Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Microreview [book]: Ruin, by John Gwynne

A healthy dose of grimdark—but how dark is too dark?

Gwynne, John. Ruin. Orbit, 2015.

Everybody knows that Empire Strikes Back is the best of the original Star Wars trilogy—and that’s because, among other reasons, it’s the darkest installment. For the first time, we see the heroes defeated, and even powerless. We witness the price they must pay, and you have to hand it to the filmmakers (see what I did there?): the darker tone really pays off.

In a way, the same situation applies to John Gwynne’s grimdark series about our intrepid heroes Corban and company; the first book, while ominous in tone, was really more about setting the stage for the bad stuff about to happen, while the second book continued that theme, only getting really dark at the very end. With the grim stage well and truly set, we readers knew to expect some serious grimdarkitude, and boy, does Gwynne deliver!

Without spoiling the many wrenching surprises, suffice it to say that there’s death, heartbreak, betrayal and seeming defeat aplenty. For some reason, I was convinced this new series was a trilogy, so I was actually expecting some sort of ‘victory’ for the good guys, but as I read on, by three-quarters through the book I had realized my mistake: it was obvious this was the Empire Strikes Back equivalent, and Luke, so to speak, was definitely going to be losing his metaphorical hand.
I know how Luke feels now, after yet another main(ish) character met a grisly end in the grim war of attrition in Ruin.

This brings me to the only substantial criticism of the book: can a book be too (grim)dark? Ruin is certainly a candidate for “beyond darkest night” dark; pretty much the only ray of light in this ocean of bad news for Corban and co. is that good guy-to-be Veradis might finally be getting ready to take a hard look at the two Bright Star-wannabes, and realize his enduring error from books one thru two. At what point does a story become so grim the grimitude starts detracting from the pleasure of following the characters on their journey? It didn’t quite cross the line for me—yet—but I was so bummed out when I reached the end of the book, I almost wanted to listen to 90s pop music, finally answering the riddle Cusack uttered in High Fidelity, “am I sad because I’m listening to pop music, or am I listening to it because I’m sad?” (the answer, it seems, is the latter).

So my word of totally unsolicited advice to Gwynne is this: how about you lighten up a bit, and have mercy on your readers! We all like Corban, Cywen, et al, and it sucks to see them fighting this relentless war of attrition, in which the casualties are mounting alarmingly quickly. On the other hand, you’ve done what few authors can: succeeded in awakening an actual glimmer of doubt that “the good guys will win in the end”! If that was your plan all along, well done…though considering the toll among the main characters to break down my Hollywood-esque assurance that the good guys will save the day, I’m not sure the reward (a scared, uncertain reader) is worth the price in main characters’ agony!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for finally allowing Veradis to see what’s what (more or less)

Penalties: -1 for serious, depression-causing grimitude

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 “An enjoyable if almost shockingly grim experience to read”

Warning by Zhaoyun the Surgeon-General of Books*, who has been reviewing books here at Nerds of a Feather for their potential debilitating effects on readers since 2013: reading this book may shake your faith in the ability of the good guys to prevail.

* Note that Zhaoyun is not, in fact, the Surgeon-General, nor a surgeon, nor a general.