Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a villain as the hero?
I started thinking about this close to two years ago when I first began writing my novel. What would people do if you gave them a character that by all accounts should have been a villain and told them that he/she was one of the heroes of the story?
Well, Samantha Stemler, author of The Ghost of Red Fields, went for a very similar approach. However, instead of being a little gentler about it like I was, she made the MAIN CHARACTER the villain!
Before I begin my review, let’s first establish what I mean by villain. No, the main character is not the bad guy of the story that goes around slaying all the heroes. He is, however, not exactly your average William Herondale or Maxon Schreave. He’s more of a Raffe character, yet somehow he’s even darker. Because our main character in The Ghost of Red Fields is no angel. In fact, most would say he’s been dragged straight out of Hell!
Zensor Igel is pretty much the male lead in Samantha Stemler’s first book, The Ghost of Red Fields. Right off the bat, Zensor is established as this creepy dude that seems to have no mercy, no emotions, and no real thoughts apart from kill, guard, destroy. We enter into Zensor’s world to see that there is a war raging between two different people ― the “Authorities” (aka, Black Coats) and the Raiders (aka the Companion Company).
Zensor is a soldier in the Raiders’ army, fighting for Queen Sahra, the leader of the Companion Company. What is the Companion Company, you ask? Well, it’s basically a group of rebel states/districts/lands that have banded together to stand against the Authorities. Yeah, I know, confusing with all the names, just stay with me!
Pretty quickly, we establish that Zensor isn’t really everybody’s favorite. In fact, only his most loyal men and the queen really like him. Everyone else sees him as an “Athorite defector,” otherwise known as, a Black Coat traitor. And what are the Black Coats? Well, I’m inclined to believe they’re basically demons. Basically. Hence Zensor’s nickname “Dead Eyes” and the black coats they wear and … yeah, you just read it and let me know what you think.
In the first couple of chapters, we see Queen Shara tell Zensor that he is going to be sent to help the Raiders but for some odd reason, Zensor doesn’t want to do it. So, rather than tell the queen his thoughts, he injures a fellow Raider to be demoted or left behind while the others go on. Unfortunately, the queen is smarter than Zensor gives her credit for and she figures out his scheme. In the end, Zensor agrees to go but no longer as the Sword Leader of the High Guard; he’ll serve as any other soldier will.
Right after this, we have a catalyst of sorts when a group of Raiders finds one of the Soldier Sons’ old prisons.(Soldier Sons is another phrase for Black Coats) Inside, they find bodies of slaves that have been stripped of their clothes, are long dead, and their teeth are either broken or missing because they tried to chew their way out of their cells!
Um… can you say CREEPY?!
The question is then posed: Who were these people? Why were the Black Coats keeping them? and How did they survive so long without food or water???
So that’s pretty much your overview of book one. I can’t really tell you much more about it, otherwise I might let some of the secrets slip and I’m guessing you guys don’t want spoilers!
Remember earlier in my last post when I talked about poetic writing and how it should be used? Well, Sam Stemler’s novel is a great example of how and when to use poetic writing. Sure, there are some areas where you’re like, “Okay, we get it. His hands were black, bleak, covered in coal .. Yep. Moving on.” but for the most part, the poetic paragraphs and phrases were excellently placed. You read the first chapter alone and (if you’re like me) you’ll go:
I kind of have to like Zensor Igel just because he’s such a different character from what I’m used to reading about! Unfortunately, however, I do have one complaint about him: He’s flat. He doesn’t seem like a dynamic character, which is a HUGE let down since he’s supposed to be your main character (I think … but I’ll get back to that in a minute.)! I get that it’s hard to make such a stoic, expressionless, emotionless character dynamic, but at least give us something to go on!
I wish I could say that the other characters make up for Zensor’s flatness but they really don’t. They’re great characters, no doubt, but they’re not quite distracting enough from Zensor’s brooding silence to make you think, “Eh, it’s okay that I don’t know that much about the main character.”
The one thing I will say, however, is that even though Zensor is a flat character, YOU STILL WANT TO READ ABOUT HIM! The whole time that the POV is on someone else and you’re reading about Queen Sahra or Salia (the woman that found the Black Coat prison), you’re just waiting for Zensor to come back into the spotlight!
I HAVE NO IDEA HOW SAMANTHA STEMLER DOES THIS.
I recently encountered a similar problem when I was working on the screenplay of a movie with a co-writer of mine. The female heroine … we just couldn’t get people to like her! Sure, they like her because they kind of have to, but she didn’t do anything in the beginning that makes you love her, relate to her, and just want to follow her story and no one else’s! We pondered over this for hours and finally came up with a way to make people love her (which did work) but still … it took hours!
So how, then, Ms. Stemler, did you make us love Zensor WITHOUT US EVEN KNOWING ANYTHING ABOUT HIM?
It goes against everything I know about storytelling! I should not have liked Zensor as much as I did. Ugh. If I get to do an interview with Ms. Stemler, I’ll HAVE to find out how she did that. That is a neat trick.
My biggest complaints about The Ghost of Red Fields is that you can’t tell who the main character is, you never know which storyline you’re following until about two pages into the chapter, and we’re constantly being introduced to new characters, whose storyline we then have to follow!
In my experience, you can only follow separate storylines when it’s absolutely clear (either in a chapter heading if you’re writing in first person or within the first paragraph if you’re writing in third person) which character you’re reading about.
For example: In Clockwork Angel, Cassandra Clare’s masterpiece, we follow multiple different characters around! We follow Will, Jem, Tessa, Charlotte, and even Magnus! But, at the beginning of every chapter, it’s made very clear who we are following. Below is a quote from Clockwork Prince … see if you can figure out which character we’re following.
It was a peculiar experience walking the streets of London as a boy, Tessa thought as she made her way along the crowded pavement of Eastcheap. The men who crossed her path spared her barely a glance, just pushed b=past her toward the doors of public houses or the next turn in the street.
Tessa, right? In the first sentence it tells you TESSA THOUGHT, implying that TESSA is the one narrating the chapter. We see the same thing in most other books we read. My biggest gripe with The Ghost of Red Fields is that you could go several pages without being sure who was narrating and who the storyline was following, because at one moment, it would say that Zensor felt something but then would say that Salia thought something …
Okay, this must seem really confusing but basically what I am trying to get across is that there were multiple perspectives playing out in the same chapter. In my personal experience, THAT NEVER WORKS. So just a tip for all you struggling/not-struggling authors out there, never give multiple perspectives in the same chapter. It just confuses the reader, mixes the characters, and never gives you a clear picture of the story.
THAT REMINDS ME.
While we’re on the topic of confusion, just as a small side note, the names and categories of The Ghost of Red Fields can be extremely confusing. I’ve read the whole thing and reread several areas of it and I’m not sure I could tell you all the names for the Black Coats. You’ll read something and be like:
Samantha Stemler, I give you a pat on the back for creativity, but that many names and terms and code words for one group of people … it’s CRAZY CONFUSING!
All in all, The Ghost of Red Fields was a great read if you’re looking to be entertained by something that doesn’t seem like your average fantasy fiction novel. The characters (even including Zensor Igel) were great and the language was sparkling! New exclamatory words were used that I’ll bet most of us have never heard before, and Stemler practically created a new language in some areas!
Twisted, dark, enigmatic, thought-provoking, and startling, Stemler created the kind of book you love and you can’t even figure out why! I give it a 3 out of 5 stars. I’d give it more but I can’t get past some of the more confusing elements.
If you’re interested in reading The Ghost of Red Fields, click the below links.
CLOSING UNRELATED NOTE:
This Wednesday is the official day that I get to tell my novel (Crown of Crimson)’s release date and share more information about it! The main character of my book will be introduced and she’ll get to have a voice for the first time so you know a little bit about her background before you jump into the world of Afterlighters, assassins, Swordmasters, and eerie princes!
What’s on your bookshelf?