07 September 2017

Book Review: "Dawn of Wonder" by Jonathan Renshaw

Dawn of Wonder (The Wakening, #1)Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't realize when I bought a digital copy of Dawn of Wonder that it was so long. Deep Magic ("The E-zine of Clean Fantasy and Science Fiction") recommended it and it was on sale for a couple bucks. Even then, I wanted to sample it first. I'm not proud of this, but I became convinced the sample represented more of the novel than usual -- like, 90%. I must have ignored all the obvious indications to the contrary. The reason was because that sample -- the first nine chapters, if I remember right -- read like a complete story on its own. The protagonist was young, the villain was clear, the setting was detailed but tightly contained, etc. Earmarks of a short young adult novel.

Admittedly, it seemed odd that something marketed as epic fantasy hadn't yet introduced a single supernatural element. No magic, no fantastical races or beasts, no powerful MacGuffins. In their place was an unexpectedly realistic slave trade conflict. It took me back to a favorite book I used to borrow over and over from my middle school library: Deborah Chester's The Sign of the Owl (1981). It, too, stars a young man trying to win his father's approval and protect his corner of the world from invaders. It's definitely YA historical fiction and finishes at just over 200 pages. I unintentionally draped these same expectations on DoW and cloaked a few warning signs. For example, the damsel-in-distress trope struck me as an obvious misstep in this day and age, so obvious in fact that I assumed it was a red herring.

The sample ended at what I thought was just a few chapters shy of the ending. I'd been put through the ringer, having read most of the night. There'd been a clear story arc and most everything seemed like it could be resolved soon, with one or two deeper character developments reserved for sequels. I wanted to know how it ended, so I paid the couple bucks and kept reading, only glancing at the percentage at the bottom of my Kindle after the story didn't end when I thought it would.

It turned out I was only about 20-24% through. The plot slowed way down and I didn't pick it up again for at least a month. To be fair, that was also partially due to my lack of a regular reading schedule.

I haven't been able to find out if Renshaw ever pitched this to agents or publishers before going the self-publishing route. I give him major credit for making that work so well for him (all the positive reviews and awards), but I think I can guess their concerns. Based on my limited experience, these might include the extreme length for both a first and a YA novel (under 100K is typical; I'd guess this is closer to 150K) or the old well of tropes it draws from, like the chosen white male hero, the medieval European culture, the father-son relationship, and the aforementioned damsel-in-distress plot device. Granted, it has its roots in adventurous and moralistic fantasy worlds like Narnia and Prydain, and so do I. However, you might say Renshaw could have kept even closer to that tradition of shorter installments and less on-the-nose sermonizing.

(This is an aside that deserves a SPOILER ALERT: I read a review stating that DoW is refreshing because it avoids cliche archetypes. It explicitly gave deus ex machina as an example, the literary device in which the main characters are conveniently rescued from a rapidly downward-spiraling situation by a surprise development. Tolkien's Eagles are a fair example. To be clear, the review stated this does not happen in DoW. This confused me, as a pivotal scene in the book involves the main character overcoming his primary personal conflict, not to mention pretty downward-spiraling physical conflict, by direct intervention from not even a symbolic god, but an actual god, clearly this world's Messiah. And that's only the most obvious example. I don't fault people for liking this book, and this particular use of that trope could even be a good reason to. I'm just saying, call it like it is!)

An example of a series I've enjoyed with a young protagonist, subtle fantasy elements, and shorter installments is Joseph Delaney's The Last Apprentice series. It, too, draws from an old well of tropes, like the chosen white male hero or the aged mentor; however, it stays interesting because each book is focused on a self-contained episode in that training (a bit Harry Potter-like). My point is that there are ways to play in these traditional sandboxes while building something new and original. It's easy to see Renshaw moving in that direction, too, but the payoff may take years. SECOND SPOILER ALERT: By the end of book 1, there's something of a Schrodinger's Cat going on in the form of "Schrodinger's Fridged Female Character," in that the aforementioned damsel-in-distress could be either dead or alive, and more interestingly, still in distress or not. My guess, or hope, is alive and not distressed; that would explain Renshaw drawing this out, lending weight to the revelation that things aren't what the hero is expecting. However, I doubt I'll have the patience to find out firsthand. 

So I guess the recap is that I would have preferred this to be shorter, a bit more original, and more explicitly "fantasy." (I don't know where you fall on the TV series Gotham, but to me, a fantasy about the dawning of the fantastic is about as frustrating as a Batman story with no Batman.) It was more effort to finish than it should have been and I sensed I would have enjoyed it more twenty years ago.

Now to end with the reasons I did still finish this, i.e. what I enjoyed: The writing is strong. Renshaw is a former English teacher and seems a genuinely good guy (if the anti-bullying, anti-slave trading agenda both here and on his web site are any indication). He has a knack for natural yet original similes. The main character's complex relationship with his father and the conflict that creates is unusually real and poignant. Rare supernatural moments that have no right to be scary still are simply because they aren't taken for granted. There are several interesting female characters, one of whom is a person of color. The slow build means the conflict resolutions are all fairly satisfying. And finally, the messages of hard work, hope, and forgiveness make this something I might recommend to my teen kids. That way, they can give me the shorthand version of the sequel!