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Book cover art by John Jude Palencar.
Review © 2004 by Thomas M. Wagner.

It is my sad duty to report that the debut novel by Michelle Welch is a tedious and meandering little saga in which very boring things happen to very boring people. Our heroine — and I use the term advisedly — is a spy named Elzith Kar working for the Black Force, the militia that patrols the oppressively governed Five Countries. The novel's title refers to the art of undercover espionage as practiced by Elzith and others in her line of work, the ability to take on any role, convince anyone you are whomever you want them to think you are, so they will spill their secrets. The thing is, I couldn't find anything intriguing enough about any of the Five Countries to make me think any of them were worth spying on.

There are literally all sorts of amazing stories that could potentially arise from the premise Welch has laid out here: a woman whose entire life has consisted of wearing one mask after another, in a land where political intrigues and backroom subterfuges determine the fate of millions. Welch has, remarkably enough, written the dullest one she could. The book is a stultifying bore. It isn't as though Welch's story lacks intelligence or craft. Both of those qualities are in evidence, which makes Confidence Game a prime example of the kind of book I find myself disliking almost against my will, as I can see how skilled its author has the potential to be.

The government of the Five Countries lies in Dabion to the north, where the ruling Lord Justices divide their time between spying on each other, and trying to crush a resurgent religious movement in the neighboring country of Cassile. Welch has laid out the history of her world with admirable detail. Dabion's military uses gunpowder. There is a country to the northwest called Biora where rules of logic and rationalism were created, kind of like ancient Greece, before it fell into ruin for centuries. But now Biora is making a comeback. Mandera, to the south, had an alliance with another continent across the ocean that went sour, and Mandera suffered an economic collapse. And finally, there are hints of magic. Wanderers called Sages can be found dotting the landscape, and they are usually picked up as vagrants and condemned as nuisances. But is there more to them than anyone suspects? Welch's world-building skills alone earn her a star; at the very least she has thought through her novel's backstory with impressive care. But backstory alone does not a novel make.

Elzith meets Tod Redtanner, a young bookbinder living just north of Dabion's capital, when she rents a room from him while on hiatus from her job. Elzith, who allows herself no emotional connections to anyone (including the reader), soon begins to win over the young man — who of course falls in love with her — and she shares stories of her past with him. Of course, to a certain degree, she is playing the confidence game on him as well.

Other story elements involve the wife of one of the Lord Justices who is paying off a blackmailer, and a neophyte official named Justice Advisor Paloman, who is instructing the Lord Justices in long-lost rules of Bioran logic. Paloman has a secret past of his own he wishes to hide.

Around this time I ought to be giving you a point-by-point plot synopsis, but it's difficult as Welch goes out of her way to avoid developing anything like a cogent plot until the novel is nearly over. Instead, she forever tap dances around where a plot should be, in the mistaken assumption that this will build mystery and suspense. Eventually, through reams of obfuscatory, leaden prose, we are allowed to glean that one Justice named Varzin has it in for Elzith because she knows a terrible secret of his. Why he didn't just handle it by slipping a knife between Elzith's ribs when he had the chance is anyone's guess. Had he done so I suppose we would have been denied the opportunity to be dragged along to witness the world's dullest and most incomprehensible conspiracies.

Confidence Game is a book thick with portent, pregnant with the tantalizing promise of earth-shattering secrets lurking just below its placid surface. To pull this kind of thing off, there not only has to be the occasional payoff, but readers must first and foremost be given a stake in the outcome. We have to feel a sense of urgency, and a reason to care what happens one way or the other. But Welch keeps us aloof. It is as if there is an invisible wall between us and her story, preventing full involvement. With the possible exception of Tod, there is quite literally no one for the reader to identify with or root for. Even Elzith's lengthy first-person passages in which she unburdens her past to Tod generate no feeling, because Welch has deliberately made her an unsympathetic fembot, a woman who has dealt with her hard life — and I've seen harder; the average Dickens urchin runs rings around Elzith in the "woe is me" marathon — by shutting off her emotional responses.

Have you ever had the experience of sitting in a restaurant or coffee house, and you can't help overhearing the entire conversation at the next table? Here you are, a detached observer, privy to all of this information about people you don't know, and to whom you feel no connection. That about sums up the experience I had of reading Confidence Game. I wanted to give a damn about Elzith. I wanted to care why so-and-so was blackmailing such-and-such, or why the Justices felt compelled to supress the monks in Cassile with such violence. (It isn't like they're doing anything.) I wanted to have some idea that all of this was leading somewhere, going someplace, or had anything like a point. But I just couldn't. Welch gave me nothing and no one to hang my interest onto.

I have hopes that Michelle Welch will improve with time and that further adventures set in the Five Countries, whether they feature Elzith and Tod or not, will rise to the occasion better than this one has. But for now, Confidence Game leaves me with little confidence in those hopes.