Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib, by David J. Schwartz

This week I'm taking a look at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib. If you're wondering why I've included the colon and subtitle, well I'm left with the suspicion that this is the first in what Schwartz plans to be at least a few different books because it ended with several plot threads and quite a lot of questions. A quick look on Amazon didn't show anything new yet from this author, so presumably he's working on his next project, be it this or something unrelated.

The plot focuses around Joy Wilkins, an agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs (FBMA), who has been sent undercover to work at the Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic as a history lecturer. Joy's real reason for this assignment is to investigate two curious events that may be related. First, the college's previous history professor, Carla Drake, disappeared mysteriously and nobody's been able to turn up a trace of her. Second, the FBMA has evidence that suggests someone is smuggling demons through Gooseberry Bluff and using them in attacks referred to as Heartstoppers where the victims all drop into a state of not-quite-death. However there is quite a lot more than what initially appears to be going on at Gooseberry Bluff and Joy soon finds wheels within wheels.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I would describe it as overambitious. Schwartz sets up quite a few plotlines within this book and resolves a few while leaving others hanging, presumably for later development. The problem is it feels like Schwartz is trying to shove too many plots into one book and the result is none of them feel like they're properly developed. For sake of example, let me make a list of the different plotlines:

  1. Joy must discover what happened to Carla Drake.
  2. Joy must discover who is smuggling demons through Gooseberry Bluff and why.
  3. Zelda, the alchemy professor, is trying to remove an actual magical curse which makes her life a living hell. 
  4. Ingrid, the conjuration professor, is trying to find a way to bring her sister, who was a victim of one of the Heartstopper attacks, back from her state of not-quite-death.
  5. Ken, yet another professor at the university, is engaged in a long-distance magical duel with a mysterious opponent, and seems to be losing.
  6. A shadowy war across dimensions between Chaos and Order.
So that's six plots, and I'm being kind of generous with my definition of plotlines. You could probably refer to some of these as sub-plots within much larger plot lines, but that still gives you about three or four different plots all going at once. Now, some books can pull this off. George R.R. Martin seems to have a psychological obsession with adding as many plotlines as possible until his books become nothing more than a tangled nest of unresolved plot threads. And yet we still love him in spite of that. But keep in mind, the books of A Song of Ice and Fire are really, really long so he has more room to stretch out and develop his plotlines and world. And he includes an appendix of all the characters in the back so you can keep track of who the hell all these characters are.

Gooseberry Bluff, by contrast, is much shorter so it doesn't get enough time to develop its world or its plotlines quite as fully as I'd like. There are hints at an elaborate world and universe that Schwartz has developed, but I feel like we don't get to explore it as much as we really should to get a proper understanding of it. And with so many plots going on at once, the story ends up feeling rather rushed, in spite of the book being a little over four hundred pages. I'm just left with the overall impression that Schwartz had some very grand ambitions for this book and he just didn't quite get to where he needed to be.

Overall, the book's okay, I just feel like the book's reach exceeded its grasp and it suffered because of it. It's very hard to create a narrative with multiple plot lines running and Schwartz attempts to do that here. He doesn't bungle it horribly, it's actually competent, but it just doesn't feel as developed as I'd like. And that's really the emotion this book left me with. The book finishes open-endedly and we'll have to see if Schwartz takes these plots any further and develops them better.

- Kalpar

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