SPSFC 3 Review: The Rave, by J.R. Traas

Clearly built on the bones of a thousand things the author loves geeking out over, The Rave is a book about a rising heroine making her start in a world of rockstar monster-hunting heroes. Drawing inspiration from a thousand sources, from Battle Angel Alita to Fantastic Beasts by way of Avatar: The Last Airbender, it both struggles to distinguish itself and succeeds in laying the foundations of a rich setting.

Aelfraver – one who kills the Aelf, eldritch magical creatures plaguing the world beneath the Nation of El – a planetoid chained to the world and constructed at the behest of the long-slain dragon tyrants whom enslaved mankind. But that was long ago, the dragons were slain, and cyborgs and hovercars crowd the planetoid-city’s streets while among the terrestrial underclass of ‘Terries’, Alina K’Vich, heir to one of the most respected trainers of Aelfravers in the world, is summoned to join The Rave. A hunt that will lead her to discover her heritage goes far beyond a decaying school and an aptitude for geomancy.

As you can tell, it’s a book that is trying to fire on all cylinders all the time. Powerful setting, strong character work, the presentation is strong – great cover and typesetting, well edited… but this wasn’t a book I loved. I can see a ton of people are going to love it, will love it, but for me it fell short in three major ways.

The first, and fundamentally the least important, lockpicking. Lockpicking comes up several times in the plot and is described in terms that are… probably convincing to people who don’t obsessively watch youtube videos where guys explain how security tumblers in locks work, but turned me right off. (There was an apparently serious discussion about using a tennis ball to break into a car lock, which got busted on Mythbusters. But given that the characters who enthusiastically talk about this actually break through doors elsewhere, I don’t know that it was a joke.)

The second, and this one is purely down to personal taste, while the setting is clearly very richly worked out – right down to rockstar-esque Aelfravers with fan clubs and press events – the book never really feels like it fully interacts with its setting. The plot involves a Rave (which is a hunt for Aelf… Aelfs? Aelves? I’m not actually sure how Aelf is pluralized. I think it’s one Aelf, two Aelf, three Aelf, so… … Yeah, anyway) on New El, this chained down planetoid built by dragons where you can stand on the ‘bottom’ side and look up at the planet below – which was a great scene – but other than that cool scene, and the fact that some Aelfravers do some stuff, it never really felt like it mattered that the Rave happened on New El, rather than Truct – the considerably (and literally) more down to earth hometown for our protagonist, Alina. There are multiple spells and types of magic, but relatively few play a role in the way the plot plays out. There’s a roster of characterful Aelfravers that could compare with the WWE, but in a lot of scenes, outside just a few standout characters, the Aelfravers are treated like a crowded mass of potential violence. There is a wonderful setting, but I never felt like the book embraced it tightly enough.

Third, and I think it’s a much larger issue – and one that is much more likely to impact readers – the pacing in this book feels a little broken. There are a lot of scenes where transitioning from one part of the plotline to the next part are slowed down by Alina standing in a queue to get on a train, or wandering around trying to find a briefing… and while that does ease off as the book progresses, the pace picking up, it really felt to me like the author was feeling their way through their plot rather than confidently taking me with them on the wild ride they clearly wanted to take me on.

But, that’s me. And I am overcritical of everything. So who do I think would enjoy this book? Let’s turn to my panel of imaginary readers.

Reader the first: Casey the Collector

Casey is here to make your fan-wiki, and there are tons, and tons, and tons of things in the Rave with tiny little details to unpick. A lot of Casey’s work has already been done with a glossary and bestiary at the end of the book and on the author’s webpage, but styles of magic, name-dropped Aelfravers who all seem to have their own style, their own little dramas to figure out. If you scratch the surface of the book you will find a ton of stuff pouring out – the only problem is that, as I mentioned earlier, while this feels like it draws from a thousand cool things, from anime and comics and games and cyberpunk lit, the fact it doesn’t go all in on using all the cool stuff in here means it’s limited in how far the setting actually gets to elevate the book past its inspirations. But that setting is still very cool.

Reader the second: Parasocial Pepper

Pepper wants to have a good time escaping into a character’s head, and here, for the most part, the book delivers. We spend most of our time with our protagonist, Alina, who is a sassy seventeen year old both trying to find her place in the world and leave a mark on the world so big that you can see her from space… or from the surface of New El, high above. She’s ambitious, she’s got that sassy attitude, but in a few too many places she meanders through her plot in a way that felt slow, slow, slow. The scale of Alina’s swinging from her pits of despair to heights of victory, however, offset that quite nicely for Pepper. Also of note, we spend a few chapters with a nasty assassin who clearly shares some DNA with Dolph Lundgren’s killer priest character from the film Johnny Mnemonic – and Tolomond gets to be the psycho crazy killer we didn’t know we’d be delighted to meet.

There’s a lot to like about this book – but there are also pacing issues that mean I don’t plan to dip back in for the sequel. There’s some stuff that’s a little… ehhhh, such as when a rich and powerful character takes Alina on a night out on the town and gets her blackout drunk. (She’s seventeen! I get the guy is rich and powerful, but the fact this was ignored after the fact felt off.) Some of the coolest concepts about the setting are to be found in the glossary and bestiary, rather than in the book’s prose itself – which I thought was a shame, but I also know there are readers out there who are going to love reading the supplemental material and going back and forth between that and the main books to try and figure out the story’s secrets – there are a few which are foreshadowed in a way that had me making wild guesses, some right and some wrong, about the way things were going, and what the real fates of some characters would turn out to be.

I think it could be a stronger book, especially with some tight cuts, but that’s starting from a pretty decent baseline. So even if I’m not in this book’s enthusiastic audience, I am not remotely surprised that there are readers out there who’d disagree with me on many of my quibbles with The Rave.

If you’d like to find out just how hard you disagree with me, you can find out more on the author’s site for the series at https://blankbooklibrary.com/

This book has not yet progressed far enough through SPSFC to require scoring. If it does, I will update this with a score.

You can find out more about SPSFC here: https://thespsfc.org

You can find all my reviews and posts dealing with SPSFC 2023 here: https://sinisbeautiful.com/tag/spsfc3/

Disclaimer: Please be aware that I am deliberately trying to take a different perspective to my usual one while judging for SPSFC 2023. Ordinarily I have a very narrow taste profile for what I like, and as part of my writerly practice I usually engage with books by tearing them to shreds and picking through what’s left to see if I can learn anything. I don’t think that’s a helpful point of view to review/judge from, and since reviews are for readers, not for writers, I’ve tried to avoid that here. (As you can see above. Your call on whether or not I succeeded, of course.)

By foozzzball

Malcolm Cross, otherwise known as 'foozzzball', lives in London and enjoys the personal space and privacy that the city is known for. When not misdirecting tourists to nonexistant landmarks and lurking at bus stops, Malcolm enjoys writing science fiction and fantasy with a furry twist.

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