NOTE ABOUT SPOILERS
repeatedly as a novel on its front and back covers, DIGITAL
KNIGHT is, in fact, a collection of previously unpublished short
stories which – as far as I can tell – have only been
lightly touched up (if at all) to form the “novel”. I’m
going to spoil significant chunks of the first short story
(although not its plot), because – otherwise – it would be
impossible to discuss this book in any meaningful way. The rest
of the book is left blissfully mysterious.
END NOTE ABOUT SPOILERS
exceptionally poor cover art nor the somewhat cliched back cover
blurb drew my attention to DIGITAL KNIGHT. Not even the effusive
cover quote praise from Eric Flint would have made me pass over
the eight bucks Baen was asking for it.
What did make me
pick it up was the fact that Ryk E. Spoor had written it. For
those of you who don’t already know, Ryk posts regularly
around Usenet under the handle Sea Wasp. As the friendly Wasp,
I’ve been acquainted with Ryk for almost exactly a decade now
– during which time he’s distinguished himself as a person
of singular creativity, insight, and intellect.
So, if Spoor had
written it, I wanted to read it. Once a copy put in an
appearance at my local bookshop, I snatched it up and stuck it
on my reading list. Which brings us here.
As noted above,
DIGITAL KNIGHT is more a short story collection than a novel. It
contains a cycle of short stories, all focusing on the character
of Jason Wood: A private investigator who finds himself plunged
into a world of urban fantasy.
book is fascinating, because you can see Spoor growing as a
writer right before you eyes. The earlier short stories are
plagued with a lot of problems: The plotting is awkward and
contrived, and its strength is further sapped by the fact that
Spoor seems to be making an attempt at stylizing his prose by
adopting the hard-edged, slightly ironic feel of a PI novel.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite get there and the result is
jarring and off-putting.
Worst of all,
the early dialogue can be actively painful. People just don’t
talk the way Spoor has them talking. The thing I noticed most
was that his characters weren’t using contractions, but this
was really just the tip of the iceberg: A lot of factors
combined to make the dialogue jarring and unbelievable.
But, like I
said, as you read further you see the book improve dramatically
before your eyes:
begins to flow naturally, and the characters develop rich,
distinct voices. The stiff, uncomfortable prose resolves itself
into a unique, effective voice – still rough around the edges,
perhaps, but clean and entertaining nonetheless. And once Spoor
finds his rhythm, he starts playing some powerful beats: There
are bits that I found myself reading out loud, and I only do
that when the wordsmithing becomes remarkable.
plotting is shedding its awkwardness step-by-step, until you
eventually find yourself compulsively turning page after page,
drawn inexorably along by Spoor’s action and world-building.
In short, the
book is well worth pushing through its weak start: The early
stories have some diamonds in the rough to offer you, and the
book starts to really pay off with “Photo Finish” (which
starts around page 90). Shortly thereafter Spoor throws a twist
at you which makes you realize that he’s just been toying with
you all along, and then he follows it up with a revelatory punch
that will send you reeling. You can practically hear the starter
pistol going off as the novel starts racing.
There are a lot
of treasures hidden away in the nooks of this book, but one
thing which is delightful right from the beginning is what I’m
going to call, for lack of a better term, the
“genre-awareness” of the characters. When Jason Wood runs
into vampires he has his moment of disbelief… but then he
realizes he’s acting just like the characters he makes fun of
in the horror movies and gets down to the business of using his
collected knowledge of horror and fantasy to his advantage. Not
everything he tries works – because, of course, myth isn’t
the same thing as reality – but that just sells it: Wood is a
skeptic in an unskeptical world. But he’s not Dana Scully
dense: Once he’s seen the evidence of something being true, he
accepts it as truth and moves on.
In grading this book I am left in something of a
quandary: I would rate the early material at roughly a C+
(average-to-mediocre material with the occasional reward). For
the later material – and greater bulk of the novel –
however, I would probably give an A- (highly rewarding with only
the occasional, minor flaw). In a completely non-linear fashion,
I’m going to average that out to a B+ (notable, fun, and well
worth your time).