Fantasy writer Brian S. Pratt is one of the most popular authors on Smashwords. Yet, while he generally gets good reviews overall, many people have panned his novels for their bad grammar, poor character revelation, and skimpy plots. (I believe that he had cleaned up his spelling atrocities before I discovered him.) I’ve read only the first book in his lengthy Morcyth Saga series, but unless he has improved dramatically, I have to agree with his critics. To make matters worse, his writing style is clumsy, repetitive, and lacks imagination. With all this going against him, you have to ask the obvious question:
Why does he sell so well?
To answer that question we have to start with another: who reads Pratt’s novels, anyway? I think it is safe to assume that his audience comes mainly from the young. These readers, while enthusiastic, are not sophisticated; they lack the broader reading experience needed to tell the difference between a well-written book and a clunker. However, that’s not the same as saying they are stupid. We humans are born with an instinctive feel for story. No one – sophisticated or unsophisticated – wades through a full-length novel unless they gain some genuine satisfaction from doing so.
What’s more, Pratt’s readers don’t just finish his books, they turn them into best sellers. While a vast network of links on the web can get you started, only continuous word-of-mouth promotion can make you a best seller. This means Pratt’s readers enjoy his books so much they can’t wait to read the next one; it means they eagerly talk about the stories with their friends; it means those friends read the books, like them, and talk about them with their friends. The human feel for story has been satisfied and the good news spreads.
So, what do Pratt’s readers see in his works? Pratt himself has claimed that a bad review comparing his books to the narrative from a lousy dungeons and dragons game helped get him started. There may be some truth in this. In fact, Pratt has gone so far as to write a series of books designed specifically to imitate the role-playing game experience. Such a similarity would make the novels seem familiar; the much-loved game’s magical aura rubs off on the book.
However, there’s another possibility, one which gets repeatedly overlooked. That possibility is values. Whatever you might say about Pratt’s shaky writing skills, bland story lines, and primitive narratives, you can’t argue with the man’s outlook on life. What young people encounter in his work are genuine heroes with the old-fashioned values that have served humankind so well for millennia. There are none of those “reluctant heroes” that have recently become so popular. (A classic case of ostentatious modesty; in truth, we all want to be heroes.) The book’s title is The Unsuspecting Mage, not The Reluctant Mage.
As the novel opens, James, the seventeen-year-old main character is looking for a job – a job mind you – not some nanny-state handout. (More mature folks should remind themselves how much courage it takes to face that very first serious job interview.) The position turns out to be a lure and the lad is whisked away to a land where magic works. Another student is killed during James’s first night there making him well aware that he too could perish. What to do?
He doesn’t collapse into a morass of self-pity. He doesn’t need any “grief counselling” or “trauma counselling.” Realizing he has no way to go home, he sensibly mucks in and makes the best of it. We soon see his willingness to stick his neck out for the sake of others and his reckless physical courage (he is only seventeen). James is simply unable to stand idly by while others are being abused by the bad guys. When he meets up with the guttersnipe, Miko, he takes the homeless boy under his wing and treats him like a younger brother. He behaves responsibly towards his vulnerable companion.
Miko is another embodiment of the better side of human nature. Streetwise and used to living by his wits, he is more aware of life’s dangers than the older James is. Yet, when James plunges unthinkingly into assorted fights and dangerous situations, Miko – while shaking his head over the rashness of it all – stands loyally at his friend’s side. The book wraps up with James and Miko separated in a chaotic city evacuating under threat of conquest. James isn’t thinking about how he can save his own skin; he’s trying to find Miko and some other young people who he knows are in danger.
The obvious fact that characters such as these are appealing to today’s youth says a lot about the constancy of human nature. Layered as they are beneath the relentless leftist orientation of the West’s public school systems, mainstream media, and literary world, young people are instinctively gravitating towards indie writers like Brian S. Pratt to find heroes and role models who embody traditional conservative values.
That is why Brian S. Pratt sells so well.