Analysis, inspiration, Reading

Book Review: The Promise of the Child

The Promise of the Child is not like other books you’ve read, which makes it awesome and difficult at the same time. If you read scifi to be transported into a future of bold and unique ideas, then this is a MUST READ. There are some daring choices made in this debut novel that make it particularly interesting to me as a writer.

So the ghost in the woods was real, and a real man was now a ghost. He peered into the darkness around him, imagining his own judgement already under way in whatever dark pockets of the world the dead might still confer.

The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

Part 1: Who’s going to love this book

If you like stories that explore the far distant future. If you like huge imagination then you’re going to love this book.

A part of me wants to compare it to Dune, but not the just the first book, really more of the whole series. If you were reading through the Dune series and when the books jumped 3000 years in the future you were like, “Yes! This is awesome. This is cool.” Then this is the book for you.

This [The Promise of the Child] is a series, by the way, so this is the first book of three.

The Dune comparison might not really be the best. Dune is a lot more philosophical than this book tries to get into. This is more just imagining the sort of post-human future: what humans evolve into and what our society is like.

I think it’s probably quite similar to Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota, but Ada Palmer’s series has a similar feel in terms of the society, the complex society, the politics, the different individuals and their goals that are at play.

If your favorite thing is relentless creativity and beautiful prose and you’re willing to put up with long stretches where you’re not totally sure what’s going on then this is a book you’re going to love.

Part 2 who’s going to hate this book

So if you did try to read all the books in the Dune series and you got to where things get weird… if you read them, you know what I’m talking about… and you were like “Nope! I need to get out of here.” Then this book is not for you.

If it’s important to you to understand what’s going on at all points in time, what’s the objective, how do the different story lines connect? It it’s important to you to understand the goals and the stakes right from the get go, if you’re frustrated by science fiction that throws a lot of names and places at you in rapid succession and expects you to keep track of all of them then this is not the book for you.

Part 3: what I thought of it

The Promise of the Child is not a book I would not recommend to a lot of people, but I would recommend it.

The story tried my patience, but it was just so interesting and beautifully written that I couldn’t put it down. It does get easier as you make your way through the book, as you put together what’s going on and how the different plotlines are related to each other, but it’s still a slow read. I found it to require a lot of mental effort.

The copy of the book I got has no glossary of names and places. I know a lot of fantasy novels do this and I think it was a huge mistake not to include such a thing in this book. I would have referenced it. It would have helped me a lot.

There’s also multiple plotlines and for a long time it’s not clear how they are connected, if they’re connected at all.

So in one story line everyone’s trying to kill each other over this machine, but we’re not really told what the machine does (at least not right away).
In another story line, there’s this leisure class himbo who’s in love with the only woman immune to his good looks, and weirdly this story line has by far the best character development, but also the lowest stakes.
In a third story line, there’s this new guy who’s in contention for the immortal throne, and there’s his faction of believers and there’s also a bunch of people opposed to him. Meanwhile, this character maybe gives people false memories or enters their dreams so there’s an additional layer of what’s real and what’s not real!

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here and it can be difficult to read, but some people love that. It is interesting and complex and beautifully written science fiction.

There’s a Goodreads review that describes the book in a made up play where the author, Tom Toner, is a drill sergeant and he’s drilling these soft readers in basic training who aren’t necessarily going to make it through his book.

“Some of you will not make it beyond page fifty. Some of you are used to having it easy. You read writers who lay everything out for you, writers who simply communicate their simple plotlines in their simple books for simpletons. You are not going to get that here. Do you understand me?”


“I am not going to spoon-feed you! This isn’t some Paulo Coelho, by-the-numbers comfort-read! You are flabby, unconditioned readers and I’m going to make lean, book-devouring machines of you!

“You are the sorriest bunch of readers I have ever had the misfortune to write for! Login to Amazon and order yourselves a novelization of a Star Wars movie! That’s all you’re good for!”

-Scott on goodreads

Now I don’t really hold to this belief that we should be always reading these super challenging books and it’s necessarily a good thing that this book in particular is very difficult to read. I think that there are some flaws with this book and I think that there are some flaws particularly in the presentation that makes it hard to read.

Part 4 what can writers learn from The Promise of the Child

So, I was super interested in this because this is this author’s debut novel and it doesn’t read like what I’ve come to expect from a debut novel. It takes a ton of risks.

I would love to see the query letter that got Tom Toner an agent, because this book doesn’t play by the typical rules, especially not for a debut. It’s bold and experimental and an incredibly hard sell, especially with its confusion and the very confusing opening.

This book didn’t make as much sense to me as I wish it had until at least halfway through. A lot of readers are going to put it down before that point.

So in some ways, one of the lessons I take away is, “hold tight to your vision.” Maybe you are doing something that you think is unique and special and sets you apart from other writers and what they’re doing. Some of us writers need to hear the advice of “Keep at it! Keep pushing that weird idea. You’ve got something there.”

On the other hand a lot of writers probably need to hear the advice that they need to back off of their weirdness a little bit. They need to tighten up the plot, the clarity, the strength of their characters.

Each of us could be a little more uncompromising and bold in what sets us apart and also should probably look a bit harder about that tough criticism that we’re received and take it seriously and make the modifications that we need to make to our writing.

I’m reminded of the quote from Greg Bear about the state of publishing:
“Keep writing, and remember–good work will get published. Beginning novels and the mediocre work are suffering–along with the experimental, possibly, and the unusual. But good writing will get published and will endure.”

So what else can we learn from The Promise of the Child. Again the most interesting thing I find about this book is that it keeps breaking these rules that I’ve heard as a writer. If you’re a new writer, you’ve probably heard a lot of things that you should not do, such as:

Avoid the sort of travel writing that is just: He did this, and then this, and then this, and then this. For example:

He walked through the door then climbed the stairs to the bedroom. He rifled through the closet searching for the MacGuffin.

When instead you can just say:

He went into the house and searched for the MacGuffin in the upstairs closet.

So “skip to the point” type of advice.

Also you may have heard that you should avoid long stretches where your characters just pontificate. They just stand around and think about information that is important for your reader to receive. Sometimes you’ll hear this called an “info dump”.

But The Promise of the Child, this book, violates both those rules!

And the two excerpts that I’m going to show you as examples of that, they come around the same place in the book so maybe it’s just something that I was thinking of and was eager to pounce on when I saw it in writing.

But nonetheless, I think there’s some interesting things we can take-away from how this author violates those rules and what makes it work.

So here’s some travel writing from the book where we’re just showing a character moving through the countryside. And of course, you can probably cherry-pick these bad examples from any book, but I did think there was a lot of this book that was just characters moving from place to place:

They passed through a tunnel carved into the mountainside and clattered down a stepped series of diagonal runs to the wooded hillside at the water’s edge. The carriage bumped along the last of the trackway and came to rest at the jetty, red-tinged water sloping on either side.

The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

Alright and that’s from the book. That’s pretty good, I would say. Here I’ve made it worse as a comparison:

They passed through a tunnel that went through the mountainside and down a stepped series of diagonal runs to the wooded hillside at the water’s edge. The carriage ran along the last of the trackway until it got to the jetty. There was red-tinged water on either side.

Me having butchered Tom Toner’s writing.

So what I did is I went through and added a bunch of get, went, and to be verbs like was, things like that. And it really slows down and makes the writing feel less active. So the lesson here is that you can make the travel writing engaging with active verbs. You can use these active verbs on things that aren’t actually moving or don’t typically take action. The tunnel itself carved into the mountain. “Carved” here is such an interesting and active verb and it engages us with what we’re reading.

I’m always a big sucker for big chunky action verbs.

In another section, a character steps out on a balcony and simply pontificates. He simply starts thinking about his plans and how they’ve gone right and how they’ve gone wrong.

Here’s just a brief snippet from that part:

Immortality. True immortality–not the fermented, degrading joke the Amaranthine had subjected their bodies to–was what the machine promised.

The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

So does this work? I think it does? So how does Tom Toner get away with breaking these rules that are really just in place to keep the action flowing?

Well for one thing even among this writing about thinking, the character is bringing his own judgments to what he’s thinking about. By putting us inside the character’s head, the scene is immediately much more interesting. It’s not just the character going over things he already knows about emotionlessly, but it’s him judging them actively. And that’s where some of the action, the momentum and movement comes into the scene. Any time that you can put your reader in the character’s head, things are going to be a lot more interesting than otherwise.

The second thing that Tom Toner does, and this is true throughout his book, is that the language is hot. It’s not just that the immortality that they have is bad, but it’s a “fermented, degrading joke”. Mmm chef’s kiss. It’s so good.

The third thing that makes this work (and I think that this is really important) is that it does not take place early in the book. We’re talking 300 pages in. In one sense, the author has earned the right (a little bit) to slow it down, to tell us this character’s thoughts.

But the other thing that’s happening here is that this scene is revealing a lot of the mystery that has been hounding us as readers for some time here. We’ve been wondering about, well what is going on in these other scenes, these other plot lines, and this is the moment that explains a lot of it for us.

So this is actually a payoff scene, and because of the effort the author has put in to build up that mystery and get me, the reader, and hopefully you, the reader, engaged, by explaining it all it’s not just that “oh this character’s boring thoughts.” We’re actually getting a payoff and a delivery. Ok, here’s the resolution of a lot of those mysteries.

Writing rules, like I said before, they can be good, they can be bad. They’re very easy to misapply. But they can also be very helpful and important to new writers. So you have to be a little bit mindful in how you use them.

In conclusion, The Promise of the Child is a really fascinating book. It’s super inventive. It’s ‘out there’ science fiction. I really enjoyed it even though it was a bit difficult at times, it took some mental effort, I would recommend this book. It was pretty cool. I plan on reading the subsequent books in the series, maybe not all right now in a row, and I will have to go back and look at a summary of the first book when I read the later ones, but it was really interesting and I think writers can take away a lot of cool stuff from this book.

Obviously, imitating prose poetry is very difficult, but you can also look at how this writer world builds. How the writer describes motion through the countryside with engaging action verbs. How the writer gets away with information dump scenes where we’re just inside a character’s head and they’re just thinking at us by making it a payoff to a mystery, by putting us in that character’s brain and sharing with us their judgments and evaluations of the situation.

This book can also be an inspiration to writers and other artists who are pushing boundaries. This thing got published and I think that’s pretty surprising for a debut with this many risks in it. So be inspired.

Until next time, Good luck and good writing.


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