IF Comp 2017: Harbinger

habringerIn Harbinger (Kenna May, Twine) you play a talking crow on the run from an unleashed evil; initially isolated, you team up with a witch and her apprentice to deal with the apocalyptic threat. (Gosh, but this is a witchy comp.)

My general feeling about it was that it was fine. I’m not mad at it. It doesn’t commit any glaring errors – the main visible thing that I’d fix is that it could use an edit to catch a sprinkling of spelling mistakes. It tells a story that’s clear and decently-paced; it uses interactivity in a way that’s light but significant. But it doesn’t really shine at any particular thing.

It feels pretty low on the interactive side; a lot of the choices look like tactical choices but don’t affect much except for how you feel about things. Early on, in particular, the narrative foregrounds this a bit: you’re trying to save people but have a strong expectation that your attempts will be ineffective. And I feel like this was a potentially strong mood to be cultivating: isolation, the sense that you’re complicit in a impending apocalyptic disaster but unable to do anything to prevent it, a harried sense of never being able to fully rest. (Big mood for 2017.) But as I got used to this, I found there wasn’t enough to keep me engaged with the story before moving along. By the climax, in particular, I was pretty much just clicking through, because I expected a Big Magical Fantasy Climax followed by everything being OK, and was never really given any reason to doubt that.

The other thing that it’s obviously concerned with is the close, supportive relationship between the crow and Maya; the girl-and-her-pet dynamic, and particularly the way that it develops very quickly, makes this feel very much like a YA piece. And the shift between the two – crushing despair, isolation and guilt, shifting to firm, therapeutic companionship and mutual efforts to overcome – is a solid emotional arc, one that (for instance) Lois McMaster Bujold employs all the damn time. So I feel like the basic sense of how this story ought to work is sound.

The execution is not quite there, though. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it might be that the plot is fairly straightforward. You are trying to find someone who’ll listen to you, and after a while you do. That person says you should talk to the witch so that you can make a plan, and you talk to the witch and make a plan and carry out the plan. There weren’t a lot of points where I was unsure and excited about what was going to happen next. There’s a thing that seems to be meant as a twist, except that it’s about unexpected kinds of magical creatures, so that doesn’t work as a twist unless we’ve had a good long time with an understanding of what kinds of magical creatures normally exist in this world so that when it turns out to be something different it’s a surprise.

Prose-wise, it felt calibrated for a somewhat more laid-back story. I mean, OK, when I’m not fully satisfied with a story I generally blame the prose, but I think that holds up here:

You can’t pinpoint the source of this magical energy exactly; magic flows in so many directions, to the forest in the west or far north to the capitol city. But this sense is coming from somewhere nearby, the north edge of town. You head in that direction.

The streets are mostly empty, though you still see a few people as you fly overhead. There are children playing, and adults moving from one building to the next. On one street you see a woman with a young boy in tow, walking quickly while he stares at the birds around them.

You startle a few songbirds when you land on a fencepost to rest your wings. They flap away wildly. The boy points you out to the woman, but you stay silent. You’re only investigating for now.

So, things to note. This is writing that aims to reflect the limited knowledge of the crow, who has the perspective of an animal and hasn’t had much experience outside its confined life with the wizard. Things are described in broad, generic terms, avoiding detail, uncommon vocabulary or proper names. It’s mostly simply-constructed. There’s a feeling of detachment or alienation, which at some points becomes stiffness. That approach, building a sombre mood through low-affect style, has the potential to work for a situation of looming threat and trauma – cf. Hemingway – but for that to work it needs to have a bit more discipline, for each line to carry more weight. It needs voice – I feel as though this would be written very differently if it was a story about doing the groceries.

Another thing that it struggles with is characterisation. The crow doesn’t feel much like a crow, personality-wise; it’s too nice. It’s a sad nice boy who only wants to do good. Maya is also characterised, primarily, as nice. The witch is helpful. Even the all-destroying Evil Thing is sort of exculpated at one point as being Not Really Evil. This is a story that needs to be dark-and-light, but isn’t willing to go in very hard on the dark, and wants the light to be so spotless that it’s not all that compelling.

Anyway. I’ve nitpicked this because I wanted to say something a little more specific than ‘the prose could be better’, but again, it’s not dreadful. I was way less bored by this than by, say, Rage Quest. So: a 5.’

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