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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review: Central Park Knight by C. J. Henderson

Disappointment is an unfortunate thing when it comes to reading.  Sometimes a book doesn't live up to the expectations set up by the cover copy.  It's not often that this happens to me.  I've found books with such problems to be average or even below-average, but it's a rare thing that a book leads me to write a review like the one below.  Central Park Knight promises adventure of the Indiana Jones variety, magic, dragons, and massive battles.  In many ways, Henderson's delivers on these promises, but not without an inconsistent plot and a slew of other problems, all of which make this novel a weak addition to the urban fantasy genre.

Central Park Knight follows Professor Piers Knight, curator at the Brooklyn Museum, a bit of an adventure, and wielder of ancient magics and other arcane things.  Of course, those last two are reluctant additions to his relatively simple life at the museum; Knight doesn't want to be a hero.  But whenever monsters and other terrors threaten to the destroy the world, he knows he's the only one who can do something about it.  So begins Central Park Knight:  Knight uses all his knowledge to stop a beast from beyond from ending Earth's days, but even in the aftermath,
more dark things are stirring.  An old lover once thought dead appears in his office, rumors surface of dragons stirring from the Earth, and talk of new, more terrifying ends reminds him once more why he can't have a regular curator's life -- because Piers Knight is the only one that knows how to save the world from forces beyond its imagining.
The opening chapter of Central Park Knight is my favorite part of the book.  It's only vaguely tied to the actual story, but it gave me the impression that Henderson's novel would resemble something akin to a New Weird novel.  The chapter consists of selections from a fictional academic talk about the existence of dragons and the study of them.  It's fascinating, fun, and set a tone for the book.  Henderson, however, never follows through, leaving much of what was compelling about the opening chapters behind for a story that never hits its stride.  Therein lies the problem:

Central Park Knight is riddled with plotting and writing problems.  One of my biggest pet peeves in literature is random POV shifts, of which Henderson seems to be an expert.  Viewpoints often shift in the middle of chapters -- and sometimes even in the middle of paragraphs -- in order to tell us what other characters are feeling at that moment.  More often than not, these shifts give us nothing useful to work with as readers, sucking life away from the primary POV of that chapter (usually Knight, but sometimes one of the dragons or George).  The shifts are jarring, too, and draw too much attention to themselves, which is the greatest issue here.  Once you yank me from the story, it's hard for me to get back into it without focusing once more on the prose.  Popular prose styles aren't meant to draw attention to themselves; that's left to more complex and poetic writing, in which language is sometimes more subtle and nuanced.  Instead, popular prose should flow and give the reader the space to imagine what is being relayed on the page.  The POV shifts made this a daunting task because I could never be sure that the POV on the page would stay firm long enough for me to focus on the character, the scene, or the emotions of the moment.

Likewise, Henderson's prose is bloated and suffers from bizarre temporal orientations (which I'll explain in a moment).  What could easily be said more effectively in fewer words is instead crammed full of excess verbs, prepositions, etc., sometimes to the point of being run-on sentences; such sentences are too frequent for comfort and I found myself growing frustrated when a sentence would suck up four or five lines on the page in order to tell me something that could have been told in less than one line.  And then there is the strange structure of his sentences:  actions which should be happening on the page are shoved aside by "as he did X, so he did Y" sentences; sentences with this structure are so frequent that the story often gets lost in their clunkiness.  Throw in a handful of typos, grievous grammar errors (missing words and the like that should have been caught), and stiff/clunky dialogue (the attempts to make George sound like a modern teenager read more like an offensive caricature than a realistic person) and you end up with a book which reads as poorly as it is plotted.

The plot, as such, is where I'll end this review.  The book opens with an event that, quite honestly, is far more climactic and interesting than the story we're inevitably given.  This is a problem not only because the rest of the story is less developed and riddled with logical inconsistencies, but also because one of the characters we're supposed to care about in the opening scene then disappears without little more than "eh, she went home" as an excuse.  I'd expect such a thing from a TV show that has to explain why one of its character (and, thus, the actor) isn't coming back (House managed to do this by killing one of its characters), but it's not something I would expect from a novel which is supposed to deal with developed individuals.  Since all indications on the actual book suggest that Central Park Knight is a stand-alone novel, these kinds of issues in plotting and character put a black mark on Henderson's narrative.

There are other plot issues that I could mention, but this review is already negative enough as it is.  I really wanted to like Central Park Knight.  It has an amusing premise, interesting, though undeveloped, characters, and an a mythology and history that, with proper development, could yield challenging and fun adventure stories.  But that's not what Henderson has done here.  He's written an inconsistent narrative with unbelievable characters, clunky prose, and weak dialogue.  As much as I tried to enjoy the book, I couldn't get past what was wrong with it.  Maybe the previous novel is a better story with a tighter plot, but I'm not sure if I'm willing to follow Henderson there.  At least, not any time soon.

If you want to learn more about the book, check out the publisher's website.  You can find the author on his website.  The book is available on Amazon and everywhere else books are sold.

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