Monday, July 8, 2019

Sali and the Five Kingdoms by Oumar Dieng

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I made it a third of the way through this before giving up due to the story moving too slowly, paradoxically jumping abruptly from one thing to another, and trying to be far too mysterious. It didn't feel very well-written to me. There was little descriptive writing, and none of the characters seemed inclined to use contractions: it was all "I am" and "you are" - nobody seemed able to say "I'm" and "you're" which gave a very stilted tone to the novel. I quit reading this when a 'mineral which isn't on the periodic table' was mentioned.

The fact is that there can't be anything that's not on the periodic table, which contains every element (some of which, such as manganese, for example are called minerals). Even elements we have not yet discovered are on the table with a holding space for their proper place when they're officially discovered and labeled. That's why it's called periodic, because it's predictable. We know where the undiscovered elements will appear on the table, and what their properties are likely to be. Most of the undiscovered ones are so unstable they don't exist in nature except for split fractions of a second in, for example, nuclear reactions. They're highly radioactive and would do no living thing any good. There's a potential 'island of stability' where there is thought to be a spot for a very heavy stable element around 184 neutrons in size. These have not yet been discovered or created in the lab, but they're not complete mysteries, so I don't buy this 'not on the table' nonsense and I don't approve of misleading young people on this score either.

In addition to this, Sali seems to live in complete isolation from the world, having zero friends despite being part of a Tae Kwon Do dojang (that's the Korean version of a dojo) and she seemed very moody and hair-trigger, even more so than you might imagine given what she's been through. The basic story is that Sali saw her mother quite literally disappear before her eyes when she was young, and thirteen years later, no sign of her mother has been found. Sali is a graduate (I guess from college - the story jumped so fast into it that it was hard to tell, which was another problem), and is starting an internship. Younger readers may enjoy it, but it's hard to tell who the book is aimed at because the main character, who unfortunately tells the story in first person, is (apparently) a college grad starting work, whereas the tone of the book is much more middle grade.

Additionally, the setting of the book is futuristic, but there's nothing in the opening chapter which reveals this, so when Sali gets into her car and uses this way-advanced heads-up display to navigate to a rendezvous, it really stood out starkly against the low-tech background the story had been residing in up to that point. It was quite a jolt. I let that slide, but as these minor hiccups kept coming, they became collectively too big of a hiccup to enjoy the story after quite a short time, and like I said, I gave up about a third the way in due to lack of interest in pursuing this. I'm not a fan of first person to begin with since it nearly always seems so very unrealistic, but that wasn't really the issue here, so that was a pleasant surprise!

But there were many problems. At one point there was this seemingly random information tossed into story about the discovery of a hive of wild bees - this supposedly 39 years after bees had become extinct. Note that 39 years is a heavy foreshadowing of three times thirteen - the number of years since Sali's mom disappeared, but that wasn't the problem. The problem here is that there's absolutely no talk of the issues it would cause if bees actually did disappear. Bees pollinate 70% of the crops that feed 90% of the world! You can't have bees disappear for almost forty years and there be no impact on society, yet this is how this story read. Again, unrealistic - serving further to isolate Sali and her story from the real world (that is, the real world as depicted in this story).

One problem for me was the disjointed writing style - with large jumps between one event and another with little or no indication of the time elapsed. When this happens between chapters, it's not so bad, but when it happens between one paragraph and the next with no effort to clue the reader in to the passage of time, it's confusing or worse, annoying, and this happened after Sali had foolishly gone to a rendezvous after some guy left a note on her car. Fortunately the rendezvous is in a public place and Sali has some martial arts skills, but it's not a good idea to let young readers think it's okay to meet a stranger, especially not when, as I write this, a young woman's body was found in a canyon after she met someone in Utah who evidently did not have her best interests at heart. Sali should have at the very least told someone what she was up to.

There were two problems with her meeting this guy. The first is that while the guy she meets actually does have information about her mother, as usual, it's very vague. He palms her off with advice to ask her father, and despite his having a folder with some extensive documentation in it, he never shares that with her, which begs the question as to why he's carrying it around in the first place. I'm not a fan at all of a writing style which creates an artificial 'mystery' by withholding information from the reader (and the main character) for no good reason at all. It makes the story seem amateur and fake, like bad fanfic.

The second problem is that Sali seems far too lax in pursuing this new information with her father. The story tells us it's several days after she met this guy Simon before she calls her father about it, which seemed unrealistic given how much she still suffers from her mother's abrupt and dramatic disappearance. You'd think she'd want to pursue it immediately and we're given no reason why she doesn't. More realistically, she would have called her dad the same night and the hell with waking him up, but this isn't the only weird jump in time. The very next sentence after she hangs up the call with dad begins, "It had been a few weeks since I had met with Simon Freitz". Just like that! There's no new chapter, no section symbol to indicate a gap.

Instead, there's one short paragraph where she relates that she's still angry with her dad, and then in the very next paragraph after that, her dad is arriving with her grandpa in his truck! He's back from London and there's no preamble or heads up, which could have been related in that previous paragraph. It's just so disjointed! This kind of thing turned me off this story pretty quickly.

Oumar Dieng motivational speaker, storyteller, author and life coach, and while I wish him all the best in his career, I can't commend this one as a worthy read.