Full Disclosure: I am friends with the author. This has happened before – you can judge whether it impacts anything in terms of fairness.
Coming off of the last book that occupied the better part of my life – well the life not spent watching television of questionable taste – I was definitely ready for something of a break. Now granted, the notion of a “Young Adult” genre book was not something I was much attracted to – indeed the genre has a very tinny sort of marketing sound to it. It is a genre defined in terms of a target audience – and says little about the genre itself. Put another way, a genre that can claim works by Stephanie Meyer and Mark Twain does not seem particularly informative. That said, I had some expectations for the genre – and one of them was a somewhat breezier experience than a George RR Martin doorstop.
Gretchen Powell’s self-published Terra certainly delivered on some of the expectations – a very readable story with some pretty good plotting and a lot of action. If we are looking at writing as commerce (and it is hard to ask someone to be a writer without actually making some money), this might be good enough – especially looking at this book (as intended) as the start of a series of some sort. But there is a lot of talent here, especially in the book’s science fiction notes and sense of plot (later in the novel particularly) – even as it is muddled with some less certain aspects and the typical struggles commensurate with any sort of “first volume” story. Like works such as Reservoir Dogs, Terra is a messy, flawed introduction to an exciting storytelling talent.
Terra Rhodon is an 18-year old girl who has been forced to grow up awfully quickly, taking care of her fourteen year old brother as they live alone. As the novel opens, Terra is off to scavenge, which Powell uses helpfully to start giving us some exposition. At whatever time in the future we are looking at, Earth has shiftd catastrophically into a permanent underclass and a permanent upperclass, the latter which has moved to residences in the skies, while those like Terra are left to scavenge for items left over and hopefully convert them into wealth. Powell takes her time with the minutiae here. How do the markets work? What is a collection? What sort of currency do or don’t the people use? In a world with very scarce resources, where is the food coming from? Powell’s detail in the day to day is excellent – the reader gets a strong sense of what it is like to this world, and you can appreciate the completeness with which Powell has crafted her vision.
But back to Terra. During the scavenging trip, she takes a direction and runs into something she has never seen before. When she turns it in for collection, the government official offers her a huge sum of money, but no indication of what it is. The non-answers do not satisfy Terra, especially when a piece so lucrative is out there. She then the next day heads to the location to try to learn and find more, but then raiders – something between gangsters and marauding pirates – find her and start pursuing her. In these areas, Powell’s best qualities emerge. Her descriptions and action scenes here work and are definitely involving. These positive qualities in her action and setting writing occurs when Terra starts snooping around a bit too much for the government’s taste and she is whisked up to the area capital. Indeed in the story’s key climactic chase scenes, they worked for me – and I cared about her and her folks being okay. Powell has the thriller elements down.
Where the story is less certain is in the characters and the development. Terra certainly makes a sufficiently sympathetic heroine and narrator, especially given the circumstances of her and her brother. However, at least so far, I tended to find the characters relatively general “types” – Terra the dogged heroine who is trying to be responsible and protecting old wounds, Mica her brother as a moody teenaged kid, Adam (whom she meets under odd circumstances) as a an earnest “good guy”. There is not the sense of these characters being fully explored as individual people – it seemed that Powell spent more of her time on the world and the plot than necessarily the relationships and characteristics of her players – which while giving us a pretty good story, does put a ceiling on the ability to truly connect. Also, and this sort of dovetails with the former, the dialogue throughout is functional and conveys plot information, but there is a little bit of a lack of a conversational style here. The characters are not saying particularly memorable things, even if they are doing some interesting things. Also, Powell is trapped a bit with this being Book I of a series – there is a LOT of exposition and description of the universe her characters are in, necessary description, but description that prevents some of the crackling action scenes from taking place. But given the mission of a multi-book series, I am not sure how to get around this.
One other problem is more of an issue with a plot and structure point – and since I do like this book and do not want to spoil it, I will tread carefully. There is an encounter later in the book, which requires Terra to have ended up in the sky portion, the national capital. When she is returned from the sky to her home – something very specific has happened, but it is waved away with a little bit of deus ex machina. It seemed as if Powell had a place to end her book determined before the plot point in question. This stayed with me, and was immensely frustrating, because it felt like this was a natural stopping point (before the deus ex machina) – and frankly her own brother’s struggles during this part of the story might make at least as interesting a Book II. Considering how strong Powell’s plotting and action scenes and sense of atmosphere are, this part felt rushed.
Overall though, Terra is a solid debut entry for Gretchen Powell. Her ability to describe atmosphere and to create an entertaining story is a tremendous gift, and the things where she is wanting (pacing, plotting, dialogue, character specificity) are all things that get better with more writing. There is a ton of potential here.