Guest reviewer and reader of some of the worst offerings of YA, Vanessa, braves a hotly hyped new release that’s landed with a thud. For good reason.
I like to follow trends in YA publishing, and it’s been a hobby of mine ever since I started reviewing back in 2011. Of course, I’d been reading YA fiction since before then, and over the years there are three trends in particular that have stuck out to me.
* The Twilight clone
* The John Green-esque contemporary
* The dystopia.
I don’t blame the authors or the publishers of these books for capitalising on the success of The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, or Stephenie Meyer’s successful series. Any business will take a look at what’s been popular in the recent past and seek to ride that wave of popularity.
However, right now, the emerging trend in YA seems to be for high fantasy. Kingdoms, political intrigue, assassins, references to ‘the old gods’, etc. Publishers have likely seen the huge interest in popular culture for Game of Thrones, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings/Hobbit trilogy, and also, arguably, Outlander.
Which segues us neatly into high-concept Scottish futuristic fantasy YA. Also known as Seeker. Now, before we begin, Seeker has a very interesting publishing history. The author, Arwen Elys Dayton, is represented at Penguin Random House by Jodi Reamer, who has been featured on Bibliodaze as one of the most influential people in publishing in 2014, and this same website has featured Seeker as a novel to look out for in 2015. Her publishing successes include The Fault in Our Stars, the Twilight series, and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. A huge advance was supposedly paid for Seeker. Dayton is currently writing the sequels, and the film rights have even been purchased. So it’s clear to see that there are high hopes for this novel and the other books in the series. Maybe it’ll kick-start a whole new wave of fantasy in YA. Hooray!
Sadly, there are no hoorays from here on out.
I really was surprised at just how bad Seeker was, considering its high concept.
Seeker is a novel about guardians/assassins, travelling from Scotland to a futuristic Hong Kong on a journey of supposedly ‘epic’ proportions. Okay. That’s all well and good, but… It almost feels like false advertising here. In fact, Seeker stuffs in absolutely everything but the kitchen sink, and it just doesn’t work. Not only do we have time travel to contend with, we also have:
Steampunk Zeppelins floating over London, owned by an extremely rich businessman. (I’m not a Londoner but I’m pretty sure that would probably raise some hackles/eyebrows. Even if it is the future. This is why research is important.
Mysterious immortals known as ‘Dreads’.
Ancient rites fulfilled by a chosen few, wars between families over the possession of a powerful artefact.
Super technological yet ancient “whip-swords” that can be programmed to not harm an enemy during a practice bout.
Animal insignia for each of the families that turns out to have rather little significance to the plot proper.
And you know what? All of these are fine ideas. But they aren’t inserted naturally into the book, in a way that would flesh out this fantastical world and make the reader interested to continue. These are all just crammed all in together, resulting in a flabby, almost nonsensical fantasy narrative. It seems unique, yes, but the frame that all of the above hangs off of is just generic and flimsy and has been done over and over again.
It’s the same generic Hero’s Journey formula with three main characters (two boys, one girl), sprinklings of what some might call imaginative (at a stretch), and the writing is absolutely god-awful for what’s supposed to be the finished product. I requested this Advance Reader’s Copy about a month before the book’s publishing date, and the sentence structure in some places is laughably juvenile and poorly-constructed. It points out the obvious, kindly reminding us at one point that the seven hour time difference between the UK and Hong Kong means that four o’clock in the afternoon in the GMT timezone is eleven o’clock at night for Hong Kong.
Worse than that, however, is how poor the plotting is. Something I’ve noticed as I’ve followed other sufferers of this book on GoodReads, is how often people talk about having to reread certain sections. Or, they have to put the book to one side and try to figure out just what the heck is going on in the plot. The same thing happened to me. Eventually, caring any bit about the plot just becomes exasperating, and you find yourself skim-reading more and more as time goes on. It’s not a terribly exciting book. Exciting things may happen, but the book’s too poorly written to grab your attention.
Let’s go back to the writing. I have samples from different parts of the book, and they are absolutely dire examples of syntax, with poor rhythm and bland description.
‘That stone had been there before the ruined castle was built. It was from a time when the land had belonged to the Druids. Her father said their most distant ancestors had been Druids. Her family had been here that long.’
Let me take two seconds to rewrite that so it isn’t pointing out the obvious, like the book’s target demographic took a wrong turn somewhere and smacked into ‘toddlers’ rather than ‘teens/young adults.’
The standing stone had weathered the test of time, from before the ruined castle had even been built. Legends spoke of the land belonging to the Druids in ancient times. Quin’s father claimed that their family tree’s roots were deep enough to have had some of the practitioners of the old ways amongst their distant kin.
There. Not great, but hopefully flows much better than the finished product which sold for a huge advance and has film rights attached.
‘It was a young man. He was about her own age, quite nice-looking, with fair skin and light brown hair. He stood with his back to the entry door, and his blue eyes were looking at her like he was drowning and she might save his life.’
It’s really shocking at times how bad the writing is. Sometimes you could rewrite whole paragraphs.
The book also has this weird problem with depicting certain races and cultures as stereotypically as humanly possible. Half-Japanese Shinobu’s mother used to “teach him about honour.” Similarly, he “moves like a tiger” and “looks like an Asian film star.” Don’t even get me started on Hong Kong, we’ll be here for days. It’s like the Hong Kong of all the horrible old colonial stereotypes: opium dens, brothels, acupuncturists and herbalists on every corner, and “exotic”-looking citizens with “slanted eyes” who, like all Asians, are particularly obsessed with honour.
‘He remembered her very lovely Japanese face and her small stature – she’d looked like a doll next to his father.’
‘He always became more Japanese around Mariko. There had been lectures, when he was a child, about things like manners and honour. Those lectures had meant a great deal to him, back when he’d believed his life would be full of honour.’
Scotland is rather hilariously depicted. Like, this is a novel where you have a redheaded man named Alistair MacBain, who wields a claymore. His sister (despite this being set in the near-future) is shown swinging around a mug of cider, making a stew and living in a cottage on a very old-style Highland estate.
In fact, Scotland functions more as window dressing, really, since we don’t really return to it after the first act. Scotland is just the starting location of the book, where our three main characters (Quin, Shinobu and John) have been training their whole lives to become Seekers.
What are Seekers, I hear you ask? They’re… uh… guardians or something? They train rigorously from an early age to be entrusted with an ancestral weapon of great power (the aforementioned rip-in-space-and-time dagger), and they have to have their souls judged by some mysterious immortal beings called the Dreads before they finally get approval to use this knife to travel wherever they please. So, with great power comes great responsibility, right?
Wrong. As it turns out, they’re going to be assassins of some sort, rather than noble guardians. From what I can tell, John gets irritated that he’s been lied to by the Dread and will never be entrusted with what he considers is his birthright, so… he takes revenge, and Shinobu and Quin are scattered to Hong Kong (at distant points in time, I think? This book is confusing), with Quin suffering particularly badly from the effects of this action: she becomes amnesiac.
No, not just amnesiac — she also seems to lose her emotions entirely as well. She takes up a nursing job in Hong Kong and becomes an incredibly passive character. She’s completely dull, only beaten out for the gold medal podium by the sheer grace that Maud (one of the Dreads) is even more dull. So basically, Maud earns the gold, Quin the silver, and John and Shinobu are joint bronze.
Where exactly are the fantastical elements I was promised? Just because you have a few Scottish set-pieces where characters meet at standing stones and wield an ancestral, magical weapon, that does not make this a fantasy novel. Like I said earlier, this is a novel that has too much stuffed into its poor carcass. It wants to have elements of futuristic technology and yet remain magical and mysterious. It wants to have family conspiracies, but leave them on the back-burner for so long that you just don’t care when some character tracks down another.
The writing is just sloppily executed for a book that has been so heavily hyped. I can’t blame the clunky style and stop-start stop-start flow of action on the rough edges of an uncorrected proof, either. My digital copy says it’s a ‘first edition.’
So, I didn’t like the writing, I didn’t like the characters, and the story was horrendously vague, over-stuffed and overly complicated. Was there anything I did like?
Well, yes. I liked the concept at its core. A dagger that splits open the space-time continuum and has our characters chasing each other around separate countries and timelines and might even focus on differing theories of time travel and alternate dimensions… But no, sadly it was not to be.