Starting this weekend, I’m going to try reading sections of Melissa Elliott’s doorstopper fantasy novel Glory In The Thunder, a gaslamp novel full of queer teenagers and antitheism. As I read each chapter, broken up, I’m going to write down some thoughts about what I’m seeing in the story, or what I think is good in the story and worthy of mention to people unacquainted with it.
I’m not judging this like it’s Death Note. The critical eye I use when I’m talking about work that is either in flux, or professionally distributed, is not appropriate for this work. First and foremost, this is a work created by one person, with no professional editorial oversight. Second, this is not a draft; this is not a work where I should speak to the author in terms of you should or consider doing this differently. Third, I’m going to try to avoid saying things that are mean – I want to encourage creativity, not crush it because it’s not perfectly suited to me.
This is in part a reading review that seeks to engage with the text on its level, to look at how it tells me the story it’s trying to tell, and to see if I can bore down to what, in this story, is engaging. See, every story is a good story, really; there’s always some audience, some person, who can connect with a work, and someone to whom it means something. That’s sort of why we write at all – there’s a story we want to share, which we want to offer to someone out there who will care, and enjoy it, and think about it.
If you’d like to read along, you can check out the free online copy of Glory In The Thunder, which I’m using.
A good rule of thumb when you’re writing a story is that your first chapter is when you’re allowed to set ground rules. In videogames, you have a different set of options, but in books, that first chapter is when you have the luxury to define the world. However, you do have to define it. In this opening chapter, Elliott introduces a lot of terms and concepts, without much grounding underneath them, without explaining much. In just the opening chapter, I jotted down this list of proper nouns that merit explanation and aren’t peoples’ names:
Amam Ri, Tokhar (and the Tokharika), Lau Yitar, Antaram, Chald, Occidental, Artifice, The West, Vartavar, Karam Karas, Vrie, and Erellhoen.
There’s also some concepts introduced which don’t really see any explanation, but imply that there will, or should be. We’re told that there are goddesses, who are demonstrably mortal, that part of the world can distinguish between flight and gravity control, that there are varying local moralities about slavery, and the Will of the World, which is capitalised, so we know it has to have some importance.
Introductions are a good place to put this stuff, but at this point it doesn’t feel like I’m being introduced to the story. It feels like I’m being shotgunned in the face with a setting textbook. I’m not a big fan of this style, personally, but I do know there are some people who love having a handful of pieces to pull together into a greater whole, and the writing has the energetic bouncing of a writer who has done their homework and very much wants you to know that. Even as these concepts are peppered at me, I never doubted that they all had full, meaningful explanations, which we would get to eventually.
The bulk of the first chapter follows Hayr, on a long trudge from a family member he fought with to a brighter world of opportunity, and is interrupted by one of our nicer points of explanation, where we learn that Artifice are living entities, that they’re artificial living creatures. We’re also shown that gods and goddesses exist in the setting, which is nice, and it continues the way the rest of the piece feels.
If I had to pick a term for this introduction it would be workmanlike. The story has to start somewhere, and this spot will do, and it recognises there’s a lot of stuff you have to understand about the setting to really ‘get’ it, and so it’s picked this spot so you can hear about as many of them as possible. There’s the importance of literacy, the Tokhar as nomads, engines and guns, gods and artificial people, and it throws those ideas at you quickly, while running on ahead asking that you keep up. What jars about this breakneck pace of introduction is how the actual events in the narrative are a few minutes in a bedroom, and hours spent walking along a road trudging ever onwards.
There is something I’ve noticed in this chapter, which may turn out to be a trend or not: Hayr’s perspective looks at things in a slightly backward way. The narration mentions a tower then the light that drew his attention to it, then what he imagines the tower means. Rather than A, B, C, Hayr often thinks B, A, C – introducing an idea, then justifying why it’s on his mind before elaborating. This is often a storytelling technique I see used in fables and childrens’ stories, and it may tell us something about Hayr that he thinks like this.
Also, something I really did like is Chakori, at the end of the chapter, expressing frustration about her expectations of gender presentation. It’s charmingly naive, the way she spits they made it hard to tell.
Overall, while I feel this is a shaky introduction, it’s done its job, and we’re now in the setting, with a few people who seem important enough to remember – Rashk, Hayr, Kalsamo, and Barsamin. Still, in a story this big-seeming, chances are we’re barely being given a keyhole view into what’s spilling around the world.