The advertising copy for They Mostly Come Out at Night by Benedict Patrick proudly advertises the book as “The #1 Amazon Bestseller,” so I’m taking it at its word. The packaging of this book is rough around the edges, just rough enough to hint that it’s indie.
- The cover art by Jenny Zemanek is lovely, but it makes the book seem like it’s YA or even middle grade, when it’s actually being shelved as adult dark fantasy according to Goodreads.
- The series label of “Yarnsworld” brings stories such as Raggedy Ann or Kirby’s Epic Yarn to mind, which is practically the opposite of adult dark fantasy. It’s also hard to tell what yarn has to do with this story.
- The title of “They Mostly Come Out at Night” is unique and memorable, but… “mostly”? That makes it sound rather pedestrian. Why not just “They Come Out at Night” or for a more dark fantasy flavor “They Ravage by Night.” If Patrick is quoting Aliens, that’s not a great match for his story.
That said, when it comes to indie books, I’ve seen much worse.
Okay, let’s see what Patrick has in store for us!
Content Notice: This opening contains a brief depiction of the physical abuse of a child.
Sometimes the Backstory Should Be Moved to the Front
Splintered wood, teeth and claws, blood in the night.
Since this is a smattering of images rather than a complete sentence, that limits our ability to get our bearings and feel a sense of mystery. However, it clearly involves a dangerous conflict with an animal or monster, so not bad. I give it three out of five stars.
Let’s look at the rest of the paragraph and see if we can figure out what’s happening here.
Lonan had seen these events so many times before. He knew exactly what was coming.
On the plus side, we have a main character, and we know this teeth and claws business is an ongoing problem. That’s a little curious. But on the downside, the immediacy of this conflict is now gone.
“Can’t you get him to shut up?” The voice belonged to Lonan’s father. This was a dream about that horrible night eight years ago, and back then, Lonan had been unable to stop screaming.
This was a dream?! But that’s not how dreams work!
Since the narration started with Lonan’s experiences, we’re clearly in his head. While it’s possible for him to realize he’s dreaming, I would expect that realization to feature in the scene before he nonchalantly declares he’s in a dream. As is, I’m not buying that this is a dream. It feels like a mistake.
Also, this dream is a flashback? Why not just narrate a flashback if you want one?
While this seems small in comparison, it’s also strange that the line of dialogue is thrown in with the rest of the paragraph. For instance, this would be more standard.
“Can’t you get him to shut up?” Lonan’s father said.
This was a dream about that horrible night eight years ago, and back then, Lonan had been unable to stop screaming.
Unfortunately it doesn’t make the dream declaration any less off-putting.
His father grabbed him roughly by the shoulders. “Boy, you have to stop. They are above us, we can hear them through the floor. You will lead them straight to us.”
So the monsters are above them, but can be heard through the floor. What. Is. Happening?
I mentioned this to Oren, and he suggested that the monsters are above the ceiling to these characters, but it’s the floor beneath the monsters. That makes it conceivable how this could work, but it definitely shouldn’t have been written that way – at least not without additional context.
Oh right, this is supposed to be a tense scene where monsters are going to eat everyone if a boy doesn’t stop screaming. It’s a little hard to pay attention to that when the floor is up.* Let’s continue.
Lonan was a young man now, but could not help the guilt he still felt about that night. He had known that to survive the dark, he should be silent. If a child needed to cry, they did so with their head tucked under their pillow. But Lonan also knew that back then, back eight years ago, he was desperately trying to tell them all something.
Nobody had listened.
Wait, is Lonan just screaming or trying to say something? I suppose this could be the wailing of a young child. Regardless, Patrick has decided not to tell us what Lonan needed to say. There’s already a lot for us to learn right now, so we don’t need to know this immediately. But if he keeps it secret for long, it’ll become a problem.
We once again learn that this happened eight years ago. Since Lonan is a young man in the present day, it’s starting to look like the cover artist was right: this is young adult fiction. The word choice also makes the story feel somewhat youthful to me. Depending on the grade-level system used, these paragraphs score from fourth to sixth grade.
The tension of this passage would have been stronger if Patrick had just stayed in the moment instead of inserting teenage Lonan’s perspective. This lowers immersion and requires him to use “had” and transitions like “back then” more often. However, he also makes good use of a one-sentence paragraph to create a hook: “Nobody had listened.”
“I don’t want to do this,” his father said, before slapping young Lonan across the face with the back of his hand.
That was the last exchange that took place between Lonan and his father before the cellar door cracked open and the creatures took his father’s life.
They’re in the cellar! That would have been good to know earlier. Even so, saying they heard the monsters through the cellar ceiling would have been less confusing.
And there’s got to be a better way to quiet Lonan. Cover his mouth maybe? This is obviously an extreme situation, but it sends a terrible message about how adults can get children to stop yelling quickly. This is doubly true because his father is supposedly sorry but has to do it. And isn’t Lonan just as likely to wail louder after getting backhanded?
In summary, Lonan tries to tell people something and somehow ends up screaming instead, luring the monsters to their hiding spot. Lonan’s father dies as a result. While I can’t know for sure without reading the rest, this sounds like a pretty pivotal moment in the story. That means it should have been shown as the first scene, not as a jumbled recollection that is also a dream.
Real-time moments are more immersive than summary. If the moment is exciting and pivotal, it should be shown in real time. Patrick has dulled the impact of his opening scene by doing this.
Hero Haters Need Genuine Motivation
Next, Lonan wakes up from his flashback dream and heads into the forest to start his day.
Most of the village hated Lonan. Even now, years later, they blamed him for the events of that awful night, for the multiple breaches and the lives that had been lost. It had easily been the worst night in Smithsdown’s history. The villagers were right about one thing – there was somebody to blame for those events, but it was not Lonan. However, back then, nobody had wanted to listen to the boy who they believed had led the monsters to their doors, and now nobody wanted to listen to the man he had become.
Everyone in town blames a child for screaming in a scary situation to the point where they still hate him when he’s an adult? Surely they’ve had problems with kids making noise during the night before. I can believe there would be some resentment and they wouldn’t want to listen to Lonan’s excuses afterward. But this is a little much. Sympathy is very beneficial for a protagonist, but I’m awfully tired of super contrived hero haters.
If this incident was expanded into a full scene, Patrick could have created a situation that worked better for this. Lonan would need to be old enough to have some measure of responsibility, but still young enough that he isn’t taken seriously. Then, he should have a reasonable plan for warning everyone, so readers can watch it backfire during the scene. It would help if people thought Lonan had purposely done something reckless. Screaming is obviously not malicious.
While Patrick tells us Lonan witnessed someone else making mischief, that isn’t much. What did Lonan see?! Knowing would probably add some tension and help get us on Lonan’s side. With all this telling instead of showing, it’s easy to assume that Lonan is, in fact, just making excuses for his own behavior. This meta mystery is only degrading the reading experience.
Lonan made his way into the forest because he had roots and herbs to gather for the village healer. However, as often happened after he dreamt of his father, Lonan instead wasted the day away dealing with his anger, taking it out on the forest so as not to mistreat the few in the village who still cared for him.
I want to be supportive of a character who finds a nondestructive outlet for his anger. However, the prospect of him mistreating his friends isn’t making him look better. Again, I think more showing would help.
- Lonan wakes up and is grumpy from his dream.
- He expends lots of effort to resist snapping at someone close to him.
- He goes off into the forest and chops at a stump to vent his feelings.
- He feels better. Maybe he does something nice for the people he almost snapped at.
This way, the focus is on how hard he’s trying to do the right thing, and readers also get to see his positive side.
Also, have a look at the sentences in the above paragraph. There are only two of them. That second sentence has a lot going on. I’ve seen much more convoluted sentences, but splitting it up would improve readability. It would also make some of the prose come across stronger, because less of it would be simultaneous action.
Stalking Isn’t Romantic
Next, the sun starts to set. Lonan is heading home when he spots someone.
There in the distance was Branwen, the woman who used to be Lonan’s closest friend.
On seeing her, Lonan quickly hid in the bushes. Branwen had not welcomed the sight of him for a long time. Out of all of the villagers, it was she who hated him the most.
What’s she doing? It’ll be dark soon, and they’ll be coming. Why is she still here?
I don’t know, Lonan, why are you still here? You’re making it look like she shouldn’t be out and about because she’s a woman, which isn’t great.
Since Branwen is only the second named character and she’s clearly important, it’s strange that she isn’t described at all. If she’s still a ways away, Patrick could describe how she’s a small, blurry figure in the distance or something like that.
And, of course, she hates Lonan the most.
From his crouching position in the bushes, Lonan strained his neck upwards to look at the setting sun. In truth, it was still around two hours until nightfall, which gave her and him plenty of time to return to the village and to safety. However, like many of those who lived in the forest, the hairs on the back of Lonan’s neck always stood on end when the sun began to fall. Worried, he turned to look at the young woman he was hiding from.
Dude, you’ve just admitted your worries are unfounded, so that’s not a great excuse for spying on this lady.
When Lonan first ducked into the bushes, I assumed he just wanted to avoid an unpleasant social interaction. But this is starting to look like stalking instead.
When they were children, they had spent as much time together as possible, playing on the village green or in the wild of the woods. But now…
Now, Branwen despised Lonan most of all. He knew they could never have a future together anymore, all because Lonan had been blamed for a crime committed by another.
Worst of all, Lonan’s boyish affections for Branwen had changed too. His memories of his childhood friendship with her were precious to him, and as he had grown into a man, his feelings of affection towards her had deepened. This was why her attitude towards him hurt so much.
Let me get this straight. Branwen and Lonan played together as children, but after an incident that happened when they were still young, she decided she hated him. Then as Lonan reaches adolescence, having no pleasant social interactions with Branwen whatsoever, he decides he’s into her? This leads me to believe he’s been stalking her for years, because I don’t know how else that would happen.
Also, that middle paragraph repeats stuff we already know. Repetitive narration appears to be one of Patrick’s bad habits.
Thankfully, after this, Branwen finishes her washing and goes home. It also turns out she has a baby with her. Lonan gets out of the bush, and we find out he has scruffy dark hair.
But Patrick hasn’t finished expositing about Branwen.
It had been a number of weeks since he had last seen Branwen. Even now, he dared not get too close. His battered heart could not cope with the inevitable look of loathing she would give him. Worse still were the recent changes in Branwen’s life. Lonan had been actively avoiding seeing her because he feared that the sight of Branwen and her newborn baby would finally convince his heart to give up on the chance of ever being able to be in her life again.
Seriously? In Lonan’s mind, being in Branwen’s life means being her romantic and sexual partner. He doesn’t want to be her friend, support her, or interact with her in any other fashion. In other words, he doesn’t give a damn about her. To be fair, that’s exactly what I would expect from a stalker dude who hasn’t even had a normal conversation with his crush in eight years.
Use Description for Atmosphere
Next, Lonan walks through town as people sneer at him, until he reaches his mother’s cottage. Let’s have a look at some of his description.
The village itself was unremarkable. It was made up of a selection of about a dozen stone, wood and thatch buildings, home to as many families. The most prominent building in the village was its titular smith, and as always Lonan gave it a wide berth. He travelled west of the main buildings of the village, doing his best to avoid the busier central area.[Lonan enters his mother’s cottage.]
The cottage was dark, lit only by the small tease of natural light that made its way into the building via two windows set into the east and west walls, and by the coals in the fireplace opposite the doorway. The stone walls provided the family with only one room, as was common in Smithsdown, and as a result the room was very busy. It was dominated by the large table in the centre of it, currently covered in a number of pots and plates that his mother was using to prepare dinner over the fire.
Wait a sec. The cottage is lit only by the natural light of two windows, and also coals in the fireplace. Dinner is being prepared over a fire, but this fire doesn’t provide any light, I guess? Maybe the coals and the fire are supposed to be the same thing, but they create very different impressions.
Description is certainly an area where Patrick could improve. In some places, such as when Branwen is introduced, he neglects it altogether. When he describes the village above, the only specifics he gives are stone, wood, and thatch. It’s also not clear whether some buildings are wood, some are stone, or all are both. Patrick says the smithy is the most prominent building, but what does “prominent” look like? We have to think about the answer, so it’s too vague. Altogether, this village is a blur.
Patrick works harder to describe the cottage interior. He’s more specific, but I get the feeling that he doesn’t know what he’s trying to accomplish. He’s describing it as though he’s drawing a diagram. He mentions cardinal directions like east and west for the windows and puts the table in the center. We know there’s a fireplace directly opposite of the door.
In most cases, our goal when describing a place shouldn’t be to diagram them, but to build atmosphere. For that, we need to know what atmosphere we want to convey, and then we need to include specific imagery that does that. The exact placement of most things isn’t important, not unless that placement will make a difference during an upcoming conflict.
Patrick describes the cottage as busy because it’s only one room. Below, I’ve written some description to make it feel like a humble but industrious space. Instead of simply saying the space is crowded, I used items spread on the table and the actions of the mother to show it more directly.
In the cottage, a small tease of waning sunlight fell on the large table that dominated the single room. Nearest to Lonan, its scratched and stained surface was covered with socks partially knitted from lumpy wool yarn and utensils half-whittled from oak branches. At the far end, his mother chopped wild onions and threw them into the kettle hanging over the burning coals in the fireplace. She squeezed past her daughter, who was slowly chopping carrots, and then started pushing aside the branches and socks to make room for more dinner pots and plates.
At first, I couldn’t believe they’d put a big table dead center in their one room cottage. That’s not going to work in an all-purpose space. At the very least, they need to sleep somewhere, so it would be more likely for them to sit on thrushes on the floor. But then I remembered that everyone in this village hides in the cellar from the monsters at night. So this one-room cottage can’t actually be one room; it has a sleeping area in the cellar. Describing a cellar hatch could clarify that.
Show, Don’t Tell, Your Character Traits
Next, Lonan talks to people instead of spying on them.
[The dinner pots and plates] would soon be cleared away in time for the meal, and as usual Lonan would uninvite himself. Lonan’s mother kept her back to him, not acknowledging his entrance. He was used to this response, and instead turned to the owner of the blonde curls whom he spied crouching behind some grain sacks off to his left.
Wow, so Lonan’s mother hates him too. I actually think this is more realistic than the entire town hating him, because she’s just one person. Regardless, both is too much. Patrick could create sympathy for Lonan by having his mother hate him or the town hate him, but having both feels contrived and excessive.
When it comes to dark elements of a story, make less mean more. Patrick could invest time showing what it’s like for Lonan to live with a mother who hates him instead of doing a whole town tour with only brief glimpses of very grumpy people.
Also, put that grain in an ark! Mice will chew right through those sacks.
As he made his way over to see his sister, Lonan dropped a hemp bag onto the kitchen table with a small thud. “Found a family of mushrooms. Thought they might be different for you both.”
I am genuinely baffled by what Lonan is saying here. Perhaps there’s a missing word or a wrong word? Also, do these mushrooms really have parents, children, and grandparents? If so, maybe people shouldn’t be eating them.
His mother’s head turned slightly to glance at the parcel, but otherwise she did not respond.
Lonan tossed a smaller bag to his sister. “Here you are, don’t gobble them all in one go.”
“Berries?” Aileen asked, wrinkling up her nose as she picked up one of the small fruits and squashed it between her fingers, letting the purple juice dribble down her sleeve.
It’s good that Lonan has a positive relationship with his little sister. It’s harder to make a protagonist likable if every relationship is full of hostility. Even if it’s not supposed to be the protagonist’s fault, it ends up making them look bad. While positive interactions with adorable children can feel clichéd or contrived, in this case it’s fairly natural and much needed.
You might notice that Aileen is named but Lonan’s mother isn’t. That’s a good thing; it means one fewer name for readers to keep track of. If Lonan’s mother becomes a major character, we might need to know her name, but she can just be Lonan’s mother for now.
Next, Lonan plays with his sister a little as she eats the blueberries he brought her. Aileen laughs.
Like a mother hen suddenly alerted to her brood’s peril, Aileen’s laughs prompted Lonan’s mother’s immediate reaction. She dropped the copper ladle that she was stirring her stew with, allowing it to tip up in the pot, sending it and a generous amount of food careening to the floor. With a stern face she rushed over to her daughter, shoving Lonan out of her path.
“What is that?” she barked at Lonan, her eyes never leaving her daughter’s mouth, which was now pinched between a calloused forefinger and thumb.“What have you given her now?”
“Poison, of course. Thought it was about time we got rid of her.” Lonan’s reply was laced with spite, but he made sure to catch Aileen’s eye so she knew he was not serious. He should not have worried – his sister was used to how the rest of her family interacted by now.
That is cold. His mother’s worries are unreasonable and hurtful, but they’re also clearly genuine. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have spilled the ladle’s contents. Given that, Lonan’s response is messed up. He’s joking to a frightened parent about poisoning her kid.
Lonan is supposedly using a spiteful voice for his joke while simultaneously communicating he’s not serious with eye contact. That is not how that works. Making eye contact with his sister while he is using a spiteful voice would only make it seem like the spite is directed at his sister. Maybe Patrick intended a pause there: spite at his mother followed by a playful look at his sister. That would work better, but eye contact alone is not playful. I know many writers want to believe eye gazing is equivalent to telepathy, but facial expressions are needed for this kind of thing.
His mother gathered a lick of purple juice on her finger and placed it on her tongue, sneering her lips in response to the sharp sweetness of the fruit. She chose this moment to finally look at her son, the glower in her eyes showing that she was clearly unimpressed with his gift.
Lonan’s lips pursed at his mother’s disapproving gaze. The blood boiling behind his eyes urged him to say something to her, to invite her into an argument. History had shown him that his mother was more than willing to fight. But Lonan had long since learnt the cost of these arguments, how hollow and alone they made him feel afterwards, so he bit his tongue and said nothing. Lonan still loved his mother even if she was unable to love him back.
Lonan, I’ll believe you love your mother when I believe the moon is made of cheese.
Once again, Patrick’s mistake is telling instead of showing. If you tell readers one thing about a character and the character shows them another, readers will believe what they witnessed. It doesn’t even come off like Lonan has multiple sides to his personality or that his love is buried in there somewhere. If you want your character to have a trait, it needs to manifest somehow. Right now, all we have is Lonan barely restraining himself from starting a vicious and unproductive verbal fight. That’s not an expression of love.
What could Patrick do instead?
- I think it would be okay for Lonan to struggle with his anger and snap at her once, but it needs to be toned down. Joking about poisoning her daughter is a little much.
- Then, he needs to do something for her. Bringing the mushrooms is a good start, but it’s an obvious appeasement tactic. Something more clearly selfless would be stronger. Lonan could be concerned about how hard his mother is working and do some of her chores in secret.
- Finally, anger seems to be the only thing he feels in her presence. Where’s the hurt? Instead of this sequence, if he tried to reassure her about the berries, she became more hostile in response, and then he snapped at her, that would create a more nuanced impression.
Also, this is a small thing, but his mother sneers at sweetness? Based on what we’ve seen, I would expect sweets to be hard to come by, and therefore treasured. If this setting felt lighter and lower in realism, like a classic fairy-tale setting, it wouldn’t be as strange to me. But Patrick has been building a gritty atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine a family living in a humble sorta-one-room cottage feasting on cakes.
After this, Lonan’s mother not-so-subtly hints Lonan should leave, he snaps at her again, and Patrick explains for at least the third time that Lonan was blamed for his father’s death. So, of course, that’s why his mother hates him.
Magic Should Be Noticeably Different From Not Magic
Next, Patrick does some more worldbuilding.
Before leaving, he knelt down to Aileen again, giving her a heartfelt hug, enjoying the feel of her blonde curls tickling his ears. “Magpie King protect you,” he whispered into her ear.
He pulled back to look at his sister and was greeted by a face full of curiosity. “What’s up, spud?”
“Is he real? Really? Niall Tumulty says there’s no such thing, like bears and dragons.”
Lonan gave a knowing grin. “The Tumulty boys know nothing. ‘Course he’s real. Who else looks after us at night?”
This Magpie King must not actually be a king, because it would be hard to deny his existence otherwise. Maybe he’s some kind of masked superhero. It’s also a little strange to bring him up, because he wasn’t around to save Lonan’s father. Maybe Lonan is secretly the Magpie King, or he’ll become the Magpie King?
And bears aren’t real? Then how have people even heard of them? If bears are simply made up, these people have disappointing imaginations.
In both cases, more internal commentary from Lonan would help clarify what’s going on. If Lonan is supposed to be telling a comforting lie about the Magpie King, we should know, even if Lonan is wrong in believing the Magpie King isn’t real. Similarly, if the bear line is supposed to be a joke, we have no way of knowing that without any comment on it.
Next, Lonan grabs a bowl of soup for the road. I guess he’ll return the bowl later.
He trudged slowly down the village paths, gathering big chunks of stew onto his spoon before gulping it down his throat. It was mostly grain, but a mix of carrot, trace amounts of bacon and a healthy assortment of herbs served to turn it into an interesting meal. Lonan’s mother no longer loved him, but he could still enjoy the benefits of her Knack for cooking. It was a good skill to have in the family, but unfortunately it did not provide them much to barter with. His mother was certainly not the only cooking Knack in the village.
I think we have some magic! And of course, a magic skill associated with women’s household labor is apparently not valuable – as though we don’t get enough of that attitude in real life. It’s also unrealistic in a setting like this, where saving labor and getting enough to eat would be a big deal. I suppose if it’s indistinguishable from tasty cooking, it might not be a big income generator, but if magic is just like regular skills, why have it at all?
The reference to magic is also easy to miss. Patrick refers to it as a skill, and it’s currently indistinguishable from a skill. Readers have to notice that “Knack” has been capitalized and be genre-savvy enough to realize what that means.
The information management in this opening is actually strong on a bigger-picture level. Patrick doles out information a little at a time, without making it overwhelming. However, he’s struggling with clarity at the sentence and paragraph level. If you have beta readers, they’re often pretty good at catching this stuff. Otherwise, an editor working at the right level can flag many of these issues.*
Next, Lonan briefly walks by the Tumulty boys, who apparently are farming Knacks, which is considered very valuable – obviously, since they’re boys. Despite being super friendly in general, the Tumulty boys have an obligatory hatred of Lonan, calling him “Knackless.” I guess Lonan doesn’t have magic like everyone else. Honestly, the continual dunking on Lonan is starting to feel monotonous. He can be sympathetic and still have a few positive things in his life for contrast.
After that, Lonan briefly hangs outside a window so he can listen to a guy tell stories to his grandkids. That’s definitely an effective way to illustrate Lonan’s outcast status; it would be great if Patrick hadn’t already hammered the point home a dozen times.
He paused briefly outside the blacksmiths. This was a building he dare not look at directly for fear of his own reactions to the sight of it. So many of Lonan’s formative years had been spent inside it, watching his father beat metal into pots, cauldrons, weapons and decorative items. The sounds of the smithy – the clang of hammer onto anvil-pressed iron, the hissing protest of water as angry metal was lowered into it, the crackling of coal in the forge – had been a balm to Lonan as he had watched his father’s powerful Knack at work.
Lonan is afraid to look directly at this building, but he still pauses to contemplate it a whole bunch. As we all know, thinking real hard about our trauma never brings negative emotions to the surface. It feels like Patrick is puppeteering Lonan around to look at things Patrick wants to exposit about. But Lonan doesn’t have to stop by the smith’s to think about his past, and if Patrick really wants him to stop by, he should build that into the plot. What he shouldn’t do is give his viewpoint character a strong reason to avoid thinking about his exposition.
At least Patrick is doing better with his description. While “decorative items” is still vague, I like this list of sounds.
This looks like a complete paragraph, doesn’t it? But it’s only the first half. Here’s the rest.
When he had been truly focussed, Lonan had seen his father’s eyes turn amber and sparks fly from them to mirror those he crafted by the beating of his hammer, the sign of a truly potent Knack. The other families of Smithsdown provided for all of the inhabitants of the village, but it was Lonan’s father’s skill, and the skill of his father before him, that had made Smithsdown just as important to all of the Corvae people, or so Mother Ogma often told Lonan.
I guess glowing eyes makes the Knack slightly different than having a skill, in a superficial way. And since this is fantasy, the young male hero naturally needs a non-present father who is super duper awesome. Knowing Lonan’s father hit him makes this pretty uncomfortable.
Congratulations, we made it through that incredibly long paragraph. Let’s move on.
Just kidding! The paragraph is still going.
Let’s look at the end – for real this time.
In the days when people had moved more freely throughout the forest, other villages had sent envoys on day-long treks to place an order with the Anvil family. It was said that the Magpie King himself had regularly sent his people from the Eyrie to claim Lonan’s grandfather’s taxes in the form of wrought-iron decorations or weaponry, but the last contact with the Eyrie had been made before Lonan’s lifetime.
Since the Magpie King was collecting taxes, he is definitely real, and everyone in the village would know it. They may not have had contact in Lonan’s lifetime, but Lonan’s probably a teenager. People don’t forget stuff that fast. I suppose they could think the Magpie King is dead, but that’s not the same thing.
And if he’s a real king who hasn’t contacted them in a generation, why would Lonan tell his sister that the Magpie King protects them all? This is like saying Bill Clinton is going to protect us all.
Everything in the kingdom seems to be named after birds. This raises the questions of whether people have any bird powers or traits. Because we’re already getting a lot of exposition here, I’d look for a better place to describe how this kingdom and the Magpie King work. For now, the information on Lonan’s father is plenty. Patrick could just say people traveled from afar for the family’s wrought-iron work and skip many of these new terms.
Next up: a new paragraph!
His father’s Knack and his smithy should have been Lonan’s inheritance. Instead, Lonan had to settle for standing outside this building and listening to the fumbling crashing of a hammer being slapped against abused copper, the resulting tune a bastardisation of the skillful notes his father used to play. Knowing it was a foolish act, Lonan could not help but turn his head to catch sight of Jarleth Quarry, wearing Lonan’s father’s leather apron, pummelling away in the workshop. The curly-haired young man looked up, caught Lonan’s eye and flashed him a knowing, taunting grin.
Jarleth Quarry would be Lonan’s nemesis, but apparently the entire village – including Lonan’s mother – is his nemesis. Given that, it’s hard to feel the hatred and resentment I’m supposed to feel for this guy. This is why contrast is important. If everyone’s an asshole, no one in particular is an asshole.
Lonan snapped his gaze away from the smithy, spat the remnants of his stew onto the muddy path, and took off. His fists were tight and shaking, and as Lonan focussed on the path in front of him, he had to will his rage to dissipate before he entered Mother Ogma’s house. She could not abide his fits of anger.
Lonan, are you sure that incident eight years ago is why everyone hates you? Maybe it’s because you’re a ball of seething rage. Also, if you don’t want to deal with fits of anger, maybe don’t stop by the smithy to peek at the person you hate the most.
I don’t think Patrick intended to create the impression that Lonan just stopped and stared. He says Lonan “paused briefly,” but he’s using the unfolding events narrative premise, so narration makes time pass! Writing a page-long paragraph of exposition extends the moment into a full minute.
Quarry had no Knack for metalwork. Neither did Lonan, for that matter. He had always hoped that time would allow the Knack to develop, someday giving him ammunition to claim his father’s legacy back, but long before his twentieth birthday, Lonan had given up the hope of any Knack materialising for him, let alone the potent one that his father had possessed. There was a lot of debate in the village about where Knacks came from. Most believed that they were inherited, passed down from father to son by blood. Lonan believed differently. He believed that a Knack was earned, that it was a type of magic that somebody developed by applying themselves to a certain task with dedication and pride. After his father’s death, Lonan had been denied the chance to practice blacksmithing, and as such had been denied the opportunity to develop his family’s Knack.
Is Lonan twenty??? We don’t actually know, but this implies he’s at least twenty. That means he was twelve (or older) when the incident with this father happened. While that makes it a little more likely the village would blame him, why in the world was he screaming? Everyone was hiding in a cellar together, so getting people’s attention wouldn’t require a high volume. Am I really supposed to believe that a preteen or teenager started screaming uncontrollably when he was actually trying to communicate a message?
This also adds to the ongoing ambiguity about the target audience for this story. It’s marked as a coming-of-age tale on Amazon, but twenty is a little old for medieval fantasy coming-of-age stories. Regardless, it definitely feels like YA. Lonan hasn’t really adapted to his situation and carved out a life for himself, even an unpleasant one. That’s what I would expect from an adult.
While Lonan’s theory about Knacks may be convenient for the plot, it doesn’t make sense with what we know. First, if developing a Knack was a matter of exposure, people would definitely know that by now. It would only take a few people getting hobby-related Knacks to make the cause obvious. Soon, every youth would be practicing valuable skills hoping to get the Knack for them.
Second, a cooking Knack would not be so common. Any group that trades is driven to specialize, provided they have the resources and technology to do so. In this case, that means everyone would outsource their cooking to a person who has the Knack. Then, fewer new people would develop the Knack, because they aren’t practicing. Again, this assumes that Knacks actually do something significant and useful, like speeding up cooking time.
Also, if everyone thought Knacks were inherited – “father to son” because women don’t exist – they would never take the smithy away from Lonan. The town is literally named after the smithy, and they get smithy-based tourism. Regardless of what deaths Lonan caused, they’d consider Lonan indispensable.
It was clear to Lonan and to anyone else with experience of what a decent smithy could produce that Jarleth Quarry had never developed this Knack either. However, Lonan knew all too well that Quarry did have a Knack of his own, one that Lonan could not hope to combat or expose, and these facts made any attempt to reclaim the forge futile.
Patrick, just tell us what happened already. If Jarleth has a Knack he used eight years ago, the story would be more engaging if we knew about it.
As is, this vagueness isn’t enough to establish Jarleth as threatening. This is especially true since Jarleth is a young man, so he was probably about Lonan’s age when the incident happened. I’m not quaking in my boots at the thought of an evil twelve-year-old boy; it sounds more like an accident that happened to benefit him.
Women Are Not Property
Wrapped up in his angry thoughts, Lonan was not paying attention to his surroundings. It was for this reason that he walked right up to Branwen Quarry, Jarleth’s wife, just as she was leaving Mother Ogma’s cottage. Lonan froze when he saw her so close. As much as his interactions with his mother pained him, this was the woman in the village who held the secret to hurting Lonan.
Given the stalking and the personal nemesis who took Lonan’s rightful job, I should have seen this coming. Of course Branwen is one more possession that the enemy has stolen. Also, saying she holds the secret to hurting Lonan suggests that she has power over him. If Branwen had power over Lonan, she could stop him from stalking her.
You have to love how during the course of Lonan’s exposition wandering, he randomly runs into Branwen a second time. Neither instance moves the plot forward; he’s just incapable of thinking about her unless he’s staring at her.
Branwen’s scarred face – the entire right hand side of it had been mutilated – was as ugly as the emotions that she held towards Lonan, and was a constant reminder of the crime that she blamed him for.
You know what this story needed? More bigotry. That’s definitely making it look better.
While this may or may not count as ableist specifically, it definitely resembles the bitter disability trope. Branwen got those facial scars eight years ago; she’s had plenty of time to get used to the way they look. Yet so far, her personality has been defined by her bitterness – and resulting hatred – over having them. Then there’s the lookism of this passage. Calling her face “mutilated,” her scars ugly, and comparing the right side of her face to her “ugly” emotions is really demeaning. Plus, Branwen’s hatred of Lonan isn’t so much ugly as it is exceedingly reasonable.
Patrick wants us to believe that Lonan both loves Branwen and is thinking these gross things about her. Perhaps Patrick even wants us to give Lonan kudos for liking Branwen despite her scars. Hell no. Branwen deserves better, and her scars don’t make her any less worthy.
Finally, why didn’t we learn about these scars the first time we saw Branwen? Distinctive features of any kind should be described right up front, or it will feel like they just popped into existence.
What [Lonan] had feared seeing for the past few weeks, however, was now right in front of him. Swaddled to Branwen’s chest was her newborn daughter, still unnamed for the first month, as was the village’s custom. Lonan’s eyes fell upon the babe, the child of the man that he hated and the woman that he loved, he froze.
Oh, I see, this is Snape’s origin story. Now everything makes sense!
No? Drat, I was hoping Patrick would just skip forward 15 years and make this baby the main character.
“Anvil,” was her only acknowledgement of him. The hate in Branwen’s voice stabbed directly at Lonan’s heart. He felt his anger force its way towards his throat again, threatening to come up with a retort to hide his pain. Lonan quickly quelled this urge, instead remaining silent as she stormed past.
Lonan even gets angry in response to hearing his own name. He’s quite the catch; Branwen doesn’t know what she’s missing.
A voice “stabbing directly at Lonan’s heart” is pretty melodramatic. The language is exaggerated, and Patrick is still telling Lonan’s hurt rather than showing it. It doesn’t matter how many times Patrick says Lonan is in pain if all we see is rage.
As Branwen hurried away, she turned her head from him, to hide her face. Since her scarring, Branwen had done her best to avoid having to socialise with the rest of the village, doing what she could to conceal her face when she had no choice but to go outside. When Lonan looked at her, he often forgot that Branwen’s injury even existed. All he saw was the girl that should have been his wife. Another part of his future that Jarleth had stolen from him.
This book really is the gift that keeps on giving.
As I mentioned earlier, this is limited narration from Lonan’s point of view. The narration comes from his head, including the description. Given that, how exactly is “Branwen’s scarred face was as ugly as the emotions she held” equivalent to “he often forgot that Branwen’s injury even existed”? And even if we ignore that discrepancy, this retcon still doesn’t cast Lonan in a positive light.
Saying Lonan forgets about her scars is like saying he’s “colorblind” when he looks at a Black love interest. She has scars, and Lonan shouldn’t need to pretend they don’t exist to be into her. And while I completely believe he views her as “the girl that should have been his wife” if she hadn’t been “stolen from him,” that’s not a good thing!
This is often what happens when super priviledged cis white dudes try to write protagonists suffering from widespread mistreatment. They have no experience of oppression, so when they imagine being mistreated, they feel only thwarted entitlement. When someone is denied what they feel entitled to, they get very angry, much like Lonan. Entitled people often mistake this for oppression.
I’m not saying oppression doesn’t come with anger – it absolutely does – but it’s only one of the many emotional responses. A person who lives under continual mistreatment has lower expectations and therefore isn’t constantly outraged. Also, anger is tiring; many people will lose the energy for constant intense anger after a while. Resigned bitterness often replaces it. And after receiving so many negative messages from others, people start believing them on some level. They will often blame themselves instead of getting angry at others.
At this point, this book has been hammering home Lonan’s mistreatment and anger so hard, it feels like entitlement porn. The point is to create a sense of angry grievance and faux oppression so that the story can address it. Will some readers go for this? Absolutely. That doesn’t make it good.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay with a protagonist who has been wronged and wants to put it right. Some level of mistreatment can be a constructive way to create sympathy. But the way Lonan feels entitled to Branwen is deeply problematic, and his one-note depiction will alienate anyone who doesn’t find patriarchal entitlement porn appealing.
Next, Patrick continues his revisionist idea of Lonan and Branwen’s relationship. Apparently after coming face to face with Branwen’s baby daughter, Lonan decides he doesn’t want to give up the relationship he imagines they could have.
He knew that Branwen was not happy. Few people could be, Lonan was sure, sharing a life with Jarleth Quarry, but it was painfully obvious to Lonan that she hated her existence. She never smiled, she still spent most of her day down by the river, away from people. This was not the Branwen that Lonan had grown up with. Even the arrival of her daughter had done nothing to remove the scowl from her face. Deep within his heart, hiding but not forgotten, Lonan still held the belief that Branwen would have a much happier life if she was sharing it with him.
Lonan even admits that Branwen is a different person now, and yet he thinks she’ll revert to a carefree child again. All she has to do is marry someone who gets angry at her for saying his name in the wrong tone.
Of course, wanting to make a love interest happy is great motivation for a protagonist. But we’ve already seen that Lonan has no real interest in Branwen outside of hooking up with her. This means his goal isn’t actually to make her happy; that’s an excuse that allows him to ignore what she wants.
Lonan gave a small smile. When will I learn? Why won’t I let myself stop hoping?
And then he thought for a moment, letting his smile fade from his face. Or… maybe I should finally do something about these feelings. If my heart won’t give up on the idea of a life with Branwen in it, can I do anything to make that life happen?
He turned to look at Branwen, but she had already entered her own home.
First things first. I will get you to stop hating me. Somehow.
Lonan got these feelings as he “grew into manhood,” and he’s only doing something about them now. This is why this work is YA, not adult. While he is technically older and his love interest has a baby, the themes and style of this work are firmly in the YA camp. Lonan is still finding his place in the world.
The advertising copy on Amazon compares this book to The Witcher, which would be an okay comparison, except The Witcher is in the adult category. Geralt is not trying to sort out his adolescent feelings in The Witcher.
Description Is About Evocative Details
Thankfully, after this Lonan stops his angry exposition wandering. He instead goes to the home of Mother Ogma, the village healer and veritable saint who actually likes him. I was hoping we’d get some idealistic cottage-core description here. Patrick tries, but one critical thing is missing.
Mother Ogma’s cottage had shelves of ointment pots and some rare glass jars filled with unusual substances gathered from the forest over the years. She had a few kitchen items close to her fireplace as well, but the majority of the roof space was dedicated to the hanging of a wide variety of drying or dried plants, most of which had been gathered by Lonan over the years. Because of this unusual garden, Mother Ogma’s cottage was overwhelmingly aromatic, with dozens of differing scents vying for the attention of a visitor’s nostrils.
On the plus side, it feels like Patrick knows what atmosphere he’s aiming for, and he’s no longer trying to draw diagrams. He also has great ideas for the features of the cottage, such as the plants hanging from the ceiling.
But despite the effort, he doesn’t get specific enough. Saying “a variety of drying or dried plants” is too general to create a strong image. He needs to add in a few specific plants, where they are, and what they look like, e.g. “a bundle of dried lavender hung over the door, shedding little purple flowers from time to time.” The same goes for the scents. Patrick might say, “The kitchen table had an aroma of parsley, while two steps over, the fireplace filled his nostrils with burnt cinnamon.”
Is Lonan actually nice to Mother Ogma? I’ll let you judge.
“Nice day, dear?” Mother Ogma questioned, cheerfully arranging some dying marigolds in a vase by one of her windows.
“Oh yes, fantastic,” Lonan replied dryly. “I do so love my work.”
Mother Ogma rewarded Lonan’s sarcasm with a friendly tutting. “Did you manage to find me some evening primrose?”
Somehow, Lonan hates the sweet gig he’s got roaming the woods all day gathering flowers and herbs. He sounds like an unpleasant person to be around at the best of times, but at least he’s not angry. I also love that Ogma is happily arranging dying marigolds. It’s great characterization, and that’s the type of detail Patrick needed in his earlier description.
It turns out that Ogma provides a home for both Lonan and another stray, Harlow, who needs long-term care. Maybe Ogma could be the main character going forward? Please? This woman is amazing, especially after watching the hater parade.
They head into the cellar for the night. In the pitch blackness, Lonan listens to the sounds above.
His eyes now useless, Lonan used his ears to reassure himself that everything outside was normal. The first few minutes were interrupted by two large thuds, which experience told Lonan were other homes in the village shutting their own cellar doors a little later than was recommended. […] A steady wind was blowing and Lonan could hear the soothing rustling of it weaving through the thatch high above them, its constant whistling punctuated only by the occasional unusual grunt or moan from Harlow.
And then, suddenly, ears trained by a lifetime of listening for noises in the night, Lonan picked out a crunch of straw. The saliva dried up instantly in his mouth and he stopped breathing, doing all that he could to pick up anything further from the cottage roof. Sure enough, the first noise of impact was followed by three further crunching sounds, which Lonan knew was the straw that roofed the building snapping under the weight of something heavy walking across it.
Once again, Patrick shows he’s much better at auditory description, because he gets very specific. This moment of listening in the dark is nicely tense and atmospheric. It’s also quite novel, because it focuses on the most unique aspect of Patrick’s setting – people hiding in cellars from monsters that roam their village every night.
Of course, I still have nitpicks. For instance, look at the phrase “ears trained by a lifetime of listening for noises in the night” at the start of the second paragraph. This is when Lonan first hears the monsters, so it’s pretty gripping. By injecting this bit of exposition, Patrick leaves the moment just when things are picking up. Also, while I can understand why Patrick felt he needed to use “suddenly” to transition to a specific, tense moment, I think he had a better option.
A steady wind was blowing and Lonan could hear the soothing rustling of it weaving through the thatch high above them, its constant whistling punctuated only by the occasional unusual grunt or moan from Harlow.
And then Lonan picked out a crunch of straw.
The saliva dried up instantly in his mouth and he stopped breathing, doing all that he could to pick up anything further from the cottage roof. Sure enough …
A short, simple statement in its own paragraph gives the moment more punch and alerts readers of an important change.
Unfortunately, Patrick ends that second paragraph with a little melodrama.
Lonan’s heart screamed at every step, waiting in dread for any changes in noise that might signify the inside of the cottage being entered, but no more sounds came at all.
A heart screaming just isn’t a good way to convey emotion. It’s over the top and doesn’t evoke emotion in the reader. I would have replaced it with Lonan stiffening, taking shallow breaths, heart pounding, or another physical sign of his strong feelings. If you’re going to use a metaphor for emotion, it needs to convey something more interesting than plain old fear.
Let’s close this up with the last excerpt of the scene.
After what seemed like an hour of tense silence, he heard Mother Ogma exhale in relief.
“They’re out there, aren’t they?” he asked her, already knowing the answer.
“Oh dearie, they’re always out there. But the Magpie King protects us, so we need not fear.”
Harlow gave another moan, and Lonan heard rustling which signified Mother Ogma moving over to the old man’s bed to comfort him. Lonan turned around onto his side and shut his eyes to do his best to force sleep to come.
“He doesn’t always protect us,” he whispered to nobody in particular, and then his exhausted mind descended into darkness.
This conversation feels out of character. As Patrick has recently pointed out, Lonan has been hiding in cellars from these monsters his whole life. Why is he asking if they’re out there now? Do the monsters only come occasionally? That’s not the impression Patrick has created.
Then, we have more comments about the Magpie King, in which Lonan contradicts what he said in an earlier scene. Previously, Lonan had a conversation that went:
- Lonan: Bill Clinton protects you.
- Aileen: Is he real? A boy told me he isn’t real.
- Lonan: That boy knows nothing. Bill Clinton is real. Who else looks after us at night? It’s not like we protect ourselves by hiding in the cellars.
Now, this is the current conversation:
- Lonan: The monsters are up there, aren’t they?
- Mother Ogma: Lonan, the monsters are literally up there every night. But it’s okay, because Bill Clinton protects us.
- Lonan: Bill Clinton doesn’t do a good job then. ‘Cause, you know, MY DAD IS DEAD.
I get the feeling that Patrick was looking for a tense note to end the scene on, and he struggled to find a natural reason for his characters to talk.
The Story Overall
If we zoom out and look at the big picture, this book is actually off to a good start. The protagonist is in a sympathetic position with plenty of personal problems, and the village is under constant threat. The monsters roaming at night, and the village’s adaptation to this fact of life, adds novelty to the setting and is directly relevant to the plot.
But once we zoom in slightly, the implementation is a mess. Patrick doesn’t know how to create strong scenes to both show readers what they need to know while developing the plot.
- The moment where Lonan’s father dies would make an exciting scene, introduce readers to the monsters and the cellars, and better explain how Lonan was blamed for the incident. That should have been expanded into a more robust and riveting opening.
- Patrick needs to create some conflicts to give Lonan something to do while he’s encountering Branwen and Jarleth. That way he could strategically fill in the exposition he needed piece by piece while showing as much as possible.
- It would have been easy to add a small crisis when the village locks up for the night. Aileen could be missing, Ogma’s cellar hatch could have malfunctioned, or maybe some accident or animal could have caused too much noise.
Ideally, the scenes would build up to whatever plot twist is coming next.
Then Patrick’s characters need a lot of work. That is, except Ogma. You’re perfect, Ogma, never change. While the characters are rough now, the basic premise could be retained while making them more nuanced. Even the Lonan and Branwen romance can work if we create a reason for them to occasionally interact without Lonan stalking her. However, Branwen being married to Jarleth has to go. Otherwise, she’ll inevitably come off as a possession Lonan is entitled to.
Then there’s the categorization mismatch. Did Patrick avoid marking his book as YA because he wanted it to be taken more seriously? If so, he wouldn’t be alone. I encountered many writers who’ve been affected by widespread misogyny targeting YA. This is why it’s important for us to spread awareness that it’s happening, confront it, and not let it control us.
Amazon bestseller or not, putting this book in the wrong category likely hurt its sales. As written, its most natural audience is entitled young men.
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