In his Poetics, Aristotle claims the first principle of a work, its soul, is found in the plot -- the characters, he says, are secondary concerns.
Ya Boy's Greco-Roman spin on the xianxia genre, though, clearly demonstrates Aristotle had not cultivated his philosopher's soul enough to reach the divine truth; Virtuous Sons lives and dies by its characters and staggering style, and it is living well indeed. Get in folks, this story is going to go places.
I'm almost torn about reviewing now, since we are still so clearly in the early going, but I've been following this since the first piece of it dropped and it's good enough I needed to talk about it somewhere.
First, briefly, grammar -- I confess that for me, grammar is binary: either it is distracting poor and an impediment to enjoyment, or it is not. The grammar of Virtuous Sons is certainly not gratuitously poor. I've not noticed anything in the mechanical writing that was an issue, nothing to jar the reader from the work. A success, enough said.
Next, story -- the story section of the review was the one that took me the longest to mark, because I think it's the only one that admits of a possibility of less than five stars (as we stand at 0.17), so I'll spend the most time nattering on about it. Spoilers, though, I decided on 5 stars.
Let me talk through why.
The bit about Aristole at the start of the review was meant to be a bit of a memetic take on the genre and setting of Virtuous Sons, but it wasn't just a meme. There are (at least) two competing theses when it comes to writing a story. On the one hand, as Aristole suggests, one can write a compelling plot, then build a world and characters to see the plot fulfilled; on the other, one builds compelling characters and sticks them in an interesting and well-realized world, and the plot flows naturally from what has been built. From where I stand, Virtuous Sons appears to be written in the second style.
The issue, of course, is that this style of storytelling takes some time to "come online", so to speak, and this is still the early going. If Virtuous Sons has a meaningful weakness, it is in plot; as we stand as of today's update, not a ton has happened.
The seeds are clearly planted. The characters are inexorably moving towards conflicts that will necessitate proper plot developments, and the world clearly has plenty of mysteries and wrinkles to work out when the action inevitably moves from the cradle it is currently taking place in to other venues. The story is clearly coming.
The early pacing is the nature of what I've been calling the second style of writing -- for the plot developments to feeling meaningful to the all-important characters, for them to send plausible ripples through that well-realized world, time has to be taken to really establish the starting point. Unless I miss my guess, we're nearing the end of that phase now, and Ya Boy has earned my trust through his displays of skill elsewhere in this story that he will handle the oncoming plot adroitly as well. This isn't some bloated mess of a start with glacial pacing -- every update is pointed and deliberate -- these things just take a bit of time and wordcount.
Succinctly, what I've seen makes me more than happy to wait on him to finish setting up dominoes in the form of interesting story threads before knocking them down and setting the plot properly in motion.
On to style and character -- these together, because Ya Boy handles them together.
The virtuous sons at the heart of the story are well-realized and well-done, of course, but that flies off the page in a self-evident sort of way that makes my talking about it almost extraneous, I think; their character voices are snappy and clever and distinct, the characters are sympathetic but clearly flawed, the position they occupy is carefully balanced to expose them to all of the most interesting bits of the world, and so on.
I could write another 500 words easily enough on all the good things that Ya Boy does with his main characters, but I'll spare you -- suffice it to say that I think they are extremely well-written.
The other characters are a bit of a spectrum - the alternate perspective characters are all well-realized as well, though less than Lio and Sol, but some of the other cast are more bit characters than fully fleshed out people. This is a bit of a necessary evil, though, especially if the story does move on from the location it is currently occurring in. Even the characters that have been shallowly developed in the story feel plausibly real, if not deep, and I think that's the mark of strong character work. It's all very good.
But Typh, you say, what about the style? I thought that had to do with the characters?
The crowing achievement of Virtuous Sons, ignoring all of the gushing praise above, is that it is absolutely dripping with style. And sure, that makes it especially readable and does much to recommend the story.
But that's not the important bit of the style.
The important part of the style is what the writing style and the tone of each perspective tells us about the characters. I know as much about Lio from the words Ya Boy uses to write his sections and the way those parts are structured as I do from what Lio actually thinks or says -- more, probably, because Lio lies, but the style does not. It's a masterstroke, and it elevates good characters and worldbuilding into something spectacular.
If you're still with me nearly 1000 words later, you don't need a summary to know what I think, but here's your tl;dr anyway:
This story is good. Like really, genuinely, good. If you read one thing today, read this. I don't even like xianxia and I've been looking forward to each days updates since the story began.
If you enjoy good writing, you'll enjoy Virtuous Sons, full-stop -- from my virtuous lips to your virtuous ears.