“All those years, I thought I was unhappy. I don’t think anymore that I was,” Leo reflects early in The Eyes of a King, looking back on his teenage self.
Now, after 250 pages of military dictatorship, abusive teachers, missing parents, Leo being sick, Leo’s little brother being sick, kids getting drafted into the army, and heavy-handed foreshadowing of a tragic event that happens around the 225-page mark, and Leo brooding about all of these things? If this is Leo North when he’s happy, I don’t want to read on to see just how unhappy he gets, so I stopped.
Don’t get me wrong. I read all kinds of literature in which terrible things happen. I’m a George R.R. Martin fan, for crying out loud, and we all know how wantonly he slaughters his characters. In Martin’s books, though, there are qualities that keep me reading even when a favorite character bites it. I love his characters, I love his byzantine plotting, and there’s a streak of gallows humor that helps dissipate some of the misery.
In The Eyes of a King, these qualities are lacking. After 250 pages, I still don’t feel like I really know the characters, not even Leo, the narrator. I know he’s angry and that he loves his brother and hates school. He hasn’t really come alive for me, though. I gather that there’s an overarching plot somewhere, but so far it’s moving at a glacial pace and not really linking up effectively with Leo’s story. And Leo’s plot consists only of the aforementioned illness, abuse, and brooding. Oh, and a magical book that writes in itself, which is the device by which the larger plot is introduced. (Slowly.)
The magical book brings me to one of the least apt literary comparisons I’ve seen in a while. There’s a contingent of critics who are hailing Catherine Banner as the next J.K. Rowling. I really don’t get it. About the only thing the two writers have in common is the magical book. Leaving aside any debate over Rowling’s writing skills (as I have FanLit colleagues who love the series and others who hate it), there’s no similarity in mood between Harry Potter and The Eyes of a King. Rowling peppers her novels with comic relief. I’d like to introduce Catherine Banner to comic relief. It would break up the angstfest.
As it is, the angst is so relentless that it feels manipulative. All authors strive to manipulate our emotions, but when it’s being done well, we don’t notice our chains are being yanked. There’s a scene in The Eyes of a King in which Leo attempts to save the day by doing something extraordinary, only to miss the window of opportunity by a matter of a few minutes. An excellent writer would have me thinking “What tragic bad luck!” Instead, the first thought that popped into my mind was “Banner’s trying to pull my strings by making Leo’s failure so narrow.”
Another issue is dialogue. The dialogue is oddly stilted in places. In particular, Banner doesn’t use contractions as often as most people do. This makes a kind of sense in the case of the wizard and the grandmother. But I don’t know too many children or teenagers who would say, “At least you are not stuck at home forever with a demon baby,” or “I wish you would not go there,” or “But do you not think that everywhere you search, someone else will have searched first?” If it were a consistent quirk, I’d just think, “Oh, I guess people don’t use contractions in Malonia.” It’s not consistent, though, and is sometimes mixed strangely with colloquialisms: “I did not used to, but I was wrong.” It feels like someone told Banner that fantasy needs to sound “elevated,” and that she hasn’t gotten the knack of elevated writing yet.
I don’t think I like this recent trend of publishing teen authors before they’ve had a chance to hone their skills and get some life experience. It’s not that Banner is a bad writer. She’s got a lot of potential and I’m curious about how she will develop as a writer. I just don’t think it does anyone any good to be catapulted into writing fame at such a young age, and to have one’s very first attempt distributed far and wide. Once the public gets its hands on a book, there are going to be critics who hail the book as genius, and there are going to be critics who are extremely harsh, and I worry that we’re creating a crop of young writers who will either come to believe that their every word is golden or that they are utter hacks, all before they’ve really achieved what they’re capable of. Banner is not bad, and I applaud her for finishing a novel in her teens. It’s pretty good, considering her age, but I think it would be a better book if she’d sat on it for a few years and revisited it with, well, the eyes of a more experienced writer and reader.