Everyone Needs a Breather: A Little More on Pace

We all have periods when it seems everything goes wrong: life enters cascade failure, and one crisis after another piles on. You’ve probably met someone who just seems cursed. A personal loss is followed by a car wreck, then a flooded house, then an illness. You start to wonder which god they pissed on to create such calamity. You pity them, but you fear them a bit too. Stand too close and lightning might strike. Conflict is a rule of life and fiction, but fortunately there are good times as well as bad. Even the bleakest existence is mercifully punctuated with a bit of hope.

In fiction, and in life, everyone needs a breather, a time out, or just a break. Sometimes we can’t control the pace of reality, but as writers we get to show our characters some mercy from time to time.

I return to the issue of pacing as I consume urban fantasy at a voracious rate. In Florida I tore through the rest of the Sookie Stackhouse catalog and started on Simon Green’s Nightside books. The first book in the Age of Misrule series is next. One book that came highly recommended, but that I can’t seem to complete, is Vickie Pettersson’s Scent of Shadows.

Green, Harris, and Pettersson all work in the first person, the standard point of view for urban fantasy. This prevents the problem Kristin Nelson recently discussed, of having the action in the second chapter not flow directly from the action in the first. Doors get opened, characters are presented with a conflict, and work towards a resolution. All three share the nuts and bolt of a good read: the protagonists are compelling, the antagonist is stronger, and you want to know where the plot will go. In Harris’s series, Sookie takes regular breaks from the supernatural. I was surprised to note how much of the books deal with her domestic issues and money woes. Green uses his fantastic setting, the magical heart of London, to punctuate the action with colorful anecdotes and asides. But Pettersson never seems to come up for air. Tension in a book should build, driving the reader to keep turning the pages, but even the most action-oriented horror films have to insert quieter moments to bring things down before you reveal the next monster.

Pettersson hits her protagonist, Joanna Archer, with one shock after another. She’s brutally attacked, then reunited with her lost first love. She’s disowned by her father. She suffers a brutal personal loss. She’s dropped into a confusing supernatural battle. All of this is perhaps in the first hundred pages. With these revelations out of the way, I thought things would slow for a moment; but the revelations continue. Joanna is given the need to struggle with a legacy inherited from the mother who abandoned her, her new allies don’t trust her, she destroys a life. She’s not what they expected. Her love thinks she’s dead. He’s been targeted. She’s . . . and I put the book down.

Reading Scent of Shadows is rather like lunch with that perpetually unlucky friend. You’re obligated to go (and it is the rare book I don’t finish), but you scheduled the meeting as a lunch because you’re not sure how much more tragedy you can absorb. Hearing about his endless travails, time after time, start to wear you out.

Is Scent of Shadows a bad book? I don’t think so. There are a lot of good ideas here, including one great twist I never saw coming and thought was genius. Pettersson just hits Joanna with too much at once, without enough time for any of the revelations to really connect to the reader’s consciousness. There are enough major life events, changes, and thresholds crossed for three books in the first half of Scent of Shadows, and the compression is a problem of pacing. A little downtime here and there would help the book a lot. At least it would help keep me caught up in the story. The characters might be super human and able to absorb endless punishment, but as a reader, I’m not. I need the protagonist to catch her breath. Lesley, who recommended it, has good taste and assures me the series improves dramatically. The story has been compelling enough for Pettersson to put five of them out there, so I’m hoping to return to the story when I’m ready for more.

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