Jackaby (William Ritter)

Posted: August 22, 2015 in fiction
Tags: , , , ,

Well. Somebody got his start writing fan fic. I can’t really judge, not having gotten a good start to writing fiction at all. I started with literary criticism, switched to journal writing, and have now melded the two together. But once I got used to the idea of reading fan fic, I adjusted my expectations and really enjoyed the book.

One of the hallmarks of fan fic is that, no matter where or when the story takes place, the protagonist will sound exactly like a teenage girl from the early twenty-first century. Perhaps if they would all accept the head canon that all the Mary Sues of our time have a device that allows them to travel through all of fictional time and space, their stories would become more plausible. I mean, it’s not like Abigail Rook has an important backstory. Her father was an archaeologist who never gave her credit for her intellect, so she swiped her college money and went on a dinosaur dig in southeastern Europe somewhere. The dig failed in only a few months, so she used the last of her cash to sail to America, the Land of Opportunity and Second Chances. But she doesn’t use any British speech patterns, and really, lots of Americans like tea. That can’t be your character’s only British trait. And, there is a wealth of writing from New England in the 1890s; there’s no need to use contemporary interjections. Do your research, and write like Oscar Wilde or Max Beerbohm, or hell, Henry James would do, but if you want to write a non-fan-fic novel, make your protagonist sound like she’s from the right time and place.

And, if you’re going to give her an amazing backstory like an Edwardian dinosaur dig, use it. Any other backstory would have done equally well without altering the plot in the slightest. Miss Rook could have been brought up to service, but when her master tried to rape her she ran off, didn’t stop till she reached the docks, stowed away on the Lady Charlotte, stole a minimal amount of food to stay alive during the passage, and then mingled with the crowds to get off ship when they arrived in New Fiddleham. Or. Miss Rook could have been raised on a farm in Yorkshire, with her parents saving their sixpences to send her to finishing school so she can train to be a governess. She knows that it won’t be enough to pay for school, but she doesn’t want to hurt their feelings, so she takes the money and buys a ticket to America instead. She can actually only afford half the ticket, so she works in the kitchen to pay for the rest of her fare. Or. Miss Rook’s father died in a Welsh mining accident when she was young, so her mother raised her as a single parent in Cardiff. She fell in love with a local baker’s apprentice, and they ran off to the New World together. He contracted some sort of terrible disease from the other working class emigrants and died on-ship. Or, if we scrap the British thing, Miss Rook was raised in post-Reconstruction South Carolina. Unable to cope with her repressive family and harsh economic conditions, she runs off to the North, envisioning a utopia of freedom and useful work. All of these are equally if not more plausible than Ritter’s dinosaurs, and switching to any one of them would not change anything that happens in the book.

So, what does happen? A nice, somewhat anachronistic girl gets off a boat in a fictional New England town in the early 1890s. No one wants to employ her, and she eventually finds a notice for a detective’s assistant. This detective sees supernatural creatures that no one else can, so it’s all fairies and werewolves and redcaps and trolls and banshees and ghosts and this frog that emits poisonous gas if you stare at his cage and a duck that used to be a man but who refuses to change back. Jackaby is modeled on Sherlock Holmes, the one that exasperates Rupert Graves in contemporary London. Given this much information, you can probably predict with some accuracy what’s going to happen. Murder mystery, coverup of magical elements, repressed love, Mary Sue being a handy target but otherwise kind of useless but everyone inexplicably takes care of her anyway, that sort of thing.

And yet. Despite all this bitching about things that don’t work, Jackaby is a genuinely enjoyable novel. It’s a fast-paced, undemanding text, and if you let go of the expectation that it’s going to be the next Great Expectations, you can easily get caught up in it. Suspend your disbelief and get swept away by the current. In comparing Ritter to, say, Cassandra Clare, I prefer Ritter. She aims high and misses widely; he lowers his sights and hits the target.

  1. It is sometimes a great grief to me that you DON’T write fiction. If you did, I would buy it new. In hardcover.

    • scribblefeather says:

      I’ll second that emotion!

    • theoccasionalman says:

      I think I may have Mendelssohn Syndrome. There’s a legend that, sometime in his 30s, Mendelssohn heard a performance of his own Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Listening to it, he realized that he had written the best music of his career at age 17, so he threw over composing and took up painting. I occasionally read the stories that I wrote for the Creative Writers Guild in undergrad, and I love them, but the person I was then had a freshness, a moral innocence that I can’t even approximate now. My voice has changed like a seventeen-year-old boy soprano. I miss writing like that person; I miss being him. I want to go back and have him make different choices.

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