Monday, April 10, 2023

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Debunked by Dito Abbott


Debunked is a self-published Young Adult Adventure Fantasy novel written by author Dito Abbott.  The novel is one of this year's semifinalists in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2 - my reviews of these books can be found here) and is one of six books my team and I have been assigned to read and Judge to see if they will make the finals.  You'll note I refer to the book as fantasy above as despite it somehow qualifying as a semifinalist in the SPSFC2, it really isn't science fiction as I usually think of it and even the Amazon categories for the book list it as "Action & Adventure", "Sword & Sorcery," and "Young Adult Fantasy".  That said the novel does feature a steampunk esque portal fantasy world and mad scientists galore, so I guess I can see how it was considered qualified for this competition (and really the SciFi/Fantasy distinction is kind baloney).  

Unfortunately, even if I do consider Debunked SciFi for the purposes of the competition, I didn't find it very good at all.  The story tries to do two things mainly: first, be very humorous through a ridiculous setting, complete with footnotes as the story goes on that reveal more ridiculous parts of the setting, and second, to put our heroes - teen siblings Ozzy and Alex - into constant exciting danger as they find themselves on the run in a fantasy world that barely makes any sense and is constantly trying to kill them.  The problem is that the humor did not work for me - the setting is ridiculous but ridiculousness on its own isn't funny to me anymore, it needs to be actually absurd in a way that's amusing or funny, - and the constant danger just felt exhausting, as Debunked is not a short novel and our characters are a new dangerous situation basically every few pages, which makes each moment of danger have very little impact and just feel like more of the same.  There's some character development here, so it's not all bad, but there's just not enough or any space for the characters to breathe, and it felt so exhausting to read that I just didn't care in the end.  

Some more details after the jump:

-------------------------------------------------Plot Summary----------------------------------------------------
Alex and Ozzie are used to getting letters from their adventurer grandfather, Sir Quidby Forsythe III, in which he announces his death....only for him to show up a little while later alive in some inexplicably distant random location.  But this most recent time (the 6th time in 2 years!) seems to have been for real, to their shock and dismay.  Ozzie and Alex love each other but are very different: Ozzie is bookish and loves trying to decipher the traps his grandfather left behind, while Alex is the athletic girl who prefers climbing around them and getting into trouble.  And years ago Ozzie claims he say a lizardman-type creature come from nowhere and abduct their parents, although Alex thinks he's crazy.  

But when Sir Quidby's funeral is interrupted by a series of crazy assassins and the two of them find themselves kidnapped by a similar lizard-creature, who turns out to be a being named Layla, the two find themselves reconsidering everything they know.  For their grandfather might be alive after all - and he isn't the bumbling incompetent explorer they thought he was, but rather might be a legendary explorer of this new fantasy world they find themselves in, Terravenum, and their grandfather's research might be the key to saving this world or destroying it.  And strange people in this world will do anything to get that research and Ozzie and Alex will soon find themselves on the run with Layla and an absolute nutjob of a mad scientist named Pascal....whose inventions might save them...or blow them all up before their own pursuers get their own chance to do so.....
Debunked is told from Ozzie's and Alex's third person perspectives, mostly from Ozzie's, with the story occasionally footnoted along the way.  These footnotes lead to what are meant to be funny or humorous asides about ridiculous things in this world, but well...they didn't really hit as funny to me and were entirely skippable.  Similarly, the world here is filled with absolutely ridiculous ideas and concepts, such as an archive of people going through books and books of an immortal's stream of consciousness thoughts on the world with inane titles and discussions for the small ideas and things he might have observed without realizing their importance, that are clearly meant to be amusing, but just feel like the author is trying too hard to say "Look how silly this is, isn't it funny!"  There's ridiculousness here in spades, but there's very little actual clever wordplay which is what makes most absurd sci-fi in the Douglas Adams mold actually funny and work.  

Then there's the story and characters.  In fairness, Debunked has some occasionally solid stuff here - Ozzie for example is enjoyable as the bookish kid who is proven right about lizards kidnapping his parents and who wants to find the answers in texts but obviously has to go out more for adventure while Alex works as the more adventurous action-like kid who scorns the books largely.   The two other main members of the regular cast - mad scientist Pascal as the crazy guy and stern less talkative and slightly more sensible wrencher Layla are an enjoyable duo as well.  There's also some minor character development along the way for the two of them as they deal with the wacky stuff and constant danger that comes up throughout the book.

But oh my god is the constant danger utterly exhausting.  Debunked is not a short book - it's not especially long, but it's not short.  And with basically every chapter featuring the protagonists in some new danger, whether that being caught by the main antagonists, running into new minor characters who Pascal aggrieved, or just being caught up in the dangers of the world, there's no time at all for any characters to actually reflect on things and how they got there.  There's just "new danger" followed by "crazy way characters try to get out of it" leading to "New danger!" leading to "new dangerous desperation measure to get away" etc. etc.  It makes the book feel far longer than it actually is, because it just feels like the same stuff over and over and over, and even if some of the escapes might be clever at first (and I'm not sure any really are), they just feel like more of the same even by midway through the book.  This isn't helped by the book splitting up the characters in its final third, having one character discover a secret that reveals where they need to go next, and then the book spends the next 50-100 pages in my ebook focusing on the other character getting into trouble that DOES NOT MATTER in consideration of everything else.  

The result is a book that is clearly trying to be constant fun and instead just feels like a chore to read by halfway through, even with the main characters being solid and enjoyable.  I just can't see this being worthy of a finalist spot in the SPSFC, and it would not have even made my quarterfinals, but obviously its original group of judges liked it more than I did.

No comments:

Post a Comment