Friday, December 2, 2016

Microreview [book(s)]: 2/3 of An Affinity for Steel, by Sam Sykes

Going from not so great to pretty good (to better?)

Sykes, Sam. An Affinity for Steel. Orbit, 2016.

You can buy it here.

Remember when The Phantom Menace came out? I was a teenager at the time, and was kind of excited despite myself—after all, the original trilogy was so friggin’ awesome, and if the new one was even half the trilogy that was, I was in for some entertaining fare! But the truth--which I realized one summer day in 1999 as the last of my childhood evaporated in the heat of my fury over the dumbitude--was that overall the world would be a better place if the prequel trilogy had never been made (yes, even including Revenge of the Sith, “the one that was actually pretty good”). I mean, what does any of it add to our understanding of the characters from the 1977-1983 trilogy? Do we need to see young Anakin to understand old Anakin? (Philosophy dork side note: are they even the same person, if we accept the Lockean idea that memory anchors identity, then point out that the young boy and the old grizzled warrior might well have nothing in common at all! And don't even try the Young Officer rebuttal, since we never see young middle-aged Anakin!)

So when I picked up Sam Sykes’ “new” An Affinity for Steel, after having enjoyed The City Stained Red quite a bit, I immediately made the analogy to the 1999-2005 prequel Star Wars trilogy. Actually, this was totally unfair of me, as Sykes (unlike Lucas) actually wrote the material in this omnibus edition first, before writing The City Stained Red, so the analogy breaks down almost immediately. And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something to it, nonetheless. Lenk, Kataria, and (everyone’s favorite character, I’ll wager) Gariath, and the others too, had some marvelous adventures in The City Stained Red, and the reader could enjoy Sykes’ crafting of witty banter for the party of adventurers, a sort of tempestuous camaraderie that was endless food for snarky comments and whatnot. And then it hit me: why hadn't Sykes simply pulled a Lucas ca. 1977 and begun the story in media res, focusing on Lenk et al’s “episode four”, so to speak, without ever really explaining what happened in episodes one thru three? Do we learn anything truly vital about any of the characters in these first volumes that we can’t infer equally well by skipping ahead to the fourth installment?

And there’s the rub (what does that even mean, Hamlet?!?): we don’t. As proof, I offer my own experience—I read The City Stained Red first, and found it perfectly intelligible on its own. Nothing about it demanded or required that I go back and read about Lenk et al’s earlier adventures, so when I set about doing so, I was preparing myself for another Phantom Menace-sized disappointment.

Reading even the first third of the omnibus is a far more pleasant experience than a Phantom Menace--unlike that 'film', I got to the end of the book and didn't want to join Anakin in the volcano!

Fortunately, the reality wasn’t nearly so horrid. I must confess I’ve only made it 2/3 of the way through the omnibus trilogy so far, but I plan on continuing to read the final volume, and that should demonstrate my conclusion: it’s worth reading, after all (so Sykes can declare “wictory” over Lucas!). By volume two of this omnibus, the series is almost up to the level Sykes later reached with The City Stained Red, and I am optimistic that the improvements I noted in going from volume one to volume two will only continue, and perhaps accelerate, in volume three.

This has all been an extremely convoluted way of saying, in so many words, that the first volume of this series is, to put it bluntly, not great. The occasional, aggrieved soul-searching and witty rejoinders of the companions in The City Stained Red is a constant, far less witty, and downright aggravating drone in the first installment of Sykes’ original trilogy. I almost put the book down, in fact, so thoroughly did I dislike each and every one of the characters (even Gariath, since as it happens this is what we might call “Gariath in despair, before he has a purpose”). And while The City Stained Red explores racism in quite a pointed way through the relationship of Lenk and Kataria, and generates empathy in the reader for this sort of inter-special romance, in volume one (and thru the end of volume two) of the omnibus I found myself wishing one or the other would make good on their threats and put each other out of the reader’s misery. The love conquers all storyline hadn’t really hit its stride yet, you might say.

Interestingly enough, I think the real problem here was simply that Sykes has grown considerably more adept as a writer, and some of his attempts at witty banter—which he is definitely very skilled at crafting now, in the era of The City Stained Red—fall flat. Reading this omnibus, I felt as though I was watching him grow and improve as a writer, though, which was quite interesting. By the end of book one, and in particular in book two, I recognized the emerging skill of the writer who had produced The City Stained Red, and relaxed, confident I was in safe hands once more.

Now you might be thinking, “this is unfair, criticizing an author for writing a first book which isn’t as polished as his fourth—it’s your own fault for reading them out of order, and having unrealistic expectations!” To be sure, there’s some truth to this. But here’s the delicious irony: if I had done as most did, and begun by reading the first book (the “Phantom Menace” of the series) instead of the fourth (the “A New Hope”), I would probably never have continued on to installment two. So my out-of-sequence reading actually preserved interest in continuing to read, as I wanted to see how journeyman Sykes could dig himself out of his own Phantom Menace and arrive at A New Hope, and in that spirit, I am looking forward to reading volume three—Sykes’ Revenge of the Sith!

The Math:

Objective assessment (average of volumes one and two): 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for Gariath’s awesomeness, +1 for the steadily wittier dialogue in volume two

Penalties: -1 for how I hated all the characters (and their endless soul-searching) almost immediately in volume one, -1 for some of the dialogue, especially in volume one, which, to paraphrase a Blink 182 song, “tried too hard”

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 “still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore”

[For why this is a way better score than it sounds (probably like a B- rather than a D-, in fact!), see here.]

Zhaoyun has been ready to pounce on anything remotely resembling the Phantom Menace for many years now, and has been reviewing various SF/F and more at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.