A 'Massively' Good Read!
By Cassiopia Jan 24 2009
**** 4 Stars out of 5
What an incredible epic story. I received this book sometime in November and it rested in my TBR pile throughout the Christmas break. I have spoken of my difficulty in reading and reviewing over the break due to my state of mind and frankly this book is a tome...not exactly conducive to light reading. A daunting 600 page novelization of the story of the Norse hero Beowulf. It is absolutely accurate to the Old English poem written in the tenth century and R. Scot Johns has completely adapted this tale from the Old English to a modern retelling as a piece of fiction.
I have really enjoyed it but it took forever to read. The size of the font is small and my eyes are getting quite bad so I could only concentrate on the pages for about 50 at a time. This is NOT the way that I prefer to read. I love to completely submerge myself in a story and inhale it as if enjoying the most delicious spaghetti supper. This is not a book for the fainthearted either...once you begin the story it is hard to put down. Beowulf becomes this flesh and blood man who seeks out challenges that will befit his role as a hero for his people the Geats and ensure his place in Valhalla for all eternity.
R. Scot Johns writes with great detail and describes the settings and characters as if he was setting the stage for a movie. He originally visualized and wrote the tale as a screenplay but rethought his decision to tell the story as a novel when two other movie screenplays were sold for production at the same time. I would liked to have read the screenplay. I loved the story and it is an easy read but it is too darn long. Sometimes there is just too much story to contain it within one volume so it might be more appealing if it was divided logically into a multi-volume tale.
This is a 'massively' good read!
This brings up a point that I've been discussing lately with some writer friends of mine, which concerns the length of fantasy novels. How long is "too long?"
When I was submitting queries to agents last year I got a lot of flack about the length of this book, and this really took me by surprise. After all, I grew up reading Dickens and Cervantes. Many of the classic works of literature, from Tolstoy to Melville, are massive works indeed. War & Peace in its unabridged edition is well over twice the length of mine (at roughly 1400 pages in translation). I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1168 pages) at the age of fourteen. Even the wildly popular Gone With the Wind (at 960 pages) surpasses The Saga of Beowulf by several hundred pages. Victor Hugo's epic Les Misérables weighs in at a hefty 1779 pages!
And what of more contemporary classics, such as The Mists of Avalon (at 876 pages) or Tad Williams' acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Dragonbone Chair (at 766, plus appendices)? Williams' To Green Angel Tower was published in two parts at over 800 pages each! In fact, I don't think Tad Williams ever wrote a book much under 700 pages. One of my all-time favorite works, and the all-time classic of epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, comes in at nearly 1200 pages all told (although, of course, it was published in three parts).
One of the more interesting responses I received from an agent said simply this: "364,000 words, are you kidding?" I wrote back: "Have you never heard of Robert Jordan?" That was the last letter I bothered to send to an agent.
But this is not the first mention of the "daunting" length of my book in one of its reviews. And still it surprises me. I get that it's big. I wrote it, so I'm more aware of that than they might imagine. You should have seen some of the earlier drafts. Part of this, I suspect, is due to an issue reviewers have in common with agents and editors, which is simply the sheer bulk of material they must wade through every day. The pressures of the steady influx through their mail slot precludes the leisurely appreciation of a longer work such as an average reader would enjoy. I like long books. I seek them out. I savor them, and take my time while I do so.
But I will say this: The Saga of Beowulf is dense. It's a heavy tome, indeed. And this is due not only to its length, but also the fact that those 640 pages are literally packed with words. This is the third time, I believe, that a reviewer has made note of the "small type" that I employed. However, a comparison with other books will quickly show this is not true. In fact, if you look at the typeface that The Lord of the Rings is set in, you will see that my text size is much larger. The Saga of Beowulf is, in fact, set in the very font you're reading now, which is called Georgia, and I set it in the standard 10-point type. This particular font, you will notice if you look at the single-spaced block above, has very little white space between each line when compared to something like Times New Roman or Baskerville. It's also a very "fat" font, more squat and rounded than Times is, and so the letters sit very close to one another, rendering each line very dark and solid. This makes it easier to scan the line from left to right, but can be harder on the eyes with no white space to break it up. Many books have line spacing set much closer to this section that that above.
But you will also notice in the book that my margins on the edges of the page are small, so that the amount of text that fits onto each page is greater than the average book. I did this intentionally to cut the cost of production. By narrowing the margins, and eliminating the footer that originally contained the page numbers, the book dropped from its initial length of around 720 pages to 640 without removing a single word. It just wouldn't have been cost-effective to make it longer, and in fact, is barely profitable to do so now. As it is, I can only offer a 20% discount to retailers, and at $14.95 I only make a couple bucks. But these are the kind of decisions you have to make as a publisher.
As far as breaking the book in two, I will say again, as I believe I have mentioned before, that I originally had planned to put this book out in two parts (it divides quite nicely in the middle), but changed my mind for several reasons, which I still maintain. The foremost of these is that as a debut author I can't imagine anyone would want to buy just half a story, or be forced to buy two books when they could buy just one. I was, in fact, thinking of the reader in this respect. I wanted to give the consumer the best value for their money. And yet they whine about its length? Go figure. I would make more profit if I could sell two smaller books instead of a single larger one. And perhaps I should have done that. In fact, it's not too late. With print-on-demand I can alter my book at any time, so I might just do it yet. But I would also have to create another piece of cover art, and frankly, after the work I put into the last one, I'm really not up for undertaking another just yet.
With regard to this review, I can only say that again I am pleased to hear a reader has enjoyed my work, minor gripes aside. But once more I find the paradox of statements like "an incredible epic story" and "too darn long" to be confusing and contradictory. Is the book "an easy read" and "hard to put down," or is the font so small that it's impossible to read more than 50 pages at a time? With a book this long, I suppose it can be both. And at least her 4-star rating reflected these difficulties.