A response to Jeff Vitous

I came across a review at LibraryThing last week which, beyond it’s disappointing rating, quite startled me with its inaccuracies, to the point I wondered which novel Jeff Vitous read, because it didn’t seem to be From Mountains of Ice.
Although I make it a policy never to respond to a review, I’m going to fly in the face of conventional wisdom to comment. Jeff Vitous’ review is set off as a quote, my response in blue.

In the afterward, Lorina Stephens tells us how this book, her first in 16 years, made it to digital print. The wonderful thing about digital publishing is you don’t need to be a pedigreed writer just to get consideration. The bad…nearly anyone can do it.

Not quite what I wrote, Jeff Vitous. I stated From Mountains of Ice was the first novel I’d written in 16 years. It was first published as a trade paperback, later as an eBook. I quibble, but if we’re going to start splitting hairs, let’s be sure we’re making the correct comparisons.

As to my pedigree, while I don’t have international fame, I have earned my way as a writer for over 30 years, primarily as a freelance journalist for Canadian national, regional and local periodicals. I also worked as an editor for a regional lifestyle magazine, now defunct, was wooed by several others, and am now publisher at Five Rivers Publishing. And before snorts of derision can be made about the publishing house, it should be noted it does not exist as a vanity house for the glory of Lorina Stephens. Quite the contrary. We presently have published 11 authors and 19 books, and have signed and will soon be publishing six more authors with another 32 books, all of which are most definitely not pulp, churned-out, manufactured dross for the masses. I invite you to take a look at our catalogue and amend your comment.

Pedigree, Jeff Vitous? Beyond writing reviews of books and war-gaming, I don’t see a publishing background in your CV. I apologize, but perhaps I’ve missed something.

This is the third ebook I’ve read this year that was published by a small digital publishing company.

Once more, where does it say Five Rivers is a digital only house?

All have one thing in common: terrible editing! Do the majors have a lock on good editors?

A matter of opinion, I’m sure. I could easily point you to several novels published by major houses which have terrible editing. The Twilight saga immediately leaps to mind.

Or, and I suspect this is more the case, does these small publishers see editing as an obstacle to getting large volumes of content quickly to the market?

Hardly. A recent publication from Five Rivers, Mik Murdoch: Boy Superhero, was in editing for 18 months or so, with a total of three passes from the same editor, Robert Runte, who edited From Mountains of Ice, the novel to which Jeff Vitous takes such umbrage.
Oh, and if we’re speaking of editing, it’s do these small publishers see editing as an obstacle, not does.

From Mountains of Ice is set in a fictional analog to medieval Italy. Having a fictional world with a real-world ethnic analog didn’t work for me; I found it distracting.

That’s unfortunate. I suppose Jeff Vitous wouldn’t like anything written by, say, the award-winning Guy Gavriel Kay, or Caitlin Sweet, or perhaps even any of the myriad Arthurian sagas.

I remember advice from long ago that unless you are really really good at it, don’t try writing accents. It’s not that Stephens writes a lot of accents, but it naturally seems so with so many ethnic Italian names.

So, the complaint here is that the names aren’t recognizable Anglo-Saxon white names? Jeff Vitous is correct, however, that I didn’t write a patois in From Mountains of Ice. As he says, unless you’re really good at it, like, say, Salman Rushdie (Then why speakofy such treason and filthy up my children’s ears with what-all Godless bunk? — The Moor’s Last Sigh) then you should simply refrain.

The second major problem I had was a reliance of narrative to move the story forward and define character relations in some cases. The narrator should not play such a prominent role…we should know by the action of the story and dialog between character what the emotional relationship between characters are. Here, we are told that simply that two characters have tension after long months of working together — well, their story lines during these months were omitted altogether! So when they confront each other, it is without prior foreshadowing. These kind of issues compounded as the book wore on. In the end, you had the narrator telling us how deeply torn and emotional the characters were, but there was no precedence for this outburst. Character actions were largely contrived and baffling throughout the book.

Funny thing is, I quite agree with Jeff Vitous statement that we should show not tell. However, the method employed in what he terms narration is a literary device easily to be found in say, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which Conrad continually tells us of the insane and cruel Kurtz, who we don’t meet until the last pages of the novel. It’s a device employed by Bram Stoker in Dracula. The device has also been employed extremely well by a myriad of modern writers. But, perhaps, given the consistently poor ratings Jeff Vitous offers from his LibraryThing podium, and the type of books he seems to prefer, it would appear a less subtle and more obvious narrative would better suit his tastes.

It would be interesting to see what Jeff Vitous might have to say about the above-quoted Salman Rushdie, or Rohinton Mistry (I bet he’d have a field day with him!), or Linden MacIntyre for that matter. Oh, I think he’d have his knickers in a right knot were he to read Giller-winning, The Bishop’s Man. Lots and lots of narrative there with which to deal.

There are also fantasy elements in the story that seemed forced an[d] employed as a crutch as needed. The village truthsayer, Aletta, can always tell when someone is lying.

How is that a crutch? Aletta herself admits it isn’t so much magic as learning to read body language, to hear inflection of voice. All of what she does is well-researched psychology of the present day.

[I]t seems dead ancestors serve in an advisory role.

Again, I have to ask, why is that a crutch? Or any different from any of the belief paradigms of cultures past and present all over the globe?

Her husband, Sylvio, exiled brother of the prince, […]

Sylvio is Carmelo’s brother? Really? Wow. I don’t remember writing that. Not anywhere in that novel. I didn’t realize mentor is a synonym for brother.

[…]is a bowyer who crafts unique bows containing bones of the dead. Those dead speak to him as well.

 And the problem with that is?…

When Sylvio is summoned to his brother’s court, he encounters a child prostitute who he enlists on a mission to Aletta, with instructions that Aletta is to look after her.

A mission? Sylvio gives the child (Passerapina) coin and tells her to go find his wife so that the child will be safe, to get her off the street, to give her a life. There is no mission. It is an act of compassion.

Surprise surprise, the dead talk to her too, and she becomes a protege of Aletta. By the end of the story, we find that it appears to be a special talent of anyone born with a genetic lineage to the country, much to the chagrin of would-be neighboring conquerors.

 Ah, so the problem is Jeff Vitous doesn’t like the premise of the story, that the dead can speak to the living, that there is a race of people genetically capable of such a thing. How is that any different from vampire or zombie stories, one wonders?
From Mountains of Ice wants to be an epic tale, Stephens fails on all fronts when it comes to developing that tale. Characters have no dimension. The history of this created world is undeveloped. Fantastical aspects are created and employed as convenience, not because they add to the story are inconsistently employed. I felt as if there was originally a much bigger story, and the author took it upon her self to cut it down to an arbitrary length. An author who knows the motives of the characters is not the best person to do such massive edits — the end product still makes sense to the author, but not so much for other readers. ( )
vote | flag JeffV | Aug 24, 2012 |

Oh well. I guess Jeff Vitous just needed to vent spleen, exercise intellectual muscles, display erudition. As they say, can’t please them all. Oh, and Jeff? Do me a favour, don’t read novels outside your narrow view of the world and war gaming. And most especially don’t read any of my novels. I guarantee you won’t like them.

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