Saturday, March 12, 2011

Indie Book Review: The Summoner

Spoiler alert: read at your own risk!

So, what do stories and chocolate have in common?  They both come in different levels of darkness.  Some days you want light creamy white chocolate, sweet with just the scent of chocolate.  Some days you want black, bitter, barely sweet with hints of the land it grew in 80% cocoa chocolate.  The Summoner is a dark story.  This is not a light, cute, or fun little read, but when you're in the mood for a dark story, it satisfies like Dagoba Eclipse (87% cocoa) chocolate.  

For a little self revelation here, Paranormal Thriller is not my first choice genre.  Not that I don't like it, but I don't seek it out either.  But if it's yours, The Summoner is an excellent example and well worth the reading.

This is the first book in a series, and as such the story arc gets the characters together and gives them a reason to stay together.  In a weaker writer's hand this becomes the main focus of the story, and the plot suffers for it.  This is not true of the Summoner, the plot, although neatly accomplishing this goal, is not overpowered by it.  Also, unlike other several other ensemble stories, where it seems like the only reason the group could possibly stay together or function is the author wants it that way, these characters actually work together well.   

And who are these characters?  Dominic is the leading man.  He's working diplomatic security for the American Embassy in Harare Zimbabwe, and watching his career fizzle like the last ember of a campfire with a wet towel tossed on it.  As he puts it, his moral compass and the moral compass of his bosses do not agree on what direction north is.  He values everyone's life.  They'd prefer he did his job, making sure the (American) people around him are safe, ignoring whatever chaos and danger might be around unless it threatens them. 

Then a friend of the American Ambassador, a man called William Addison, goes missing.  He and his girlfriend visit a religious ceremony in the bush.  William walks into the center of the ceremony and vanishes.  Because he's a friend of the Ambassador there will be an attempt to find him.  Dominic gets called in to investigate (Why him specifically is a little fuzzy.  We're left with the impression that he was available.  He wasn't a cop or missing persons investigator in his pre-security life, and most of his current investigations are in visa fraud.)  But this is Zimbabwe, so it's not like he can just go off and John Wayne it.  The Zimbabwean government wants him to have someone from the Government with him at all times. 

Enter Nya.  We don't ever find out what specifically she does for the government, but we do know that investigating missing Americans isn't part of her usual tasks.  She's reserved, mistrustful of the Americans, and has a vaguely sinister air about her.  After all, she works for the Zimbabwean government, not an entity known for its justice, competence, or its dedication to providing the best possible outcomes for anyone who isn't the government.   She's wary of Dominic, unsure if he's a colonial lay about, out to abuse the locals, or an ineffectual do-gooder.  He's wary of her, seeing a woman willing to work for Mugabe's thugs. 

Between them: the professor.  Victor is a religious phenomenologist.  He studies how people understand the things that happen in relation to religious experience.  He's the guy who wants to know how people react to a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary, not the guy who tries to figure out why it's bleeding.  He's also my favorite of the characters.  The fact that I've got a degree in religious studies and did some course work on phenomenology may have something to do with this.  The fact that we're not given much background on him, and he's left a mysterious and complexly dark character is also part of the attraction.

And so the story begins, these three are going to find William and learn to trust each other.  Of course, it's not a simple disappearance.  Like the X-files at it's best, this is dark, creepy, and by the end you don't know if magic actually happened or not. Both Scully and Mulder could have walked away from this case satisfied that their own personal truths had been vindicated. 

The setting is Harare, Zimbabwe, and the surrounding suburbs and bush.  Before reading this story what I knew about Zimbabwe could be summed up like this: it was doing its best to make North Korea look competently governed.  After finishing The Summoner, I want to get more books on Zimbabwe and it's religions to learn more about it.  Reading The Summoner I feel like I was there, that for a little while at least, I got to spend some time in a beautiful country ruined by ugly men.  The setting also works as a metaphor for the religious ceremony at the heart of this case.  The dark Juju ritual is exotic and terrifying.  It, like Zimbabwe, is far outside the experience of most westerners, and tinged with a vague sense of discomforting awfulness.    

I liked the romance, but it's a men's romance.  There's basically only one spot in the story where a bit of lovin' fits in, and it's right there.  I don't know if it's common enough to be a clich√©, but I've certainly seen it in a lot of stories written by men.  The hero gets beaten to a pulp.  The heroine patches him up.  They've got a few hours until it's time to move onto whatever the next step it.  Sex ensues.  The romance makes sense and is in character for the characters, but as soon as you see Nya going for the first aid equipment, you know what's coming.  What I did find especially refreshing (though this might be a side effect of being written by a man) is that Dominic and Nya certainly like each other, and are tentatively moving toward something solid and permanent, but they don't start spouting declarations of undying love.  Characters that fall in love in three days turn me off.  Characters that value each other and are willing to fight for each other in that short of a time make me very happy.  

I have one fine quibble with The Summoner, on several occasions the plot is forward by the characters doing stupid things.  They have a tendency to wander off and investigate on their own, without telling the others what they're up to.  Now, I get these aren't bosom buddies who have long ties to each other, but still, people are getting killed, the bad guys are really bad, with torture and fates literally worse than death on the menu, and still, keeping each other in the loop is haphazard at best. 

In storytelling there is the meta story, the story as built by the author.  Characters acting stupid to keep the plot going is the kind of thing where the meta story starts to show to the reader.  If the characters do a good job of checking in with each other, then the death-defying, last-minute, out-of-the-blue rescue can't happen.  If everyone keeps everyone in the loop, the mystery of what happened to Nya doesn't work, and the reveal of the bad guy happens a bit sooner than Green wants it to. 

Another example of the meta showing is Dominic is a jujitsu master.  He's a match for any two guys, and often more than that.  He was a Marine.  He's got deadly force down.  But, when going to the rescue, when he has the advantage of both range and surprise, instead of pulling out a gun and blowing the bad guy away, he closes in for fist fight. (The careful reader will mention here, but he didn't have a gun to pull out.  He'd lost his gun by that point.  To which I'd reply, why didn't he get a new one or find his old one earlier?  He had time and opportunity to do both between losing his gun and getting into the position where he could have shot.  He doesn't have a gun because the author wants it that way.)  Victor, also in perfect sniper position, opts for creeping in unarmed, and taking his chances instead of shooting the N'ganga (The Summoner, the alpha bad guy) from afar.  Now, a few clean bullets don't make for good storytelling.  They don't ratchet up the drama.  They don't allow for more last minute saves and tension filled fights where Green gets to show us how good he is at writing combat (and he is good at it.)  They do however, make a whole lot of sense if you believe the set up, that Nya is being horribly tortured, her skin ripped off a few inches at a time, and that every minute they delay is another minute in excruciating pain for her.  If you believe in that set up, and supposedly those characters do, they should be doing everything they can to move as fast as possible to get her out of there.

This is not a perky little read.  There is no happily ever after here, especially not for William.  The mystery of what happened to him is solved, but everyone is left with scars, physical and or mental, from this case.  I found the ending is all the more satisfying for it's reality.  Dark, gritty, stories where horrible things happen and then the main characters skip off into the sunset are like walking in too small shoes to me: irritating and painful.  While I'm sure Dominic and Victor will be back, I'm less certain about Nya.  She may be too broken to have much of a role in the coming stories.  Or not.  We're left with some hope, but no certainty with her.  The one thing I do know with certainty, when Dominic Gray II comes out, I'll be there to read it.

No comments:

Post a Comment