I'll start this review off with a bit of a backstage peak into the reviewing process. I get stories. I read the sample and based on that decide whether or not to review them. I sent Lau my usual note saying that based on the sample, his grammar was so bad that, even if the story was perfect, I couldn't give the book more than three stars. Did he still want me to review? This is where most authors send me a polite note saying, no. He sent me a note back saying, yes. No matter what I think about The Magpie's Secret, I respect Lau as a man immensely.
There are two main skills the fiction author needs: the ability to tell a good story and the ability to write. Lau is a competent story teller, one who, with some help and time may become a great one. As a writer he's harder to characterize. Some bits of his story are beautifully written. Some bits have lazy errors. Some bits make me wonder if he ever learned the basics of grammar. The Magpie's Secret really needed professional editing, both for story development and copy editing.
On the good side: the ending has a twist that is simultaneously unexpected and well set up. Usually "twists" are either telegraphed so far in advance that you know it's going to happen by a third of the way through the story or they come from so far off in left field there is literally no way to anticipate it. Lau did a very nice job of setting up his twist so that it was unexpected but not impossible.
Also on the good side: Frank, the main character, is immensely well done. He's as real as anyone made of words can be. And, if you are a fan of deeply flawed, yet still sympathetic characters, he's the man for you.
On the bad side: Frank is too stupid to live. Too stupid to live doesn't mean that he's dumb, at least not in a book smarts sense. In story terms it means a character who acts in a manner totally incongruous with real life expectations so the plot can continue on. An old army buddy, who is now a hit man, drops by to tell you you've got a hit man on your tail. Upon checking this out, you find out the old army buddy really is a hit man, and if anyone would know about a contract on your life, he would. So, what do you do? Go to the cops? Hide? Start carrying a gun? Start wearing a bullet proof vest? Vary your routine so you're a little harder to predict?
Frank does pretty much exactly what he had been doing before he got the heads up. He doesn't go the cops. He doesn't hide. He does try to figure out what someone might want to kill him for, but he does nothing to try and protect his life. He tries to figure out who might want to kill him, too, but he never develops any plan for what to do should he actually find out who that person is. And, in true too stupid to live fashion, upon coming up with an idea of who might want him dead, he cozies up to the guy, tries to make friends, and goes off alone with him. Lucky for Frank, he's wrong about who wants him dead.
Also on the bad side: grammar. The version of the story you read will hopefully be better looking than the version I got. That said: I review the copy in front of me, not a potential future version. Now, I'm not the greatest grammarian in the history of English. Nor am I the kind of reader who just can't read a story with grammar issues. For the most part, if the story is good, I just don't notice them. But I noticed a lot of issues with this story. Usually when I read I don't so much see the words as the story, but there were grammar errors bad enough they jerked me out of the story and got me focusing on the actual words in front of me.
Final bad bit: story repetition. Lau tells us the same stuff over and over again. I'd call The Magpie's Secret a fairly short novel. It's 98,000 words. I'm thinking five to ten thousand of them cover things we'd already been told. As a reader I like the occasional reminder of what is going on, especially in long novels. But this novel isn't that long, and the reader doesn't need that many reminders.
The in between: Frank is telling the story. It's not just written in first person past tense, but written so Frank is having a conversation with the reader. He breaks the fourth wall several times throughout the book. I have no issue with that as a technique. It fits Frank's character. It's what he tells us that's problematic. He tells us he's terribly depressed and more or less just going through the motions between the day his daughter vanished and the day he gets the news a hit man is looking for him. The good thing is he's not nearly as depressed as he lets on. (His actions don't match his description of himself.) This is good because reading terribly depressed characters isn't much fun. But then, as he begins to wake up and decide he likes being alive, (once again, he tells us this is how he's feeling) he does nothing to protect this life he's suddenly interested in living again. Frank tells us things about himself that make him look very self aware, but then he acts in a manner at odds with what he's telling us. The term unreliable narrator springs to mind. The kicker is, I'm not sure if this is intentional, Frank tells us one thing, tells himself one thing, but the truth is different, or sloppy writing.
Frank is a very detail oriented character. He tells us about everywhere he goes. He tells us about what he eats. We know about everyone he comes in contact with. While this is good to know about Frank, it can make for boring reading. What's especially problematic is that in many cases Lau does his best technical writing, his best use of imagery and word choice, while telling us about things that have nothing to do with the plot. (Like the bar he's sitting in, or one of the character's homes, or what the weather is like, etc...) I'll admit that I'm not much of a visually oriented person, and I'm a fan of minimalist setting if the setting is not important to the plot, so it could be other readers would love this level of detail. But, I often found myself skimming through the description of whatever new place Frank was.
Character voice was another uneven aspect of this story. Frank has a vibrant, in character voice. You can almost guess his back story just from listening to him talk. The downside is that pretty much everyone else sounds like Frank, too. There's a brilliant movie out called The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. It's about a bunch of role players. One of the characters is a male gamer who plays a female wizard in the game. When the gamer remembers he's playing a female wizard, the scenes are done by a female actor. When he forgets and plays his wizard as himself, you see him in the girl's costume. Lau's non-Frank characters have a similar feel. Frank's voice is Lau's default speech pattern, and his characters slip into it from time to time.
All in all, I found reading The Magpie's Secret painfully disappointing. There are so many good things about this story, and so many bad ones. It's easy to see the bones of a very good story here, there's even some flesh on those bones, but that's not enough. With any luck this is a first novel issue for Lau, and that the books that follow this one will be much better.