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Book cover art by Stephan Martiniere.
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.

I have, in the past, expressed concern over the willingness of editors and publishers these days to give first-time novelists the opportunity to debut with massive epics. It's a situation akin to a Hollywood studio taking some wet-behind-the-ears graduate fresh out of film school, and attaching him to direct a three-hour, hundred-million dollar spectacle about, I don't know, Napoleon or the Civil War or ancient Egypt or something. There is a learning curve to any artistic endeavor, and while you could very well say there's nothing better than a great epic, there are precious few examples of writers who have tried to tackle one the first time they sat down at the keyboard and avoided tripping over themselves. But to the bean-counters in publishing, bigger is better, whether it really is or not.

William H. Drinkard has begun his career as a novelist later in life than most. But a lifetime of knowledge and experience has not produced in him the skill to engage readers over 540 pages (which will surely translate to nearly 700 in paperback) of a mammoth SF novel, and Elom is a textbook example of talent failing ambition. That isn't to say Drinkard doesn't have talent — he can write fine — only that he's not ready to execute a project of this scope successfully yet. He ought to have cut his teeth on a couple of more modest 300-page efforts first, honing his storytelling skills to the point where more expansive tales were at last in his league. But Drinkard's in over his head here, and the book is one of the dullest I've fought my way through in recent memory. Had I not been reading it to review it, I would not have finished it. Take that for what it's worth.

Drinkard's bio tells us he loves convincing, detailed alien worlds and cultures. With Elom, he has certainly strived to give us his own. The premise is intriguing, and full of potential. Elom is a planet in a binary system surrounded by four moons, and inhabited by primitive human cultures barely out of the stone age, who do not realize they were transported there from Earth by aliens with an agenda of some kind shrouded in obscurity. There are two dozen tribes run in matriarchal fashion by leaders called medoras, and in turn they all worship a goddess, Shetow, and revere their savior Geerna, a young woman who was transported into the sky generations past. Geerna learned that the humans of Elom were to be judged, and negotiated for humanity to be allowed a second chance to prove its worthiness. The time for that second judging is now at hand.

Drinkard has developed his cultures here with scrupulous attention to detail and a real sense of anthropological and historical expertise. He does, if nothing else, make his world a living, breathing space. Unfortunately, he makes the worst writing mistake possible: Elom is an exercise in worldbuilding-by-exposition. Most of the book plays less like a novel and more like a PBS documentary — not the cool kind, but the kind you used to nod off to in junior high social studies class.

When the character Snook, who visits the tribes from his own little outlying group over the mountains, asks a question, which he does often, that's a cue for one or another character to launch into a lecture. Characters frequently talk to each other in lines that describe to the finest possible point the rules of whatever ritual or social activity they happen to be engaging in at that moment. By laying everything right out on the surface, Elom comes across as impressively imagined, but stripped bare of any sense of exoticism or mystery. It's like wandering a museum of animatronic exhibits, where the displays play recordings telling you what you're looking at.

And those characters! I've heard of noble savages, but these people are either idealized to the level of saints and philosophers, or banalized to the level of the cast of The OC. Our heroes are Kalmar of the Cave Lion Tribe, and his pal Snook, an albino "seeker" from a tribe not of the main twenty-four, who has come over the mountains on some kind of secret mission at the behest of the medoras. Snook meets Kalmar by saving the latter's life when Kalmar's attempt to kill a ferocious cave lion doesn't go so well. At first, Drinkard depicts their growing friendship in such fulsome terms that I couldn't help getting visuals of the two of them running towards each other across the veldt in slow motion.

Soon we meet others of Kalmar's tribe, and Drinkard's first odd storytelling choice reveals itself: fully the entire first half of the book is taken up with the storyline of the tribes' elaborate marriage ritual, in which young men and women from all the tribes compete in a kind of stone-age olympiad. Everything is described in such redundant detail you expect a pop quiz. The results of these games determine who has the strongest "traits" that Shetow presumably wants in her followers, and the highest-scoring girls get their pick of the highest-scoring guys. We're treated to some senior-prom-style soap opera here. Snook is drawn to Kalmar's kid sister Nutan, but also the timid Cabyl, a medora-in-training who's embarrassed by her blemished face. (It's a good thing no one's invented manicures, Blackberrys or Prada handbags yet — these kids would kill each other.) Kalmar is besotted by hottie Arasima, whom Nutan clearly pegs as a manipulative little bitch. Like, OMG, aren't guys stoopid?

This stuff takes forever, and Drinkard's characterizations are as superficial as his worldbuilding. Everyone says exactly what they're thinking when we aren't just getting to read their thoughts. The results of the games are predictable entire chapters in advance. And the frustrating thing is that when we finally begin the book's second half, in which all the principals to whom we've been introduced are marched off by the medoras for their encounter with the mysterious alien entities who serve Shetow, we find out that the results of the games had nothing whatsoever to do with whom the medoras select (as other high-scoring characters who are bit players don't go, and Snook, who didn't partake at all, does), or with the central conflict/mystery at the heart of the novel. In other words, perhaps 70% of Elom's first half could have been cut outright.

Also, despite Drinkard's laser-fine focus upon the crafting of his cultures, there are still odd moments where plausibility falters through the introduction of some anachronism. In one scene, when a character is mortally wounded by wolves, another one advises that her legs be lifted up so that the blood will circulate to her brain. Now, how the hell is some hunter-gatherer primitive supposed to know that?

I cannot fault Drinkard for wanting, and ever-so-earnestly trying, to produce something special, memorable, and lasting with Elom. But the results are kneecapped by his inexperience. Had he four or five other novels to his name before trying to challenge himself with this one, things probably would have fallen into place much more smoothly and organically, let alone believeably. I think someday he could well produce the masterpiece he so clearly meant Elom to be. He simply has to let his writing chops catch up to his imagination. I want to see him keep going, regardless. It's never too late, and age is, as they say, just a number.