Yeah, putting my thoughts down about Shroud of Night has prompted me to think further about why Clark's prose doesn't work for me - and, frankly, about reading novels as a whole. Where I ended up going was some of my experience with the video games industry, and the concept that some designers refer to as flow state.
Essentially, flow state is a state of mind a designer is trying to get a player into. I've seen it compared to a zen trance or meditative state. It's when a player is engaged deeply with the mechanics and gameplay loop to such an extent that they're totally immersed. Note that this isn't about graphical fidelity or visuals, necessarily - it's specifically the gameplay: navigating the environment, aiming while dodging incoming projectiles, giving units orders, etc. Even failing and retrying a challenge can be part of this. A vital part, actually.
The key thing is, there's a sort of "Goldilocks Zone" to this. If the player fails at the gameplay challenge before them too frequently, the difficulty becomes an immersion breaker. However, if the game offers too little or no challenge, that lack of difficulty also becomes an immersion breaker.
It's like the human brain is wired to crave overcoming challenges that demand our participation - and both "overcoming" and "challenges" are key foundations to that formula.
So, what does all that have to do with 40k novels?
The more I reflect, the more I realize that the prose of any given work plays an analogous part to that gameplay loop in terms of creating a personal flow state when I'm reading. Sentence construction, length, word choice, dialogue, paragraph formatting, how a scene starts or ends; they're all things that you don't notice - but your brain does, if that makes any sense.
For instance, take Camba Diaz's stand at the bridge in Saturnine. Damn awesome, right? Compare that to Beta Bequin's opening narration in Penitent. Also damn awesome.
Those sequences are composed very differently, but they fit in with the context of their respective works such that one delivers the insane manic press of a man fighting to the death and mentally condensing everything to the immediate instant with snapshots of lucidity, the other, musings of an educated young woman reflecting on the fractal, supernatural world of blurred allegiances, personal loyalties, and murky identities she's stumbled into.
In both instances the writing itself is engaging on a level that pulls me into the story, like a mental lubricant that enables my cognitive gears to mesh with the book. It's not that I don't notice the writing, but that it enhances the story itself, improves the entire experience.
To carry on the flow state analogy, I'd say folks like John French and Matt Farrer tend to push the upper end of the "difficulty" scale - their prose is often dense and esoteric, in need of thinking and mulling over and picking through. In reverse, Guy Haley would fall into the lower end of it for me - his wordcraft exists: it's not an active hindrance, but it isn't particularly engaging or interesting in its own right.
Andy Clark just misses that Goldilocks Zone flow state for me. There are bits and scenes where I'm like "alright, alright, solid stuff", and then the next scene there's a sentence or a line of dialogue or something that jars me out of it, gets me thinking about how I'd rewrite this line or change that sentence construction or sew that person's lips shut.
If I were to use a game comparison, reading Shroud of Night felt a bit like playing a game where I'd have fun for a couple of minutes and then hit a gameplay stretch where I was grumbling about this mechanic or that clunky control, and then another sequence would come along that was fun, and then back to frustrated.
Edited by A Melancholic Sanguinity, 12 May 2021 - 12:55 AM.