From time to time I deliberately subject myself to books that I suspect are not going to be stimulating literary treats. It was in this frame of mind that I bought Son of Perdition, a novel by Wendy Alec (writing as W Alec), the co-founder of GOD TV (which I didn’t know when I bought it).
My first piece of advice to Ms Alec – or, at least, the team responsible for her cover art and bindings – is, if you’re going to write a novel that is part of a series, somewhere you should show which part of the series the book constitutes. Nowhere on the front or rear covers, spine, or opening pages does it inform you that this is the third in a proposed series of seven novels. In consequence, I was well into it before I began to suspect there was a whole lot of backstory I was missing.
Anyway, the plot: Lucifer kicks off the Apocalypse by begetting a child in a weird kind of virgin birth, whereby he clones his own genetic material. The boy, Adrian De Vere, is one of three brothers (as is Lucifer, whose brothers are Michael & Gabriel), and the two triads of brothers give their name to the series: Chronicles of Brothers. Adrian is now President of the EU, and in the aftermath of the Third World War he is the most powerful man in the world. His ascent to that position has been assured by the Illuminati (yes, them again), guided through Satanic ritual and running the world through a combination of global financial control, military black ops and total media dominance.
No conspiracy theory is left untouched, with 9/11, the credit crunch and economic meltdown all attributable to this shadowy council of 13. Meanwhile, in the First Heaven the angelic forces are marshalling to wage war and fight Armageddon, while in Hell Lucifer’s host is growing stronger and some now are beginning to walk the earth…
All of which is a set-up for a great supernatural thriller, which Ms Alec does not provide. Partly this is a question of technique. Ms Alec has never met an adjective she didn’t like (like? She’s practically co-habiting with them), which has led to such fine examples of the literary art as:
His face, although strangely scarred, was regal. The wide brow and straight patrician nose framed imperious sapphire eyes that held a mesmerising beauty.
His thick raven hair was silvering at the edges. On a normal day, he wore it pulled back fastidiously into a braid bound by a simple black band….
But today was not a normal day and this evening De Molay’s gleaming tresses fell loose to the shoulders of an exquisitely tailored Domenico Vacca suit that accentuated the well-honed body beneath it.
And so on and so forth for 393 interminable pages. One wonders if this is now the style encouraged after the success of such literary luminaries as Dan Brown. Dan Brown, incidentally, comes under fire in a neat little sideswipe on page 160:
“According to last decade’s pop culture, [the Illuminati] were a renaissance-era society of great thinkers who were expelled from Rome and hunted down mercilessly by the Vatican”
“Poppycock! Fiction writers.” The professor pursed his lips in annoyance. “A flagrant flight of the imagination.”
All of which makes for rollicking good – if somewhat hypocritical – fun for devotees of metafictional references. But the game of spot the literary heritage does not stop there. There are echoes of J.R.R. Tolkien in her insistence on naming every possible geographical feature and every conceivable rank or title. Sometimes these arrive in a veritable avalanche. And, like an avalanche, one feels that the relentless deluge could easily overwhelm whole villages in a matter of seconds. Take, for example, this masterful presentation of extraneous and irrelevant detail:
Charsoc the Dark, Chief High Priest of the Fallen, bowed deeply. Charsoc’s fall from the First Heaven had been second only to his nefarious Master’s. Formerly one of Yehovah’s eight High Elders of the First Heaven and second only in rank to Jether the Just, Charsoc had sunk effortlessly to become the most depraved of Lucifer’s Necromancer kings. He was Governor of the dreaded Warlock Kings of the West and the Dark Cabal Grand Wizards.
One wonders if the caps lock on her computer had developed an intermittent fault.
There are, I was once told, three types of writing. There is writing that is visible because it is bad. There is writing that is invisible – writing that conveys the story without interfering with it. Then there is writing that is visible because it is good – such as is utilised by China Mieville, who can (if I open ‘Perdido Street Station’ at random) produce such examples as
A few grey blocks rose from the streets like weeds in a cesspool, their concrete seeping and rotten. Many were unfinished, with splayed iron supports fanning out from the ghosts of roofs, rusting, bleeding with the rain and the damp, staining the skin of the buildings.
Ms. Alec’s writing, sadly, falls into the first category. It actively interferes with the narrative. It is like a clock whose ticking, once you become aware of it, proves impossible to ignore.
All this, of course, is mere superficial criticism. There are much deeper and more interesting things to discuss. There is, for example, a vein of American conservative Christianity running through the work like a faultline, and, like a faultline, it is where things tend to break down. There are the old prejudices fashionably repackaged: the devil incarnate is a Jesuit (the old idea that the Roman Catholic Church is somehow facilitative of Satan’s endgame); perfidious Europe is to be the source of the World Government (because the most popular of the books in this vein, the books by Jenkins and LaHaye and Alec and Lindsey, all see the downfall of America as being critical. That’s right – no American could be the Antichrist…); and good ol’ American conservatives are particularly singled out for elimination since they offer too serious a threat for the antichrist to countenance:
“Then, gentlemen, our coup d’etat – the United States sovereignty will be permanently eliminated.” Piers Aspinall, chief of British Intelligence Services, removed his spectacles and breathed on the lenses.
“In the first phase of the North American Union we launch the Amero currency and introduce mandatory gun control.”
He leaned back leisurely in his chair.
“We divide the world into ten superblocs. Then stage a false-flag incident – nuclear or bioterror, weaponised Avian flu, smallpox – ushering in martial law and mandatory vaccination.” He removed a perfectly pressed, linen handkerchief and polished the lenses. “We eradicate resisters. Patriots. Constitutionalists…Christians.”
This particular passage occurs just six pages into the novel, and it’s nice to see the political ducks that for the more rabidly Conservative constitute ‘demonstrations of evil intent’ lined up so neatly in a row: destruction of the American dollar, mandatory gun control, mandatory vaccinations, the death of ‘Patriots’ and ‘Constitutionalists’. It’s all so au fait it could make you weep. She’s got Avian flu! On the previous page she namechecks the 2008 market crash, the Patriot Act, bin Laden’s apparent kidney problems, the Iraq war and even the precise contents of Nawaf al-Hazmi‘s car. This is a novel designed to appeal to the more frighteningly ‘Christian’ members of the Tea Party. You know the ones: they’re the people who put the ‘mentalist’ into ‘Fundamentalist’.
And, of course, no cliché is left unexploited. Where would Americans be without British villains? (Incidentally, the goodwill Ms. Alec generates with me, a devoted reader of thrillers, through the correct use of the term ‘false-flag’, is immediately dissipated through her referral to British Intelligence Services. Either she is referring generally to the British intelligence services – note the absence of capital letters, since this is not a proper name – or she means either the British Secret Intelligence Service [popularly if inaccurately known as ‘MI6’] or the British Security Service [‘MI5’].) Even the chapter titles have the inescapable ring of the familiar to them: ‘Raiders of the Ark’, ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, ‘Dark Clouds on the Horizon’ (an interesting chapter, since you may not have been aware of the vital role the shipping forecast has to play in the end times), ‘The Cold Light of Day’, ‘Bolt from the Blue’, ‘Skeletons in the Closet’…
You know, just once I would like to see someone get a bit inventive with this kind of thing. Why not a Malaysian antichrist? A Japanese? A Cambodian? A Paraguayan? An Australian? It’s all so Western (and particularly American) -centric. To call this stuff formulaic is to insult the infinite and majestic variation of formulae. And then there’s the dialogue. Milton‘s demons had a looser and more modern turn of phrase than Ms. Alec’s, who appears – throughout, and with every character of every race – to have mistaken ‘pomposity’ for ‘majesty’. Even I, on the side of the angels, felt an urgent desire to give the Archangel Michael a good swift kick in the pants. It is also the case that everyone’s dialogue is festooned with adverbial modifiers. People seldom simply say things: they say them with ‘foreboding’ or ‘mutter darkly’ or ‘grimly’ or ‘cheekily’ or ‘sadly’ or any other of the gamut of emotions that, had the author been more competent, we would already have known from the context. Even when we do know from the context those adverbs are there to keep you on the straight and narrow.
The bits where she lets her imagination run riot are, I grant you, more entertaining: I quite like the idea of comets lighting the frozen skies of Hell, or Lucifer breeding an army of underworld creatures for the forthcoming War. (I’m sure I’ve come across that idea before, the idea of hybridising ‘evil races’ for footsoldiers. Oh yes, how silly of me: the Uruk-Hai. Tolkien’s influence, as I have said before, looms large.) But it’s not enough, not nearly enough, to save a manuscript staggering under the weight of its inadequacies.
Jim Macdonald, who reviewed the book, described Ms Alec as ‘obviously a master of the fantasy genre‘.Mr Macdonald, poor, lost soul that he is, has clearly only been exposed to the worst that the fantasy genre could offer. Ms Alec is not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett or Michael Moorcock or HP Lovecraft or Stephen King or…well, you get the idea. There is a banquet of fantasia on offer at the moment, in comparison to which Ms Alec’s contribution seems an ill-made cupcake sat on by an elephant – flat, uninspiring and leaving a nasty taste in the mouth. To other would-be authors, I recommend it as an educational tool and an encouragement. It is deeply, deeply educational in the ‘how not to do it’ sense. And it is very encouraging because it’s dreadful and it still got published. There is indeed hope for us all.
Your moment of zen for today: