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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book Eight

One of the things we have been working on at the bookshop is starting a readers' club. Wednesday night was our first gathering, meant to work out the details and establish some procedures--a literary spring training. The first book the club discussed is the eighth book we have read this year: Morrigan's Cross, by Nora Roberts.

If not for this club, we might never have read anything by Ms. Roberts. This book was chosen because it was recently released, it was available in paperback (which lowers expenses), and it was a popular author who we expected to appeal to many. Unfortunately, the book was a little blah.

The story is obstensibly about an epic war between a group of six, chosen to save the world by the goddess Morrigan, and a horde of vampires. This book is the first of three books published simultaneously, billed as the new Circle Trilogy. It begins unlike the typical romantic fare we expected from Ms. Roberts. The plot, however, proves to be incidental to the subplot, which, not surprisingly, is a love story. And though this subplot does not follow the usual romance formula, there is nothing new to make it interesting.

The destined lovers who usually fight against their destiny and one another until finally falling headlong into one another's arms are in this novel eager from the start to be together. The tension might be meant to arise from their circumstances, coming from different times and places, but that has been done better before by others--just as the glamorous modern-day vampire who has lived for centuries, the martially artistic female vampire slayer, and the female root of all evil have been done before. The book struck us as wholly derivative, the story not compelling, and the characters uninteresting. It's nothing really new, just more words from the "#1 New York Times bestselling author of more than 150 novels." We suspect she owns a writing factory that employs twenty Chinese children to novelize the ideas she supplies, in exchange for poverty-level wages, no benefits, and a badge that bears the official Nora Roberts seal.

Regular readers of Ms. Roberts will likely enjoy the book. One of our readers reported that Ms. Roberts follows her own established formula in each book of this trilogy. Obviously she has a large and loyal fan base. As the book blurb tells us, she is "indisputably the most celebrated and beloved women's fiction writer today." Perhaps such indisputability encourages an author to fall into a rut, churning out the precise books her fans expect. When readers hear the term "bestseller," we hope they no longer think quality or merit are part of that designation. More often than not, the chief characteristic of a modern-day bestseller is the lowest common denominator.

Shape-shifting, time travel, and the undead require a suspension of disbelief: no problem. One thing that kept jarring us out of our suspension of disbelief was the constant shift in point of view. This did not bother all of our readers. As a writer it stood out to us, and though we have no quibble with an author doing this, Ms. Roberts simply did not do it well. The shifts were not smooth. In some cases the choices seemed arbitrary. This is likely a reason we found it impossible to identify with and root for any character, because we were never really inside any one's head for more than part of a scene. Exercising control over point of view, and selecting only certain characters through whom to tell the story would have made for more compelling fiction. But why put forth that much effort to revise a novel when it will sell millions of copies despite its failings? What incentive is their to improve one's writing, to perfect one's craft? Some authors may have the luxury of taking a month to tweak a sentence, or a day to find the precise word; Ms. Roberts has a deadline to meet, or her 152nd novel won't be out next month.

We also took issue with the philosophy of one of the major characters on what boils down to women's equality. The witch was never happy how she was being treated by her male comrades. When manual labor and heavy lifting were required, she asserted her "privelege of being female" and kept her hands clean; then when the men tried to protect her from being killed, she was furious that they would expect her to stay out of the fight; then when she wakes from a bad dream, she scurries away to "the one place, the only place, she felt safe," in the arms of the man she loves.

The brevity of life was conveyed well in the book. Through dialogue, thoughts, and specific scenes Ms. Roberts underscores how precious life is, and how short, and how painful that can be. If Morrigan's Cross interests you, don't be put off reading it by us. No crucial plot elements have been divulged, and there is even one twist that surprised us. And, after all, we have been thoroughly rejected by Jove Books, and Berkley Publishing, and the Penguin Group (individually or collectively or whatever), so who are we to take them and Ms. Roberts to task. We would be remiss, however, if we did not heed the author's message about the brevity of life and better spend our time reading anything but another of her novels.

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