Ariel, by Steven R. Boyett (and Thoughts About Updating Backlist)

Back cover, which is a good summation:

It’s been five years since the change… Five years since the lights went out, cars stopped in the streets, and magical creatures began roaming the towns and countrysides of Earth.

Pete Garey, a young loner who survived the Change and the madness that followed, spent two years wandering and scavenging the near-deserted cities and towns alone—until the day he encountered an injured unicorn. He nursed her back to health and named her Ariel, and an unlikely friendship was formed.

But unicorns are rare even in a Changed world—and the power of their magic is highly prized.

A necromancer in New York City covets that power and will stop at nothing to possess Ariel, dead or alive. Sought by bounty hunters both human and inhuman, Pete and Ariel decide to make a stand against their enemy—and journey to confront the dark sorcerer in the ruined heart of the city he has made his own twisted kingdom.

All Things Considered…

This is a reprint of Boyett’s 1983 debut novel and I wondered why I’d never stumbled upon it, considering it featured a unicorn. In the past, I’ve studied unicorn lore and a “post-apocalyptic fantasy” that featured one was intriguing. It has a wonderful premise, but in the end the inconsistency in the world and the characterization balanced everything out to… a so-so book. [Warning: some minor plot spoilers follow].

A quick run-down:

  • Great premise, but with gaping logic holes. When the Change comes, much of mankind’s technology stops working. Unfortunately, Boyett picks and choses what works, rather than rigorously planning out his world. After the Change, electricity obviously stops working—meaning there will be no cars, electric light, phones, revolvers–what? Boyett makes the point that levers, gears, propane stoves, and fire still works… but a mechanism of gears that turns a chamber and uses a mechanical hammer to cause an intense exothermic reaction resulting in expansion of gas thereby pushing out a bullet won’t work? A mechanical firing of a bullet employs the same natural laws that allow fire and propane to work (Boyett does mention criticisms of this in his afterward, by the way). Am I picking at nits? After all, it’s just magic, so it doesn’t matter. No, it does matter. No reliable natural laws means a character can’t survive in this world by use of reason—only by dumb luck. It also means the reader must memorize what works and what doesn’t…
  • Traditional unicorn lore is followed. This helps the reader follow, even predict, the story. Pete is a virgin, he can touch Ariel, and they form a bond. The astute reader would note this is also a coming-of-age story. Pete must grow up, become sexually involved with a woman, so this relationship can only end badly. In the afterward, Boyett expresses bewilderment by the responses of “How could you?” by pointing this fact out. However, I think the responses were due to my next point.
  • Inconsistent characterization of Pete allows the author to put Ariel in peril. Since I hate dumb characters, I was happy to see that through the first half of the book, Pete is careful and smart. He learns how to scavenge for supplies, keep away from bad guys, and find maps for planning his future routes. When he comes to a town, he reconnoiters before going in—and he does this consistently, with Ariel by his side. Then he finds out about the necromancer, and Ariel tells him she’s encountered him before and he’s responsible for breaking her leg. He’s capable of taking her life. Suddenly, Pete loses all his brain cells and is hell-bent on confronting this necromancer. Why? “Because this is something I need to do,” he tells Ariel. He says they can’t have the threat of this necromancer hanging over them and she agrees. But, since it takes them a long and fairly peaceful time to get to New York, do they make any plans? No. Does Pete amass wisdom or weapons, learn magic, or become more powerful along the way? No. Does he even think about how he’s going to confront a necromancer? No. Does he even reconnoiter the situation inside New York before entering, like he’s always done before? No. He manages to deliver Ariel to the necromancer without a fight. Then he escapes, leaving Ariel to suffer days and days of torture. Way to go, Pete—although Boyett makes sure he’s wracked with guilt. I think this was the main reason for the “How could you?” responses from readers. It feels like Boyett changed his main character mid-book, artificially, to make his plot work.
  • In general, I felt the plot meandered and the conflict, while interesting, often left the main character unaffected. On the other hand, this is a coming-of-age story with a journey plot, which is often unfocused. While it wasn’t the type of story that grips me—I want to make the point that it could appeal to other readers with different tastes.

More Interesting: Should an Author Update an Older Novel?

On the other hand, Boyett’s afterward and his comments on whether to update the novel were interesting. I’ve talked to writers, particularly those in the romance genre who have plenty of backlist, about this very issue. For romantic suspense, for instance, the lack of communication with the outside world (cell phones, mobile web surfing devices, etc.) is what often forces the hero and heroine together. What should one do with one’s backlist, if the books employed this environment?

Boyett was faced with the same dilemma. In the forward, he writes:

Much has changed in the world since Ariel was first published in 1983. When I saw that Ariel was going to be reprinted, I thought about revising it to accommodate those changes. Then I realized that an important plot point and thematic element hinges on something that doesn’t exist anymore (you’ll know it when you see it, and I discuss it in the new Afterward).

I mentioned, above, that Pete reconnoiters towns and gets maps. How? By always going to the town library first and using the card catalog. He also researches esoteric magic in that way, finding small chapters or sections in books. When I read that, I thought “That’s the big block to updating to 2010!” After all, I haven’t seen a physical card catalog since I left for Italy in 1988. How, in Boyett’s Changed world, would anyone find rare subjects quickly in a library, or find physical maps easily, without electricity? Everything’s on digital media now or at the least, one has to use a computer system to find physical books on the shelves.

[Slight spoiler alert:] But, no, Boyett worries about the use of the World Trade Center, because they needed a taller building than the bad guy’s “fortress,” which was the Empire State Building. I thought, “Dude, that’s not the big block to updating.” I think he could have figured out a similar relative height situation in 2010 New York City—but it’s his information technology levels that are the problem. He needs information that can still exist and be accessed after the Change.

Alternate History, Alternate Worlds: The Answer to the Updating Backlist

But did he need to update? With card catalogs that have drawers with little pieces of paper, old Ford Falcons, etc., I know Boyett’s world is probably set before the late 80s. I think he even gives the date of the Change. The story becomes alternate history.

So if a backlist title can be a “period piece,” readers will probably still enjoy it. Particularly if the time period is accentuated and the author ties in current events for that time period. Consider the success of Sue Graften’s Alphabet Mysteries, where she keeps Kinsey Millhone in the 1980s?

Heck, a good story is still a good story, as long as you ground your reader in the time period. Go ahead and put your backlist out there again–just consider updating the novel to be more period-specific, perhaps connecting your generic story to a well-known event. (Irony: I know, to get the book published you probably had to make it historically generic. But go for it anyway!)

Any opinions?

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