Ennui is a pain as real as any other, hours toiling away at work miles short of your potential is torturous. This is the position Richard Foxx suffers as a gifted student of a famed mage university built under the shadow of the powerful Church of Drakari.
Cody Ragland’s Dawn’s Arrival features a protagonist driven to delve into magically created life in a parallel to Frankenstein. Unlike the mad doc, however, Richard is motivated by family and recognition issues paired with an institute unable to provide a safe, suitable challenge to his talents.
The setup isn’t revolutionary, but it isn’t necessarily dull. Richard has a small mean streak coupled with what looks like a superiority complex but doesn’t come off as an entirely unlikable person, especially as we get clued into the reasons behind his behavior. I believe that was Ragland’s intent; the chip on Richard’s shoulder combined with his self imposed social isolation forms the perfect conditions for the ill-fated endeavor at the center of the story’s plot.
I did find it a little difficult connecting with him early on, though.
This isn’t an issue of poor conceptualization. In fact, I wanted to know more about Richard. I get the image of a surly cat whenever he comes to mind, he’s like a cross between Artemis Fowl and Little Witch Academia’s Constanze.
It hurts a little to consider how loose things are until a quarter into the book. We get Richard’s dissatisfaction with life, the way his obvious talent impacts his personality, and the discovery of conjuration magic, but it’s not tied strongly enough to anything else to present tangible narrative stakes in the beginning. A reason for me to care about Richard and the story as a whole.
I would have loved to see more emphasis placed on where he falls within the setting’s framework. To see his lived experience grounded and contextualized. There was also the opportunity to really dive into his interpersonal relationships, even if it only meant an observation of his lack thereof and his peers’ reception to him, but there just wasn’t enough of either.
Basic flow and structure aspects of the prose is at least partially responsible for the former. The world plays as if it’s fleshed out with hints of a unique magic system and background. A fair attempt was made, It’s just not conveyed onto the page efficiently. Setpieces aren’t concrete enough in places where the story wouldn’t be faulted for a little scene painting.
A greater focus on evocative language- how life in the university feels like, smells like, even tastes like, would have gone a long way. I can tell that the author likely put a lot of thought into all of this, but for some reason opportunities to indulge simply weren’t taken.
As for the latter case, there was an early moment where his dorm mate, a kindhearted playboy by the name of Tristifer, leaves him a plate of food and a friendly letter that does something to fire up the empathetic part of my monkey brain, but moments that display character depth like that are too far in between.
Consequently, Richard’s internal monologue has to do the majority of the work selling the character. Frankly speaking, it takes a while.
Don’t get me wrong, Dawn’s Arrival is written in a way that positions itself to exploit Richard’s viewpoint, but it simply doesn’t go far enough fast enough. With character driven stories, this is always a risk, you can slow the pacing and fail to run the spotlight across the important bits, leaving readers sick of going through beats that don’t actually accomplish everything. This is a problem I’ve identified in my own writing, so it pains me when I see it in others’, it’s also a reason character driven stories often put great emphasis on interpersonal stuff and large casts, so the weight doesn’t fall on any one character’s shoulders.
From a mechanical standpoint, the text is passable. It has some persistent errors, but nothing that gets in the way of readability. You won’t have to go over a paragraph more than once to process the ideas being presented. This is an important goal for indie writers to strike and happens to be one of Dawn’s Arrivals’ strongest points.
Authors who don’t have access to dedicated professional editors need to be able to perform all the heavy lifting themselves, but when they can, the result is often worth it. In a way, it gives us a more clear image of their inner world, a purer form of their voice, for good or ill.
There are instances of repetitive text and some improper tense shifts. It makes things drag a bit, especially without a lot of figurative language or wordplay to soften the effect. It wasn’t enough to make me drop the book.
The largest problem is that the text, while sound enough, feels gray at times. The ratio of information being weaved through the narrative and more entertaining threads seems skewed. This moment, for example:
Focusing my attention on the ground to her sides, I used my new knowledge of materials and their properties to alter the stone path. Changing the materials inherent shape to be similar to that of a mud pit – a deep one at that.
Ragland, Cody. Dawn’s Arrival (pp. 36-37). Kindle Edition.
Could do with a more flashy description of the stone path sloughing and giving way rather than a cold explanation for the process behind the spell, especially given the fact that there was sufficient set up to justify Richard’s trick without it.
Despite all this, Ragland is developing a good voice and several of the issues found in the first half of the book aren’t present in the second half.
We’ve touched a bit on the themes, but don’t be fooled into thinking Dawn’s Arrival is a mere rehash of caution against employing the sciences to create something unnatural. There’re hints of how lonesomeness and poor support structures can perpetuate themselves, leading otherwise brilliant people into unfortunate circumstances.
I found myself hoping for Richard to get the sense of kinship and acceptance he was so sorely starved of when I got to know him better. This sensation lends some heft to the latter parts of the tale. It’s enough to make me not regret picking it up.
Both the concept and plenty of the story beats were entertaining, but Dawn’s Arrival falls a step short of a glowing recommendation. The piece needs to be stuffed with more meat (and possibly some fat) to stand out. I feel like Ragland is more than capable of delivering that. The author has talent and I see them going places if they keep plugging along. I’ll certainly keep my ears perked for their next book.
If this tale of a bright mind and the monster spawned from it interests you, you can find your way to the university for free with Kindle Unlimited.
Cody Ragland also has a Twitter you can follow here.
I love to read fiction of every genre, if you have a piece you’d like a review for, don’t hesitate to shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or drop a comment below.