Sunday, March 20, 2016

Cogling by Jordan Elizabeth Mierek

Rating: WARTY!

I was asked by the author if I would review this after I gave a favorable review to a previous novel by this author: Escape From Witchwood Hollow back in February 2016. Well be careful what you ask for! I would have liked to have recommended this one, too, but I cannot. I was very disappointed in Cogling because it was so disturbingly far from what the previous novel had been. This felt like a first draft of a first novel by a new writer, whereas 'Witchwood Hollow', which also felt like a first novel, was a lot better-crafted and a lot more credible in its world than this one was.

This novel had a prologue which I skipped, as I do all prologues without exception. Never once have I missed anything by doing this, which only goes to show how useless prologues are. If it's worth reading, put it in chapter one, or simply omit it! Don't sacrifice any more trees to prologues! That said, this story was not technically bad in terms of spelling, grammar, and so on. Even the overall story was, in very general terms, an interesting idea, but it fell far short in the details, and while it was not an awful read, it was not a satisfying one at all for me.

The issues I had were many and ranged from general to specific. A specific one, for example, would be the use of 'kohl'. At least this author didn't write it as 'coal', which I have seen in a novel, but the phrase used was 'dark kohl' Since kohl is black, that phrase made little sense. To write, 'Kohl darkened her silver eyes' is one thing, but to say "Dark kohl rimmed her silver eyes" is not well-phrased at all. There were many instances of such suspect wording, each of which took me out of the suspension of disbelief and reminded me that I was reading a novel and not immersed in a alternate world.

The story is about Edna, a fifteen year old girl who discovers that her brother has been replaced by a cogling - a clockwork life-like replica, and she embarks upon a quest into the world of hags to rescue him. The hags use the dreams of children to power their machinery. This was my first problem, because it seemed like all that was being done here is that hags stole children to power machines to make more coglings which were used to replace the children being stolen. What was the point? Obviously they were seeking to take over the human world in revenge for a sour past history, but the hags had powerful magical and could control and enchant humans so why were the coglings needed? It made no sense at all to me.

The sad thing is that Edna is not allowed to rescue her brother alone. So much for girl power! Instead, she needs the trope YA studly male to prop her up and give her validation. That was bad enough, but the happenstance that she fell into the sphere of influence of the sole male in the entire country who was best set-up to help her was too much to take seriously, especially given his original story, which would be too much of a spoiler to give away here. The bottom line was that his behavior and living circumstances were simply not credible given his origin, and we were offered nothing to explain why or how he'd ended up where he had.

In this world, there is a history of antagonism between the hags (and their male equivalents, the ogres) on one side, and the humans on the other, and this is a story of the hags' revenge. These were not the only 'magical' creatures; there were others, but none of them were really given any freedom to breathe, and so they were consistently lifeless. It felt like they were simply added as pure MacGuffins or dei ex machina for no other reason than to help out Edna's quest, and then they disappeared completely. Most of them appeared so briefly that it was impossible to get a decent handle on them. I liked the idea of the 'foxkins', but the 'nix' and the 'tomtars' left me unentertained. Sometimes it seemed like these were actually mutated humans, and other times not, and there was so little to go on, that it left me frustrated that they had appeared at all.

I think one serious problem was that the author tried to do too much in one story. There was literally everything in this but the kitchen sink - and there may well have been one of those. In fact, I think there was in one kitchen scene. But there was fantasy, and magic, and steam-punk, and romance, and Oliver Twist (not in person), and a quest, and a hot air balloon which was not steam-punk, but which was called an airship which is often associated with steam-punk, and it felt like lots of little bits rather than one whole. It was the difference between Thanksgiving dinner and the next day's jumbled and assorted leftovers.

This story evidently arose (according to the acknowledgements) at least in part from a 'Victorian' fare in Rome, New York. I think that was the first problem: that Americans tend not to do Renaissance or Victorian well, or to overdo it, and consequently this novel was sadly warped, dragged down by a lack of authenticity. Granted we're not told explicitly where it was set (if we are, I missed it), but it seemed like it was professing to be set in Britain, as steam punk and Victorian dramas typically are, but there were far too many Americanisms for me to take that idea seriously.

For example, there are no klutzes in Britain - or at least there were not in Victorian times. There are clots, which means largely the same thing, but 'klutz' is a very American term which came from Germany via Yiddish, I think. Of course, American influence being what it is in the world, for good or ill, people probably do use that term in Britain now, but they didn't in Victorian times. This was as out of place as the word 'jerky' was. This is very much an Americanism, taken from the South American term char qui. It's not British.

There are very few cities in Britain which actually have the word 'city' in their name. Manchester City, for example, is a football (soccer) club. The city itself is simply named Manchester. The same goes for Birmingham, Exeter, Bristol, Leicester Norwich, and so on. Every single city in this story was named -something- City. The Brits don't have this insecurity which forces them to title a city as -something- City lest it be mistaken - gods forbid! - for a town!

Britain has no venomous snakes except for the adder (and yes, it does come in black!), which no one in Britain takes very seriously (notwithstanding scare stories in newspapers last year), so this Indiana Jones scene where kids are dumped into a pit of snakes wasn't impressive. Why would hags even do this when they have magic and can simply kill the kids outright? The real problem here though, was that the snakes are described as poisonous. No snake, to my knowledge, is poisonous, and by that I mean that you can eat any snake and it won't poison you; however, if you get bitten by one (and you're not in Britain!) then you may well become ill or die from it. Those snakes are venomous, not poisonous, and writers should understand this. Strictly speaking the British adder can do damage, but it's so rare that anyone is bitten, it's not typically an issue.

Edna Mather is supposedly fifteen, yet she behaves much younger. The story read like a middle-grade novel rather than a young-adult one. Several other reviews I've seen mention this and while I agree, I'm not sure I arrived at the conclusion the same way. The thing you have to remember is that this is not set in modern times and you cannot expect a fifteen year old Victorian era girl to have the same outlook as a modern one.

By our standards, she would seem ridiculously naive and sheltered, even though she would (had she any privilege) be far better read (and in better-written literature too!) than most modern fifteen-year-olds. In Edna's case, she was one step away from living on the street, and was largely in charge of running her home and taking care of her kid brother, so she should be expected to have the maturity which inevitably comes with that circumstance, yet she really didn't. She was desperately intent upon rescuing her brother, but this was all she had going for her, and it made her seem more juvenile than he was!

Worse than this though, for me, was the fact that Edna had magic in her - a magic which she thought was evil - a fact of which we're re-apprised to a really annoying degree. The problem for me was not so much that though, as it was that she never employed this magic. I kept waiting for her to go bad-ass and unleash it, but she didn't except in very minor and largely unimportant ways, and even then it wasn't clear if it was her magic or the magic embedded in this enchanted brooch she carried. This was really annoying. Why give her this power if it's not going to be employed in the entire story, even in dire cases where any kid who had magic would have pulled it out regardless of how they felt about it. It made no sense and was a major disappointment for me. It also made her look even more helpless and ineffectual than she already appeared.

I noted the author makes mention in the acknowledgements of a steamy romance between Ike and Edna, but there was no such thing. There was almost no romance, thankfully, and certainly no steam (not even of the steam punk variety except in passing mentions). There was impetus for romance, either. Neither Ike nor Edna were likable, and he was such a jerk to begin with that it's hard to see how she would ever come around to finding him romantic. The 'romance' felt forced and not natural - like the author was putting it in there because she felt this was the way things had to be done, not because there was anything organic or necessary about it. It felt false to me and it didn't so much get in the way of the story, as it was an annoying distraction, like a fly buzzing around when you're trying to fall asleep.

I noticed some reviewers had talked of there being a rape or near rape in this story, but there was nothing of the sort in the version I read. There was a case of highly inappropriate conduct of a doctor threatening to kiss a patient, followed by downright abusive conduct by that same doctor, but there was no sex involved. What bothered me about this scene and the events leading up to it was something I've seen no other reviewer mention, which is the absurd abduction of Lady Rachel.

Note that I do not believe for a second that celebrities and the wealthy should have any privileged treatment by law enforcement, but also note that this novel was set in Victorian times when nobility was highly respected (if perhaps derided in private), yet here we have Lady Rachel being forcibly taken from her aunt's home by two regular police constables, without a shred of respect or deference and based solely on this aunt's say-so. This was simply not credible in Victorian times, and especially not on the say-so of an aunt without any other reason. Never once was there any mention of contacting this woman's actual parents. Lady and Lord Waxman thought their daughter had been kidnapped, and yet instead of informing them she was safe and reuniting them, the cops haul Lady Rachel off for incarceration on her aunt's whim?! This robbed the story of all credibility for me, and frankly, I almost quit reading at that point because it was one straw dog too many.

The real killer was the ending. It's no spoiler to say it was a happily-ever-after one, but only for Edna and her crew. All her ideals and claims and vows to help the poor and downtrodden which she spouted regularly throughout this story were forgotten in the end. She did nothing to help anyone. This selfishness and self-serving attitude was brought into the light earlier, when she and Ike rescue a woman from a cruel psychiatric facility, which in itself is admirable, but they do it by kidnapping a homeless girl and substituting the one for the other in the blind assumption that this psycho doctor will simply toss the girl back out onto the street when he discovers the deception. I'm sorry, but no, heroic people do not do that. Good people do not do that. Jerks and villains do that. I already disliked the two protagonists before this, but after this behavior, I had no time for them at all. Frankly, this made me wonder if this neutered "dark magic' that Edna spent the entire story fretting over, had actually risen up and claimed her after all.

So, overall, this was not a worthy read by my standards. and I cannot in good faith recommend it. Read Jordan Mierek's previous story, escape From Witchwood Hollow instead. It's much better.