Fantasy & Beyond

A Book Forum for Speculative Fiction

A place to start read-alongs.
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Let's start the read-along!

I've split the book into three topics, chapters 1-9, chapters 10-17, and chapters 18-25. It's roughly 70 pages each. I didn't have a chance to check how well that splits up the storyline, so hopefully it works out all right.

Once you have finished the chapters for a topic, feel free to chime in with any of your thoughts or comments. The nice thing about this format is that we don't have to read at the exact same pace. But it's nice to try to finish within the next few weeks so that we all have the story fresh in mind!

In the Kindle edition:

Chapters 1-9 = Pages 1-73
Chapters 10-17 = Pages 74-142
Chapters 18-25 = Pages 143-198
xiagan liked this
I don't know in which chapter I'm in, the book doesn't show chapter numbers... I've read 30 pages.

I'm having A LOT of trouble getting into the story, and I think it's basically due to my issues with SF: technology and understanding if the character is human or not, why/if that matters, the world and incongruences on metaphors and language.
But if I ignore all that, I can still see a glimmer of interest in this interaction of Red and Blue, so I'll definitely continue - although I am very tempted to just read the letters and skip the rest haha
DaveBates, DragonFlame liked this
Oh, I was about to post first to get things started, and Bea beat me to it!

So disclaimer, I'm not a sci-fi aficionado either and Bea's feelings are in alignment with mine, where the greater interest for me is the letters over the prose scenes that precede them.

First impression, the prose is really beautiful ... which is good, because prose for the most part is all it is in these early chapters. The structuring becomes obvious pretty quickly, whereby the chapters (they are numbered in the kindle version, so maybe that was removed in the physical copy?) follow a pattern of giving a scene with one of the protag/antagonists, Blue and Red, only to end with them receiving a letter from their counterpart. Then the next chapter flips the roles.

From what I picked up, there are basically three things going on. The first two are the two sides of a war being waged through time and parallel universes, of which Red and Blue are on opposite sides. The third is a twisty intrigue of some being known only as Seeker who makes an appearance at the sites of the battles to collect trinkets. I imagine he is a third party, though there's nothing more than intrigue being thrown his way at this time.

The prose sections are descriptions of scenes where this war is taking place. Again, the prose is really lovely, and if you just want to drink in the words, lie back and imagine the scenes, then this is totally the book for you. Like Bea though, I feel that once you get over the poetic language, there's not much substance beneath the surface at this stage. The scenes range from historical events such as the senate bloodbath in Cesar's time, to mythological moments such as the sinking of Atlantis, and the occasional imagined future galactic battle. The problem I had is that these are only glimpses of the outcome of the event, where there's no real understanding of the stakes involved, or what winning/losing that event means for the respective side that did it. This became a bigger problem when the story started going into the idea of multiple versions of the same time period, which begs the question of what is the point of anything, because if you fail in one version you can just skip to another and another and another until you get the outcome you want. How these various moments all interact with one another toward a grander goal is never really explained at this early stage.

Putting my writer's cap on, I think the thing these sections lack is stakes, and they'd have been far more engaging had Red and Blue actually been engaging with one another and thwarting, or failing to thwart, each other's schemes. As it stands, bar the opening chapter and I think one other, Red and Blue never seem to come into contact with one another beyond leaving each other letters. Their relationship is basically built on an interdimensional penpal initiative.

Which leads me to the letters at the end. Again, writer's cap on, it's hard not to see these as what they are, which are basically a creative way to exposition dump while building the relationship between the two. And I don't mean that derogatively, as I think it's actually really well done. I find the growing relationship between the two sides rather fascination with how it builds from taunting one another to becoming curious of one another to potentially becoming friends and beyond. The beyond bit does concern me some, since there have been a couple of hints of a romantic relationship evolving, and it's going to take some serious convincing for me to believe that two serial killing agents who've only met one another on the battlefield and happen to start a written communication with one another fall in love, but I'm willing to keep an open mind if they go that route. And maybe they'll surprise me and won't. Red and Blue becoming close friends would be perfectly fine for me.

Regarding the exposition side, my understanding is that Blue's side of the war are more biological, with my closest comparison being species 8472 in Star Trek Voyager, while Red's seems to be more on the technological side, the closest comparison being either the Borg or Skynet from the Terminator franchise. I'm going to guess that, having been written by two authors, one did Red and one did Blue. The one who wrote Blue did a stella job here, as I'm truly gripped by this hive mind aptly called Garden, that seems to be spreading through the timestream like weeds. Again, the evocative prose does a great job at this, but at the same time, as Bea struggled, so did I in places, since it's hard to pin down what exactly Blue is or looks like, an example being a scene where she's turning into a "wolf", though it becomes quickly apparent that she's not an actual wolf, but some sort of alien that has a wolfish posture/demeanor. This is another result of the scene being told from Blue's perspective, whereas had the creative decision been to give it from Red's, there'd be a greater scope to describe the external appearance by look rather than vague transformation descriptions.

So that's where I am about a third of the way through. There's lots of evocative scenes, some interesting concepts and intrigue abound, it's just a pity that it's lacking in stakes to the point where it doesn't quite feel like these two sides are actually at war as much as they keep telling me they are. Hopefully that will pick up in the mid-section though. I'll end on saying that while it is pretty prose and has some grand concepts, it's a surprisingly quick read.
ScarletBea, DragonFlame liked this
Just sneaking in to say I've added the page numbers as well, though it's for the Kindle edition, but it might help some people (I will read the discussion when I've caught up).

Chapters 1-9 = Pages 1-73
Thanks, I think I finished this first part, then.

Reading Dave's reply, I think he explained better what for me was just a feeling (writer brain!): the stakes. Nothing happens in-between the letters, and the only question is, who is the Seeker?

I can only describe this book so far as one of those nature documentaries that are just film, from below but usually from above. Nothing is really explained, we see herds, animals doing things, we have to provide our own plot behind the images.
And honestly?
I'm finding this as boring as those documentaries...
DaveBates liked this
ScarletBea wrote: March 31st, 2024, 09:35
I'm having A LOT of trouble getting into the story, and I think it's basically due to my issues with SF: technology and understanding if the character is human or not, why/if that matters, the world and incongruences on metaphors and language.
As a massive SF fan, this was my issue too. :phew: Other than the idea of biological vs technological, nothing about the world ever really holds together. The characters are borderline impossible to visualise, and we don't get anywhere near enough of an explanation of the rules of the setting to understand how and why the war is being fought.

It's been a long time since I listened to this, so I'm just popping in with bits I remember. The writing varies between brilliantly written and annoyingly self-indulgent, and I doubt I'd have enjoyed the physical version as much as the audio version, which is incredibly rare for me. Red and Blue have different narrators, and Emily Woo Zeller in particular is great.
I'm wary of suggesting writing is self-indulgent, as I can't trust myself not just being jealous, so I'm glad somebody else said it and I can chime in! But yeah, I did feel at times it comes off as trying too hard with the metaphors. It's literally just non-stop in the prose sections, though again, whoever wrote Blue's side does a lot better in that regard than Red's.

Something I noticed in the kindle edition is that there are various paragraphs that are marked as having anywhere between 600-1200 highlights. I don't quite know how Kindle comes to these things, but I do wonder when I see it if its not the result of the book being used in schoolwork, and if so, whether it hasn't been written specifically for that purpose. Having almost finished it, there is an element near the end that somewhat corroborates that suspicion, but I'll save that for the relevant thread so as not to drop spoilers here.
DragonFlame liked this
It's fascinating how differently we read things! I'll put a few random comments here and some thoughts. I don't have time to process it all properly but I need to write something so I can keep listening!

DaveBates wrote:Their relationship is basically built on an interdimensional penpal initiative.
This is a bad thing? :D

I didn't experience the issues that you identified as a big problem, @DaveBates. I think I identified the relationship between the two characters as the core of the book. So the war, the almost over-the-top setting, and the two factions fighting it are a backdrop to that. They matter only insofar as they help us understand that relationship. Thinking back, for the first 9 chapters there was never a time I was particularly invested in which side would win the war or the particulars of Garden's society. It was all about Red and Blue for me.

But I can see how these things might bother some people, and when you mention some of this, I can agree that adding a bit more description might have helped. But for me, what they look like isn't the important part. My interpretation was that they are both from societies and organisations that are sufficiently advanced and powerful that their operatives can essentially look like anything they want. So they look like what they need to to complete their mission.

ScarletBea wrote:I'm having A LOT of trouble getting into the story, and I think it's basically due to my issues with SF: technology and understanding if the character is human or not, why/if that matters
This is something you can come across in fantasy as well, though? I mean, I would classify this book as quite experimental because of how it's structured and how it leaves out some of the things people might expect. I do kind of wish we had started with A Psalm for the Wild-Built instead for this reason. But either way, it's not something I see as being due to the book being SF.

But let's talk tech and magic a bit, because that's always a fascinating subject to me. I think sometimes people may get stuck on the idea that technology is something that can (and therefore perhaps, should) be understood/explained, while magic is something that it's okay not to understand or explain. I always found it irking when writers use magic as an excuse not to make sense. But of course, other writers explain (and overexplain) their magic systems. But if you can explain it, is it really magic? To me, magic is something that defies explanation, and that failure lies with the person trying to do the explaining rather than the 'magic' itself. I think I wrote a post in the old forum extending on this idea where I basically claimed that for this reason, in real life and in fantasy (& beyond), there is no magic. But that is perhaps a topic of its own! :grimacing:

How far does technology have to go before it counts as magic? Not very far, I think. A lot of technology that we have today is inexplicable and even incomprehensible for many, if not most people, and it would have been unthinkable not that many decades ago, not to mention centuries. So at some point, SF strays into the realm of fantasy. We cannot possibly comprehend or imagine the technology humanity will have should it manage to survive another few hundred of years. If we were given a look at the top ten inventions from 100 years into the future, likely we would feel like cave people being shown a cellphone or a printing press.

Back to my thoughts on the book!

I agree it's a bit tough to get into, but I found myself fully immersed listening to the first 9 chapters as I was doing chores the other day, and I think I was fully invested somewhere around chapter 3. That's of course way too slow for your standard story, so I think definitely there could have been a better hook at the start. But at no point was I bored, so clearly any lack in structure there was made up for by other things. I am not usually drawn in by prose alone, and I am not 100% sure what it was when it comes to storytelling. But let me see if I can put my writer's/editor's hat on.

ScarletBea wrote:Nothing happens in-between the letters, and the only question is, who is the Seeker?
I think the main problem I see from your comments is that it's not clear what the story question is. The story question is the main question that is on the reader's mind, driving them to read on. But we don't seem to agree on what it is, which means the authors may have failed to establish it well enough. Perhaps it's because they co-wrote it with chapters going back and forth between them? That does seem to be the structure, and that may explain it. I see lots of potential story questions, but one of the things you need for a good, smooth story is one story question that is obviously the one. For my part, I identified Red and Blue's relationship as the driving force of the story, and I think that happened very early, even almost immediately. Here's how I think it went: the title, like any good title should, establishes the first story question: How do you lose the time war? It seems obvious to me that the answer must have something to do with Red and Blue's illicit communications. Losing the time war will be a result of how their relationship develops due to their correspondence. How does it happen? Who loses? Keep reading!

I'll try to have to have another look at the first chapter to see if I can pick up something more precise. But this is the conclusion I draw without spending all evening pouring over the chapters and actively analysing the story structure. (Because I listened to it as entertainment, not with my developmental editor hat on.)
ScarletBea, DragonFlame, DaveBates and 1 others liked this
Oh my, this is hard work. :happy: Made up my mind to concentrate on this, but just finished a book that was a delight of pure entertainment, and now I have to think??

I am beginning to feel these two writers are having their own hilarious game, regardless of whether or not anyone else reads their book. Puns, obscure quotations, cheeky honorifics, flitting around time zones just tantalisingly recognisable as Earth perhaps ? Interspersed with competing grim and bloody landscapes of despair ?

But I am becoming rather fond of both Red and Blue, despite their vast powers of destruction. They have a sense of humour which is so far out of character for presumably constructed or enhanced beings it is very fascinating indeed. How can this be?

Visualising 'Time threads' as giant vines these agents flit up and down. Am also wondering if the shadowy 'Seeker' is us, the reader?

So here you have my superficial first impression, but it has me intrigued enough to carry on. My kindle is littered with coloured highlights so you may get more serious comments later on. :beaming:

Edit: Please note, this is my first impression, written before reading the comments below. Now going through them and find they add to my interest. Will start using audible more to get a different perspective.
ScarletBea, Magnus, xiagan liked this
  I added spoiler tags as some of this covers events beyond Chapters 1-9 

Responding to Magnus.

I didn't have a problem with it being about Red and Blue, and I agree, their relationship is clearly the story, and I'm fine with that. I also didn't have a massive problem with being able to visualise them, though I would have liked a little more on exactly what they were in order to understand what they were trying to do.

Also to clarify, I found the penpal side fine. I didn't mean that as criticism, and I actually thought it was quite interesting and clever. Where I did have a slight issue is buying into how strong their relationship could get simply through being penpal frenemies. That they come to care for one another through shared trauma/objectives I can believe. That they fall in love? Eeeehh, I think that pushes the suspension a little too hard for me, especially in light of the fact they both seem to have been genetically modified to be agent killing machines for their factions.

I don't know if it was in this section specifically, so be warned, spoilers for anybody who hasn't gone ahead here, but there's a point where they start talking about sex to one another, and I'm trying to imagine under what circumstances they'd have reason to engage with this activity, though I suppose it could be argued that it might pop up as part of their infiltration quest.

But regardless of personally liking the letter side of the story, I still think it's a bit of an issue for a story to be based on a time war having the relevant sides seemingly never engage with one another. I'm willing to be corrected as I'll be the first to admit that I miss things as a reader, but thinking back, the only two times I can say for certain that the two warring sides come in contact with one another in the first half were the initial chapter where I think Red was chasing down Blue but never caught her, and then the scene with Blue and the spider, of which I was never fully certain whether that spider was on Blue's side and she killed it to save Red, or if Red appeared to witness Blue killing the spider that was set by the Agency to kill Blue. They left/sent letters for one another in the times they each entered, suggesting they are in some way aware of one another's actions, but they never seemed to be directly interfering with one another's missions as far as I could tell.
Of any of the scenes you've gone through, are there any concrete ones where you can say for certain that what happened was a win for one side and a defeat for the other? If so, I stand corrected and that's my bad, but if not, that's basically my issue, though it's completely fair if it's not an issue for others if they're still getting something out of it.

As for this being the first book, I think it was a fine one to begin with. Never take my critical points to heart, by the way, as all I'm doing is trying to be honest with how the works come across to me, not dog on things others like. If anything, having real debate is a lot more fun than everybody dropping one liners of "I like it so far!" I'm quite enjoying this, and it certainly doesn't detract from carrying, assuming others want me to :p.
Magnus, xiagan liked this