Saturday, January 19, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi vs. Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth

Our fourth first-round match in the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books pits Paolo Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities against Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Drowned Cities: Little, Brown hardcover, May 2012, 434 pages, cover art by Neil Swaab. The Drowned Cities is YA science fiction, set in the same future as Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker, which was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Michael L. Printz Award. Bacigalupi's prior novel The Windup Girl won the Hugo, Nebula, and multiple other awards.

The first two chapters of The Drowned Cities are from the point of view of Tool, the bioengineered man-beast who was a supporting character in Ship Breaker. Tool has been imprisoned and forced to fight in gladiatoral contests. But as the book begins, he escapes the prison and leads pursuing soldiers on a harrowing flight through a swampland, which the book jacket suggests is a ruined East Coast. As the first 25 pages close, we are introduced to Mahlia, assistant to a Dr. Mahfouz. Mahlia faces superstitious prejudice as a "castoff," but we're not sure yet what that means.

Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes: Tate Publishing trade paperback, February 2012, 299 pages, cover design by Joel Uber. Isaac McBeth served in Iraq before going to law school at the University of Richmond. He is now a practicing lawyer, and I believe Alexander Wisbal is his first published fiction.

As it happens, the title character of Alexander Wisbal is also a law student. In the opening chapters, Alexander interrupts his law studies to attend the deathbed of his beloved grandfather, who used to tell him stories about a swashbuckling officer in the army of Alexander the Great. Soon after, Alexander is visited by a supernatural presence, who gives Alexander advice that sounds like it came from a fortune cookie.

The Battle: We elected to open the Battle of the Books to self-published and vanity published books, because in today's market not all the capable authors are working through major publishing houses. But it means some of the books we receive are not quite up to professional standards. As much I hate to be hard on Isaac McBeth, who is a fellow lawyer and deserves our thanks for serving our country overseas, Alexander Wisbal is in that category. If McBeth is going to keep writing fiction, he needs to start doing three things:

First, a lot more line editing. Most of the sentences in Alexander Wisbal are too wordy and could be stated better at half the length. "Whatever the case, he had arrived at the conclusion that the appearance of the oddly dressed old man with the glowing eyes was nothing more than an elaborate fiction of the mind that had no connection to the real world," needs to be edited down to something like, "He had decided the oddly dressed old man with the glowing eyes was only an elaborate fiction of the mind." (40 words to 20 words) The sentence, "He released a sigh of frustration as he pondered these matters in his own mind," should be just, "He sighed in frustration." (15 words to 4 words)

Second, a lot more editing paragraph by paragraph. If you want your fiction to be interesting, then skip to the interesting parts. That's why nobody goes to the bathroom in books, because it's no fun to read about. But when Alexander Wisbal goes to see his dying grandfather in the hospital, we get full paragraphs on how he chooses his parking space and then how he finds the room: "Hanging a left out of the elevator, Alexander saw a sign that indicated rooms 700-725 were to his right and 726-750 were to his left. He made the right and sped down the hallway." This stuff should be edited out.

Third, find the core of the story, the part that readers might care about, and zero in on that. Alexander Wisbal has too many pointless details, too many scenes that don't go anywhere, and too much Mary Sue wish fulfillment——e.g., a good-looking professor knocks on Alexander's door to tell him his exam paper was, wow, the best she's ever read and she's talked to his other professors and he's going to be #1 in his class! This is fun for the author to write, but of no interest to most readers.

There's a lot in the opening pages of Alexander Wisbal about how hard law school is, and I went to law school and can verify that it is hard. But it's a pleasant afternoon breeze compared to the soul-wrenching hurricane of writing fiction. If Isaac McBeth is going to keep at it, he needs to challenge himself much more.

Paolo Bacigalupi certainly challenges himself. I've talked to him about the process of writing, and I can tell you he agonizes over every sentence. The Drowned Cities is a case in point——he actually wrote an entire sequel to Ship Breaker only to decide he was unhappy with it, toss the whole thing, and start over. No fun for him, I'm sure, but the result is we get to read The Drowned Cities, which through 25 pages is KICKING ASS.

Tool's race through the swamp, culminating in a death-struggle with a mutant alligator, is edge-of-your-seat reading for adults and teen readers alike. It's as powerful an opening sequence as I've yet read for Battle of the Books. This book is impossible to put down after 25 pages.

THE WINNER: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Drowned Cities advances to the second round, to face James Swain's Dark Magic.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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