Chasing Embers is a novel about a shape-shifting dragon with an identity crisis, torn between a normal human existence and the mythological roots from which he originates; in many ways, the narrative of Chasing Embers reflects this turmoil, unsure of what it is, at times resembling a naïve procedural YA title and at other times trying to come across as hard-hitting adult fiction.
Ben Garston, the last of the dragon Remnants, a term for mythological creatures and beings alive in the modern world and leftover from the time of myth, becomes embroiled in an international conspiracy that revolves around the breaking of the Pact, an agreement signed between humans and Remnants in the era of King John. Whilst James Bennett’s attempt to create a parallel history in which myth is interwoven with history is as admirable as it is well-researched, where it falls down is in the ways in which this lore and history are delivered.
Exposition is a common issue many fantasy and sci-fi authors face: how can such complex ideas, histories, properties, systems, politics be conveyed to the reader in a way that is not an information dump? Sadly, Chasing Embers is full of information dumps, sometimes mid way through action sequences, sometimes for 8 pages or more. This drastically slows the action and pads the novel, which is already overlong. What’s worse is that these information dumps are also accompanied by needless re-capitulations of events we have just read along with nuts and bolts explanations of character motivations. There is an old, old saying in writing which is ‘Show don’t tell.’ The reader is smarter than you think. Always. Now look at this passage from Chasing Embers, detailing the rational mindset of a room full of archeologists: ‘Their self assurance was a double-edged sword, one that granted comfort and security but blinded them to the truth’ (p.116). It couldn’t be more spelled out for us.
James Bennett is not without talent. He has a natural flair for descriptive passages, with some striking and original similes and memorable imagery. However, he over-utilizes this skill with relentless description of everyone and everything, rendering the narrative ponderous. William Strunk once said: ‘Omit needless words’ in his Elements of Style, the foundation of editing practice. Yet, the author sometimes offers us three or four images to describe a single object: ‘The ache that would never ease. The bruise that would never fade. The scar that would not heal.’ (p.228) Any of these images would have sufficed, but to have all three feels portentous and overblown, as well as diluting the pace of the narrative with excessive word count.
The dialogue of Chasing Embers is positively dreadful in many places, particularly when it comes to female characters the author attempts to portray as subversively strong but ends up only furthering male-gaze stereotypes of women as large-breasted goddesses always thirsty for vengeance and conflict with their male counterparts. ‘Do not make me destroy you!’ (p.271) Atiya, an awakened dragon goddess for the time of ancient Egypt, proclaims. Does she realize she’s quoting Darth Vader? Only, Darth Vader said ‘Don’t make me destroy you’ the modern abbreviation lending it more power and urgency. There’s also a world of difference between James Earl Jones delivering that threat in his menacing, vox-morphed voice, a legendary soundtrack backing it up, than reading it stark and naked on paper. It’s the same as when song lyrics are read as poetry, unaccompanied by melody and beat: something is lost and it comes across as trite. Screen-dialogue and dialogue in novels are vastly different; Chasing Embers is a book with a dodgy movie script.
What’s more, in many instances these elements of female stereotyping affect the narrative, causing it to plunder into frustratingly clichéd territory. Of course, when Ben and Atiya wrestle, it becomes pseudo-sexual, predictably rollicking into an impassioned kiss. Ben gets off on the fact that Atiya has so dominated him, but then, he has to think about his Rose, a mere human lover, thus establishing a love-triangle. Albeit, the love triangle is subdued, unlike Twilight where it forms the crux of the narrative dynamic, but it is still there, dragging us into somewhat petty territory where we had no need to venture. As well as a plot hole for the convenience of Rose getting kidnapped (she leaves New York on the train and then later we’re told she was stepping into a car), there is an assumption that we will care about Rose because Ben cares about her. This is a common narrative fallacy: the reader will not care about someone just because the protagonist does. Rose is petulant, weak, inarticulate, hopelessly indirect, passive (until one scene at the end – credit where credit’s due) and frankly annoying. While Chasing Embers satisfyingly avoids a clichéd reunion and rejects of the damsel-narrative, it fails to make us care about Rose enough to make that matter.
There is a certain naivety about the prose style and whilst this is not a fault in itself (sometimes that can the central charm of a narrative) it is confusing when the narrative is also trying to be dark, epic and hard-boiled at the same time. Chasing Embers tries to do too many things, a hybrid that is mish-mashed and unfocused. It starts like all Jack Reacher-style procedurals do: with a drunk hero in a bar, drowning sorrows, because surprise, surprise like all procedural heroes he’s troubled and has problematic relationships with women. The narrative then swiftly moves into a YA about dragons living in New York. The author drops in an erroneous and unexpected ‘Fuck’, as if this alone constitutes edge, and disorientates us further as to the tone of the novel. We then move into an international globe-trotting mystery about stolen artifacts. Whilst some might find this combination of narratives exciting in principle, in practice is only comes across as garbled.
There is a gratuitous sexualisation of one of the CROWS. The CROWS are a triumvirate modeled on Shakespeare’s ‘weird sisters’ (who in turn are modeled on the Fates of Ancient Greece). In Chasing Embers, the second CROW takes the form of a young stripper wearing a ‘leather bikini’ complete with thong. Though it is possible to write a compelling female character that also serves as an object of sexual desire (look at Quiet in Hideo Kojima’s The Phantom Pain: yes, she’s gratuitously sexualized but also one of the most intriguing, powerful and developed characters in the story), James Bennett’s second witch is neither original, subversive or interesting. Rather, she showcases a certain immaturity.
There are also some eye-rolling moments where film and genre tropes damage the credibility of the narrative. Think of those moments in cinema that make you wince: for example, when a villain easily is capable of destroying a hero and decides to let them go. This occurs five or more times in Chasing Embers. Fulk Fitzwarren, rival to Ben due to a long time family feud between dragon kind and the Fitzwarrens, has Ben in his grasp, locked in magical chains so he cannot escape or transform into a dragon. Instead of killing him, Fulk decides to regale him with a story of the original Fulk’s failed quest to find and kill Ben, back when Ben was Benjurigan and lived in feudal England. He then tortures Ben, all this eating up so much time that Von Hart, arguably the most interesting character in the novel but also a painfully obvious deus ex machina (being a demigod who can travel between any location in a heartbeat using magical roads formed in the nether), can arrive to save Ben’s ass. The next moment comes when Atiya, after meeting Ben for the first time, unaware of his motivations or character, decides that he is ‘Not even worth killing’ even though he tried to stop her obtaining one of the legendary artifacts she requires to complete her quest for revenge. During Ben and Atiya’s second conflict, after explaining she didn’t kill him the first time due to an ‘accord between serpents’, she decides to spare him again, dropping a rain of boulders from a mountainside on his head, the classic ‘leave the hero in a burning building getaway’ which always results in the hero escaping. Later on, when the narrative goes through a number of twists and a deeper villain is revealed, this new villain also decides to spare a wounded and bleeding Ben just so he can see their grand vision for an undead kingdom unfold.
Let me say it straight, I love fantasy – including its outrageous tropes and formulas. I grew up on it. I write it. I have no time for relentlessly ‘realistic’ novels (which often translate as being merely pessimistic and spiritually closed). My pet hate is the ‘Based on a true story’ slogan at the start of a film: a lazy attempt to galvanize empathy via a shortcut rather than elicit true emotion through storytelling. Having said that, the ending of Chasing Embers becomes frankly preposterous, the fantasy elements so over-the-top the narrative loses all potency. G. K. Chesterton once said: ‘The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be credible’ and I’m inclined to agree. But it isn’t just about the big scenes: it’s about the ‘day to day’ mechanics of the fantasy elements, the magic, which also need to be believable. Here too, Chasing Embers falls down. When Ben transforms into his dragon form, he still retains his human mind, leading us to scenes with Ben flying around as a 50ft-long dragon thinking through complex international conspiracies – it comes across as silly. Far more interesting would have been an Incredible Hulk scenario in which Ben was unable to control his dragon persona.
What’s sad is that James Bennett obviously has raw talent. His descriptions are fantastic. Some of his ideas are solid. Von Hart was brilliantly conceptualized: a gay, German, kimono-wearing Fay demigod. But it is not enough. As it stands, the plot is muddled, an edit is desperately needed and the story is peppered with moments of eye-rolling cliché. Chasing Embers is fun in places but most often frustrating; I would not have finished it had I not been compelled to give it a fair trial before reviewing. It’s a lesson to all fantasy authors on the difficulty of producing a truly genre-defying work, and a spur to encourage us all to keep trying.
Chasing Embers was published by Orbit Books on 6th September 2016.
You can purchase a copy of Chasing Embers from Foyles Bookshop:
Discover more about Orbit Books here…
Review by Joseph Sale