An Idle King
by JW Benford, futuristic (2007)
Lulu, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-84799-316-8

An Idle King is a science-fiction drama rather than a story full of space battles and aliens gone wild. In other words, it has more sociopolitical messages than lightsaber duels. It tells the story of Matthew Terrenias, who is plucked from his time by members of the Interstellar Confederacy to help them take a stand against the Breakaway Movement. Hold on, I'll explain. The Interstellar Confederacy are the good guys that work towards unity among five planets while the Breakaway Movement want to keep life "pure" from alien taint and are starting to resort to terrorist attacks to achieve their plans. Of course, Matthew has a bigger destiny than being a mere pawn, and this story tells of his journey to the top.

Oh boy, I have so many problems with this one, I don't know where to even begin. If I am not obligated to finish reading this book in order to review it, I'd have long put it aside. It's not that this story is without interesting concepts and ideas. My problem lies in the author's writing style.

Let's start with head-hopping. Now, some readers don't mind constant head-hopping in the story, others hate it with the intensity of a thousand million billion nuclear meltdowns. As for me, I have some degree of tolerance for head-hopping. But Mr Benford does it constantly - several times on pretty much every other page - to the point that I begin to feel dizzy. Here is a snippet to illustrate what I mean:

'Eradeen Tower, yes. The architectural style pioneered by Charles Eradeen has been widely used in early colonisation efforts.'

This revelation allowed for a change in Michael's demeanor. He was suddenly less interested in Jeremiah's claims and more in the idea that after robbing his father of his rightful place in history, Charles Eradeen had gone on to become the eponymous founder of an entire planet.

'That's a hell of a guy to name a world after!'

His impassioned remark intrigued Dylan, who was understandably perplexed by his dislike of a man who had become a widely respected architect. 'Have you met him?'

'Not really,' Michael answered flatly, realising from the confusion on Dylan's face that he should have elaborated further, but the opportunity had passed, and the brief distraction had not deterred Jeremiah from bombarding him with facts of the war which had consumed his home.

In just five paragraphs, the story has hopped from Michael's head into Dylan's and back again into Michael's. Close to 330 pages of constant head-hopping are way too much for me to overlook, therefore this is a very hard story for me to get into. I become too distracted by the constant head-hopping.

For such an important character, Michael is a very difficult character to root for. We have a guy who is plucked from his life and sent to a distant future where everything is different, but he seems curiously disinterested in knowing anything about his surroundings. He even goes as far as to insist on knowing why they brought him here "on his own terms"! Throughout the story, he is a passive character, making pithy observations when he could have been a little more proactive in the story. Michael is a terrible placeholder for the reader because his recalcitrant attitude actually stalls the reader from learning more about this new world. As a result, for too long I am left in the dark as to why these folks go through all that trouble to bring this whiny and inexplicably surly fellow to assist them.

Because I don't know why I should care about what Michael is doing in that story (he certainly doesn't), the author's sluggish prose makes this book even more of a chore to read. This story is deadly dull because Mr Benford writes in the same manner for every scene in his story, regardless of whether someone is dying or just yawning in a scene. Since there is no variation in pacing, the more action-packed scenes move at the same sluggish pace as slower scenes. Perhaps the author could have... I don't know, use shorter and more succinct sentences to make a fast-paced scene move at a more rapid and dramatic pace, perhaps. All I know is that this story is in trouble when a scene featuring main character losing control and killing another character elicits nothing more than a yawn from me. There is no build up to that scene - it just happens. And there is no cool down either: the characters just discuss the matter in a desultory manner before moving on.

All these factors combined make An Idle King a very tedious story for me to sit through.

Interestingly enough, Mr Benford gets it right in the bonus short story The Pillars Of Knowledge when he gets everything wrong in An Idle King. This short story of the adventures of three archeologists is well-paced and interesting to read. The characters are on the flat side, but at least they don't put me to sleep the way the characters in the much longer story do. I find myself actually interested enough in the story to keep turning the pages. I can only conclude that, as of the time this book is written, Mr Benford's strength lies in short stories rather than epic-length sagas. His mistake is to write a much longer story like An Idle King in the same way that he approaches The Pillars Of Knowledge.

It is a good thing that the author has inserted his short story as a bonus here, because I know then that the author shouldn't be completely dismissed out of hand. Perhaps a collection of short stories would be a good follow-up effort to this one until the author has honed his skills properly in tackling full-length stories.

Rating: 52

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