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At its core, "A Song for Vargas" is the story of a sea captain who is in search of an unattainable dream. It is a quest that has haunted him since childhood, and it is this goal that has driven him to travel far through many arduous adventures. A story as simple as this relies much on the execution for its effect, and sadly, this is where the story fails.
The story's main fault is that it is overladen with many elements that do not contribute to the core of the story. The captain is haunted by four ghosts and keeps a talking skull for company. Everything the captain touches suddenly turns gray. These are elements introduced early on, but they seem to have been added simply for mood. None of them is fully explained. Only the skull plays any role, and unfortunately, it's that of deus ex machina for the ultimate revelation.
The story suffers from unfocused central intelligence. We begin with an idyllic island and its people. And then we shift to the captain. And then we shift to the crew. And then we shift to the priest. These shifts are confusing and distract the reader from the flow of the story. It isn't until the last three pages that the story comes together, and it really just involves two characters.
The characterization is poor. Only the captain seems to have been fleshed out, and even then the revelation of his motivations is desultory and verbose. The supporting cast is pure cardboard. Most glaring are the reactions, which run along these lines: "What? The captain is haunted by ghosts? Oh, okay." There's no terror at all, as if this were only mildly unusual.
The setting is arbitrary and poorly researched. We are led to believe that this is the Hispanic Philippines. Even hewing loosely to historical accuracy, the priest (not a parson, as the author repeatedly insists) would have established the church and the village first before any mode of Hispanic government would have been imposed. Similarly, keeping a galleon as a floating off-island base for an eccentric captain is a dreadful waste of resources.
Finally, the story warrants a fair bit of editing. Tenses do not match, incomplete phrases stand for sentences, and its far too wordy. The cadence is difficult to get into, and the first page alone would have turned off casual readers.
All of this detracts from some otherwise memorable scenes, like the dinner between the captain and the priest and the conversation between the priest and the talking skull. These are elements that could have been used to much better effect in a story with the proper flow and characterization.