Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
You know I love to complain. Your girl’s on a first name basis with the manager. Maybe that’s why I keep reading random stuff on Amazon. Sometimes I find a real gem, a high quality book hidden in the noise. Other times I am in my element. Ancient Enemies is a random word generator by Thomas Fisher about lots of trains and no raccoons.
The first chapter establishes the backstory of our main character, Mark. The Lorians, i.e. the children of Lorias, have a festival called the Lorarian. With me so far? Mark’s dad is Mister Pride, the leader of their pride of Isharans (Isharanas are a type of Lorian, obviously). Mark is just an innocent lad/were-cat-creature, who loves to play “game of ball” with his friend Don. As in any good fantasy story, our perspective characters have names like Steve and Debbie, while everyone else is called Astrazion or something. Case in point, Mister Pride is named Herodotus. He puts on a hell of a Lorarian, and everyone gets good and drunk. And dead, because the wine was poisoned. See, there’s these bad hyena-people called the (checks notes) Caenons, and they’re attacking the shit out of the merrymakers with guns and fire. In the blood bath, Mark is saved by a man-cat-man who gets shot for his trouble, then watches his friend Don get trampled “like a sandwich wrapper,” which is a weird way to describe that, but honestly works really well. Finally the nefarious Caenons find Mister Pride. The Caenon commander does a “meat’s back on the menu” and has his soldiers kill and eat Mark’s dad, even though he could easily have beaten up a cowboy. In case any readers from the forties didn’t realize these are the bad guys, the Caenon are also textually compared to “little girls.” Reddit’s been trying to convince me for years that women are basically hyenas in disguise, so this kind of tracks.
Smash cut to present day high school. Except for the fact that there are guns, and a passing mention of humans and their “Christ god,” I had no idea this story took place in the real world until the now orphaned Mark started slumping through the halls of Hill Valley High like any other sullen teenager (tamping down his inherent awesomeness so as to avoid detection). This isn’t really a teen drama, though, as much as I wish the rest of the story would be about a talent show that has nothing to do with murdered parents. The Caenon commander has been spotted in the area, wearing a Calgary Flames hat (this is a very important plot detail, just trust me), and Mark decides it’s time for some good old revenge. The middle 90% of the book is a primer for the climactic battle in the penultimate chapter.
Not that it did me much good. I read chapter 19 twice, and now I can’t distinguish colors from tastes. I did a lot of flipping back and forth, trying to remember what clan of Gorgons the Praestors belong to, which is not fun on a Kindle. Finally I decided to break my own rule. When I read a book, I skip the prologue. If you want me to read something, put it in the book. I didn’t sign up to read the fan wiki about your book. My thoughts on prologues (mostly con) have been documented elsewhere, but know that it hurt me to go back and read the prologue of Ancient Enemies in a last-ditch effort to try to even. And it didn’t work! I got some origin story about the Lorians, but nothing that illuminated what in the hell was going on. This is all Tolkien’s fault.
Tolkien famously wrote a story to provide context for his invented universe, which he in turn created to provide context for his invented languages. He started with the toy trains and worked out from there. And it sort of worked, as long as you don’t read the Silmarillion, and skip most of the songs. So now this is just a genre of fantasy forever: show us your trains. Elaborate magic system that’s just steam power with extra steps? Whip out them trains! Twenty generation-deep family tree for the House of Protagonistia? Choo choo! In a pinch, you don’t even need to make new trains. You can write a story where there are ordinary raccoons, but they’re called “Bumblebears” or something. The real problem comes when the reader does manage to Google translate Bumblebear back into raccoon. Sure the narrative may be elaborate, but is there really that much story hiding behind all the capitalized words and proper nouns with apostrophes in them?
This is not an inevitable problem. Any time I talk about elaborate narratives based on nothing, another example comes to mind. No, it’s not sports, although the Calgary Flames always try to walk it in during the second half (how’d I do? I’ve been practicing). No, I am of course referring to raccoon youtube. There’s this man on youtube who owns his own raccoon. One day he decided to do a bracket-style competition to see which flavor of potato chip his raccoon prefers. I don’t remember which chip brand ultimately won, because here’s the important part: from the beginning, it is overwhelmingly obvious that the raccoon just likes food, and has no opinion about which flavor of potato chip she (it’s a girl raccoon) gets her eerily human-like hands on. But our boy is committed to the concept (I’m guessing he already had a thumbnail ready to go), so he spends the episode building narratives out of the random scavenging of a wild animal on his kitchen counter. “Oh, what’s this?” he asks in his best sportscaster voice, “She’s going back to the chili lime Sun Chips!” Yeah, no shit, they’re delicious. Just like the plate of cool ranch Doritos she obliterated two seconds ago. She’s a fucking raccoon! Part of me admires the determination of a man who will not abandon his idea, even as he sees it collapse before his very eyes. He is the Ed Wood of Youtube. The other part of me cheers on the raccoon, whose understanding of the situation is limited to: chips now, more chips, eat chips while human distracted. I relate to this creature more than any human I know, and she just keeps winning at eating chips. Go, you beautiful disgusting goddess, go.
My point is that weird fluff that tries to build a story out of nothing doesn’t have to be meaningless or boring. But unfortunately, Ancient Enemies falls into this trap. The toy trains never become interesting in their own right, nor do they reach the accidental transcendence of raccoon youtube. What we’re left with is a spelling test from an alternate universe. I always try to review books I can recommend to try and convince myself I’m not a bad person, but this time I might have to break my streak. If you are a fan of elaborate world building, and equally elaborate fight choreography, you might legitimately enjoy it. It’s three dollars on Kindle. And to any authors reading this, please, please, please: if you are going to write a prologue (and I strongly recommend that you don’t), make it an unrelated story about a raccoon. It won’t drag the book down any more than a typical prologue does, and at least I might be entertained for five minutes.
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