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A Review of Emily Spahn's "Pierside" · 11:38pm Feb 14th, 2021

Good Lord, is this overdue.

Now that I'm getting things in my life together, I have read through Emily Spahn's debut novel "Pierside," and I would now like to leave a review for it. I have been out of the writing game for a while—though I've yet to miss a single day this year—so my review may not be all that well when it comes to the technical things, but I shall do my best to give it a fair shake. I can only apologize for how long it's taken, and try to give my thoughts on this story fairly. I will also be nicer than normal, I hope, for I do not know how the coronavirus has affected the author and her family, and do not wish to cause any stress if they happen to read this review.

Let us get into it properly, shall we?

A Summary

In brief, a clinic worker and her best friend are enveloped in the return of the superhuman Elevati, and the discovery of the Saint of Death. They must protect one another as Elevati attempt to break them apart and do them harm. The search is on for The Gun, the only weapon known to have the power to kill an Elevatus; they must prevent it from falling in the wrong hands, with the help of a politician's son and a former police officer.

And them's the basics.

The Review Proper

Let's start by what I feel is the strongest part of the story: the relationship between the characters. Ezzy and Madlyn's care for one another is very sweet, and it's clear they'll do whatever they can for one another—barring one conflict in the middle of the story. When one revelation about Ezzy comes up, I was wondering how Maddy would react to it, and whether she would forgive her too quickly because they were best friends. I was pleased when it took a while longer for forgiveness to come, and was surprised at their first confrontation since the revelation. Not only did it ramp up tension, but it was also in character for Maddy and Ezzy to react that way, and it made each of their journeys all the more gripping.

Ian the politician's son and Roy the good cop round out the clear protagonists, I believe. Ezzy's fairly quiet, and Maddy's a loose cannon, and Ian and Roy seem to be more the straight-played guys. They both serve to attempt to keep everything under control, Ian with tact, Roy with footwork and elbow grease. Ian's descent into alcoholism early on shows the power that they're all dealing with, and how much strength and togetherness will be needed to face it all. And Roy faces something (spoiler: He loses his friend Dan to the main antagonist of this novel) that takes him from being a mere investigator to having a personal investment.

With these two characters' dilemmas, as well as with how heavily Maddy and Ezzy influence the goings-on of the novel, I feel like these four characters come together in the face of adversity nicely as a group of friends. In proper writing terms, I feel like each of the characters have a reasonable stake in the problems the Elevati and the Saint of Death cause that gives their ragtag group a sense of unity, all the while helping them have their own arcs in the story.

Major Spoiler Discussion

I was originally going to claim that this was a plothole, but now that I think about the relationships between the characters deeper, I feel like there's a great bit of foreshadowing presented when Ian fails to kill his father Havard. The Angel claims that she had never controlled him to love her, and I feel like if The Angel had controlled him to do that, she would've specified to make sure he was dead. The fact that he could miss, and that he would run away without completing his mission, and that he was willing to leave The Angel alone even after she had claimed she never wanted to see him again, shows that what she wasn't controlling him throughout the novel.

Major Spoiler Exeunt

The Angel is the next character to discuss, and to avoid spoilers here, I'll say that she is a morally ambiguous character. She is written very enticingly as a temptress who is hard to please, and the mystery behind her, even when revelations are had about her, left me wanting to know more about her AND about the other characters as well, especially Ian and Ezzy. What she puts Maddy through was particularly creepy, in a makes-you-want-to-keep-reading sort of way. Some foreshadowing from The Angel's initial interaction with Ezzy, and how little control she has, helps connect the dots for how she knows about Ezzy at all.

Moving past talking about the protagonists and the morally ambiguous character, we move on to the antagonists: Hal Arty, Christopher, and Havard.

Firstly, Christopher the Judge, Jury and Executioner. Thematically, I think he fits the story fantastically. There's a central character who believes there is no atonement for what they've done, and then you have this guy who goes around judging everyone as guilty. His relentlessness matches with the quick pacing of the novel itself, posing a threat that everyone needs to be careful of. I think he should've been more present in novel; it may've been more appropriate for his character to be as indiscriminate as he was, and not focus on the group of characters more, but I feel that with how dangerous he was, he should've tried more to stop these hindrances to his cleansing of the world.

Havard, a high-up politician who wants to hunt down the Elevati. I'm not sure how I feel about him, but I think they're similar to how I feel about Christopher: he needed some more presence. There is some intrigue about him and his connection to the Elevati, and some development happens between him and Ian, the initial meeting between him and Maddy doesn't add any sort of intrigue. He doesn't seem surprised or bemused, or even lets the situation, where he knows the Gun's missing but not why exactly, sink in. I do like how he uses his powers to search for the Elevati (spoiler, by putting an ad in the paper), but I don't think much was done with it. The Angel has a good level of conflict related to him, but not the other character mainly affected.

And then there's Hal, the leader of the Followers of God and a brutal man. He is one creepy sonovabitch, willing to do some really bad things like burning a little girl in an oven to get what he wants, while feeling like he's the chosen one. He's like a Disney-movie Judge Claude Frollo, with the same callous cruelty, the same moral conscience, and the same desire to have people convert to his way of life. He is very menacing... however, like Christopher and Havard, I feel like he needed more development. I didn't see him rousing his followers for the return of their saint, or preparing to capture people again for conversion or death. I feel like Ezzy's relationship with him, and how she faced him, was great character development on her part, and I had to stop for a moment when I found out what he did with an oven, but aside from that, I don't feel that he was as effective as he could've been throughout.

Major Spoiler Section

Although I did find it immensely satisfying when Maddy killed him. That was a nice punch.

Major Spoiler Exeunt

Overall, I feel that, compared to how unified the protagonists all felt, the antagonists didn't quite live up to the challenge. Hal could be cruel, Christopher had a menacing mindset, and Havard provided a little bit of context to the whole Elevati thing, but I don't think their interactions with the protagonists were strong enough. They felt less like actors and more like... interruptions, I suppose. The characterization is down pat, but their part in the conflict needed to be bolstered up—say, Havard coaxing more information out of Maddy or having more of a moral conflict with Ian, or Christopher doing his best to stop Ezzy in her plans by targeting Maddy, or Hal forcing Maddy to convert or face the Saint's power. It's all speculation, and I think they do their job well enough, but I just wanted to see the more menacing sides of these characters.

I think that's enough about the characters. Let's move on to the settings! Pierside itself is lively, with swanky clubs, large city hall, mysterious compound, and quaint clinic. The descriptions of each place isn't too in-depth, and I'd say it's enough for most of the book. From my reading, though, I would like to see more of Pierside. If there's another book in this series, I would like for the world to be expanded upon. I want to see more of, say, Maddy's hangouts, more of the politicians' den, more of the compound, more of the general landscape (though this last one may be me—that may get in the way of the action). I say I want more of it not as a criticism, but more specifically as a hope for a sequel. The only place I felt was lacking was the Followers of God compound, because I didn't get a clear picture of how they felt about the return of their Saint, but everything else was decent.

The sparseness of setting, however, may be a common train of the kind of genre Pierside is. I believe it's called noir, with this being fantasy noir, or superhero noir... I don't get out much. :raritycry: Anyway, the tension in conversations builds up like a pot of water slowly coming to a boil (I need to work on my simile skills), and there is some fun to be had with the action. The writing is snappy, and the action moves along at a brisk pace.

Conflict-wise, I'd say that the story does a fine job of keeping up the tension and the mystery of the Elevati. I've complained a little about the antagonists and the lack of detail with the setting, but the main characters' reactions to the dangers that do appear, as well as the story's tight pacing, really provide an engaging narrative that kept me reading to the end. The mystery of the Elevati is intriguing up to the end, where the future of the Elevati is uncertain, and the characters all have believable individual and intertwined pathways in dealing with it. The "hypnotist" character, in particular, provides a lot of juicy conflict with all of the characters, the Saint of Death included.

Speaking of the Saint of Death, her role in the story, as well as what she's trying to do for mankind, the Elevati, her friends and herself, not only provides an unsettling level of tension, but also contributes to the theme of justice and punishment. In a non-spoilery summary, the characters closest to the Saint of Death have highly believable reactions, and the "hypnotist" getting involved in it changes things in a way that pushes a fairly straightforward narrative to have some good character motivations to deviate from it. Considering the antagonists, though, I still don't think the Followers of God did enough with her; Hals' plan for her (spoilery, to torture her throughout the book without a plan, at least one I picked up on didn't result in much. Once again, though, the protagonists sell this conflict. The Saint of Death's moral dilemma feeds into the concept of justice, on whether to use her powers or not to kill or heal, and who to kill. I'm glad the concept of justice isn't completely straightforward, because the personality of the Saint of Death, as well as where they came from, required a lot more patience and care. And I feel the story provides this patience and care fairly well.

Major Spoiler Section

I also think the rules given at the end is a good wrap-up to the whole back-and-forth with who to kill and who has a right to live. Ezzy wants to atone for her sins, and knows the burden of murder. Being an Elevatus, and being in love with a human, and caring for everyone and wanting to see no one harmed, culminated in what had to be a properly-established ruleset for her kind to follow, now that they were all in the spotlight once more.

Major Spoiler Exeunt

There are three things that I will criticize about the plot overall here:

First, I don't think some of the scene transitions are written very well. I remember when Hal takes Ezzy, the last sentence felt less like it was finalizing the scene and more like it was pushed along to get to the next part. The first sentence of the last chapter stuck out as well, as a fast infodump to set the scene that didn't have proper buildup.

Second, sometimes the action happens too quickly. Not that it's paced fast, but rather that it's written too quickly. The example I can think of is when Maddy gets sliced pretty badly; the ensuing writing sped by very quickly, and maybe that's just my taste in writing, but I thought it was too fast there.

Thirdly, and maybe this is just me, but I don't think the way the entries in the very important journal properly push Maddy to make an important revelation and change to her outlook. I think I can rationalize the brevity of the entries, because the writer would be simultaneously in severe pain and used to people dying; however, I think that, for Maddy to realize how things had changed, there should've been entries about what happened after the author of the journal escaped, showing how the author was trying to be a better person. Perhaps it's because the author doesn't want to look at it again, but then again, if her deeds are always on her mind, then using the journal to update her current life choices, I think, would've been more impactful.

Since this is my first review in a while, I would like to exercise something I did way back in the day: The Character-Setting-Conflict relationships.

The Relationship of Character and Setting

Even with how sparse the settings feel sometimes, I feel like they're proper extensions of the characters. The clinic is small, quiet and quaint, perfectly fitting for Ezzy and intriguing for Maddy to be found there. The various apartments and clubs add a lot of flavor for each character, and the Town Hall feels like a centralized point for the whole political aspect of the conflict. I appreciate that Maddy's pickup truck is a constantly present item, like a humble steed ready to take Maddy wherever she's needed, and how Tan, the much quieter hometown for Ezzy and Maddy, is just a little while away, tempting them to get away from this whole debacle. The Golden Balloon, in particular, is a highlight of the setting, and the coldness of the room of the final confrontation is chilling, provided how cold the two conflicted characters feel about one another.

The Relationship of Character and Conflict

The interpersonal conflicts are handled very well. Ezzy and Maddy's tests of their relationship feel like it handles the weight of the overarching conflict into consideration in how they treat one another. Ian and Roy's more straight-played sidelined conflict and assistance help to expand the conflict to the ground level, rather than to just the two main characters involved. The Angel's contribution is very nice as well. The antagonists are menacing, but not present in enough that I felt they were completely effective.

The Relationship of Setting and Conflict

The Golden Balloon acting as this simultaneously alluring and seedy place is where I think the highlights of the novel happen, both inviting darker aspects and testing characters' better aspects at the same time. The clinic's tininess contrasts with the big actions that will unfold, and shows how a person that wants to help others can be screwed over by bad people. I think the torture room is harrowing, though I am not sure how striking the compound itself is; in fact, one of the oddest things I found about the novel is how readily available it was for all of the characters to find and interact with it, without a lot of problems. As for the Town Hall, I don't think the seedy corruption of the politicians is explored nearly enough, but the small bits we get with Havard and Ian are at least nice.

Finally, to the prose itself. I like how snappy and elegant everything is written. The writing is solid, for the most part. There are sparse descriptions that seem to give just enough information to keep the flow going, the dialogue is lively and natch, and although I think the pacing is too quick at points, the flow of the sentences is pleasant. But that may not be what an author wants to hear about their debut novel, so if I were to offer what could be improved the most, I would recommend cutting back on the exposition. There's a lot of exposition in this story, and I honestly found it distracting in several parts. If there's a second book in the works, that would be my biggest recommendation to watch out for.

And if someone wants to be a grammar Nazi, I recall seeing three errors present, two of which were the same error (the present tense lead used when the past tense led was intended).

I'm honestly not too satisfied with my review here; I will need to work on my organization and tightness. There is my full review of Emily Spahn's Pierside. I know there's more to say, and I may come back to it in the future, but I can at least give it a recommend. The noir setting is done very well, the protagonists are solidly crafted, the dialogue is great, and the intrigue is delicious. I think the biggest improvements that could be made in the sequel, or in Emily's next book, would be to make the antagonists more menacing and fit more cohesively, to expand the worldbuilding, and to reduce the exposition. I once again apologize for how long this took me to review, and I hope that it finds no one at a stressful time, and that it's at least intelligible, if not helpful.

Anywho, I bid you all adieu, until the next one.

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