Guest Post by Aaron Sikes, Managing Editor, Web for Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders
In The Brimstone Key – The Clockwork Chronicles: Book 1, authors Derek Benz and J. S. Lewis team up for a fourth story about the Grey Griffins. I have not read the previous three installments in the Griffins’ storyline, though it is clear that Benz and Lewis have a vibrant imagination and are enchanted by the world they’ve created together. The Brimstone Key is packed full of creative spectacles, wondrous inventions, and some clever use of contemporary trends. The target audience, if not all readers, will no doubt recognize the parallel between Round Table, a card game the Griffins play, and collectible card games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering.
All in all, the story promises an exciting ride through a magical world with intrigue and action at every turn. Unfortunately, and for some truly painful reasons, The Brimstone Key completely fails to live up to its promise.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the story is that there are no problems in it. If you want people to feel excited about a story, it helps if the characters in the story are faced with situations that are pressing, important, compelling, or dire. Good storytelling requires characters who encounter difficulties and overcome or at least engage with those difficulties, hopefully surviving and learning something about themselves in the process. Whether we’re talking about protagonists, antagonists, or the supporting cast, a good story will lead each and every character through an arc from beginning to end. A really good story will leave all remaining characters with options for the future, and not simply because that’s a necessary step to guiding readers towards a sequel. A good story will also be well edited, meaning the authors will be told both the good and the bad about their effort. And if something falls short or flat, the editor is there to keep the authors on track. The Brimstone Key doesn’t meet any of the above criteria.
The story revolves around a team of four friends called the Grey Griffins who discover a mysterious package in their secret fort, called “The Aerie” (three separate buildings connected by walkways, and replete with air-conditioning, refrigerators packed with food, various bits of electronic gadgetry, and a host of other conveniences that amount to something akin to a Bat Cave for tween superheroes). With that image in mind, how can readers be expected to believe the Griffins will have a problem with transferring to a new school? (That fact is laid down like a bit of a gauntlet in the opening pages).
From there, we get to watch the Griffins open the mysterious package, follow a small clockwork insect, and go on a rapid-fire adventure through a mystical place they reach by a portal. In this hidden place, the Griffins learn of a figure known as The Clockwork King, who resides inside a deck of Round Table cards, along with all of his menacing clockwork inventions. The deck is mysterious and foreboding as none of the Griffins have heard of it before, not even Max, the leader of the group and most accomplished Round Table player (he beat a Grandmaster or something in a previous story). When they return, the adventure starts with Natalia, the female member of the Griffins, conducting research (her specialty) to uncover the truth about the strange deck of cards and the even stranger clockwork monsters.
The rest of the story proceeds much like the opening action sequence. Rapid-fire scenes are presented as individual chapters so that the pace never truly lets up, but not because any particular scene demands we keep reading to find out what happens next. It’s simply a function of a book that is written with scenes that last anywhere from three to five pages on average, and in which the Griffins, if they encounter any problems at all, easily survive to take on whatever is next presented to them as a challenge. Only for these kids, there doesn’t seem to be anything resembling a challenge in their world, magical or otherwise.
In every single instance of action and supposed peril, the Griffins come out without a scratch by using their special abilities, regardless of what kind of stress they might be under (laser fire from giant clockwork monsters, for example). And, as I said above, the book would have benefited from some quality editing. In one scene, Max is described as swallowing sewage into his lungs and then, an instant later, gasping as he reaches for an object at his feet (i.e., down in the sewage he’s swimming through and supposedly drowning on, unless they snuck something in about his lungs being magical).
In situations where the Griffins can’t make it out on their own, which are few and very far between, they’re saved by the help of the many adults who orbit their activities and, in one case, always seem to be nearby just when things get tough. Coincidental appearances are effective plot devices, but not when they are used to solve a problem so the story can get back to descriptions about the wild inventions or nifty history surrounding this mysterious school the Griffins attend.
It’s called Iron Bridge, by the way, and had previously been destroyed for some reason. We find out, eventually, why it was destroyed, and that revelation, like every other one in the book, is entirely anti-climactic. This and every above complaint is rooted in my very first critique. Good storytelling requires characters, and The Brimstone Key doesn’t really have any. It has names, it has abilities, and it has vague descriptions (if any are given, and, for the record, it is not acceptable to assume readers have a familiarity with your previous books and therefore do not need to be told what your characters look like). To their credit, the authors tell us on the inside fold of the jacket that Max is the leader, Natalia is the brains, Ernie is the changeling, and Harley is the muscle. Then they leave out that Harley is also a technical wizard capable of reprogramming a hostile clockwork monster during a firefight, without being injured, and thereby shutting down an entire army of clockwork monsters that attack the Griffins. But there’s a short battle scene in the book that fills that in for us.
So there are no real characters, but surely there is dialogue to fill out the characters, give us a sense of who they are, their motivations, their fears, their hopes? Surely? No. No, there isn’t. There are passages of text presented between quotes, but it isn’t dialogue. It isn’t dialogue because every single character in the book speaks the same language, uses the same diction, and is apparently familiar with the exact same turns of phrase employed by every other character. Not every writer is a dialogue wizard, but a careful editor would have pinpointed this deficiency immediately.
If there was something compelling about the Grey Griffins latest adventure, it would be easier to lend a hopeful tone to this review. But that’s just the problem with the book. There isn’t anything compelling at all about a story of four young people who possess super powers and rare artifacts that allow them to defeat nearly any foe they encounter. And when they encounter a foe they can’t overcome? Oh, well, some adult will show up and help out at just the right moment. What is most painful about this review is that the authors are so clearly invested in the world they’ve created and in the descriptions and inventions they get to write and write about. They’ve also made a considerable effort at standing on the shoulders of giants by placing their protagonists in a special school housed in a hidden location in the space between the real world and the Shadowlands, and which is reached by a special magical train.
Yes, Benz and Lewis clearly draw inspiration from that young wizard’s story, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there is everything wrong with assuming it’s okay to take flat characters across story arcs that are one-dimensional. One dimension equals a single point on the map. In other words, no movement. Nothing happening. Sadly, the world Benz and Lewis have created, which could have been so much more, comes off as just Hogwarts with gears on.
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