Gritty. What an evocative word. In the parlance of contemporary storytelling, it’s usually applied as a badge of realism. A “gritty” novel eschews the Purell approach to conflict, choosing instead to gaze unblinkingly at the filthy hands of sin and the diseases they spread. But “gritty” also describes a morsel of food that gets dropped in the dirt before being popped in the mouth: unpleasant to chew, difficult to swallow. The first installment in Robert Mullin’s Wells of the Worlds series contains blood and bare skin aplenty, but of actual realism it suffers a dearth.
Bid the Gods Arise is, in many ways, a tale of extremes. Its thematic narrative pits life against unlife, technology against magic, unqualified faith against human reason, and the past against the future. It features an autocratic sadist, a whole nation of dark and warlike demigods, and a ragtag band of escaped slaves, inscrutable humanoid natives, and galactic warrior-priests, all of whom are alternately at each other’s throats. Unfortunately, this awesome lineup finds itself consistently hobbled by poor writing, uneven pacing, and a peremptory plot. The heady potential of the story’s premise only accentuates the mediocrity of its execution.
First the writing. With notable exceptions, it’s relentlessly monotonous. Variety seldom punctuates the apathetic syntax. By the opening of the second act, I was already sagging beneath a seemingly endless barrage of subject-verb-object sentences. And speaking of “seemingly,” that word and its derivations — along with kindred adjectives “apparently” and “obviously” — appear on over 300 separate occasions in the text, according to my Kindle’s search function. That’s every three pages out of five. I point this out not through fealty to some abstract scoring rubric, but rather to highlight the prevalence of redundant filler.
Concision simply isn’t one of the novel’s priorities. In the story-world of Argoth, characters don’t “saunter”: they “walk with casual confidence.” A hostile guard doesn’t “hold up a hand”: he “makes a gesture seeming to indicate that [someone else] should sit and wait.”
And thus it is that — with actions and objects constantly interpreted for the reader rather than described to the reader — specificity loses out big time. For instance: though flying chariots (aircraft) feature prominently in the action, I can’t for the life of me visualize their appearance. Such details are simply glossed over, even though two of the novel’s point-of-view characters begin their journey having never before beheld such vessels. Locations integral to the plot — Argoneis’ palace, Krige’s villa — leave but vague impressions on the reader’s mind. It’s a great irony that the disturbingly monochromatic Gray Lands, home to the soul-sucking Reamar, feel far more vivid than the colorful regions of Argoth. Though such syntactical issues may appear inconsequential when approached separately, their aggregation prevents Bid the Gods Arise from imparting to the reader that sense of awe and immediacy which by rights it should elicit.
These flaws become especially irksome due to their absence from certain sections, most notably the first-person dream scenes. Whenever Aric — one of the central protagonists — closes his eyes, the reader is plunged into an all-too-brief rhapsody of nigh-poetic eloquence and writerly poise before being yanked back into the dullness of the waking world. One almost wonders whether these bipolar shifts in style were intended by the author to induce sympathetic readerly reactions to Aric during his struggles with subconscious temptation. If so, that tactic certainly wasn’t worth its detrimental effect on the rest of the text.
Secondly, the pacing. It’s uneven. Though the first act arrests the reader’s attention with its dramatic inciting incident and the third act explodes into an orgy of frenetic chaos (I do love massive climaxes), the story’s midsection proves unbearably ponderous. It’s so boring, in fact, that at one point I took a three-week hiatus from Bid the Gods Arise in order to reread one of my favorite secular fantasy series – all 1,700 pages of it. The only reason I returned at all was because I felt a moral obligation to finish the novel so I could write this review. Definitely not an ideal motivation.
The second act lacks luster for one very specific reason: its characters are aimless. By that point in the story, most of the protagonists have come under the wing of a mysterious, staff-wielding mentor named Valasand. She’s confident, capable, and most definitely not from ’round these here parts. Why, then, would putting her in charge stagnate the story’s momentum? Because she has absolutely no idea why she’s doing anything that she does. She’s a follower of Yasul — the story-world’s God-analog — and receives her marching orders directly from spirit-beings who spout encouraging platitudes before dematerializing.
Unfortunately, while Valasand’s unquestioning obedience constitutes an admirable example of faith, it often leaves the reader feeling confused and disengaged. When other characters submit to Valasand’s authority, they effectively surrender their own motivations to that of Yasul, an entity the reader doesn’t hear, see, or understand. And when the protagonists begin entering perilous, high-stakes situations with no preparation, and no plan besides “Yasul will help us,” my suspension of disbelief comes crashing down like a flying chariot entering Reamar airspace. Neither the unbelieving characters’ tolerance for Valasand’s eccentricities nor the consistently effective results of said eccentricities feel authentic to me. As a staunch Calvinist myself, I absolutely support and applaud the novel’s portrayal of God as sovereign over even the actions of his avowed enemies; what strikes a false note to my ear is the relative ease with which the novel’s pagan protagonists are converted to such a perspective. Indeed, the plot frequently feels like nothing more than an extended illustration of the trite secular notion that “everything happens for a reason.”
Which brings us at last to the problems with the plot itself. It dictates the characters’ actions rather than flowing from them. It has the power to summon dramatic epiphanies, bestow instant charisma, and materialize supporting characters most conveniently. When it requires a battle-hardened and sexually abused female pit fighter to inexplicably break down and spill her guts to a perfect stranger, she does. When it needs a large band of harried refugees to spontaneously elect an unfamiliar and crazy-sounding young man as their leader, they do. When it wants the reader to finally understand the story’s mysterious villains, a character on his first-ever visit to Argoth expeditiously knows all about them. When its purposes prescribe that a central protagonist survive a losing fight, previously-discarded comrades inexplicably spring from the woodwork. Each one of these solutions is both inexplicable and unearned. The characters exist to serve the plot, and the story suffers as a result.
Despite my criticism, there are things I love about Bid the Gods Arise. One of these is the detestable figure of Daman Argoneis, the central villain. He’s terrifying because he’s unpredictable, and his conversations with cringing sycophants and timid subversives, while certainly the most disturbing portions of the novel, are also its most fascinating. Tension is palpable and boredom impossible when one shares a room with Daman. And, like a broader echo of the man himself, the setting in which the story’s action unfolds possesses the virtue of variability. Is it the environment of a fantasy? A sci-fi? A supernatural thriller? One is never quite sure. It feels like anything’s possible because … well, anything is. It’s a setting worth its salt which, unaided, keeps a reader on his toes.
If only the same could be said for the novel’s writing, pacing, and plot.