Monday, October 19, 2009

Curse Of The Second Novel

So in 2004 I made a pledge with myself. "I shall raise good karma by purchasing and reading books that receive bad reviews". Sounds like a bad plan, right? I'm setting myself up for more than a few boring reads? Yes, but mostly no. In 2005 I saw John Banville speak in a basement bookshop in Melbourne. He said he'd only review the books he deemed worthy of promotion, not ever publishing a bad review of a book. I agreed with the theory. Then came poor Matthew Skelton and his children's novel Cirrus Flux.

First off let me begin by saying one of those critical despised books was Matthew Skelton's debut novel Endymion Spring. The review was published in The Age, declared the book to be too derivitive of Harry Potter, an all-together easy out for a reviewers these days not familiar with a multitude of fantasy books written for children and young adults. Yes, believe it or not, not all fantasy was written after JK Rowling's famous series. Yes, some books contain magic. It's not necessarily automatically derivative of the boy wizard. Anyhoo. After reading the synopsis of Endymion Spring and not understanding in the slightest how it deserved the bad review I purchased it and was moderately pleased when I read it. It wasn't like HP at all, just as I suspected. I liked it enough to buy Skelton's second novel which came out July 2009, Cirrus Flux. That's where my good karma comes undone.

As soon as one makes the shift from reader to writer, the reading experience changes. I have become more distanced from the story, admittingly, and more observant of craft. Unfortunately that's where Matthew Skelton falls short of skill with his second novel. Tauted as the Dan Brown of children's literature, he likes to mingle historical facts with fiction. I admit the facts he uses are interesting, but in the case of Cirrus Flux, they feel malaligned with the rest of the narrative. It feels as though he's spent more time with his historical research than imagining his two protagonists, Cirrus Flux and Pandora.

Cirrus and Pandora are two orphans who live in an okay orphanage until Pandora is swept away by the overtly evil Madam O who is after the sphere Cirrus Flux's father left him, which is believed to contain the Breath of God. Why? What does the Breath of God do? We never know, nor are we given any clues. So how does the reader know what is at stake? Why would the world crumble if she were to have the sphere? Cirrus doesn't give it much thought but goes to great lengths to keep it from her anyway. Pandora puts her life on the line to save a sphere she knows nothing about. The story would've benefited from a more character driven plot, like all decent stories, instead of feeling like the plot was predetermined and the characters just slotted into the outline, stuffed between crags of historical fact.

We are led through this story, sifting through massive amounts of Pullman's His Dark Materials. There is a difference between inspiration and imitation and Skelton walks a pretty dangerous line with this book. The line by line writing seems less sophisticated than its predecessor. The only character I was interested was Madam O's loyal servant, who even in the end chooses to stay by her side, albeit blindly. Even the setting (Oxford) wasn't fully imagined, and could've been richly developed to create more atmosphere.

Perhaps Skelton was working to a deadline. Maybe he didn't feel as compelled by his second novel. Whatever failed this book let Skelton's burgeoning fanbase dwindle in anticipation for his third novel.