Howard Gordon (www.howardmgordon.com)
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Here’s a good concept for one of those rollercoaster-ride thrillers that I like to read from time to time, the type of book that doesn’t require much concentration, but delivers entertainment by the bucketful: Gideon Davis is a peacemaker, a man working for the US president who spends most of his time at the negotiating table, trying to get all sides in any civil war or otherwise violent conflict to see eye to eye. He’s good at what he does because he believes in the peaceful approach and, because of a horrific incident in his past, has vowed never to take a human life, or use a gun. His brother, Tillman, is the flipside of the same coin: a man who believes that the only way to combat violence is with violence. Tillman, working undercover for the government, has spent the past several years in the oil-rich nation of Mohan posing as terrorist Abu Nasir, attempting to infiltrate the jihadist movement that is threatening the stability of the small island nation.
Tillman, seemingly, has gone rogue, and taken the terrorist activities to the extreme. Now, he wants to come home, and will only surrender himself to his brother. The handover is scheduled to take place on the monolithic Obelisk, a giant drilling platform located off the coast of the island in the South China Seas. But as the main players move into position, the Obelisk is seized by a man claiming to be Abu Nasir, and Gideon Davis finds himself struggling to survive in a hostile country with nothing but the rapidly-solidifying knowledge that the only way he might survive is with a gun in his hand.
With a concept like that, a main character who sits in the same moral space as Jack Reacher, and a man like Howard Gordon – executive producer and writer of popular television series 24 – behind the wheel, you can be guaranteed a great ride. Or can you? Or should I say, Or can you?
The answer is a resounding “Yes”, for the first half of the book. With twists that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of 24 – you certainly can’t trust anyone – and a plot that moves at frantic speed, you’ll be quite literally perched on the edge of your seat, trying to turn the pages faster to see what’s going to happen next. And introducing a 24-hour deadline certainly doesn’t hurt things. But somewhere around the halfway mark – maybe slightly further in – Mr Gordon loses his momentum, or maybe his interest, and what could have been an action thriller to rival the best of Lee Child turns into a formulaic, predictable, frustrating mess.
Simon & Schuster appear to have looked at the name on the front of this manuscript, slapped a 24-like cover on the front, and thought “instant audience” (as a long time fan of the show, I am that instant audience), with nary a thought for actually reading what was inside, never mind assigning an editor or proof-reader. The book is littered with typos – from spelling mistakes that should have been picked up by any spell-checker, to the omniscient third-person narrator using “we” and “our” instead of “America” and “American” (most obvious in a sentence about how President Diggs was attempting to keep “our troops” out of any more conflicts). There is one point towards the end of the novel where I counted FOUR point-of-view shifts in the space of a single page, sometimes mid-paragraph, leaving the reader more than a little confused about whose head, exactly, we’re supposed to be in right now. And then, the coup de grace: within the first fifty pages, there are at least three attempts on Gideon Davis’ life, all masterminded by the Main Bad Guy, who feels Gideon is a viable threat to his plans. Shortly after his arrival on the oil rig, MBG has Gideon dead to rights, trapped in a small room with no way out, Gideon unarmed and MBG holding an AK-47 on him. And in true Dr Evil style, he decides not to kill him, but to lock him up with the rest of the hostages where he can plot further damage in the run-up to ending up in bed with the only female in a hundred-mile radius.
The scene from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery popped into my head as I read it, and I would have thrown the book across the room if I hadn’t already invested so much time in it:
Dr. Evil: All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.
[guard starts dipping mechanism]
Dr. Evil: Close the tank!
Scott Evil: Wait, aren’t you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr. Evil: No no no, I’m going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I’m just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott Evil: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I’ll get it, I’ll come back down here, BOOM, I’ll blow their brains out!
Dr. Evil: Scott, you just don’t get it, do ya? You don’t.
A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24 box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.
|The Demi-Monde: Winter
The Demi-Monde in the title of Rod Rees’ new novel – a novel that forms the first part of a quadrilogy – refers to an advanced virtual reality environment commissioned by the US government to simulate so-called “Asymmetric Warfare Environments” – places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the normal “rules” of war do not apply, and traditional armies find themselves somewhat out of their depths. The idea behind the Demi-Monde is that trainee soldiers will be immersed in the environment and receive training that will stand them in good stead when they find themselves in one of these AWEs.
The Demi-Monde, a circular world enclosed in an impenetrable boundary, is split into five sectors, each of which consists of three or four city-states modelled on real-world locations – London, Berlin, Warsaw. It is vastly overpopulated, and has a number of key conflict-points built in – religion, gender, colour – which makes it the ideal training environment, as it is a world that constantly exists on the verge of all-out war.
To make things more interesting, the world has been seeded with a couple of handfuls of real-world historical figures, usually psychopaths, whose drive for power feeds the constant strife and ensures that the tensions are kept, at the very least, on a constant simmer. People like Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of “the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”, Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Lavrentiy Beria, the head of Stalin’s secret police.
As the novel opens, elements within the Demi-Monde have managed to shut it off from the Real World, trapping everyone inside, and allowing no-one else in, at which point it is discovered that the daughter of the President of the United States is trapped inside. Unable to pull the plug without killing the girl, the US government enlists young Ella Thomas to enter through a back-door left by the software’s creator and retrieve her. As Ella becomes enmeshed in the machinations of Heydrich and Aleister Crowley, she finds herself in the middle of a world at war, with only a handful of people on whom she can rely.
The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books. A sprawling work it may be, but it manages to maintain its pace throughout. There are some edge-of-the-seat moments – the defence of Warsaw is a good example – that left me gasping for breath, and for more of the same.
It’s not, however, without its flaws. The biggest problem, in my point of view, is also a relatively small one, in terms of the overall plot. In designing a computer simulation to help train soldiers to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military decided a 19th Century steam-driven world would be the best option. Why not a world that more closely modelled the environments they found themselves fighting in? Which is not to say that Rees should have created a virtual desert world, because that’s not nearly as interesting as the Victorian world he created, but that he should probably have come up with a more plausible explanation for the world he created. But it’s a minor quibble. WINTER, the first book in the Demi-Monde cycle, is a fine addition to the genre, and a wonderful taster of the three novels still to come.
On a more physical note, Quercus have produced an absolutely beautiful volume, not at all what you’d expect to find on the shelves of your local bookshop, but rather something you’d expect to pay a premium for from a small-press publisher. The jacketless printed cover with gold-leaf effect is a beautiful addition to any bookshelf. If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.