Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Indie Book Review: Liberation at 50 Paces

As regular readers of this blog know, I've got a soft spot for westerns. Something about the archetypical dusty town out west where good versus evil gets settled with six guns makes me very happy. And I've also got a fondness for steampunk.

So, Liberation at 50 Paces, a western steampunk short story, was set perfectly to make me a very happy reader. Not only do we have the dusty town and a duel, but there's also pitch perfect western voice. Oh yes, very happy Keryl over here.

Now, full disclosure time here. I know and like Jarod Crews. He didn't ask me for a review, nor did he read this before it went live.

Okay, now that's out of the way, let's talk about Liberation.

First off, it's a novelette. Though, being of an old-school turn of mind, I'd call it a short story. Either way, we're talking about an hour or so of easy reading.

People who are wary of short stories often complain about the fact that it's hard to really get to know a character in such a tiny bit of space. And I'll admit, as a writer, I consider that the number one challenge for writing a short story. There are a number of tricks for how to get character across quickly, foremost among them a distinctive voice, and in Liberation, Crews absolutely nailed the voice.

Less than five paragraphs in you feel like you know Hanson, (the main character) because his voice is so clear, so perfectly unique. Honestly, and this probably says as much about my geek cred as Crews' writing style, the western voice was so well done, when I was reading, I could hear Nathan Fillion's Malcolm Reynolds speaking.

For short stories, plot is often the next level of concern. Many short stories don't really have one. They're more prose poems than actual tales. And, while I'm a character reader, I do have to have something happen to keep me enjoying a tale.

I was pleased to see there was a distinct plot arc for Liberation. At first glance, the plot is fairly generic. Boy meets beautiful girl, boy falls into insta-love with beautiful girl, boy does something stupid for girl, girl's very powerful husband is understandably upset about the whole thing. And I'll admit, I was starting to get worried that this was going to be a great character trapped in a blah story, and then Crews pulled out a fabulous twist at the end, making me very, very happy.

Do I have quibbles about this? Sure. (When don't I?)

The story revolves around the idea of freedom. And that's a great theme, especially for a Western. Still, I would have liked to have seen more done with it. Hanson lives in a slave trading town, which he hates. It's a symbol for both Hanson's personal feelings of being bound, and also a meta for how damaged and constraining the world this story is set in is. Yes, this is a short story, but a thousand or so more words would have fully cemented this theme into place and given us a bit more concrete motivation for Hanson's actions.

The steampunk aspect of this story is just setting. It's cool setting, with some really interesting gizmos that are fabulous, but, nothing about it is vitally important to the plot. This could have been written as a straight western set in Texas in 1859 and would have worked just as well.

Lastly, I'm not entirely sure how old Hanson is. I know he's over sixteen (his sixteenth birthday gets mentioned). But he veers from acting very childish to very adult. His father refers to him as a boy. His voice sounds adult (most of the time). He's certainly gotten himself into a very adult situation.  I guess the reason this bothers me is that the voice I hear speaking in my mind is that of a full adult, and then he turns around and does something that seems suitable for a teenager.

As I said, quibbles.

On the whole, this is a very fine bit of short story writing. It's well worth the hour of reading time.