The Perils of High Praise: Dave Freer

Whenever I read about a new author that attracts my curiosity, I check out their books. Not their reviews, not their blurbs, nothing else, really, but the story.

So when Patrick Richardson praises fantasy author Dave Freer as “a major talent” in a post at PJ Lifestyle, I was interested. Especially since Richardson praised Freer’s writing as a mix of “classic Heinlein with a dash of Gordon R. Dickson’s “Dragon and the George” thrown in.”

Sounds just like my author. I’ve been reading fantasy books since I discovered Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” books in the mid-1970s, and progressed from there to Elric, Tanith Lee, Katharine Kurtz, L. Sprague De Camp, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Heavy Metal, Robert Lynn Asprin, Dragon Magazine, and on and on and on.

So I tracked down the beginning of his latest book, “Dog and Dragon,” over on the Baen ebooks web site and dug in. (The first seven chapters of “Dog and Dragon” can be found here, if you want to play along.)

When I was done reading the opening section, I decided to write this post, not as a review, but just as one reader’s reaction to reading the author’s latest work, a man described as “one of the most underrated talents writing today with a wicked wit and a penchant for puns.”

“Who are you?” hissed the lithe, dark-eyed man with the drawn sword.

(Ping! Right out of the gate, too. Have you ever hissed a threat? You did? Are you a snake? Not a good start.)

Meb blinked at him. Her transition from the green forests of Arcady to this dark, stone-flagged hall, had been instantaneous. The stone walls were hung with displays of arms and the horns of stags. Otherwise there was not much to separate it from a cave or prison, with not as much as an arrow slit in the walls — let alone a window — to be seen in the stone embrasures.

(Ping! I missed the erroneous comma after “stone-flagged hall,” but embrasures stopped me cold enough to check it. Webster’s, in brief, calls it “an opening,” either a door or a window. An embrasure without an opening is better known as a wall. )

In Tasmarin from whence she had come, she had known just who she was: Scrap, apprentice to the black dragon that destroyed of the worlds. You could call her anything else, but that was who she had been. Now…

(. . . what does this mean? Does she have amnesia? Are dimensional travelers not allowed to keep their names? And from whence did “whence” come from? The narrator’s been using contemporary speech thus far, so whence’s appearance is causing more curiosity in me than Meb/Scrap. And is “destroyed of the worlds” a typo or another linguistic oddity? This is not a good beginning, oh dear me.)

“Cat got your tongue, wench?” he said quietly. “Well, no matter, I’ll have to kill you anyway.”

(At least he stopped hissing like a gas station air pump. And since we’ve paused anyway, why does he have to kill her? Imagine you’re this guy, standing in a hall without so much as a slit in the stone embrasures to look out of, and a strange girl appears. Would you try to kill her? Maybe there should be some form of sword control in this world. Remember, kids: swords don’t kill people; homicidal maniacs kill people.)

He swung the sword at her in a vicious arc.

(You can tell he’s serious because he chose the vicious arc. A viscous arc would have stuck to her.)

Moments ago, before she’d made the choice that swept her magically from Tasmarin, from the green forest of Arcady, she’d thought she might be better off dead rather than leaving them behind. Leaving him behind.

Now she discovered that her body didn’t want to die just yet. She threw herself backwards, not caring where she landed, as long as it was out of reach of the sword.

She screamed. And then swore as the blade shaved across her arm to thud into the kist she had fallen over. She kicked out, hard, catching her attacker in the midriff, knocking the breath out of him in an explosive gasp. Trying to find breath, he still pulled weakly at the sword now a good two-finger-widths deep into the polished timber of the kist. Meb wasn’t going to wait.

(At least kist is used correctly, although it still stops the narrative until I could look it up. Why not use “chest”? The rest of the scene is a jumble of actions that has to be pulled apart and reassembled. She screams, then swears, then she falls over the kist on her keister, so we have to back up a bit to insert the swearing in the right place. Then we have to figure out how she can fall so that the blade shaves her arm — I’m not going to try and figure out what “across” is doing there — and buries itself into the wood, while allowing her enough room to kick far enough to reach his stomach and deep enough to punch the breath out of him. I blame the lack of direction accompanying the vicious arc. Adding the word “down” would have given the imagination a chance to see the action through.)

But it looked as if she wasn’t going to run very far either. Her scream, and possibly the swearing, had called others and they burst in, flinging the great iron studded doors open. Men-at-arms with bright swords and scale armor rushed in.

(The men-at-arms only need to rush into the room once. And “iron-studded” needs a hyphen. And wouldn’t an omniscient narrator know if the swearing drew the guards?)

As she turned to run the other way, her passage there was blocked by a sleepy-looking man—also with a sword, emerging from the only other doorway.

(Again with the useless words: “the other way” is implied in “turning to run,” and “there” is not needed at all.)

There wasn’t a window to be seen.

She wanted one, badly.

And then she saw one, just in the embrasure to her left. She just plainly hadn’t spotted it before.

(Personal note: I hate the word “just” when it’s used like this, especially when linked to the equally redundant “plainly.”

Also, when rereading a section, a writer should consider the reader’s time and the effect each paragraph should have on the story. Is there a reason for Meb/Scrap to not see a window, and then see it? Is it reflective of her personality? A physical problem she’ll have to work through. Or did the writer decide while typing this paragraph to give her a window and reverse what the omniscient narrator told us?)

She ran to it, and realized it wasn’t going to help much. In the moonlight she could see that it opened onto a hundred feet of jagged cliff, to an angry sea, frothing around sharp rock teeth far below.

Some of the soldiers surrounded the man she’d kicked. They’d blocked her escape too, but you couldn’t really call it surrounding her. Not unless that included “getting as far from her as possible, while not leaving the other prisoner, or the room.”

(I would have liked this joke if there was a reason for them to act scared in the first place. Remember that they ran in after they heard the scream and she kick hissing man in the midriff. All these mail-clad armed guards have seen is a woman with a sword running to a window.)

The man who had looked so sleepy moments before didn’t anymore. His sword was up, ready, his eyes wide as they darted from the window to her, seemingly unsure which was more shocking.

(How can a window be shocking? Did he never see one before?)

“Who are you?” he asked.

There was something weaselly about him that made her very wary about answering, in case her words were twisted against her.

And why did they all want to know something she wasn’t too sure of herself?

(Can’t imagine. Strange sword-bearing women appear out of nowhere in my house all the time, and the last thing I want to know is who they are and what they’re doing here.)

And there you have it. The opening section of Dave Freer’s “Dog and Dragon,” and if that’s an example of “wry humor” and “child-like delight,” then I’ll eat my halberd.

That said, let me stress that I’m writing this, not as a book reviewer (although I have committed that sin in the past, even for money), but as a reader. A reader who has been a newspaper editor for a number of years, as well as someone who has written a book and a half himself, but primarily as a reader who responded to someone’s recommendation.

It could be that Dave Freer is an underrated talent. It could be that “Dog and Dragon” is a good book, as well as his other works. But in this section, and in this section alone, I saw pedestrian prose, a commonplace opening, some problems in description and logic, and nothing that encouraged me to read on.