Reviews for Death's Kiss
Chronic Guardian chapter 5 . 7/19/2018
You know? I think it's the times in between that I like best. Not really your standard young adult octane, sure, but I enjoy the chance to catch my bearings and watch relationships unfold. Granted, the relationships at hand aren't the most amiable, but I like how you use them to further inform Johan's character. The more retrospect we get, the further we see him come.

That said, there are some pretty big breaks from the standard epistolary narrative rules. All of them are in service to the reader, so I understand why you do them as an author, but it feels strange for Johan to, say, explain who the tragic heroes are when the royal librarian very obviously knows already. If you could frame it as a "I truly did understand what you were talking about, then. I know it must have seemed like wounded pride at the time, an ignorant child pretending he knows the answers he ought to know, but I can prove to you now I understood the significance. I did know that Geirod attempted to found a religion in his own likeness, that Siegfried rose too fast to a station he could not fill, etc" then that would flow a little better with the established frame.

You may or may not care about this point, and I'm sorry to keep bringing it up if you don't, but to me, this is the contract one enters into when one frames their story as a letter. Yes, the reader must be properly informed, but if the supposed reader already knows the information then it doesn't make sense for Johan to step aside and reiterate the points. The usual solutions are to either address the letter to someone wholly uninvolved in the situation who therefore has about as much context as the actual reader, or to have the letter's author be trying to vindicate himself in hindsight. The bit about talisman magic, for instance, is of great interest to the actual reader, but I have to wonder why Johan would go into such detail about it with the royal librarian. Maybe phrase it as "I don't know if you had the chance to read through your entire collection before I left it in ashes. I apologize that I cannot send you a fully restored catalog, but, for what it may be worth, here is a general account of the selection I studied, though in perhaps not so many words as the originals". To please me as a reader (which, to be fair, in no way, shape, or form has to be one of your goals) you will always, always, ALWAYS have to justify the narrative within its own world first. This is what killed The Last Jedi for me: too much meta-narrative, not enough in-universe sense. I mean, ultimately, you obviously want that meta narrative as the part your readers are taking away, but it goes down better if it overlaps with the in-universe narrative. You get me? You are always talking to your audience, but ideally, you don't want the audience to realize that.

But... well, you're a sharp one, L. I'm probably worrying myself over nothing.

Ignoring the above rant, I will say that I like the relational dynamics of the story. I like that, as with the enemy commander, Johan sees the royal librarian as someone worth addressing and apologizing to. I especially like the significance of the ending line: if Johan had focused less on his enemy's demise, he may have escaped his violent fate. Ironically, his determination to best Mallory only strings him further along into Mallory's clutches. "One often meets his destiny on the path he takes to avoid it", eh?

Two quick typoes to report:
"...even {against}[when(?)] they were outnumbered, and when they were on land."

"You saw me [as] a monster from that day onwards"

Also, I really like the picture you paint of Mallory. Like... he's an awful person who has very effectively ruined Johan's chances at a normal life, but there's also a philosophical side of him. And it's that side, more than the curse, that truly brings Johan to his knees. Even if Johan somehow bests the curse, Mallory still wins unless Johan can confront his own moral shortcomings. Way to layer the conflict, L! This is the kind of thing I'd love to do more of in my own writing, because I find it infinitely more interesting than physical conflict, especially in a fantasy setting.

Finally, I like how this episode moves the story along with side activity. Like, an in-universe historian would probably mark the time by the combat events, so it's a nice constrast to show how the important development actually happens behind the scenes. Very much a "in the shadows of history" kind of feel that does warrant the use of letters to fill in the gaps. In that way, it reminds me of C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. I look forward to where you take us next!

Keep striving for excellence,
-CG
Chronic Guardian chapter 4 . 7/17/2018
Okay, for seriously reals now, I will review this thing!

In opening thoughts, I would like to start by commending you on the general setup of where this falls in the series. While the events of the story seem like a natural narrative progression from the protagonist coming home after his training, their true worth is in their thematic progression as we get one step closer to the real prince beneath the engineered purpose. Funny that his humanity is more real to his enemy than his own father, no?

On a more critical note, I feel like this narrative has a lot of standard frills that don't necessarily stick in the big picture. Take the opening, for instance. Given what we come to understand by the end of the story, it seems odd that Johan IV should treat his involvement like a reveal. This might work if the enemy commander had reason to doubt that Johan was behind the disappearances, but judging by the circumstance of their eventual meeting, it seems the commander has already connected the dots.

Similarly, Johan later claims he lost count of the trial skirmishes he was sent on. However, given his supernatural intellect and attention to detail, the phrase feels strange, like Johan is trying to mimic a feeling with popular phrasing. Throw in the fact that an insta-kill operative dramatically unbalances a fantasy war economy where life is limited, and I get the feeling that Johan wasn't deployed quite so frequently as he is implying. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea that Johan has a huge performance complex so his letters become saturated with whatever dramatic charm he can concoct for the given target, but that could also just be me reading too much into what's going on here.

Before you have a heart attack, though, remember that the story isn't ruined by these things, they are simply things you need to be aware of. They give me pause for thought and make me second guess what's going on. If that's your intention, then you are pulling it off decently and the story works well enough (always room for a little nuanced fine tuning, you know?). If that isn't your intention, then I'd say the narrative needs to be stripped down a little more and possibly reevaluate its narrative voice because the current form is making me jump at shadows.

As a third option, it's possible I'm just a paranoid reader whose nonsense shouldn't be put up with and you should just ignore me. Never discount that option. d(~,o)b

Oh, but that moment of "Either I would be useful in the way my father wanted, or I would be dead." That goes down as a wonderfully defining quote for this character. If I start doing a "Quote of the Week" feature, that's definitely going up.

Again on the critical side, be aware of word economy opportunities. Phrases like "in the battle camp of our troops preparing for your arrival" or "pine needles that had fallen to the dirt" can easily be shortened to things like "in the battle camp mustered against your arrival" or "fallen pine needles" respectively. Of course, you can usually get away with waiting for the second draft to worry about these because the first draft should be more about giving the concept a workable form. Just keep this in mind if and when you decide to spruce this up as a resume item. d(n,n)b

Random reflection on the "I work better alone" passage, I'm currently playing through Naughty Dog's The Last of Us and I can't help but feel Johan's pain. Every time I'm in listening mode and one of my allies slips into view behind me, I have to fight the urge to take a swing at 'em. But that could just be the hazards of playing a stealth survival game with the sound off.

I also really like this idea that Mallory (the enemy prince, I presume?) essentially uses his forces as bait to lure out Johan once he realizes what's going on. It draws a nice distinction with Mallory acting in the rights of a royal and Johan being put on the level of the enemy commander: a smaller piece in a bigger game. Plus, it gives an added layer of nobility to the commander in contrast to the distant leader he serves. Well constructed, L.

"If I could speak to you again, I would like you to know your mistake was not your decency. If all men treated each other with the same patience and tolerance you showed me, we would be much better off in this world"
I think this line counts as the emotional climax of the story for me. We already know Johan escapes and can see the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. And yet, this is the moment of regret that gives meaning to the loss. If my "Johan has a narrative performance complex" theory is true, I feel like this is a rare moment of raw honesty in a bitter, confused life.

I also like how even through to the end, you enforce this disconnection from the living. Like, Johan doesn't recognize the pain and death he causes because it's just so ingrained into him, but that goes on to separate him from normal humans. So it's only in the respect he receives from the enemy commander that he becomes more than a tool for war. It's a heartbreakingly beautiful moment of realizing just how much of Johan has been sacrificed and a crushing assurance that he stays broken until it's far too late.

All in all, I enjoyed it! You have a great thematic drive and I like how you've chosen to explore Johan's moral weakness in a way that we can still empathize with him afterward. After all, it's easy to justify cruelty as long as the rest of the world does the same. Once we see someone else doing better than that, it's easy to hate them for not sharing in our weakness. You capture that feeling rather poignantly, and I hope that someday you revisit this as a publishing venture.

See you again soon, hopefully!
-CG
Chronic Guardian chapter 3 . 7/2/2018
To my dear friend L,

How does one add instant intrigue to their spin-off fantasy universe? By actually bothering to explain why things are the way they are and having those reasons have consequences. It's patented instant plot thickener! Better watch your back, I might just steal the recipe one of these days...

First up, let's talk structure. Usually this is one of those things I talk about when I have absolutely nothing else to talk about, but here I want to highlight how you've effectively portioned and paced the whole thing. On a meta level, it is so easy to treat this like a check list and say "Well, sage #1 will take x amount of time on the page and I suppose sage #2 will give the prince a similar treatment with the pieces shuffled around". Our minds are drawn to pattern recognition, so if there is a formula to your writing, readers will often find it and use it to anticipate what comes next in the story. Here, however, you do a good job making this feel like a progression rather than a cycle. The prince always arrives as an unworthy intruder into the respective sage's tutelage, but this is because the prince lives a test tube existence where the only traits he has are those that have been specifically cultivated. When he arrives at Oleander's, he has been primed for destruction, at Cesair's, for detachment. He learns genuine lessons from each one that stick. His existence is calculated, and we see that in the structure, but it is also varied. He has been gifted with much. However, after all of these sections that show him building these strengths, you then have a perfect closing section that shows what has been neglected and will never be reclaimed. The exactness of how the story is set up feeds into the character and the ultimate point he's trying to make. Really, I know it's the basics of the basics, but I simply must mention it when you manage to make it look so GOOD.

In more general compliments, I like a lot of the jaded narrative voice you have. It must be awful for a wise character to know what they could have become, and then also know they've been specifically shunted away from that happier existence. Oh, the classic dramatic tragedy runs strong here...

Also, good job making the sages stand out from eachother! I especially liked how Oleander is named after a rather ornamental-but toxic-bloom. Nice little hidden touch there! d(~,o)b

On the more critical side, the first order of business in writing an epistolary story is to remember that related events must remember their audience to maintain cohesion. While this is obviously meant to serve as a story for us 4th wall readers, the initial framing of one character addressing another sets up a narrative framework that doesn't always feel like it's being followed here. The ending, in particular, feels more like a narrative fabrication than the end to a letter, and some of the events in between (such as explanations about magical elements) seem oddly... well, clinical. LIke, maybe I just expect less of our protagonist, but I feel like there should be a little more spite here. I expected sort of a "These are the great gifts you so coveted, my 'father'. Shall I tell you the secrets you will never hold?" kind of sardonicism. Suffice to say, there were bits where I feel like the narrative would shade back to the overarching conversation between the dehumanized son and the estranged father.

But hey, for what it is, it still delivers well enough. Thank you for another excellent chapter, L! I'll try to get to the others shortly.
Chronic Guardian chapter 2 . 6/25/2018
Wow, talk about subverting genre tropes! How very Shannon Hale-esque of you. So you know that trend going around Hollywood of taking established movies/roles/etc. and gender swapping them? They need to hire you so you can fix their sloppy adaptations and cram some sense into 'em. I love how you somehow do role matching without making it feel like copy and paste. Like, I can tell who is supposed to be a parallel of whom, but there's a great layer of original depth and nuance that you work in to make it your own.

I like our main character a little more now that I can get a good look at him. His personality is convenient to the aims of the narrative (I mean, you're writing to a supposedly captive audience, dude. Maybe at least consider an appendix for the usual boring blessings for royal children and they're appropriate uses, just in case you run out of material?), but it doesn't feel forced within the context of the story. He's smart enough to be a competent storyteller in-universe, so you're allowed to introduce elements only insofar as they pertain to the prince's interests/relate to his story.

Also, seriously, royal guards in fantasy settings are a purely decorative feature. They're paid to look stern and stand in formation. Anything else is above their pay grade.

I like how you arrange the dominoes for the blessing scene. Little (possibly) unsuspecting apprentice upstages his master and before you know it the most powerful people in the room have rendered themselves useless and ruined the prince's life in the process. It all relies on the provocation of petty human nature and falls together very naturally.

Oh, and then there's the enemy prince. In all of one scene, he's already a more interesting anti-hero than the modern treatment of malefeceint. Even though he's essentially committing casual infanticide, he seems like someone who, under less politically motivated circumstances, might have taken pity on the crown prince. Of course, that could just be me being optimistic and this kid is actually bad straight to the bone, but the point is that he pulls off his mechanical role in the story and looks interesting doing it. In short, you have me hooked.

On a slightly more critical note, I feel like "into shards on the floor" in the penultimate paragraph is a little, well... not tacky, but it feels like the metaphor is being a little overextended before it's made. You get me? I feel like you could do just as well without it, but that could just be me. Maybe experiment and see what you think?

All in all, though, this fits into the solid one-off style while still furthering the overarching thread of the anthology. You know how to arrange your elements and charmingly phrase your narrative, but I wouldn't expect any less from you. Keep this up and I might have to add this anthology to my favorites!

Keep up the great work!
-CG
Chronic Guardian chapter 1 . 6/21/2018
Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. Why isn't this posted at the billboard? You get right on that, young lady, or I might just have to do it for you!

Alright, so the usual flatteries of great imagery and intriguing plot-flips still apply to this situation. You have some wonderful natural strengths as a writer, L, and these seem to always find their way to the surface no matter the subject matter.

On the more critical side, I feel the "You" narrative might run a little long for illustrative purposes. Maybe condense and/or repurpose some of it for our main narrator? Of course, you could argue that the narrator phrases all this in "you" terms as a way to slightly distance himself from it, but I'm not sure how well that argument holds up when he totally owns it a few lines down.

Also, the verb tense gets a little wonky at the end of the "you" section. Maybe be a little more careful there.

More than anything, I think I like the meta surrounding why the story is being told. In order to continue in sanity, our narrator must believe that there is someone out there who can hear him. It's also just now occurring to me that I'm assuming the narrator is male because you mentioned in the description that the hero is male. But then, that's making the (perhaps fatal) presumption that the narrator is also the hero. Could it be we're listening to the tragic lament of this version's "Malefecient" character? If anyone could pull it off, I'd certainly trust you over Disney.

Finally, I'm not sure how I feel about this ending on this note. I mean, there's the obvious hook of "what happens next?" But there's also the possibility of "what if that's all you find?" Like, imagine wandering in this limbo and finding this book. After perhaps years of solitude, just reading a few lines written by someone who's been through the same thing feels like breathing again after holding your breath underwater. But then, right when you think you're going to settle in with this storyteller as a companion, you find he vanished and the rest of the book is blank. So... dang, it could really work as both a prelude as well as a standalone.

Also, yeah, can't say I care for these local colors. Well portrayed, though.

Thanks for being an original inspiration! Keep up the great work, kid!
Yours,
-CG
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