A confession: this is the first book I’ve started reading since writing these book reviews that I could not make myself finish. For all the rest of my bad reviews, I’ve kept reading out of pure spite to be able to accurately encompass all the badness of the book in my post. And this one really surprised me. I legitimately thought going in that I would like this book. I don’t really know why, considering I haven’t enjoyed several books I’ve read that are similar. I stopped reading on page 113 out of 434 and this book was printed in unfortunately tiny font.
So, let me preface this by saying that I don’t know what 2015!Jen was doing with her book-buying habits. I must’ve bought a dozen extremely similar books that year – turn of the century London, magic, supernatural threats to London, whatever. All variations on the same damn thing (if I recall correctly, I also bought Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman, The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman, and A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab around the same time, the last of those being the only one that I actually enjoyed at all). I think I must’ve been wanting to read something like that in 2015, but then not actually read any of them? They just sat in my unread pile for years until this past year and now I’m realizing the mistake that I made in doing so? But damn. Past!Jen had some errors in judgment.
The Oversight is about the eponymous “secret society that polices the lines between the mundane and the magic.” This one takes place in a very Dickensian view of London, so at least it’s not as squeaky clean and posh as many other books that utilize the same timeframe and city. I also feel that the author was trying to invoke the Dickensian model of wordiness (remember of course that Dickens was literally paid by the word). Fletcher just goes on and on and on. There’s significant interludes of scenes that seem to have nothing to do with the main plot, and it takes a long time for the main plot to even get started. I wasn’t even really sure it had started by the time that I stopped reading, about a quarter of the way through the book. I don’t necessarily have a problem with verbosity, but when it’s paired with pacing issues, that’s just too much for me.
From what I had gleaned of the main plot, I was… already bored by it. I’ve recently seen a lot of authors I like talking about how the bar has been raised, how we’re living in a golden age of sci-fi and fantasy, how a book has to truly excel to stand out. I would totally agree with that, but there’s apparently also plenty of authors getting by just pumping out the same old shit we’ve seen incessantly for the last ten years. If you’re going to try to do your own take on a story, or on a setting, or on a big old cliche, you have to excel at what you’re doing. Your take has to legitimately BE fresh and new and you have to be able to point out what makes your book stand apart from the dozens of others that are the same. And most authors I see trying this just… don’t succeed (notable exception V.E. Schwab again – her story is not the most unique I’ve ever read, but it’s a fresh and fun take on that story, and she is a very skilled writer where I think Fletcher is not).
But still, I was able to finish Between Two Thorns and The Invisible Library. I didn’t love them, but they were at least tolerable reads. So why couldn’t I get through The Oversight? Well… let me clarify something first. Charlie Fletcher is a man. I’m an optimistic dumbass and I thought that maybe Charlie was short for like, Charlotte or something, like the Paper Magician series by Charlie N. Holmberg? It’s possible I assumed because the main character is female and the cover design is fairly feminine? Who knows. Anyway, I was wrong, and Charlie Fletcher is a man. And as I’ve found over my years as a reader – a man’s mediocrity as a writer is always worse than a woman’s mediocrity as a writer. Because even still, women have to be twice as good to get half as much opportunity. A mediocre woman writer is still leagues better than a mediocre man writer, which I think explains why I couldn’t get through this (and why most of my really negative reviews and most-hated books are by men).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – men are usually not that great at writing female characters, and they’re certainly nowhere near as good as women are at writing male characters. I think this ties back to a certain societal idea that men are the “default” – men are relatable to everyone, universally. But women are the deviation from default and are only relatable to other women. It doesn’t feel hyperbolic to say that some men don’t really view women as people, and some male writers don’t look at their female characters as complete people. I think when a lot of men write male characters, they’re writing a character they would like to be like or that they would like to hang out with. But then when they write female characters, they’re writing a character they would like to look at, or to fuck.
As you might have gathered from my saying so, the characters here were really, really flat. I was glad that there were entire scenes of only female characters (even passing the Bechdel test), but somehow it still felt really unsatisfying. Over a hundred pages in, I didn’t feel like I had more than the most basic understanding of the main characters’ personalities – some of them I didn’t even feel had personalities, they just…existed. And moreover, they were mostly indistinguishable from one another. I don’t know if you should get credit for including multiple female characters when they’re all just slightly modified clones of one another.
I really wish this book had been different, and I kind of wish I had finished it. But also realize that that would have been a colossal waste of my time when I could instead be reading something that’s actually good. From the book’s back matter, I gather that Fletcher has a critically acclaimed YA novel out, and that this is his adult debut, the first book in a planned series. I no longer trust critical acclaim, especially after the dumpster fire that was The Magicians. Some critics will acclaim a white man wiping his ass with a typewriter, and while Fletcher and The Oversight aren’t really that bad, they just represent so much that I dislike in modern SFF.