Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Father's Child

I've wrapped up The Father's Child by Mark Adair, and even a few days later, I'm not sure what precisely I'm feeling about it.  There were parts that were very, very good.  There were parts where the writing got choppy and problematic.  It hit one of my personal pet peeves, and not in a good way.  It hit one of my best loves, in a very good way.

So, let's start at the very beginning.  What is it about?

A lot of things.  On one level it's a secret society thriller.  Go a little deeper and it's a treatises on power and the use thereof.  It's a study of love: romantic and platonic.  It's a story of friendship.

I don't usually try to describe the plot of a book in a review.  Usually, I try to avoid spoilers, but I'll have a hard time getting into what I really liked, and didn't, without going into the plot.  So if you wish to avoid spoilers, now's the time to skip to the next review.

In a nutshell John Eris Truman is a technological wunderkind.  He's got brains oozing out his ears.  He's also shy and not very good with people.  His best friend, Paul Eastman, is the yang to his yin.  He's outgoing, good with people, and not stupid, but not John's style of hyper-analytical either.  The story opens with their third buddy, George, being kidnapped by a group of exceptionally competent professionals at their bi-annual mid-term bash.  Fast forward two years, and the FBI still has no clue what happened to George.  Paul and John wrap up college and head west, starting anew amid the sunshine and beaches of California.

Then things start to get a bit weird.  John starts to remember details about what happened right before George was kidnapped.  Those details get them noticed by a mysterious organization.  John gets 'kidnapped' and then 'rescued' and spends a few months in the care of his new friend, Sam, his 'rescuer.'  They spend hours talking about the fate of the world.  We learn how John has always felt a deep need to make the world a better place, a deep responsibility to better humanity.  And throughout this he's having some sort of religious/psychic visions (daymares he calls them).

Meanwhile, Paul is looking for his friend.  He's aided in this endeavor by Julia; an ex-CIA member, hired by Susan's (more on her in a bit) father as head of his security, in charge with fighting the mysterious organization, called The New Dawn; and Susan, long time girlfriend/love of John.  Julia explains to them the New Dawn is a super-secret cabal with tentacles in every echelon of power.  They have a vision of the good that they will do whatever is necessary to achieve.  Susan's dad has been fighting them, and in retaliation, they kidnap kids dear to him, like George, and now that he's found out about it, John, and as soon as they can get their hands on him, Paul.

Eventually, of course, Paul finds John, and it turns out the New Dawn is behind all of it.  Julia's a member.  (It's hinted Susan's Dad is, too.) And once a mystical/technological ceremony; involving not just implanting a computer chip into John's brain, but a necromancer, three-hundred-year-old-blood, and a computer system that can rule the world; takes place, John will find himself a shadow king of Earth with Paul, Julia, and Susan as his highest counsel.

Over the course of this, we learn that The New Dawn is not all puppies and sunshine.  Once John takes over he really will have the power to make the world a better place.  But some absolutely horrific things had to happen to get him that power.  If you can, imagine a hybrid of the Bene Gesserit, The Illuminati (Wilson and Shea's version), and a smattering of Cthulu, you'll have something that sort of gives you an idea of The New Dawn.

So, with that set up, we run into my pet peeve: sloppy moral thinking.  Adair tells us that John really will have the power to make the world a better place.  We aren't talking Hope and Change here, where the words sound good, but very little actually happens.  We're talking about eradicating poverty and disease.  We're talking end of war.  Adair also tells us that John and The New Dawn will become one organism.  So, even if horrible things had to happen to get John the power to make the world a better place, they do not have to continue happening because John, by will alone, can wield this power, and there's no reason he has to continue in those plans. 

Basically, this is the Spiderman moment: with great power comes...  Nothing.  With an immensely powerful organization capable of changing the world, John, Paul and Susan decide to destroy it.  Sure, they could have saved the lives of billions of people, destroyed hunger, ended disease, stopped war, but The New Dawn was involved in some horrific things to get them that power, so they used John's access to kill it.

Basically Peter Parker, upon noticing the research facility that created the spider was also doing absolutely evil genetic research, decided to set fire to it, stay a college student, majoring in journalism, and eventually became an investigative reporter.  The web slinger never sees the light of day.

And this is where I, as a reader, start banging my head against the wall.  I get the point of where Adair was going.  I understand his play on turning away from the corrupting influence of almost infinite power.  The problem is, he didn't set up the New Dawn or John in such a way that the reader comes away impressed and relieved that John stepped back from the power.  Yes, the New Dawn is immensely creepy.  But John is an immensely good character. A character who, with almost limitless power and in an absolute frothing rage, gives the man who made him that angry a black eye, and then stalks off in a huff.  John is basically a Paladin. And he has complete and utter control over The New Dawn.  So instead of Darth Vader being seduced by the power of the dark side and turning away from it, all I was left with was a sense of the immense loss of opportunity.  Basically, John needed to be a whole lot darker for this plot to work convincingly.

Since we're already on the negative side, let me talk a little about the writing as well.  For the most part the story is well written.  Then we get to the climax of the book.

As an author there are two parts of the book you want to absolutely nail.  The beginning because that's where you attract your reader, and the climax because, well, it's the climax.  Adair did a fine job with the first 90ish percent of the story, then we get to the climax and the writing begins to feel rushed.  He starts bounding over details that would have been nice to see, though he does have John remember some of them later in a flashback. Which is remarkably unsatisfying.  He begins switching point of view rapidly, which isn't necessarily a deal breaker for me.  It's a good technique for building tension and giving us both story lines, but both of his POV characters are in first person.  Now, most of the time this isn't an issue.  Adair has done a good job of giving both characters very distinct voices, so figuring out who is who takes maybe a sentence or two tops.  But when you're flipping back and forth every few paragraphs, and it takes a line or two to figure out whose head you're in, it's more distracting than entrancing.

Then, right as the climax is drawing near, he tosses in a twist that I was expecting, but hoping he'd restrain himself from doing.  He didn't set it up properly to have the sort of punch it needed, so it fizzled.  Like with the decision to destroy New Dawn, I could see what he was trying to do, but it needed a few extra pages of background and tension building to really pull off.

Okay, enough of the stuff I didn't like, let's talk about the good stuff. 

Character voice: Adair absolutely nailed it.  John and Paul have distinct voices, both of which flow naturally, use words convincingly, and make me like the characters.  I'd be happy to have both Paul and John as friends.  They are fully rounded, vibrant characters.

Humor: once again Adair does a great job with this element of the story.  The Father's Child could have been soul-suckingly grim, but it wasn't because of how well Paul is written.  He's funny, occasionally goofy, but not so much that you want to slap him.  He's a bit of a light-weight as a thinker, but it's an element this story badly needed.  If you've ever seen NCIS, he'll put you in mind of DiNozzo. 

The relationship between John and Paul.  This is something I love to see in a book: a well-written, convincing, deep male friendship.  Usually in thrillers men relate to each other in terms of killing one another or partnering up for the duration of the mission.  Sometimes there's a sidekick as well, whose main purpose is to provide comic relief.  Now, while it is true that Paul is there for comic relief, he's way past the 'sidekick' role.  He's a fully defined protagonist in his own right.  And between them is a relationship worth exploring.  A friendship that feels real, intimate, yet fully masculine as well. 

Lastly, Adair is handy with his visual imagery.  While in Paul's head he's funny and witty, in John's he's intensely visual, seeing and describing things in detailed shades of beautiful language.

All of which is why, five days after finishing the book, I'm still not sure if I liked it or disliked it.  I know I'm frustrated.  I know Adair can write.  I saw him do it.  I read it.  But then the climax hits and the prose goes all wonky, and the penultimate scene of the book doesn't happen until a flashback at the end.  Which made me a very unhappy reader.  But it's got a great friendship, and some wonderful characters, and I really liked the use of visual imagery.  Which made me a very happy reader. 

On, two stars equals it's okay.  And I think that's where I'm going to leave The Father's Child.  I have high hopes that Mark Adair's further adventures with the written word will be excellent.


  1. So you are saying that a good end would have been one person in the world having absolute power? And that of course, being a good guy he would have only used that for good because absolute power does not corrupt absolutely? Not taking over the world was "a lost opportunity" because that people choosing their own governments stuff is just a load of tosh and what we need is a super being to take over all those little details like running our governments and our lives?

    Hmmm... I think I may have a problem with your logic there.

    That said I have a problem with the cliched "shy geek genius" thing. Not sure I'd want to read this, but I really question your thinking on part of your criticism, Keryl. *smile*

    I may download the sample though.

  2. This is where reading the book helps. It's not a dichotomy between freedom and slavery. (Though I think Mark intended it to be that. He just didn't actually write it that way.) It's the dichotomy between being ruled by the shadow gov with most of it's power in place, or being ruled with it completed in it's mystical sense and thus able to perfect the world.

    Freedom doesn't really come into play, and it should have. Some discussion of what was going to happen when the shadow gov. vanished wouldn't have been out of order. Some discussion of even if this could be properly dismantled would have been useful. The New Dawn has people in the uppermost levels of all of the power players on the entire globe. Killing New Dawn would do nothing to remove those tens of thousands of people.

    Basically though it's the internal logic of the story that's missing here. These are a bunch of fresh out of college, want-to-save-the-world types. Freedom's not on their positive good list, or if it is, it's way below end war, end poverty, end disease, and on and on.

    It's not any value of freedom that causes John to back away. It's not even so much the fear that he'll misuse the power. It's the fact that really bad things had to happen to get him the power that makes him decide to chuck it.

    Basically, John was left with near Godlike powers by the time the story is done, and I just don't see him realistically coming up with a decision where he wouldn't at least try to use the power to make things better.

    That's sort of the point of a Paladin-type character: they have to step in and fight the good fight. They feel compelled to make sure their idea of the good is carried out. They don't sit idly by and allow people to suffer when they can step in and fix things.

    John needed something to let him think he'd not use the power well to make his refusal of it realistic. There had to be something to justify turning away what was offered to him. And that's just not there. It's hinted at. And I know Mark was trying to write it. But he didn't quite pull it off.

    Hence my frustration. This book is really close to right. My guess is it would have taken less than ten pages of rewriting to really sell this point and make it work.

  3. Or, the short version, the characters within their own moral system are thinking sloppily.

    I try not to bring my own morality into play when dealing with reviews.

  4. Well, I wasn't accusing you of that, just what I was hearing you say (which wasn't what you were saying ;-) ) didn't seem to make sense to me. I can see where your problem would be with that when you explain it more fully, especially if he still has these god-like powers at the end of the book. Bad things happen all the time in defending or achieving something someone values. They don't necessarily stop because of that, or they may. But it is an issue that needs to be looked at, is one of the underlying issues in some of my own novels. How much do you sacrifice? At what point does the struggle for the good turn into evil?