REVIEW: Through The Veil by Shiloh Walker
Dear Ms. Walker:
I know it has taken me a long time to complete this review, but the truth is that it took me a long time to complete Through The Veil. At first I kept thinking it was just that I couldn’t sit down and focus long enough on the story to feel engaged, but after a hundred pages or so, I realized that it didn’t matter what the cause of my underwhelmed response was, because that feeling wasn’t going anywhere, and in fact persisted until the last quarter of the novel.
Lee Ross is afraid she is going crazy. Plagued by dreams of battle in a strange land, and of a compelling man who she only sees in those dreams, she often wakes bruised and battered, as if she has traveled during her sleeping hours to do battle in that realm of her nightmares. Little does Lee know that the land of her dreams is really her homeland, and the realm to which she is connected heart and soul, her existence essential to its survival. As the novel’s titular veil between worlds becomes thinner and thinner for Lee, even tormenting her while she is awake, memories of her nighttime world bleed into her consciousness, assaulting her with the reality of two lives, one lived in the darkness, the other in the sunlight. And when Lee finds herself inexplicably thrust into that nighttime world while she is fully awake, thus begins the unraveling of the mystery of Lee’s birth and origins, as well as the unwinding of an entire people’s fate.
Ishtan is an almost barren land, besieged by demons and monstrous ground-dwelling beings called wyrms, as well as the enemy world of Anqar. Ishtan is a sort of middle-land between earth and Anqar, separated by energy Gates that can only be opened by specific individuals with specific gifts of magick. It has properties of an earthly world as well as magical attributes more identifiable with a supernatural realm. Once Lee moves into Ishtan consciously, she begins to understand her own gifts of magick, one of which is that she can see the Veil between realms, and is immediately engaged in the quest to save Ishtan from its various threats, still uncertain why she is so important to the struggle but determined to do what she can to save the people she has known for so long in her dreams.
Especially Kalen, whom she has known, in her intermittent way, since she was only a child, traveling over the years to his rescue and to his side in battle. Although Kalen is deeply attached and attracted to Lee, he knows that her continuous displacement from Ishtan means that she is not a good romantic risk. Once Lee seems more permanently ensconced in Ishtan, though, the mutual attraction between Kalen and Lee accelerates, and their closeness grows at the same pace as the jeopardy to their world.
Through The Veil reads like romantic urban fantasy to me, that is, as a romance superimposed on an urban fantasy blueprint. Part quest (isn’t it interesting how many of these books have heroines coming of age in their late twenties or so? I wonder if that’s part of the attraction between Romance and Urban Fantasy right now), part love story, part family saga; in fact, the novel has so many ostensible elements that I could never figure out why it felt sparse in substance until almost the three-hundredth page mark. Had I only been reading the book and not reviewing it, I would have given up at 200 or even 100 pages. I am glad I persisted, but am still disappointed overall.
A big part of the problem for me was the narrative voice, which made me feel distanced from the action of the novel. The prose often felt a little melodramatic to me, and the images conjured were not always easy for me to envision:
Fear bubbled inside his throat, digging in with sharp, angry claws. He couldn’t lose her.
I sat and contemplated that line for a few minutes after reading it, trying to reconcile the bubbling and digging, jarred by the imagery. Sometimes unfamiliar combinations of words and images can be jarring in a good way, pushing the reader to a deeper level of understanding or awareness, but there were a number of moments in Through The Veil where I felt more disoriented than better settled in the narrative. Further, the power behind the narrative often felt to me external to the story, a distinct sense of telling from outside, even when the characters’ thoughts were being represented:
Lee was still a little too shaky to think about the woman Eira called Aneva. Right now, although Lee hated to admit it, she wasn’t ready to think about her mother yet so she simply blocked it out. The coward’s way out, maybe, but the woman was little more than a stranger to Lee and since she had died years ago, that wasn’t likely to change. Thinking about her now wasn’t going to change things, so Lee decided not to think about her.
But even though she could force push her thoughts about her mother into a neat little box and not dwell on them, she couldn’t do the same thing with Eira. Eira’s death hurt. Lee didn’t know if it was because the old lady had been the only blood relative Lee actually knew, or if it had something to do with whatever memories she had suppressed of this place. But it hurt. The pain kept sneaking up on her, grabbing her by throat and blinding her with the pain. Even now as she hiked through the dense undergrowth, tears stung her eyes.
She blinked them away. There wasn’t any time to cry right now. No time to mourn.
Intellectually I understand that I am supposed to feel Lee’s grief and pain here, the loss of a woman who had served as Lee’s mentor and as something more, something Lee discovers a little too late. But there is just so much verbiage here, so much telling me how Lee feels that there’s no room left for me to feel it myself. I don’t know if this stylistic trait caused my early sense of disconnection from the book’s substance; it may be that the repetition and other stylistic traits that alienated me might have really engaged another reader. But I felt this incredible irony through the first several hundred pages, where despite the sheer number of words I was reading, I felt that little was actually happening, especially in regard to the relationship development between Kalen and Lee.
Although I appreciated that these two had known each other for many years, and I liked the way that they had both resisted their mutual attraction for so long (knowing how untenable it would be), in the end I wasn’t completely sold on the big love between them. Part of my problem here was Kalen’s characterization, which seemed unfocused to me at times. For example, his first thought about Lee, communicated directly to the reader, is that she is a “[s]tubborn little bitch,” which felt a bit disrespectful to me (when I think it was supposed to telegraph the opposite message, actually), contrasted strangely to me with the Southern good old boy Kalen seems to be channeling when he tells Lee that Ishtan will be at war, “Until we win, darlin’.” As the novel proceeds, his speech patterns seem to change, with the Southern drawl giving way to a different voice altogether. I knew Kalen was a good guy, and I knew he was attracted to Lee in a big way, but I never felt him as a vividly drawn man, as much as a certain type — strong but sensitive, a compassionate but commanding leader, passionate and protective but respectful of his woman’s independence, etc. Consequently, it was difficult for me to connect emotionally to his relationship with Lee, especially to their rapid build up of passion.
Now had the whole of the novel read to me like the last quarter did, my overall reaction would be quite different. It is in this last section of the novel that the answers to the mysteries are finally rolled out and the more interesting aspects of the warfare revealed. I understand that some of these things could not be revealed earlier, but I wish that the road to revelation had been more richly layered with the kind of intense focus on characterization, motivation, conflict, and thematic development that exists in this last section of the story. That last quarter or so was much, much stronger, and I found myself truly interested in what was going to happen to these characters and much less focused on the things that had bothered me earlier. I am not certain whether this radical change in my reading experience is as much as issue of pacing as it is an issue with the tension between world building and relationship building. It felt to me as if the first sections of the book were offered to set up the later revelations and to build the romantic relationship between Lee and Kalen, so that when the action in the story became more intense and fast-paced that the infrastructure of the novel would be at full build out. As much as I admire that, it did not work for me as executed, in part, I think, because the starkness of Ishtan’s war-torn landscape was mirrored for me in the majority of the narrative. I was also thrown out of the novel a few times by references to things like the “plasma assault rifle,” which gave me a spontaneous flashback to “Ghostbusters,” ruining for me the serious mood of the scene.
One more issue I am somewhat reluctant to mention is that of typos and errors, of which I found many in the ARC I read. I understand that we are not supposed to hold these against the book, because so many are edited out in the final copy (and as a sometimes sloppy drafter and poor proofreader, I understand this preliminary – final distinction quite well), but a persistent misuse of “lie” and “lay,” as well as the typos and misspellings and other inconsistencies really did interfere with my ability to stay connected to the story at some points. For example, two characters (only one of whom is physically present in the novel, but both of whom are significant) are described as both daughter and mother and granddaughter and grandmother:
Elina had contacted them. She knew about her mother’s death and she’d be there as fast as she could, bringing her oldest two children with her, a witch-born daughter and a psychic.
Eira’s granddaughter, Elina, had left behind most of her clothing and the women were of a similar size so at least Lee’s clothes fit.
This inconsistency was of importance in the novel because it is part of the mystery surrounding Lee’s attachment to Ishtan. Since I don’t know if it was resolved (and how) in the final book, I got confused trying to keep characters and family lines straight later on the novel, forcing me to go back and double check the relationship references. I don’t think it matters which way the inconsistency was resolved; I simply provide it as one example of how those ARC-ish mistakes can make it difficult to fully appreciate a book during the reviewing process, where I try to be extra-careful about weighing and measuring different aspects of the text accurately and fairly.
I know that there are other readers who enjoyed Through The Veil much more than I did, so I may be in the minority on this one. I would be interested in whole novel that read like the last quarter of this one did, but for Through The Veil I ended up in the conflict-torn but hardly barren land of the C-.