So this was my first shot at a critical review for the defunct Authonomy community. Having read the author's manifesto, I have to say that I like the cut of his jib. I chose Step Up because the author is commited to improving his work. That being said, I also enjoyed the read, so the critique that follows the Read More jump should be very much taken as an example of the kind of feedback I would offer to strengthen what is already an impressive novel. If you are an author who is looking to strengthen a work you believe in, this is an example of the kind of developmental letter you would receive, along with line or copy editing.
Step Up is a young adult fiction with easy crossover appeal for adults. As an action-oriented urban crime thriller, Step Up not only delivers an engaging reading experience, but establishes a great foundation for future stories.
Why should you read Step Up? The first, but far from only, reason is that Step Up absolutely nails the context.
Where does the story happen? Contemporary London, with roots in Pakistan and Croatia/Serbia/Albaina. It is common in urban thrillers to use a generic external threat for simple engagement, and two of the most popular sources for these vague enimical entities are either the chaos of the Middle East or the chaos of eastern Europe. By rooting the two Viewpoint Characters in cultures deep in the heart of those chaos-seats, Step Up peels back the veil and takes the pretense of threat from the unknown and the other and grounds the threat in the known. Step Up then goes even one step further and drops the two VC's, and their distinct and overlapping social circles, into one of the holes in the urban map, as Lyme Road might be in London, but it isn't London. Or at least, if London is the greatest melting pot in the world, Lyme Road is one of the crusty edges where things don't mix despite boiling in intimate proximity. The where/when of the story is both clearly defined and compelling.
Why does the story happen? The impetus of the story is cleverly applied, leveraging the tension in the background of each of the VC's into a spiralling conflict in the shared foreground, as Jahangir returns from (initially) undefined and possibly terror-related activities in Pakistan to a London foreign to him and Lorelei's presumed father announces his intention to find his daughter.
I am just going to deal with the two viewpoint characters, Jahangir and Lorelei, though I think Peeko, Frank, and Patasa are great peripheral characters that could stand a little more definition.
For both of the VC's, there is the challenge of distinguishing between what the narrator knows and what the characters know, what I like to call the veil of ignorance. With the discursive nature of the narration trying to carry two distinct character perspectives, it is difficult to keep the narrator's perspective clean. That is to say, there were several times when the narrator, moving straight from inside the character's head, would drop casual expositional information that seemed beyond the character's knowledge. In general, these seem to be cases where telling wins over showing: telling us passangers are on business trips instead of showing us how the character would know that, or why the character would think that.
This grew in importance for me over the course of the narrative, but I couldn't say whether that is due to the growth in the problem, or my growing sensitivity to it. Delineating the difference between what the characters know and what the general reader can be expected to know is the key to characterization, especially because both of your VC's are caught between cultures. It might help to consider adapting a device from classical rhetoric, asking the question: why/how does my character know(or not) what I think they know(or don't)? You do a lot of this well, especially in J's reflective backstory, but consistency is the key to develping characters that can support as rich of a backstory as you have woven.
Military training at an age that most western youth are learning compound sentence structure and pop music lyrics gives Jahangir a distinct edge in the conflict engagement of the narrative, and the danger is giving too much competance too early in the process, minimizing the opportunities for character growth that are at the heart of empathic connection.
Competance is great, but consider how you could keep the training while allowing for more limitations, related to when to chose which skill, application in varied settings, visualizing the ramifications of his actions...
A pair of early examples are the manner by which J&F escape murking, and the shootout with the Lyme Road Warriors.
The bullying in the hall is a great conflict point, and well timed in the structure of the narrative arc - hero faces a real problem. My difficulty is that the hero not only solves the problem on his own, but does so immediately and off page. This is too early in the narrative for casual genius to be the solution to a real problem, unless you are hoping for an Ayn Randian character arc.
Consider instead: J is confident because his uncle has trained him, knows he SHOULD be able to solve this, tells F he will take care of it and asks F where they should meet. F proposes bathrooms. J goes to interrogation, thinking about how to solve problem, recalling a number of training sequences with uncle, and triggering exciting false positives on heart rate monitor helping to reduce some of the redundancy with 3/5 of J's opening scenes involving interrogation. J finally asks sister for help, uses her scheme, opening his eyes about gender issues across the two cultures. This opens the door for growth later in the story when J no longer needs or wants to ask for help.
The shootout is still really early for such staggering, casual competance on J's part. I think the shootout is a great scene, and you could really add to the engagement by tweaking the intro and exit from the confrontation. The idea, again, is to preserve character optimization for the end of the story, having learned and grown along the way.
Consider: as J is looking for the LRW, he hears them and sees customers as described, and then hunts for a better vantage point, reflective anecdote about high ground, chooses the building across the way for the shadowy alcoves or whatever. Is surprised when Banger rushes over, and a little scared, decides to take him, remembers gun from earlier dialogue, then doesn't know whether to run or press advantage, J thinks that he is already hidden, reflective anecdote about hiding in plain sight by becoming one of those considered less than human, wonders how many LRW's there are, remembers traditional terror cell structure of eight members with quartets of pairs engaged in other cells, surprise+gun+1 bound=best chance, Draws and holds gun behind back after passing entry sentry, reflective anecdote about majority of gun battles decided by who has gun to hand first, then shoot in order that they grab iron.
After grabbing the loot consider fleeing from the shouts and crashes of roused gangstas from nearby, disappearing in the chaos as the gathering gangstas meet the arriving police, none of them knowing what happened, then J is less surprised and more worried when meeting LRW's on the road in the morning, and when Patasa says there are hundreds be wry, 'I kind of noticed.'
Apart from some premature competance, Jahangir could benefit from some personal growth. He doesn't really get closer to anyone over the narrative, with the possible exception of Frank through prolonged proximity more than anything else. Maybe have him try telling bad jokes that the crew start to appreciate by the end, or give him some moments of shared emotional vulnerability?
Lorelei has almost the polar opposite of Jahangir's problem: instead of doing too much, too easily, she isn't doing anything at all. Unless she is just the hapless damsel whose distress is fodder for J's heroics, she needs to do something other than looked at, wear, and buy expensive clothes while occasionaly thinking about math.
I was disconcerted by the ease with which street hardened cynic L decides to trust the flashy producer, going from not trusting anyone and not having a history of drug use to doing h with complete strangers despite her mother's panicked admonitions just that morning was just too much, too fast, without enough justification. The smooth wood exterior is enough to overcome years of paranoia compounded by the urgent warning of a violent sex slaver on the active hunt? EVERYONE in these communities knows someone dead of overdose, someone ruined by the rock. No one gives away drugs; drugs are hard currency. If someone is giving away cash, the suspicion of a catch is jacked. He says he is going to do a little and drive her home, but she doesn't look at the sprawling incontinence of the band and wonder how the hell he's going to drive like that?
Maybe consider reving up her introspection, and her unwillingness to leave London because chance encounters like this just wouldn't happen in Croatia, maybe with some encounter probability calculations, and she thinks is no difference if just confined to her apartment and maths texts, that living in London means going to coffee shops and pubs. If you push her rebellious individuation far enough L can ask to try the drugs, avoiding the instinctive withdrawal evoked by an offer.
Lorelei's vapid emptiness becomes even more pronunced in her complete lack of response to her drug-aided snatching. I understand that she is a traumatized young girl given to isolation and intellectual distraction, but she is less a character than a foil for other's actions, with a cute math quirk.
Her activity doesn't have to be real, either. She could get lost considering how she could apply mathematics to escape a given situation. Consider: upon discovering the guard in the hall, L opens the window, which doesn't open all the way because of the height, but she is slim, and young enough that her chest isn't much obstacle, yet, as she does some mental calculations about compresion and area, she visualizes squeezing out, calculates survivability of drop and difficulty of roof ascent when Valon enters. If she does actually try to flee, and makes the roof where she finds the stair access, she could get greeted by another goon who directs her into the hall where there is an elevator, guarded, and only one door. L enters to the breakfast scene.
Later, shopping, she could make a run for it, calculating the number of people around, number of exits, her importance vs Peeko's desire not to make a scene, dropping bags and bolting through the mall, winding and weaving to try and lose Peeko, only to find him waiting by his car with her dropped bags when she finally exits, having installed a family finder app on her phone during her drug coma. P offers the bags and invites her to use the rest of cash on a cab, or just accept his ride to her home.
Finally, she needs to have something to do with the final resolution. Maybe when Jahangir is getting vulnerable about not having as much training as he would like and he doesn't know how much explosive to use, Lorelei could ask some questions like how large a space how much damage wanted, how much explosive load he was comfortable with and does some math wizardry to decide how many cans, how many ball bearings, and optimum dispersion locations, with snap responses breaking component ratios into a scaled resource shopping list?
The conflict in Step Up is well designed, and escalates nicely to a very satisfying resolution, but there are a few sticking points that could be strengthened or smoothed to ease the engagement with the narrative.
Set Up: in which the author introduces the two main characters, and their Venn Diagramatic social circles including oppositional forces both drawn from discrete backstories and shared in foreground context.
This is the most polished phase of the narrative, which is promising for future narratives sharing this context. The rough parts are some redundancy in Jahangir's early scenes, addressed in part above, and the lecture heavy nature of Lorelei's backstory. Where J has engaging, action-packed reflections to illustrate his backstory, L gets lecture after lecture of people dumping information (don't you know?), with L disappearing for large parts of the exposition, no reactions or introspection, just information and move on. A window into her proccessing the information could add more depth to the character, and ease some of the expository tedium.
Reaction: in which the characters respond to the threats arrayed against them, and realize things are even more complex than imagined.
The second phase of the story is critical for character development, because the way characters respond to events beyond their control illustrates how they think, how they make decisions. As addressed in the character sections, J is a bit too proactive in this section, while L is too inactive. This phase carries us to the twist, which is fantastic. With two primary characters, we need a double twist, which Step Up delivers in grand style as the LRW declare war on the Islamic community while J gets recruited as an undercover operative trying to find the instigator of the conflict. There might be an opportunity to reinforce the Albanian threat waiting in the wings, though? Maybe Tatiana musing that getting killed by the LWR would be better than Valon selling her, comforting the shocked L with promises of Dubrovnik?
Responsibility: in which the characters take a more active role in their own well being.
The third phase of the narrative builds from the twist to the reveal, which clarifies the picture to frame the resolution. This is a phase in which I think Step Up could use some reworking. The reveal is fantastic, if a little late, as Valon has sold Lorelei to both an Arab prince and to Albanian slavers. I would recommend building more of an anticipation of the Albanian sale before revealing the Arab sale to Jahangir in the mosque, which would settle some of the pacing and heighten the stakes by emphasizing the triune nature of the opposition: LRW, Islamist radicals, and Albanian slavers. As it reads now the conflict with the Albanians and the murder of the prince feel like being blindsided.
Resolution: in which the characters pull together the assets assembled over the narrative, and apply the lessons learned along the way to triumph over their opposition.
This phase at the moment is loaded with revelations that should either be moved forward in the narrative, like the promised sale of Lorelei to the Albanians and the degree of her mathematical savantism (instead of telling us she has been keeping it secret, show us her keeping it secret over the course of the narrative), or significantly more heavily foreshadowed, like the survival of Jahangir's brother and the identity of the bro's snatcher. We just can't meet the target of all Jahangir's training and vengence as a cast off pair of meetings at the end of the story.
By front loading more opportunities for future growth into the earlier sections you could bulk this section up and balance out the pacing by wrapping up some of the character development arcs, like Lorelei not hiding her savantism but using it to help defeat the Albanians, and Jahangir not bottling up his emotions but sharing with friends.
I don't know if you own a substantial chunk of rabbit futures, but there are more bloody bunnies in this book than there were whales in Moby Dick, more than there were owls in Harry Potter. They are shooting rabbits in the mountains, rabbits on the cereal box, cereal that looks like rabbit pellets, a peripheral character named Bunny, bunnies for therapy, and bunnies as a euphemism for penis- twice. At this point I am fully expecting the good guys to use rabbits as covert message deliverers before the two VC's consumate their inevitable relationship wearing rabbit suits, as the evil mastermind waxes eloquent about his sinister eugenics program breeding people like rabbits, before getting told, 'silly villain, tricks are for kids,' as everyone hops away to live hoppily ever after and all the rabbits on the planet ascend to their floppy eared alien masters leaving a note saying 'so long, and thanks for all the carrots'.
The rabbits were at least partially redeemed by being leveraged into the escalation of conflict with the Animal Liberation Army barging into the picture, but we also had more fascinating insight into the details of bunnies than I had ever wanted to know. Because rabbits aren't interesting. I think even the threat from the ALA, which I have to hope is setting up a later conflict arc, is more engaging if you just swapped out rabbits for some adorable exotic animal about which few people know, like both of the Viewpoint Characters. You could then make Frank the expert in obscure animals, spouting about how difficult it is to replicate native diets in England and the like, upgrading him from pedantic to quirky.
I am not sure how much of the dissonance I experienced is due to vernacular discrepancies between American and London colloquialisms, so I am not going to get too detailed here.