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by Lynn A. Marzulli
Published by Zondervan Publishing House, 1999
Suggested by: Greg Slade
People who read my reviews sometimes have a tendency to wait for the "but." I will start out by saying what I like about a book, and then list those elements which didn't quite work for me. It's almost as if people think that I say the nice things just to be polite, and then say "but" and go on to say what I really think. That isn't the way I write reviews, and attempting to read this particular review that way would be particularly misleading. Therefore, what I am going to do is tell you right up front that this book didn't entirely work for me for a couple of reasons, and then go on to say why I think it's still a worthwhile read.
The first reason that this book didn't work for me is that I'm not an X-Files fan. This is not an X-Files novel, nor a parody or rip-off of that series, but it does appeal to the same sort of fan: people who are afraid of aliens and obsessed with them at the same time. (In much the same way and let us be honest for much the same reason as people in the past were afraid of demons and obsessed with them at the same time. Here is a being of unkown and unpredictable powers, apparently benevolent in person, but malevolent in actions. Both instinctive human reactions seem inappropriate: you can't possibly fight them, yet how can you run from them?) Now don't get me wrong: I'm a big science fiction buff, and alien invasions have been a staple of the science fiction prop box ever since H.G. Wells. But the fact of the matter is that space is (to paraphrase The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) hugely, mind-bogglingly big, and all the handwaving and technobabble of all the space opera writers ever born can't change the fact that we are well and truly quarantined in this solar system. Interstellar travel is simply not possible at any kind of useful speed, and so a story which counts for its thrills on making me fear the imminent prospect of being overrun by little green men just isn't going to convince me. I'm sure that there are thousands of X-Files fans who, knowing full well that the nasties they see on the screen are simply impossible, still get thrills and chills by watching. I just don't have that ability. So, the first reason the book didn't work for me is that it's in a sub-genre which doesn't appeal to me. If you like that sub-genre, chances are that it will work for you.
There is always a challenge, in writing a thriller, in striking the right balance between making the antagonist(s) strong enough to make the struggles the protagonist goes through, well, thrilling, but yet not so strong that the protagonist's final victory doesn't stretch the reader's credulity too far. If you make the "bad guys" too easy to defeat, then the struggle is too predictable, and readers lose interest. But if you make the "bad guys" too invincible, then when the "good guy" does win out, readers feel like they've been cheated: that you have defied the "rules" of the story in order to make your character win. If you manage to strike just the right balance, you can keep your readers reading all night long, anxious to see "what happens next." That is the measure of success for a thriller: how hard it is to put the book down. For me, Marzulli did not quite strike the right balance: the "bad guys" had advantages that they did not exploit, and the reasons for their failure to do so were not spelled out enough to satisfy me.
And, I must admit, there is a minor but annoying technical flaw in the book. It matters not at all to the plot, and most readers probably wouldn't even notice it, but I found it like an itch I couldn't scratch. (Not, I grant you, quite as much of a howler as Han Solo using "parsecs" as a unit of time instead of distance in Star Wars, but I have higher expectations of Marzulli, just because he's so much better at everything else than your average science fiction writer.)
However, having said all that, I need to say that this is not at all a bad book. It is, in fact, a "page-turner." Marzulli has an excellent grasp of important writing skills which many published authors have failed to demonstrate. His characters are three-dimensional and act in character. Good guys have vices, and bad guys have virtues. The characters are not simply props to be moved around in order to move the plot forward. The reader actually comes to care about what happens to them. Dialogue is natural. The plot is neither predictable, nor artificially contorted just to keep readers guessing. There is, as is common in fiction from Christian publishing houses, a "conversion scene." But unlike too many other such scenes, this one is in character, a natural progression in the storyline, believable, and satisfying. The way the aliens are regarded by the human characters reveals deep thinking about the idea of aliens, and why people find it disturbing and compelling at the same time. Different, and even opposing, views of aliens are portrayed realistically. This is not a propaganda piece trying to convince you that anyone who believes this or that about aliens must be a moron.
This may seem like faint praise, especially compared with the two problems I stated up front, but it is not. I have come to appreciate good writing more and more over the years. I no longer approach science fiction with the demand that the author wow me with technology. I believe that science fiction is a form of literature (despite what certain of my English teachers may have thought), and as such that it can have profound things to say about what it means to be human. But I have come to realise that I cannot trust an author's opinions about the human condition if I cannot believe that they understand humanity. Hence my impatience with two-dimensional, cardboard characters. People are not two-dimensional. They are deep and complex and endlessly surprising. What I demand from an author these days is an understanding of characters as people, rather than mobile props. That demand, Marzulli satisfies.
The good news is, Nephilim ends crying out for a sequel. That sequel, The Unholy Deception, is now out.
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