Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Startlighter, by Bryan Davis - Day Two of the July 2010 CSFF Blog Tour

Starlighter, book 1 of the Dragons of Starlight series
by Bryan Davis
Published by Zondervan, 2010

Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing a copy of Starlighter for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

One of the chief aspects of any good story is its characters. Character development is controlled by the character’s interaction with the fictional world the writer has created. Such interaction takes place between a person and other persons, or between a person and his environment (situations and events). Another way to state it is to say that for any given person in the story, interaction takes place not only with the setting of the fantasy world, but also with other characters within that setting.
Take the simple idea of someone sitting at a dinner table, engaged in eating a meal. There are others at the table participating in the same meal. What typically happens in such a setting? Usually it’s uncomplicated: people eat their food and converse with each other. But assume that in our scene there is one character whose presence is important to the story, and the impact of that character in the story may depend significantly on that simple dinner scene.

The situation and the character work together. The setting and its circumstances facilitate the animation of the character because we can watch the character in a context, and by his reaction and dialogue within that context, see his personality unwrap.

If the character at the dinner table is moody, he may sit with his eyes fixed on his plate, spooning his food away without the slightest hint of interest over what the others are eating or conversing; it will show in his face and body language, even in the manner of his eating. This single trait of moodiness could be the central point around which the whole dinner scene revolves providing potential conflict, mood, or intrigue (or a combination of these). Whatever is evoked can follow the character into another situation - one where the circumstances are different and the cast is new but takes on a nuance of which it would be devoid if not for what has already been revealed to the reader at the dinner meal.

Mood, situation, intrigue, conflict, temperament - all of this provides the writer with the material to build a delightful character.

Bryan Davis has conjured up such a character, Tibalt Blackstone, whose role is not leading, but significant and continues through a large portion of the book. Tibalt is the son of Uriel Blackstone (one of the original abductees who escapes from Starlight back to Darksphere, warns of the dragon world, and is shut away as a lunatic for his efforts). Tibber the Fibber, as Tibalt is known to his captors and inmates, is unquestionably the most colorful character in the book.

One reason for this is how the reader encounters him. Our first glimpse produces intrigue:

   As soon as the thought entered his [Jason’s] mind, a movement
caught his eye. Three doors ahead on the left, probing fingers
reached between the bars. Easing to the right to avoid them, Jason
stopped and looked at the gray-bearded face pressing against the
window’s grating. Long strands of greasy hair spilled down the
sides of his head, and his smile revealed wide gaps between sparse
p 86.

First thing you think is ‘we’re looking at a loony’ partly because he looks like someone who’s been stuck there for a very long time; the straggly, greasy hair gives that impression. But more so because whoever this person is, he’s probably lost any sense of deprivation and awareness of his horrendous plight – he’s smiling. Who would do that in these circumstances? He’s got to be a nutcase. What he says next doesn’t help to improve this impression:
   “You are finally here,” he said with a cackle. “I knew
you would come! I knew it!”
p. 86

The reader scoffs, and along with Jason wants to say none too delicately, ‘Really? And who are you?’

The scene is set up for an exchange (‘dialogue’ is the technically sterile description for this) that begins to add color and life:

   Jason set the flame closer to the door and read the
number on a metal plate just above the crossbar. Cell
number twenty. “Who are you?”
   “They call me Tibber the Fibber, but my real name is
Tibalt Blackstone. I survived the Great Plague, I did.”
   “The Great Plague! Then you must be over ninety
years old.”
   “Oh, yes. As old as the hills and older than rust, my
bones are brittle, and my brain’s full of dust.”
p. 86

We sense that Tibber is going to be fun to watch. The ensuing exchange between Tibber and Jason is the best in the book. You get a picture of Tibber, a crackpot who might be more sane than we think, all of which makes you warm up to him right away.

Bryan Davis was on to something with Tibber the Fibber. The power of the character continues throughout the book, giving a little extra in all those places where he appears. That is so, in spite of those subsequent encounters never gaining the liveliness of the first one. But because the reader has such a visual on Tibber from that first scene, his presence makes those passages more vibrant than they would without him.

I wish Bryan Davis had done this with all his lead characters. But, with the exception of Tibber and this initial encounter with him, the characters are flat. They appear but don’t catch our imaginative eye. We are more or less told what the characters are like rather than seeing and hearing them. To have done that no doubt would have expanded the length of the book by many, many pages, but it would have raised the overall quality several notches.
One of three elements that go into the making of a good novel, according to Stephen King, is dialogue “which brings characters to life through their speech,” (On Writing, p163). This is an area where Starlighter does not do very well (our first encounter with Tibber excepted). Not that the book is lacking in dialogue, but it lacks believable, realistic, colorful dialog. We don’t get a feel for the personality because the dialogue is too often stilted, corny, drab, consisting of short exchanges of passionless words for which the reader has little empathy. The story is intended for the young teen and older but the level of dialogue is too elementary and a bit reminiscent of Danny Orliss, the Bobsy Twins, and the Sugar Creek Gang.
As an aside, I would say that even in those successful books, the dialogue could undoubtedly have been better. I read them as a pre-teen, and even then I sensed something lacking; but for whatever reason, it didn’t make me quit reading. An example of excellent dialogue in a novel for the pre-teen reader would be The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald. There the dialog is elegantly simple, but richly colorful. Fitzgerald’s characters come to life in a way that much of that genre doesn’t match. Granted, the animating power behind The Great Brain is largely due to simple and brilliant description enhanced by Fitzgerald’s own voice in the telling of the story. But the dialogue itself is singularly integral; it is full of personality; the rhythm and content of the speech combine to stamp the speaker’s personality firmly in our imagination.

Believable and personality-endowing dialogue is critical whatever the reading level. Starlighter was abysmally lacking in such dialogue.

See a list of the participants for this month's blog tour.
See Starlighter on amazon.
See Bryan Davis's website and blog.


  1. Hey, I LIKED Danny Orlis and the Sugar Creek Gang! LOL.

    While I think you have valid points in this post and the last (you're always so thoughtful and reasoned in your opinions), Thomas, I wonder if Bryan isn't writing for a different ... purpose. I think of his fast pace, whirlwind plots that allow for little real characterization as roller coaster rides. They intend to thrill, to bring a reader's heart somewhere close to his tonsils.

    But what exactly does one experience on a roller coaster besides an adrenaline rush? Good conversation? An enjoyment of the scenery? Not likely. Those are more apt to happen on a leisurely walk.

    Personally, I'm trying to write in between. I want some adrenaline rush, but I think that's enhanced by the walk because readers care a lot more about the characters who are flying down the slope, headed for the snake pit.

    But that's me. I don't think it's Bryan. His fans love the fast pace, so I think that's what he wants to write.

    Now I have to go back and see what other authors I mentioned that you disagreed with. ;-)


  2. Rebecca,

    The notion that Bryan Davis is writing for a different purpose - fast-paced novels because that's what his fans want - is perceptive, though I wonder if the problem is deeper. I'll make this point clear in my third post (if it hasn't been clear enough in the first) that Bryan is simply not a very good writer.

    My intent is not to make Bryan Davis look bad; but this review has provided the opportunity to make my point that not just Mr. Davis, but nearly all authors of Christian fantasy for young adults are not writing novels that exhibit, well, good writing.

    Is the fast-pace the cause? Let's give Mr. Davis the benefit of the doubt and say yes, 100%. Perhaps he's complacent with the way he writes because he has a following, but what kind of a following might he have if he sat down and intended to write really well, slowing it down a bit, bringing the reader imaginatively into the story. He may lose a few, but because he's so popular now, word would get around and I think he would draw in many more admirers than he has now.

    I believe slower-paced stories with well developed characters (and their distinctive voices), believable personality-endowing dialogue, description that lifts the reader and places him into the scene with the characters of the story - this is what the Christian reader is thirsty for. We have had a steady diet of fast-paced third-rate writing because that is what the wisdom of the experts in the genre have been leading us to believe.

    Jill Williamson's novel is almost proof that readers would embrace the slower steady-paced novel - the rave reviews came left and right, and no wonder, her writing includes everything I think good writing must have. And yet, she's still miles from being an excellent writer let alone an elite writer. But she has come closest, and the readers like it very much.

    If I can take this one notch deeper, I would say that as writers, we are to be craftsmen that image God's craftsmanship in his creation. We, too, are creating a world in which characters (fantastic or ordinary) interact with each other and their world. This world and what happens in it should be brought into being with the greatest care. That takes labor and skill. It appears that the commitment to do this is dismally lacking, and its a shame.

    Our philosophy of what is good CFYA requires a rehaul. Perhaps Jill Williamson will help to bring that about. I hope she continues in the vein of her first book, and I hope she gets better and better. We are in dire need of it.


  3. Tom, I want what you want in CSFF, whether it's written for YA or adults. Not everyone does.

    As I mentioned in my comment to your post 3, I've had this discussion before with Christian writers, not just speculative writers. Some think a good Christian romance that brings tears and then is immediately forgotten is fine. They want nothing more than to evoke that emotion.

    So too, I submit, some want nothing more than to evoke that adrenaline rush a thriller gives.

    But God can use these stories, and He does. Might He use a better written book in a more powerful way? Maybe. Think parable of the talents. The one who invested 10, had a tenfold yield.

    But maybe He wants to use the inadequate, too. Maybe what we need to do is place our meager talents at His feet and ask Him to do with them as He pleases. And who's to say these other writers haven't done that?

    Look at the Left Behind books. I've not read them but have heard from a number of other writers that quality is wanting. Some disagree with the theology. And yet, millions of people read them and were confronted with a God who's Son will one day return to earth as a reigning King.

    Why did God bring such a big audience to books such as these and not to George Bryan Polivka's excellent series that points so clearly to God's sovereignty? Only He knows.

    I'm convinced we need to act on our convictions and let God convict others as He sees fit. That doesn't mean I don't pray for other writers, not just that they will sell well but that they will improve their skills. But in the end, God has to prompt them, I think, not me.

    We can continue this discussion via email if you want.