Part of the English Teacher Curse is to be unable to be swept up into a new world and its stories without getting caught up in the author’s language and writing style. There are a lot of books I don’t finish because they’re not written well. But, I also teach creative writing and can recognize a new writer, which does make a difference in the final assessment.
John Lawson is such a new writer. With his book Witch Ember, he’s created an interesting world with a really cool mythological basis, but the book does suffer the pratfalls of a new writer.
Witch Ember is the story of Esmeree, an orphan girl growing up on the streets of her medieval-ish world, surviving by thieving, rough-housing and prostitution. As a young girl, she can think of no higher calling than to be the mistress of a wealthy man. What sets her apart is having magical abilities that she must keep a secret and learn to use under the tutelage of some very shady people.
Much of the book is concerned with her simply surviving and making a life for herself; however, at this stage of the story, Esmeree the child isn’t compelling enough to carry the book to the point of her young adulthood where she starts to become an interesting person.
Had the book been written in a non-linear way, it would have been interesting to visit Esmeree’s rough childhood in occasional flashbacks to see how those events shaped her character. As is, it feels like a lot of character development that takes a while to get where it’s going.
I like that Lawon’s world is deeply flawed and needs some unifying force to swoop in and spark change. Esmeree does have the potential not only to be that person, but to also be a liberating force in the Witch Ember-verse – in that world, there is a lot of oppression of women, including the fact that it’s illegal for women to be educated. I can see her going in that direction in later books.
I’m the type who appreciates economy of language – which is why I like Hemingway so much – so, I found the writing itself to be uneven. It’s weighed down by cumbersome description in some places and is simplistic in others. However, I think finding that balance and putting the brakes on descriptions is something with which many new writers have a hard time.
One thing I did notice was that as Emsmeree got older, the more simplistic language lessened. I don’t know if that’s something Lawson intended to do, but whether he did or not, it ‘s a good and subtle way to demonstrate character growth.
Lawson uses “foreign” words – words that only exist in the world of Witch Ember, but appear to be cognates with English words. For example, “to” becomes “ta“. “You” becomes “ya“. “For” becomes “fer“. There’s quite a lot of other foreign words, such as cuall, nage, draucus, and paidia, that are thrown around often. That’s part of world building, but I was flipping back to the glossary pretty often because I couldn’t use context clues to determine what the word meant on my own.
That’s why I couldn’t get into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series – too much flipping took me out of the story too often.
The other aspect of Lawson’s foreign words that takes me out of the story is that they all appear in italics. I don’t know if that was an author decision or a publisher decision – I do know that it’s very distracting.
What I really like is Lawson’s mythological premise: at the dawn of time, a Stone of Power shattered and was mixed into the clay that became mankind. Everyone in this world carries some shred of that stone – some larger than others. Esmeree carries a large piece, which is her witch ember.
That’s cool. That’s why, even though I got so frustrated with Witch Ember, I’m going to start reading the sequel, The Raven, which I hope will work out better. I won’t have to look up so many made up words (having already done it with Witch Ember) and Esmeree will be older and have a better sense of her power and how to use it. In a series like this, second books tend to be better than the first. It was like that with Lord of the Rings. It was like that with the Shannara series. I’m trusting that Lawson’s next book follows that trend because I want to see his world live up to what it can be.
Read sample chapters and view the illustration gallery at John Lawson’s Witch Ember website. You can read Lawon’s blog on his MySpace page. Witch Ember is available for purchase through Lawson’s website or Amazon.
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