Monday, April 20, 2015

Review of “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” by Kate Elliott

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.

The facts:

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.


  1. I believe this prose is indicative of the later works of Kate Elliott.
    She began writing fantasy in 1997 (if you don't count the first novel, The Labyrinth Gate) and that's when she started writing in a different style than the books before.
    She wrote The Highroad Trilogy under the name Alis A. Rasmussen. It is light SF entertainment that builds and gets quite engaging by the third novel. After that, she took the name Kate Elliot and published the four books in the Jaran saga. Those books have been compared to both Jane Austen and C. J. Cherryh and my memory of them is very positive. The series is not finished by the fourth book, but it's still a satisfying read.

    When I reacquainted myself with Kate Elliot, I read the Crossroads trilogy. I did like it, but there was a sense that while the story did move forward at a good speed, it still felt like it took a long time for things to happen.
    She has changed her writing style, and I'm not quite sure I am all that happy about that.

    1. I think perhaps there is a misunderstanding the word 'style'. Style generally refers to the author's voice - the subtleties, nuances, and idiosyncrasies which separate them from other writers. In this novelette's case, it's a question of poor technique - something that usually gets better with time, not worse. Another way of looking at this is, a reader can dislike a writer's style, but that doesn't mean the writer has done something wrong. Technique, however, has significantly tighter limits. It's possible to make a mistake, and in the examples I provide above, I think Elliot has made some mistakes.

      Compared to Jane Austen? Wow. I think it would almost require an entirely different writer than what I encountered above in order to successfully satisfy that statement. What distinguishes Austen is the sheer beauty of her prose and syntax.

      Sorry for being harsh. I do appreciate you left a comment. Just perhaps we read in different areas?

  2. It does seem like we have different ideas of what style is. I think of it as a description of how an author uses words.

    Looking here:
    there seems to be an awful lot to take into account if one wants to analyze literature in any kind of detailed fashion.
    I wouldn't be able to do that. I'd have to detatch myself from the reading experience.

    I am a librarian and I took courses in Literature and English at university 20 years ago. I managed to get through those courses, but I didn't adopt the techniques for analyzing literature that was taught there.

    It seems the Jane Austen reference is, actually, how Kate Elliott herself describes her series;

    Quote: I flippantly call the first book Jane Austen meets Genghis Khan, in a society that is not a matriarchy but in which women have real authority, both public and private, within their specific spheres of influence.
    End Quote.

    Reading her thoughts on writing on her site: is quite interesting.

    I haven't read any Jane Austen at all. I don't know if I would appreciate it the way a literature critic would.

    I don't quite know what you mean by reading in different areas, but we probably read with different goals. I have read almost exclusively SF and F since I was 14 years old, but have become less and less enthusiastic with the genres since I have only a handful of authors that I feel I can rely on. Most recent novels in these genres that I have read haven't satisfied me. So much is way too grand and unfocused. I tend to read for character and a lot of the new authors seem to ignore that.

    I still read everything C. J. Cherry writes!

    I see that you like a few of the writers I like as well.
    It's nice to read your thoughts on books.
    Keep up the good work.
    I'm not a native English speaker.