Wednesday, January 18, 2023

cobblestone on page 2

Cobblestone is my term for a small verbal infelicity or awkwardness in a novel that trips the reader up. The unclear writing prompts a misunderstanding which causes succeeding passages to seem confusing or nonsensical, until you realize that something went wrong and go back to re-read and re-understand the original passage in light of the later ones. It's not a major flaw, but it subtracts from the pleasure of reading a novel, and if reading a novel isn't enjoyable, why read it? The question for the author is, why write cobblestones if you don't have to?

The first cobblestone in Sabriel by Garth Nix (Harper, 1995) isn't actually on page 2. There's a 7-page prologue, entirely in italics, which I accordingly skipped. But this is the second page of the main text.

The story opens with a character described both as a young woman and a schoolgirl (we later learn she's 18 and on the point of graduating) is examining a dead rabbit on the road that's just been run over by a car. (How this medievalist world acquired various bits of modern technology is not explained.) The girl-woman's name is Sabriel, but we learn that not from an omniscient narrator but because she's wearing a nametag. There's plenty of discussion of emotional states in this book, but very few exterior facts that are not conveyed through seeing or hearing them, as if this were a movie.

Fourth paragraph begins:
A small figure was busy climbing over the gate ...
A small figure of what? I was imagining some sort of hobgoblin or other miniature fantasy creature. However, the next sentence, referring to this figure as "she" and itemizing her pigtails and shoes, suggests it's a younger schoolgirl. Later on - much later, several paragraphs - we find her name is Jacinth, but again not from an omniscient narrator but because Sabriel addresses her by name. She screams when she sees the dead rabbit.

Turn the page, next paragraph. This begins:
Sabriel flinched as the girl screamed, hesitated for a moment, then bent down by the rabbit's side ...
And here's the cobblestone. Who hesitated and bent down? I read it as being the girl, i.e. Jacinth. She screams, hesitates, and bends down.

But the next paragraph begins "The other girl, running, saw her ..." Wait a minute. What other girl? Is this a third character? Have we lost Sabriel's identity? Oh, I see. It's Jacinth. Having her name available at this point, instead of waiting another three paragraphs for Sabriel to address her, would have been more helpful than "the other girl."

Go back to previous paragraph. It's Sabriel who flinches, hesitates, and bends down. But the author could use a remedial course in pronoun references to avoid misunderstanding here.

It was as a precautionary measure to prevent anything like this from causing me to put the book down at this point and never picking it up again that it was the only thing I brought to read for a three-hour wait to have my car serviced. So I trudged through most of the rest of the volume, but not with any sense of growing captivation.

The main problem is that, where Tolkien is very chary with active magic and spell-casting, and is usually silent about its function when he has any, this book is absolutely packed with the complex technical details of its magic system. It's not entirely unclear to the reader what they're talking about - though I never figured out what a Charter is in this world, or who exactly the enemy is - but the sheer immensity of the magic system and the degree to which the characters are far ahead of you in understanding it leaves the reader puffing along in the van.

Sabriel is very heroic, though she has to be pushed into a lot of it by obnoxious sidekicks, but I was annoyed by her refusal to accept maturity: - her reluctance to use the magician's title that she's apparently inherited, her revulsion when a servant calls her "milady." Watching the characters grow up is a major pleasure for me of this kind of story, but this character didn't seem to want to do it.

There's a lot more books to this series but I'm stopping here.

No comments:

Post a Comment