When writers settles down to write their first novels, and I am as guilty of this as anyone, they occasionally bite off more than they can chew. They envision something broad and sweeping, with multiple characters all interacting through multiple threads of plot. Something epic… and in doing so, they sometimes come unstuck. Having read a lot of first novels by small press and indie writers, in particular, I have come across more than one example of perfectly good writers who reach too far and in trying to write such a broad scope they fall into too many traps along the way.
Indeed a lot of the time what happens when a new writer, full of fresh-faced enthusiasm try’s to write something of epic proportions with a host of characters and sprawling interweaving plot lines is they get themselves tied in knots and their great epic gathers dust in the virtual slush pile that is a writers hard drive, while they move on and start over on something new with a narrower scope that easier to handle. (I have read a few of these as well as once in a while someone asks me to alpha read a partially finished work).
This is what happened with my own attempts at the wild sprawl, and somewhere in the middle of a maze I built around myself I stopped and wrote Cider Lane instead, which is just as complex but only has two main POV characters and tight plot lines. It wasn’t till I had written Cider lane than I went back to the wild sprawl and having learned a lot of lessons about my own limitations as a writer and how to push them, the wild sprawl became Passing Place, which tells the story of one character from that wild sprawl, while he interacts with all the other characters from that original sprawl.
Why am I talking about wild sprawls and the difficulties they present? Well, that’s because on occasion you come across a new writer’s first novel where they have done something utterly unique and inspired, and done so in exactly the kind of wild sprawl that so many other writers fail utterly to pull off.
Pheobe Darqueling, an American writer, living in Germany, or possibly at the centre of the worldwide steampunk web, is the exception that proves the rule. She manages in Riftmaker to pull off that most elusive of things and tames the wild sprawl epic of her imagination.
There are a number of main characters, it would be hard to pick out one and call them ‘the main character’. Each of them are fully realised individuals, they each have their own motivations, desires, personalities, secrets, backstories and moments when you cheer them along, or shake your head at there foolishness, or laugh at the little quirk of theirs which rings true. And importantly they are all different, none of them is a cardboard cut out, they all live and breath on the pages, they are all, to use entirely the wrong word all considered, are very human…
The novel bounces about between all these different characters and their own little plots and sub-plots, their dreams and desires, and their primal urges yet as a reader you never feel lost, the chapters are short, the action keeps moving, and interweaving this character and that character, and overlapping plot lines. Indeed the novel bounces along like an excited puppy at times, which may be something to do with the excited puppy, newly reborn by accidentally walking through a rift between worlds as a human being running around getting confused by the strange world he has found himself in as well as the strange body that is now his.
That’s the most unique idea in this novel, rifts between worlds are a well-established trope, hell the wardrobe to Narnia is just a rift between worlds at the end of the day, but in Buddy’s universe when you cross through a rift you don’t just move to a new world, you change form. Animals become human, and humans become animals. Indeed it works both ways, and it is hinted that at the core of every human is a true animal form, so even as a human, they have aspects of the animal they would become were they to pass through the rift and vice versa. But it is far from the only unique idea within these pages.
Many of the characters are fresh looks at old archetypes but none the worse for that, each character has their own unique personality, their own strengths and weaknesses, there own issues and prejudices. Yet they manage to come alive in your imagination, one of the problems with having so many characters is they can tend to blur together for a reader but Pheobe manages to keep them all separate in your mind, as the story continues to bounces along, and importantly it is splendid fun into the bargain.
My cynical writer’s eye did find the odd little plot hole, but then the more I write myself, the more I find plot holes everywhere in fiction of all forms. I mention this only because what happens with plot holes in some other novels I have read is they break my immersion, but with the best novels, as with Riftmaker, even when you stumble over a plot hole you just find you have ploughed on without really registering the flaw, and that is the mark of something really special.
I could say a lot more, I’m not going to. Instead, I am just going to I’ll just link the preview at the bottom and encourage you to read the free preview yourselves, I don’t generally give out scores for books ( other than Lovecraft). As I don’t review books I would not give five stars to, and this is definitely a five-star novel, so give your imagination a treat and go lose yourself in the world of rifts human animals, animal humans, and cog wheeled glory that is this wide sprawl of wonderfulness…