Friday, February 27, 2015

Microreview [book]: The Burning Dark, by Adam Christopher

Great Fun Slightly Marred by TMDI

Christopher, Adam. The Burning Dark. Tor Books (paperback/Kindle): March 2015.

Buy it here starting March 3rd. 

If you're wondering what the "D" stands for above, it's 'Dramatic', as in "Too Much Dramatic Irony", the irksome phenomenon in which we readers instantly know or can easily guess a key plot point but characters struggle on, oblivious to what's right under their collective noses. There's been an epidemic of TMDI in US/UK fiction (books and movies) recently, my favorite example of which is the inevitable stupidity of characters in zombie movies when confronted by the eponymous baddies. Zombies are, one would think, pretty self-explanatory, even at first glance, and yet all too often, sloppy directors and authors try to get us reader/viewers to swallow the ultimate whopper: that most of us, if confronted by zombies face to face, would take absurd risks and wind up getting killed, all out of an obstinate refusal to accept the idea that zombies could exist. 

The DI component is particularly problematic in stories that are, to the reader/viewer, obviously about zombies, since from the very beginning we know zombies are going to appear, and are forced to dread the first 50% or so of the tale, since it's simply going to chronicle the extremely prolonged reluctance of the surviving main characters to accept what, to us, is the fundamental premise of the story! So here's a nickel's worth of free advice for all you would-be zombie storytellers out there: ditch the stupid "this can't be happening!" and "a strange noise? Think I'll go check it out, alone, in the dark, while drunk!" nonsense. How about, instead, we get a few stories showing what people would actually do, if confronted by slavering green-tinged maniacs: instant understanding, followed swiftly by the trusty 'two to the head, make sure they're dead' approach.

"It's so nice to just sit here and share some human companionship!"
This seems as good a time as any to admit that The Burning Dark does not, in fact, have zombies (though it sort of does, now that I think about it). But this otherwise excellent novel does suffer from a bit TMDI, which was particularly acute in my case given my background in Japanese cultural history. You see, the story is purportedly a mystery about, to paraphrase the children's song, "Which of these (characters) is not like the others?" That's because one of the characters is not human at all, but an ancient and vengeful goddess trapped in the underworld and hell-bent (see what I did there?) on revenge against all living things. But there's little real mystery involved. Imagine this Villainess introduced herself as, oh, I don't know, "Orpheus's Wife" yet all the characters failed to make the connection to the 'trying to return from the underworld but betrayed by her husband' idea. We get the Japanese cultural equivalent of "Orpheus's Wife", Izanami, so readers well versed in Things Japanese will know from page one the "secret" identity of the Villainess.

"Aha!" You might say, pouncing on my argument, "most readers won't know that, which means this isn't DI at all!" Not so—Izanami's otherworldliness is made explicit right from the beginning, with glaringly obvious hints dropped to both reader and characters (as well as not even the flimsiest attempt to cast suspicion on any of the other characters as potentially being 'the one not like the others'), but none of the characters figure it out until *right* at the end. If that's not DI, I don't know what is! "Unfair!" I hear you cry, "the story explains why the other characters have trouble realizing that Izanami isn't who or what she claims to be," but that's actually irrelevant, since I'm objecting not to the explanation of the characters' idiocy within the story, but the type of story itself: a story fueled (or in my opinion, polluted) by dramatic irony.

Does it ruin the entire novel, an intricately crafted horror/suspense/sci fi page-turner? Not at all. I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes one or more of the following: a) novels about the unfathomable alienness of, well, alien life forms; b) well-crafted, interesting characters who face Interesting Situations; and/or c) good times. But those hypersensitive to (TM)DI, you have been warned. Take solace in the fact that there's plenty to enjoy, though, especially the intrepid Captain Ida Cleveland, and the fact that there is no (concerted) attempt to pair off the characters in happily ever after-style romantic couples. Not every great sci fi story need rely, after all, on the sort of emotional release the firm promise of heterosexual romantic love provides the audience; Terminator 2 is certainly the finest of the Terminator movies and (not coincidentally!) is the only one of the series to have so deftly avoided any sexual subplot.

Meandering back to the topic of The Burning Dark, it's two thumbs up, minus half a thumb for TMDI!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a mostly mesmerizing story, +1 for fine characters like Captain Ida

Penalties: -2 for an unmysterious streak of (TM)DI

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

[Before you cry havoc and let slip the words of war, let me hit you with some knowledge: here at NOAF, our reviews are on a bell curve, meaning there are very few 9s/10s--or 1s/2s. In our system, a 7/10 is excellent!]

Zhaoyun, whom you have by now discovered is no fan of dramatic irony, quite likes sf/f/zompire stories that push beyond the inane limitations imposed by convention, and has been singing the praises of such stories here at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.