The Wrong Way Down by Jake Elliot
Review by Ryan Lawler
Sometimes the right way turns all wrong. I saw his body lying there. My teacher, my mentor, my friend - face down in a pool of his own blood. His white robes were starched brown with dried blood, his throat cut open by the thieves who'd stolen the spiritual artefact we'd been entrusted to protect. The Blessed Mystery smiles, we caught one of the two thieves, and it is my duty to escort this foul woman to the garrison for interrogation. God, how I thirst for revenge! I cannot afford the luxury of anger, for it is my duty and responsibility to love. I am a priestess on the side of light. However, this hate, it is so heavy... it is too heavy.
For the last few years I have not been able to walk through the fantasy aisle without running into some charismatic rogue plotting the biggest heist the world has ever seen. I love a good heist novel, but I have read so many of them lately that my mood towards them has soured considerably. When I opened up The Wrong Way Down to find a couple of thieves slitting throats and stealing a religious artefact I wanted to toss my e-reader out the window in frustration, but then something happened - the thieves disappeared and the story became focused on the victims of the crime and what they were prepared to do to avenge their dead and reclaim their stolen artefact. Elliot dares to make the thieves the bad guys, bucking the recent trend of making every single character morally ambiguous, and while I find this quite refreshing there were a few issues that prevented this story from being as good as it could have been.
The Wrong Way Down tells the story of Popalia, a priestess of The Blessed Mystery who sets out to retrieve a stolen artefact as part of her Sacred Task. Under the guidance of her Elven protector Wynkkur, Popalia journeys through an inhospitable countryside, finding clues and following hunches as she closes in on the thieves. This is not a particularly complex story but then again it doesn't need to be - it is an action driven chase story where characters grow based on the consequences of their actions and I found it rather likeable. The problem for me is the layer upon layer of unnecessary backstory and subplots that are added haphazardly to the story in an attempt to simulate complexity. These scenes, despite being well written, just do not gel with the main storyline and result in an overall story that lacks identity and consistency.
The world building here is pretty much on par with modern authors in the fantasy genre. Elliot has taken a bunch of traditional fantasy races and dropped them onto his world full of mystery, religion, politics and deception. I like what he has done with it, I like the way in which he communicates it to the reader through a mix of subtle referencing, descriptive visualisation, and some overt story telling by an open campfire. Elliot doesn't let the world building get in the way of his plotting and characterisation, it is there to be a cool setting that facilitates the motion of the story, and it does its job effectively.
Also effective is the characterisation, although the building of character arcs need a bit of work. Popalia is the stubborn priestess with an attitude, she has pure and idealistic motivations, and she reacts to situations in a consistent manner. When we first meet Popalia, she starts from a position of hot-headed inexperience, and while she learns to curb her enthusiasm over the course of the story, she never really gains any strengths and by the end of the story, I felt she had finished in a position of weakness. Yes it is a character arc, but it's not particularly interesting. The same could be said of Wynkkur, the racially abused Elven mage who grows quite nicely into a man of action but when the mercenaries Seth and Raenyl come along, he retreats back into the shadows and finishes in a position of relative weakness compared to where he was in the middle of the book. With the villains we get to see a bit of insight very early and very late in the piece, but we learn almost nothing about them in-between. Knowing their motivations, knowing why they stole the religious artefacts, and knowing why we are supposed to dislike them would make them much better villains, and would lead to some better defined conflict. Elliot has the makings of some very good characters, and with a little bit of work he could turn them into great characters.
As for the writing, it was clean and fast paced, it made excellent use of visualisation techniques, but the numerous spelling and grammatical errors pulled me out of the story just as I was starting to get into it. The viewpoint control is solid early on, but it starts to fall apart late in the book when a few new characters are introduced and Elliot starts to hop between various viewpoints at random. It is quite jarring every time it happens - no warning is given and a lot of confusion is created… That said, there are a bunch of areas in this book (such as the visit to the Woohd Elves) where everything falls into place and you get to see the real potential in Elliot's writing.
This not a bad debut novel, not by any stretch. The lack of any resolution is a sore spot for me, but there is enough good material in the characterisation and world building to suggest that Elliot's next outing will be much improved. If you want a good heist story where the thieves are actually the bad guys, then you will certainly find a lot to enjoy with The Wrong Way Down.
Gene from Houston
I really liked this book. Compact and driven I read it in a single sitting. Thete were some editorial errors that pulled me out and some modern language expletives that seemed out of place. That being said for the first time in several years I am actually looking forward to the next book. I have an interest in seeing the characters grow as well as the author. Definitely worth a read.
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