I picked up The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet at Barnes and Noble because it was a very pretty book (I like the cover, though it's somewhat generic and unrelated to the book, and I like the internal artwork, which is more relevant to the book). Also because I'd enjoyed another ChiZine Publications book, Isles of the Forsaken by Carolyn Ives Gilman.
Brief bit of plot summary/introduction: The Pattern Scars is the story of Nola, an "Otherseer" who is sold to a brothel at an early age. It's almost all first-person narration except for the epilogue. She's not meant to be a prostitute, but more of a diviner or seer (fortuneteller is not precisely the right word). She undergoes some training, a former Otherseeing student working at the brothel is murdered, and Nola is spirited away by a man named "Orlo" who is an Otherseer for the royal court and who promises to protect her. She befriends (perhaps falls in love with?) a kitchen boy at the brothel; his name is Bardrem and he's also a poet. Both of them desire to work in the palace one day. Eventually Nola gets her wish.
There's not a happy moment in this book -- it's a real downer, honestly. Nola has almost no triumphs and the few small ones she achieves are extremely short-lived. I actually found The Pattern Scars to be so depressing at points that it was difficult to finish. We see rape and murder and lying and deception and necromancy and bloodletting and animal abuse and Nola is not a particularly sympathetic heroine. The reason I find Nola unsympathetic is that even though we know she's being manipulated by (and was cursed by) Orlo, she participates in and/or sanctions some of these activities, and doesn't fight back. I get it, that there are some things she can't do, and other things she's magically compelled to do. Without giving too much away, I was particularly uncomfortable with her interactions with the servant Laedon.
Anyway, back to Nola: in addition to Laedon, there are some other incidents that make me question her good nature. I realize Nola's situation is bad, I do. One option that doesn't seem to be considered, when she is at rock bottom, is suicide. (I know, if she killed herself, there wouldn't be a book.) For what it's worth, her actions at the end of the book seem illogical to me, as well.
Anyway, long story short, it's hard to root for a heroine who isn't a very nice person herself, and who does things that don't make sense to me, and who never seems to catch a break. Like ever. And there is no one else to root for, no hope, no moments of levity, and that made the book hard to read, at least for me.
Caitlin Sweet's writing is decent. I enjoyed her passages of narration quite a bit, the dialogue not as much. There are a few "-ly" words and impossibilities (someone "scoffed" a sentence at one point) but mostly the speaker attributions are okay. The real problem I have with the dialogue, though, is that a character will say something -- usually short -- and then there will be a paragraph about Nola's thoughts and feelings or actions people in the room are taking. So the conversations all seem to take an extraordinarily long time.
One thing I had a hard time with was the dog, Borl. He gets rather violently abused in a number of passages. Some of these were quite difficult for me to read. I definitely couldn't write them. Animal abuse is a touchy subject for me (I have a lot of pets). So just be forewarned.
There's also a bird, Uja, though all she (?) does is get out of her cage periodically, unlock a few doors for Nola, scrape her beak to draw blood a few times, and then fly back to the islands she came from. She didn't really add anything, in my mind.
The other feature of The Pattern Scars that didn't do anything for me was the way the story was told. Every chapter starts with a scene of present-day Nola, writing about the fact that she's writing her own story, recording her version of events. Only, the present-day Nola isn't that far past Nola at the end of the events leading up to Nola-as-chronicler of these events, in terms of timeline. She's not older and wiser. She doesn't have new insights on events. And it would have been easy to arrange the end of the story such that these sections didn't appear. If they had added something to the story, I think I'd feel different about them.
Switching topics yet again, the bad guy is so evil and one-dimensional as to be a caricature. (The fact that he came from a humble background is not enough to redeem him, in my mind.)
As for magic, it starts out as Otherseeing, which as I've said, is a bit like divination, but Otherseeing morphs into something else, where there's another world (of sorts) that Otherseers can get to, and from there, the truly powerful can manipulate people's lives, even bring them back from the dead.
I'm ambivalent about this book, in the end. I wouldn't call it bad, not at all, I just don't think it's really my thing. I DO like dark fiction, but perhaps not this dark. However, The Pattern Scars is mostly well-written and I would still give Caitlin Sweet's books another chance in the future. 3.5 stars for being seriously depressing, but I'll round up to 4.