History and romance both make for classic ingredients to mix up into a literary recipe. Sprinkle in a dash of drama with the horrors of war, shake until well-mixed, pour into a cake pan, then bake until fluffy and brown! So, when I had The Remnants show up at my dinner table, following that recipe to the letter, I grabbed a fork and dug right in. The question, though, is if the finished product is as good as all the ingredients mixed in would suggest?
Before I answer that question, let us look over the Starving Review Creed:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre.
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible.
To be completely honest, The Remnants is something of a mixed bag of treats and terrors. This Starving Reviewer is also something of a history buff and he certainly enjoys his romances so this should be an easy thing to enjoy and, indeed, I enjoyed a fair bit of this book. Let’s do as we usually do then and start with the good times.
There is no flinching in this book from the horrors of war and I feel it is at its best when it shows them. I appreciate the courage to face World War I head on and show all the tragedies that it caused. Those scenes in the book I found to be especially poignant. Often, World War I is overshadowed by its younger sibling, World War II, and it’s easy to forget how terrible it was. The Remnants does well to remind us of it.
At its core, the basic plot is solid. When it focuses on its characters and the aforementioned trials and tribulations of the war, the books remains well-paced and flavorful. There is a good deal of implied characterization, especially for the main characters, and that helps them step out from the ‘historical witness’ problem we sometimes see in historical fiction. They are not simply cardboard observers as history happens around them.
You may have noticed, though, that I said ‘implied’ characterization. What is that, you might ask? There is quite a bit of vital plot points that are simply implied by the author, left up to the reader’s imagination. Some of this can be good, certainly, letting the reader add to the story, but some of these left-out plot points are vital. The reader is left to wonder what the hell just happened, how we moved from A to C without B with no explanation and only the barest of implications of action. How did this happen?
Well, here’s the rub: there is a major flaw in the structure of this book, a misproportion of ingredients that throws the whole mixture off. The Remnants feels more divided into small ‘stories’ than chapters precisely. Yes, there’s a contiguous story line but there are many side-stories, interludes that introduce multiple new characters and resolve their stories within that chapter or at most one additional one. Some of these do indeed help further the plot or expand the overall themes of the book but there are just as many, if not more, that simply fluff the page count.
This isn’t an immediately bad thing, perhaps, but some of these extra stories lead to spikes in the pacing of the plot that can be jarring. In addition, it almost feels like room in the book was scraped away from the primary plot to ‘make room’ for these side stories, leading to the plot problem I noted above. This leads to situations where the reader has to fill in quite a few blanks and wonder just how a particular event happened.
This particularly hurts the main romance. Much, MUCH of the connection between the male and female leads is simply left up to the reader’s imagination. We go from a first meeting to kissing an hour later to making love the second time they meet in the book (with little stated implication they have met more) to getting married the third time they meet. Yes, there is that vague feeling they are meeting more than that but, with nothing stated to that fact, you get no sense as to how the relationship actually forms. The author seems to simply want to say ‘They love each other, okay?’ and have that be the end of it.
One final minor issue is the prologue. It’s a well-written piece, certainly, but its existence as a framing reference for the story essentially kills the ending. Any reader with half a brain will know exactly how the book will end, putting the entire weight of building dramatic tension solely on the build to the climax. That can work, yes, but it puts a lot more burden on the plot and requires a delicate hand to pull off.
This may look like a lot of criticism but at the end of the day, The Remnants was actually not that bad of a read. There is a strong core recipe here and if you have a particular love of period war cuisine, it is probably worth a read on the merits of its faithful depiction of the conditions and tribulations of World War I, both in the field and on the home front. However, as a romance, it leaves a bland and puzzling taste in my mouth.
FINAL VERDICT: *** (A recipe that mixes romance and war, the war is flavorful and tangy but the romance is flavorless and rushed.)