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Friday, March 29, 2019

SPFBO FINALIST: Symphony of the Wind by Steven McKinnon (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski & David Stewart)

Official Author Website
Order Symphony of the Wind over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Steven McKinnon is an independent writer living, eating and just about breathing in Glasgow.

When not writing deeply personal stories about his private life and showing them to the world, Steven will either be eating cake, listening to Iron Maiden or filling his brain with pointless Buffy and Battlestar Galactica trivia.

Steven completed two courses of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow in 2010, and completed an HNC in Professional Writing Skills at Reid Kerr College in 2006. He is 31 and was born in the bathroom of a high-rise flat in Glasgow on the 18th of March 1986.

He has since moved out.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A bounty hunter with a death wish. A girl with fearsome powers. A kingdom on the brink of destruction.

Serena dreams of leaving her unforgiving desert home far behind in her very own airship. But when an assassin's knife meant for Serena kills her friend instead, the rebellious orphan ventures into the corrupt heart of the kingdom to discover who put a price on her head. With each new turn, she edges closer to uncovering the awful truth… And the mystical powers brewing deep within her.

After his fiancée’s death, soldier-turned-bounty hunter Tyson Gallows is eager to sacrifice his life in the line of duty. When a foreign enemy assassinates a high-ranking official, he vows to bring them to justice. On the hunt for a killer, Gallows exposes a sinister plot that proves his fiancée’s death was no accident.

Driven by revenge, Serena and Gallows must join forces to take down the conspiracy before the kingdom falls to ruin.

Symphony of the Wind is the first book in a gritty epic fantasy trilogy. If you like hardened heroes, bloody action, and dark magic and monsters, then you’ll love Steven McKinnon’s visceral adventure.

CLASSIFICATION: A dark fantasy in a steampunk setting.

FORMAT: Symphony of the Wind was self-published by the author in 2018 and as a first book in The Raincatcher Ballad series. It's available in an e-book and paperback format. 

The book counts 660 pages and is divided into 42 numbered chapters. The cover art was done by James T. Egan of Bookfly Design

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): I’m still not sure how I feel about Steven McKinnon’s Symphony of the Wind. An ambitious and gritty epic fantasy series starts here, in the technologically advanced world. People conquered skies and filled them with airships. Different fractions and ethnicities fight for power while citizens suffer. Tormented heroes must stop a conspiracy before the kingdom falls to ruin.

Sounds simple? Well, it isn't. Unless you're a battle-hardened Malazan veteran, that is*. Slowly revealed and nuanced plot with multiple arcs and even more characters requires undivided attention and a trained memory. It's easy to lose track of the secondary characters' motivations and backstories.

The world-building is simply amazing. I have no other words to describe the world, the science, dark magic, monsters and airships. Mind-blowing stuff guys.

McKinnon’s prose is visceral, precise and descriptive. His pacing varies from breakneck to measured at the beginning of the book. The closer to the end we get the faster it becomes. Near the end, the events told from different POVs flash before our eyes. 

Story's characters – flawed, complicated, human – are compel­ling, and their self-discoveries and betrayals are fascinating to follow. Some of them turn their beliefs into weapons and inflict their will upon others. Others try to remain human despite their urges or conditioning. I can't choose a favourite character, but if you insisted I would probably indicate Damien - poised and cultural psycho-killer and a living weapon. His fight scenes became my instant-favourites. 

Both secondary characters and villains feel nicely fleshed out as well. 

At this stage, some of you may start to wonder why on earth I gave SotW three stars if everything's so exciting? 

Let's get to it.

I like multiple third person POV, but switching characters too frequently irks me, and McKinnon does it all the time. Too quickly. Sure, there’s no real rule about how long a particular scene should be for any character, but switching back and forth between characters makes the prose confusing.

I loved the world and enjoyed the story. I was interested in the individual characters but the sheer amount of them and constant jumps between different POV's wore me down. 

To be fair, the scenes for each POV are clearly separated. Despite this, I struggled with the story 's structure and abrupt perspective changes. It felt fragmented and unclear. As a result, I started feeling distant and disengaged from its action and characters.

Let's clarify things - McKinnon is an imaginative writer and, paradoxically, this is hurting his ability to tell a convincing story. The writing, as impressive as it is, with its constant perspective changes, just keep getting in the way. 

CONCLUSION (Lukasz): This book has so much awesome stuff that I would love to praise it. But I can't because of the aspects of the book that I can’t handle and that pull the rating down.

In this case, approach it like a childish puzzle with a twist. Or two.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (David): I began Symphony of the Wind with the great hope that this would be a book I would love. It has airships and bounty hunters and the world seemed well-thought out and original. The Princess Bride is one of my favorite stories of all time, and anything approaching it will undoubtedly find a soft space in my heart. I even liked the beginning of the novel. I found several of the protagonists likeable, flat-out loved a scene involving a giant snake monster, and was all set to bury myself in this SPFBO entry. 

And then, as I went along, I began to find more and more issues with Steven McKinnon’s vision. At 25% in, I was feeling fatigued, and after truly stretching myself to the 50% mark, I simply had to give it up. Not only did I not want to finish Symphony of the Wind, but I was beginning to actively dislike it. I do not like to say such things about any novel, let alone one involved in a contest that is so vital to the fantasy community, but I refuse to go with the flow and simply give a book a pass because everyone else seems to love it.

There were things that I liked about Symphony of the Wind, all front-loaded towards the beginning of the novel. There are some good jokes in the book, William Fitzwilliam being one of the best. As I said before, I love high adventure where airships and bounty hunters abound. There is quite a lot of the book that reminds of me a Final Fantasy game, from the combination of guns and swords to the genetic experiments - similarities that will always draw me in for nostalgic reasons. I love multi-viewpoint narratives in the vein of Robert Jordan, particularly when they can showcase an author’s ability to speak from different viewpoints. As a recipe, I look at this book and assume I will love it, but then it gets whipped together and it’s a conflicted mess with no actual flavor. 

As for what I did not like about the Symphony, I am going to make a short list. This is not exhaustive but gets to the point of why I didn’t like this novel. 

  • Dialogue is all over the place, like each character is from a different era of time. Conversations often feel like they are part of a comedy skit, overwrought and forced.
  • Viewpoint switches seem random, haphazard almost, without contributing to a cohesive narrative.
  • Format feels serial, as though this was written for a SyFy series, and it almost seems like McKinnon wants to be writing science fiction instead of this mixture of fantasy and sci-fi. He also seems more concerned with blockbuster action than with telling a story.
  • Coincidences are all too convenient, contrived in a way that unmasks the author and pulls a reader out of the text, which is the last thing any reader wants.
  • Characters keep hinting at their past in inner monologues, but it feels forced and shadowy when we are in this character’s head and would know what they are referring to without the secret keeping. This can be done, but I don’t think McKinnon pulls it off.
  • Gallows character is inconsistent, his inner monologue is grim and dark, never happy, but he is constantly cracking jokes and appearing light. Again, this can work if there is a better transition between the inner and outer monologues. In Symphony, it feels like we are dealing with two different characters. 
  • Even at 50%, I had no idea what the actual plot of the book is. It spends so much time trying to push its characters towards one another that it never actually starts telling a story. Again, this can work so well if the threads are tighter and woven more adeptly. 

CONCLUSION (David): The argument could certainly be made that I am judging this book too harshly, that maybe a self-publishing contest does not warrant such scrutiny. I might agree with that assessment if there weren’t so many excellent entries into the SPFBO - books that are beautifully written and edited down to the most minute word. And frankly, this is a contest that introduced the world to Senlin Ascends, one of the best books and series that I’ve ever read. I expect the winners to approach its caliber, and Symphony of the Wind regrettably does not.

SPFBO Final Score - 5.5/10


Nick Borrelli said...

I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read this book but I plan on rectifying that shortly. Great review as always!

Roman said...

great review! Just finished the book and all the points you mentioned were exactly how I felt during and after reading.


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