23 December, 2011

'The Stranger' by Max Frei

Okay, I give in. I can't do it. Max Frei, you have beaten me, and not in a good way. I was hoping not to come across a book I couldn't finish so soon after starting this blog, but I've been slogging away at this one for over two weeks now, and with a stack of other books waiting for me, I have to cry uncle. Want to know why The Stranger didn't hold water? Read on...

I bought this book on the basis of the reviews on the back cover, which has taught me a great lesson about reading the first few chapters of something before I buy it. The back summary told of a hapless loser named Max who gets pulled from our world into another, where he joins a group of Special Investigators who keep the peace of their city with their wits, their fists and their magic. I was excited. I also thought, starting a book called The Stranger, that I was in for a story full of introspection on the part of the narrator as he assimilates to life in another world. I thought, based on the aforementioned back cover, that I was in for a magical whirlwind rife with action and adventure. I was wrong on all counts, much to my dismay.

A bit of a disclaimer about the author's name. The book is by Max Frei; the main character's name is Max Frei. I thought at first that this was a case of the author going meta on himself. (I clearly expected way too much out of this book on all counts.) But thanks to Goodreads I've discovered that it's actually the pen name of a woman named Svetalana Martynchik. This book has something crazy like nine sequels, a number which staggers and wearies me just thinking about it. But I digress. Let's go back to the meat of the story, and how it disappointed my expectations.

I don't want to sound like a snob here. But I don't care what language you're writing in, you don't name your book The Stranger by accident. And, having read Camus first at an age when I didn't understand what the hell he was on about, and then again in college when I thought I totally got what he was on about, I was really expecting this book to be the story of a lonely outcast in an alien world. I thought I was going to get metaphor, magic, mystery and lots of other great M words all rolled up into one. I got none of these things. The book reads like a script written by Miyazaki with severe ADD-- packing as much whimsy as possible into every page without even the bother of a plot that carries through from chapter to chapter. Each section of the book is one escapade of Sir Max's, start to finish, and while they are as colorful and imaginative as one could wish from a fantasy novel, they're about as emotionally involved as an episode of Scooby Doo.

I don't just read books that pack an emotional punch. I like a good mystery or romance or action story as much as the next person.  Some books are interesting enough in their worldbuilding to keep me reading on through iffy character development, and that's the only reason I can give for making it through 200 pages of The Stranger before giving up. Echo is an interesting world, but its characters are caricatures too vivid and bombastic to warrant any sympathy  In 200 pages I had yet to come upon any aspect of the story or its cast that pulled on my heartstrings, made me invested in what happened to anyone, or even made me get to know Max as more than the voice narrating the story. He isn't three-dimensional; we get most of his personality from him telling us about it, not from seeing how he reacts differently to different people. He seems to fit into his new world flawlessly-- which begs the question of why, if the author wanted to write a story set in this magical world, she bothered making her protagonist from our world at all. All the fun parts of those kinds of stories were missing for me. There were fears or near misses of his being found out, but no sense of what would happen to him if he was. There were no adjustment pangs; any culture shock was mentioned only in passing. All in all the book suffers from an abundance of telling, not showing, and in doing so becomes distant and predictable.

And then there's the issue of the treatment of women in the book-- or should I say, the lack thereof. By the time I was through with my 200 pages I had still only met one woman, and she's basically a Disney heroine. Petite, dark haired, beautiful (of course) Lady Melamori is a hunter, a dangerous member of the Secret Investigators. She bored me to tears. Of course Max is attracted to her at once, and she spends her next few appearances doing nothing interesting. She gets robbed and comes to the Investigators for help catching the thief. If she's such a great hunter, couldn't she do it on her own? When she catches him, they find her back at Headquarters lying on a chair, eating berries while she clamps the guy in place with her feet around his neck. What? I don't even know. If it weren't part and parcel for this book to be really random and do things without explaining why they make sense, I might have laughed out loud at the absurdity. Maybe she gets more interesting as time passes, but from what I saw her main function was as an object for Max and the other bachelors of the Special Investigators to bicker over. And to find out that such a flat and disappointing character was written by a woman makes it even worse.

I will say, however, that not all of the problems with this book can be attributed to bad writing. From a brief fling with a Russian Lit minor I'm familiar with how odd Russian can be when translated into English, especially if it's translated badly. I suspected that might be part of what was going on here, and a Russian reader on Goodreads who had read the series first in its native tongue left a really illuminating review explaining how right I was. According to her, much of the story's charm had been lost in translation, because half of what makes it-- and its narrator-- endearing to the reader is in the play of language. There are, apparently, great and noticeable differences between the way the natives of Echo talk versus the way Max talks, and a great deal of humor in the confusion of idioms. She also noted that the translation makes it so impersonal that it removes any ability to relate to the main character. This is, frankly, a relief to me. I'm annoyed that the person who translated the book did a crappy job of it, but glad that I don't have to lie awake at night wondering what readers in Russia were smoking when they read this book and then signed up for nine sequels.

If I were on summer vacation and didn't have two dozen other books I'm dying to read, I would probably have made myself finish this. But it just didn't hold my attention or my heart enough to keep me going. And so, Sir Max, I hate to do this to you, but I have to say goodbye. I hope your readers in Russia can appreciate you the way I, sadly, was not able to.

Next up is Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine. Hopefully I'll be done with that one by Christmas. :) Til next time,

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