Monday, September 21, 2009

The words, they BURN

I just finished Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper. It was very bad. Not Return to Quag Keep bad, but definitely "Little, Brown published this?" bad. Spoilers ahead--lots of spoilers--so if you are fool enough to want to read Vampirates, you might not want to read on. Or then again, maybe you ought to.

First of all, the two good things about the book: the cover art, which is truly awesome, and the idea of vampirates. They're vampires and pirates!

In the hands of a decent writer--note that I don't even require a good writer for this, just a decent one--the book might have been a lot of fun. Grace and Connor are 14-year-old twins who have grown up in a lighthouse that their father owns and runs. When he dies, they set out to sea to avoid the orphanage, but a storm sinks their boat. Connor is rescued by a pirate ship, but Grace is rescued by a vampirate ship. Each worries that the other is dead.

The problem is, Somper is a terrible writer. His prose is leaden, his dialogue stilted, his characters completely one-dimensional, his pacing lethargic. Here's a fine example of his writing, from page 99:

"'Drink the hot chocolate,' said a voice inside her. It belonged to a whisper inside her head. 'Drink.'
"She had heard that voice before. It belonged to the captain."

Somper is a master of telling instead of showing. I've read self-published books whose authors didn't have such a perfect grasp of telling. We're told that Connor is a brilliant athlete and that Grace is blindingly intelligent, and that despite these gifts that both children have always felt like outsiders. Apparently their blinding Mary-Sue-ishness repels people, as well it should. (Oh, and Grace hides her intelligence so well that she comes across as dumb as a stump and about as perceptive as one too. Despite her obsession with the vampirate sea chanty her father always sang to her and her brother, it takes her a week to figure out she's on a vampirate ship.)

But the writing is only part of the problem. After the twins are rescued separately, they have separate adventures. Here's where major spoilers come in, because I want to contrast the twins' adventures.

Connor, on the pirate ship, is accepted by the pirates, makes some friends, saves the captain from two thieves who smuggled themselves on board to assassinate him, is given a swordfighting lesson (he's a natural, of course), takes part in a pirate raid, drinks part of a beer in a tavern to celebrate, and then rushes to save his sister when he learns of her whereabouts. Also, his dad gives him advice from beyond the grave.

Grace, on the vampirate ship, is locked in a cabin for her own safety, protected by an Irish vampire named Lorcan (he doesn't actually sparkle, but I wouldn't have been surprised), talks to the vampirate captain briefly, wanders around belowdeck and finds the kitchen where she helps the cook chop vegetables, is menaced by a vampire and rescued by the captain, and finally is rescued by her brother. Her father does not give her advice from beyond the grave, possibly because the only possible advice is "Wait here until you're rescued again," and she should already know that.

Who has the more interesting adventure? The boy, of course. Boys have adventures. Girls help cook and get kidnapped. Grace even remembers at one point that she learned porridge is good for her in home economics class. Um, home ec had already been discontinued from school curricula when I was a kid, and that was back in the 1980s.

And let's just talk about the setting. The book takes place in the year 2505 for no apparent reason. There are a few vague mentions of there having been a cataclysmic flood, but it doesn't seem to have made much difference in the world except that, oddly enough, there's very little technology. The pirate boats seem to be galleons, although from the number of crew (at least 120, from what I could figure from the numbers given in various spots), they're galleons the size of the Queen Mary. That would explain why the pirates each have their own cabins, with beds and everything. It would also at least partly explain why the ships seem to be so completely free from ship-like motion. The pirate ship pulls up next to its victim and apparently parks there while the pirates run across on metal bridges. I'm not making this up.

I can see that Somper might want to make up his own fantasy world in order to keep from having to research olden times. It's clear from the labored sections on swordfighting that he was already exhausted from reading Wikipedia and had no energy left for researching pirates, ships, history, or anything else. What I cannot forgive is sloppy worldbuilding. I can accept that this is 500 years in the future and a giant flood has somehow caused technology to crumble, but please, just explain to me right now why the ships should have cannons but there are no guns. All the pirates fight with swords--lots of different swords! Like broadswords! Because broadswords are totally appropriate for fighting in the close quarters of a ship.

I didn't mean to make this so long, but I must touch on the character of Cheng Li. Somper doesn't describe anyone except for eye color and hair color, but I'm pretty sure Cheng Li is Asian. I'm also pretty sure that's a Chinese name. So that explains why she uses katanas as her swords of choice, because of course a Chinese pirate would use a Japanese sword.

Shoot me now. Better yet, shoot this godawful book.


Jameson T. Caine said...

Yikes! That just went to the top of my list of books to avoid. What's funny is that on the official website, there is a blurb from author Anthony Horowitz:

"Totally original...I wish I'd had this idea!"

Apparently, it would have been a good thing if the idea HAD been his...or anyone else for that matter.

Empress Awesome said...

What's the point of having pirates AND vampirates? they're two different kinds of awesome in one book. There's not enough room for both.

Wow. Thanks for letting me know what not to read.

BT said...

Excellent - something I don't want to buy. Thank you, and my 'to-read' pile thanks you.


Cate Gardner said...

Excellent post, a review coupled with a 'how not to write' guide. I'm so disappointed that the idea didn't pan out - now waiting for Gaiman to write a book about Vampirates.

Alan W. Davidson said...

Wow, you made some pretty valid points in that review.

K.C. Shaw said...

Jameson--I wish Anthony Horowitz had had that idea, or me, or you, or pretty much anyone else. :)

EA--The really sad thing was, the vampirates weren't even pirates no matter how much they said they were. They were just vampires who lived on a boat and didn't actually go anywhere or do anything.

BT--No problem. My work here is done. :)

Cate--I wish Gaiman had had the vampirates idea first! Man, would he have done an excellent job with it.

Alan--I didn't even cover everything that was wrong with the book, I just didn't want the post to be as long as the book was.

Jamie Eyberg said...

Eek! I am glad you got to it before I did.

Aaron Polson said...

A friend gave me the first book of the series last year. I read to page 4..."[his eyes] were the exact same shade as hers--as if an emerald had been cut in two"...I put it down and walked away.

You said it much better than I could. Yes: Little, Brown did publish Vampirates. Yes: the cover art is awesome. Yes: the book is stupid.

K.C. Shaw said...

Jamie--It was my curse, to read the book so others would not have to.

Aaron--I very nearly put the book down at that point too.

Carrie Harris said...

Man, that stinks. I keep meaning to pick it up too, because the concept is that awesome.

Unknown said...

I call Sexism!!!! ahhhhh! (*closes eye and has angry feminist moment) okay. okay.

aghhh i hate books like that.

though vampirates is a good word

K.C. Shaw said...

Carrie--I wish you'd thought of it first. You'd have done SO MUCH BETTER. Also, a vampirate costume would be perfect for Halloween, don't you think?

HG--I had one of those moments too when I realized the girl didn't get to do any adventuring. The book would have been at least marginally better if the girl got to be a pirate and the boy got menaced by vampirates.

Danielle Birch said...

I hadn't heard of it, but there's nothing worse than being bitterly disappointed in a book you've been looking forward to reading.

K.C. Shaw said...

Yeah, I thought the concept was so cool that I couldn't wait to open it. That'll teach me to get my hopes up.

Carrie Harris said...


Yes, I am so excited about that costume idea that you've reduced me to OMGing.

Neddie David said...

Vampirates!!! Oh my goodness, let me tell you how much I've seen that book in stores and wanted to puke and laugh at the exact same time. Which would be messy, so I mostly just laugh.

I don't think I've even TOUCHED the book because it's title is so lame. I'm so glad I found it it's ACTUALLY lame without actually having to read it myself. x3 You do me a kind favor.

K.C. Shaw said...

Carrie--To be honest, I'm astounded that you hadn't thought of it before. If your or anyone you know dresses as a vampirate this year, I want pictures!

Neddie--I'm glad I saved you some pain (okay, a lot of pain). I think I'm going to read some Shakespeare now to get the nasty writing taste out of my, um, brain.