The following is a book review of Antioch by William Harlan. Below the review is a criticism of the book, which I hope can help all first-time authors develop their talents. You can learn more about the series and read other reviews at http://www.williameharlan.com, as well as see his magnificent illustrations. You may also listen to the audiobook version on the same site. Click here to like his series on Facebook.
Two worlds separated by an uncrossable ocean meet each other in the midst of a zombie apocalypse: this is the premise behind William Harlan’s novel Antioch, which is Part One of his series The Circle.
One world consists of a primitive medieval society, built around the authority of the church (a group of knights gifted with healing powers), and a distant northern king. The second is the more advanced world, either Victorian or twentieth-century, and is the home that a group of gun-totting, slang-speaking sailors have left behind, in the wake of the Fall.
Both societies have lost loved ones to the plague that is turning ordinary folk into deadly undead killers: bauran, also known as “devils.” Their meeting results in the breaking apart of the authority structures that bind Antioch, the largest city in a medieval wasteland.
Michael and John are two knights of the church who begin questioning their vows in the wake of the apocalypse. They are capable of summoning riin, a mysterious power that can heal wounds and make them the strongest warriors in their land. Riin bears some resemblance to the Force of the Jedi knights in Star Wars, but Harlan gives it a twist…
The Captain, Biggs, Andalynn, Ditch, and Drake are among the sailors who survived the deadly crossing of the ocean, only to arrive in the ghost town of Meroe, which has been devastated by zombies. They carry the big guns and strike up a friendship with the locals of Antioch. Except for Drake, they are much older than they appear—while in their sixties, they appear to be in their thirties. A mysterious figure named Ezekiel once saved them from the zombies, using riin to restore their youth and leaving behind only a single message:
Armageddon is arrived.
Break your silence.
Open the library.
The survival of both worlds hangs in the balance. The violence in the novel may be gruesome (what else to expect from a zombie apocalypse?), but the foul language is kept to a minimum. The concept of this book will appeal to any lover of zombie apocalypse movies or fiction, and to post-apocalyptic aficionados in general.
Congratulations to William Harlan for finishing his first self-published novel! Having written a novel myself, I am aware of the challenges that a first novel can bring, and the path of discovery the author inevitably journeys on in its process.
Harlan openly posts reviews that both criticize his novel on his novels, and those that praise it. This is a humble gesture that I respect. I could make a list of faults that I found with this novel, but instead of striking his novel over the head with a hammer, I will examine the work for what it is—a work written by a developing author. Hopefully, his future novels will overcome the setbacks of the first. All authors must evolve, and no one is more aware of this than myself, an unpublished novelist. For making the bold move of self-publishing his work, I can only praise William Harlan.
To a certain extent, my criticisms are biased towards the printed word–you might find that hearing the audiobook read by the author is smoother than reading the novel.
Now I invite all first-time novelists to look over my shoulder as I briefly examine his novel, to hopefully learn something for yourselves.
My first criticism would be the development of his characters. At the beginning, Michael has little characterization, though we see he is an accomplished warrior with vows he holds dear. About a third of the way through, Harlan starts exploring the relationships of his characters, which is good. They appear more fleshed out as the book continues. One scene, a flashback, presents Drake’s point of view quite well. However, the book does open weakly with characterization, and I would stress that what readers remember most about a book after setting it down are not action scenes, exquisite descriptions, or even world building, but characters.
The result of Harlan’s exploration of character is that more than half the book, it seems, is taken up with the characters’ boisterous camaraderie as they laugh at each other and crack jokes in a medieval restaurant. The historical inaccuracy of such a location aside (perhaps Harlan meant an inn?), the end result may be that character relationships are deeper, but it is at the expense of the story. While the opening of the novel promises a story of kick-ass zombie slaying and an attempt to find a cure for the disease, most of the novel is composed of talking-head scenes where nothing much happens.
The book is best when dialogue, setting, and characterization are balanced evenly in a scene, though many scenes are dialogue heavy and disembodied in the setting. Especially for fantasy authors, setting is important.
Furthermore, the medieval society seemed to lack many of the defining constraints that defined it, such as the aristocracy and the vassalage system, among other things. Perhaps Antioch is closer to a Renaissance city state? Also, the Continent has a vastly different history from our own world, but the customs are essentially the same as in the Unite States today, which I found to be unlikely. The book would have benefited from more setting details, and more world building.
Another rookie mistake is the author left me, as a reader, wondering why things were happening. Most scenes, especially at the beginning, but also in the middle and end, left me disoriented. This is because things about the world are simply not explained, or if they are, they should be explained sooner. While it is true that an author should not dump massive piles of exposition in the middle of a scene, Harlan seems to take that rule too literally. It is okay to explain backstory and world-building details a little bit, otherwise the context is lost on the reader. Doing it cleverly, sneaking it in through scene tension, is the best way to do this. It happens that first time authors may have a whole world plotted out in their head—I certainly struggle with that myself—but if it does not appear on the page, it does not transfer to the reader’s head. And if that does not happen, the writer has not done his telepathic job.
By page 19, I did not know anything about the characters or context, other than that Michael kicks zombie butt. But if that is so, why should I care? We need to bond to Michael right off the top, in the first paragraph, or even the very first sentence. The first sentence should announce a question to be answered, or a hint at a problem, and if possible the stakes of that for character. And we need context to follow that introduction.
In terms of style, Harlan has potential to be a good prose writer—many of his sentences are pithy, short, effective. However, it would be best if he stayed away from writing the Southern accents into the sailors’ dialogue, which distracted from what they were actually saying to each other. He can probably hint at the accent through word choice and sentence structure instead of cutting off vowels with apostrophes. (Also, it would be fun for the medieval people to speak more formally, to contrast better with the sailors.) There were also some common grammatical mistakes and awkward sentences, perhaps made awkward due to an attempt to antiquate the language. Worse was the repeated letters in dramatic, emotional dialogue (“Noooo!”) which reduced moments of deep emotion into bathos—emotion that fails because it tries too hard. The result of the accents and clumsy, unprofessional-looking prose is that I could not take the novel seriously. This would be fine if Harlan was writing a comedy, but given the post-apocalyptic scenario, I would doubt this was his intent. Mind you, this problem disappears slightly in the audiobook, since there is no physical page to frown at.
Finally, I would say his plot needs tweaking and more structure. The ending does not end with an obvious success or failure, but more or less in the middle of things. While it is in the middle, in a way, of the series, after reading nearly 200 pages of buildup, I was expecting a showdown that had some kind of closure to it—not a total defeat of evil, but a definite change of circumstances for the protagonists. Writing Excuses, a fantasy/science fiction writing podcast, talks about a seven-point story structure system that I find helpful and clarifying.
I write these criticisms to aid Harlan in his writing career, and I hope he will take them to heart, and learn the art of the writer. These criticisms may also aid any other first-time authors out there, whether you are published or not. Read some well-written fiction to learn from the greats, develop your personal style, and consult Stephan King’s On Writing and Strunk &White’s The Elements of Style. You might also want to consult How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, if that is your genre, and Writer’s Digest Write Great Fiction Series, especially Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. The only danger is one of my own ongoing struggles: you might read more about writing fiction than you actually write, so keep practicing and practicing!
Note: While it is a slight departure for The Vinciolo Journal to review a self-published author’s work, I hope the review above justifies my choice. I generally do not accept self-published works, but will handle queries, should they arise, on a case-by-case basis.