Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: "DarkAge" by Kirk Warrington

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on April 21, 2009

After finishing Phil Rossi's Crescent and waiting in eager anticipation for the final chapters of Jack Kincaid's Hoad's Grim, my hunger for more good storytelling was ravenous. I took Phil Rossi's advice and headed to Podiobooks to hunt down another great listen, and found a huge list of books that sounded like they might appeal to me.

I spent some time downloading first chapters and loading them into a playlist on my Ipod, then listened to them in the car on the way home. The ones that grabbed me made it as far as being downloaded in full, and one of those was DarkAge by Kirk Warrington.

I would love to rave about how good this was. I'd love to say that it was hilarious and satisfying and well worth the listen, just because I don't really like to sound critical. Unfortunately, for all its good points, DarkAge ultimately let me down as a listener, and I would be hesitant to recommend it.

First and foremost, let me say again that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the amount of work that goes into not only writing a book (I've done that myself - phew!) but also into doing an audio production of any scale, much less the recording of a whole book. I've made short films and worked in the film industry for years, so I know there's no such thing as a "small project". So to Kirk W and Phil R and Jack K (and Derek Gilbert, whose book Iron Dragons I'm currently listening to, and Christoph Laputka, who produces the astounding Leviathan Chronicles) who go to all this effort, and do it all for free, I tip my hat. Sometimes, however, the mark is missed.

DarkAge reeled me in from the first chords of the crunching heavy metal guitar riff that frames each episode. The basic premise is that a group of people - in this case fantasy role-players - are magically swept away into another world where they find they have come to inhabit their characters from the game they were just playing. Suddenly, the risks they were so happy for their paper-based characters to face are more than just a game; they're deadly reality. As the story progresses, the characters realise that in order to survive in this harsh world, they must become their DarkAge characters. If they don't, they won't have those characters' skills that allow them to prosper as they would in the game. The option is penury and shame at best, and death at the worst.

In terms of theme, DarkAge seems to be about the struggle for integrity of one's own self when faced with the challenges of emerging into a world that is more brutal and real than you were ever prepared for. As a teen coming-of-age metaphor, DarkAge bundles up the fears and hopes that we all had and throws them at us in a bloody, bruising haze; responsibilities can be as much a burden as a blessing, and making the wrong choices has real consequences. Sometimes making those choices, even standing up for what you believe in, can be fatal.

The narrative was linear and uncomplicated, which sadly also left the character development sorely lacking. While we knew all the characters and understood their individual motives and desires reasonably well, the need to abandon their old selves to survive tended to force them all in a single direction, even those who resisted that change.

Where this really fell down for me, however, was that the hook in a story of this nature is that you want to know: How do they get home? Without wanting to spoil the book, suffice to say that this question is never answered in a manner that satisfied me, given the hours I spent listening to DarkAge. In fact, there were far too many questions of that nature, questions that are really the guts of a story of this kind, that were never answered. Instead, the story focused on the conflicts between the characters themselves and the people they meet in the world of Merinia, and we never get to really learn about what makes this world tick. Conflict and story are all good of course, but it came at the cost of world-building and character arcs.

While this left the story open to a lot of action and adventure, of which there is plenty, and a good dose of humour, much of it fairly ribald, DarkAge ultimately feels shallow and under-developed, like watching someone else play a hack-and-slash computer game.

Warrington uses the idea that this is not a parallel world but a game world to lampoon many of the ridiculous rules that abound in roleplaying, and in that he well and truly hits the mark. (I think I'm bleeding to death! / You Idiot! Just drink a healing potion!) [Not an actual quote, but you get the idea.]

The other three key elements of the podcast - namely performance, writing, and production - also need work.

Performance-wise, while Warrington's theatrical skills leave much to be desired, he was by no means the worst I've heard. His reading of the script was deliberate and came across as forced, but he was nothing if not clear. He also handled the large cast of characters well, creating unique and distinctive, if not necessarily brilliant, voices for all of them. Some were harder to pick than others, but Warrington's insistence on writing dense lines of verbiage to follow almost every mouthful of speech ensured that we always know who's talking.

Yet it was this verbosity which also made me grit my teeth while listening. I would think to myself, I don't need you to tell me that he said that with annoyance, I can tell from the dialogue and the tone. This over-writing slowed the story down and seldom added any illumination. I think it may have improved towards the end, however. With the help of a brutal editor this book could be tightened up tremendously and be a snappier, more captivating piece of sword-and-sorcery than it currently is.

The sound effects were the real low point. Like I said, good on you Kirk for even getting this far. I've been spoiled by podcasts like Leviathan, Hoad's Grim and Eden, which all have stunning audio production. But the cries of the demons in the last chapters just made me laugh, or at least groan. Any tension that had been built in any scene that those demons squealed in just went down the drain as soon as that noise came through the speakers. Surely there must be better Creative Commons 'Demon Screams' out there for people to use. Kincaid, any suggestions?

Overall, I'll say that I'm glad I stuck with it to the end, but it was getting to be a struggle, and I really wanted to see them get home. Given the ending, however, I guess there is a sequel in the wind. This had the potential to be a good read, but ultimately it failed to convince me. Unless you really love the "whisked away into a parallel/divergent universe" concept, I wouldn't recommend DarkAge. The high point is Warrington's ability to satirise the genre and the RPG world, and worth a listen if you like that sort of thing. I know I laughed more than I usually do reading fantasy or sci-fi, and for that I'm grateful. And while I'd like to know what happens to Kev and Vaughn and Sake and Jer, and James and Hades, I don't think I'll be rushing out to listen to the sequel.

2 1/2 Stars.

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