Starving Review: NANO Archive 1: The City of Fire by Jason Crutchfield


NANO Archive 1: The City of Fire by Jason Crutchfield (Amazon, Goodreads)

Welcome to another installment of the Local Author Smorgasbord, where we cut through the offerings of the Gulf Coast’s chefs!  Today, after a week’s delay, I finish off the gut-busting post apocalyptic science-fiction meal, NANO Archive 1: The City of Fire.  On the surface, it looks like a real treat for me, seeming to have some of my favorite ingredients served up in generous portions.  In reality …

Before we parse out that reality, let us proclaim the Starving Reviewer Creed:

  1. I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre
  2. I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible.

Let’s cut mustard here.  I wanted to like this book.  I wanted to like it a lot.  On some levels, it greatly resembles one of my favorite pen-and-paper role-playing games of all time (Gamma World).  NANO tries to paint the picture of an over-the-top (yet still brutally realistic) post-apocalyptic world where there are all sorts of strange nanotech enhancements instead of your usual radioactive mutants in the landscape.  This should be rich, flavorful, like the best kind of cheese.  What comes out, though, is something of a hot, melted mess.  Still, there are positives here, so let’s start with NANO’s good qualities.

The chef has some interesting ideas that could lay the foundation for a tasty cake, indeed.  Looking at the story presented in NANO at the macro level, the big picture if you will, there is a solid storyline here and some of the intellectual and philosophical ideas presented in the light of the post-apocalyptic world outlined have some real legs on them.  Couple that with a technically sound grammatical sense and things are looking up.

That’s also the limit at which NANO begins its own personal apocalypse of sorts.  I must apologize at this point; I write these reviews to both inform readers AND help authors, and I cannot do that without being blunt to a degree.  This one is going to be blunt.

NANO commits a few major writing sins.  The first few are at the stylistic level, the wordsmithing and plot formation, and we’ll tackle those first.  Leading off the pile of bad ingredients is the thesaurus-fueled purple prose that dominates every single sentence of this book.  Now, you all know I can be a wordy writer and speaker myself, so you must understand for me to point this out requires some big problems stylistically.  There are few nouns in this work that don’t have adjectives and few adjectives that don’t have adverbs.  This is coupled with obvious blind thesaurus  choices, as there are quite a few words that, while synonyms (words with similar meanings to the intended word), aren’t exact analogues.  For example, at one point, a slope is part of the scenery and then described multiple times with the word ‘glacis’ … which is a form of military fortification created by a gentle slope.  A character wearing a jacket is stated as ‘X donned a jacket’, to paraphrase it … when that means to put on clothes, not to wear them.  These are just a few of the many, many times the author delves too deep into the thesaurus spice jar to come up with the wrong one and it makes stretches of the narrative both cloying and confusing at the same time.

This excessive and confusing descriptive style compounds the other major wordcrafting issue here and that is simple word density.  The simplest of action scenes can turn into multi-chapter engagements as actions are described in minute, flower, and excessively descriptive statements.  One part that stuck in my mind is a point where it takes two full, long paragraphs for the protagonist to describe herself drawing her weapons before finally throwing them at targets.  The pure, choking clogs of words turns what should be a swift pace of action into a slow, plodding, sleep-inducing pace.  This is magnified even more by the problematic exposition and world-building.

Which brings us into the more subjective critiques.  There is a strong propensity of NANO to drop into multi-page info dumps, where we are told every minute detail of a situation, usually involving information about the post-apocalyptic world or what led up to it, but more than a few times it delves into point-blank character description and characterization.  The book, in fact, starts with a seven page info dump about the world and it doesn’t really relent.  Perhaps the worst examples of this are multiple points where a character, in the middle of a pitched battle, breaks into a page or more of spoken exposition, usually about some special ability of whoever the protagonists are fighting OR about the protagonists themselves … and no one does anything during that time but to stop and listen.  While this might happen in, say, a Silver Age superhero story, it’s both pace-killing and tonally dissonant in what is billed as a gritty, bloody post-apocalyptic tale.

Past all of this, which are big problems on their own, there are the points that are entirely subjective for me.  I found the world to have interesting ideas, but ultimately knee-capped itself through inconsistent rules for its science-fiction elements, especially many head-scratching ideas about nanotechnology, as well as what the concept of world transcendence means.  I often had to stop, flip back to precious sections, and try to make what was previously writ mesh with current events in the book in a way that makes sense.  Speaking of the nanotech angle, the great potential of what a writer could do with something as versatile as nanotech is squandered to, essentially, give the main characters neat superpowers, with no real consideration to all the other technological and societal implications of nanotechnology that we are already experimenting with in our modern 21st century world.

This problem is magnified by the extent of the info-dumping.  We are told SO MUCH about how this world works and how the technology works that the inconsistencies are that much more glaring.  It gets especially strange when the world seems to dance between darkly realistic to comic book over-the-top.  Is this sci-fi?  Science fantasy?  Bloody and brutal or jokey and cock-sure?  It’s all over the place.  This might work, again, with a more concise, resonating story, but here it becomes one more problem.

Worst of all, though, are certain instances of characterization.  I just didn’t like the main character at all and I couldn’t really relate to her either.  As this is a first person narrative, we are stuck in this character’s head for the entire trip, made worse as to how strange it is that a character who was orphaned at age 13 and then raised by a group of rough-and-tumble mercenaries talks like a walking thesaurus.  She just seems … false.  I can’t describe it any other way.

I know realize after writing it that this is NOT the worst.  The worst is one particular sequence with (A rare SPOILER here, but I can’t avoid it) a stereotypical gay antagonist with androgynous features, flowing hair, and an exaggerated fake French accent.  Sounds pretty bleh already, right?  That’s not the really bad part.  This character, of course, hates women because of prejudice (and we get a page of insert in the middle of a climactic action sequence to explain why prejudice against homosexuals came back after a golden age of human ‘transcendence’).  But we’re not done yet!

After beating him, our heroine then lies on top of him and threatens sexual molestation to make him talk!

Again, maybe, in a better written piece, this could be some testament to just how far our heroine will go in her quest for vengeance, as if this was meant to be a deep character study into the mind of a psychopath or the like.  Yet NO ONE else calls her down on this, and there are two other protagonists on scene, one of which was a former friend who still wants to save the antagonist.  It’s a gross, ham-handed scene that signifies the worst this book has to offer.

… I think I’m spent, at least for the moment.

Ugh, look, if the author does read this, know that there are some really interesting ideas here and the core story itself is a strong one.  This could theoretically be torn down and rebuilt into a really amazing book.  But as it stands now …

… NANO Archive 1: The City of Fire has big ideas, but crumbles to pieces under bloated description, inconsistent theme, and an unlikable protagonist.  I can’t really recommend this to anyone unless you are simply desperate for a new sci-fi or post-apocalypse book to read.  Still, if the chef at some point breaks this meal down and tosses out the spoiled ingredients, it could turn into something grand.  I wish for the best here!

FINAL VERDICT: ** (Big ideas, but crumbles to pieces under bloated description, inconsistent theme, and an unlikable protagonist!)




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