[Warning: The following review is NSFW.]
I decided to give books of a certain quality their own special title so that you could differentiate the snark from the more serious reviews, ergo “Sturgeon’s 90%” (props go to my friend Ken for coming up with the name).
The title that has the dubious honour of being the first book to be reviewed in this way is Gatekeeper by Rayne Auster, the book which taught me to never, ever trust a cover.
See, I thought this was a pretty cover, but I have a high tolerance for anime-esque art, so YMMV. I have to say that, in general, I love contrast like this. The artist was clearly going for a fire-and-ice kind of motif, and, looking at this cover without reading the synopsis, I’d probably guess that it was about a romantic relationship between two men and there’s fire and ice mixed up in that somewhere. Perhaps the point is that they are opposites?
BTW, don’t be fooled by the right figure’s long hair, he’s rocking the pretty boy look.
This is the point where you say “It’s another one of those books, isn’t it?”
Yes, it’s a m/m romance/fantasy thing written by a woman. I’ve read a few of them in my short life, so I can’t say that I was under any delusion that what I was about to read would amount to award winning literature, but, well, the synopsis seemed mildly interesting.
In short, this book is basically my punishment for fetishizing gay men….again….
Let’s back up a bit. The basic premise is that there are two worlds, the Land of Gold (Duiem) and the Land of Silver (Careil). The two worlds were kept in balance by a group of individuals known as Gatekeepers. The Gatekeepers in turn were protected by Wardens who shared a deep emotional bond with the wards, that is, until the Wardens acted on false information and slaughtered the Gatekeepers, cutting both worlds off from one another and throwing them out of balance.
Duiem is now a desert world embroiled in war. Amidst all the fighting, the heir to the throne, Kaji, is to be bonded to a woman of the prestigious Kiyou Clan in order to fulfill an ancient prophecy. However, just as they are about to be joined, the ritual is interrupted by Aniol–a mysterious pale-haired man with no memory–and Kaji accidentally bonds to him instead. After being betrayed by forces that are too close to home for comfort, Kaji and Aniol are forced to brave the desert chasing an ancient legend telling of a mysterious land of water and air.
Or, to put it another way: Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Book!
Now, as I said, I enjoy contrast, I suspect many others find a certain appeal in sticking two characters with vastly different personalities in the same general area and getting them to work together or fall in love or whatever’s appropriate for the story, and it is, like tropes in general, not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.
Or, at least, it wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself if the writing wasn’t so horrible as to make the fanfiction I wrote when I was eleven seem compelling and brilliantly characterized by comparison. You can even read it here, if you like, but, you know, I was eleven at the time, so it’s not my best work.
No, wait, actually, I changed my mind, don’t look at it, it’s embarrassing! I SAID DON’T LOOK AT IT!
Anyways, you know how one of the most important rules of writing is to show, not tell? This author clearly has never heard of this rule, because that’s all she does.
On and on it goes, the telling. Don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen and persons of indeterminate gender, the author will leave absolutely nothing to your imagination, nothing to inference, you will know literally everything from what each character is feeling at that exact moment to how a plant blooming in a barren landscape is a symbol of hope and people are very happy that its there because it’s a symbol of hope for them.
Seriously, it’s like every single person, place or thing has a big neon sign next telling you exactly what their purpose is in the narrative. There’s no subtlety to it at ALL. Instead of making an attempt at showing the reader that the villain is clearly thinking evil thoughts, the author just opts to say “The villain was clearly thinking evil thoughts, and also he’s evil.”
This is one of the worst kinds of books, IMHO, the kind that treats its readers like they’re idiots who need to be spoonfed every single aspect of a book. Perhaps if I didn’t occasionally dip my toes into the genre, I’d make a snide remark about the intelligence of its fans, but quite frankly, I don’t think any fans deserve having their intelligence insulted to this degree
excepting fans of Fifty Shades of Grey.
And, you know, there are some half-decent ideas in here, like the section before each chapter that slowly reveals the background events that let to the two worlds being so fucked up. The problem with these sections is that they needlessly repeat themselves, over and over and over, and come across trying to sound philosophical when they’re really just saying “and love is great” again, over and over and over.
My fellow writers: READERS ARE NOT STUPID! Please make yourself a sticky note with that phrase on it and stick it somewhere where you will see it every day.
While I’m on a roll, let’s talk about point of view and narrative voice, because Gatekeeper attempts to pull off a third person omniscient perspective with an alternating perspective, and the result is this horribly sloppy mess with characters somehow knowing what other characters are thinking and frequent changes in point of view within paragraphs with no clear demarcation between switches.
This leads to some really confusing moments where the reader doesn’t know how the fuck a character A suddenly knows character B’s name (when that character has not introduced themselves) or whether the story has suddenly switched perspectives within the same paragraph and the reader is now looking through character B’s eyes.
This leads to scenarios like this:
Character A smiled at the man reading a book. Character B [the boy from the last sentence] closed his book and glared at Character A. What an ass! Character B thought.
Character A was very offended that Character B thought he was an ass.
Consistency, this book does not have it. I’ll say one thing for many of the other horrible books I’ve read: they might be craptastic, but at least this aspect is consistent.
Seriously, this is just not even trying.
So, the writing is craptastic, that’s been established, but, truth be told, other issues I have with this book have less to do with the book being craptastic and more to do with the entire “m/m relationships as written by women, particularly heterosexual women” genre as a whole. You have your aggressive, domineering “seme” type (Kaji) paired with your submissive, empathetic, effeminate “uke” (Aniol) who is always, always, ALWAYS presented as exotic and mysterious yet innocent (when Kaji isn’t drooling over his pretteh hair and eyes) in a way that Kaji is not during the times that the book switches to Aniol’s perspective. It’s so blatant that one of the FIRST THINGS Kaji says to Aniol after bonding with him can basically be summed up as “LOLZ UR THE GIRL IN THE RELATIONSHIP!” because of course there has to be a “guy” and a “girl” because it would clearly be expecting too much of this book to try something more original than heterosexist tripe.
I know, I know, I’m expecting too much of the genre as a whole. Oh, no, wait, Wicked Gentlemen didn’t do it, so perhaps there is hope after all.
There’s also the near absence of women (not counting the ones that are dead, we have three women with bit parts at best), but again, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before if you’re even passably familiar with the genre.
Also, I think most of you will take this as a given, but the epilogue is not a good place for a hardcore sex scene. Seriously, I’ve read erotica with better sense than that. The epilogue is where you wrap things up all neat and tidy, not shove more penis in your readers’ faces. It just comes across as really, really awkward, and I’ve read erotica with better sense than that.
So, perhaps I was a little hasty in categorizing this book as a “romance” because there wasn’t really a whole lot of romance in it, just Kaji going on about how his “little mate” is oh so exotic and pretty and then a couple of sex scenes. I will give the book props for doing something other than the old “suck and fuck”. Suffice it to say that if you wish there was more bad anilingus in your m/m books, this book has you covered, but you still shouldn’t read it, because see above.
I will close by reminding you that I was so fed up with this book that I took it upon myself to write my own rendition of a scene. Thus far, I have never done this with any other book. No, not even Fifty Shades….
And now, a drinking game!
The Unofficial Gatekeeper Drinking Game
Take a sip when:
- Kaji acts possessive towards Aniol
- Aniol is described as “innocent”
- Kaji refers to Aniol as his “little mate”
- Whenever Aniol’s hair and eyes are mentioned (note: hair and eyes together)
- Take two sips if the colour of his hair and eyes are described (keep the nearest hospital on speed dial)
- Whenever someone speaks coldly or commandingly (“with command in his voice” counts)
- Take two sips whenever someone speaks coldly and commandingly
- Whenever the narrative brings up the Wardens killing the Gatekeepers
- Whenever the white room is mentioned/whenever Aniol mentions something about being neglected
- Whenever the author staunchly refuses to use personal pronouns. (ex. Aniol sat down on the bed. Aniol picked up a book and began to read. Aniol wondered where Kaji was because it was getting late.)
- Whenever “Conflagration” is mentioned
- Whenever Kaji’s prophecy is mentioned, take two sips when the *true* prophecy is mentioned
- Whenever it turns out that one of the main cast is secretly a very important person
- Take a sip whenever the text mentions Duiem’s perpetual wars or Careil’s paranoia
- Take a sip whenever Aniol’s moonstone pendant is mentioned
- Take a sip whenever the sun and moon motif pops up
- Every time you encounter a name that starts with A, take a sip (first encounters only)
- Take a sip whenever the author uses faux Japanese (“Taiyoukou”, “Kiyou” etc.)
- Take a sip whenever a character does something exceptionally stupid or suicidal (ex. disobeying direct orders from a superior, taking an arrow/blade for a character, telling the antagonist to his face that you know he’s up to something)
- Take a sip whenever a character can tell what another character is thinking just by looking at them
Take a drink when
- Kaji and Aniol have sex
- Take two drinks if the sex scene turns out to have been a dream
- Take a drink whenever Kaji refers to Yuan as an idiot
Finish your drink when
- A female character has a role that actually impacts the plot (note: dead characters don’t count)