Review – Vulcan’s Kittens

Richard Skinner

Another day late post – but hopefully not a dollar short.

Part of this was the abysmal weather yesterday – one of those days here in Southern Arizona that is miserably hot, and miserably humid – but without any of our cooling monsoon rains. The computer didn’t quite shut down yesterday – but my brain very definitely did.

The second reason is that this is a long post. The idea was to do a “mass-market” review to put up on Amazon, then a “technical” review – something like an after the fact beta review – to follow it. Well, the technical part grew on me, which seems to keep on happening around here. I wish it would stop… (For an excellent review of what reviews are, see Dorothy Grant’s MGC post for Sunday. Sigh, I just missed doing a very neat dove-tailing there.)

I find myself wrapping this up, in draft form, at nearly six seven eight in the evening here. So, it still has to go through my editing phase – hopefully not too much, the weather and the brain are behaving much better today. It should still make it up on the blog before midnight. Then I have to start drafting the next Tale By The Road (Fugitive), which scenes for began coming together last night and this morning. Hopefully, after that, I will get going on drafting the next part of the Covering Up posts, in the optimistic hope that I’ll still make Wednesday for it.

Phew! I thought a few weeks of (theoretically) Sunday posts would be reviews. Um, not much reading time in this week, or the next. This coming Sunday (or Monday, or Tuesday…) will have either a “technical” post with my theory of xeno-intelligence as developed for the series of novels – or possibly a snippet with the draft of one of the chapters for the first novel (now with the working title of “Talons of Vengeance”). Stay tuned, please. Oh, this doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try to catch up with my reviews – but they’ll just be the ones for Amazon, until and unless I hit something that I think is a good “learning experience” for the blog. I’ll let you know when I have put up those reviews – along with a promo link for the book, every little bit helps my fellow writers.

Finally getting around to today’s business: the non-spoiler review of Cedar Sanderson’s Vulcan’s Kittens (click this link or the cover image, either one) – the one that will go up on Amazon.

Vulcan's Kittens
Linnea Vulkane is looking forward to a long, lazy summer on Grandpa Heph’s farm, watching newborn kittens grow up and helping out with chores. That all goes out the window the night Mars, god of war, demands her grandfather abandon her and return to Olympus for the brewing war. Now Old Vulcan is racing around the world and across higher planes with Sekhmet to gather allies, leaving Linn and an old immortal friend to protect the farm and the very special litter. But even the best wards won’t last forever, and when the farm goes up in flames, she is on the run with a daypack, a strange horse, a sword, and an armful of kittens. Linn needs to grow up fast and master her powers, before the war finds the unlikely refugees…

*****

Says right here on this card that I’m an official senior citizen, entitled to a discount at the grocery store the first Wednesday of every month. Hmph. Used to be a bit more valuable getting old.

Says here on this other card that I’m male. Check with spouse… Yup. Okay, this “senior” business hasn’t progressed too far yet…

So – why am I here reviewing a “Young Adult” novel, with a female protagonist? Because it doesn’t matter in the least what “audience” a book is supposedly “intended” for. What I look for is a thumping good story – one with characters – one that I feel privileged to follow along with as the plot unfolds.

This is such a story. When young Linnaea goes to stay with her Grandfather for the summer as her mother travels the world on business, she has no idea what she is getting into – but is drawn into an ancient war when she finds herself the guardian for four kittens, who just happen to be children of the Mayan Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire and Sekhmet, an Egyptian Warrior Goddess. A real heroine, in an exciting non-stop story, something that is all too hard to find these days.

Just an ordinary girl (well, not completely) – who must find the strength to battle the faction of the Gods that wish the kittens harm, sort out her feelings about her own developing powers – and deal with most of the same things that every teenager faces. If you are looking for something to give to the young almost-woman in your life, or the young almost-man, or just keep for yourself to enjoy – pause here and click the buy button. You will not regret it.

There are a couple of problems in this first novel – which you won’t find in Cedar’s later works. There are some issues with a sense of time in the story, and the ending is problematic, so I can only give this book four stars in all honesty. You do want to read it, though – the second book in this series, The God’s Wolfling, will make ever so much more sense after you have read this one.

A note for those who see similarities between this series and the one written by a different YA author. Yes, they are there. Cedar knows as much, and explicitly acknowledges them in her afterword. She also hopes that she did a better job at attacking the idea – I’ll tell you right now that she did a much better job. Enjoy.

*****

STOP HERE – if you haven’t read the book. If you haven’t read the book, get thee hence, hand your silver over to the Amazon, and read it! I’m a patient guy, I can wait… What follows is the somewhat more “technical” review, which does have a few semi-spoilers.

*****

Before I dive in, let’s get a couple of things straight. When a writer reads someone else’s work, unless they are one of the lucky few that can switch off that part of their brain at will, they are simultaneously analyzing the text flowing beneath their eyes. We can’t help it – like any other professional, we are constantly looking for help with our own efforts. What doesn’t work here, and how do I avoid it? What is a beautiful, shiny piece of prose, or scene, or entire chapter, and how do I make mine look so good?

It’s an uncomfortable feeling – and sometimes a dangerous one. We can lose sight of the forest for the trees, people. We have to cultivate an ability to step back and look at the work as a whole – that is what makes a good (or bad) piece of work, not a few blemishes or a few shining passages. The whole work is what matters in the end – and, as you can see from the “mass market” review, Cedar did an excellent job, in my very honest opinion. This being made clear, now I’m going to enter the forest and examine some of the trees more closely.

The main thing that pops out of the entire novel is a lack of time sense. This was noted by one Amazon reviewer, who was confused enough to think that events were actually out of order in the book – which they are not, really, unless I happened to be reading a revised version. Cedar arranges her events in sequence throughout the book, except for a small bit at the end, where she necessarily switches back and forth between the Battle of the Gods on the High Plane and the efforts of Linn and the Coblyns to prepare the “ultimate weapon” at the Nike bunker.

However, the reader does find themselves working to fill out the time span of the events. When Linn arrives at her Grandfather Haephestus’ home, we have one “time mark” – we assume that this is the start of the typical school summer vacation, so it is either late May or early June (no, I don’t know the schedules for Seattle schools – I would look it up if it were important to something I was writing, but I’m being a “typical reader” here). The confrontation between Grampa Heff and the Olympians is clearly that same night – and then things turn vague.

We get another “time mark,” of sorts, at the first climax – when Sekhmet and Steve are collecting the Inuit godling, it is said that autumn is coming to the high tundra. Now, for someone who grew up in the lower 48 – and that is the vast majority of us – there is a vague knowledge that the summer season is very short up there in the northlands – but just how short escapes us. So, the impression that I got was late August or early September… I found myself scrambling to reconcile a three month period with, to be honest, not all that much happening around Linnea, so far as I could tell.

There were very significant things happening, though. Linn was getting training in real survival skills, such as “What do you do when you have to run with only what you have right now?” There is a bare mention of that, when Linn has to make a fire with just her knife and a flint striker (yes, you do normally carry one of those when you’re in the back of beyond, the fire-bow method is the hard way, to be avoided if at all possible). Nothing else, though. When she receives Lambent, her sword, there is a mention of starting “hard training.” But nothing about the training – which would be very hard for a teenage girl, even one with Linn’s admittedly unusual native skills. Sword combat is very different from just about anything else – and it was evident that she did get this training; you do not deal effectively with a zombie hyena without some very serious sword skills. There should also have been some mention of Linn’s growing intellectual development. “Hard training” or not, kitten care or not – a dozen weeks (so I assume, see above) should have been at least a dozen books from Grampa’s library, or more – and we do see the greater awareness of the situation in the Linn of the fall as compared to the Linn just starting summer vacation.

Now these “flaws” would have been reasonably easy to fix. Approached correctly, that is… For a writer with intimate knowledge of survival skills, or a swordsman, it would have been tempting to go too far in the opposite direction – producing “infodumps” on living well when dumped buck naked into the howling wilderness, or the (frankly boring) technical aspects of sword fighting. There are audiences for such things, but they are called “niches” for good reason – and it’s a niche that is highly unlikely to be looking for their entertainment in YA novels.

So, a balance could have been struck here. At least a few more mentions of how Haephestus put Linn through increasingly more difficult exercises in survival; some mention of aches, pains, bruises, perhaps minor wounds, after a session with Bes while learning to use Lambent. All together, these would have added perhaps a page or two, at most, to the novel (two or three page flips for the Kindle version) – but accomplished a better “grounding” for developments later in the novel.

The ending has a “willing suspension of disbelief” problem. This is the second major difficulty – and actually the main one that caused me to give it only four stars. The ending also has a time-related issue – there is a feeling of discontinuity as we seem to go directly from Linn positing that an EMP will kill the immortals, or at least make them very unhappy campers, straight into Linn and the Coblyn strike team boarding their Zodiac on the way to refurbish the Nike missile. We also are rather abruptly thrown into the Battle of the Gods, without any hint of the negotiations that must have occurred between the “good” Gods and the “evil” Gods to reach an agreement to settle matters without involving the humans.

The abruptness of the transitions aside, though, there is a plausibility issue here. One that really should have received far more careful handling, to keep the willing suspension of disbelief going. An EMP blast (presumably over Mount Olympus, where the opposing forces are centered) would certainly end technological civilization over a wide area – at minimum, all of Western Europe. This is supposedly what Haephestus and his allies want to avoid if at all possible; there should have been a very serious debate before they even embarked on that course of action. Besides considering the very real risk that this action would trigger off the world-wide war to end all of human civilization.

Perhaps, though, they had a way to detonate it on the High Plane, although no hint of this is given? Now, that might work – a “go to Hell (GOTH) plan” for the possibility that they would be defeated in the “conventional” battle, to ensure that the opposition would not gain the power they seek. But there are two problems with this scenario – the first being that such would be an act of treachery, after agreeing to settle the issue on the field of battle in the old-fashioned way. But the second problem with this makes such a theory a non-starter from the gate. The Battle of the Gods was over before the option to go “nuclear” was even ready. Daffyd and his crew were still working on the missile when Linn went into the High Plane to find and succor Bes as he lay gravely wounded on the aftermath-littered battleground.

Sigh. Really, I have no good way in mind to resolve these issues with the EMP option. Fortunately, they do come at the end of an otherwise extremely good first novel – but could potentially turn the reader off for trying another offering. No, it didn’t do that for me, but largely because I knew Cedar through interacting with her on-line, and that her future work could only get better – as it certainly has.(or, rather, by the time I read this, certainly did get better). When I come around to reviewing her later works, you won’t find a mention of any of these plausibility problems, and only a hint of the “time sense” problems – I can only hope that I prove to be as fast a learner when correcting my own problematic issues, whatever those prove to be (and there will be some).

All right – enough of the “Oh God, I hope this doesn’t happen to me. Has it already happened? This is getting scary…” What did Cedar do right in this first novel? What do we pull from this work, learn from, and apply to our own? There is a lot here – but I’m going to hit the four biggest, at least in my not-so-humble opinion.

Keeping the reader moving. Cedar does a very good job at this – the reader is not once led down an alleyway to a blind end, and going “WTF? How did I end up here? Where’s the story?” This is not an easy thing to accomplish, even for an experienced novelist (see my earlier note about “infodumps”) – but it is a sure mark of a first-class writer, or someone with the potential to be a first-class writer.

Unless someone is already a fan of your writing, if you lead them into the swamp, they won’t care that there might be a shining city on the hill just ahead. They’ll put your book down, and there is a very good chance that they’ll never pick it up again. It will end up in the library donation pile (or zapped from their ereader), and the kindest thing they will do is never mention you to their friends and acquaintances. You really don’t want to know about the nastiest things a disappointed reader can do – although, alas, you and I are certain to encounter them someday…

Characters you want to know. Okay, this is “young adult” fiction – which when I was technically in that age demographic myself, meant fiction that emphasized the “good” and didn’t make an in-depth examination of the “bad” in the world.

Um, I’ve sampled some other modern works that are marketed in this category – and that attitude has apparently gone by the wayside. All too many of these modern works, supposedly targeted at our children-transitioning-to-adulthood, are filled with main protagonists and side characters that you would never allow into your home, and fervently hope your own children (if you have them) never, ever, encounter until they are well past that most delicate time themselves. These characters are suffering from severe mental imbalances – either intrinsically, or, more often, from a truly horrible environment around them.

Now, there is a place for such books – there are, sadly, all too many young adults that are in situations like these, and might benefit from someone “like them” in what they read – but the majority just cannot enjoy such a book. Cedar neatly avoids this with all of her characters, including Linnea. Yes, some thoughts and behaviors of “teenage angst” creep in, here and there – but not the “wailing, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments” drama that pervades all too many other works these days. Linn is a young adult – not a teenager that is still, emotionally, an eight year old or even worse. Her adults – Haephestus, Bes, Hypatia, et-cetera, also work well. Yes, they are sometimes annoying for her teenage protagonist, which is perfectly natural from her point of view – but they are not capricious ogre-like authority figures against which she must struggle and “triumph” in the end.

The “right” side wins in the end, at least for certain values of “winning.” A failure to do this is also all too common these days – and, for rather obvious reasons, is usually linked to the character problems. The combination of these failures, though, places a book in my recycle bin – not in the donation pile: I won’t inflict such nasty stuff on any other person.

Vulcan’s Kittens doesn’t have this problem with unsympathetic characters, nor this problem, obviously. Linnea and her extended family do win out in the end, defeating the Old Ones (for the time being), and with hopes for a brighter future now that the crisis of the novel has passed.

However – would be writers – take note! Cedar does not wrap everything up in a nice little package at the end. There are still “hooks” there upon which to base a sequel (which she did, I will be reviewing The God’s Wolfling along here sometime). A bit of advice: always, always, always leave yourself some “wiggle room” to add on to your stories. A continuation for your main protagonist(s). An interesting character whose tale can be developed into another full-length work. Something. This is because you do not know, when you let your work roam free, just what is going to happen to it. Yes, chances are that it will sink into obscurity (deserved or undeserved) – but it could blow up into a big hit. If that happy event should come to pass – you will be besieged by people screaming, pushing, sometimes even threatening you to “get the next one out.” Food for thought – if you are familiar with the works of Conan Doyle, consider how very fortunate he was that Watson did not see Holmes falling into the Reichenbach gorge. He had the chance to back away from his rather hasty decision to kill off his enormously popular detective and continue his story (and resume the nice checks coming from the Strand magazine).

Verisimilitude where it counts. Okay, I hammered the problem with “willing suspension of disbelief” above. Verisimilitude is a different beast, though some people do mix them up. The official definition of the word is “the appearance of being true or real.” That an EMP would disrupt the substance of the Gods has verisimilitude – the problem was the disbelief that the good guys would use it.

Where Cedar absolutely shines in this aspect comes much earlier in the book. Now, I don’t know what the various Scouting organizations teach their participants these days, and it almost certainly varies even within the same organization – but the scenes where Linn makes her fire, and then later hunts for her dinner – these ring absolutely true for anyone who was a Scout in their youth, or has had any kind of training in “roughing it.”

Making the fire… Yep, without something on you for tinder, and in that environment (the mountains of Idaho), you go looking for birch bark. And you always have steel and flint – your belt knife and either a striker like Linn, or a pocketknife like I had (and which annoyingly disappeared during one move) that had a flint inlay along one side. One or the other, or possibly both, are part of your “pocket junk,” just like your keys and something to carry your cash, coins, and/or plastic are always with you when you walk out your urban front door.

Hunting for your dinner? Absolutely true. In the real wild, or anything close to it, you do not find many, if any, “vegans.” A diet consisting solely of plant life may be ethically “noble” – but it’s also the road to starvation and death, sooner or later. Without the supermarket and transportation network for getting vegetables with essential nutrients out of season, you are in serious trouble as a vegetarian – unless you have a biggish chunk of fertile land, a serious work ethic (as in “can see until can’t see”), and a goodly helping of luck. You may regret having to kill such cute creatures as a rabbit or a deer – but, like Linn, you swallow that regret, thank your prey for providing enough food for another day, and get on with business.

Verisimilitude in the little things – it goes a long way in helping your reader stick with you when you ask them to believe in the magic, or the technology, or just that your soccer mom housewife really could be a demon-slaying fighter for God (whups, different author, different book – but you get what I mean).

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