Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement, and one that I have yet to make. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of J. Conrad’s Lake Caerwych, a young-adult fantasy-adventure which I finished reading Sunday morning.
Characters: The third-person narrative unfolds through the point-of-view of our protagonist, 14-year-old Bridget. Bridget spends most of the book in the company of her best friend Celena, also 14. In fact, it’s the almost mystical — or perhaps totally mystical — friendship that helps drive the tale.
Since the story is told through Bridget’s point-of-view, we get a good description of Celena through Bridget’s eyes:
Celena was tall and slender with bright blue eyes rimmed with heavy black liner and beautiful dark brown hair that hung down most of her back in spirals. She wore a deep burgundy lipstick that was really too dark for her but which nevertheless seemed perfectly flattering.
Next, Bridget noticed that Celena was very forthright and direct. She spoke her mind and didn’t care what people thought, although when it came to Bridget she was very considerate.
Bridget gets a little less description, but still enough for a fair idea of appearance — hair the same color as her friend, but straight and glossy, green eyes, dark lipstick, and also outspoken.
I like character description, and thought J. did a good job with Bridget and Celena. I want to know what the characters look like — the difference between radio and TV, though some don’t think its necessary. If the audience is teen-aged girls, I think the description is crucial.
From the action of the story we can also deduce that the girls are smart, brave, resourceful and athletic.
Plot: Finding a strange medallion engraved with Celtic designs is the first step in an adventure that leads Bridget and Celena to a week-long sojourn in Snowdonia, a Welsh national park. There they not only discover they were friends in a past life, but that the medallion is a mystical token that lets them access that long ago time — 500 BC apparently — from an ancient megalithic ring of stones near Lake Caerwych.
Only then do they learn that they have been guided there for a higher, and much more dangerous purpose than they ever realized.
Setting: Most of the story takes place in Snowdonia, a land of low mountains, mist and dark, mysterious lakes. J. gives enough description to get by, probably plenty for the YA audience. Here’s the girls’ arrival at the lake of the book’s title:
Coming upon “their lake” at last, beautiful Llyn Caerwych gleamed splendidly in the brightness of the day.
Some rocks jutted out from the side of a hill above the lake and the three of them stopped there and threw their bags to the ground. The scant bit of ruins were now just below; there truly was not much. Bridget felt something catch in her throat and behind her eyes. Celena was looking at the lines of tumbled rock too.
They left their bags on the hill and went down the steeply sloping bank. An arm of stones stretched into the water.
I would’ve liked a little more, because I love good place description — it takes me there — but J. gives enough for the needs of the story, and likely most readers.
What I thought could’ve been done better: The barbarian horde that descends on and destroys the fortified town where Bridget and Celena’s long-ago incarnations lived needed some description. J. refers to them as “tribesmen” and “invaders,” but — I think — she missed an opportunity to add some color to the story by describing the invading army on their “snorting horses, bristling with spears and swords, clad in beaten copper and fanged and horned animal skins…” well, you get the idea.
Also, J. develops some good rules about going back and forth into the past, and especially how to bring objects from the past into the present. But they get a bit complex and hard to follow — at least for me. I recommend either trying to simplify — or, repeating them a few times in the story.
Rules are good, though, and you have to have them for narrative credibility.
And here’s where I make my pitch for active voice and vivid verbs. In this scene, Bridget, back in the past as her previous incarnation, Enid, is about to get raped:
Then, as the man started to take down his pants, a primal, animalistic desire for life began to seize her, like a predator that had been backed into a corner. She raised her head and bit the man on the cheek as hard as she could until she had actually bitten through his face.
There was an enraged scream of pain, more blood in her mouth and the taste of unwashed flesh.
Here it is again, in active voice, with a little more attention to the verbs, the “muscle” of writing:
Then, as the man took down his pants, a primal, animal desire for life seized her, as if she were a cornered predator. She mashed her mouth against his cheek and bit as hard as she could until she had torn the flesh from his face.
He screamed with rage and pain, while warm, salty blood and the hideous taste of unwashed human skin flooded her mouth.
Even without the rewrite, though, it’s still good and intense.
What I thought was good: First, I thought Bridget and Celena were fine, spunky characters, great role models for girls their age.
Though there wasn’t as much setting description as I would’ve liked, I enjoyed what there was, and J. did a good job with it.
As I mentioned in the preceding section, the action sequences are terrific. Here’s one where Bridget, again back in time as “Enid,” pursues a bad guy:
She felt the horse’s body tense as she tucked her front legs neatly under her while thrusting with her hind. A few bits of sod flew from her hooves and then girl and horse were in mid-air, the crowd underneath them. In terrified exhilaration, Enid hung on for dear life. The mare came down directly on the back of someone as she gouged another with the same sweep of her leg. The landing was so rough that the horse stumbled miserably and her legs were tangled for a moment between a man’s limbs. She landed on her knees with a grunt, then heaved herself to her feet and went right on running.
That’s a truly thrilling, soaring moment, imho.
I also enjoyed the detective work Bridget and Celena do. They painstakingly and methodically figure everything out. J. lets them take no shortcuts, which adds a solid sense of credibility to this high fantasy. Also adding credibility is the fact that Lake Caerwych is a real place, existing much as J. describes it.
Overall: So who writes a perfect book? I thoroughly enjoyed following these two engaging characters on their mystical quest through mystery, danger and even death. J. has delivered the magical gem of an adventure I hoped for when I bought the book.
Good job, J.!
Bedtime Stories by Wendy Reid
After Effects by Zane Bradey