I have soooooo many thoughts about this book. Which I will give to you now. REJOICE, PEASANTS.
The first thing I want to say is that I made the image of the cover really big because it’s gorgeous, and when you shrink it down it goes all dark and you can’t see the detail. That candle in the center, and the moths coming out of it, and the colors and and the textured details: it’s just lovely. I also really like the title, although, as I’ll get to later, I don’t feel the book lives up to the promise of that title.
The second thing I want to say is that the entire presentation of this book makes me think Viking as a publisher has never before read a fantasy novel, or at least not many. I wasn’t even aware they published fantasy. These are the same guys that published Grapes of Wrath, Finnegan’s Wake, Death of a Salesman, The Satanic Verses, and yes, Bridget Jones’ Diary. They seem to be treating it as this lovely, original, striking piece of writing, when really it’s just pretty okay, standard fantasy. It has its interesting moments, certainly, and overall it wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of days, but I’m of the opinion it needed a serious editing whack upside the head, and by no means is it worthy of being treated like literary fiction. I can name at least five other fantasy authors off the top of my head who are writing seriously great fiction and largely being ignored by the literary community for their troubles. Viking’s credo, from their official website:
“To publish a strictly limited list of good nonfiction, such as biography, history and works on contemporary affairs, and distinguished fiction with some claim to permanent importance rather than ephemeral popular interest.”
It may just be me, but I seriously doubt Moth and Spark will lay claim to “permanent importance.” Oh, wait. Some quick googling has reminded me that Viking publishes Lev Grossman’s Magician’s series. Well, there you go. For those of you who’ve read those books, I think you’ll agree with me that (even if you don’t like them) they are deserving of that credo up there. They challenge the genre in a way that isn’t done by any other others, and they do it with intent and purpose. And if you haven’t read them, I guess just trust me on that. Moth and Spark is not in the same league as The Magicians, although you can see that it’s trying really really hard to be. If The Magicians is the major leagues, then Moth and Spark is your local high school’s baseball team. There’s potential there, but no innovation, and most of the talent present needs a bit of seasoning.
Moth and Spark has two POV characters, both told in third person limited: Corin, crown prince of Caithenor (oy, the names in this), and Tam, a commoner who has The Sight. The novel opens with the dragons (there are dragons! but don’t get too excited! they’re barely in it!) bestowing Corin with a mysterious gift that is then wiped from his memory. Meanwhile, Tam takes a dreamspirit journey or whatever in a dragon. So the reader is clued in from the beginning that Corin has been chosen by the dragons and that Tam has the sight, although it takes both of them half the book to catch up. This is frustrating for a number of reasons, and was the first thing I noticed about the book. If she had simply deleted that prologue, Corin’s struggles to figure out what’s going on and Tam’s mysterious visions would have actually been, you know, mysterious. And full of tension! This is only one example of the problems an editor who was actually paying attention could have fixed.
But back to the plot. There’s three main things to be concerned about, and they’re all intertwined with one another. The first is a super confusing and honestly sort of boring war that’s happening in Corin’s country, Caithenor, thanks to two neighboring countries, one of which is ruled by the most horrible human in existence, but that doesn’t even matter because we never actually get to meet him. The other is the seat of the Empire, ruled by this asshole called Hadon whose great great grandfather stole the dragons from Caithenor and enslaved them. So here’s where the dragons come in. They’ve chosen Corin to free them from their five hundred year slavery. This part was actually okay when Leonard bothered to feature it, but mostly it was just the war. And the romance, of course.
Just so you don’t think I completely hated this book (three stars! and maybe only half of that third star is me being generous and just really liking fantasy stories with dragons in them!), I did really enjoy when Leonard’s characters interacted with each other. She has a nice sense of character and her dialogue is great in places, and actually makes implausible situations sort of believable. This is fortunate, since her brain creates a bunch of those for her to overcome, the largest of which is the fact that her protagonists meet, fall in love immediately, and then marry in the span of five days, all the while “overcoming” the challenges presented by her being a beautiful, intelligent commoner (which is basically none except that princes can’t marry commoners). I mean, she really emphasizes this. Princes CANNOT MARRY COMMONERS. But then Tam is just so amazing and everyone loves her, including the king (and she is pretty cool, which is in itself a problem, but more on that later). So SPOILER, because everyone just loves her so much BOOM out of nowhere the king is all FUCK IT YOU CAN GET MARRIED RIGHT NOW. And marries them right then. As a war is starting.
I had to put the book down for a while after that.
I had a bunch of other issues with this book that all basically boil down to one thing: me reading and getting my enjoyment up, and then my enjoyment being batted away like a fly or an annoying small child when something in the text made it impossible for me to remain in that magical bookspace that makes stories come alive. Lots of clumsy little details that could have been fixed by an editor contributed: comma splices EVERYWHERE. I mean it. EVERYWHERE. The fact that she has nobility incorrectly addressing each other, mostly Corin. Several times, she has characters call him ‘prince.’ Not ‘my prince,’ just ‘prince.’ Granted, I’m not 100% up on this but I know at least from Game of Thrones that kings and princes are never ‘my lord.’ It bugged me, and it hurt Leonard’s credibility. Not to mention that every time she started in about the politics of the war, it felt like she was an amateur playing at a professional’s game. It’s like she was focusing too much on the stuff she was weakest at, and not enough on the stuff she wasn’t (dragons, dialogue, interesting characters, character interactions). The romance was cliche to the extreme; it was only saved by the skin of her teeth by her dialogue and the characters themselves. By COME ON. Five days? FIVE DAYS!? (This is termed ‘insta-love’ in the blogging community, but I utterly despise that term and refuse to use it.) Plot happenings were more often than not fueled by nothing more than coincidence.
Even the greatness of Tam as a character was problematic. She was so great from the start she had nowhere to go. Her character arc isn’t so much an arc as it is a flat line. In fact, none of the characters in this book grow or change at all. They meet each other, they have adventures in places, they almost die and stuff . . . but none of that changes them internally. Only their external circumstances differ by the end of the novel. That may fly for some readers, but it doesn’t fly for me, and it certainly doesn’t fly with the type of fare Viking prides itself in publishing. All of this combines with Leonard’s poor understanding of how to build, maintain, and then satisfy tension in a story. Which leads me to the final problem I had with this novel: none of it was original. That’s not necessarily a crime in and of itself. And don’t quote me that ‘there are no original stories’ bullshit. I don’t care. What I do care about is that if you are a writer and you are writing standard and predictable stories, you better damn well make sure your characters have it going on internally. It’s characters and their arcs that are important when plot is standard.
Writing it down like that validates my original intent to give this book two stars, but like I said, I was feeling generous, and I do so like a good fantasy book. The other thing is that while I was reading, I could tell Leonard is an author with lots of promise, like maybe once she gets this shitty predictable story out of her system and gets herself an actual editor, she might start producing stuff worth recommending to less generous readers than myself. Oh my God, that last sentence sounds so egotistical now that I’ve typed it . . .
Meh. I stand by it.