could have been at that top level, and probably still had room for some of the new elements.

But that's just me.

Overall, this is a really exciting and inventive book that I highly recommend. Brent Michael Kelley's story has stood out amongst so many that I've read, and I really feel he is one to watch. If he can come up with more exciting and original plots and premises, then his next book will be an instabuy for me.

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
Share:

0 comments: