Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Review: Sorrel in Scarlet

Sorrel in Scarlet is a book by Peter Vialls. Disclaimer: I do know Peter personally (although not particularly well) but I won't be taking it easy on him. I'm sure he wouldn't have it any other way.


If I had to give it a rating, it would be 4/5. The characters are engaging, the world is well thought out and feels totally alien as well as totally real. Once you've got over the invented vocabulary the book races towards a thrilling climax.

It isn't without fault, however but the faults are more than made up for by the qualities.

All told, you probably won't regret buying this book and you certainly won't regret reading it.

!!!! Spoilers follow !!!!

The best bit was Sorrel herself: the depth I felt Sorrel had was superb. She felt exceptionally real and it was easy to feel her anger and to feel her history. Making a point of her lustfulness early on really sold the character - she was more than just a pilot or a warrior. Lust is so very human and it makes it easy to relate to Sorrel early on. (How many people could honestly say they wouldn't be thinking "Oh, I wish I'd slept with so-and-so..." as they die? Especially people around Sorrel's age.) Being quite impulsive was a nice way to keep some level of tension in the book. It allowed the pace to keep going while Sorrel acted as she thought without too much pre-planning, and for her to get into situations where we aren't sure quite how she intends to escape. (That said, her thing about not killing if she can avoid it does seem to disappear occasionally - what's with stabbing the throat of the Graalur who looked like he was going to go flower picking? She's knocked plenty unconscious before, and could do it again. This one doesn't even bother her later...)

There is a much heavier emphasis here on the male gaze. It was often, and effectively, used to make Sorrel quite uncomfortable although it was apparent she could be just as bad at times. It almost, but not quite, became a theme of the book.

The World was clearly very well planned out. It felt like there was a lot of unseen depth that made it feel very real. The book could well have got badly bogged down exploring it, but this was mostly avoided. It took a while to really get a feel for the world, but that's alright, because the world was just as alien to Sorrel as it was to the reader.

I had to finish the book before I knew whether I liked the pacing. On the whole it works but it's not always apparent. However, the race for Tograil at the end of the book was superbly done. The tension mounted beautifully, and  Several of the battles felt somewhat like random encounters but they did make the world feel hostile. It would have felt nice if a little more had been done with these encounters. I rarely felt like we'd got to know Sorrel or the world particularly better for some of these battles.

The pacing near the start was quite strange. It starts in the aftermath of a big action scene and immediately starts ramping up the danger. It's a long time before Sorrel starts to feel safe again and it made the first half of the book feel quite difficult at times - there was no respite from conflict or danger and I felt quite battle-weary by the half-way point. Not nearly as badly as Sorrel but I really felt that some time in a safe, relaxed environment was needed. The time at the village was too focussed on the conflict with Kelhene to feel relaxing and it would have been a good time to see Sorrel take stock of the situation and for the reader to learn about the surface world. It's much easier to follow Sorrel and Wrack when you understand the history of the surface but a lot of this only comes later.

The theme of clothing was an interesting one to follow. Sorrel regularly mentions how naked she feels, although she's clearly used to it by the end of the book - she is, I think, no more or less naked than the natives. Her flight jacket is a running theme for the first half of the book and Sorrel often says she wants to ditch it, but can't part with it as it is her only real connection with the surface.

This was screaming out at me that she'll lose it, or ritually destroy it at the same time that she decides to stay in Chasm. And it didn't happen. The jacket gets lost like a coat gets lost in the cinema and Sorrel spends quite some time after that deciding whether or not to stay. It felt a little bit odd. A relationship was set up and then ignored. More realistic, I suppose, but also a missed opportunity for a good bit of symbolism.


There was one thing that really bothered me, however. That was Wrack and, more specifically, Sorrel and Wrack hooking up at the end of the book. It really felt for me like Sorrel was going to him like a battered wife returns to her abusive husband. Wrack had many of the hallmarks of an abusive boyfriend, even quite late in the book he still claimed that Sorrel (or rather, humans) were inferior to dragons and couldn't have equality. He enjoyed (by his own admission) owning Sorrel and could still be possessive towards her and even physically overpowers her at one point as if to prove he can. Even his grand gesture, the big speech and  joining Sorrel's fight, is extravagantly grand it still feels like the grand gesture the abusive boyfriend does to say "I've learned, I've changed, I won't do it anymore." Especially since Wrack doesn't really have the autonomy to choose otherwise. He has to stay near Sorrel or he's vulnerable.

Sorrel is capable of fighting back, but that does not make a strong relationship!

I felt Wrack's confession and repentance came too little, too late. Did it make a good ending twist? I didn't buy it. Many of Wrack's previous actions from the backstory do get painted in a softer light, but we have only Wrack's word for it. I'd have bought it far better if Wrack had made his confession and then had some time to and prove he meant it (roasting Graalur doesn't count - they were legitimate threats to him and he'd have done so regardless of Sorrel), if he'd started acknowledging that Sorrel was his equal - at least in the Chasm,  if Sorrel had taken more time to decide whether she loved her former slaver.

Before this intense criticism of one small plot detail gets too much, I'd better finish and say I'll buy the sequel.


  1. If you can stomach buying from tax-avoiders Amazon, the book is here:

    It doesn' appear to be available at :-(

  2. Apparently it's on DriveThroughFiction in pdf form if you want to avoid Amazon.