I started Black Earth: End of the Innocence with a lot of hope. I did my usual pre-review routine of reading the blurb and the first chapter. Both of them looked good. The first chapter is arresting and sets up the promise of a really interesting story. I was happy to agree to review Black Earth.
Unfortunately Black Earth starts going downhill from there pretty swiftly.
This is a big book, and it's the first in a series with, I think, thirteen point of view characters. It's entirely possible I've forgotten a few. On the upside I rarely found myself confusing them with each other. On the downside the whole book is more or less character introductions, a little back story, and a tiny bit of plot. I read the kindle version, so I'm guessing here, but this is probably a 400+ page story where by the end of it we're just starting to get a feel for what might be going on.
What is going on? It's hard to tell. The world is falling apart. Meteorites are crashing into the planet. Aliens or demons, possibly alien demons, are ramping up for war against God. Teenagers with superpowers are fumbling around trying to figure out what is going on. The President of the United States appears to be the Anti-Christ, or working for the Anti-Christ, it's fuzzy. There's some sort of time-travel-fix-the-future, and counter-time-travel-keep-the-future-the-way-it-is angle. Other planets have been destroyed by Legion (the alien demons). There's something about getting humans off of Earth to a new planet (which may have been destroyed in the future, by Legion) so they can evolve and avoid the destruction of Earth. There are bad guys galore (more on this later), and absolute scads of purposeless violence. Any one of these threads could have been a book by itself, but they're all scattered together, and none of them developed enough to do more than give the reader a glimpse of a building story. Basically, we get to read the first third of something like six books.
And then it just stops. Part of how a series is supposed to be built is that each part is a story of its own. Look at Harry Potter, each of the novels has a complete story arc while building up the larger arc of the series. It's possible one of the arcs this story began with ended. All the rest of them are left dangling. If there is an overarching theme of this book, it's everything falling apart, and that's well and truly going gangbusters by the time Black Earth has ended.
There's a saying: a book is only as good as its bad guys. And while that isn't always true, clunky, melodramatic villains will just kill a book. Unfortunately Black Earth has a lot of them. There's Evanescence, Witch Queen of the Damned (something like a Super Satan), The President of the United States (the Anti-Christ?), Mr. Silver (misogynistic, super-rich-corporate-tycoon-James-Bond-style-villain), Alpha 1 (psychopathic killer working for Mr. Silver), Theresa (counter time travel sociopath), and a few other random psychopaths. And all of them need mustaches to twirl. There is not a single subtle, sane bad guy in the lot. Be prepared for clunky dialog; psychopathic musings; megalomaniacs; ice-cold, stone-hard killers, who can be distracted and overpowered by untrained victims; random, useless violence; and monologues that give the good guys the chance to escape.
Good dialog makes me want to sing the praises of a book. Bad dialog makes me want to cry. This book is riddled with stilted and stiff dialog, mostly coming from the mouths of the bad guys. On top of that most of the characters use the same basic vocabulary. Quick example: things are falling out of the sky and crashing into Earth. With the exception of one NASA scientist, everyone calls them falling stars: not meteors, meteorites, comets, shooting stars, or anything else. All of the characters have precisely the same internal vocabulary for this event, even the ones who come from another planet. Here's another example: no one curses. At first I thought this was a young adult book, but no, it has a not-suitable-for-under-17 note on it, so there's no reason that no one ever utters 'shit' or 'fuck.' There are some seriously scuzzy people in this book and one rough teenager, and none of them ever says anything beyond a PG rated word. Not to say I'm a fan of profanity for profanity's sake, but I am a fan of realistic dialog, and at the very least, the kind of teen girl who sets up her own sex club in high school is likely to mutter something untoward upon finding she's been drugged and raped.
And that leads into another aspect of this book, it's Christian fiction. (Not that you can find this out by reading the description or the genre. Why this isn't mentioned in the description or genre is puzzling.) I think this is why no one curses, even though it would be in character for at least a few of them to be doing it. This might also explain the fact that there is only one gray character and everyone else is fully a black hat or white hat.
I like eschatology, and while there's a lot of creative work going on in this version of the end times, it's heavy handed. The President is a bad guy. How do we learn that at first? We find out she's had the "under God" bit removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. As a work of theology goes, this one isn't sophisticated. There's plenty of room for theodicy in this story, but either his characters or Alderman isn't up to it. Instead of spending some real time on what it means that an all powerful God allows evil and suffering, we get the tired tropes of 'it makes us stronger' or 'keep the faith.'
Then there's writing as a technical aspect of putting words together. Parts of this book are eloquent and graceful. Parts feel like a car with a shot suspension driving over a pitted, rocky, country road. Word choice was problematic. Alderman often uses a word that sounds similar to the one he wants, but isn't it: equitable for equal or correlating for corresponding. Likewise he comes up with sentences that sound good, but don't actually mean what I think he was trying to convey. Point of view is also an issue. He's either writing third person omniscient badly, or head hopping from one third person limited to another. Either way it's distracting. You think you're in one character's head, next thing you know there's an info dump involving stuff the character shouldn't know, then you're in another character's head. Top this off with many scenes ending in a cliff hanger, and when next we see those characters they've suddenly gotten off of the cliff, without Alderman bothering to tell us how it happened.
All of this is excruciatingly disappointing because the first few chapters are good. Alderman can write decent teenagers (adults and children not so much). The first chapter has stunningly beautiful imagery and makes you want to read more. The first few chapters that follow were good enough I kept working out so I could read more. (And I'm not what anyone would call a fan of the elliptical machine. Reading the beginning, my normal twenty minutes grew to thirty before I hit the first rough patch.) Then suddenly, it all goes awry and we're stuck in the land of stilted dialog and insane bad-guys. I'm giving it two stars, and wishing the promises of the first chapters could have been fulfilled.