Linoge is first out of the gate with his review of Oren’s War, which author Steve Merlo graciously sent gratis to a number of gunbloggers, myself included. Linoge says, in part:
I really wanted to like it, but by the end, I could not….
I confess I had much the same initial reaction to the book. Midway through I was still rockin’ with it; by the end I was actually angry at the book, which has never happened to me before. It took me a while to figure out why, and how that reaction was unfair to the book, and I’ll explain that below. A second read-through is giving me a slightly different reaction to the book, and my review of the details of the book will, I promise, be up after Boomershoot. Before that, though, let me comment on Linoge’s review, which is worth reading.
I think I can explain his reaction to the book (and Linoge hints at it himself). Linoge admits he has not yet read the “standard” works in the subgenre. Oren’s War falls into the subgenre of citizen-takes-violent-action-against-jackbooted-government-thugs fiction. It’s a small subgenre! — Unintended Consequences being IMO head and shoulders above everything else; Enemies Foreign and Domestic and its sequels a somewhat distant second, and books like They Came For Our Guns, They Came For Our Freedom; Walt’s Gulch; Patriots; and Oren’s War making up the others I’ve read so far. Most of those, it’s important to note, are the first novels written by their authors.
(Oren’s War could also be said to fall into a second subgenre of citizen-takes-violent-vigilante-action-against-criminal-scumbag fiction, among which the most similar in terms of style would be the ebook Lights Out and a printed book — whose name escapes me at the moment — in which crime victims band together in clandestine cells to kill criminals. I’ll try to dig it up later tonight.)
Here are my thoughts, which I will explain below the fold:
1) I think Linoge, through no fault of his own, had unrealistic expectations for this book.
2) Oren’s War tries to accomplish several big things within a very short novel. This constraint makes flaws that are glossed over in longer, wordier novels of the subgenre much more jarringly obvious in Oren’s War.
3) When compared to its fellows in the subgenre(s), Oren’s War doesn’t do too badly.
1) I think Linoge, through no fault of his own, had unrealistic expectations. Linoge was, I expect, comparing Oren’s War to polished mainstream fiction by experienced authors such as Stephen King or Stephen Hunter, who both, in addition to lots of published novels, have professional editors. Oren’s War is a first novel. As such, it’s not bad, and it actually improves when you compare it with its fellows in the subgenre. Why? Well, with the exception of Unintended Consequences, every single one of the subgenre books I listed above is rife with spelling and grammar errors to one degree or another (which is not a particularly jarring thing if you’re expecting it, but the printing of Oren’s War is so handsomely done it’s an heirloom-quality hardback, so it’s jarring in this case). Every single one of them, including Unintended Consequences, can be said to have poor characterization, whether from characters that are hard to distinguish from one another, or cartoonish characters, or both; unrealistic or silly dialogue; plots that rely on amazing coincidences; wacky notions of how federal agents/bureaucrats/politicians actually behave; “interesting” ideas about Constitutional interpretation, etc. What can be said in their favor is that they all showcase accurate descriptions of firearms, firearms handling, and gun-culture terminology.
(What should also be said is that much mainstream fiction includes one or more of the above flaws. There’s a difference, though: almost every character in Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys is cartoonish, but he makes it work. Stephen King uses silly coincidences all the time, but he somehow doesn’t let it detract from the story. You get the idea.)
2) Oren’s War tries to accomplish several big things within a very short novel. This constraint makes flaws that are glossed over in longer, wordier novels of the subgenre much more jarringly obvious in Oren’s War. The biggest handicap Oren’s War carries is that it’s lean. This is a lean, lean, lean book. The writing is direct and spare (a good thing, in my view). It’s short. Its ultra-high-quality paper makes it thicker than its page-count would indicate. The problem is a short novel is tougher to write well than a long one. In my opinion, every single one of the flaws I mentioned in section 1) above — flaws common to the other books in the subgenre — could be eliminated from Oren’s War by making it a little longer in a second edition. Minor characters, plot devices, conversations could all be fleshed out to make this a better novel. The author takes care to humanize his characters, set story arcs, employ foreshadowing, and many other elements that can take a basic tale to the next level — he just, I think, needs more space to make it all work.
The issue with this criticism is that I suspect the author wanted to make a novel that was several things at once:
a) a satisfying, rousing rallying cry for firearms civil-rights enthusiasts
b) a short, accessible, easy-to-read introduction for newbies wanting to understand gunowners’ concerns about government encroachment and oppression
c) a polemic about society’s coddling of the criminal element and citizens’ right to strike back when threatened, or in vengeance
d) an educational introduction to firearms safety, their proper use and the role of firearms in civil society
e) a political parable about the consequences of gun confiscation told with humor, with a coming-of-age tale and a love story thrown in for good measure
…and he wanted to make it SHORT.
This is a LOT to cram into a small space, and the author makes a valiant attempt. If you were writing a novel like this, you’d probably want to include a number of specific scenes that ring true with gun-rights enthusiasts, and they’re all here. Innocent man gunned down by overzealous Feds? Check. Man’s family vowing vengeance? Check. Anti-gun civilian victimized by criminal? Check. Civilian later using gun to protect herself? Check. To exact vengeance? Check. Gunowners educating civilians about historic government tyranny? Check. Feds unethically pressing a gunowner to turn informant? Check. Unethical Feds getting their just deserts? Check. One man’s resistance to government inspiring others? Check. Spreading like wildfire? Check. This is all great stuff, but it’s just not executed as well as it could be.
Three examples. First, I agree with Linoge that the dreaded “NWO” (cute) gun-confiscation bureaucracy is not well-defined. I believe the acronym is explained — once — as the National Weapons Overlook committee, but I’d have to go hunt for that; more importantly, its creation, its place in the Federal bureaucracy, and its powers are all left more vague than I would have liked. It’s certainly not critical to the storyline, but I wanted to know. Without the details, it felt sort of arbitrary — almost a way for the author to avoid killing ATF agents instead of NWO agents. There are clues in the text, but you have to hunt for them and assemble them in your own head. This sort of thing works for James Joyce, but not here.
Second, Oren’s killings of NWO agents inspire other anonymous citizens to do the same — but for the most part, the author just says that this happens, and at best shows politicians reacting to the “offstage” spread of antigovernment violence rather than detailing the violence itself. I would have appreciated more vignettes of the thought processes, planning and actions of those anonymous citizens. Instead, the whole thing didn’t feel terribly convincing to me.
Third, one of the coincidences I disliked was that the head of the NWO decided to fly in to Oren’s town to supervise things. Makes him an easy target, right? Did the head of the FBI go to Ruby Ridge? To Waco? He did not, as I recall. That’s not to say this wouldn’t happen; it just felt arbitrary, and fleshing out the backstory behind the decision, the security arrangements for such a move, etc., would have gone a long way.
3) When compared to its fellows in the subgenre(s), Oren’s War doesn’t do too badly. I’d put it in the middle of the pack. To start with, Oren’s War has far fewer grammar and spelling errors than most — it’s about the level of Walt’s Gulch. (Again, they’re just more glaring because of the high quality of the bookbinding and printing.) Its cartoonish characters (generally the politicians and government agents) are about the level of the bad guys in Enemies Foreign and Domestic. (I’m going to specifically disagree with Linoge about the main character, Oren: I thought his characterization was well done and had some depth. I also didn’t mind that he happened to be capable of making 300-yard-plus head shots without difficulty; I meet lots of ordinary folks like that at Boomershoot every year, so that didn’t seem unrealistic at all.) The plot of Oren’s War follows a similar path to Unintended Consequences and They Came For Our Guns, They Came For Our Freedom, but I think with less success because the political characters and events seem rushed by the end. Some of the Constitutional musings are a bit off (but then I actually took a Constitutional Law class), and in any event they don’t come close to some of the stuff in Patriots. The characterizations and dialogue are about at the level of the Lights Out ebook, which is to say that they certainly don’t get in the way of the story, but at the same time there’s room for lots of improvement through professional editing. Again, overall, I’d place Oren’s War in the middle of the pack — better than its peers in some aspects, worse in others.
Finally, I mentioned that for a time I was actually angry when I finished the book. I figured out that it was because I had projected a great deal of my hopes into it. What I want is a novel that, like Unintended Consequences or Enemies Foreign and Domestic, lays out in a convincing manner the step-by-step process by which a law-abiding gunowner could become justifiably motivated to kill government agents — but I want a book that is shorter, more accessible, better written, better edited, that won’t terrify newbies to the gun culture, and that is persuasive enough to actually change antigunners’ minds. Oren’s War has the potential to be every one of those things, but at the moment no book does that, and it was unfair of me to be disappointed when Oren’s War didn’t meet those artificial standards.
I’ll have more to say in my own, much belated review. For now, I’ll say that I hope Steve Merlo will see enough sales to justify a second, revised and expanded edition. I’m buying a second copy to give to friends in order to help that happen.
UPDATE: Steve Merlo confirmed to me that the original draft was much longer. The publisher (an “angel” investor paid for the printing) decided to edit out half the book, and outsourced to China where they transposed a couple of pages, and introduced some editing errors.