Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
In our inaugural installment, we’ll be looking at The Soul’s Aspect, a YA fantasy novel from debut author Matt Holloway. This may sound like a dangerous precedent to set, but hear me out: I’m going to walk you through most of this book. I won’t spoil the end, but we are going to gawk and gape our way through the strange reptile house of fantasy tropes that Holloway has seen fit to build. You’ll see why I’m doing this.
We begin in a small farming village with about a half dozen named characters, including our young protagonist, Kermit. The widower father makes vague allusions to the Jedi that his cousin’s former roommate once knew, and gives his son a debilitating concoction that’s totally not dulling his secret Jedi powers. Honestly, this isn’t the worst foreshadowing, because in this teenage power fantasy we know the lad has to be a Jedi sooner or later. But at this point I think it would be more of a surprise to find a picturesque hamlet whose chief export is anything other than protagonists. We also get our love interest, Eva. Better get used to that name, because you’re going to see it a lot in this book, and most of it consists of Kermit repeating her name over and over (sometimes augmented with descriptions of hair color), because we learn bugger all about her. She is the first act love interest Mark II, less two dimensional damsel in distress, and more two dimensional blandly competent person who has even less reason to settle for this dork. Oh, and one more detail: her family makes candles. Is this a fantasy trope, or am I going crazy? It seems like the home town love interest is always a chandler in these things. I’m not complaining; I think this is a positive development in metafiction. Anyway we’re calling her Molly from now on for no reason, no reason at all.
Kermit spends his days being told by every living creature on Tatooine that he needs to tell Molly how he feels, which is our first of many tropes that really need to go away. I don’t know how clearly you all remember adolescence, but I don’t remember a time when emotionally burdening others with my awkward desires was a good idea. Of course it’s fine; she’s totally into him because he’s the protagonist and oh look, it’s another trope that needs to die a horrible death. Luckily, before Kermit can monologue about how much he hates sand or whatever, a Grisha comes to town and takes Kermit away for his training. Since this is mandatory military training imposed by an occupying power, I was surprised to read this described as a “rescue,” but hey, parents be trippin’. Kermit disowns his father and says his farewells to Molly, who is remarkably chill about having a kidnapped wizard boyfriend.
So obviously in this teenage power fantasy, our protagonist is a prodigy in magic. Magic in this world is presented as mechanistic, and for a few pages I wondered if the twist was that it’s just steam and the simple farm folk of District 12 can’t wrap their minds around such a concept. But no, it’s standard sword and sorcery magic. We have two countries, the conniving wine sippers known as the Vin, and the hearty ale-quaffing rustics known as Caesarians. They have some other name, but that’s the only way you’re going to be able to read it so don’t fight it. Anyway, the Jedi whisks Kermit off to Hogwarts and along the way we meet obvious future sidekicks Ensign Kif and Broch. Broch is described as a philandering, self-absorbed, privileged student, so good luck not calling him Brock Turner in your mind for the rest of the book. Don’t worry, he’s gay. It’s fine. Kermit saves Brock’s life using a diagram he found in a book Ensign Kif showed him to stop a deadly infection. This establishes two things: first, that given sufficient talent, magic in this world works like youtube tutorials, and second that our protagonist is effortlessly, one might almost say suspiciously, perchance even foreshadowingly, good at magic.
Kermit’s excitement at approaching the Little Palace gives us our first glimpse at our target audience, when he complains that he never made many friends back in Uwe Bol Village because he was a specky, medicated indoor kid obsessed with books. YA fantasy always appeals to this demographic, but part of the power fantasy usually involves becoming the celebrity jock, and I found it quite refreshing that for the entire book our reader insertion main character is an utterly hopeless dweeb. Apparently he thought this was going to be a rather perfunctory abduction, because he is surprised to learn that the training generally lasts three years, maybe two for the very advanced. Incidentally, this is also how long it takes to graduate law school.
Buckkeep School of Law exposes our plucky hero to some new ideas. The sight of a woman doing a thing causes him to shrug his shoulders and wonder why we don’t just all not have any sexism (I mean, we’re still not going to pass the Bechdel test, let’s not be hasty). This is another classic trope that will pop up a few times: our reader insertion has to expressly assure the audience that his moral sensibilities are strictly modern. In The Soul’s Aspect this is always done as clumsily as possible, and usually leaves me confused because we rarely get any context for these beliefs. We don’t know how open-minded society is in general, and on the rare occasion that Kermit has to change his perspective, it’s not clear that he had any strong preconceptions in the first place. We get some similar head-cocking and shoulder-shrugging as Ensign Kif tells us a little more about the aspect, the substance that binds together the flow of energy and all living things.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am a sucker for good worldbuilding. And when I say “sucker,” I mean it. You can sell me a full price ticket to the worst movie of the year if there’s an extended scene in which Alfrod The Wise explains how furlongs are measured differently in each province of the realm. I once sat through the entirety of Shadow and Bone, and it sure wasn’t for the creepy teen-girl-gaze gay sex. A boilerplate fantasy novel can keep me in my popcorn if it just metes out enough information about language, culture, what people eat when they’re hungover, etc. So I was disappointed when they finally get to Buckkeep School of Law and it’s just nothing. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the entire campus as a series of gray concrete hallways like some Brutalist university parking garage, because I had nothing else to go on. They have zipline elevators, and various rooms with names like “dormitory” and “study hall,” and I guess there’s a lake nearby? But who knows what any of this stuff looks like, or smells like, or tastes like. Come to that, Holloway has a habit of telling me about things I would rather feel. Apparently sometimes there is incense, but I don’t know what kind. Sometimes the characters eat food, and we get descriptions like “a bowl of rice and some eggs.” The main character eats curry for the first time, and calls it “spicy,” so I guess I should be grateful for that. I Guess what I’m saying is that this setting is such a blank slate we have no choice but to goose it up a little as we go.
Kermit wanders his way through the second act from room to room, generally overwhelmed by Vin racism, academic regulation, and naked public bathing. One of the aspector teachers kills a rat, so that’s them confirmed for villains later in the book. The roommate triumvirate is complete with the arrival of Thain Longbottom. Kermit is learning to use magic for evil, and to his dismay this includes gym class. I cannot explain to you how much I love the fact that the latest challenge to face this magical prodigy in a power fantasy for teenagers is running laps. The Supreme Soul gives him a side hustle among the seers, the monk-like order parallel to the aspectors, and Kermit’s life settles into something resembling a routine.
At one point Brock is forced to work at the library as a punishment, which checks out because he is currently studying fabricating, which is basically wizard engineering. True story. I once asked a graduate of an engineering school, who lived on campus, where the library was and got “I don’t know” as a response. These are the people building your freeway overpasses. Anyway the library smells like garlic bread and just-blown-out birthday candles because every library should smell amazing and who’s going to argue with me about what the setting is like? Matt Holloway? There the gang meets Atlanta the librarian, who copy-pastes the author’s worldbuilding notes about the heretical religious side of the aspect. Meanwhile capitalism strikes again, because apparently conscripted military service is not free, and Kermit gets a job at the local watering hole when he’s not becoming exponentially stronger in the use of magic. I can’t recall anyone explaining what prevents wizards from just magicking their way through a part-time job, but I guess it’s not allowed. As Kermit starts to learn more about the aspect and his own abilities than he is meant to know, and the three Caesarian students learn the extent of their second class citizenship within the Vin empire, they begin to hatch a plan to train themselves in secret. When their training brings them closer, Neville and Brock fall in love. Kermit assures us over and over that he approves of his friends being gay, but honestly he could save his breath. The Sword of Damocles is dangling so low over these two it’s peeking into frame like a poorly handled boom mic.
The training becomes more intense as Kermit’s abilities agitate the Vin leadership of Buckkeep School of Law. P. E. now includes sparring practice, and Kermit is deliberately paired up with Frinkle, the rich, racist bully. This really highlights some of the weaknesses in unrelated and legally distinct works like Harry Potter: if Malfoy had just focused on getting swol, he could be his own Crabbe and Goyle. Again, there is no solution to Kermit’s physical limitations. He just gets the snot beat out of him repeatedly, and it never gets any better. I love it so much. The scene is set for the ultimate showdown, in which Kermit and his friends must face the wrath of irate school administrators.
As I approached the final act of this book I felt like I could predict everything that was to come. I had already reached the point where anytime a new character appeared I was immediately replacing their name in my head with the corresponding character in Harry Potter. I had it all mapped out: Ensign Kif’s redemption arc, Molly’s urgent distress message, the wacky escape through the sewers, the decisive battle against mini-boss Frinkle. I really was not prepared for what I read. The ending of this book is bananas. If you take those words literally, and assume the third act of The Soul’s Aspect is just sketches of bananas in different lighting conditions, you still would not be prepared for how off the rails this thing goes.
I originally felt bad about spoiling most of the book and ridiculing a debut author for leaning so heavily on tried and true genre tropes. But as I started writing I realized that I was going to get to the end of this rant with a pretty solid recommendation. The Soul’s Aspect is brazenly cliché, and doesn’t always pull off those cliches well, making me nostalgic for earlier iterations of the same ideas that did them masterfully. But I was never bored, even when I was rolling my eyes in disbelief, and I wasn’t kidding about the ending. It’s worth it. So there you go, Matt Holloway, by way of apology I’m telling people to go buy your book. It’s four dollars on Kindle, and I can only assume there will be a whole trilogy about the continuing antics of Kermit the Wizard.
I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.Tweet