War World, by Rod C. Spence

War World, by Rod C. Spence book coverGenre:  Science Fantasy
Publisher:  Gallant Press
Published: 2017
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Reviewer:  David L. Felts

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I like science fiction and fantasy, so finding an offering that combines both is always fun. Think Moorcock’s Hawkmoon series, Herbert’s Dune, Eye of the Storm, King’s Black Tower stuff, or even Star Wars for that matter. Finding one that mixes elements of science fiction with traditional fantasy elements (like wizards, humanoid creatures, dragons, magic and the like) is even more rare. War World also comes at it from a young adult point of view, with the main characters being (somewhat stereotyped) high school teenagers. Despite these disparate elements, War World mostly succeeds. And where it doesn’t it’s no fault of the story being told, but rather in the telling itself.

Jeremy Austin and his five friends live in a company town, only the company is the billion dollar corporation TerraGen, and the parents of the aforementioned teenagers are all very high level scientists, officers, and executives in the company. TerraGen (and other high tech corporations) are eager to find a way to conduct research free from interference of pesky government regulations that, you know, don’t let them experiment on humans and create super-soldier life forms and stuff. The high-stakes game of corporate espionage has also made these companies desperate for a way to secure and protect their work.

Seems TerraGen has found a pretty foolproof way to accomplish all of the above. Company scientists (including the parents of some of the teenage adventurers) created the Portal, which allows instantaneous transportation to alien planets millions of light years away. They found what they thought was a good one (planet) and set off to establish research facilities on the new world. Things don’t go as planned (of course) and a rescue mission needs to be mounted. The kids are essential, since their scientist parents encoded their DNA into various aspects of the program and the program’s security.

So off Jeremy Austin and his friends go, accompanied by more company execs and scientists and government agents and a well-armed group of ex-military mercenaries. Come to find out there’s sort of thing about how time works through the portal as well, and the rescue team finds itself in an abandoned and dusty portal facility. They’re quickly attacked by “aliens” and end up split apart, the kids into two groups and the third the company guys, the govies and the mercs. Their only chance to get home lies in finding one of the return portals. And the only have 30 days to do it. And they need Jeremy–or rather his DNA–to make it happen.

Jeremy has his own plans, chief among them being finding his father and brother who disappeared through the portal months before. The planet natives, however, have different ideas. Seems the previous expedition–Jeremy’s father and brother included–got themselves pretty heavily involved in local government, and there’s pretty much a war going on. So now not only are the mercs and govies looking for Jeremy, the enemies of his father and brother, led by–get this–the Shadow Lord (aka Dark Overlord), are too.

The story is a good one, fun despite some pacing issues–combat scenes that take longer to read than they would have actually lasted–as well as what appears to be some nigh impenetrable plot armor around the kids. The characters mostly fail to break out of their stereotype (popular quarterback jerk, emo girl, computer geek, social outcast, wimpy scientist, hard-core ex-military merc, etc.), but nevertheless the story has a vitality that pulled me in.

As I read, however, I began to noticed recurring issues that, by the time I finished, had thoroughly distracted me from the story, and made me instead focus on the writing, and not in a good way. Good writing, for the most part, is invisible. It’s there to tell the story, not get itself noticed.  Generally–not always, but generally–when the reader starts noticing the writing, it’s because the writing is interfering with the story.

And that’s what happened here. I was ready to toss the book aside before I finished, because of a few things that had gotten so thoroughly under my skin.

Hissed. I can’t tell you how many times I had to read someone hissing a line of dialog. Sometimes it was used multiple times on a single page. I began looking for it, skimming ahead, and then groaning when I found it. First off, you can’t hiss anything that doesn’t have an “S” sound in it, and second, stop using it. Please.

Related to the “hissed” problem is the said bookisms. Spence’s characters use all sort of ways to deliver their lines: I covered hissed, but he also uses moaned, groaned, quipped, blurted, mumbled, boomed, deadpanned, protested, sneered, spat, snarled, mused, growled… you get the idea. Said, asked, answered, and maybe yelled (or shouted)–if you’re going to use something other than one of these four (or five) words, you better have a good reason.

Loose and/or imprecise writing. If you’ve been reading my reviews for any time, you know I’ve written about this before. The old he nodded his head yes thing. You can’t nod your head no, that’s shaking your head, so it becomes he nodded his head. Since your head is the only thing you can nod, this is best and most concisely written as he nodded. That’s it. Spence goes even further with He nodded his head in the affirmative. Although your pulse can pound in different areas of your body, your heart can only pound in your chest. He wore a smile on his face. Oh? One of my pet peeves is a character’s eyes darting around. Eyes don’t dart, gazes do. This story is in dire need of someone who can tighten all that superfluous stuff up.

Describing how characters said something. Closely related to said bookisms. If you feel the need to tell me a character said something sarcastically, or excitedly, or plaintively, or with solemnity, or bitterly, or with derision, etc., etc. etc., then take a look at what you have them saying and make sure it lets me know how they feel without telling it to me. Their words and actions should convey their emotion. Can you say something simply? I suppose that’s the opposite of saying something complexly. Ugh.

Lastly, the word seemed. Spence needs to immediately open the word search on his word processor and identify every use of the word seemed and delete it. In the rare instance he might need to rewrite a bit to get around it, but in most cases he won’t. Seriously, it’s got to go. Seemed is a such weasel word. Authors use it because they don’t know what’s happening and don’t want to commit. He seemed angry. Was he or wasn’t he? The ground seemed to shake. Did it or didn’t it? It seemed to study her. Did it or didn’t it? A gate seemed to open in his mind. Did it or didn’t it? Commit to the writing, commit to the scene, and show the reader what’s going on.

Lest I sound to harsh, Spence is on to something here. War World is the first of three books, and is a unique and interesting mix of Tolkien and Heinlein and Brooks, with a dash of the spirit of Harry Harrison’s Death World tossed in for good measure.

Clean it up, and in future volumes the writing will be as pleasing as the story he’s telling.

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