I have a lot of respect for David Gaughran. I read his blog daily and his non fiction work Let’s Get Digital manages to be both inspiring and of practical use so when I saw the chance to get a review copy of his first novel, A Storm Hits Valparaiso I jumped at it, not lease because I saw it as a way of repaying a little bit of what I’ve gotten from David over the past several months.
A Storm Hits Valparaiso is an epic story of love, hate, brotherhood, power, revenge, and the thirst for independence told from the points of view of a variety of people in positions both high and low. For the sake of perspective, Historical Fiction is not a genre I read a lot and I have no particular interest inSouth America. My home genre is Epic Fantasy though, so I am fully ready to accept a story that spans a continent where what’s at stake is the lives of every single person on the continent.
I wanted to love this book and I ended up just liking it.
Why did I like it?
Well, it has a little bit of everything it claims. There is love, of both the romantic and brotherly varieties. There is the simple struggle for survival of individuals juxtaposed against the larger struggle for the survival of a people with a regional identity. There is the desire of individual slaves to be free smacked right up next to the desire of a nation of people desiring to be free of a colonial power half a world away. In short, it has everything you would want in an epic.
Why then, didn’t I love it?
There are two things I would point to but I think they both stem from one overriding factor. The story is too big for the book. I come from a world of Epic Fantasy where doorstopper novels are, if not quite the norm, well within the normal range. A Storm Hits Valparaiso comes in at a bit less than a hundred thousand words which is fairly normal for a novel. But this isn’t a normal novel. We don’t have a main plot with a few sub plots. Gaughran is trying to tell us a real story from real history and if you haven’t noticed, real life is far more complex than your average novel.
To get into the specifics, I think A Storm Hits Valparaiso has two significant flaws.
One is characterization. It is spotty at best. There are, I think, two characters who are decently written though even there, we should have had more. In other cases, including what should have been one of the more emotional subplots there wasn’t enough characterization to make me actually care about the character. If I don’t care about them I don’t care about what happens to them and they—and the novel—lose all the dramatic tension they should have.
The other problem—and it’s related—is a showing/telling problem. There are a lot of places where Gaughran tells us something instead of showing us something and the story suffers as a result.
For example, there are two brothers, Jorge and Diego who get separated for a long time. When they get back together they find things aren’t quite like they were before and they end up growing apart. Gaughran tells us this and gives us a scene or two to illustrate. It should have been the reverse. Give us nine scenes where we can see that things are different and just a few lines where one of them recognizes the differences.
More personally disappointing is the fact that I think this is a little bit of a failure of independent publishing.
Part of the point of independent publishing is to be able to publish good things that wouldn’t necessarily find a market. I don’t know what the market for historical fiction aboutSouth Americais, but I suspect that a doorstop sized book by a new author is not something publishers break down doors for. As such, it is the perfect thing to self publish. I think that if Gaughran had taken the time to show us everything and characterize all the characters as well as humanly possible, this would have been a book of doorstopper proportions and it would have been much, much better for it.
I hope the criticism isn’t taken to mean that I didn’t like the book. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have finished it or reviewed it. I did like it and if you’re a particular fan of historical fiction or have a particular interest inSouth AmericaI think you’ll like it too.
I just didn’t love it and I really wanted to.