22. On Dark Shores 1: The Lady by J.A. Clement

Published in 2011 by Weasel Green Press.

“For a time, a countless time, there had been nothing more than ceaseless water, stinging bone-sand, and the wind, keening; but suddenly the wind died and the grinding waves smoothed down to uneasy swells. Sounds whispered over the unquiet waters like a chanting of spells; at first they held no more meaning than the mourning wind or the hissing sea-spume, but then came a sound that caught and held, like the anchor of a ship.”

Nereia is a resourceful thief, quite likely the best pickpocket that the small, salt-sprayed fishing town of Scarlock has seen. Though bitterly weary of her trade, she perseveres for the welfare of her sweetly trusting younger sister, Mary. Orphaned since Mary’s infancy, both girls live uneasily in thrall to Copeland, a small-time shady businessman with big-time aspirations, in the acquisition of which he intends to involve Nereia, whether she willingly consents or no. Bolstered by his stoic bodyguard heavy, Blakey, Copeland proves himself distressingly capable of meting out punishment to those who would liberate themselves from his iron grip of control. Despite her prior knowledge of this, Nereia cannot help but make a desperate bid for freedom. In so doing, she pits her gritty resilience against Copeland’s well-crafted cruelty. The quietly slumbering village that witnesses their struggle, and the startling events wrought of its consequences, may well hold more time-brined secrets than its shuttered windows and sea-slick walkways suggest.

Reading the expository opening paragraphs of On Dark Shores 1: The Lady prompted my best hopes for a gracefully constructed and fertilely imagined creative landscape. In these lines, we are introduced to the cast’s main players not by name, but through their dreams, all of which are uneasy, tempest-tossed. Tidings are being washed ashore which will bode ill, we are given to understand, and this hinting at future upheaval is admirably conveyed through Clement’s subtle associations of geographical tumult with individual distress. It is evident that we are reading the work of someone who enjoys implementing literary ornamentation, someone who is mindful of the importance of strongly crafted situations, and equally worthy characters to populate them.

That being established, however, the novel lacks a certain evenness of successful storytelling. There are beautiful, glowing passages, to be sure, but there are also areas which appear to have missed a similar application of consistent, dedicated layering. Much of the novel’s narration is dependent on third-person accounts of events, which provides the writer with a broad canvas for perspectives. Given the number of personages to whose inner thoughts we are privy, the potential richness available from multiple non-omniscient narrative seems only hinted at in promising glimpses, without ever truly being deeply sustained.

Reading Clement’s depictions of the natural terrain of her novel offers the surest marker of appreciation for her descriptive prowess. The polish and gleam in her lines often shines most brightly when she writes about the sea (which, given the title of the series, might be intentionally done, or not.) For instance, it would be difficult to savour the following:

“The drizzle had stopped, but the light was failing across the restless sea; the smoothed steel swells were growing wind-tipped and wild with hissing spray.”

and then declaim Clement as talentless; quite the contrary. If she were a consistently uninspiring, yawn-soliciting producer of paltry prose, that would render this review short and dismissive. The difficulty lies in aligning her bountiful caverns of gorgeous writing with her other fictive terrain that is decidedly less lush. Much of the dramatically-infused dialogue featured in character altercations is less riveting than it could be; this is not to suggest that the author ought to puppeteer her players into uttering phrases only as she would say them. The beauty of dialogue (and third-person limited narration alike) lies in allowing an imperfect, biased, disjointed accounting of things; yet without authorial polish and poise, neither scenario nor character appears in their intentional (and thus convincing) lack of lustre. Instead, the writing suffers; the writing appears unmade, neglected, merely patched up with good intentions and talented flourishes, not soundly caulked through in an expert’s hand.

I do not suggest that there aren’t gems to be unearthed in this first installment of the On Dark Shores series; there are. Previously mentioned is Clement’s proficient sculpting of the geographical vistas of her story; the land and sea speak to us as convincingly as Scarlock’s residents and visitors, at times, perhaps more so. Among the highlights of narrative lie expository snippets from townsfolk who aren’t crucial to the machinations of the main plotline (or are they?) such as Niccolo, the fisherman who, early on, provides a piece of fateful information, and spends the rest of the story accounting to himself for its unintended results. Another minor character who prompts intrigued speculation is the proprietress of the local brothel, referred to enigmatically as Madam. Her past is storied, checkered with less than savoury happenings, and if she becomes a central figure in the events of the series’ next installment, I sense that it will be all for the good. Do not be surprised if you find yourself yearning for more revelations concerning the mystical mother of the Shantari and her monumental upcoming journey. Hungering for elucidation on the second novel’s skeletal premises, beckoning beyond our reach, is an excellent effect engendered by a first-part installment, but not if it comes at the risk of souring or, worse, sapping our interest in the events of the book currently in our hands.

Clement does a formidable job of constructing a world outside of the primary events of the novel; this holds its own drawbacks as well as delights. Often, the concerns and preoccupations of the fringe characters are more compelling than the principal ones. Nereia herself is the most glaring disappointment. She possesses all the requisite building blocks for Clement to create a rollickingly outstanding heroine. Instead, she wanders through the plot’s progression (which is less haphazard and more sketchily dubious, reading as though telling segments of it had been left on the cutting floor) with spirited gumption, certainly, but without the visible progress necessary to substantiate her full self. By this I mean that she owns enough moxy and fortitude to establish her as a warrioress worth our time, without sufficient context-crafting, without the heady, darkly glowing internal monologues and stream of consciousness narration that would have furnaced her fighter’s tale so convincingly.

On Dark Shores 1: The Lady tips itself out of favour by anchoring its plotline with a forcibly forward slant towards the remaining two books in the series, not allowing for the bountiful breathing space to truly come into its own. Its gracious writing style, dedication to fleshing out particular characters and literarily-cast foundation recommend it; its incoherency, implausibility of certain situations and disjointedness make one hope for a far more spectacular sequel. I do hope for it. There is brilliance in this authoress’ dusky world of wailing wind and water…muted, perhaps, but visibly gleaming all the same.

J.A. Clement’s engaging website, Wandering on Dark Shores, features comprehensive updates on her writing process and plans for the full series, as well as a host of purchase links for the first novel. You can also follow her on Twitter, here.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by J.A. Clement for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by her generous gift of gratuitous literature.