A Literary Review of ‘Unsouled’ by Will Wight

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own.

I had trouble with this book. On one hand, I can respect the clean prose and narrative written. On the other hand, I’m not the target audience for this book. Before you read this review, just be clear that this review is made by someone who wasn’t the intended audience and consequently this review might be more critical than it deserves.

I didn’t like this book, and I’m not going to hold back in my review. If you liked this book, more power to you! I’m happy that you’re happy. Keep reading the series. (And maybe don’t read the rest of this review, it might piss you off.) Peace out!


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

My emotional reaction was pretty ‘meh.’ I liked the first half of the book better than the second half. The first half was a slow exploration of an interesting setting. The second half was a fast paced adventure which didn’t really interest me because I wasn’t invested in the characters.

Did I have fun reading this? Yes, I had some fun. This book is a popcorn book (a book you read more for fun than intellectual engagement). But honestly I didn’t find it to be even that much fun.

I read books for characters, and this book’s characters weren’t engaging.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (C-)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

I just finished this book, and I have trouble putting words to it’s concept.

The first half of the book is a meanderingly plotted adventure of a boy doing random things for the self-motivated goal of increasing a ‘power level.’ That early adventure culminates with him fighting a space wizard god angel, a twist which came out of nowhere. The second half was the boy going on another random adventure, but this one had more of a linear thread to it, making it easier to follow.

But concept doesn’t really matter; execution does. This book’s execution was… not so hot. I’ll talk more on this in later sections.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (C-)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

I didn’t connect to the protagonist Lindon. In the past I would have thought that my failure to connect was a fault in the book, but after reading this twitter thread I’ve come to realize that perhaps the reason why I didn’t like the protagonist is my fault, and not the book’s. Here’s the problems I had; you can decide for yourself whether or not I’m justified or not:

  • Lindon felt like a complete blank slate.
    • For the first 50% of the book, I didn’t understand why he wanted to increase in power. I think this is bad, because increasing in power was his character arc.
      • Here are some examples:
        • In ‘Name of the Wind,’ Kvothe seeks to master the magic systems in order to get some sweet revenge on the people who killed his parents.
        • In ‘Rage of Dragons,’ Tau seeks to master swordsplay to get some sweet revenge on the people who killed his father.
        • In ‘Harry Potter,’ Harry seeks to master the magic system because you need a high school degree to hold down a job, and also to get some sweet revenge the people who killed his parents.
      • Do you see a pattern in the above?
        • 1, the protagonists have a motivation to grow in power->
        • 2, they seek out ways to grow in power->
        • 3, they grow in power.
      • It’s The Hero’s Journey. It’s the ol’ puberty metaphor.
      • This book doesn’t do that. Lindon is seeking to increase his power before the inciting incident of the story (which happens at the 50% mark). The first scene of the book is him trying to steal a magic fruit which will increase his power. This book is 2, 1, 3.
      • Which brings me back to the twitter thread I mentioned above. I’m approaching this book from a Western perspective, where The Hero’s Journey is a standard storytelling style. I’m told this book is inspired by Eastern storytelling tropes. I don’t know what I don’t know, so maybe I’m wrong.
    • Lindon didn’t seem to have much of a history from the time before the book began.
      • The reader is told that before the beginning of the book, Lindon’s
        • Tested his Madra 17 times
        • He breaks into a library to read books
      • And that’s all of it. We don’t hear much/anything about
        • friends lost and made;
        • old crushes;
        • schoolyard foibles;
        • childhood mishaps.
      • The story begins, and it more-or-less feels like Lindon is called into existence at that moment.
    • On a similar note, Lindon seems to lack a lot of the negative emotionality that I’d expect from someone who’s been excluded for all his life.
      • Let’s compare him to…
        • Lirael, of ‘Lirael.’ She’s a character who is superficially similar to Lindon. Lirael lacks the magic her sisters possess (in her case future sight). She’s depressed because all her friends have surpassed her in school, and now she has to sit with the younger girls. Consequently she gets depressed, and in the opening chapters of the book she nearly jumps off a glacier to end her misery.
      • Lindon, by contrast, seems emotionally stable. He’s not happy with his lot in life, but he’s not given up hope. He has a ‘go get ’em’ attitude, despite the fact that he’s been the bottom of the barrel his entire life.

Do you think my criticisms are valid? Or do you think that I like angsty protagonists, and am trying to make Lindon into an angsty protagonist? You decide.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (D)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This book suffered from the most severe case of ‘Starting in the wrong place’ I’ve ever read. As a general rule, when you write a story, you want to start just before the plot begins. There’s a piece of writing advice I’ve heard before (I think from Brandon Sanderson on his podcast ‘Writing Excuses’) that when you write your first draft, write anything you want. When you edit your first draft to transform it into your second draft, you delete everything which happens in your story before your main plot begins.

I’m not joking when I say that this book’s plot begins at about the 50% mark. Some books can get away with this; I don’t think this does get away with it. From a structural perspective, I think it’s safe to say that this book is really two books stapled together- a listless and slightly meandering first 50%, and a fast paced-but-still-meandering second 50%.

When I write these reviews I like to do a Structure write up, studying whether the book is the 3 Act Format, 5 Act Format, 7 Act Format or whatever. This book is so weirdly structured that I really can’t do that. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Structures are optional. Structures make it easier to compare a story to other stories, and serve as a diagnostic tool for an author mid-edits to solve problems with the plot/characterization.

However… I do think this book needed more structure to it. As I said, this book felt extremely meandering.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (C-)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

The book’s stakes felt low for the first half, and sky high for the second half. Basically, for the first half he was a self-motivated to become a better wizard/martial artist, purely for the sake of self-improvement. For the second half, he’s motivated to survive and to save the world. I found the stakes in the second half to be more compelling than those in the first half.

The book’s tension was similarly lopsided. I found the second half more compelling than the first.

The plot just didn’t work for me. I’m not a huge fan of episodic novels, where a protagonist goes from one unrelated event to another without much foreshadowing in between, and this book felt like that.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (C)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

The book’s tone was video-gamey. The protagonist has to level up. He has to go on fetch quests to receive potions and artifacts which will empower him. He has to fight powerful enemies using named skills. Characters fight pretty much only for fighting’s sake, not for an ideal or cause. (This is particularly true for Yerin. At one point she states her motto, which is something along the lines of: ‘Sacred Artists must shed blood.’) If you don’t mind a video-gamey tone, read this.

I found the prose to be workmanly and competent. If occasionally found it to be beautiful when the author was speaking about some of the stranger worldbuilding elements- clearly the author loves the worldbuilding and he spent his time on it. I can respect that.

The book’s theme of ‘must get stronger at all costs, and bedamned the consequences to everyone else’ really didn’t jive with me. I like reading about characters who work to help other people and their community, and are willing to make personal sacrifices for them- think Kaladin and Dalinar from Stormlight Archives. This setting’s theme was pretty much the antithesis of that attitude. (In comparison, the protagonists in this book are quite unlikable.)

Was the theme well implemented? Yes.

  • All of the major characters are selfish to some extent. Some characters are willing to help other people on occasion (like Lindon’s goal to save the Sacred Valley), but when they are helpful it’s usually for selfish reasons (I’m pretty sure Lindon wants to save the Sacred Valley out of spite, to prove they were wrong about him being weak).
  • Everyone acts out of honor, (where honor is defined as projecting strength). No one acts out of kindness or generosity. The protagonist manipulates people because they are hidebound due to their need to save face.

There was one ‘mistake’ with the theme. (I hesitate to even call it a mistake, because there’s no such thing as a mistake in art.)

  • When the pheonix lady defeated the angel guy at the midpoint climax, she did so out of a sense of law and order, not because defeating him would make her stronger or would stoke her own ego.
  • In the text of the book, it is dishonorable for a more powerful warrior to challenge and curbstomp a weaker opponent.
    • Example: in the beginning of the book, Lindon angers a rival family. The family could have the family patriarch challenge and defeat him decisively. They could flat out murder him. Instead, they have a little girl fight him. Why? Honor.
    • At the midpoint climax, the pheonix lady has a curbstomp battle against the angel guy. According to the text of the book, her actions are dishonorable.
  • As I stated, she defeated the Li interloper out of a sense of duty. Duty as a theme was not referenced anywhere else in the story. Consequently her actions in this instance seemed out-of-place. Why did she fight Li? Her saving the Sacred Valley did not increase her power. She did not have to do it. It was done out of generosity.
    • For the record, I understand why she did it. She saved the Sacred Valley out of kindness, and to trigger the plot. But her ‘kindness’ ran counter to the nice theme this story had going on.
  • Putting these two facts together, you get a slightly muddled theme. How so?
    • The source of the paradox is here: At the midpoint climax, Lindon’s life is saved by an act of generosity by a higher power. He then behaves selfishly.
      • In Western Literature, a protagonist being saved by an act of generosity would cause him to re-think his life choices, and act generous to other people.
      • Instead of rethinking his life choices, Lindon proceeds to become a murder hobo and go on a quest of pillaging sacred artifacts (‘murder hobo’ is a colloquialism for an adventurer who wanders around killing things, usually used in the context of video games or book protagonists).
  • As I mentioned just now, this is the standard for Western Literature. I haven’t the foggiest idea how Eastern Lit would handle this trope.

I give the Authorial Voice: (B)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

In some ways I loved this book’s worldbuilding.

  • The author did a great job of going into the minute details of small plants and animals, describing their secret powers and life cycles. This made the setting feel fleshed out and vibrant.
  • I liked the whole ‘Space Magic Wizard Gods meddling in mortal affairs’ thing. I’d gladly read another series which uses this trope.

But in some ways I did not like the worldbuilding.

I’ve read very few books like this one; the closest would probably be the ‘Arcane Ascension’ books. So I’m a novice to this sub-genre, I guess. With those cards on the table, I don’t get this whole ‘increase your power level’ business as a cultural fascination for his civilization. Is ‘power level increasing’ the full time job for everyone? Where are the farmers, the bankers, the priests, the bakers, the brewers, the carpenters? Is literally everyone doing this spiritual practice as their full-time job? Why couldn’t Lindon (being unsoulled) get a job which doesn’t require magic? Did I miss something?

This entire universe seems to be warped around the magic system to such an extent that the ‘normal world’ part of the worldbuilding seems to have fallen away. I have trouble connecting to ‘Cradle’s’ worldbuilding because nothing like it is like the world I’m familiar with.

One related thing about the setting I didn’t really like was how ‘survival of the fittest’ this book was. Basically the setting functions on the principle of ‘you should do everything in your power to increase your magical potency, even if it means stepping on the weak.’ This foundational principle was so strong that at certain points parents considered taking from their own children. After a certain point I was left wondering how their society hasn’t collapsed. Why don’t a lot of weak people form a government/guild/union and refuse to be ruled by the few strong?

I give the Setting: (C+)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

The Audiobook narrator, Travis Baldree, did a satisfactory job. He gave some characters accents or modulated his tone to make a character sound younger/older.

I give the Audiobook: (B)


LESSONS LEARNED

I am an author, and I like to learn writing lessons from the books I read. Here’s what I learned herein.

  • ‘Unsouled’ did a good job of using fascinating prose for the unique worldbuilding elements such as flower buds, strange ghosts, fruit trees, terrariums. This was a narrative tool, drawing the attention of the reader to that unique worldbuilding element, an element which would become important later. So foreshadowing, in a sense.
  • Readers find it very easy to root for an underdog protagonist, such as Lindon, in this case.

WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • 14+ years old. Adults and teens can read this.
  • People who like reading about a protagonist who grows steadily more powerful.
  • People who don’t require fantastic plotting or characterization.

SUMMARY

I almost feel like I badmouthed this book too much. I did have some fun reading it. I can respect the author’s clear voice, and use of foreshadowing. No book is for everyone. I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t love it either. For me at least, this book was both a good read while also forgettable.

I’m planning on reading book 2 sometime in the indeterminate future, after I can get it on sale (Cradle does seem to go on sale frequently, so I might as well wait).


STARS: 2.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)

JUDGEMENT:

Overall Rating: (How I Rate Books)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: fantasy, ya, high fantasy, epic fantasy, xianxia, progression fantasy, litrpg

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

A Review of ‘Terrier’ by Tamora Pierce

A Review of ‘Breach of Peace’ by Daniel B. Greene

A Literary Analysis of ‘The Dragon Republic’ by R. F. Kuang, Book 2 in the Poppy War series

A Literary Discussion of ‘Ashes of the Sun’ by Django Wexler, first book in the ‘Burningblade & Silvereye’ series

A Literary Analysis of ‘The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon, Book 1 of The Deed of Paksenarion

A Literary Discussion of ‘The Rage of Dragons’ by Evan Winter

A Literary Critique of ‘Battle Ground’ by Jim Butcher, Book 17 of ‘The Dresden Files’ series

A Review of ‘Blue Moon Rising’ by Simon Green

A Review of ‘Light of The Jedi’ by Charles Soule

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s