Critique my semi-fantasy book plot

I’ve been working (verly slowly) on a book. I was curious is anyone might be interested and if so might critique it.

Part the First: The Setting

I’m having trouble really making the setting come alive. While it’s in fact the Eastern half of the United States, it’s a eon into the future. Almost all the traces of current technology, even buildings, are long gone. While people have some remnent science and engineering, metal is scarce (no surface deposits, most mines collapsed) and roads and good communication are hard to come by. Hand-craftsmanship is back in, although being America at heart people do tend to grab onto water- and windpower whenever possible. Old libraries which have somehow survived, even simple things like recopied textbooks or schematics, are considered really valuable, since the people who make them rarely have the time or energy or money to develop things on their own.

Second, there’s a big portal to Hell in Delaware, as the demise of human civilization was precipitated by evil’s ongoing conquest o’er the Earth. Things actually go bad in about 2162, when a strain of extremely lethal poison is deliberately seeded in the atmosphere. Regardless, the demons there must take (to their disgust) a semi-human form to “Hide from heaven’s sight,” although as it turns out they aren’t fooling anybody but themselves. They are pretty much complete monsters, with few to no redeeming qualities. However, while they are nigh invincible, able to return to “death,” and able to kill anything, there simply aren’t enough to dominate the planet. They’ve been slowly subverting or conquering each little barony or republic as they go along, and are now reaching past the Appalachians into Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, etc. They’d have gone further, but they are also spreading their forces to control coastal Brazil, China, Europe and India as well - they wanted the bigger population centers as well as what was in easy reach, not to try and push to Iowa. They set up cruel and despotic regimes, then use them to push on further and conquer their neighbors. In the meantime, they raid, pillage, and despoil because they enjoy it and it weakens their future conquests.

While there is magic, it’s pretty much an awful, awful thing granted by evil powers to their feudal servants, ensuring their control over their minions. The good guys have damn near nothing. There are a handful of people with “natural” abilities (more below). Anyone else with “magic” is either trying to fiddle with natural law they don’t understand or a crazed prisoner of the demons driven mad and sent out to kill and destroy randomly (demons find this incredibly funny).

Part the Second: The characters

The main character is a former soldier who reawakens after being killed and buried in a mudslide in a dreary battlefield (somewhere around southern West Virginia). “Bren” varyingly tries to pretend he’s a hunter and occaisional merchant or affects amnesia. He actually does have an magic weapon: a sword made of demonic shadows, which can kill anything which lives. (It can’t actually cut anything which isn’t alive, either). He has this solely because a demonic spirit is trapped within him and lending him a bit of power, though tryng to manipulate him. The spirit would very much to come out, but cannot unless he commits a crime of utter, unspeakable treachery. However, it cannot actually see into his mind. Occaisionally, they dream together, which become important later on.

Bren’s flaw is Pride: he fundamentally sees himself as superior and has a hard time understanding why people don’t automatically and as a matter of course accept his decisions. His arc is partly about recognizing this (though not overcoming it - yet). This is basically why he did a few Naughty bad Things and is possessed. His actual name is Elgar. he does not like it. At all.

Other major characters include Laura Denning and Horatio Green, her guard. Laura is not human, but rather a fuzzy humanoid, her species designed and developed by Bren, Vera, and the Prophet centuries ago. (They were under the mistaken impression that humanity was essentially extinct while they remained sealed in a a government lab. They were experimenting genetic engineers.) Laura is the younger daughter of a wealthy and powerful family, and is trying to reach a demon-controlled city in order to find a skilled metallurgist/inventor and take him back with her. Her father believes that with this MacGuffin’s help, they can build cannon and simple gatling guns to resist the demons.

Laura’s flaw is Fear. Actually, she has a certain adventurousness to her, but she’s not really endowed with any sort of physical courage. Even if she was able to fight effectively, she’d rather just curl up and tremble. Since she weighs all of 100 pounds. Her arc is about becoming smarter about covering her weaknesses with a pistol.

Horatio is a (human) knight for all intents and purposes, and while tactiturn and devoted to guarding Laura, is not so much a character as he is a symbol. Basically, he stands for the epitome of humanity: cultured, but capable of controlled violence when called for. Noble of heart, word, and deed. he is basically there to reprocve other characters just by existing. If he has a flaw, it’s that he doesn’t really trust others or forgive easily.

Vera appears to be a minor character, but she’s definitely important. As the ruler of the remains of Atlanta (guess where), she is one of the reasons the demons haven’t pushed too far into the interior. She also has magic from the same source - and the same demon - as Bren. She has power over Fire. In addition to being one of the most compassionate individuals imaginable, she’s the literal mother of Laura’s entire species. Her flaw is a Weakness: she simply can’t stand seeing things in pain, which is a nice trait, but very dangerous and easily manipulable.

The Prophet and The King of Unending Night: Sort of an “Odd Couple” duo, since they start what the other character’s experience. The Prophet really can see the future. He also manipulates it, and both are again more forces of nature than characters. They are basically stand-ins for God and Satan, respectively. The Prophet does mysterious, and sometimes seemingly cruel, things for reasons we can hardly fathom, but which nevertheless turn out in ways we couldn’t have imagined as good. The King is basically a domineering tyrannical brute with delusions of culture.
Part the Third: In which I finally explain the damn plot.

Bren more or less crawls out of the mud in the mountains, scared a local herder, and eventually find himself at a local woman’s doorstep. He basically helps her out for a while in exchange for clothing, but is interrupted by some soldiers who came to try and fight off an isolated “demon”. Unfortunately, he does have a demon mark, and they mistake him for one of the crazy psychos that are supposed to be killed on sight befopre they unleash magic and kill people. In a short and brutal fight, he kills them before the dogs can catch up: they follow him onto some mud and one to impales his foot on a carefully planted nail, then he just hops on top of them and starts stabbing with the evil sword which cuts ignores the armor.

Then, naturally, he flees the local area one step in front of the dogs, hides out in the woods, and eventually escapes to a dirt “road”, where he meets Laura and Horatio. He more or less cons Laura, who decides to invite him along over Horatio’s objections. They pass through considerable trouble trying to reach Laura’s goal, mostly because there are two groups hunting Bren and one Laura (this is mostly hiding and trickery, not fighting). They stay a brief time with Vera after being diverted a great distance frm the intended route. Eventually, they do reach the city they’re aiming at (more or less Charleston).

Unfortuntely, Bren must then deal with his demonic hunters and their human minions, sent by the Prophet and the King of Unending Night. Since these are into “bloody victories over the Pacifists of the Ghandi Nebula”, they simply set the entire city on fire when Bren and co hide out. This sparks a desperate escape where Bren must actually fight like a man for once, Laura learns to shoot people before they walk over and stab her, and Horatio rescues as many people as he can.

Obviously, there are some aspects fo the book which are thinner than others, mostly because I’m still plotting them. However, I worked hard to make sure there was a coherent backstory, the characters had ample reasons for doing things, and that the world makes sense. What I’m not sure about is whetehr or not anyone would want to read the result. So, please fire away. I will answer questions but not argue against any criticism, so feel free to say whatever you think.

The idea that books have survived but big metal artifacts have disappeared seems unlikely in a realistic sense (where would skyscrapers and bridges go to?). So maybe make this part of the history. Say the collapse was caused by the original demon attack which magically made large artifacts like cities and roads and factories disappear which thereby caused human civilization to crash. A targeted collapse which, for story reasons, eliminates the technology you wanted to get rid of while keeping the stuff you wanted to include (although be prepared for accusations you’re ripping off S.M. Stirling).

Well, I claimed I was not going to respond but…

People just copied them. That’s why so few have survived: they had to be copied and recopied by people either by hand or with simple devices.

There doesn’t seem to be a very strong premise for the overall plot. It feels kind of like “Here’s the Hero! Let’s all fight!”

It’s often helpful to think about the story starting off in a state of tension. There should forces in play at the beginning that drive the unfolding of the plot, and the plot, by its unfolding should resolve the tension that made the movement necessary.

Defining characters by their flaws isn’t a bad place to start – a flaw at least suggests a movement toward resolution. But it feels like you’re treating their flaws more as a bit of color and less as the deep engine that drives the story. How does Bren’s pride make his early actions necessary and unavoidable? Right now you have him doing things (hiding in the woods, conning Laura) that don’t feel like the actions of a man ruled by pride.

One thing that would help would be to provide a clear goal that your heroes are trying to accomplish. There’s a reason so many stories are built around quests. It provides a clean motivation to structure the movement from start to finish. Think of it as a trellis that the various subplots and character arcs can weave in and out of. In your description of the plot you don’t say anything about what the characters are trying to DO. Without that clear focus any action is going to feel sort of episodic and aimless.

Now, not every story has to be built around a quest. But if you don’t have that big, central piece of framework to hang the plot from you’ll need to spend much more time driving the plot through character nuance. Then having complicated and conflicted characters becomes much more important and the overall movement of the plot needs to be built around resolving the internal and external tensions created by the characters’ personalities. But it sounds like the story you’re writing is much more focused on action. For that you need to provide a clear sense of what the characters are trying to do and why it’s cool and important for it to be done.

Hmm, alright, let me flesh things about a bit. This may be what you mean, and some of it is what I’ve got anyway, but here we go.

Bren has a strong avoidance motivation (that is, a good reason to stay with the Noble-born and wealthy Laura). He does not have a strong positive motivation: that’s part of the plot, with him accepting that if he wants to order people about, a good place to start is with good leadership.

The enemy do not come after him arbitrarily, although they’re not getting what they think out of it. The Prophet has essentially lied to them, claiming that Bren isn’t possessed - he is the (extremely dangerous) demon, or a sort just as powerful and capable as the King of Unending Night. The latter would very much like to send the former back to Hell, since the King controls the gate and nothing comes through without his by-your-leave (well, there are ways to get around it but the direct intervention of Satan or a major divine power isn’t in the cards).

I’ll have to think about defining Bren. He is prideful, but not honest or blatant. He doesn’t have to be in the limelight, but he really wants the power. So I don’t see a contradiction - but I see what you mean as well. I’ll have to work on this.

I’m going to repeat Little Nemo’s complaint: metal is not a consumable resource. Unless someone’s been launching the stuff into space or makes it disappear with their demon magic, metal is going to be easier to find, not harder, because their ancestors already did all the hard work of digging it up and smelting it.

It’s a plausibility issue (for me anyway) in those technology collapse stories. Why did the technology collapse? I can understand something like the internet or building cities - these are huge projects that require a lot of co-ordination. But why would people be unable to make rifles and cannons? They’re pretty low tech. Once you’ve invented guns, why would you go back to the inferior technology of swords and bows? Same thing with transportation - a post-collapse society would find it easier to build thousands of bicycles rather than breed and feed thousands of horses.

Knights riding around in armor on horseback sounds romantic and all but you need to create some kind of deux ex machina to make it semi-believable.

Scientific explanation: Oxidation, mostly. That takes care of pretty much all the iron, and since surface deposits are long exhausted, all you’ve got left are deeper sources they can’t easily get to. Sure, copper is still around, but over the years and years it, too, tends to get worn away into dust. So yes, there’s a lot of metal around… but you can’t easily get into a useful form.

Little Nemo: My explanation is population collapse, and the resulting inability to maintain a technological base. That doesn’t mean nobody has guns or cannon - but it does take a much larger portion of available resources to build maintain them. The planet’s population was hit hard enough to depopulate virtually every urban area, and the later famines wiped out millions more. Most cities which still exist are actually new cities built on the ruins in what was just an appropriate site.

Rusted structures are surface deposits, better than the ones we’re mining now. Rusting doesn’t make iron disappear, it just turns it back into an iron oxide.

When there are oil spills, we now use bioremediation to clean them up, specifically microorganisms who eat the oil. Could this sort of thing be used someday to attack metal in a similar way? This wiki page on phytoremediation suggests that plants can decompose metals in a similar way.

But wouldn’t a thousand yars of wear n’ tear turn them into dust? As I understand it, you’d get a few sites with maybe a decent irony sand. Which can be used, but again, is expensive.

No, never. It’s not physically possible. Short of nuclear fission you cannot process an element out of existence. The worst you can do is return it to an impure state i.e. iron ore.

No, it doesn’t. It says that plants can be used to collect metals.

200 years =/= 1,000 years. And no, it would still not do the job.

Sorry, what? I may just be being stupid here, but I don’t understand where the 200 years bit comes from. The novel takes place around 800-900 years after the last large-scale manufacturing went to ruin. As I understand it, essentially every trace of our civilization should be more or less gone, aside from a few large pits and a few ancient monuments and buildings which might still stand. The disaster occurs in the near future; the story in the far, far future.

Sorry, I was conflating the “an eon into the future” and the “2162” bits. But it doesn’t matter, even if it was a billion years in the future the iron ore will still be there.

Look at the second paragraph again.

Now, it’s fair to argue that it’s not an accurate summary of what the rest of the article is about if they can’t really degrade metals, but it does in fact say that they can do more than collect metals.

You misread it. That sentence says they can [contain, degrade or eliminate] [metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, crude oil and its derivatives, and various other contaminants]. It doesn’t say which process applies to which contaminant.

I would suggest that the future society would have access to plenty of iron ore–as mentioned, a city would basically be a huge surface mine.

What it would not have access to is oil and coal–by 2162 we can project that easily available deposits of coal and oil will have been exhausted. Re-opening the coal mines would be impossible without an already established industrial base (this is at least within reasonable suspension of disbelief).

Smelting iron ore with wood and charcoal is possible but leads to deforestation, and the resulting iron would probably be pretty expensive.

Yeah, see my other thread on this question. I guess I was skipping a step. There would be some coal available, but I think I can actually work this into my backstory as to why a skilled metallurgist would be of particular interest to a small land which has discovered a decent coal vein…

Yes… exxxxxcellent.