Indie Review: Two by Brian Rathbone

Brian Rathbone was one of the first Indie Writers I happened to come across. He’s very active on twitter, and has a good philosophy about it: interact, and they will come. He’s a good example of the Indie Writer’s Community, in that he truly encourages it to be a community.

But I digress. Rathbone has a series called The Dawning of Power; it’s a trilogy about the young Caitrin Volker, who discovers a power unknown to the world–a power that could tear her world apart. It was followed up by another trilogy, The Balance of Power–but I’m not going to write about those today, as I’ve only read the first out of six, and don’t feel I could do it justice.

Instead, I want to touch on a couple of short stories by Rathbone. I found these after reading Call of the Herald, (the first in his series), and think they’re a good introduction to his writing style. They’re both free on his website, and on Kobo.

First up is Redtooth. This one is quick, (only twenty or so pages), and an absolute pleasure to read. I wasn’t sure what to make it it until I was well invested in the story–and I mean that in a good way. It starts out with a man tinkering with a delicate piece of technology because he doesn’t want to upgrade (the characterization in the opening paragraphs alone is enough to grasp your attention), then turns into a sort of high-tension chase. The ending turns everything on its head. Normally, if I were to read a book like this I’d say that it jumped around too much, or was unfocused–but Rathbone pulls it off so well that it doesn’t seem that way at all. It’s fast paced, but that’s the way it should be.
The real star of this story, of course, is the protagonist Bob. He has a beloved bluetooth headset–very obsolete–that he can’t bring himself to give up. It’s falling apart, but he insists on buying new parts to continue repairing it, rather than upgrading. The way he’s presented is endearing, and though he’s something of a doddering middle aged man, we love him for it. He always seems a step behind, but that’s what makes his story so entertaining as he’s put on a wild adventure through the city.
The plot is simple: Bob goes to the pawn shop to buy some spare parts to repair his bluetooth, and is “coerced” instead into buying the newest gadget: Redtooth. This is when the real fun begins. As soon as he puts the device into his ear, the reader is treated to an absurdly delightful (and deadpan) conversation with the virtual assistant in the device. What follows is best described as a ridiculous romp, as the assistant sends him on a mission well against his wishes. Bob is baffled the whole way through, adding to the absurdity of the story.
And all of that is wonderful. This story is just plain fun. But there’s a subtle subtext as well–Rathbone seems to be commenting on the technological obsession we’re in the grips of today; innovation for the sake of innovation–or capitalism. Sometimes the tools we have are good enough as they are, and we should leave them that way.

If I have a criticism about this story, it’s that there’s a hint of something sinister throughout that’s never really followed up on. Perhaps I was reading that tone into the story–it’s clearly written to be funny, not sinister–but I felt that angle of the story could have been explored. Of course, if it had been, the humour would likely have been lost to an extent. It’s probably best left alone as well.

Next we have Beyond the Veil. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Redtooth, but it’s a very different kind of story. I read them back to back, and perhaps this story would have benefited from a sort of palate cleanser. But that’s besides the point, and a purely personal observation–it doesn’t reflect on the story itself.

Beyond the Veil tackles a delicate and provocative question: just how thin is the barrier between the living and the dead? And: which side of that veil is more real? There’s a real jarring dichotomy in this story as our main character–Vincent Pels–explores either side. The ‘living world’ is presented as very real and concrete, while the ‘other side’ is fantastical and wonderous. When I say jarring, I mean it in the best way–it should be disorienting for the reader to travel between these worlds, the more so the better. It serves the story, and the point I think Rathbone is trying to get across. We don’t spend a lot of time in the real world, but it leaves an indelible mark on the reader. There’s some very real tragedy here, so it’s almost a relief when we move to the other side of the veil. Here, we’re treated to a fantasy world where Vincent finds himself as an armour-clad knight on a quest to slay a horrible creature–though it’s not quite as simple as that.

This is where things get more complicated. I have to admit that I got a bit lost; the ‘other side’ seems muddled, and jumps around a lot. Landscapes merge into one another and characters are ephemeral. It suits the tone of this world, but I found it confusing. The disorientation could have been intentional–again, it serves the story–but there were a few times when I was left wondering just what happened. It wasn’t until reflecting on the story after I’d finished that it began to make sense.
I’m a bit torn on this. On the one hand (and the more I think about it), it’s exactly what should happen. The veil between worlds is presented as effervescent, porous, and fantastical, and so when we cross over we shouldn’t be surprised that what we see doesn’t always flow as naturally as the ‘real world.’ But as a reader, it was disorienting enough that it left me wanting a more clear explanation. It’s like waking in the morning and only remembering parts of your dream–enough that it’s tantalizingly interesting, but leaving you with something you can never grasp, and which ultimately fades beyond memory anyway.

Of course, it’s quite likely that this is exactly the author’s intent. Not every story should be cut and dried, spelled out for the reader–in fact, the best stories are those that leave enough to the reader’s interpretation that they can make their own personal observations, thus making a stronger connection to the narrative than if the writer did it for them. Ultimately, I think it begs for a second reading, and I may eventually explore it again on this blog. After this first read, though, I would recommend it–as long as you’re interested in some open questions. As a book you need to think about, it certainly fits the bill.

Brian Rathbone is the author of the Godland Series. You can find his books on Amazon and Kobo. Brian is also on twitter, and I’d definately reccomend following him–of only for his ruminations on how much animals can teach us. 🙂

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