“He came across the huge wasteland of the desert in the east, the vastness forbidden to his kind from time immemorial, determined to discover who took away his memory of the past years of his life and to find out who and what he once was. But that mission does not prove easy: the secret of the world in which he so mysteriously found himself got in the way between him and the truth of his past . He did not even know that fixed upon him were the eyes of potentates and that with his very appearance he perturbed the forces that tailored the fate of the world.”
What you just read, if you managed to get through it at all, was the blurb for The Secret of Araton, the first novel in the trilogy of absurdly huge mammoth doorstopper award winning SF novels written by Oliver Franić, a Croatian author, who as far as I am aware, never wrote anything else, which is probably for the best.
Now, before we continue, some context is in order. What you need to know is this: Oliver Franić was a Croatian immigrant who spent some twenty years writing up the aforementioned trilogy, which netted him a SFERA award (the oldest and most prestigious Croatian SF award) when it finally came out in 2005. This was a fairly controversial choice because everyone agrees that Franić did not receive this award for the quality of his writing, but rather for the effort he put into writing the books.
Which brings us to the case in point. There isn’t much quality in all the 2000+ pages of this trilogy, if there is any at all. These books are infamous among SF fans familiar with them for being incredibly boring, annoying and hard to read, to the point where the most common question regarding them isn’t “Did you read them?” but “Did you manage to finish them?” (1)
Why this is so becomes readily apparent. The general feel of the book is a weird mishmash that takes, if not outright plagiarizes, a lot both from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and R. E. Howard’s Conan stories, creating a weird marriage of pulp and erudite literary styles which in the end only serves to accentuate the weaknesses of both. So we end up with a manly-man swashbuckling hero type guy who continually spends pages upon pages pondering deep philosophical questions instead of doing anything action-like. Not that the pondering is written any good, mind you. Combine this with purplish prose, that relies on a variety of archaisms and expressions that aim for forced gravitas, and you have a writing style that can be only called labored.
But it doesn’t end there. Another thing that becomes apparent fairly fast it that Franić might have been more at home writing some sort of RPG manual instead of trying to tackle with something that requires actual plot. It is obvious he had a lot of ideas for setting detail, which he had no clue how to actually implement into the story. So instead, he placed a kind of sourcebook spliced between each of the chapters. Each entry in this “setting bible”, so to call it, details some of the common aspects of the world of Araton that we should know in order to understand the world the characters inhabit. Things like the names of the days of the week, the names of the months, various units of measurement, currency, and so on… To make it worse, these entries become longer over time, until they bloat into little chapters on their own.
The setting itself as we actually see it in the books is a “SF pretends to be fantasy” kind of deal like in the New Sun books, although unlike Wolfe, the author reveals his hand early on, when a character points a handgun at the protagonist within the first few pages.(2) It should also be noted that as it is, the setting is so completely generic and deficient in interesting details, it will make you long for the quirkiness of Forgotten Realms.
So, now we know that the writing is atrocious, and the setting is bankrupt on ideas. Might the plot be better? Well, better guess again. The story follows one Dir Moros, who is a some kind mysterious, highly skilled, wandering swordsman type of guy. He spends most of his time either waxing philosophically or thinking about how smart he is. Sometimes he comes into conflict with people who try to kill him for vague reasons. Women throw themselves at him without a thought. In short, he is a big ole mary sue type character, and is for the most part, completely irritating.
As for the events as they happen, there is not much to talk about. At the beginning of the first book, the protagonist arrives in a city, comes in conflict with the authorities there, and begins a pattern of imprisonment-escape-imprisonment plot events that don’t seem to lead anywhere.(3). When he and a girl he saved from some kind of ritual sacrifice of the pulpiest kind end up in the tunnels inside a mountain relatively early on into the book, the series reaches its defining point where you know exactly what you are dealing with here.
For, you see, their trek through the caves takes some hundred pages to complete.
A hundred pages of footslogging in which every wall and rock is described with loving detail and attention. A hundred pages of Dir Moros contemplating his fate and human nature in monotonous inner monologues. A hundred pages in which the girl throws herself at Dir Moros every five minutes begging him to take and he refuses every time because his holy warrior code requires him to eschew sex, even though we, the readers know he will eventually relent and are just begging him to fuck her already so she can shut up about it.
When the pair arrive at a chasm that marks the end of this part of the journey, the method they use to traverse it is again described with loving detail, so much detail that the text even takes it’s time describing how the rope dangles after they leave it. But well, at least they got through the caves and the plot will move on, right?
Moros and the girl run into a group of “completely not orcs I swear it guys”(4) who live in some kind of underground complex that promptly capture them. Cue pages upon pages of Moros negotiating with the not-orc chieftain for their freedom. Then, it turns out, it is impossible to actually leave this place because the bridge leading out is apparently cursed so that anyone trying to cross it dies. Of course, Moros being smarter than the assorted “savages” around him figures out that there is actually a sniper on a ledge shooting everyone crossing the bridge. This sniper apparently never has to sleep, eat or visit the cave restroom, because he will definitely shoot down anyone setting foot onto the bridge with 100% accuracy. Moros then takes literally a hundred pages to concoct and conduct his plan to get rid of the sniper and cross the bridge. When he finally does, he notices that the sniper used some kind of triple crossbow complete with a sniper scopes, to make all this even more hilarious.
The cave episode still isn’t over, as Moros, the girl, and a not-orc who decided to follow Moros for some reason still have to go through some tunnels to get to the surface. This part is mercifully brief or at least it seems to be, after all that we have read through. In the end, the not-orc gets mauled to death by a lizard-bear cave monster and Moros and the girl escape to the surface…only to be captured by a clan of lizard-bear handlers within two pages…
This is the point where I literally dropped the book from my hands and gave up on reading it. The cyclical pattern of events was too much for me, and complete with the way every scene was stretched out and overlong made it completely irredeemable to me. As we know, this is something that has happened to most readers of this trilogy at one point or another. In fact, many people probably still don’t know how the actual story ends, as the actual ending is something to be earned through sheer determination and masochism, not to be shared with those who didn’t feel the pain of reading through the whole series.(5)
In conclusion I would like to say that this isn’t a book I would recommend to anyone, but I would still like to make more people aware of this particular trainwreck (and others), even if none of them will ever even get a chance of reading. I believe knowledge should be shared among readers, and potential readers, even when a work is as bad as this one, as we become richer simply from knowing about it, regardless of its quality.
P.S. An often repeated urban legend states that the cover artist, whose name eludes me, had no idea what is happening in the books at all, but stated that his choice for the art was justified in that “A work of literature of that length had to have a naked woman in there at some point.”
1. In fact, I myself have not finished the series, and have “only” gotten halfway into the first book before giving up it completely. This is why this article will focus on the events of that content, and not go beyond it for the most part. People might be uncomfortable with me reviewing something i have not finished, but the quality (or rather, the lack of it) of the work in question is the exact reason why I both quit reading it and why I decided to write about it.
2. Another parallel with Wolfe is that Franić likes using weird words for most items you’d otherwise be able to identify easily. The difference is that while Wolfe never makes up words, Franić makes them up all the time, and a lot of them start with the letter A.
3. My summary doesn’t do justice of just how confusingly written some parts of this are. For most of the time I couldn’t follow who did what in the past, when that past happened, and what all of that had to do with the protagonist.
4. The not-orcs are also pretty obviously aliens native to Araton that were displaced by human colonists, and tick a good deal of native American boxes if memory serves me right. Hello racism.
5. I managed to glean the knowledge of what happens on the last page of the third book somewhere on the internet, from someone who obviously just decided to skip to it instead of reading the trilogy. Let’s just say it’s worse than you’re imagining.