Monday, June 25, 2012

Oh, so much potential, wasted for want of a good editor.

2 out of 5 stars

Research - 5 stars (at least as far as blacksmithing goes)
Execution - 1 star
Writing ability - 2 stars

Originally published in Germany in 2006, The Copper Sign was picked up and translated by's AmazonCrossing publishing imprint. Now, I don't know if it's the fault of the translator or if it's the fault of the original prose, but despite the book's history, it still reads as a self-published work. There's a good book in here and a competent editor would've brought it out. As it stands, though, one has to wade through a lot of chaff to get to the few kernels of a good story.

First off, there's the length: over 600 pages. And this is just the first novel of a trilogy. This book could've been cut down into a trilogy all by itself. That said, most of those 600 pages are devoted to a whole lotta nothing. I give credit to the author: It's obvious she loves the art of blacksmithing and it's just as obvious she's studied it in a great deal of depth. However, like many authors, it's just as obvious she had a hard time deciding what research to cut from her story and so decided just to put all of it in. As a result, we get many passages detailing (and I do mean detailing) the work put into creating a medieval sword and other ironworking skills. After a while, the book begins to read as a treatise on medieval metallurgy, which, in context, would be fascinating, I'm sure. But not in the middle of a fiction novel. A few brief passages here and there, highlighting specific points of the process would've given the reader plenty of insight into how medieval craftspeople worked without bogging the narrative down.

Speaking of the narrative, to be honest, there really wasn't one. There was no over-arching plot, just a series of vignettes in which the main character, Ellen, moves from one location to another. Ellen would change location, there would be a small conflict, she'd move and the cycle would begin again. There was no great growth of character and no building of the story towards a great conflict to be resolved in the final act. Speaking of those multiple small conflicts, after a while they became tiresome and quite ridiculous. Though news didn't travel as far or as quickly in that time period, stories of criminals and people wanted for crimes would've been grist for the gossip mill and would've nearly flown through the network of merchants, tinkers/peddlers, jongleurs/minstrels and others who traveled between towns and villages. Ellen, who during the tale is accused of murder and a few other crimes, simply moves to the next town when, pardon my language, the shit hit the fan, and manages to set up shop as a blacksmith, a female blacksmith, mind you, which was no ordinary thing. Every time she moves, she manages to avoid ever being recognized or charged for the crimes--for which she's innocent, but that's beside the point--with nary a bailiff or magistrate sniffing around her shop to harass or arrest her. I'm sorry, but that stretches the limits of reality. No one is that lucky, especially when Ellen is equally unlucky in having all these tragedies occur in her life, tragedies which spur her nomadic movements and fuel each vignette. The whole novel just didn't flow properly, never mind the fact that it was just so one-dimensional. However, what really struck me about the plot was just how little the characters interacted with the times in which they lived. As the reader, you never got a sense of the history, of what was going on with the politics of the time. Sure, kings were mentioned and war campaigns were talked about, but it was in a secondary, off-hand way. Even though Ellen met with Henry, the Young King (son and crowned heir of Henry II), the whole scene felt as though she was simply meeting with another character and not an actual historical personage. There was no sense of place to the entire novel. It could've been set in any time, in any country. About the only details of life in that particular time period which permeated the story were details concerning the middle/lower classes and even those details were limited to narrow section of the population, that of the craftspeople which populated the towns and countryside.

Then we come to the characters, none of which I ever identified with or sympathized with or even particularly liked. Ellen herself was bipolar: One moment she would be stubborn and proud and so very, very prickly; the next she would be meek and pious. Most of the time, though, she's either mean or disparaging to those around her, which means she spends the rest of the time wondering why they're angry with her or sad because of something she said. And, of course, every man who met her fell in love with her in some way, even when she was disguised as a boy. Puh-lease! That particular angle drove one of the characters, Thibault, the villain of the piece. Thibault first meets Ellen when she's disguised as Alan and apprenticed to the local blacksmith. Thibault finds himself attracted to this "boy" and flagellates himself for his dirty desires. When he eventually finds out Alan is Ellen, he loathes her with a dark rage even as he still desires her, which drives his actions throughout the book. His rage/passion drives him to perpetrate dark deeds, including murder, all to clear the way for him to make Ellen his woman.  ***SPOILER ALERT***  And this, despite the fact that Ellen is his half-sister, which she tells him a couple of times and which he refuses to believe. ***END SPOILER*** Basically, Thibault is a one-dimensional pig; a cad, a rapist, a bully, a loathsome man. He's a standard, black hat wearing villain with no depth. You hate him because he's hate-able and that's it. The remaining characters were either your standard archetypes or ciphers, placed in the story for Ellen to find or interact with, but that's about it. About the only one with potential was Isaac, another blacksmith we meet towards the end of the novel and, naturally, another love interest for Ellen. His personality actually progresses and develops some depth, making him quite unique.

Fox's writing is passable, though obviously in need of editing, as with the rest of the book. There was a sense of awkwardness to the whole thing, especially as concerns the dialogue, and this occasional inelegance would be enough to jar me out of a scene and make me wish the passage had been written in a more pleasing fashion. To be honest, until I read the author bio at the back of the book, I would've sworn Katia Fox was a young adult. Her use, or should I say, over-use of exclamation points reminded me of a teenager's journal. Characters, in their speech, would enthuse! About the smallest things! Things which weren't exciting at all! After a while, 'Find the Exclamation Point' became a game, though not a drinking one; I would've been hammered after a page or two.

I doubt I will read the other two books in the series. Firstly, because I didn't find The Copper Sign all that enthralling or leaving me breathless for book two, as the back of book claims one will be upon finishing the novel. And secondly, I honestly can't see any of the characters having much left to say or do; they didn't do that much in this book. The concept behind this novel is intriguing and with a competent editor, The Copper Sign (and subsequent novels) could've probably been something spectacular. As it stand now, though, I would be hard pressed to recommend it to anyone. Sorry.

Read November 8-25, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program January 30, 2012      

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