Occasionally, my workplace makes advance review copies of books available for the taking. When I picked up an ARC of Charming
, by Elliott James, which will be released in September, the back cover told me the following:
What if there was more than one Prince Charming? What if there was a whole line of Charmings going back far into history – each one with a mission to rid the world of evil. And what would happen if one of them is cursed… Meet John Charming. He isn’t your average prince.
On the one hand, I suspected (correctly) that our hero was going to be another variation on the sardonic loner embittered and burdened by his Dark Past, in the Harry Dresden mold. On the other hand, it’s not as if I have any outright objection to characters written in that mold, and there was, and still is, a chance that this book might contain some fun “fairy tale creatures in the modern world” action.
However, the introduction, or “prelude,” contains this passage:
Well, there’s something going on right in front of your face that you can’t see right now, and you’re not going to believe me when I point it out to you. Relax, I’m not going to provide a number where you can leave your credit card information, and you don’t have to join anything. The only reason I’m telling you at all is that at some point in the future, you might have a falling-out with the worldview you’re currently enamored of, and if that happens, what I’m about to tell you will help you make sense of things better.
The supernatural is real. Vampires? Real. Werewolves. Real. Zombies, Ankou, djinn, Boo Hags, banshees, and so on and so on, all real. Well, except for Orcs and Hobbits. Tolkien just made those up.
I know it sounds ridiculous. How could magic really exist in a world with an Internet and forensic science and smart phones and satellites and such and still go undiscovered?
The truth is that the world is under a spell called the Pax Arcana, a compulsion that makes people unable to see, believe, or seriously consider any evidence of the supernatural that is not an immediate threat to their survival.
First of all, all of this could just have easily been imparted through narration or dialogue further down the line. Second of all… no, we’ll leave aside the mass mind control for now. It’s just a creepier version of the routine mind-wipes that recur in speculative fiction.
However, there’s a third level of frustration to this introduction, which Rogan of baaing_tree
very wisely pointed out. When I was ranting about the beginning of this book, I said, “No, it doesn’t
sound ridiculous, because I’ve read
urban fantasy before.” And Rogan made an even more important point: that, by writing a world that is like ours, but with supernatural creatures, an author is implicitly
asking readers to suspend their disbelief, even if those readers are new to the genre. He or she trusts that, by reading this genre in the first place, we have enough imagination to accept this alternate reality. And while it may be a shock to some characters
, it's not going to be a shock to us
, because of our basic expectations going in.
This particular author, through his narrator, is not only info-dumping something that should be obvious, but addressing readers as if we don’t
have enough imagination (or, if we do, it’s been magically inhibited). It’s one thing for a work of speculative fiction to imply
that I, as a mundane human being without magical abilities or qualities, am – by nature, design, or both – ignorant, close-minded, and incapable of believing or considering that the supernatural might exist. It’s quite another for a narrator to tell
me this, point-blank, to my face.
I did not get past the first two or three chapters of Charming
, between the clunky exposition and the paint-by-numbers main character. If, at any point, I decided to continue, it would be either to see if it's worthy of an MST-style sporking, or to find out if the use of mass mind control to keep the populace oblivious is ever going to be challenged or subverted (which rarely happens, even in books that I really like). I would absolutely be willing to modify or withdraw my criticisms if the book ends up going in that, or any other, interesting direction. However, this introduction was not a very promising start: it was unnecessary, clumsy, and condescending, and there are much more effective ways to present a world or endear readers.