SPSFC2 Semifinalist Review: Echoes of Another Earth, by J. Daniel Layfield
Team Escapist, has decided to hold off on posting actual scores, but that doesn’t mean reviews aren’t coming! As said before, this review expresses my own opinion and not the opinions of other members of either Team Escapist, or other judges on other teams within the SPSFC2 competition.
The review …
On a personal note, I really loved the idea of the plot. I’ve always been a fan of the ‘Groundhog Day’ premise- of waking up to experience the same day over and over again. But this book promised something different; Josh, the protagonist, wakes up in alternate universes after the last one ended in not only his death, but the end of the world. I was more than excited to dig in. And the beginning, although a little clumsy in its written execution, had me immersed right away.
After the first few chapters though, the book, the tone, the characters in general, de-evolved into a mess. Resulting in an overall very messy global structure riddled with rudimentary mistakes, and massive broken promises to the reader. Most importantly, the protagonist held no agency, and was never the one to solve problems. Josh, like the story structure and premise, de-evolved from a character with concerns, hesitations and agency to a character whose only purpose seemed to be to provide humour.
To start, there were POV issues. I’m not sure what the author’s intentions were with POV. It wasn’t written strong enough in either the omnipotent or 3rd person POV. It appeared to be mostly 3rd person, but the breaks in POV made it feel like head hopping.
The book reads like an author’s last draft before it hits a line editor. A line editor, or content editing, is strongly advised to clean up this issue.
Not that there were typos or spelling mistakes, but there were so many sentences, and even entire paragraphs that were awkwardly written and clunky, making it a bit of a struggle to read. I had to keep re-reading passages to make sure I understood things. Also, with the POV mistakes, this issue can (and mostly does) tear a reader out of the story, which is not good. This fundamental mistake can’t be dismissed, no matter how well the rest of the story progresses. To which, it doesn’t.
There are more problems. Starting with characters, primarily POV characters entering the story too late. If one wants to be creative with story structure, that’s fine. That’s great! That’s kudos to you! That’s … something that needs to be done right or it fails the story. I can’t tell if the author was purposely being creative with story structure and failed in what they attempted, or if they never had a full understanding of proper story structure to begin with, because as I suspect, this book was neither content, developmental, or copy edited. Or at least, not properly.
On top of this, there were situations that didn’t make sense, particularly with the first POV character, and who I thought was the main protagonist. Josh concerns himself with thoughts of what happens to the Josh he left when he inhabits another- as in he laments they might be dead. But, yet, he knows the Josh he left always dies when the asteroid or earthquake hits. That is when he jumps alternate realities, and what he’s been doing for years prior to the beginning of the book.
It continues with … the current and active Josh in the story, trying to figure out what job ‘this’ Josh holds in the world in which he awakes in the beginning of this story. Well, the scene opens with a description of degrees on the wall which he doesn’t look at. Those would be kind of a dead giveaway. If not of the exact job, but what he’s good at or studied for in this alternate universe. And Cheryl or Carol- Josh says she's the love of his weird life, but yet can’t remember her name?
At this point I started to question how well the rest of this book was going to play out. And my concerns were not squashed. Later in the book, there is mention of a gas giant and it’s moon. No gas giant in our solar system has just one moon. Alternate realities or not, that’s a big difference when they say only minor changes occur within different realities. And it’s mentioned that they are located two planets past their objective? Earth was their objective. That means the planet with one moon is Jupiter- the gravitational juggernaut of our solar system. I’m shaking my head. Did the author not ‘figure everything out’ before publishing a finalized copy?
My biggest contention with the book though, was its humour. The first 10% of the book felt more gritty and serious, yet not even halfway through, everything turns into somewhat of a farce. Almost slapstick, juvenile humour. And it didn’t fit into the story well. It was very misplaced at times. And very self-aware, meaning, you can tell it’s the author’s voice- not the narrator’s or the characters, insinuating this humour.
Humour should not supersede believability, particularly a book that does not pronounce itself as a comedy.
Like I’ve said, I’m not judging ideas, I’m judging the craft of storytelling since this is a writing contest. Sure, originality plays a part in the judging, and so does creativity, but none of those matter if the reader can’t read the story properly.
Not even a quarter of the way into the book, David (not the protagonist) discovers the explanation of what is happening to Josh. This takes agency from the protagonist- who should have the most agency, along with the antagonist- which/whom doesn’t exist, unless you consider a ‘mystery’ as a tangible antagonist.
Aside: when the real antagonist shows up, it’s too late in the story, and he is portrayed a bit too dim-witted and ignorant to be an actual, feared, antagonist.
Somewhere near the middle of the book, Josh stopped being a protagonist and became more of sidekick with jokes. He was reduced to comedic relief alongside Dave. And why is, Dave coming up with the solution to take out the bad guy that suddenly materialized half way through the book? Then Monte, a character that showed up halfway through the book, continues to save the day. This demonstrates a lack of ‘character building’ knowledge. Know what the characters roles are, and keep with them. Changing the roles of the protagonist is just clumsy writing. And the protagonist should hold the most agency, that’s what makes them the protagonist.
The epilogue was mildly amusing, but based on a comedic scene/structure I’ve seen used over and over again. And I don’t think this book really knew what it wanted to be. It was if the author started with one idea, found humour, and then changed the rest of the story as it progressed onto paper. Without proper editing, this global structure of the story ruined what started out as a very promising idea with an (initially) interesting protagonist at the helm.