Rather funny that two books i finish within consecutive days are both ones i have complex reactions to. There are a number of things to be said about Joshua's Key, the question is, where to start? Perhaps, in this case, with the greatest strength of the book, its plot. Something over five hundred pages long, it is filled with the action and development of a strong plot. While there is never any true doubt that good will triumph (the result of the opposite being the entire destruction of the world Brading has created), the threat to that triumph is strong and, while it lasts, well developed.
In addition to the plot, another strength is the characters; they are numerous and varied, from wizards to aquatic men with gills and webbed feet to, perhaps her greatest thought, nurturers who whisper to plants and encourage them to grow usefully. The world itself is quite an invention also, stretching from a land beneath the sea to the Garden of Eden. Each of these, plot, characters, world, is a reason for a positive element to the complex reaction Joshua's Key has evoked in me.
There is, however, a negative element provoked by other aspects of the book. The first thing i think of in this regard is something i have actually written about previously in reaction to reading this very book, some months ago, and it is very annoying to me, and that is the use of punctuation ~ or misuse, to be exact. Consistently, for example, Brading writes “tree's” when she means the plural of “tree”; i could give many other examples of the same or a similar errors with apostrophes. Clearly the book lacked a good, strong copy edit before it was published ~ or, if it had one, the copy editor was not worth his salt. There is no denying that i am a pedant and many errors i notice and am frustrated by would not be a problem for the average reader; nevertheless, the level of errors here is sufficient that, i have to think, even normal people (non-pedants) would be annoyed. (I should not that i have written previously about this issue in Joshua's Key, at the other end of this link.)
The bigger issue, though, than the misuse of punctuation is another prepublication lack. I mentioned above the quality of the plot; unfortunately that quality is marred, for me, by a need for an editor to go through and reorganise and smooth out parts of it. Brading tells an excellent story, but she allows her reader to get muddled by whose story she is telling, at points, or how they link together, at other points. The problem arises, i think, because an author knows his story intimately, so is less able to see any weaknesses or quirks in the flow; it is the editor's job to point these out, maybe make suggestions as to corrections, and not allow the thing to go further until the story flows and is as strong as it can be.
I have no proof of it, but it is my suspicion that the story began as a series of bed-time stories which developed and grew into this huge novel. In mine opinion each of the flaws i have found can be explained by this origin and development as, for example, if the recipient of the story forgets a character it is easy for them to ask the story-teller quickly. The large plot is explained by the ability of the story-teller nightly to expand on what has happened, is happening, and, again, benefits from the intimate relationship between teller and listener. The occasional jumpiness of the episodes is explained by the necessity of nightly breaks and restarting the story after reminding the child what had happened. The huge character list is a result of not needing to work to the physical constraints of the space of a book, but having the time and luxury to expand and expound organically and as the demands of the story seem to require. None of these are fatal flaws, of necessity, to my mind, but they each lead to a build-up of annoyances and frustrations which made the book increasingly difficult to read, so much so that it has taken me several months to read what could have been done (by me, at least) in no more than one or even less.
I mentioned copy problems earlier; having been peripherally involved recently with the independent publication of a friend's book, i suspect that the manuscript was not submitted to a beta reader, nor to an external editor, which has proven to be a mistake. I think either, or both, would have caught and suggested corrections to many of the issues i have perceived as flaws (structural, grammatical, and typographical). In the end, my mixed response comes down on the “good book” side, but not heavily; i would, however, more than likely read another by the same author based on the name on the jacket, which is my criterion of success, especially if it had been through a stronger editing process. Brading clearly has great imagination, she merely needs additional prepublication discipline to tame it and make her creation fully accessible.