I spent some time this week reading The Jongurian Mission, the first book in a trilogy by Greg Strandberg.
I started this book with high hopes. There were blatant spelling errors in the first chapters, and the prose could be tighter (nominalizations, those words when Peter is hitting the ball instead of Peter hit the ball, slow down the pace, and there is an ____-ing in every sentence for page after page). But this is the first book, and it is almost impossible to catch all of your own mistakes when editing.
But what killed this book for me is pacing.
Story is about Conflict.
A good rule of thumb in fiction writing is that the reader needs to get something new and exciting, a plot development or new bit of character every 10 pages. By publishing standards that is every 2500 words.
I reached 7% of the way through this book with good interest. A returned exile? All right. Farm boy goes into the big world? That’s a staple beginning for solid adventure.
But from 7% of the way through until 22% of the way through, the characters did nothing but ride horses and talk. They rode horses and spoke of history. They stopped at an in and spoke of geography. They met other people and spoke of economics.
All of these things are fine, but no one DISAGREED on anything. There was no conflict in the story. I soldiered on, thinking that at some point someone had to disagree about something. Then finally the endless, PAINfully boring journey ended.
And they started talking about how other people viewed court politics.
I realized I didn’t have to make myself hurt any more. [Edit: At this point in the original post I stated that I would not read anything more by Mr. Strandberg. I had a fair amount of time to think about it and for some of the reasons I am about to list in the blog, I will not go so far. Mr. Strandberg has some strengths that have some serious potential. Perhaps a future series of his will improve my opinion, but I will backtrack enough to state that the Jonguria series, for me, is DOA.]
Greg Strandberg’s world-building is detailed, rich, and sometimes sort of interesting. But his characters are milk-toast bland (The main character is a farm boy who can read, but that is the only thing special about him, and it really isn’t special enough to suffer through fifty pages of lectures about how the author wrote his fictional history).
I would point the author to the acknowledged kings of world-building and back-story. J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and even Robert Jordan is faster paced than this. They had elaborate worlds with generations of history, but they revealed the history woven through adventure, conflict, and fun so we gobbled it up with a sense of wonder. This reads like a college lecture, except I’m not going to get a grade or any benefit from it, and all of my college history profs were way more interesting.
There may be some absolute gold towards the end of the story. But after spending a quarter of the book reading incredible amounts of detail about the landscape, I couldn’t handle anything more. (Mr. Strandberg, American ‘nature author’ Willa Cather is a good example of how much geography you can put into a story without killing your pacing.)