Book Review: Ariel, by Steven Boyett

Never have I wanted to compare reading a book to puberty more than I do after having finished this book.

I learned about Ariel from Tor.com when the author’s next book in the setting was announced. The world of Ariel is our world, only different. An event called the Change took place unexpectedly one day, causing three things to happen: one, anything more complex than simple lever technology randomly stopped working (except there are multiple times when this isn’t true), two, without access to Facebook and cable TV civilization as we know it fell immediately into mass anarchy and chaos, and, three, mythical beings thought to be nothing more than stories randomly showed up.

Yes, essentially the wet dream of your stereotypical Society for Creative Anachronism type. And, surprise surprise, guess which historical re-enactment group gets mentioned multiple times in the book (and who are nominally the heroes)?

Ariel follows the character Pete who, while bathing one day, finds an injured unicorn and, totally by coincidence, he’s a perfectly pure virgin which means he can touch and be around the unicorn. He befriends it and the two become Familiars, the term used for when a human bonds, magically or simply significantly, with an animal, magic or normal. Ariel can talk, has the ability to make cigarettes disappear and peppermint candies, the only thing she apparently eats, appear. Pete, despite being in his early twenties/late teens, is an expert marksman with a blowgun that apparently can fire so hard it can knock people off their feet and spear them from yards and yards away (not to mention is a crack shot with a crossbow, later on, when he essentially kills a dragon with one shot). The two of them travel around, exploring libraries and reading up on mythical creatures and magic. Not that Pete ever does magic aside from one summoning ritual that almost brings Lucifer or another major demon into the world at the expense of his life (he was tricked into doing this by his friend the unicorn, how awesome is that?), he just apparently likes reading about magic.

Spoilers from here on out, though I don’t consider it very spoilery, the book has been out for a while and, well, and I didn’t like it much so I consider it more a warning.

They eventually draw the attention of a local bad guy in Atlanta who tells a bigger bad guy about the unicorn who tells his boss who is a necromancer. Middle bad guy flies on a gryphon, which, from how it is described, is as big as Greyhound bus. The necromancer wants Ariel for nefarious purposes, which should go without saying considering his profession, and the rest of the book involves them, literally, walking right into the necromancer’s home, getting captured, tortured, Pete escaping, Pete miraculously running into an ARMY of people who just happen to want to go to New York to kill the necromancer, going back to New York, fighting, and the necromancer and the gryphon rider dying in what I felt were the most ANTI-CLIMACTIC FASHIONS POSSIBLE considering how big and scary they’d been made out to be up until that point. How do they die? The necromancer goes to do his magical spell of unicorn horn stealing and then get’s stabbed through the chest by a blind, physically diminished/wasted unicorn. Seriously.

“But, Matt, in the book they establish that it’s agony for anyone who isn’t pure to touch a unicorn! How do you expect them to grab her to hold her down?”

To which I reply, “If a group of lamer goblins in the movie Legend can lasso a drugged, stallion unicorn and chop off its horn with a magic sword, then a necromancer and a veritable ARMY OF THUGS should be able to do the same to a blind unicorn. Hell, drop a giant net made of steel cables on it, whatever.”

It wasn’t like the necromancer needed to wait to do the spell, he intimates he could do it at any time but was waiting until Pete showed up to be all, “Look at me, GOT YOUR UNICORN’S HORN!” and thus died a lame, lame death.

How did the gyphon rider die? He sat on a chair and a sharpened pipe impaled him through the butt and turned his insides into outsides. I’m not making this up. A character named Malachi, a SCA master swordsman with a katana (who taught Pete how to use a katana well enough in a couple of weeks to fight off an Empire State Building (the bad guy’s base) full of people who’d been killers years before he was), booby trapped an office chair so that anyone sitting on the chair would get a pipe up the butt. No, they don’t explain how exactly he had a sharpened metal pipe. Maybe he carries one around him all the time. Maybe his katana is sharp enough to sheer through metal pipes to make them pointy which he then uses to booby trap office chairs (because he’s a douche like that), which is even more ridiculous. The people I know who own genuine katanas, rather than those cheap knockoffs you get in the mall or your local flea market with the cobra heads on the pommels, would murder you if you took their sword and started wailing away at steel pipe with it. And they’d do it slowly.

The book ends with Ariel, having just been freed, de-necromancered, and sight restored, fleeing the Empire State Building. Pete goes looking for her, can’t find her, and ends up shagging a woman he’d had conflicted feelings for throughout the entire book, even up to the point of screaming at her and calling her a bitch when she tried to help him. Ariel walks up on them the next morning, gives him the sad eyes because he’s now no longer virginal so they can’t be friends, and Pete basically descends into depression, treats the woman like shit, but she loves him anyway so eventually they decide they actually do have a thing and go wander the world. The book, you see, is his account, written as a way to excise his feelings over the loss of his friendship with Ariel.

“Matt, get to the point: how is this book like puberty?”

Well, in a number of ways. First, it’s awkward. The whole setting seems implausible, even from the stand point of a fantasy world where mythological races have randomly shown up from being…somewhere. I could get that electricity, perhaps, is somehow no longer possible but Pete, the entire book, keeps talking about how the Change altered the “laws of physics”(tm) to make it so that technology wouldn’t work. In my opinion, I’m pretty sure this was just a way to make sure there was no power and a cheap way for Boyett to do away with guns thus making his SCA-er dream possible. Which doesn’t make sense. Levers still work in this world, crossbows for instance, and there is fire and chemical reaction still, which is basically all a gun is when you get down to it; it’s a lever-operated spring firing pin and a chemical reaction of gunpowder being ignited. The way the character talked about the Change’s effect on technology made me think he actually knew nothing about physics whatsoever, that he was just spouting something off because it might’ve sounded right, which was irritating.

The setting is also unrealistic in that society breaks down immediately to the point that we’re treated to Pete’s version of the day the Change happened when he and a female friend are attacked by someone who used to be a cop (and an accomplice we never see). The cop and accomplice do horrible and unspecified things to his female friend, we only see her non-described corpse after, and I can’t believe that people would be reduced instantly to that level of animal barbarism where someone who was supposed to be the protector of society has become a murderous, rapist reject from the cast of any bad apocalypse movie in a matter of hours.

Pete, like puberty, is also kind of uncomfortable to go through. It feels like he has random mood swings, is mopey and depressed a lot, and kind of a jerk. Shaughnessy, the woman Pete ends up losing his virginity to, is welcomed, pushed away, appreciated, treated like dirt, yelled at, cried on, and basically is the sponge for his post-pubescent puberty-like emotional roller coaster. Pete himself, despite being in his early twenties, at one point has a wet dream in the book (I’m not making this up) and doesn’t seem to know what semen is; I can’t believe that there is a twenty-something bookworm who, even if they don’t masturbate (as implausible as that might be) doesn’t know what semen is and Pete gives the most clinical “Oh, I guess this is what they call a ‘nocturnal emission'” explanation for what happens where you have to wonder if he’d ever explored himself ever. Maybe he fell for the whole “you’ll go blind” lie.

But then there’s Pete’s aptitude. Seriously, Pete apparently can do anything. Learn how to be a highly proficient swordsman in a matter of a few weeks? Check. Kill a dragon with one crossbow quarrel? Check. Learn how to fly a hang-glider in a few days enough to jump off the World Trade Center towers (this was written pre-9-11 and not updated for the re-release), navigate the tricky air currents caused by the skyscrapers of New York without crushing himself like a bug on a windshield, and navigate to the Empire State Building for an aerial assault? No problem.

Then there’s the fact that the few, not-taken women Pete encounters want to do naughty, naughty things to him even though he either A) has treated them like crap at one point or another, B) has just met them, C) looks like jack-hammered hamburger, or D) any mixture of the three above. And even those scenes, one where a woman tries to seduce him, just felt off and awkward because Pete’s basic reaction, when you come right down to it, is “OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING IT FEELS GOOD DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH ME!” It was like sitting through the Talk as your father uncomfortably tries to describe what sex is like without actually telling you what sex is.

By the end of the story I was just relieved it was over. The author added a section to the book where it sounds like he defends his work from many of these criticisms (flipping through I saw him talk about the inconsistency of the Change’s effect on technology); I have no real interest in reading an author try to dance around his story and prop it up after the fact so I didn’t read it.

Honestly, a world can be implausible, this is fantasy we’re talking about, but it should at least be consistent, or, if inconsistent, there should be some kind of explanation for why it can be inconsistent. I would not recommend Ariel.

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5 Responses to Book Review: Ariel, by Steven Boyett

  1. jer says:

    Lol. Matt, your review makes me want to read it just so I can make fun of it.

  2. Andy Sandis says:

    I’ve never read a review that had so much detail and got so much wrong. He doesn’t kill a dragon with a crossbow; the dragon sits on a campfire and blows up. He doesnt saw a pipe in half with his sword, he clearly uses a ring saw (like backpackers use). The SCA clearly are whackos and not heroes. Boyette includes a really long afterward about a lot of what you talk about here and he even talks about how abrupt the ending is, the stuff with blowguns, etc.

    There’s a really big difference between reading a book and paying attention to it. It’s obvious you read it.

  3. mattmarovich says:

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the comment.

    He doesn’t kill a dragon with a crossbow; the dragon sits on a campfire and blows up.

    I beg to disagree. From the book, page 172:
    “I had little time and I needed to put a bolt straight down its throat and hope it didn’t burn to ash before it got there. … Squeeze… The bolt flew, its hiss fading into the dragon’s roar. The earthquake bellow ceased, and so did the stream of flame. …

    It tried to burn him. The head reared back on the serpentine neck, struck forward, and hissed. All that came out was the weak sound of escaping hydrogen. Embeded in front of the tree-trunk-sized right foreleg was the rear half of the crossbow bolt.”

    So, while you are correct, the dragon sat on a campfire and blew up, it blew up because of hole punctured in it by a crossbow bolt fired by Pete and the fire was able to get into said gas bag through the hole. Considering that the mating habits of dragons in this book involve fire displays, there’d be a lot fewer dragons in the world if they were so susceptible to fire that being near one causes them to blow up. Arguing that Pete didn’t kill the dragon by shooting it with a crossbow bolt is a little like arguing that John Wilkes Booth wasn’t responsible for killing President Lincoln by shooting him in the head, the brain damage was what did him in; it’s only true in the most technical of senses.

    He doesnt saw a pipe in half with his sword, he clearly uses a ring saw (like backpackers use).

    Upon going back and rereading it I did miss that detail, thank you for pointing that out. My suggestion that he whacked it with his sword was meant in humor because I missed the detail.

    The SCA clearly are whackos and not heroes.

    Really? Page 76:
    “By the end of a week’s time we were dressing up in armor left over from [Malachi’s] days in the Society for Creative Anachorism…”

    So, Malachi Lee is not a heroic figure? Considering his role in helping Pete on his heroes journey, his pledge to protect Ariel, and the amount of fighting he does for the “good” side I’d say he’s meant very much to be a heroic figure in the same way Obi-wan is.

    As for the afterword you mentioned, that was added to the book at it’s re-release and, honestly, I don’t feel it bears any weight on the story IMO; I feel that a story should stand on its own without the author having to explain it after the fact outside of the story although it is nice for him to recognize what he got wrong.

    So, while I did miss one detail among the few you criticized me for, I do think my reading, and understanding of the book, was better than you let on.

  4. Andy Sandis says:

    I guess Pete calling the SCA guys “wackoes” wasn’t a strong enough clue. And your argument that it’s improbable that he was a crack shot with a crossbow because he hit something the size of a barn isn’t really impressive. And the hole in the gasbag is what causes the explosion. It’s clearly a complete accident. So yeah, I don’t think you understand it.

    But I’ll leave the argument now. It’s not like I’m this guy’s lawyer. 🙂

    • mattmarovich says:

      There’s a level of difference between a character thinking the SCA people are whackos and the author making them into heroes. I think you’re talking about one and I the other.

      As for the dragon, it may be the size of a barn but getting off a shot as it’s coming toward you, roaring, breathing fire, that just happens to kill it? And even if it is an accident, it does not change the fact that he killed it in one shot. (Though one has to wonder about the evolutionary path of living Hindenburgs…)

      But, anyway, as you like, thank you for your input. If I may ask, how’d you come across my blog?

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