Thursday, March 1, 2012

Storm Glass

The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Longer than it feels (488 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: April 28, 2009 from Mira Books
Premise: Opal Cowan has spent years struggling to learn basic magic, failing to do anything beyond her single trick of blowing magic into glass. She's suddenly pulled from her studies to help investigate the Stormdancer glass orbs, which are shattering and killing the magicians who try to use them. As she journeys across Sitia in search of answers, she learns that her powers are changing. To add even more distractions, Opal tries to balance her feelings for both Kade, a tempestuous and aloof Stormdancer magician, and Ulrick, a fellow glassmaker who understands the loneliness of having only one gift in a school full of people with many.
Warnings: past described torture, present mild torture, rape threats, odd and largely unexamined sexual consent issues
Recommendation: If you liked Maria V. Snyder's previous series or have a particular interest in glassmaking, this might be your cup of tea. It makes for good fast-moving fluff, though I'd recommend it as a library find or waiting for the eventual mass market release.

 What makes this one shine:  

Snyder's worldbuilding is firmly realistic, constantly reminding the reader that magic is helpful but not the way to fix every problem. The magic system also really works; these magicians have had a hierarchy and a school going for quite some time, but they're still developing new methods and stumbling across unique types of magic. This makes the world seem alive and also helps Opal's powers blend in, making her one person with unusual gifts among many rather the inexplicable Chosen One. Ulrick, a fellow glassmaker, has similar but not identical gifts, leading the mages to cheerfully investigate and try to figure out how on earth it all works. 

 We also see Stormdancers gathering storm power and lightning into orbs, which they use to provide power in their clan's factories. This makes a great break from the overdone "magic and nature are good, industrialization is bad and its proponents are EVIL FOREVER" trope that crawls through lazy fantasy. The orbs also play into the inter-tribal diplomacy that has everyone on edge. In this case, other tribes want some of the orbs to be shared to negate what they see as an unfair advantage, but the Stormdancers unsurprisingly want to keep the orbs and use them to make a profit to help offset the risks of gathering the power. This is streamlined, logical, and sets up later conspiracies based on things like the diamond trade and assassination threats to help decide the next clan ruler.

Creative little touches kept catching my eye, most notably the Helper's [sic] Guild. The idea of having a guild devoted to helping you find what you need in a crowded market and then negotiate a fair price for it is sound enough that I'm surprised I haven't seen it somewhere else. Normally that niche is filled with the one cunning urchin who for some reason knows everything and likes the protagonists, and this guild holds together much better. We also see a really strong explanation of why legitimate merchants would buy goods that they knew were illegally obtained, and it makes the whole trade system more convincing by extension.

There's some good banter between Opal and Kade, and a fun running joke that they each keep making drawn-out metaphors based on their own trades and types of magic. During those sequences, you can really see the two forming a rapport and trusting each other enough to laugh even when things are tense.  He also keeps showing up out of nowhere on other business (that just so happens to be where she is) quite a few times, which lets them have several short but meaningful conversations before he wanders off again. The mutual tie of having lost a sibling makes it natural for them to discuss their emotions there, and it flows into other areas.

Pazia, who starts out as the obligatory rich kid disliking Our Protagonist for no real reason (Draco Malfoy, anyone?), gets more interesting as we see more of her. Things like apologies for all her past wrongs weakened, but her take on why people don't like Opal is a great counterpoint to all the self-absorbed angst that we get whenever Opal thinks about school. Seeing the token mean rich girl be competent and capable of growth is nice, even if it feels like making her less of one kind of punching bag for high school issues and more of the "that person who was mean is nice to me now! And she was only mean because of jealousy!" fantasy. This is the sort of thing that parents tell you as a lie in middle school to make you feel better about the day's bullying, and it doesn't work as a motivation for any actual adult. Other than that interlude, though, Pazia is interestingly flexible and good at her assignments.

Opal's past certainly isn't rose-colored, and the story reflects that; she's been tortured, her sister was killed, and she reacts to it in a realistic way....mostly. Even five years on, she's still grieving for her sister and beating herself up for things that she was forced to do because she'd been kidnapped and subjected to torture; it rides the line between touching and whiny. In places it becomes a bit "if you've forgotten, dear reader, my sister died," but when she unexpectedly misses something specific, it's actually quite moving. This works even better when we're introduced to this culture's traditions around death; they make sense as things that people would actually do, while being distinctive enough to be interesting. 

The red pen:  

The single biggest problem with Storm Glass is an awful case of telling disease. Opal tends to directly share her motivations and through processes, which paradoxically means that we understand them less. We get such gems as "I berated myself for my previous misgivings and pettiness. In those few days, Mara showed me how I should have behaved" and Kade's sap that something "makes me appreciate my skills and reminds me not to take them for granted." In the first case, even one conversation showing Mara's words and Opal's reactions would make it actually good. In the second, there is no cure for Hallmark quotes in the body of an otherwise decent book. Snyder could, however, have shown Kade interacting with the character who later loses her magical power and had a much more interesting conversation. 

This book unfortunately relies too much on the reader having read the previous trilogy. Hearing about the last protagonist and then meeting her goes well enough, but as the book progresses we keep meeting more characters who probably had depth the last time around and this time simply don't. It's fine to not have every minor character's backstory written out, but if I'm expected to care what happens to a character, tossing in a few sentences about who someone is before giving him an important role at the climax doesn't cut it. Not everyone is going to see that this is book one and dutifully skip back to the other trilogy to catch up on what they missed.

These characters seem to spend half the book traveling from one end of the country to another without ever developing the ability to use common sense on the road. Near the beginning, we're told that a student and a master magician will be making their journey with no guards in order to move faster, which is dangerous enough. Opal spends a good chunk of that journey being in agony from all the riding, eating....painkiller yams (I don't even know), and generally wishing that they could go slower. Given that guards who accompany important figures on the road generally get training in both weapons and riding, this reads as an excuse for a plot point. To the shock of absolutely no one, they get ambushed on the road. It keeps on happening, they keep not taking guards and in one case deliberately avoid traveling with a group, and it never makes sense.

Opal herself reads as much younger than she is; I was shocked when she mentioned being twenty. The opening chapter sets the stage with, essentially, "I don't have powers like other kids, no one likes me, the rich girl is mean to me, and I find happiness only in my glass." It's a checklist of clich├ęs, but they're tropes that I expect to find in books about twelve-year-olds, maybe sixteen for the slow bloomers. Yes, self-confidence issues can last a lifetime, but Opal starts out in a very childlike frame of mind and her yo-yo maturity tends to confirm that. One moment she's coming up with ideas to make the orbs safer, and the next she's assuming that experienced glassmakers know nothing and dropping an orb on the ground to show that it totally won't break. She demonstrates pretty solid common sense at times, but she also spends too much time moping over social fluff like whether people like her.

Some of the secondary characters straight-up do not work. Ulrick is the worst offender here; he's mundane and nice and overprotective, very clearly the token boy Opal is supposed to love. (Quick review: in a choice between the sweet boy next door and the broody figure who gives the heroine a mysterious tingling in her pants, we all know who she goes with, yeah? Good.) He does a decent job of being that trope, which is something. Nevertheless, demanding that she have armed guards everywhere, not trusting her to care for herself, and sulking every time he can't be around her is both childish and also a clue that she may be dating a stalker. 

Snyder tries to cover this by giving Ulrick the Sad Childhood of Woe in a bid for sympathy, but it's such a poster child for how to ineptly tell instead of show that I'll just quote. He actually says that "since my glassmaking skills were limited, I was excluded from many family activities." It reads like emotionless therapist-speak. Before that, it's easy to feel vaguely sorry for him because Opal is indecisive about him and he's in a new place, but after? Absolutely not. He also tends to assume that he is more competent than Opal is at any task but magic, and it's hard to believe that she'd keep on putting up with that level of intrusive condescension just when she's growing into her power.

Tal, one of the Stormdancer glass apprentices, is almost worse. He starts talking, and before the end of his second appearance his whole arc is predictable. Some of his family members had powers, he doesn't, and he resents both the Stormdancers and Opal for having magic. He expresses that resentment by whining and acting passive-aggressive to their faces, continues that after they've saved a continent from deadly storms, and quits his job in a flounce worthy of Marie Antoinette's petticoats. Anyone who guessed from this paragraph that he turns to evil, feel free to buy yourself a cookie. He's a one-note character with no nuance; no attempts to learn magic from Opal and Zitora, no bids to steal it from them, no sad delusions that he does have it already and they're just pretending not to see it. There was so much room to make him interesting, but he stayed flat and predictable. 

The little pieces, more than the sweeping problems, make it hard to stay engaged. For example, Opal is in another glassmaker's shop, listening to shop talk....and gets bored just in time to trip over a clue in the next room. With any other shop talk in the world, this would work, but glass is her one source of magic as well as her beloved hobby. We see people referred to as boyfriends and dates, which would be fine...if we were in a contemporary mall instead of an alternate universe. Things like that just make it harder to blend with worldbuilding that's already leaning a little too hard on what's been explained in the last trilogy. There are also some very odd problems with sexual consent and the aftermath of some deception in that area; explaining them goes into spoilers, but that whole arc needed either more trauma or more creeping self-doubt to make it work.

All in all, Storm Glass has its fair share of writing problems, but it's oddly fun to read. Normally I categorize popcorn reading as fairly short, but this fits the bill: lots of running around, mortal peril, and enough details to keep the pages turning.

Prospects: This was the first in the Glass trilogy. The third, Spy Glass, of which came out in September 2010. Snyder is done with this universe for now, but there are enough interesting characters to make her come back at some point.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Poison Study, also by Snyder. The story is more focused, in part because the group of central characters is so small, and Yelena's voice feels more vividly sharp-edged than Opal's. 


  1. I read this entire series (and the one before it) based on your review. I completely agree with your assessment of the book. It was good, a fun read, but not spectacular. I also agree that Poison Study is better.

    Thank you for a fun 6 books! I look forward to future reviews :o)

  2. Glad you liked it! I'll probably review Poison Study next year purely for the excuse to reread it. Long-term plans include doing a second look at authors who left me on the fence, or who bombed, to see what else they're capable of doing.