Monday, 29 August 2016

Oracle by Susan Boulton

Of the many branches that exist of the great world tree of Fantasy, those drawing inspiration from the Industrial Revolution are ones I rarely run squirrel-like along. I'm not even sure what the right term for such books are (Google suggests Gaslamp fantasy). Its just generally not my cup of tea as a period of history or genre setting. As such, I must candidly admit that I probably wouldn't have picked up Susan Boulton's Oracle if I hadn't been informed it was on sale for 99p. Truth be told, I still probably wouldn't have if I wasn't quite curious about what I've heard of her next planned book, Hand of Glory. But I was and - hey, 99p. (spoiler - its no longer on sale but is totally worth what you'll pay).

This blog is all about those memes
This was what is commonly referred to as a good call.

I had come to this conclusion by the end of the first chapter. Getting the opening pages right is a source of much angst on most writing forums: Susan Boulton appears to have found it a breeze. The world and main character are introduced vividly but there is no shortage of action to hook the reader in. It is a wonderful set-up that sold me on the book utterly. 

Despite how much I loved the opening, I did falter a little with the next few chapters. The mood shifts, the pace slows, and it is not immediately obvious why we should care for the new characters. At first, it could almost be a different book altogether. This sense of dislocation did not last too long for me however. As the pages turn, we learn more about the characters and more importantly, we learn more about the questions confronting them. Its the sense of mystery that draws me back in most of all. Well, that and the writing itself

Susan Boulton's prose is really rather excellent. It manages the neat trick of being at once dense and light, which makes it officially better than cake. Dense, as in that there is an awful lot of information and atmosphere getting crammed in. Light, as in that it doesn't slow down the reader at all. There's a slightly stiff, formal approach to it that fits the subject matter like a gentleman's calfskin glove. As its best, it reminds me a little of John Banville's work when writing as Benjamin Black. And I absolutely love me some Benjamin Black.

Come to think of it, the Benjamin Black comparison runs deeper than just the words. There's the same sense of a comfortable elite under soft warm lights, praying no one looks at the shadows that hides their secrets and pain. Oracle features more idealistic characters however; they have more in common with the world of The West Wing. It is better to let Oracle stand on its own though; a world filled with political and social turbulence, through which a range of characters stride as they deal with mystery and their own alienation from society alike. 

The characters are by and large more interesting than lovable. I can't quite put my finger on why I felt that way on the latter point - there is something very charming about Oracle herself though - but that's fine. Interesting is more than enough. They develop nicely throughout the story as we learn more about them and their motivations, particularly the secondary characters, who by and large get the most interesting revelations. 

Oracle is not perfect though; nothing is. There is one area that I feel shows notable frailties and that is the plot - which oddly enough, is also one of my favourite things about the book. Oracle does have a compelling plot; just there are things that jarred me. There are a few plot twists where I feel the characters' actions make very little sense and there's a few pacing issues too. I've already mentioned the slowdown after the opening. By contrast, the ending goes by too fast for me and the solution comes too easy. That's a minor quibble though. The characters have earned that after all they've been through and in truth, I got my sense of resolution from having them arrive at being able to apply the solution anyway. 

There was no way I was getting throughout this without a steam train gif
Normally, the hardest bit of a review is giving people an accurate guide as to whether they'll like it. Oracle makes it rather easy. You download the kindle sample, you see whether you agree with me about just how enjoyable the prose is, and you pays your money or not accordingly. If you do, you may have to give the story a little patience, but it is a cracking wee story and once its got you its difficult to put down. It helps if you like steam trains, politicking, dogs and nice young ladies swearing - in fact, if you hate those things, then probably just ignore this review. 

Yeah, I know its a little late to be saying that. Sorry.

But those are just the clothes the story wears. The heart of it is a story about the fate of one woman and the way those out of stride with reality deal with it. And its beautifully written - did I mention that? I may have brought it for 99p but Oracle is worth a great deal more than that.

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