Sorry about the delay. It wasn’t entirely laziness this time; the first four days of September were pretty jam-packed, and after that, I kind of needed a break. Anyway…
Here’s a book that is no doubt even less well-known than the last one I did. (Though I don’t think I procrastinated quite as much on this review as I did the last one? I don’t remember…) At a local nerd convention back in May this year, there was an indie publishing company called Razorgirl Press, with its entire employee roll of two people sharing a booth at the convention to show off books and answer questions. I got a chance to talk with them, which was nice, and I picked up one of their books, School of Sight, written by Alisha A. Knaff. It’s an urban fantasy novel (as if there are many other genres I read…) about a person who can see supernatural phenomena and thinks she’s going crazy until she meets other people who are the same way, called sibyls, as well as some actual supernatural creatures who are just blending in and living normal lives (such as a half-fairy barista and a vampire teacher). Of course, it’s not too long after that before she runs into some hostile ones, or one of them at least, and then things get dicey and she and her friends—some new, some old—have to stop this evil old pervert from completing a ritual of immortality.
The book is basically fine, I guess. It probably won’t go into the list of favorites, but it ought to at least make it into the list of works of media with sentimental value. A bit like the A Fine Frenzy of books, I guess, though I think she has more going for her. I suppose I should mention that I’m not marking spoilers this time, though I will at least try to avoid anything too big. I figure that if they matter to anyone who is planning on reading these reviews before experiencing what I’m reviewing, then those people can speak up. (Well, more accurately, I figure maybe one or two people at most will actually read any of these anyway, but it amounts to more or less the same thing.) I actually haven’t seen this particular story concept that often, surprisingly, and it seems like a potentially interesting idea. I do think that what the book actually did with it, however, is one minor knock against it; I feel like the story didn’t really live up to the precedent set by the early stage-setting, which actually seems surprisingly common in stories like these. There could have been more supernatural creatures around (the only ones we got to see were vampires, werewolves, fairies [and not even actual fairies, just a half-breed], shapeshifters, and whatever the cat person was supposed to be), or even a minor subplot or something. I also feel like our nameless protagonist got cool new magical powers and then hardly got to use them at all. (Yes, the main character’s name is never mentioned anywhere in the book; the story is written in first-person, and no one ever calls her by her name. Because of that, I shall henceforth be referring to her as “Trogdor”.) Basically, I got the impression that Act 1 was writing checks that Acts 2-5 couldn’t cash. I suppose I can’t criticize the book too much for it, though; as I said, it seems to be an oddly common thing (I’m not sure if it really is that hard to make a story live up to its worldbuilding or if I’m just picky), and I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. Heck, I’m writing a series about a quest for a series of magical artifacts, which is one of the oldest plots in the book when it comes to fantasy novels.
Beyond that, a few of the major plot points seemed to come out of almost complete nowhere. There’s the way that the main characters stop the ritual, for instance. I know that it was technically given a very minor bit of foreshadowing at the beginning of the book when Trogdor mentions why the three of them live together, but come on. I may not be an experienced writer or literary critic, but I know what a contrived coincidence is. The worst part about it is that it didn’t even need to be a plot point in the first place; the author could have just as easily come up with completely different and much simpler parameters for disrupting the ritual, but she decided to be fancy instead for the sake of a moment of tension that lasted all of 10 seconds until the characters basically said “Wow, funny you should mention that…” and got it resolved anyway. The betrayal, on the other hand, wasn’t foreshadowed in the slightest, unless I missed something. Sure, it was a plot twist, but those are difficult to do well and easy to do poorly, and that kind of one tends to render all the characters suspect; while it might not have been the author’s intention, it ends up becoming “okay, so this person’s a villain now…well, if it’s that easy for them, what’s to say no one else will do the same thing?”. Of course, the character in question had to get their moment of deciding to sacrifice themself to stop the real threat and thereby be considered a hero in the end despite being a duplicitous reprobate. Conversely, there was one bit near the beginning that I thought was foreshadowing something that turned out not to bear any fruit; I was expecting Trogdor’s female roommate to turn out to be involved with the supernatural phenomena in some way, but nope. (And on a side note, her name is just as weird as that of the protagonist of the last review I did.)
Now, the characters are another matter. I’ll get the negativity out of the way first this time: I did not like the way the villain was handled. Yes, he’s the bad guy, and the audience is supposed to dislike him, but I feel like his presence was overbearing. I’ll borrow a quote from Codiekitty here, since she puts it appropriately for the context: “He might have been meant to be the kind of slimeball you can’t wait to see get his just deserts, but he was the kind of slimeball who made it hard for me to stay focused on the story.” He’d appear, be gone for a while, then show up again as if the author were saying “don’t forget this guy; he’s evil and still doing bad things, mmmkay?” I’ve already discussed our resident traitor, so there isn’t much else I can say about them. The narrator seemed pretty okay, as did her friends, though I wish the other seers she met at the group had been fleshed out a bit more. I thought they all handled the various situations they found themselves in realistically, their dialogue felt pretty natural, and they were all likable in their own ways.
On a minor note, why is it called “School of Sight” anyway? The “sight” part is obvious, but the story has little to nothing to do with a school. It would make sense if she were going somewhere to learn about her supernatural gifts and how to use them or something, a la Hogwarts, Wizard’s Hall, Bloor’s Academy, the Simonton School for the Magically Gifted, etc., but nope, she goes to a completely mundane college, and all that she learns about her abilities comes from a group unaffiliated with it. Sure, at least one of the faculty members is a disguised supernatural creature, but they’re basically said to be present everywhere.
As I mentioned before, I feel like the plot is rather formulaic once it gets into full swing, but it’s not bad either.
It would have been good if we could have spent less time with the antagonist and more with the side characters. Otherwise, they were all right, likable enough as I said.
Setting: Pretty okay (but see comments)
The world that Alisha created here (I can call her Alisha, right, since I met and talked to her casually?) is intriguing, though I wish we’d gotten to see more of it.
I noticed that the book had more profanity than I’m used to, though I doubt that was a conscious choice. I think the book did a reasonably good job of balancing the narration, internal monologuing, dialogue, and description.
Positives: Decent characters, decent worldbuilding, and a refreshingly modern take on fantasy.
Negatives: Not enough worldbuilding, an obnoxious antagonist, and insultingly abrupt (and sometimes pointless) plot twists.
Final score: 6
School of Sight is one of those books that I enjoyed while reading it but only afterward realized how many problems I had with it, yet I still liked it in spite of that (and for reasons other than just “it may not be perfect, but it’s the best we have”). I guess one issue I haven’t mentioned is that the other issues might never get resolved in a sequel; while the book really seems like the kind of story that has enough unexplored material for a sequel, the way it ended might make that difficult, at least if Alisha kept the same narrator. Still, though, I’d say it’s worth a read for any urban fantasy fans out there.