Monday, January 14, 2008

Review: The Traitor by Michael Cisco


Several ‘best of 2007’ lists include The Traitor by Michael Cisco and Jeff VanderMeer has said that Cisco is criminally underrated. This (along with the relatively modest page count of 152) really captured my interest, so I eagerly read The Traitor soon after purchasing a copy.

With first person narration, The Traitor tells the story of rare-named Nophtha, a soul-eater and member of a despised religious sect who works for an oppressive Empire. Noptha gives us some relative background and then jumps to his following of the dangerously eccentric soul-burner, Wite, a hunted fugitive and murderer.

Cisco fully realizes Noptha through his stark, repetitive, and even dull narration that maintains a poetic rhythm. Nophtha dances a line from justifying his actions to near insults of the reader and their inability to understand. The narration slowly builds to the end, where it becomes almost a manifesto of Wite’s, as written by Nophtha.

Ok, so here’s the real deal – Cisco is impressive with what he does; this is damn good writing. BUT, I did not like this book at all. As skillfully as The Traitor is presented, I simply could not get into it – this book bored me to no end.

You see one of the big reasons that I read is for entertainment. This isn’t the only reason, nor does it preclude me from appreciating a book for aspects that aren’t entertaining. Nothing about The Traitor entertained me. With all the wonderful realization of Cisco’s prose, it was dense, dull, and utterly uninteresting to me. By the time I reached the end of the book, where the crescendo should have me eagerly anticipating the climax and the perfect last line of the book, I didn’t care at all. I was left with joy that I had finished – that I no longer had to read this book.

Cisco is a writer who admits to challenging his readers – you have to bring something (perhaps as much as he brought himself) with you when reading his work. Some people will respond to this style of writing, some will not. I don’t shy away from a challenge in my reading (it’s one of the reasons why I happily chose to read The Traitor in the first place), but in this instance I was rewarded with a book that I did not appreciate.

I expect that many of you will enjoy The Traitor, even though it did not work for me at all. If it were a longer book, I’m certain I would not have bothered to finish. I wanted to like this book, and it probably deserves a better explanation as to why I didn’t like it, but this will have to suffice – I just found the book dull and completely uninteresting. Approach this book with caution; it’s not an easy read. My choice to stick to my rating system often caused difficulty and this book is one where I wish I had at least a two-score system that could adequately reflect the skill and success that Cisco does achieve with The Traitor as well as my complete aversion to it. 5/10

10 comments:

Larry said...

Sorry you didn't like the book, since you know it was one of my favorites from 2007. But you're right, Cisco is not for everyone and if one reads with one goal in mind and the author writes (well, in this particular case) with another goal, chances are something will give way and that's pretty much what you said in your review, no?

As for "ranking" it, one thing you could do that would apply in such cases is steal a ranking system I remembering Gamepro magazine using many years ago when I actually played video games: Break it down into a few components (say Writing, Characters, Worldbuilding if you must have that, Entertainment) and have scores for those before an overall. That might do the trick for ya in a few cases. That or you could just leave the scores off like I do :P

Neth said...

Oh well - I can't like them all.

I have seriously thought about going back and re-doing my ranking system to a two-score system. I've decided against it because I want to keep things consistent (and I don't want to try to rank books in retrospect). I also almost gave up on it completely, but then the geek in me was happy I could do this with it. So, I'll just have to live with its limitations.

Carl V. said...

Interesting review. I like how you have managed to give it a fair analysis despite not enjoying it. I too read primarily for entertainment and don't mind a challenging book, but it is a little disheartening when it doesn't feel worthwhile when all is said and done.

I like the Gamepro idea of Larry's. I had the same conundrum when I reviewed The Big Time by Fritz Leiber. I would give the main character, who I adored, a 5/5 star rating, but I couldn't give the book more than a 3 for the overall story.

Ed S. said...

I guess I'm from the other school that prefers that the rating system be left as it is now. I think the number should be a simple reflection of whether or not you liked the book. If there are issues which a simple number can't convey, well, that's what the words are for isn't it?

As far as leaving off the scores, well to me that's just a form of cowardice.

Ian Sales said...

If the ratings are essentially meaningless (and this review proved that), then how is leaving them off cowardice? You shouldn't need them anyway.

Nice honest review, btw. And as an appreciator of fine prose, I'm now intrigued enough to try The Traitor :-)

Larry said...

Well, whatever works best for you, Ken. It's just one of those cases where almost any numbering/letter system has a "glitch" in it where you almost have to write the review in a sort of "Despite the score I gave this, this book really could..." way.

And as for the person saying it's "cowardice" not to give a score, my response is that I am very old school in my thinking, since my formative reviews were for historical monographs back in grade school. Too many variables with books to give a consistent score - one would have to harmonize the "ranking" with the internal mechanics of the book/story/article, making it very difficult to have a single assigned "score." I never got "just a score" on any of my papers, neither did I assign one when I reviewed books in my specialty period. It's just the way I roll, I suppose... ;)

Neth said...

bah - I didn't really mean for this to become a discussion on ratings, but the input is appreciated.

The rating system that I use is a usefull guide for someone to use and for me to play around with on occasion. But my goal with each review is to write in a way that if I were to leave off the rating at the end it would have no impact on the review - I want the review to stand on its own with or without a score at the end. Hopefully I am accomplishing that. So, you can happily ignore the score if you wish (or you could use it to make important life decisions).

Larry said...

Use it to make important life decisions? You mean like, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how does today's bowel movement rank in comparison to others I've had?" :P

Neth said...

Larry - exactly!

Larry said...

In that case...

6.75 ;)

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