Snakewood: Interesting premise that needs more work

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Snakewood by Adrian Selby speculative fictionSnakewood by Adrian Selby

I picked up Adrian Selby’s debut novel, Snakewood, after hearing a lot of good things about the book. Promising a dark world of realpolitik in the tradition of Glen Cook, Snakewood tells the story of the company once known as Kailen’s Twenty. While the company is long disbanded, many of its members still live and thrive in various occupations, until they turn up with throats slit and a black, stone coin on their bodies — the mark of a traitor. Spooked by these occurrences, former company leader Kailen begins calling his soldiers back to his side both to protect them and to discover the truth behind the murders. It’s a fascinating story, but the execution in Snakewood leaves a lot to be desired.

Sticking to that subgenre and choosing such a severe world for the setting made the plot of Snakewood very interesting but ultimately unfulfilling. You learn not to expect any happy endings from the first few pages of the work, which is a somewhat unusual artistic choice that’s refreshing and invigorating when executed well. So it’s important to engage the reader in the process of reaching that saddening conclusion, but in Snakewood, I simply felt more confused by the onslaught of information coming at me than anything else. The world-building is very broad in terms of the number of civilizations and cultures we’re introduced to, but very shallow when it comes to how much we actually learn about those peoples. There’s a lot of name-dropping and very little explaining of the relevance of those places, so even many chapters in, I was highly uncertain about the relevance of the setting. And the structure of Snakewood, which is intended to convey a story told through the eyes of numerous different characters, ends up disjointed and difficult to comprehend as there’s only the thinnest of threads connecting the different segments.

Unfortunately, another huge deal breaker in Snakewood is the prose, which for me is one of the most important parts of a story. For much of the work, the prose is very blunt, harsh, and bland — there is no subtlety, no gentle hints about the future, no room for the reader’s imagination. I felt throughout that Snakewood is trying too hard to tell me a story step-by-step and detail-by-detail rather than carefully guide me into a wholly different world. To be fair, some of this is deliberate due to the structure of Snakewood, and it does work out well in some action scenes. For the most part though, there seemed to be more scenes in which the prose doesn’t quite cut it.

Another aspect of Snakewood that’s dragged down by the prose is the strength of the characters. Because of the writing style throughout Snakewood, some of the characters didn’t seem to have very unique voices. Much of the dialogue seemed very monotonous, and I feel that the prose made it very difficult for any of the protagonists to rise out of two-dimensionality. For example, Gant’s portion of the story contains a great many semicolons and “stylistic run-on sentences,” which I found in equal parts unreasonably irritating and disruptive to the flow of the narrative. Some of this continues on with other characters’ segments, and after a certain point it became difficult for me to describe characters in Snakewood using more than a two- to three-word descriptor.

At some point, about a fifth through Snakewood, I decided to give up. While I did like the premise of Snakewood, there simply wasn’t enough substance in the work to keep me hooked, and I was still very confused about much of the setting and history of Selby’s world even after many chapters. All in all, I just think there’s much better work of this type out there.

Published March 16, 2016. A LIFETIME OF ENEMIES HAS ITS OWN PRICE. Mercenaries who gave no quarter, they shook the pillars of the world through cunning, chemical brews, and cold steel. Whoever met their price won. Now, their glory days are behind them. Scattered to the wind and their genius leader in hiding, they are being hunted down and eliminated. One by one. A groundbreaking debut fantasy of betrayal, mystery, and bloody revenge.

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is an undergrad at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea. This might just be because Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of the SFF genre at the ripe old age of 5. His literary tastes range from epic fantasy to military fantasy to New Weird, although sometimes he does enjoy a good space opera here and there, and some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. To Kevin, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he is extremely discriminating as it pertains to this last bit. Outside of his bibliophilic life, Kevin loves economics, philosophy, policy debate, classical music, and political science. You can find him at: www.kevinwei.me

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3 comments

  1. Two questions spring to mind; 1) Is this his first novel (Yes, from what I can tell) and 2) was he a game developer? The second is because I see this style of prose, and world-building, from writers making the jump from games to prose. Admittedly, that’s a generalization.

    It looks like he plans more work in this world, so maybe his skill set will improve.

    • I do believe that Selby is (or recently was) a game developer, and I’ve also noticed that trend among writers making the transition from video games to novels, so I don’t think you’re making a broad generalization.

  2. I pre-ordered this book close to a year in advance because it seemed to be a good one.. Not sure if I got 60 pages in before I dropped it.. what a disappointment.

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