This is going to be a tough one, because Aiken shows a lot of promise. He has a great imagination, and hits all the right pulpy beats in this post-apocalyptic story of three friends cast out into the wilderness. It’s a classic story with plenty of room for personal embellishment, and Aiken does a lot of things right, but ultimately this story failed to deliver.
Great plot, great characters, and a fun little twist at the end. Keep those in mind, because the issues that I have with this story are technical in nature.
To begin with, the story uses the framing device of an old man telling a campfire story about his adventures as a youth. That’s a dangerous ploy, because it sucks a lot of suspense out of the story. We know the narrator lives, and that deprives the story of some of the danger inherent in a brutal, dog eat dog wilderness.
To complicate matters, the decision to craft this as an old man telling a tale to young ‘uns adds a touch of discord to the proceedings. The story is savage and bloody, and Aiken pulls no punches in the telling. Which means the old man pulls no punches when telling his young grandchildren about the wonton slaughter of innocents. He uses big words not well suited to campfire tales, too.
Ya gotta commit to the bit. The narrator’s voice bounces back and forth between that of an old man and that of a more traditional limited omniscient and impartial voice. Setting up the campfire at the beginning of the story, and the frequent asides took me out of the narrative and broke up the rising tension brought on by two different plot threads. In the final analysis, I would have enjoyed the story considerably more had “The Tale of Blade” had been told in a more traditional manner.
Let me provide one example paragraph that highlights the missed potential greatness of the story:
One day, the Sun licked the Earth, like a great-toad darting at a fly, and the world was thrown into darkness. Not long after that, the ground began to rumble something fierce. The greatest quake mankind has ever known was unleashed, and it tore the land asunder. Ancient, terrible things opened their eyes and gleefully crept out of the darkness. Creatures that hadn’t walked the Earth since primordial times were once again free to roam our world unimpeded.
Witness the power of the passive voice: World was thrown. Quake was unleashed. Creatures were free. It kills the tension, man.
“Gleefully crept”? Maybe it’s just me, but things that creep don’t usually do so with glee. They do so with malice and hate in their tiny little hearts.
Those intro words in the early sentences are also unnecessary. We know what happened first, because the narrator told us that first. Unless you have specific timeframes in mind, you don’t need to use conditionals like first and later.
And who uses words like ‘primordial’ when telling stories to kids?
Tighten that paragraph up and you’ve got a killer segue:
The Sun licked the Earth, like a great-toad darting at a fly, and burned the light from the sky. Before Old Man could recover from the sun’s wrath, the Earth betrayed him as well. The ground rumbled and shook and tore asunder. So great was the power of the quakes that whole cities fell into deep abysses. From the deeps crept ancient and terrible things that had slept and bided their time as Old Man played on the surface. Freed from their dark prisons they roamed the world, gleefully preying on the few men that survived the Brother Dooms of Sun and Earth.
Aiken shows a lot of promise, and his action scenes are great. This short tale features two quick fights, a suitably epic voyage montage, and a big dang battle at the end that elevate the story, but can’t quite overcome the shortcomings inherent in much of the prose.
Valuable lessons for us all.