Every person has different hopes, expectations, and criteria when meeting someone for the first time; each gesture, statement, expression, etc. is judged, consciously and sub-consciously, for that ever-critical first impression. Reading the first few pages of a story by a writer you’ve never read before is not dissimilar; technique is critiqued heavier than normal. My introduction to the work of Kate Elliott via her 2009 novelette “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” did not get off on the right foot—even left foot, for that matter.
A kicked-dead-horse setting, moral buttons the size of Kansas, no understanding of mood or tone, and some of the most unpolished prose I’ve encountered since Brandon Sanderson’s books, the nice little story laden with empty pleasantries and confirmed with a limp handshake did not lead to a good first impression. The first page, let alone the first few pages, is eye-rolling material.
1. Pervasive redundancy is not good writing technique.
“Kereka stared. One of the young oaks had a gash in its side, but the farmer hadn’t chopped enough to fell it. Bugs crawled among the chips of wood cut from the trunk.” The tree is still standing because the farmer hadn’t chopped enough to fell it? Really? I thought it was a magic oak. The chips were cut from the trunk? Who knew?!?! I was thinking a little gnome had sprinkled them as part of an elaborate spell he was conjuring…
“…like a pregnant woman’s distended abdomen.” Really, pregnant women’s abdomens are distended? Who would have thought?!?!
“Belek sawed off the head of the dead man with his bloodied knife.” Really, cutting off someone’s head bloodies a knife? Didn’t know that...
“Yesterday they had left the broken woodland behind.” Really, when you leave a place, it’s now behind?
“The sun flashed in their eyes and she threw up a hand to protect herself from the flare.” This sentence without “from the flare” works perfectly. But no, Elliott needed to make sure the nail of understanding is driven deep, deep, deep just in case one of her readers was unsure why she threw up her hand.
2. Irrationalities detract from story.
“The reverberant thunk of an axe striking wood…” Sorry, but a thunk is not a reverberating sound. It’s an absorbed sound. A crack or a bang or a pop can reverberate, but not a thunk. In fact, I would argue the value of a good thunk is its finality; it doesn’t live on in echo.
“Kereka rose in her stirrups to watch him vanish into a clearing occluded by summer’s leaves.” If it was occluded, how then did she know there was a clearing?
“…then a man’s howl of pain chased off through the bright woodland.” Chasing involves two things: the chaser and the chasee. One of the two is absent from this statement, leading to a logical impasse…
“She didn’t like Edek much; he was good-looking enough to expect girls to admire him, but his family wasn’t wealthy enough that he could marry where he pleased, and that had made him bitter, so in a way she understood his sulks and frowns.” The final clause doesn’t fit the initial statement. When using the semi-colon, the second thought supports the first thought, or is related in some logical fashion. It should not confuse the first thought. She didn’t like Edek much; …so in a way she understood his sulks and frowns” doesn’t make sense.
3. Awkward sentences and dialogue distract the ear in the reader’s mind from story:
“You’ll sour the milk with your curdling tongue. You can suckle your grievances for another season. You’ll get another chance to raid.” No joking. That is a direct quote.
“Have your ancestors’ tales not reminded you of that time, long in the past, when the Quman clans as well as the Berandai and the Kerayit made an agreement with the western queen? When they sent a levy to guard her, so the sorcerers of their kind could weave paths between the stones?” And I suppose this also could have been used as an example of redundancy...
“The foreign witch is almost vanquished, but her magic must be smothered once and for all! I come at Prince Vayek’s command to take to him the bundle of griffin feathers he captured. At once!” Smothered, yes, at once.
“Kerek was too amazed and humbled to speak, awed by its solidity, its beauty, its strength. Its sacred, powerful magic.” This is an ugly couple of sentences; the intent is visible but the execution is failed. Writing them per the following would have more impact: “Kerek was too amazed and humbled to speak. Its strength and beauty—the sacred, powerful magic—were awe inspiring.”
In the end, “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” is very, very poorly written. Elliott does not display anything resembling a writer’s natural touch in this novelette. I believe there may be an interesting story tucked behind the endlessly redundant verbage, stilted dialogue, illogic, lack of perspective, and other flaws. But hacking through the jungle of poor literary technique is distracting and tiresome, leading to the conclusion: ideas only get a story so far. At some time the rubber hits the road and the author must be able to execute with the proper tone, precision, sub-narrative voice, etc. to convert ideas into proper stories. In this novelette’s case we have a clear mismatch. That being said, Pat Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson and others make a living on poor technique. In keeping, there are certainly readers who won’t mind Elliott doing the same. Therefore if your hopes and expectations for fiction are less strict, there’s a good chance your first meeting with Elliott’s work will go significantly better than mine.