Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hunting Ground: And Other Stories review

Hunting Ground is a collection of shorts and one decent novella taking place in an alternate history where humans and dinosaurs co-exit together from ancient to modern times. Huh, that sounds kinda familiar. Like another series that this reminds me of, cough cough, the dinosaurs aren't called by names that we use today, what with the continents having formed in a completely different way and the animals were named by other means rather than where their bones were found. It makes little sense to have an animal named Albertosaurus when no Alberta exists, no?

The biggest story is Hunting Ground, and I have to be careful with this one since it is pretty complex to judge. That and the author is a fellow indi and from all accounts seems like a very cool guy and very influential in the paleo community, and I don't want to risk him taking offense and having his raptor-ssassins coming after me.

Hunting Ground in a nutshell is the tale of two huge theropods of an unknown species appearing seemingly out of thin air in a rural territory full of ranchers herding scalies in present day and are being pursued by the adrenaline-junkie main character, Gina. These two critters are bigger than anything else in the area, and before you think you know what the story is, they are not causing mass panic and eating everyone in sight. Rather they are almost treated like Bigfoot at first, a few sightings by ranchers and such wondering what the heck they saw and others wondering if they just got into the vanilla extract again. Things do pick up after a time, as interactions between the huge theropods and people increase in frequency and problems arise, especially when a prize bull is killed and a bunch of ranchers and hunters decide that they have to solve that little problem.

The best thing I can say about the dinos in these stories is that they feel like living animals, not monsters bent on harassing our heroes at every turn like loan sharks. If you're one of the people who is bored with the Jurassic Park Syndrome and want to see actual animals that happen to be prehistoric acting like real animals, then this is your wet dream come true. From the first I was smitten with how natural the things felt. It was like I had stepped into a real breathing world and not a realm of chaos where you spend every second risking getting eaten. I have to give Will major credit, because his portrayal of scaly critters acting like critters is perfect. Every action our giant theropods take is natural and makes sense, from a critter perspective anyway.

But that's what also makes the story somewhat challenging: It was kinda boring for the most part. Because these dinos acted like normal animals and were NOT causing problems meant the story had almost zero momentum. Some scenes with our human characters don't feel necessary and I found myself tapping my foot, wanting to get a move on. I think part of this is a problem with myself. I've been spoiled by the lyrical prose and juggernaut pacing of REH and other authors, so pulling the pace back can feel like driving below the speed limit after you just had a try at NASCAR.

When we're at the interesting points this story is great. It's real. When the huge critters start getting aggressive it makes total sense from an animal perspective, something that takes great finesse and you can see the effort and love Will put into those parts. But when we get to the characters doing their every day stuff the story is wearing lead shoes. But I do give credit for trying to do a plot that hasn't been beaten into the ground like a railroad spike.

I did have difficulty following some of the exposition on the history of the locations and tribal interactions, but whether this is due to the way it was presented or because I have the attention span of a goldfish that lost a head-butting contest with a drunk bison is kind of a coin toss. Perhaps a combination of both.

The story mostly centers around our reckless young heroine Gina, who is adventurous to the point of being an insurance liability and being pretty abrasive to other people. Not many people can tolerate her, but when it comes to dealing with dino critters she is pretty darned good. A lot of the time I found her to be bland, but at a few points her character seemed to glow. The end game goes from just trying to spot the animals to actually capturing one and proving its scientific existence, and making a name for herself. It's not everyday someone makes a contribution of that size to science! One scene in particular captivated me, where we saw straight to her core and for a brilliant moment Gina was a whole person and you truly relate to her. It was an absolute gem of a scene. I just wanted more of those.

But most of the time the characters don't jive that well. I mean, it's not like I'm one to talk, and I am the half-Vulcan who doesn't relate to most actual humans or fictional characters anyway. Gina is supposed to be a gruff tom-boy character, but at times it really felt like she was trying too hard and it felt a little awkward. That also isn't to say that the characters are bad. Not at all. They aren't like 90% of anime characters, and wow that's going to net me some hate mail. I will actually say that the characters never felt like stereotypes or annoying tropes to make a point. They were just people and while they sometimes did stupid things, it was in keeping with their characters and had some range. I suppose I simply wanted them to shine more.

The ending is actually very sad. I mean nobody dies, but it leaves you with this sad, hollow feeling. Definitely not a story that ends on a high note. I mean Gina loses a leg, and now living as a cripple resigns herself to the fact that she can never go adventuring again, and the captured dino lives the rest of its life in a small concrete cage, its soul slowly dying in its prison of flesh. Jeez, apparently the zoo was willing to help catch it but not give it a decent habitat. Maybe the author was trying to make a point about something, but I just felt sad.

What I find interesting is that the very first page which serves as more of a prologue than anything else, describing an ancient wall, is frigging fantastic. You feel the age and mystery surrounding this wall and you want to explore it. I was taken right in like a bass looking at a worm jig. I may be incorrect, but I get the feeling that this author prefers a more prosaic style, as he certainly exhibits such a style in his earlier stories, and then tried his hand at a more casual style that had a slower pace. Again, I could be wrong, but that is simply the impression I got. Will Svensen does have some legit writing skills, and when he's on the ball, he does great. It just felt like he was experimenting in some of these stories and that on this big one he was going outside his comfort zone.

So what are my overall thoughts on Hunting Ground? I think objectively speaking it's good, but not great. Like I said, I've been spoiled by pulse-pounding thrillers and a slower paced story just dumped sand in my gears. But when we deal with the actual dinosaurs, this story truly does stand out. If you're a paleo fan and want something you haven't seen before, definitely check this one out. It does have some very well thought out and intriguing world building, with unique cultures, customs, and wonderfully realistic dinosaurs. I actually really hope that he keeps building this world, hones his craft, and delivers more stories. We need more fiction like this! He certainly broke the mold and took a real jump into the alternate history vein of dino stories, a sorely untapped sub-genre.

Most of the other stories are major shorts, lasting one to five pages, one of them a darned good little short as we watch nature take its course with some hadrosaurs. My personal favorite, a novella of decent size is Long Winter Night.

Unlike all the others, this is a survival story. Two scientists doing grunt work in the Northern Circle of this alternate reality are routine rounds with surveillance equipment when a blizzard comes in and they have to hunker down for shelter. Lo and behold, when it's over their rides are gone and they have to hoof it and hope they can make it back to the compound before the freeze, starve or get eaten. This time since it's winder and all normal prey critters have gone into burrows, anything active that eats meat is going to be mighty hungry and have exactly no standards. So a pair of humans walking around make prime pickings, so these two really have to keep on their toes.

I really like this one. I get the vibe that Will has actually done some outdoors stuff, because the steps the characters take in their survival situation are smart and realistic to the point I was almost clapping with glee. Take that Bear Grylls! It has good tension, a good action bit and it's fun. With the exception of mentioning that the two boinked while holed up, which even they felt was kinda pointless, I have little to complain about in Long Winter Night. It's a good story.

I'm glad that someone is taking all this time and effort to make something like this. I truly do recommend checking out and buying the book and checking out his sight Tyran King Press, a small hub trying to network other paleo authors in this vein dubbed dino punk. Hey, how can I not be cool with that? Or anyone for that matter? Dino punk! And yes, that did make me think of a dinosaur wearing black makeup and listening to punk music whilst headbanging. Somebody make this happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment