Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Blessed Monsters

When I finished reading Wicked Saints, the first book in the Something Dark and Holy trilogy, I was willing to accept that the book was the imperfect debut of a young author; the book had a lot of problems, but my hope was that with further experience Emily A. Duncan would grow into the skill to do justice to some of the interesting ideas in their novel. Now that I've finished Blessed Monsters, the final book in the trilogy, I have to admit that this series is unfortunately a case of diminishing returns, with each novel being a bit worse than the one that precedes it. My optimism lies defeated by the last of the books in the trilogy.

Blessed Monsters does not start well. At this point, I'm not sure Duncan could write a novel if you excised the words "broken," "disaster," "boy," and "nightmare" from their lexicon. (Blessed Monsters adds "entropy" to the list of go-to words.) The three main characters spend about the first hundred pages moping; these initial chapters could easily have been condensed into something more profluent, but the issue with them points to another element that makes the novel difficult to get through: the author focuses on parts of their story that I imagine most readers don't actually care about instead of the elements that had the potential to be captivating and memorable.

The overall premise of Blessed Monsters is fine. "Monstrous old gods have awakened amid a never-ending war between blood wizards and religious zealots whose deities are not what they seem" is perfectly cromulent. On a smaller scale, however, the premise is undermined at nearly every turn by a misguided narrative focus. There are big, potentially action-packed events that occur in this novel that should be in the spotlight, but aren't. For example, there is a chapter in which one of the main characters is led to a pyre; she has been condemned by the matriarch of her religion to be burned alive, while her friends are locked in a prison powerless to stop her death as a presumed heretic. But then, with little explanation, another main character (literally) swoops in, rescues her, and then the next chapter begins with her and all her friends now hiding out in a safe house. Exactly how they all fled the city they were held captive in and how they managed their escape is omitted. 

There's a fight with an actual god that is dealt with quickly and somewhat breezily; a fight against a malign divinity should be momentous, but here it's a speed bump in the way of the moping, the snarking, and the Reylo-inspired will they-won't they relationship at the heart of this series. Also, there is a tendency to skip over details Duncan just doesn't seem to care enough about. A character picks up a sword on his way to fight the rampaging god and all we get is a note that he acquired the sword from somewhere or other. Why not have this character pull the sword out of the grasp of a dead soldier to add some specificity here?

I can imagine the hypothetical reader who wants to skip the adventuresome bits to get to the thwarted, poisonous romance, but the emotional stakes that Blessed Monsters tries to play with don't work very well either. The main characters are obsessive about each other, but the reasons why aren't particularly clear and by the end it's difficult to care because they all seem like obnoxious people. Not flawed people, which could be interesting, rich, and complex, but rather just bratty, self-absorbed, and emotionally unstable.

It doesn't help that Duncan doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on their characters' motivations or even an interest in presenting them as people with consistent wants, needs, and desires. In a moment of emo despair, one character bemoans that he has never has strong attachments to other people until the moment he's experiencing right now, yet a few chapters back he was also having an emo moment of despair over the death of a friend he had a strong attachment to.

Duncan is also not particularly consistent in regards to extent of the power wielded by their characters. One of their protagonists is "reborn" as a "god of chaos," but it's unclear that this makes him any more powerful than what he was previously as a monstrous wizard who uses his own blood to power his magic. Similarly, the three main characters die and return to life multiple times, often reviving mere pages after their demises. In Duncan's fiction, death has no sting; it's a temporary respite from moping and snarking that only ever becomes the occasion for ever more intense bouts of moping and snarking.

I also want to mention, in passing, that there is a magical sex scene, and it is as awkward as you fear. One character's "third eye" is probed at the same time as her vagina. Now you know.

The plot, such that it is, doesn't really hold together. The novels in the series have been set up to have three main characters who each get their own point of view chapters, but as we head into the conclusion the plot suddenly requires that four of the series's characters act in unison to fight off certain destruction, which means that the fourth character added to the initial triad gets short shrift. We barely know anything about her, despite the fact that she's been kicking around in the narrative since the first book, and she only gets "interlude" chapters instead of being a focal point in the story. Her role is basically standing around near the other three to improve their odds of success because she radiates magically good vibes.

As further evidence of a lack of attention to what should matter in a novel, consider the climax: a fight against two elder gods released from their prisons to bring wrack and ruin to the world. One of them is fought and defeated entirely "off-camera" by the side characters, but at least that elder god is described: she's a giant spider monstrosity, which is fair enough. 

In contrast, the main event, the attempt to bind the Big Bad Eldritch Horror of the novel, is an absolute cheat. Rather than describe what this cosmic monstrosity entails, the villain of the piece is conveniently invisible, and therefore doesn't need to be described. We also fade to black at the moment where things are decided one way or another because the important bit is the aftermath of, you guessed it, moping and snarking. 

The reluctance to show or describe throughout Blessed Monsters is  odd; at the end, one character remarks that another has been physically changed by the ordeals they've faced, but the reader is never clued in to what those changes are. It's never described or detailed for the reader. It feels like the author wanted to spend time with their characters, but wasn't necessarily interested in writing an actual story about them that can be read and enjoyed by someone who isn't in love with the idea of these petulant, patience-trying characters.

Similarly, we get a tantalizing hint about the mother of one of the main characters, a substantial missing piece of the puzzle of her life, but then we receive no follow-through that builds on that. It's left as a loose thread, as is the motivation and nature of the powerful witch who occasionally pops in to do a bit of exposition over the course of Blessed Monsters. When you tally up the accumulated loose ends, lax storytelling, and the avoidance of description, action, and resolution, it doesn't exactly make for a thrilling conclusion to an entire trilogy's worth of books.

Nota bene: Apparently Emily A. Duncan is either "canceled" or is in the process of being canceled. I can't comment on the reasons why because I am not familiar with the situation, and delving into it would mean descending into the utter snake pit that is the online YA book community.