Like any good nerd I have stacks of books to get through. I have about a year to get through those stacks before I will have to pack some up and discard the rest. So, there is a bit a pressure to make some headway in the towers of paper that fill an alcove in our bedroom. For the longest time it has been a point of pride for me that I finished every book I started. True, this says a lot about the low standards I have for myself, but I finished even the bad ones. I would always convince myself that the book might get better as I read on. Many times by the end of a book I could happily say it was a good read after all. As I got older and my time for reading diminished, like my youthful zeal, I viewed this point of pride as a waste of time. I read some pretty bad books. I could’ve spent my time on something else, like a better book. Nowadays I allow myself to get mid-way through a book and then assess whether or not I should continue. That assessment came a little while ago for The Crooked Letter: Books of the Cataclysm: One by Sean Williams. I found it lacking.
I found this book on a trip to the library and I am sad to say I got suckered into taking it home because of the cover art and the brief description on the flap. Thankfully libraries let you take books for free. I saw this great apocalyptic painting on the front with only a human and a demon looking person walking through a ruined city underground. The flap talked about mirror twins, Seth and Hadrian Castillo, who while on vacation get pulled into the events of the end of world when Seth is murdered in front of his brother. Hadrian is left in a corpse filled city and Seth goes to the afterlife to have his own adventure. I began to think I had found a great surrealist post-apocalyptic novel, like the fantasy version of The Road. I had high hopes, much like William’s publishers. The bottom of the flap said Williams was compared to Ursula K. Le Guin and China Mieville, though it doesn’t say by who this comparison is made. It should have said he wanted to emulate these authors, for I think that is what he was trying to accomplish.
This story is flawed in so many ways, and I hate saying that, for Williams is a professional author, published and all that, but it is. Williams creates two surreal worlds, three really but only talks about two, supplies them with norms and rules and then violates both. Seth goes to an after life ruled by will alone, but than can die again, pass on to another realm, because of a fall, or being eaten by the locals. Will power can move him and strengthen him, yet he must travel by boat, that isn’t really a boat, through a tube, that isn’t really a tube, because what, he can’t will himself to fly through an airless afterlife? Hadrian isn’t in one city, he is in all the cities of earth. They have become a Frankenstein mash up that he can travel through in a big metal car driven by an old lady, yet it takes them hours to get anywhere and the rest of world is apparently fine. So, how can Hadrian drive through destroyed Earth cities at the same time as people are still living in them?
There is also Williams heavy use of mythology. Many stories under the Speculative Fiction umbrella have made use of Earth’s many mythologies, there is nothing wrong with that. However, Williams is trying to use all of them in some capacity or another at once. Yet, even with such a huge grab bag of tricks, he pulls out the less common dominator of all, Christianity. This Cataclysm, of which the Castillo brothers are witnessing, are moments when three different realms of life are some how forced to merge together. The previous Cataclysms were the fall of the Morning Star, and then Noah and then Jesus. So, perhaps this cycle has something to do with his second ‘coming’. Not sure, as I didn’t finish the book, but yes Jesus is mentioned, except Williams spelled his named differently. As a matter of fact, many figures from mythology make guest appearances or are talked about, places as well, all with unique spellings provided care of the author. The cliches are piled on thick. Like peanut butter on the roof of a dogs mouth, I kept chewing by couldn’t swallow.
The writing is lacking as well. Characters are not fully developed, motivations for their actions seem weak, unjustified or just not there. The dialogue between between people is stale, it reads like a Japanese RPG. Seth and Hadrian both have guides that they talk to learn about the worlds they now inhabit. Each exchange with these people is like a video game tutorial. There is also a character Ellis, a woman both brothers sleep with and become obsessed with and get jealous over. Yet, she disappears in the first few chapters and that creates a ghost love triangle. Everyone is sick of love triangles, especially with dead people. Williams is weak as a word smith. He tries so hard to explain these surreal otherworldly places and experiences but comes off as cartoonish.
So, to conclude, I find The Crooked Letter to be on par with contemporary young adult fiction. Some people are going to like this book, but I really think those folks would be teenagers. This book is perfect for that demographic, by the way. Younger readers could use this as a place to start, before they are ready for more complex surrealist authors. They could also just start with H.P. Lovecraft like I did. Cut to the chase I say. Sadly, this book was filed with adult science-fiction and it lacks the development to be such. One of my favorite authors is Clive Barker, who is known to be experienced at the otherworldly. As I read Sean Williams I kept thinking he wants to be Clive, he really wants to be Clive. I don’t blame Sean for wanting to write like Clive Barker. I wouldn’t mind some of his talent rubbing off on me. While Sean Williams is a lot further along to that goal than I am, he needs to try harder than this.