This is probably going to be one of my most negative reviews of a properly published novel (free Kindle books don’t count). You’ve been warned.
This book was, in short, absolutely godawful. It was unremittingly horrendous, and I knew I hated it from the very first page. It didn’t get better. Nothing it did counteracted the awful. There was no mitigating factor. It just kept on being a complete crock of shite, sometimes managing to get even worse with little spikes of terribleness. I don’t care that it was on the New York Times best seller list, it was just really really bad. I will, of course, spell out now exactly in what ways it was awful, but if that’s all you wanted, this is your tl;dr. I’m not going to give you an “on the other hand” at any point from here on.
Firstly and most prominently, the writing is not just not good, but sufficiently actively and noticeably bad that it dragged me out of the story constantly to marvel at what the fuck Brown had done. If nothing else, someone needs to confiscate that man’s thesaurus. And then do some heavy editing on the melodrama. He wants to write something in a dramatic, serious tone… and he’s just not achieving it. Instead, he sounds like a teenager writing a fantasy story who doesn’t quite know what “guise” or “ilk” mean but knows they’re old-fashionedy sort of words so will use them anyway. He also mucks around with word order for much the same purpose, and to much the same effect. And I’m quite concerned that, when Brown does this, he thinks he sounds dreadfully poetic and imbues his prose with all the gravitas his serious, political subject (more on that later) deserves. Spoilers… nope. I can’t stress enough how irritating I found reading this book, simply because of the amateurish writing – it was a conscious effort of will to stay immersed and reading rather than boggle every time he did something ridiculous or awful. And, because I am a thorough human, I did Google to check this wasn’t a YA novel, and so might be allowed… not a free pass, but a little leeway on these matters because, well, YA. But no, it’s marketed at adults (for all the author claims it’s YA and adult simultaneously, existing beyond such petty genre boundaries… *sigh*). Basically, the man cannot write. If this were my only criticism, it would still be sufficient for me to say I hated the book, and I will stand by it come what may.
However, unsurprisingly, I have more to say.
So I mentioned the political theme? Brown… seems to think he’s doing something original (and doing it well), when it’s the most tropey piece of crap I’ve read in a long while. I already thought the Hunger Games was predictable, formulaic bullshit… this is that, but in space, and less subtle. You spot the plot “twists” coming a mile away, and he doesn’t do anything with his oppressive society and miraculous young hero that a hundred other authors haven’t done before. And better, did I mention that part? He’s not just not subtle, he’s so obvious and over the top that it’s comical. Or would be if I hadn’t been busy being angry at how shit it was.
Then, of course, he manages to push some very me-specific buttons to make me hate him even more.
There’s a veneer of pseudo-Roman-ish* mythology and politics to the whole thing, but there’s no depth to it. And he’s sort of kind of maybe stolen a bit of Plato’s Republic for his setting, but again, not really. And he gets some of his Roman mythology wrong (specifically, misunderstanding how Mars and Ares relate between Roman and Greek myth), which is an enormous black mark from my perspective. But mostly, he uses the Roman stuff as a thin, aesthetic veneer, without it really linking to any of the underlying concepts he’s doing, such as they are. There’s no understanding, no subtle interplay of themes. Just colours and outfits and names and vague ideas. And, shocker of shockers, this infuriates me. Because it’s not like these aren’t things it’s easy to research and work into things more thoroughly. It’s not like we don’t have loads and loads of information. I mean even Wikipedia, unreliable as it is on these matters, would have been able to inform him better. I mean for goodness’ sake, your evil overlord is called Nero au Augustus. FOR SERIOUS. I despair, sometimes, I really do.
And then, of course, we get to my other pet niggle – characters. They are basically lacking here. It’s a triumph of telling, rather than showing, and you never get the sense that the protagonist is an actual person? He’s more a bundle of whatever traits the author needs in this chapter, but not actual linked to his behaviour. He’s supposed to be intelligent – but we don’t see it in his actions and choices. He’s supposed to be full of rage – but it never really comes out. We’re told an awful lot about Darrow, but none of it really ever comes into play in how he behaves. He just follows the obvious protagonist track, keeping on being obvious protagonist in the face of predictable barriers to his success. He doesn’t even engage with his predictable protagonist mission all that much. And then, of course, there’s the problem of how overblownly protagonist he is. He’s just magically better at everything, stronger, smarter, more resilient, better at fighting, and all because he’s the Helldiver of Lykos!** protagonist. Training? Meh! Who needs it. He’s the Helldiver of Lykos. Research? Practice? Dance lessons? Nope. He’s the Helldiver of Lykos! And so it goes on. Interminably. He’s so stunningly, amazingly good at the entrance exams for the super amazing school that Quality Control have to come and check he didn’t cheat. But he didn’t, because he’s the Helld-… I’ll stop now.
This book is a childish, amateurish attempt at the story of an oppressed boy who turns out, because of his heritage, to be amazing at everything, and his quest to overthrow his oppressors. Along the way, we encounter misogyny (and fridging! Really obvious fridging!), bad mythology, horrendous language abuse, any trope you care to name and a painful disregard for the enjoyment of the reader. If I read a worse book this year, frankly, I’ll be shocked. I didn’t even have to pause before I gave it one star on Goodreads. So I apologise for all the swears in here, but I’m not being hyperbolic, it really was this shit.
And you know what? I’m going to read me some China Miéville next to cheer me up. Otherwise I’ll forget what decent writing looks like.
So don’t read this book. You don’t deserve that. You’re better than that.
*Hedging because like fuck does he know what he’s doing.
**This phrase gets repeated about every other page. And is the answer to everything Darrow can miraculously do better than everyone else. It is really very smug and can fuck right off. I thought Peter Grant and his amazing GCSE in everything was bad? Nope. Apparently the Helldiver of Lykos is the thing to be if you want to get ahead.