Monday, February 06, 2012

Review: Kultus by Richard Ford

Kultus by Richard Ford (Book Depository, Powell's Books, Indiebound)  is the debut of a new secondary-world urban fantasy series with a steampunk setting and an undercurrent of dark magic and demons. I can see how this will appeal to some audiences, but for me there were too many flaws to overcome the potential.

Thaddeus Blaklok is something of an underworld badass. He’s got a nasty reputation and apparently the skills to back it up. His demonic employers have tasked him with acquiring the Key of Lunos – only he’s not the only one looking for it. Blaklok finds himself up against a few demonic cults, the Judicature (police) and various gangs of the underworld as he carves a path of destruction through the dark streets of the Manufactory.

First, let me say that this book has potential, but that potential doesn’t rise up until far too late in the story. The setting is well formed – it’s dark, layered and a fun sort of steampunk. The interaction of demons with humanity and the only barely mentioned church is a great backdrop. And everyone loves an anti-hero.

However, the beginning of the book in particular has a number of flaws. The prose is over-written and interspersed with clumsy info-dumps. The descriptions are evocative, but they go at least one step too far and often end up contradictory as a result.

He closed the window and fastened the latch. Pausing a second more to look out at the vast metropolis, he suddenly caught sight of his image reflected in the glass. Beuphalus had never been a handsome man but he had always prided himself on personal grooming. Alas, the years were beginning to catch up with him and soon no amount of preening and trimming would be able to halt the onset of age. It was in that moment he that he saw his own reflection was not the only one caught in the window. Someone was standing behind him, just visible in the shadows. Someone…or something.

This passage isn’t all that damning on its own, but the cumulative effect of page after page of this sort of writing drags on. And then we come to the primary point of view that we get, that from Blaklok.

There was nothing else for it, he needed advice. First of all he needed to know exactly what he was dealing with. What was this bloody Key and why was it so important? The rest he would figure out as he went. After all, how hard could it be? The Repository’s safeguards might be considered insurmountable by its custodians, but then again they had never tried to stop Thaddeus bleeding Blaklok!

And it goes downhill from there. Yes, Blaklok isn’t a very nice guy. Apparently he’s pretty tough, but the unsupported confidence and pathetic arrogance is just too much. And from there, we get to see Blaklok repeatedly fail, get beat up, captured multiple times, and nearly killed a few times along the way while that arrogance never goes away. Finally toward the very end of the book Blaklok suddenly starts using all of these powerful magical abilities that he hadn’t bothered to use when his life was just as threatened at earlier times in the book. It simply doesn’t fit together.

The depth that you get from the quote above is about as deep as Blaklok gets. That is until the very end, when we get just a few hints that there is actually reason behind his madness and perhaps something even interesting about him. I really don’t have the desire to read about some arrogant asshole without any real motivation. But someone with a conflicted past, someone in it for a greater purpose? Hell, it may be rather cliché, but at least there’s potential. It’s a real shame that this sort of hints didn’t happen until the last few pages of the book.

And finally, there is a distinct lack of female characters. Yes, the head inspector for the Judicature is a woman, but she is literally the only female character I can think of in the whole book.  (at least who isn’t a whore). It’s promising that she’s not there as a sexual object or damsel to be rescued, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. I suppose that the world portrayed is a very male-dominated society, but the lack of women certainly doesn’t help the book out.

So, while there is potential, the flaws that plague Kultus outweigh the good. I think this book will probably be enjoyed by some people, but it didn’t work for me. Perhaps if I hear outstandingly good things about any sequels to come I’ll change my mind, but I’d be surprised.


Fordy said...

Mmm, not a wholly damning review, and yet you've only given it 1 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Is that because you saw it had such a positive response from other reviewers and you just wanted to fudge the average to be more in line with what YOU thought it deserves? How very magnanimous of you.

Neth said...

Hi Richard, I always like it when authors stop by here.

The rating system over at Goodreads is quite poor in my opinion. I could go with two stars, which Goodreads tells me is 'it was OK' or with one star, which is 'I didn't like it'. I'd be happier with a broader spectrum for reactions that would allow for a more nuanced opinion, but that's a fault of pretty much all ratings. So, given my limited options, I chose one star as I found it to be more in-line with my ultimate thoughts than two stars as Goodreads chooses to define them.

I don't give a shit about the average score it has or what other reviewers have thought. And of course the score I give is all about what I think about it. Afterall, it is MY opinion of the book. Others are free to develop there own opinions. I back up my opnion with the review.

Justin said...

Nice response Ken. That's all I'll say.

Fordy said...

Hey Neth, of course you're entitled to your opinion, but the disparity between the review and the score you've given it is quite notable. You've said here, and elsewhere, that you thought Kultus was "just OK", which I'm sure you'd agree would constitute a 2 or 3 out of 5, despite what the Goodreads guidelines say. A 1 out of 5 would suggest it's fucking shite, one of the worst books you've ever read, which from your review doesn't seem to be the case.
Whether you give a shit about the average score or not, fact is you need to realise (and you're not the only one) that your reviews, and the scores you give it on sites like Goodreads and Amazon matter. Hammering a novel on Goodreads or anywhere else can have an adverse affect on sales, something all novelists, and in particular debut novelists like myself, need to carry on working. If you didn't like it, that's fair enough, as I've already said you're entitled to your opinion - no one has ever written a novel that was universally praised. I'd just ask that you consider the consequences your score will have on the book, and whether you really think it deserves a 1.

Scott said...


Neil Gaiman's comment a few months back on someone's blog towards author's about "How to NOT respond to reviewers and negative reviews" should be required reading by authors. I mean honestly.

Not everyone is going to like your book, it's kind of an "accept, move on" situation.

Ken, this is a lucid and decent review. Even though you didn't care for the book, this is well balanced as to why. I can wholly support and appreciate that.

Balanced neg reviews are hard to craft, and they ought not be made harder by knee-jerk author responses.

Neth said...

Hi Richard,

I am working with the definitions of the rating sytem that Goodreads provides - if you dislike how they choose to define things, perhaps you should suggest them a new system. For my own ratings (which I only publish on my reviews list anymore), I gave it a 5.5 out of 10. But the Goodreads ratings don't really allow for anything other than very positive scores, which is a whole topic unto itself. I don't find any disparity between my review and the score given the definitions I'm presented with.

As for considerations beyond my opinion. Are you suggesting that I should inflate my opinion because you are a debut author? Are actually suggesting that reviewers should hold back an honest opinion if it's negative? Are you suggesting that my one-star rating on Goodreads will do you more harm than your comments here?

Nic said...

Wow. They never learn, do they?

How many times, over-invested new authors? Reviewers are not obliged to give your book more credit than they feel it's due just because you "need to carry on working". But congratulations on alienating a bunch of other potential readers by publicly trying to badger a blogger into giving you a better rating on Goodreads.

Neth: Thanks for the well-explained verdict on the book, and well done on sticking to your guns in the comment thread!

Fordy said...

Neth: Fair enough, as I've already said more than once, I've got no problem with the review, just the score on Goodreads. If that's the interpretation of the scores as you read them then that's what you'll have to post.

Neth said...

As I've said repeatedly, I'm simply translating my opinion into the defined rating system of Goodreads. There is no nead to further qualify that and my review is available to back up my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Here on authors commenting:

It's generally a bad idea. Here's it's a bad idea. But it isn't a crime, we don't need to get our pitchforks out.

Anthony said...

Came for the drama... left disappointed.

Nice review, though.

Justin said...

I prefer the trident.

Scott said...


I don't think it's about the fact that the author "may not" comment, moreso if they comment it should not be anything that can be construed as "snark".

In fact, after this brouhaha went over twitter, I believe it was the always even-handed and balanced author (one of my faves because of how he conducts himself online) Daniel Abraham who said something along the lines of if you are an author and wish to comment on a bad review you say something like "I'm sorry it didn't work for you, but I appreciate the time and attention you've given it." That's it. Regardless of how you feel inside, it is always better (when you are the person who is putting his art out there) to stay classy. Yes, the rest of us get to comment and say what we will...but the author's livelihood depends on people reading his material. In that vein one would think that he'd have more tact, because as much as we'd like to be able to divorce an author's writing from their personal views, it's rather hard to do as a reader.

I think the notion brought up here isn't a "get the pitchforks out" situation, but more of a "graciousness in the face of negativity will always win you more fans" situation.

Just my two cents.


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