Apr 26 2012
Dear Ms Youkey,
The promotional information for your self-published, professionally-edited novel, The Origin, listed several ingredients I like. It’s a superhero-themed romantic Urban Fantasy, which seemed like it would be a refreshing change from the usual vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. that dominate the subgenre. Plus, it looked to have one of my favorite character types in all of fiction: The Morally Ambiguous Hero.
The book description opens with the words, “He may have super powers, but his is no hero’s story…” and ends with, “Daniel has never considered himself a hero, but in the end, as he looks at the blood on his hands, he wonders if he isn’t the villain of the story after all.” That last sentence sold me on the novel.
Daniel Johnson was once a promising high school football star in Oklahoma, but when he developed super strength and accidentally broke another player’s back during a tackle, he retreated from sports and life, becoming a high school hermit. Ten years later, he’s living in New York City, a bank security guard by day and a masked vigilante by night.
Ballet dancer Olivia King had a crush on Daniel in high school, and when the two meet again she’s determined to go out on a date with him. Daniel is initially stand-offish with Olivia because he fears hurting her, but she is persistent and lures him into a relationship. Daniel lets down his guard and reveals his secret. He’s surprised Olivia accepts him, but just as they get comfortable, Olivia disappears. He is so desperate to find her that he commits terrible acts in pursuit of his goal.
Though The Origin delivered all the elements promised in the description, I was underwhelmed by their execution. The Origin felt unfinished—and not just because it ends in true comic book fashion with many unanswered questions and unresolved issues. Though the prose is, for the most part, clear and capable, it has a tendency toward passive voice, with passages such as this one in which Daniel fights and captures some criminals:
They did not even have a chance to lift their knives before punches were landed squarely on their faces. A few seconds later, they joined Jocko on the ground, bound and defeated.
My problem with this stylistic choice is not born of an ardent devotion to Strunk & White. My gripe is that it diminishes the protagonists’ dynamism—and these characters need every ounce of dynamism they can get. Though I did develop an interest in one of the villains, I just couldn’t warm up to Daniel and Olivia, or bring myself to root for their relationship.
When I read a romance, I like to see the hero’s and heroine’s personalities and skills complement each other. I like knowing that out of all the people in the world, these two people fit together. Daniel and Olivia are portrayed as attractive people who are attracted to each other, but I had no sense that they belonged together any more or less than with other characters in the story. And because
I think my lack of investment in the success of their relationship may have been for the best.
As a vigilante, Daniel is surprisingly ineffective, and outside of crime-fighting, he seems under-developed. Though we do get a flashback to his first attempt at crime-fighting, we never see Daniel’s Batman Moment—the event that shattered his confidence in the police so thoroughly that he became determined to seek out and prevent crime through extra-legal means.
By contrast, Olivia’s life and background are more detailed, but those details tend toward cliché: She’s a stunningly beautiful, half-Korean-half-Caucasian, wealthy, violet-eyed ballerina who is set to dance the lead in Swan Lake. I could accept her beauty, her familial wealth, and even her vocation as a ballerina—the narration does a good job of showing that Olivia worked hard for her success in ballet—but all of that combined with her violet eyes to push the character perilously close to Mary Sue Country. Every time the narration mentioned Olivia’s eyes, I found myself rolling mine.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll be vague, but I do want to mention the character I did enjoy. John functions as something of a villain in this story, but unlike most of the criminals Daniel fights, he is not a one dimensional baddie.
Stereotypical antagonists take the sting out of the morally ambiguous actions promised in the description. For me, Daniel never quite rises above (sinks below?) the level of a good man who does bad things to bad people for good reasons. By contrast, John is a decent man who does dastardly things for skewed but mostly understandable reasons. Except for one fairly important act, I thought his motivations were well detailed. If the rest of the story had been more compelling, I would be interested to read more about him in the future.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story just didn’t grab me. The prose shows promise, and often made me smile with clever flourishes of humor, but time and again while reading this, I found myself wanting to send it back with red-pen note requests for more detail, active prose, and corrections on the American idiom. More than anything, I feel like this story was unfinished. The characters need more depth, the prose needs more polish, and the setting needs more research.
Though the story is supposed to take place in New York City, the urban environment is generic and flimsy as a movie set, right down to the straight-from-central-casting petty criminals who conveniently pop up like whack-a-moles so that Daniel can play vigilante. Instead of referring to specific neighborhoods or landmarks, the narration sometimes uses vague, stereotypical descriptions like, “As Daniel passed through a rough part of town, he came across a sex store—the type so offensive the windows were painted black…” And, of course, said sex shop is frequented by criminals with “acne and greasy hair.”
I love urban fantasy. I love it when authors make a city setting come alive. I hoped for that from The Origin, but, like a lot of other things I hoped for—indelible characters, a compelling romance story, and an honest-to-not-so-goodness morally ambiguous hero—I didn’t get it. Though The Origin’s writing and the premise show talent and potential, the novel could have done with more work. I would be interested to read another novel by this author in a year or two, but I cannot recommend The Origin.