Laura Powell’s recently released Burn Mark is a book that seems to tick all the right boxes. The premise is solid and intriguing, the world-building is rich and believable, and the characters realistic.
And yet I found it disappointingly bland. Perhaps it’s that my paranormal palate has been overwhelmed over the past few years. Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old contrarian. But somehow, I simply couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm for this one. The writing slouches along, placid and lazy and dully matter-of-fact, the characters undergo exactly the type and degree of change expected from the outset, and the plot is a commuter train making its way from one end of the line to the other exactly as detailed by the conductor.
Our setting is an alternative London where witchcraft is very much alive, and so too is the Inquisition, its purpose being to identity, monitor, police and punish witchkind. Our two key players are Lucas Stearne, son of the Chief Prosecutor of the Inquisition, and who learns that not only is he a witch, but an immensely powerful one; and Glory Starling Wilde, a tough-girl witch from a mafia-esque coven. The two, as you might imagine, find themselves working together, and in doing so discover a shocking series of betrayals and lies.
It’s a case of narrative predestination, and it’s proof that–for this reader at least–a tightly honed, carefully layered plot can undermine a story. Everything slots in so tidily together that it’s like an epic jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, one person’s tidy plotting is another person’s narrative restrictiveness, and the latter was the case for me. When everything is so neatly foreshadowed and the characters’ roles are so tidily telegraphed it’s easy for a narrative to feel as though it can’t possibly go any other way.
I was chatting with a romance author the other day about maintaining interest and suspense when the end of a novel is known to the reader, and she noted how it’s a delicate balance to push the boundaries while still working within a given formula. This one, I couldn’t help but feel, never quite pushed those boundaries. It relies on the depth of its world-building–which is admittedly impressive–to carry it, and I couldn’t help but feel that the rest of the novel wasn’t quite there. It’s a novel that’s competent enough, but whose purpose I can’t quite fathom. I had a similar reaction to Julianna Baggott’s Pure, which though beautifully written and thoughtfully explicated feels more like an exercise in setting than anything, and I wonder whether it’s a result of authors brainstorming dystopian-esque “what if” scenarios.
I think a lot of my qualms here have to do with scope and also with narrative insularity. During my recent reading of Mary Hooper’s Newes from The Dead, I found myself objecting to a certain plot point at the end that felt as though it had come out of nowhere. And yet, this event actually occurred in real life. But it’s not, as one might think, a case of fact being stranger than fiction. Rather, it’s to do with the scope of the story and what readers have been conditioned to expect from a book. The plot point in the Hooper would probably have been perfectly acceptable had the book’s scope been expanded to offer some reason or motivation for its occurrence. But real life–upon which the book is based–doesn’t allow for that. Real life is all about messy boundaries and unknowns. Things do have reasons and motivations. We just don’t see them, because they’re beyond the scope of our experience or knowledge.
My initial misgivings over the Hooper made me consider just how much readers are conditioned to accept logic and narrative containedness in their reading. In today’s fiction (the final extent, obviously, varying depending on genre and target audience) it seems that everything has to be telegraphed, because everything that happens in a book has to able to be saliently determined from prior information–we need to be presented with all of the facts. In few books outside the mystery genre have I found this more clearly than in Burn Mark. My copy, in fact, is bristling with post-it notes highlighting references to items or information that will clearly come into play at a later point in the book.
Curiously, the result of this for me was a book that left me feeling underwhelmed. Not because it wasn’t competent–it’s a solid enough book, after all–but because I felt as though I was never being tested as a reader. I never felt unsafe, or curious, or lost, or challenged. I felt rather as though I was a tourist on a bus being told what was what and what I should photograph. And I think the perfect tidiness of this book is what resulted in this being a less than memorable read for me.
With thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for the review copy
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