You guys are aware that my attempt to read and review a self-published SFF work sort of went down the crapper last year. I felt kind of bad, because I really wanted to give an indie speculative fiction author's book a fair shot and come what may. Most of the Hotlist's readers seemed to be against the idea, maintaining that it would likely be a total waste of time, that self-published novels sucked, yada yada yada. And yet, against my better judgement, I elected to do it anyway. Perhaps I should have listened to them. . .
Indie writer Ted Cross, long-time Hotlist follower, communicated with me last fall, touching base to see if perhaps I'd be interested in giving his self-published cyberpunk tale a go since I hadn't followed through with the experience in 2014. My curiosity was piqued when I discovered that he paid 2000$ out of his own pocket to have the gorgeous cover art done by the talented Stephan Martiniere because he wanted the novel to stand out from other self-published works out there.
They say that you can't judge a book by its cover and it's true in this case. Cross mentionned that he felt it was money well-spent, that it was maybe better than investing in a developmental editor. Having read the whole thing, I beg to differ. Although it's well-written, The Immortality Game wasn't ready to be published. Which, in light of the shortcomings on which I'll soon elaborate, is why agents and editors passed on the manuscript.
Here's the blurb:
Moscow, 2138. With the world only beginning to recover from the complete societal collapse of the late 21st Century, Zoya scrapes by prepping corpses for funerals and dreams of saving enough money to have a child. When her brother forces her to bring him a mysterious package, she witnesses his murder and finds herself on the run from ruthless mobsters. Frantically trying to stay alive and save her loved ones, Zoya opens the package and discovers two unusual data cards, one that allows her to fight back against the mafia and another which may hold the key to everlasting life.
One thing that most self-published authors appear to have in common is their low opinion of professional editors. Too often they are portrayed as evil monsters whose only desire in life is to make sure that said authors never get published. A minority expound on the fact that those same editors almost never take a chance on writers whose works don't fit within the confines of any of the popular speculative fiction labels. It's true that being an editor means that they must also wear a businessman or businesswoman's hat, as it's their job to buy and put together a novel that will sell, and that if one's work seems hard to market they may pass on it. But I feel that the bulk of self-published works don't fit in that category. Agents and editors are dying to find the next big thing, or any quality read that will sell for that matter. Ask any SFF authors and they will all acknowledge how their editors made their manuscripts better. True, publishing is a tough nut to crack, but that's the way love goes. Editors are there to make sure no author will release anything less than their best effort. If editors were just fucktards on power trips bent on dominating publishing and making it their life's work to prevent indie authors from ever ending up in bookstores, big names like Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, and George R. R. Martin wouldn't praise Simon Spanton, Gillian Redfearn, and Anne Groell respectively for all the positive influence they have had on their many books. Nor would Patrick Rothfuss be professing his undying love for Betsy Wollheim for all that she has done for him since he signed with Daw Books.
The truth of the matter is that the aforementioned agents and editors are probably passing on these manuscripts because they are simply unfit to be published in their current form. Ted Cross' The Immortality Game sadly falls in that category. Like many other self-published works, Cross' novel contains the seeds of what could become a good and entertaining tale. But I fear that it needs a number of revisions and is probably quite a few rewrites away from ever being adequate to catch an agent or an editor's interest. Unfortunately, like many other writers before him, instead of going back to the drawing board and diving back into this manuscript to try to fix what isn't working, Cross took the path of least resistance and elected to self-publish it.
Now, Ted Cross' The Immortality Game could well be better than the majority of self-published books out there. But that's not saying much. It is extremely well-written and it's obvious that he polished this manuscript in a professional manner. The prose is fluid and easy to read, so there is no problem in that regard. Problem is, the storylines often make no sense and the characterization is at times mediocre and so-so at best. It's in those areas of the manuscript that a developmental editor could have helped Cross immensely. Authors are often too enamored with their works and aren't necessarily the best of judges when it comes to put their finger on what works well and what doesn't. A neutral party can usually focus on the strengths and weaknesses and offer constructive feedback on such matters. And evidently, Cross' test readers didn't do a good job in that regard. . . Indeed, the flaws that prevented him from getting an agent or an editor are quite flagrant. When I asked him about it, Cross replied that his beta readers didn't point out any such flaws. In which case, they did him a disservice. Needless to say, spending that 2000$ to hire an editor would have been a much better investment.
It appears that Cross wanted this one to read like a page-turning cyberpunk technothriller. Hence, for the sake of a crisp rhythm, it looks as though the worldbuilding was kept to a bare minimum. Trouble is, this robbed the story of any sort of depth, which doesn't work very well. Finding the right balance between good storytelling and a quick-moving pace can be tricky. But Ted Cross failed in that particular endeavor. The backdrop of this tale is a near-future world in which the proverbial shit has hit the fan. The bulk of the novel takes place in Russia, where various war lords have taken control of the country. On the other side of the Atlantic, it appears that Mormons now control a vast chunk of the USA. There are a few mentions of the Dark Times, the period during which everything collapsed around the world, but nothing which could give us a better grasp of what actually took place and why things are as they are now in 2138.
What truly killed the book for me was the characterization, especially the dialogue. The narrative itself isn't bad, but things immediately go downhill as soon as characters start to talk or think. To my dismay, the dialogue is full of exchanges worthy of B-movies featuring Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme. Yes, it's that bad, especially any back-and-forth involving the scientist Tyoma or the mobster Tavik. I'm pretty sure that this is not what Ted Cross was aiming for. At first I thought that perhaps it was just me, so I did a copy-and-paste of a few scenes and sent them to six of my friends who are avid readers. I told them that I was beta reading a manuscript for my agent and didn't tell them that this was a self-published book that was already on the market. They (3 men and 3 women) opined that the dialogue was atrocious and the monologues going on inside the characters' mind brutal. Five out of six of them alluded to the B-movie-esque style of the exchanges, while another mentioned seeing better dialogue in a porn flick. . . Unless Cross was looking for something that could reach even the lowest common denominator, the dialogue truly kills this novel. Another major shortcoming of The Immortality Game is that the two main protagonists, Zoya and Marcus, never act the way genuine people would. I wouldn't call them dumb, but they excercise absolutely no judgement throughout the tale. They always make the wrong decision, and everything feels contrived to keep the story moving in the direction the author is aiming for. Unfortunately, by doing so they make the teenage cast of a Friday the 13th installment --you know, the ones running around almost naked, going down a dark cellar with the lights off, and getting murdered in the dumbest ways-- look like absolute geniuses. The storylines often make absolutely no sense. Especially Zoya's; this girl has such poor decision-making skills that she gets almost everyone she loves killed. And Marcus, sad puppie that he is, just goes along on this mad quest, putting his own life at risk at every turn for a girl he met a few hours before. The whole thing doesn't ring true and is hard to follow as nothing makes sense from the beginning. This is definitely something that an editor could have helped fix.
Another problem with The Immortality Game is that I feel it's a case of Cross biting off more than he could chew. His attempt to weave together this impossible love story with the cloning/immortality plotline, all the while involving the army and the Russian mafia, was just a bit too much. By exploring those various plotlines, the extraneous is often brought to the forefront and it feels as though the author often loses track of what matters. Once more, this is something an editor could have helped fix.
In the end, The Immortality Game is obviously Ted Cross' love child. It's the kind of tale he obviously loves and wants to read. And that's the kicker. His love for this story blinds him to its shortcomings and prevents him from seeing what's wrong with it. He came up with an interesting premise and the whole thing shows signs that with more work it could be a compelling and entertaining read. But in its current form, those shortcomings simply make it impossible for the book to stand well on its own. As such, paying 2000$ for that Martiniere cover turned out to be a mistake. He would have been better served with the services of an editor who would have helped him clean up his manucript and make everything better.
Normally, I would have stopped reading because I hate to waste time on inferior SFF works when my plate is already full with works from established authors. But I went public and I said I would do this, and I promised Cross to give his book a shot. I hate to give something a bad score, but the truth of the matter is that The Immortality Game wasn't ready to be published. It shows potential, true, but it's a number of rewrites away from being good enough to be read at large. Barring an editor, Ted Cross needs a number of honest and objective beta readers who are not afraid to tell him what doesn't work with his manuscripts. This guy has talent and good ideas. It's in the execution that he needs to improve.
The final verdict: 4/10
Thus ends my probably ill-advised self-published experiment. Hence, for better or worse, I will not be reading any other books by indie authors. . .