So I was trying out a reviewing group on my writing critique site. My first (and so far only) review for the group is for City of Kings
by Bree M Lewadowski.
A note on how I review: I want to be honest about what works (or doesn't) with a story. I also want to discuss lots of different aspects. I'll try to use the same categories every time I review a book.
City of Kings is a romance/dystopian novel. Set in a futuristic America where some apocalypse has demolished democracy, two lovers have a second chance at happiness when fate brings them together.
Genre is important, especially in the Age of Amazon, because we use key words and genre categories and subcategories to find that "perfect book" that has all the things we like (for me, real and believable fantasy or futuristic worlds) and none of the things we don't (if you've ever tried to find a good erotic romance, you know EXACTLY what these are).
In City of Kings, Ms. Lewadowski tries to blend a science fiction/dystopian setting with a second chance romance. On paper, it sounds good. Use the dystopian world building to develop a setting, and the second chance romance beats, characters, and plot points. The problem is that this particular blend was too much for the length of the story, and not layered and detailed enough to really hit the specific genre conventions that make these genres popular.
The general dystopian conventions are the sense of self (protagonist) against the large establishment (usually government or state) and the underlying sense of futility with regards to the conflict. That's how The Handmaid's Tale, which has a regression of technology, is on par with Brave New World. The end result is that the protagonist either defeats the establishment, even if temporarily (Katniss and Peeta both winning the Hunger Games) or succumbs to the pressure of the antagonist agency (the pigs becoming like men in Animal Farm).
In City of Kings, there is no solid, clear, defined antagonistic establishment. There is a group monarchy of sorts similar to what we might imagine Ancient Greece would have looked like had all the city-states banded together: large regions across former America all have kings. But the effects of the world are not the soul-crushing, impossible situations our favorite dystopian novels. There are areas of poverty and areas of wealth--not too different from the America of today.
And while in the Chicago area, there is no classical arts allowed, there are clubs with live music and dancing. So a pseudo-censorship exists in one specific place, not the widespread book burning of Fahrenheit-451. Kal, the king of what was formerly Illinois, is an inept king--but he doesn't even come close to the classic vindictiveness of Richard III or even the ineptitude of King Lear, both models of the Shakespearean definition of unfit or tyrannical kings.
There is the magical plant gathered in the agricultural areas of Illinois--but while Lewadowski waxes poetic about these plants, she never really ties the plants, growing them, and their importance into the function of the world. These plants must be gathered, but why? What do they do or provide? How widespread are the plants?
Which brings me to my feeling of incompleteness when reading the story. There were a lot of ideas presented that never really went anywhere. They just sort of existed. And for some people, that's fine (looking at Tolkien's magic system, or lack thereof). But for me, I like to feel immersed in a whole world, and it's how those little details add up to the big theme that matter to me. And from the dystopian angle, this story just didn't deliver.
Conclusion--If you like the aesthetic of dystopian, but don't care if it actually does what dystopian stories do, you would be happy with the book.
When I read a romance, I'm looking for the connection between the characters, the blossoming of something that is unique and magical, yet accessible for everyone. My favorite "second chance" romance would probably be either The Princess Bride or the Notebook. While the Princess Bride would honestly be a better point of comparison for this book, since it also straddles two genres, I want to point out what The Notebook does well to illustrate what City of Kings is missing.
With the Notebook, you fall in love with the characters. Noah and Allie are both interesting, engaging, and outside of the norm. Even the narratorial voice-over in the film version focuses not on when these characters were, or the setting, but on who they were. Despite being an unlikely match, they somehow find each other, and fall for each other--hard. And we experience those romance beats: meeting, trying to resist, giving in, realizing attraction, finding connection.
With City of Kings, there are a few flashbacks, but since the story starts after the couple has split up, we don't have the sense of tragedy from before to make us really root for the characters getting back together. If I had to hazard a guess, I would postulate that Lewadowski simply didn't have the word count to show us these romance beats, even in a flashback, because the prose was too occupied with squeezing in the dystopian setting. While a linear plot makes the reading easier, she already added some flashbacks--why not go all the way, and make the flashbacks work as worldbuilding moments, making the genre blend seamless while allowing the reader the emotional fulfillment of standard romance plot points?
The end result was that the characters were described as being so in love and dedicated to each other--but it never scanned emotionally. And if we can't connect with the characters in the romance, as readers we can't do what we want, which is to live vicariously through the romance.
The plot, characters, setting, and prose all come together to execute the author's vision. There were some successes in City of Kings, but ultimately the separate pieces never meshed and worked together.
As explained in the Genre portion of the review, the story eschews the use of typical plot points and beats which help shape and drive the genre conventions. While I'm all for subverting and playing with standard plot points, when weaving together two storylines and two characters, the author should approach the plot and decisions mindfully.
The first chapter is Judah at his army assignment in Kalispell. I don't understand the decision to start here, instead of with Maive waking up alone after the wedding night. Women are the largest romance audience, and therefore most likely to identify with a female protagonist and point of view. A prologue showing this could kickstart the worldbuilding, and get us set for the story.
Overall, the story felt very improvised and immediate--and for some readers, that might pan as fresh, innovative, or interesting. For me, however, it made it less accessible.
Our female protagonist, Maive is passionate, strong, determined, independent. As a character, she is probably the most interesting person in the story. She basically decides to sacrifice herself to a horrible person (King Kal) to try and bring classical arts back to Chicago.
She has a past with Judah that we learn throughout the story, and we also learn that she worked her way up from washing dishes to being a high-end exotic dancer. While not the most inspired character builds, the unique name and combination of interests makes her stand out and appeal in a sympathetic way to the reader.
I wish the plot would have made things a little harder for her throughout the story--that the King would have made her suffer and do some truly horrible things, rather than merely insist she keep him company for a meal. I also would have liked more of her point of view, since as the main female, she is the character I can best understand and sympathize with.
A great example of what I would have wanted would be Rhapsody in the Symphony of Ages
series. The prologue lets the reader see her as a young woman, and then as a strong and independent heroine, we journey with her.
Our male protagonist, unfortunately or perhaps "punnily" named for a betrayer, is a little too perfect. With the sole exception of abandoning his wife the morning after they marry, he conducts himself well, behaves honorably (if we ignore the whole sleeping with someone else's fiance the plot demands) and honestly, doesn't really deserve Maive.
His first scenes, in the army fort where he's stationed, do the character no favors. He is described as quiet, a loner, and excellent at what he does: a military man in every sense of the word. But that excellent characterization evaporates once we shift to a close point of view for the character. My guess was that the author wished to layer him--but instead only erased the hard work of the initial impression.
I would have liked to see more of a foil of him and Maive--maybe he couldn't dance at all, or was tone deaf. Something that would create more conflict between them (him not understanding just why it was so important to marry Kal and try to bring back art).
Most of what I would review here I did cover in the genre section.
I do want to note that Lewadowski's descriptions were sufficient and engaging. I actually wish the mechanics were explained more, especially the worldbuilding elements, but she did communicate and paint the picture of her world well enough for me to imagine it.
I think herein lies the meat of the issue with this story. To me, prose is the choices the author makes in telling the story: choosing this word and not the other, order of scenes, and development of characters.
Lewadowski already had a challenging task with the selected genres, and her characters and setting didn't do her any favors with unifying those disparate genres into a single story.
If, as writers, we are trying to cram as much information as a typical science fiction or fantasy novel needs to create and teach the reader about a new world into a story, we MUST make every word do double and triple duty. There is no room for extraneous fluff.
What needed to happen was a total synthesis of all elements: setting, genre conventions, plot, and characters into one cohesive and unified narrative. Instead, we got disjointed settings, plot points, characters, and situations. As I already stated, instead of wasting an entire scene on character building for Judah that doesn't persist, set us up from the get go with a young Maive abandoned without even consummating her marriage. Counter it with Judah waiting to go to work, and remember that morning. We would instantly know:
- the main characters and their past relationship
- Judah still has feelings for Maive
- and the plantation world building (the plant, Maive as the daughter of the plantation owner, Judah as the harvesting labor)
As sophisticated readers, we could expect and predict that the book would be about them running into each other again, and that the story would focus on their second chance of finding happiness. Which means we are now cheering these characters on.
Overall, a developmental editor should have found these issues and insisted on edits to improve the piece prior to publication.
That said, there were few grammatical errors in the piece, and it was readable and had popular themes and elements in it. A decent sampling of readers should enjoy the book, and while I would not purchase another one, I can easily think of a couple of friends who would enjoy the writing style and the story.
I gave the book 3 of 5 stars on Amazon, and would like to make that 3.5 out of 5 stars here.
I would recommend the book to people who enjoyed Twilight, Divergent, and are ready for a slightly more adult romance. I would also recommend the book to a casual romance reader who likes non-traditional romances, or romances that don't feel like romances.
The book is good for cold weather reading--snuggle with a blanket on a cold day when you want to ready three or four chapters.
I would not recommend the book for beach reading (too complicated and in depth) or for anyone not comfortable with emotional descriptions of sex, or for someone wanting a politically or thematically charged dystopian novel. I would also not recommend the book for a romance purist.
On the Authors 4 Authors Publishing content rating, the book would come in as 17+ due to sexual situations, or would be rated 14+ but with a disclaimer regarding stronger sexual content than usual for a 14+ book.