Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tribulation's War (Kyri Freeman)

Genre mash-ups are all the rage, but since writing an effective one takes considerably more talent than a straightforward novel in any particular genre, I wouldn't recommend it to any but a highly skilled and practiced writer. Kyri Freeman's Tribulation's War: A Civil War Ghost Story would be a reasonable Exhibit A in a brief against mash-ups. The Civil War side of the book is pretty damn good; the ghost story side, woeful.

Freeman is abundantly talented, but her particular combination of pluses and minuses may prove difficult to utilize in a successful novel. Her great strength is in descriptive, rhythmic prose that makes you feel the physical and atmospheric realities of place:

Blue shadows haunted the ground under oaks and chestnut trees, and in cold hollows snow still lay, ice-hard and white as bone. Tribulation Jones paused to listen to the Blue Ridge, running water and wind in branches, a hawk's scream high up in the gray sky; wiped cold mist from his face with a ragged sleeve.

That is the opening paragraph, and except for the overly obvious, symbolic naming of the protagonist, a very promising one: you are immediately there, feeling that cold, hearing that hawk. The prose continues at that high level of quality throughout the book and is a consistent pleasure.

The story gets off to a (too) fast start as Tribulation encounters a group of friends joining up with the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War, and throws his lot in with them on about five minutes' acquaintance. This did not seem quite credible, but Freeman sweeps you along into the thick of action so quickly that I was willing to suspend disbelief. Vivid action it is, too, on par with the best descriptions of Civil War battles that I have read anywhere.

What isn't quite so vivid are the personalities - but this works, in a way. Tribulation's War has a slightly oneiric flavor right from the start, and the shadowy, fading-in-and-out parade of soldiers fits in with that. We learn their names but little enough about them; they are certainly not given the kind of full-blown introductions one typically finds in a realist novel. Freeman has a trick of withholding or miscounting how many men are involved in a given scene, and then one speaks up and you think, "Wait a second - I didn't know he was there."

The lack of flair for characterization and for writing dialogue that reveals personality memorably could be a handicap for Freeman in writing other novels, and not one easily overcome, either.

There are hints of the supernatural in Book One of Tribulation's War, which occupies about 2/3 of the whole text, but because they are mostly just hints, they sustain the waking-dream tone without getting in the way of what is shaping up as a superior novel of the Civil War.

But then the war ends (with almost all the men we have been introduced to lying dead), the action shifts forward 10 years, and after a failed marriage and with a PTSD-fueled inability to let the war go, Tribulation finds himself pulled back to the home of the "Old Woodman," who figured in a brief episode in Book One. We find out that the Old Woodman is a 200-year-old conjure-man who has long had plans for Tribulation, and Book Two of Tribulation's War focuses entirely on Trib's apprenticeship in magic and his attempts to ward off his doppelganger "The Fetch."

Verily, my heart sank within me. The novel hurtles off the rails at this point, down a slope and into a wooded gully from which no survivors shall emerge, except perhaps the battered reader.

Honestly, the 75-page Book Two ranks as one of the most tedious pieces of reading I have suffered in a long time. Because I enjoyed Book One well enough, I felt more keenly disappointed than I would have if the whole novel had been dismissable.

Would I read another book of Freeman's? Maybe - but I'd read the description carefully before I did. She has got a genuine writerly gift, with some glaring deficits. The best passages in the Civil War section of Tribulation's War are superbly done, but unfortunately the overall scheme of the book is badly misconceived. Freeman is a fine realist writer who should beat off any temptations to write speculative fiction with a sturdy pole - but looking at Amazon, I see that her two other published novels are installments in a fantasy trilogy.

Stop the insanity!    

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