Synopsis: Caspa lives in a vast empty metropolis on the edge of nowhere called Vennolandua, alone except for silent Shadows who look after him. After a mysterious fugitive washes ashore, Caspa’s world changes forever.
For the Writer: For a YA book The Red City is weighty. The work has the appeal of an ancient, dusted-off legend that has somehow made its way back into circulation, a mythological tale passed down as a cautionary tale from generation to generation. It could, in some respects, be compared to many of the old Greek tragedies, minus the often overwhelming number of bloody, adult consequences of some bad-to-worse predicaments. In its mood and imagery, though less dark – a lot less dark. The Red City is reminiscent of Tolkien’s posthumously published The Children of Hurin. How can I draw these parallels? They’ve got style!
The Red City underscores the comments this author has made, highlighting, in addition to a writer’s narrative skills, the foundational benefits of a good story. Conforming to the prescribed brevity of the YA genre, which is one prescribed aspect of its style, Hadley’s book paints an outstanding illustration of descriptive power, creating mood, texture, and visual landscapes, a feast for the senses. Here are a few early examples:
From the top of the twenty-story tower he watched the buildings of Vennolandua creep from the darkness as the sun rose behind him. They were a deep red, the color of dried blood. Block by block they had been hewn from the bedrock on which the metropolis rested. [p.1 e-book]
Vennolandua was now an aged beauty. The delicate filigree that had adorned her doorways and windows had been rubbed smooth like over-worn jewellery. Roofs leaked, walls leaned and towers crumbled. Cracks raced through marble thoroughfares with no one to stop their progress. Her children had long ago abandoned her – whether from spite or necessity, the boy did not know. [p.9 e-book]
The myriad of openings in the building’s walls looked like a sea of hungry mouths. [p.61 e-book]
Hadley’s descriptive passages help furnish that which some declare as difficult a task as trying to describe the essence of beauty: the book’s style. This reviewer however, does not believe writing style as elusive a topic as say, beauty in art. A ‘writing style’ is merely the composite of a work’s individual parts, including: its range of vocabulary and word-building, its chosen sentence formation/s/, its paragraph structure/s/, and the story’s point of view, how the author executes dialogue, and as mentioned, the author’s descriptive elegance. How great the finished product is depends on how creatively and how consistently its writer has applied and balanced the ingredients; more simply, how well he followed his style sheet. Easier observed than accomplished, right?
A year or so ago, after noting a few deviations in this reviewer’s story writing, an editor meekly reminded him of the virtues of the style sheet. I will note that although technical style sheets obviously contribute and enhance style, I am not referring to spelling, typography, capitals, possessives, dangling modifiers and the like. I am referring to the kind of style which is like the buttons of colour on a painter’s palette and the textured brushes said artist uses to realize his ideas, constrained of course, by chosen techniques, such as pointillism, cubism, and surrealism, etc.
The canvas of The Red City could be compared to the Norse inspired paintings of Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872, [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Nicolai_Arbo ] or the darker paintings of Nils Blommér [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nils_Blommér ]. I do not suggest dark as in evil, though evil may raise its horns in such a place. I am proposing that Hadley has purposely painted a fertile landscape from which nothing but the elemental will spring. It is a potent place of Gods, heroic deeds, tragic ambitions, wars and magic, a place where the impulses of a few will determine the fates of many. Such is the power of descriptive imagery and sticking to one’s style sheet.
If that is the palette from which an author’s story flows, the artist must follow through on his design, be it preconceived or spontaneous. In other words, given the palette of The Red City, the characters had better be of proportionate weight, the dialogue measured and spoken in hush tones, so as not to awaken unspeakable creatures; there can be no easy plot contrivances, or – heaven help us – Disneyesque listen-to-your-heart, believe-in-yourself, panaceas. The Red City avoids modern pitfalls, sticks to its colour scheme and paints for the reader a primordial vision.
In order to better understand what I am getting at – the painterly character of writing style – one might do well to read Tolkein’s The Children of Hurin and Hadley’s The Red City together, imagining the authors as painters, not wordsmiths, applying paint instead of syntax, filling canvases rather than pages, creating a singular framed picture rather than a book. Or read a few poems of contrasting theme and observe how the artists fill their canvases.
Recall the paintings of Turner, or Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or late Picasso. These collections of art each have distinctive recognizable features springing from distinctive palettes. With these paintings in mind, think of the animal fables Charlotte’s Web and Animal Farm. E. B. WHite and George Orwell certainly have painted different pictures. How did they do it? They designed their palettes of setting, vocabulary and dialogue, prepared their canvases, and, like Mark Hadley in The Red City, stuck to their style sheets.