Hello, Loyal Readers! It’s time for another Indie Wednesday–in which I take a look at a book that’s decent, but not from one of the big six publishers. This week’s title is…
Along the Watchtower by David Litwack is billed as a”military fantasy.” The premise is an American soldier in Iraq is injured during duty and bedridden. While bedridden he slips between the pain of his waking life in a military hospital, and the magic of a fantastical far off world in his dreams.
Why I Picked it Up
This sounded like a fascinating premise to me, and I thought it must somehow be related to the real-life practice of using VR video-games to treat veteran burn victims. I like books that blur the lines between fantasy and reality, and I also suspected a more literary tone.
What I Liked About it
Litwack grabs you right from the prologue, in which we see and feel along with our main character how his legs get blown off by an IED (I looked it up and it means ‘improvised explosive device’). Litwack’s use of imagery is great–from describing the feeling of one’s legs being exploded, the temporary hearing loss from the blast, delirium from a concussion. It’s fast paced, gripping, and you care about our MC instantly. We also find out our MC blames himself for his and the injuries of his comrades as he feels he was distracted, thinking about WoW–this is significant for later.
I like the victim’s self blame angle as well.
What Could Be Better, If Anything
Right after our “blast” of a prologue, we get into the fantasy world, so the fantasy world is chapter one. This is where I ran into problems. Our MC is now a prince, his dad has died and he must prepare for the succession ceremony. Due to some fantasy world magics, the whole kingdom is in peril. I’m not a WoW player, but I was able to figure out pretty quickly that this fantasy world IS WoW, and my suspicions were confirmed a few pages later when the realm is referred to as “Azeroth.”
Why did I find this a problem? Well, it’s because I already know what WoW is, and I know it’s a fake place. As such, I know that nothing that happens in the WoW matters (Don’t kid yourself, NOTHING that happens in WoW matters to anyone). This takes a lot of the tension out of the novel for me, but it also takes a lot of the mystique out of this fantasy novel by making the world a known quantity. Part of the fun of Fantasy novels is learning the rules. If I want to know WoW’s rules, I can check on their wiki.
My other major gripe lies in how the central conceit of the fantasy world was exposed. Chapter one and the fate of the entire kingdom is at stake. Some might think this is a hook, but I disagree–the scope here is too broad. Maybe if you’re a WoW player you care what happens to this fantasy Kingdom. But it doesn’t mean anything to the uninitiated.
I think a better way to have the fantasy portion start would be to start building the stakes small–show our MC in some danger or some struggle–there are some upcoming ‘trials’ spoken of in chapter one. Why not start there, during the trials? Show MC’s life in mild danger, he gets out and we’re told what’s going on, THEN we’re told that the whole Kingdom’s in danger and it’s his job to save it.
Now we already care about our MC in the REAL world, but he’s almost a different character in this fantasy land. We need to be shown that what he does in this world matters. Maybe he has some injuries that pass between worlds? That could be a clue that the fantasy is more than it seems.
This is a note for all you fantasy writers out there: Do you know why I don’t lie awake every night, praying for the survival of the poor people of war-torn Israel? Or the hopelessly opressed in N. Korea? Or the little green people of Pluto who’re about to be enslaved by the mighty Klingle-Cobalon Army? Because I don’t personally know anyone there. I’ve never been there. and as such it doesn’t affect me personally. Of course I hope they’ll all be alright in a general sense, but I’m not checking the news every day for their survival.
Start building your stakes small–let me make friends with your character first and show me what’s important to him. If I had a friend who was planning a trip to Somalia you can bet I’d be in regular contact with them, and seeking any news about what’s up all over the country.
To sum up, Litwack’s got some definite writing chops, but the novel lost a bit of steam for me in Azeroth. If I finish it, I’ll do a follow up.
Have you read, written, or wished to read Along the Watchtower? Then leave me a comment!