Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review - Pureheart by Rita Hsu Syers

This is the worst book I have ever read. I accepted the book on condition that I would review it and dutifully slogged through the whole thing. When I posted this review, the author and publisher went nuts. I am posting this now so that when I get to the universally panned Hugo award winning They'd Rather Be Right (read review), there will be some context on the awfulness scale. I still have the book in an effort to keep it quarantined from the general public so it will do no harm - I won't give it away or sell it for fear that someone else will make the mistake of reading it.

Short review: A Horror has risen from Hell and seeks to destroy humanity. The Horror in question is this book.

Even if you are
A really bad writer you
Can self-publish books

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: PureHeart is a book so badly written with a story so weak that the glowing reviews on the back cover read as if penned by illiterate people. I can only explain them by assuming they were paid for. For example Clark Isaacs of Clark's Eye on Books starts his review with:

"Demons, witches, and Angels from God abound on earth in fury [sic] battles. The conclusion will make you a believer that the main character of PUREHEART is a champion in all sense [sic] of the word. Jack, a Boston terrier, and his sister Scout bring to life a story that revolves around the nether world and other unearthly creatures which are swiftly dispatched."

Three sentences to lead off, each with at least one grammatical error, and the third sentence is almost incomprehensible to boot. The second, from Mind Fog Reviews starts off with this gem of a sentence:

"One of the best of these stories of mystical powers that I have read in a long time, Ms. Syers has pulled off a new format for this type of writing."

Leaving aside the comma splice, I wonder what sort of new format Mind Fog was referring to. Amateurishly bad? Incomprehensibly awful? Mind-numbingly tedious? No matter which one chooses, PureHeart is much worse - the reviews on the back are actually the best written parts of the book.

To summarize what passes for a plot - Jack, the "PureHeart" of the book is a Boston terrier, born from a runaway purebred show dog that had been spayed prior to his (and his sister's) birth. You see: Jack is Special because he is going to Save the World from an evil demon. Did I mention that the author likes to Randomly Capitalize words that are Important so that you will understand their Significance? The author also likes to throw in Digressions in the middle of the action, just Like This, to hand out background InforMation.

And likes to set off the final sentence to make an Important Point.

But back to Jack: After his improbable birth, Jack is dubbed the Healer, and his sister Scout is named the Warrior. Jack can heal people by licking them, and Scout turns into an angel with a sword whenever demons threaten Jack. Sometimes. (One of the things that mark this book as especially awful is its resolute inconsistency).

A bunch of high school girls summon Proserpine, who is described as an ultra-powerful demoness (stronger than Lucifer!), and Jack and Scout and their owners and the hosts of heaven are required to turn aside the demonic invasion. Of course, this doesn't happen before numerous mostly faceless people are dismembered by demons in particularly gruesome scenes.

The trouble is, this summary makes the book sound a lot better than it actually is. Aside from the random capitalization, and the heavy handed paragraph structure, the theology in the book is more or less what I would imagine Catholic theology would be if recounted by an individual whose only knowledge of the subject came from watching Stephen King movie adaptations and watching reruns of Passions.

For example, Jack has to be a dog because only someone without original sin can send Proserpine back to hell and Save the World. Since humans can't be born without original sin (according to the book) the savior of the world has to be a dog. This, of course, completely misses the fact that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was born free of original sin, which would obviate the silliness of having a dog baptized and take communion, both of which happen in the book.

More silliness: The War in Heaven, which resulted in Lucifer and the other rebellious angels being cast out of heaven, was apparently started as a result of Lucifer and Michael's rivalry for Proserpine's affections. Before this, Hell didn't exist. Except, later we find out it did, and it housed the Ancient Ones (who are demons from before the War in Heaven).

In addition to the silly theology, the book is also annoyingly inconsistent. For example, the crippled occult researcher Matt is described as having a book on vampires that is so incredibly fragile he had to wrap it in plastic to prevent it from crumbling. But just one paragraph later, the book is described as having pages made from human skin and written with vampire blood, which makes the pages indestructible. To top off the randomness, vampires don't show up in the story at all, making the entire description completely pointless.

Demons are described as needing to be summoned in some parts of the book, and in others, they pop up on errands from Hell without the benefit of being summoned. No one seems to be bothered by the fact that demons pop up, treating them more or less as really dangerous animals (but not that dangerous, an ordinary bulldog later in the book seems to kill demons by the bushel). Demons show up to kill people, deliver packages, messages, have twitchy penises, and otherwise gallivant about town. No one seems that surprised by Jack's healing ability either.

Characters pop in and out of the narrative - Jack's crippled teenage owner Maggie is in a dispute with McKenzie, a teenage rival, over a boy named Patrick Ryan. This dispute drives the main elements of the book, as McKenzie, a pretty and popular high school girl, decides the only way to get revenge on her paraplegic rival is to summon a demon. But despite his importance as a catalyst to the plot, Patrick doesn't show up in the book. No characters have conversations with him and based on the text there isn't any reason to assume that McKenzie or Maggie have ever talked with him. We are told that Maggie is his true love in a sort of off-hand way, but he doesn't even show up in the epilogue twelve years later when Maggie is apparently giving birth to their son.

Plot elements are dropped in with no groundwork laid for them - the town the characters live in is apparently the site of numerous mysterious murders, but that fact isn't mentioned until it is important to the plot fairly deep into the book. Important characters, such as the priest who baptizes Jack, don't show up until their services are needed, and then they are treated as if they were best friends with the heroes from then on. The ritual to summon Proserpine requires candles made from human fat, a fact that is mentioned about a hundred times, but the ritual also needs the blood of a child murdered by his own mother - and conveniently they are dropped into the story just in time, with a hurried back story thrown in as part of an extended digression.

Characters talk with stereotypically bad accents when they talk at all. Large portions of the book are taken up with descriptions of conversations between characters, without actually going through the bother of having the conversations included. The viewpoint switches from character to character, from human to dog and back again. Apparently all animals can talk to one another, and are amenable to reasoned arguments. Dogs can sense demons, understand what ghosts are, get depressed for days, and lose self-confidence. Dogs can negotiate trades of services with foxes, or trades of meals with other dogs, and so on.

The author has a bizarre tendency of telling you what happened in the future, but then bouncing back to the past. For example, the next door neighbor's dog Moose shows up and is befriended by Jack. The text tells you Moose's owner ended up killing Moose and throwing his body into the swamp. But that's in the future. After this tidbit of mostly irrelevant to the story information is dropped in, Moose appears in the next couple chapters. The chronology of the story itself is also screwed up: On one page it is Friday, then it is three days later, which we are told is also Friday. The author tells you what happens two days from the present, then hops back to the present and so on.

Characters take bizarre events like demons popping up, scrolls allegedly penned by angels, healing dogs, teenage girls who cast spells that work, and so on, entirely in stride, as if these sorts of occurrences are normal and expected. No one ever responds to Jocelyn (through most of the book McKenzie's witch mentor) casting a spell hurling a fireball with shock, horror, or disbelief. They almost all think "wow, what a powerful witch", like this is the sort of thing that happens every day. In many ways, the characters act as if they know they are in a piece of quasi-Christian literature.

When Proserpine finally does show up, she sets about killing the four virgins who summoned her. The first three (who aren't Maggie, and are therefore expendable as unnecessary to the plot) are dispatched along with their families in gruesomely detailed scenes. Of course, before the demoness shows up, each family is involved in some sort of depraved behavior - whether daughters murdering their mothers, or drug use (which according to the book is apparently as bad as murder), or brothers gang raping their sister, and so on. Then Proserpine shows up and finishes the job, spreading entrails about like streamers.

But when we get to the final battle, having summoned the hosts of Heaven to do battle with the hosts of Hell (with Scout having transformed back into the Warrior Angel Lilith to summon the celestial forces, another interesting piece of bizarre theology), random weapons are pulled out by the various characters to do battle with Proserpine, none of which were hinted at earlier in the text: Blessed crossbow bolts and vials of holy water are produced from thin air, a globe of "demon eaters" is tossed about, a blessed cross pops up, and so on. And in the end, Jack doesn't matter much at all: He doesn't defeat Proserpine, he was just supposed to keep her busy until Lilith could change her back into an angel and let the Ancient Ones have her - a plot twist not presaged in any way in the text.

Which brings us back to the wacky theology - Lilith transforms Proserpine into an angel, something that only God should be able to do. Lilith has this fun exchange with Proserpine just before the former demoness forcibly turned into an angel is carted away by Ancient Ones:

Proserpine screamed in abject terror, "Mercy, oh Lilith, for the love of God, have mercy!"
Lilith said sternly, "Did you have mercy for all those people at the high school? The children you killed? What about the ones you were going to burn alive in the town square and the slaughter of the blood virgins and their families?"
"They deserved it, they all deserved it . . ." shrieked Proserpine.
"And you deserve this," hissed Lilith.

The interesting thing about this exchange is that it caps the idea that Proserpine couldn't be forgiven or have mercy shown to her even by God, which puts something of a limitation on God's powers, one which I think is pretty much contrary to almost all Christian doctrine. It also implies that the people killed by Proserpine deserved their horrible fates - at least Lilith doesn't disagree, which is also an interesting distortion of Christian theology. The book also implies that God and Lucifer are theological equals, likening their struggle to a chess game, with the only difference being that Lucifer just isn't very smart. This is, again, a theological position that is pretty much opposed to almost every Christian doctrine out there. Also interesting is that Jocelyn and her parents, who have a transformation from awful nasty people to God fearing good people, don't do so because of some sort of personal choice, but rather because Jack heals the badness out of them, a theological stance on freedom of choice that also seems to be at odds with just about every Christian doctrine.

Listing all the flaws in this book would take forever. Almost every page has awful grammar, bizarre leaps of logic, long digressions, repetitive passages (how tired I was of reading about candles made from human fat), descriptions of conversations, convoluted chronologies, magical appearing plot MacGuffins, and so on. Many pages seem to have all these flaws, and some had more. This is a truly awful book, and should be avoided at all costs. The last page of the book says that there is supposed to be a sequel named LionHeart. If we are lucky, God will send us some sort of savior who will prevent it from ever being published.

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