Winner Takes All, by Simon R Green

Winner Takes All is the loose sequel to Hawk and Fisher, and pretty much everything I said about the last one applies here as well.

Unfortunately, it’s not as good.

The big problem is the plot – or lack of it. The first book was a pretty clear murder mystery, with a tightly limited scope – and that excused or avoided a lot of the problems in the way Green is writing these books. The more clear-cut mystery element allowed Hawk and Fisher to ask people a lot of questions, in a way that the more open story of Winner Takes All just doesn’t – as a result, Hawk in particular this time comes across like the protagonist of a bad RPG, going up to each person in turn and going through all the dialogue options: “tell me about X?”, “what do you think about Y?”, rinse and repeat. Similarly, the lack of compelling plot motion works well in a murder mystery set almost entirely in a single building – people sitting around, waiting, being nervous, not knowing what’s going on, is sort of integral to that scenario. Giving his characters more freedom, letting them roam the streets more, actually makes them seem more passive, draws attention to how much of the ‘plot’ is just stuff happening. Giving more screentime to the invented world just makes it look thinner and more boring: sticking a few seemingly (but not necessarily) anachronistic notes in the background is interesting and entertaining, but recreating film noir in the middle ages is just kind of obvious.

So the writing’s not that great, the plot isn’t very interesting, the setting does a few things in an interesting way (one thing I’ve liked in both these books, for instance, is that Green’s given just a little more attention to how magic is integrated as a substitute for technology) but is mostly unexciting…

…but I still cruised through it, enjoying the journey. I wasn’t really sure why I enjoyed the first one, and I’m even less sure why I enjoyed the second, given that it was noticeably worse.

I think a big part is that Green isn’t a really bad writer. Not being a really bad writer is a surprisingly rare trait in writers, it seems. Green may be clumsy now and then, but he’s proficient enough not to get in the way, so we get to enjoy the vaguely-interesting, somewhat-amusing story. It’s almost like a demonstration of how easy it is to have a good story, how little is actually needed when you don’t mess it up. It’s of sort of to fiction as fresh bread and butter is to cuisine. You may need something special to write a brilliant book… but I think maybe stories are enjoyable just by default, and sometimes it’s a matter of not messing up in telling them. Green doesn’t mess up very much – so although the characters aren’t very fleshed out, they’re just fleshed out enough to engage with, and although the plot isn’t very original or coherent, it’s just original enough to be interesting and coherent enough to be satisfying, and although the jokes aren’t very funny and the emotive bits aren’t that emotive, they’re just funny and emotive enough to work.

That said, my enjoyment is no doubt partly due to having picked the right way to read it: while commuting. This isn’t ‘event’ reading, and building it up as that would undoubtedly lead to disappointment. As an easy, comfortable read to kill time and relax, however, something unchallenging enough not to stress frayed nerves yet sharp enough not to push the tired reader over into sleep or painful boredom, it’s perfectly judged.

There’s not really much point saying more about it, since I don’t think there’s much more to say.

Adrenaline: 2/5. There are exciting moments, and by and large it’s pacy enough to keep the reader engaged, but it is a little flabby (despite its brevity) and perhaps too light to really grip.

Emotion: 2/5. The characters aren’t complete ciphers, I suppose – but Green relies more on making things shocking than on making us care about the characters affected by those shocks.

Thought: 3/5. The slightly rambling plot, mystery elements, and an intriguing if ultimately shallow setting all keep the intellect interested.

Beauty: 3/5. *shrug*

Craft: 2/5. The prose is OK, but some of the dialogue is far too obvious – natural enough in isolation, but too railroaded by the form and plot as a whole. The plot construction is a bit of a mess, I think.

Endearingness: 2/5. Found it rather less likeable than its predecessor – less vivid characters, fewer interesting ideas, less sense of purpose. On the other hand, it’s readable enough, it’s amusing in places, and the two protagonists are likeable in an easy, comfortable way.

Originality: 3/5. Part of the upside to a messy plot is that it’s rather less derivative as a whole. On the other hand, it’s still composed entirely of reused tropes, albeit sometimes in new combinations.

Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features. I feel a little cruel, calling this a bad book, largely because it does mostly what it sets out to do. But what it sets out to do isn’t very much. And looking at the broader picture of what I want these ratings to mean, I think this rating is fair: it’s a book that you probably won’t like, and probably shouldn’t like, unless you happen to particularly like this sort of book. Hawk and Fisher I might show to a non-fan as a non-embarrassing thing that they might find interesting, even if they didn’t really like it – Winner Takes All is probably only for its core market, and anyone else will be very unimpressed. But that’s not too much to be ashamed of, I don’t think. Not every book is meant to have universal appeal, or even to garner widespread appreciation. And I for one am glad there are books like Winner Takes All out there… especially when I’m commuting.

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