Thursday, 7 March 2013
A quick review of "As I Walk These Broken Roads" by Davis M.J. Aurini.
Well. The novel arrived in the evening, and I finished it in one night. Without further ado, I'd better get down my thoughts in order before they fade away into the obscure corners of my mind. Of course, everything I say here will be coloured by my own preferences in literature and be completely subjective, so take everything I say here with a grain of salt.
While I will endeavour to refrain from giving away too many spoilers, please be aware that I may let some things slip inadvertently. Do forgive me in such cases.
Well, let's begin.
Plot and prose
Perhaps I should read through the novel again, but there doesn't seem to be an overarching plot or defined goal that Wentworth and Raxx are moving towards. Instead, the novel appears to be comprised of a series of events - I could very well see it as a 90's Saturday morning cartoon where they wander the post-apocalyptic earth helping out random folks with their troubles and a new monster of the week, and maybe a recurring supporting character or two.
While others might appreciate the more episodic nature of the plot, I personally prefer a narrative with an overarching goal, with the characters' sub-goals moving them towards the defined final objective. Take Lord of the Rings as a classic example - the ultimate goal is to get the Ring to Mount Doom, and everything else is somehow linked back to that goal, which is made clear in the beginning. I fully understand that this is personal preference, but I still couldn't shake off the ide that our protagonists were drifting into circumstance from circumstance - being passive instead of active. It did put some strain on my enjoyment of the novel.
Where the overt plot is lacking, though, the themes of the novel serve to bind the novel together in a social commentary reflecting degeneracy, decline and other real-world problems. Going back to the Saturday morning cartoon analogy, you get a very general reason as to why the characters are doing the things they are - to thwart Shredder at every turn, to become a pokemon master, to show the fallen world that Aurini has created.
Aurini's prose minces no words and pulls no flourishes - it's straight, direct and functional, very appropriate for the world he's created. I do get the impression that the characters are indeed speaking like they were truly from their setting and not transplanted from a modern-day first world society; everything has a veneer of brusqueness to it. While there were a few formatting errors, mostly missing fullstops at the end of sentences, those were minor and uncommon enough to prevent any impedement of the flow of my reading.
Of the two protagonists of the novel, Wentworth and Raxx, the latter made a greater impression on me, and not just because I've always had a soft spot for mechanics or other technically-inclined characters in novels.
Allow me to explain. Wentworth at a first glance fits into the grizzled soldier with a heart of gold archetype - hardened by experience, keeping strangers at an arms' length with a healthy dose of paranoia, and a dark past. I'll admit that while I did warm up to him more nearer to the end of the novel, he didn't deviate enough from the archetype to truly stand out to me as a character.
Raxx, on the other hand, acts more innocently and good-naturedly throughout the course of the novel. While Wentworth conforms to the grit and dirt of Aurini's post-apocalyptic Canada, Raxx stands out in spite of it, representing virtues that should have been lost in the face of practicality - love, satisfaction in a job well done, honesty, childishness and a love for learning for its own sake. I've seen criticism of the author's choice for his name, especially since everyone else is named more "normally", but intentional or not, I think it only serves to show how alien Raxx is to Aurini's post-apocalyptic world.
Whether this is to be taken as a beacon or as a sore thumb, it's definitely a refreshing change from the token children used to express such ideas in a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. While there certainly is some sort of George-Lennie dynamic between Wentworth and Raxx, the latter is perfectly capable of minding himself without Wentworth's supervision, unlike so many of these "innocent" characters. Stupidity on the part of any character just to get the plot moving is a pet peeve of mine, and Raxx definitely isn't stupid.
To sum up everything I've said here: my impression is that while Wentworth is the drive of the story, the character who initiates and susses out the events that take place, Raxx is the narrative's soul and that makes him hog just a bit more of the limelight.
The antagonists, on the other hand, appear to embody the numerous societal ills that Aurini is well-known for pointing out in his videos - for example, Mad Dog and the Hounds are clearly indicative of the destructive and thuggish nature that the ah- underclass seems to revert to at the earliest given opportunity. The Mennites' zombie-like adherence and blind belief in the nobility of their leaders, namely Jenkins, mirror the adoration and trust so many people appear to have for the state today.
In a day and age where every antagonist must have a sob backstory to make them sympathetic and "relatable", Aurini reminds us of the ugly truth that some people just want to consume anything and everything within reach.
Aurini's post-apocalyptic Canada (I don't think it's explicitly mentioned it's Canada, but there are mentions to things like the RCMP) is schizophrenic in nature, and a number of details are left fuzzy (and reasonably so, because details like that explicitly stated would bog down the story). People like Raxx speak of the War in hushed tones and as the stuff of legends, plus enough time has lapsed for people to develop their own quaint social customs, such as in Blackstock and Hope. It's admitted that technological advancement has stalled and that people are struggling to maintain what's been left from pre-war times, and yet there hasn't been enough time for everything to collapse into obscurity. Since there're still books surviving from the pre-war era, I'm guessing about three or four generations out?
It didn't really bother me so long as I didn't consciously think about it, and the novel was entertaining enough that I was willing to suspend my disbelief and accept things the way Aurini presented them. I trust that his post-apocalyptic Canada has a solid internal consistency, although I personally wouldn't mind being tossed a bone of backstory every now and then.
Anyone who's watched Aurini's videos on Youtube will be familiar with the overt way he states his views on society, and when authors have these, they're often imported wholesale into fiction when said authors do their thing. (Bad Things will happen if I see another variant of "I don't want to be a lady!" in the next fantasy novel I read. Also, Terry Goodkind and the chicken of evil.)
While it's true that these themes and ideas are present for those who know to look for them, Aurini weaves them enough into the narrative that we're not treated to the speech out of Atlas Shrugged. You know which one I mean. When Wentworth philosophises, he does so in a time and place approriate for it, in his own voice, and in a way that feels like part of the narrative as opposed to being supported by it. I'm usually wary of books with a message because in my experience, authors tend to wield them like clubs, but thankfully no one was bashing me about the head here. Of course, I may be fully biased, knowing that I do share a number of the author's views and hence may have been more forgiving of the more soapbox-y moments, but I believe that Aurini understands that he's writing a novel and not a pamphlet.
To conclude, I'd like to give As I Walk These Broken Roads a 7.5 out of 10 total. While it wasn't an awe-inspiring or mind-blowing novel like Fight Club or The Way of Kings, it's nevertheless a solid read and I don't begrudge the money spent buying and shipping the novel halfway across the world.