Oct 9, 2012: This story was recently reviewed (I’m writing this on October
9th, 2012 if you need a definition of "recent") and given 2 stars despite the reviewer pointing out that it was
"fairly strongly written" and "brilliantly clear" in its description of setting. To my own understanding
of the five star system in place at WFG, "brilliantly clear" "strong writing" gets you three star and
better, so a two star "tough slog" immediately got my attention as cognitive dissonance.
In other words,
it didn’t make sense.
I decided to investigate the discrepancy and read the story for myself.
is very well written. Other than a few typographical errors here and there, it has grammar and structure. The descriptions
are indeed brilliantly clear, giving you a strong sense of surroundings, buildings, atmosphere and people. It’s a very
slow, detailed work—most web-fiction is fast-paced and action-oriented, whereas "Kingsnake" is more like
an actual print novel that you have to sit with and absorb. However, that means it becomes a very immersive experience if
you invest the time.
The plot mainly follows Richard Carter, a small-town deputy in the Missouri Ozarks. Once
upon a time he was working towards being in the FBI but events previous to "Kingsnake" indicate he shot his dream
in the foot by ending the life of a serial killer and ending his chance at the bigtime. Backwoods deputy is the best he
can do. (There are hints of previous stories, and the author’s site indicates that there’s a series—luckily,
you don’t need to read the others to enjoy "Kingsnake" as it stands on its own two feet.)
Richard might start out as a stock character—hard-working family man, spends too much time thinking about his cop job—but
with so many immersive details and scenes between him and his family, his friends, his day-to-day life and thoughts, you
get to know Richard as a well-rounded person. He struggles with balancing work and home, the ethics of his job, the way
it blurs the edges of relationships and the life and death struggle that cops wrestle with but try not to think about to
The other characters are similar—the longer you’re around them, the more they seem like living,
breathing people, as fully realized as the setting they’re living in. This is a story rooted in Bible Belt Missouri,
and the kinds of people who live in its rougher environs. There are sloppy, idiotic jerks who are involved in the areas Meth
labs and drug deals, there are redneck cops who don’t know much, and there are intelligent investigators who try to
work alongside them. It’s a mixed bag, just like real life, and the author tries to depict all of them honestly.
the more I read the more I wanted to read, which made the other review that much harder to understand. This was no "tough
slog," it was an easy, absorbing experience. Looking at that review, it talks about the depiction of women in the story
as the reviewer’s main issue. They saw oppressive sexism at work, with men as active and women as passive in traditional
Their review indicates further that they only read a third of the story. I would suggest that they go on
to read the entire thing with an eye on Richard’s wife, Jill, who comes across as the most intelligent character in
the story, and certainly one of the best-educated. She herself is a teacher, which yeah might be considered feminine and
nurturing in comparison to a cop dealing with serial killers, but it’s also one of the noblest professions on earth
and one I once aspired to, in my younger days. I have plenty of male and female friends in the educational field, and I
don’t think anyone I know would be insulted seeing a woman in that role in fiction. Especially when Jill and Richard’s
relationship is shown as a clear balance, both of them presenting their needs in rational ways in fair discussions.
worries that Richard spends too much time at work and is missing out on their baby daughter, Mirabelle—but she doesn’t
hesitate to voice that concern and tell him to try harder. She also compromises when he’s involved in high-profile
cases, realizing that it’s hard to walk away when there’s a killer around. In the middle of the novel she becomes
an active help to Richard’s case, discussing details with him and acting as a sounding board. They are life-partners,
and there’s nothing oppressive in that depiction. Richard, the protagonist, holds up his wife and daughter (and women
in general) as superior creatures to men.
Now that depiction might sound sexist in an old-fashioned, chivalrous
way—but I would argue it’s important to the story. The author has created a very realistic "fictional community"
but it’s based on their experience of the Ozarks. To use a writer’s alchemy to depict that reality in fiction
means being true to its character and values. Richard is in a way an old-fashioned character in a modern setting, but that’s
quite likely in rural Bible Belt Missouri, where population and traditions aren’t as fluid as modern cities. My own
experience of rural Canada is similar, like it or not things get more conservative away from urban centres—but there
are always exceptions in a bell curve, and those are shown in life and in this story by more liberal characters.
because there are multiple types of characters depicted, with a varying range of agency, importance and independence, I would
say the author is trying to be realistic about how there are different types of relationships—but there is a major
difference between the characters who are valued and the ones who are depicted negatively. The stable, intelligent, educated
partnerships are balanced and show mutual valuation—it’s clear who you’re supposed to cheer for.
it sit better if the story was set in the 1960s? Probably—but it’s still true for its setting, and the author
realizes it with an honest eye. The character of Jill and her young teacher friend Janice show outspoken, intelligent and
brave characters. However, they also face some situations where they need help from others—because a Xena, Nikita,
or Buffy wouldn’t exist in the setting. People live in this community because they have to—for Richard, it’s
his only chance at police work. For the meth-heads, it’s the bottom rung in their ladder of life. An exceptional,
hard working person would move on to greener pastures, not toil in obscurity.
The depiction also is a key structural
part of the symbolism of the story. One of the other police investigators compares their job to taking care of a garden.
Adam and Eve references pop up at one point and so it becomes a main symbol of the story’s plot—the police in
the person of Richard are there to prevent weeds and dangerous animals from damaging the garden of their community. The
Kingsnake is the name given to the serial killer, as a criminal killing criminals, because the kingsnake eats other snakes.
Snakes in the Garden directly reference Genesis in the Bible—Richard is protecting his innocents (his family and friends)
from those who would harm them. He has an earthly duty to enforce the law, but while that’s his job in his life, in
the story’s symbolism he is acting to protect his Eve and their child and community from corruption, crime and violence.
his job as a cop—and his role as the protagonist. With a different writer in a different setting it could have been
woman—but given the depiction of Jill in particular, and the structure of this novel, I don’t see a problem
with this particular story having a male protagonist fulfilling a traditional role. We can’t have babies, but we can
protect our families. Claiming that role and depicting it well doesn’t denigrate anyone – especially when it’s
in celebration of those who do have children and raise them. Motherhood might be traditional, but that doesn’t make
it oppressive when the person who is a mother is a balanced partner with the husband, even if they’re not the main
focus of the story. Jill, and other characters, have the choice of career or family, or both—no one is putting them
in a corner.
In other reviews I identify my bias when something about the story doesn’t appeal to me—for
instance, derivative characters like vampires which are culturally super-saturated. I subtract one star based on my bias
while letting everyone know by doing so that they can add that star back if they love vampires. Then I judge the story on
its merits—technique, symbolism, theme, style, etc. This story is a police procedural, and tons of those exist. However,
it’s very capably written and the characters become more individualized the longer you read. I think I’ve solved
the mystery and it’s not a big deal—so maybe this isn’t a 5 star story.
But it’s not
a two star story and it’s not sexist. It might depict some sexist characters, but it also depicts characters that value
the opposite sex and are trying to make a safer world for them to live in. In this setting, characters help each other because
the good ones are community that is interdependent—Richard visits a neighbour who is bullying Janice because he didn’t
get the message when she stood up for herself. When Richard can’t handle it alone his friend Ron comes along—needing
help isn’t weakness or oppression, it’s recognizing no one is an island to themselves and everyone has different
skills to offer.
In Richard’s case, some of his relationship is traditional between himself and his wife, Jill.
She knows more about child-rearing and asserts her skills in raising their daughter—but Richard acknowledges her skills
and values them the same way he acknowledges her greater knowledge of English Literature. The balance and affection between
them is very modern—even if the plot itself could very well be a knight facing dragons to protect his castle. The
devil is in the details, and in this case the details show a lot of respect, symbolism, talent and sophistication.
think a two star rating is an over-reaction when the entire novel hasn’t been read, and I think the charge of sexism
is a bit controversial when someone isn’t familiar with a writer’s entire bibliography of work, nor their personal
life. There are enough horrible stories out there which can be judged as tough slogs that it seems unfair to have a knee-jerk
reaction and saddle a well-written piece with a two star rating that doesn’t come close to reality.
takes examining the entire picture, which is one of the themes of the novel in Richard’s job as a deputy, and it applies
to the story and life as a whole.