Quarter Share: The Good, the Bad, and the Fugly

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Title: Quarter Share (epub edition)
Author: Nathan Lowell
Publisher: Ridan Publishing
Published: 2010
Pages: 404

First Line: Call me Ishmael. Yeah I know, but in this case it’s really my name: Ishmael Horatio Wang.

Quarter Share is the first of six books in the series The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper (it seems to be called Trader Tales more often than not, however). The series was initially developed as episodic podcasts (available free through iTunes) before being offered in print through Ridan Publishing. All 6 books are available as podcasts, but only the first 4 seem to be out in print/ebook.

A quick synopsis before I get to the guts of Quarter Share:

Ishmael is a teenager living on a corporate-owned planet. When his single mother is killed in an accident, he has 90 days to get off-world since he is no longer affiliated with the corporation. Uneducated and broke, he has limited options – join the military or sign on to a trading vessel. He opts for the latter, and the remainder of the story is, essentially, a coming-of-age story as “Ish” acclimates to his new life aboard a cargo spaceship.

There’s a lot to both love and hate about QS.

The Good
Lowell has an extremely relaxed style of narrative. QS is very “readable”, and it’s easy to just sink down into. It’s fairly obvious that it is, essentially, a transcription of a series of podcasts, as the narrative has the sense of conversation about it.

Lowell’s writing strength lies in the dialogue, and this is some of the best I’ve seen in any genre. It’s witty and genuine, which likely has deep roots in the podcasts.

Interestingly, I liked the way Lowell incorporated the technology into the world-building rather than go into great detail about how things “work.” His focus was on the lives of a few specific ordinary people, and any long technical passages about how the solar sails or inter-space “jumps” really work would have distracted from that and have a disastrous effect on the overall style of the narrative.

I also appreciate a “slice of life” type SF story. These are ordinary folks doing ordinary things, much like more traditional YA Coming-of-Age stories outside the genre. This is the story of the guys never written about in traditional SF stories. These are the guys with real jobs, whose lives don’t intersect with the Skywalkers, Atreides, or Leeloos we are typically presented. For the most part, I found it interesting to varying degrees.

The Bad
The “slice of life” has a downside though… there just isn’t much going on. There’s very little conflict that actually seems to matter in the long run. All told, it very much feels like an introduction to the rest of the series. Because there’s no real conflict, there’s no tension and no real resolution. The big “questions” that get raised don’t really get answered, and the story even ends in the moments before the biggest question of all is finally addressed.

The basic characterizations are rather cliche and sterile. Everyone is a decent guy or gal, there are no arguments or disagreements. Everyone is always willing to help each other out. Everyone is basically happy and content with their station. There’s no jealousy or envy. It’s a little piece of utopia with no significant skeletons in any closets. It’s boring. I found myself getting tired of actually liking everyone in the book.

Character development is nearly non-existent, especially with the protagonist Ishmael.  Relationships are only partially forged, especially male-female, with no progression in any direction. I’ve seen the series referred to as “character driven,” but I couldn’t disagree more. Character-driven stories focus on the development of at least a single character – a progression and a change (or a conscious decision to not change) must occur. That simply doesn’t happen with any of the characters in QS.

The Fugly
Whoever did the transcription, proofreading, and editing should be fired. From a cannon. Twice, if possible. Horrible, horrible horrible. Confusing “then” and “than”? Seriously? Had this been turned in to me by a student I would have handed it back to him/her by the end of the 20th page and told them to proofread it again. The publisher should be both ashamed and embarrassed to have released a title in such a state. Unforgivable.

The absence of physical intimacy between crew members who share showers, saunas, and berthing units is a horrible oversight. If this is, indeed, a coming-of-age story, then the omission of tension resulting from being  thrust from living with your single mother into this environment is a character-breaker for me. I don’t care how mature our teenaged protagonist is, he is a teenager! The distinct and admitted absence of perhaps the most basic of identifiable human traits reads as terribly false, and overall characterization and situational believability suffer dramatically as a result. I don’t need (or want, for that matter) to read about characters cooped up on a ship for weeks and months at a time having sex on every tenth page, but it absolutely cannot be dismissed as unimportant.

The End Result
For some strange reason, even through The Bad and The Fugly stuff, The Good stuff saves this book from being a complete waste of time. It’s still a mediocre read at best, and one that I wouldn’t recommend to a young adult (which is, I believe, the ultimate target audience) due to it’s lack of depth, activity, and conflict, but the narrative style makes it an enjoyable and quick read – what my mom would call a “mindless beach book”. It doesn’t make up for The Bad, mind you, but it certainly makes it easier to overlook. The Fugly, however, brought everything crashing down for me. I simply could not get past these flaws.

Will I continue on with the series? Maybe. This came recommended by a couple friends (who couldn’t figure out why they “like[d] such a bad book” and wanted my opinion), and they say my major complaints are addressed in subsequent books. So we’ll see. I might pick up the next book (Half Share) and give it a go, or I might not. As I always say… Life’s too short to read bad books. QS isn’t quite a bad book, in my view, but it’s awfully close.

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7 thoughts on “Quarter Share: The Good, the Bad, and the Fugly

  1. Pingback: Site Stats: July through October | RFdc

  2. Well that’s fun to see Mr. Lowell responding to Robb’s post. So I’ll re-paste my reply a third time after responding on Facebook and Google+:

    As always, your reviews are enjoyable and spot-on, Robb. I agree with all points. I hope that you continue with the series, because each point is directly addressed in later books. In some cases, the resolution of those points indicates the author had a specific intention to be revealed later in the series arc. In other cases, perhaps he responded to similar feedback and responded accordingly.

    I can’t speak to the translation, as I listened to them all on audiobook. I found listening to the characters in the author’s own voice particularly enjoyable, as they were indeed written for that medium. If you’ve been looking for a good candidate for audiobook, these books are available as free podcasts on iTunes.

    In regards to the lack of conflict in the first book, I agree with Robb from a literary perspective, but subjectively, the book was still so comfortable. I found Ishmael’s pursuits in Quarter Share relaxing in a sense that I was able to fall into a character who was just trying to make good decisions in a new and stressful situation. I liked how the indirect effects of those good decisions were highlighted. It’s a quality I think Mr. Lowell focused on in his military service, and while I never served, it’s an effect that my brother, a USMC Captain, and I have always pursued – make good decisions and good things will happen. The simplicity of the writing of Quarter Share highlighted that effect in a way that a more complex story might have obscured.

    Again, I’m now eager to see your reviews of the rest of the series in hopes that you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

    • Yes, Nick, I’ll probably continue with the series, although I’ll switch to the podcasts. It’ll have to wait a few weeks until I get back from the trip, as I really don’t want the distraction while on the motorbike 🙂

  3. Robb, thanks for doing this review, as usual you’ve summed up what I couldn’t.

    Nathan, that first review you read on QS was exactly my sentiment. I was one of the friends asking Robb to review this book as I couldn’t understand exactly why I enjoyed it so much.

  4. Thanks, Robb.

    Your critique is spot on, I think.

    The first review I ever saw of QS was something like “I hate this book. Nothing happens. The writing is stupid. The main character is too good. And I couldn’t stop listening.” I love that review.

    Let me share some additional insights. The book was never intended for YA, nor for that matter, publication in text form. I wrote it in 2007 for podcast. I thought if I could have a little fun, entertain a couple hundred people, and learn more about podcasting, it would be great.

    I wanted to write a response to the then (and current) fascination with SF that feels like it has to blow something up every fifteen pages, save the universe every fifty, and the main character is a king, ship captain, or lost prince. That I went too far in the other direction is a valid criticism. I think it’s very fair.

    Now, five years, seven books, over a million words, and five million downloads later I find myself thrust into the position of a full time author. The six book series (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper–which explains why most people use “Traders Tales”) documents a coming of age, told in first person, and narrated by an unreliable narrator. What he says he sees, he sees. How he interprets it is based on what he knows. What he knows varies over time. As he grows, the stories become more complex, more nuanced.

    At least that’s what I tried to do. It’s up to the readers to decide whether or not I succeeded.

    Thanks again for a very nice write up for my oldest published work.

    • Nathan, thanks for the additional insight.

      The more I thought about the original format, the more I thought I was likely missing something important by reading the ebook. It’s along the same lines, I think, as when I teach drama to my students… there’s so much they miss if I just have them read Romeo and Juliet at home, then come in and analyze it in class. So much is gained, on the other hand, by actually assigning roles and reading it together, taking time to make sure everyone knows what they are actually saying. Little things like tone of voice and sarcasm can easily be lost in the printed word.

      Interesting about the YA aspect. Perhaps I got that impression from the teenaged primary characters. I wonder, though (hypothetically, so it’s pretty much a pointless thought)… If QS was a novel first and podcast second, because it is a coming of age story would it have then been lumped into the YA category regardless?

      What I liked most about QS (and didn’t spend enough time talking about, now that I read it again) is how much I love the fact that these are just everyday working stiffs. I do think the relationships are a bit too… similar and static… but I also think I see potential for significant contrast, especially in Ishmael’s relationships with the different female crew members.

      I also think I likely will continue with the story, but I’ll probably switch to the podcasts for the remainder of the series, since it was the intended medium in the first place. That alone will eliminate one of the biggest issues I had with the ebook (so many grammar errors!).

      Thanks again for posting, Nathan. It’s nice to see an author go into the intention behind their creation.

    • I, on the other hand LOVE the relaxed pace of the series, and how “nothing” really ever happens. It kind of gives you a look at how it would be to be an average person in one of those Science Fiction epics.

      It is a completely different point of view, and I just can’t get enough of it. I listened to it back in 2009, and have listened to it again (and all of the other books, as they came out) at least once a year. It is one of those few books that you can just come back to over and over, and never get bored. Seriously, the only other books that I re-read yearly are Stephen King’s The Stand, and Lord of the Rings.

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