Thursday, January 16, 2014

Book Review: Echoes from the Lost Ones by Nicola J. McDonagh

Echoes from the Lost Ones by Nicola J. McDonagh – Published by Fable Press

What sets this excellent book apart from the crowded field of dystopian novels is the strong voice of the lead character, a plucky young woman named Adara. However, while Adara is unique in the novel’s bleak futuristic landscape, she is by no means unique in the world of books – a young hero with a special gift, out in the world, on a quest to rescue her brother. It is the strength of the author’s writing, specifically the fascinating speech patterns Adara uses, that keeps this novel from being a mundane adventure in which our hero moves episodically from one peril to the next. As readers, we are transported to this harsh future not so much through descriptions of landscapes, references to technologies, or apocalyptic exposition, but through the intimate nuances of language.

Adara’s voice keeps the story small and personal, despite frequent mentioning of larger events – events one suspects will take on a bigger role as the Song of Forgetfulness moves along. Often times the unique vocabulary, the inverted phrasing, and the swapping of adjectives for adverbish thingies, helps our hero describe her own body and its processes. This isn’t Tolkien, inventing words to teach us about the history of the world; this is instead a skilled author inventing words to describe defecation and menstruation, among other things. And that brings a good deal of light and humor to what is too often a humorless genre. It also makes Adara feel very real. 

Along the way, not surprisingly, Adara meets a cast of characters. Some are friends, some are enemies, and more than a few are shrouded in mystery. As these things go, we know some untrustworthy characters will behave honorably, while some close friends will commit acts of betrayal. While reading this novel I sometimes proceeded along with a sense of dread, that it might succumb to the banalities of its formulaic nature. But always my fears were unfounded as new characters and imaginative details kept the story fresh and fascinating. I was particularly interested in the character of Wirt, a sidekick with a unique manner, and a compelling and horrifying backstory. In fact, it is the nature of Wirt’s troubled past that makes Adara and him such interesting companions, as the potential for a romantic connection is complicated in ways you won't find in Shakespeare.

Another unique aspect of the book, that sets it apart, and above, other books of this genre, is its upbeat and positive tone. While the future setting is certainly grim, and tragedy is close and personal, our hero seems unflappable. Again, much of this comes through in the nature of her voice, and her humor (intentional on the part of the author, but maybe not always intentional on the part of Adara). She’s an easy girl to root for, and she earns the readers sympathy without playing the standard chords of loss and abuse and loneliness. She gets our support from this great narrative voice, that is so human and honest. The idea that she is special and gifted with unique abilities is entirely believable, not because the author simply tells us she’s destined for greatness, but because she’s genuinely drawn by the author as someone of singular quality.  

If I had to offer any criticism of Echoes from the Lost Ones I would say it is an uneven book. The characters and language are at times richly presented, thoroughly developed, and as well done as anything in the genre. However, there are times when these strengths create a harsh contrast with flatter, less successful elements of the story. Many characters are simply drawn cutouts from too many other stories, and they miss the quirky and imaginative details the author gives her main characters. Certain plot elements suffer from this same contrast. A climactic scene near the end is presented through quick exposition, without giving the reader a chance to see how events fully affect the characters. I realize this is an attempt to move the story along quickly as important event unfold in a chaotic situation. And I did tear through the last bit of the book, riveted by the sequence of events. 

Generally speaking, I was extremely impressed by this novel, which I chose completely at random to be the first (of many) books I review on this blog. Ultimately the greatest indicator of how much I enjoyed this (or any other) book is whether or not I pick up the next book in the series. I suspect the next book, which I hope to read soon, will explore the larger story, and bring more depth of characterization to some of this book’s minor players.

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