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Dying Days

Last Updated, Aug 2010


Shannon Patrick Sullivan

    Dying Days
    by Shannon Patrick Sullivan

    Killick Press, Creative Book Publishing
    308pp ISBN 1-897174-04-7 $20.00 CDN ($14.40 from

    One is always a tiny bit suspicious of books published by obscure imprints of tiny regional presses — why couldn't this novel sell to a major market? What do editors at literary presses know about Speculative Fiction? And if you don't happen to be from the same region (in this case, Newfoundland), how can you even tell if it is a legitimate imprint rather than just some self-published effort, or worse, a vanity press?

    But Shannon Patrick Sullivan's The Dying Days just misses being brilliant. The opening chapters are very reminiscent of Neil Gaiman — Neverwhere in particular — and it was with rising excitement that I recognized a major new Canadian voice in the dark/urban fantasy genre. Fearing the worst, I was in fact confronted with an astonishing first novel. Thank goodness for regional presses! (Creative Book Publishing is in fact an established publisher with 200 titles and a long list of award winners and nominees, and in showcasing this new St. John's author, its Killick imprint is clearly fulfilling its regional mandate.)

However . . . the key phrase here must remain "just misses being brilliant". One more edit could have elevated this novel to greatness, but either Creative Book Publishing lacks the manpower to provide in-depth editing, or their editors lack familiarity with the genre*. Either way, there were just enough flaws to repeatedly interrupt the suspension of disbelief that is fundamental to any fantasy — and is particularly crucial in urban fantasy where we are asked to accept the intrusion of fantasy elements into contemporary settings. Anything that interrupts the flow of the narrative and allows that little voice in the back of one's head to say, "Hey, wait, that couldn't happen!" and itÕs game over.

For example, while much of Sullivan's writing is fresh and engaging, the occasional minor clichˇ, such as "bats an eye", slips through, and there are just enough of these to be distracting. A good editor should have caught and eliminated these worn out phrases.

Even more annoying, are some of Sullivan's allusions: "Emma was reminded of Jeff Goldblum's metamorphosis in The Fly, in the worst possible way." Excuse me? Sullivan was too lazy to write the scene himself, so simply refers the reader to a convenient Cronenberg movie for the appropriate image?

Or take the introduction to chapter 14, in which Sullivan stops the book to actually address the reader directly. What the hell is up with that? Lemony Snicket aside (and that was satire) the last thing a fantasy writer wants to do is remind the reader that they are reading. That chapter's second person introduction is completely out of step with the rest of the novelÕs third person narrative.

These sorts of flaws are to be expected in first novels, so I hold the editors at Creative Books responsible for not mentoring Sullivan through them.* What regional presses lack in distribution muscle and large advances, they are supposed to make up for by providing more editorial support than newbies could likely get from the bigger houses.

Harder to address is the central mystery that drives the plot. This is where "near miss" translates into "long drop"Éin this case, all the way from a Gaiman novel to an episode of Dr. Who — and I'm not even talking the Tom Baker episodes here. I won't divulge any details, as I despise plot spoilers in reviews, but let's just say that it is in the "Giant Ants" range of bad SF. To his credit, Sullivan very nearly pulls it off, such that once I got past the "oh no, not that!" reaction, I quite enjoyed the book. I'm guessing that the editors at Killian liked the book as much as I did, but instead of being bugged by the plotline, just dismissed it as a typical SF trope &emdash; the almost inevitable result when mainstream presses dabble in speculative fiction.

But enough of griping about the book it should have been, and back to reviewing the book that is. In spite of my complaints, this is still a very engaging novel. I loved the St John's locales, the credible character development of the protagonists (though the villain still needs a little work — did I mention the Giant Ants?), the undercurrent of dark humour, the generally decent writing. This is by anyoneÕs standards a decent fantasy novel — as a first novel, it is remarkable. Run out and buy, so you can say youÕve been reading Sullivan from back in the day when he was still published by an obscure regional press. We can expect very great things from Shannon Patrick Sullivan in the future.

P.S. Just to be absolutely clear: there are no Giant Ants. That was just a metaphor. An apt one, to be sure, but still, no Giant Ants.

*Sullivan subsequently informed me that the editor assigned to his book by the press had fallen ill and had therefore not been available to him. The publisher had nevertheless made the decision to go ahead with the scheduled publication date, so Sullivan's manuscript had indeed not received the full editorial support normally available from that Press.

As an aside, this was one of the books that helped crystallize my commitment to development editing: enough sniping at authors after the fact, I needed to get to the manuscripts before they were published and fix them.... The rest is history.