book-reviews

A Succession of Bad Days

by Graydon Saunders

Rating: ★★★★

I eventually settled on four stars for the adventurous and partially-intentionally challenging nature of the book as a whole. Unlike The March North, though, where I was tending towards five stars, this was nearly a three.

The plot is basically nonexistent. Or it's a really extreme bildungsroman, I can't quite make my mind up. The majority of events are the group of sorcerer-apprentices moving around the landscape, or moving the landscape around. Sometimes they manipulate probability in an area. Sometimes they kill weeds. It's a bunch of problem-solving stuff. Which would be a fantastic, if niche, as something to watch. But the system they use to solve problems isn't a system. It's not even principles of a system. The entire conceit of the learning process is that the apprentices are making up the rules at the same time as they are learning the rules. This is certainly... ethereal, and very defiantly magical, but doesn't really work as backdrop when you're faced with 'how do we solve this problem' setups. You can't follow their process -- the bit of those sorts of setups that make them fun -- because they have no predictable process. At one point the main character just starts telling things to do things in a command-language never mentioned before. That's not even the least of it.

Anyway, the development of the characters is somewhat of a stand-in for, well, plot. The characters are all a little sickly-sweet and self-effacing and self-sacrificing, which combines with their continually-reinforced general awesomeness to become a little tiresome. I think the idea is that you enjoy watching them win, much like the competence parts of The March North, but again the lack of any sort of handle on their limitations makes this hard. The things they do are still interesting, but it's like watching Dumbledore do stage magic.

All of that is to be wrapped in a caveat of 'so far as I understand the text'. Because, okay, Saunders has managed to get the actual structure of individual sentences down into some kind of consistent and mortally-comprehensible scheme. That is certainly a point of improvement over The March North -- each sentence on its own is quite readable. Stringing them together, however, still produces horrible headaches at times. The entire book, or near enough, seems to be a sort of stream of consciousness. That doesn't sound so bad, except when you realise that much of the book contains long, involved descriptions of technical operations and changes to structures that the character -- let alone the reader -- necessarily understands very little about. These are also presented as a stream of consciousness, mostly without any explanation of the intent or significance. These are meshed in with ongoing, rambling conversations between the characters, wherein you have to really mine out the subtext to form the connection between apparently non-sequitorial utterances being made by speakers that mostly just read each others' minds.

All of which makes for a challenging read. To make sure you're not falling asleep, Saunders throws in the usual smattering of obscure (as well as fantastical) terminology, and will toss you into the section where the apprentices build a canal by assuming that you already have a solid background in hydrology and geological surveying, and are perfectly comfortable holding in your head the vaguely-described geography of an area covering multiple lakes, ridges, creeks and streams whilst following a stream of consciousness about magically carving up a canal system that includes magic teleportation gates (which, I don't know why those can't stand in for the entire canal system).

Finally, you can never quite trust that what you're reading is just hard. There were a few obvious errors ('for awhile') which grated, but not as much as the occasional befuddling passages which turned out to be befuddling because under no reading, including archaic definitions, did they actually contain sense, and there were actually some dropped or mis-corrected words. It's tough when you have to dredge a passage or exchange for the intent, it's tougher when you find that it was just an error.

This was a struggle. I wanted to like the book. I think I did, on balance, for entirely niche reasons. I hope nobody, including Saunders, writes another book like this.