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 Goodreads.com, 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.