Monday, April 30, 2012

Mission Canyon by Meg Gardiner

Mission Canyon by Meg Gardiner, 2008

People ask me whose fault it was. Who caused the accident? Where did the blame lie--on reckless driving, blinding sunlight, a sharp curve in the road? Hidden in their questions is a deeper query. Did Jesse bring it on himself? Was he careless? Perhaps he rode his bike into the middle of the road. Perhaps he insulted God. Maybe that's why he won't be walking me down the aisle, they imply.

What people want to hear, I think, is that the accident was fate, or foolishness. The hit-and-run killed Isaac Sandoval outright. It left Jesse Blackburn broken on the hillside, struggling to reach his friend's body. And people wanted me to tell them that yes, it was the victims' fault. Jesse should have done something different, should have looked over his shoulder or flossed his teeth every day. What they want me to say is no, of course it could never happen to them. They want reassurance, and I can't give it to them.

When they ask me whose fault it was, I've always said: the driver's. It was the fault of the man who sat behind the wheel of a satin-gray BMW, arcing up a narrow road into the foothills of Santa Barbara, with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand caressing the hair of the woman whose head bobbed above his lap. It was the fault of the man getting the blow job. It was the fault of the guy who got away.

That's what I always told people. Until now.---- (page 1)

I hesitate to say that Mission Canyon is a perfect thriller, but for me, it comes darn close. It ticks every single one of my boxes, fulfills every one of my requirements for what makes a great thriller. Gardiner is one sharp, funny, incisive writer, and she knows how to spin a twisty, nail-biting plot. Her characters are a terrific mixture of quirky and totally human, and unlike China Lake, the first book in the Evan Delaney series, the villain is both unexpected and truly scary. This is one of the best mysteries I've read in a long time.

The book's plot stems from a seemingly simple incident: while biking in Santa Barbara, best friends Jesse Blackburn and Isaac Sandoval are mowed down by a reckless driver. Isaac is killed and Jesse is paralyzed from the waist down. Years later, the driver, a white-collar criminal wanted for embezzlement, returns to Santa Barbara, dredging up Jesse's guilt and desire for revenge. As strange new facts come to life and a pack of ruthless gangsters come to town, Jesse's fiancee Evan is drawn into an impenetrable and deadly tangle of shocking secrets, far-reaching cover-ups and cold-blooded murder.

I'll get my only main criticism out there at the start: the opening chapters are a slippery info dump. Gardiner introduces too many characters with too many unlikely connections in a small space of time, and it comes off as a little frenzied. That's okay, though, because once the clumsy introductions are past, the plot takes off like a rocket and never lets up.

Like all good mysteries, Mission Canyon's center is layers of character interactions. Jesse's barely controlled rage, his intense survivors' guilt and his burning hatred of the man responsible for his paralysis comes across beautifully, as do Evan's complex feelings about marrying someone who is handicapped. Their relationship, nicely established in China Lake, is really put through the wringer in this installment; their no-holds-barred arguments are truer and deeper than you might expect from characters in a thriller. Jesse's friendship with Isaac's brother Adam is another example of Gardiner's ability to depict strikingly real relationships in the middle of a blisteringly fast-paced, high-concept narrative.

Not all of Gardiner's characterizations are as true to life; she's not above writing a caricature. In China Lake, the caricatures were the villains, a device that just didn't work well. Here, we have Evan's cousin Taylor, a glitzy, loud-mouthed lingerie saleswoman from the Midwest. Taylor may be cartoonish, but she's a lot of fun, injected in the narrative both as comic relief and as a sly way to display the kind of reaction that Evan's family might have to her marrying someone disabled. Thankfully, most of the novel's characters have more depth than Taylor; in fact, most of them have multiple layers that are peeled away before the end. Perhaps most importantly, for a thriller, the villains are all believably threatening and scary. Mickey Yago, the cold-blooded leader of i-heist, would have been an effective Big Bad, but in a book as packed as this one, he's merely a decoy.

The real villain is only unmasked at the novel's end, and there are a hell of a lot of twists before that revelation. This is one of those great plots that only clicks together when we have all the facts. Gardiner doesn't do predictable, and it's been a long time since a mystery writer has made me jump through so many hoops. I'm usually fairly adept at figuring out the structure of a story, but Mission Canyon had me on the edge of my seat nearly the entire time. And I did not see the endgame coming, even though everything fit together close to perfectly. Putting together a plot that good must have been incredibly difficult. While not everything in the story is completely plausible (a chase scene set in an old church is a bit of a stretch), Gardiner accomplishes the thing that every high-concept writer has to do: convince us that it is. Her characters are so well drawn and her pace so breathless that I rarely considered how delightfully nutty the book is in places. Her action scenes can be over-the-top, but she sells her characters so well as real people that they work anyway.

By the end, Gardiner has woven a complex and perfectly paced thriller with both an emotional punch and a serious funnybone. The way she blends the light and the dark, the pulse-pounding suspense and the quiet, searing emotion, is absolutely masterful. Mission Canyon is without a doubt one of the best mysteries I've read in a long time, and I can't wait to see where the series goes next. The further adventures of Evan and Jesse are looking awfully enticing.

NEXT UP: The cheerful hit YA novel, The Book Thief, which is a real knee-slapping good time. Not.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion by Dan Simmons, 1990

"All right," said the Consul, "we vote. Our first decision relates to M. Weintraub's suggestion that we tell the stories of our past involvement with Hyperion."

"All or nothing," said Het Masteen. "We each share our story or none does. We will abide by the will of the majority."

"Agreed," said the Consul, suddenly curious to hear the others tell their stories and equally sure he would never tell his own. "Those in favor of telling our tales?"

"Yes," said Sol Weintraub.

"Yes," said Het Masteen.

"Absolutely," said Martin Silenus. "I wouldn't miss this little comic farce for a month in the orgasm baths on Shote."

"I vote yes also," said the Consul, surprising himself. "Those opposed?"

"Nay," said Father Hoyt but there was no energy in his voice.

"I think it's stupid," said Brawne Lamia.

The Consul turned to Kassad. "Colonel?"

Fedmahn Kassad shrugged.

"I register four yes votes, two negatives, and one abstention," said the Consul. "The ayes have it. Who wants to start?"----- (pages 22-23)

Hyperion is a frustrating novel. It's written by the author of several excellent sci-fi/fantasy novels. Simmons's Drood is a massive, magnificent tome of creepy historical suspense, and his Ilium/Olympos duology is one of my favorite works of science fiction (although I'm admittedly not a huge fan of the genre). Simmons is fully capable of writing a really good sci-fi novel, but Hyperion is alternately boring and arresting, saddled with an awkwardly utilized literary device, a novel's that kind of coming apart at the seams. There's a lot of things that I really liked about the book, a lot of elements that really work well. And then there were a lot of parts that had me yawning.

The novel is set thousands of years after the death of Earth. The human race has formed a vast society called the Hegemony, spanning thousands of planets and dozens of solar systems. A highly evolved group of artificial intelligences called the TechnoCore aids the Hegemony in its quest to expand its borders by installing farcasters (big teleportation devices, essentially) on non-Hegemony worlds. When Hyperion begins, a group of evolved humans called the Ousters are preparing for an all-out assault on the independent planet of Hyperion. Hyperion is home to the world's greatest mystery: the Time Tombs, strange, ancient structures that appear to be moving backwards in time. The Time Tombs are guarded by the Shrike, a deadly, omnipotent creature that some see as a god, others as a serial killer and others as an avenging angel.
Phew. Everybody with me so far?

At the beginning of the Ousters' attack on Hyperion, seven pilgrims (a detective, a priest, a soldier, a political official, a scholar, a poet and a Templar tree-worshipper) set out on a journey to see the Shrike and demand something from it. Each one tells their story throughout their trip, with the book ending just as they reach the Valley of the Time Tombs, with an interstellar war of massive proportions looming.

Simmons is not an author to scrimp on scope, that's for sure. For a medium-length book (450+ pages) Hyperion covers the stories of six main characters--some of whom have other people's stories embedded within their own--and establishes a hugely complicated fictional universe with a long backstory. Oh, hey, and throw in a galactic apocalypse while you're at it, as well as Simmons's customary literary metatextual references. Dan Simmons is the only author I know of for whom the inclusion of a cyborg version of John Keats is typical. Simmons is at his best when he's creating wild fusions of science-fiction and Greek poetry, or rewriting Shakespeare characters as genetic mutants or AIs. Given the right story, Simmons can wreak merry havoc with the reader, spinning out his trademark insanity with an exhilarating freshness and originality.

Like many writers, however, Simmons has an Achilles heel: characters. What he does best are plot-driven books where the character arcs are basic and simple (yes, Drood is something of an exception to this rule). Hyperion plays right into his weaknesses as a writer because so much of the book relies on the framing device of the characters' backgrounds. For a device like this to work, the character arcs need to be surprising, well-told and relevant to the larger story. Instead, the individual stories vary widely in quality from moving and suspenseful to just plain boring. While the six protagonists are certainly a quirky bunch at first glance, they turn out to be pretty flat as the book progresses. None of them are wildly different than they seem from their first appearance. Simmons is clearly having fun with Martin Silenus, the ancient, foul-mouthed poet whose abrasive personality puts him in conflict with the other pilgrims. Silenus is kind of entertaining at first, and his grandiose narration makes his story rather amusing, but his shtick wears off quickly, especially when it becomes apparent that he doesn't have any depth. Comic relief characters work the best when they're more than flat joke machines.

Other than Silenus, the main characters are certainly a grim bunch. They all have predictably painful backstories, which are kind of boring, for the most part. Father Hoyt's story isn't really his own--most of it is taken from the diary of his mentor, a disgraced priest who encounters a bizarre tribe of natives in Hyperion's flame forest. It's an intriguing, if overlong, interlude, and will no doubt have importance to the series's endgame, but it does nothing to illuminate Hoyt's character. Kassad's story is superficially interesting, and there are some extremely cool scenes (the simulation of the Battle of Agincourt, the fight with the Ousters aboard the destroyed medical spinship), but again, the emotional through-line is lacking. I suppose I feel bad that the love of his life is an evil, metal-toothed harpy, but his character remains thoroughly one-dimensional.

Brawne Lamia, the hardboiled detective of the group, is another character with an intriguing, unsatisfying storyline. The sci-fi-noir gimmick is clever at first, but Simmons isn't good enough at the voice to keep it from getting old. Brawne herself is kind of an irritating character, and her love affair with the John Keats cybrid doesn't do a whole lot for me, emotionally. Dan Simmons, I'm sorry, but you can't write an effective romance to save your life. I did enjoy some of the nutty concepts and ideas in Brawne's story--the gun battle in the multi-level complex was really something--but I didn't really care. The relationship between Brawne and Johnny was rote, and the mystery was not very mysterious (or fair), since it takes place in a science-fiction universe with rules that readers don't necessarily understand.

The best storyline in the book is probably the tale of Sol Weintraub and his daughter. Rachel Weintraub, a bright, vivacious archaeologist, was touched by the Shrike during an expedition to Hyperion. She contracts a strange disease from the monster: she ages backward, one day at a time, her memory erasing itself and her body regressing.  Sol's desperate quest to save his daughter is probably the only emotional beat in the novel that Simmons absolutely nails. The concept of someone aging backward is not new, but the heartbreaking way that Rachel slowly loses her identity feels fresh, and it's portrayed with surprising sensitivity. It probably says a lot that the most successful backstory is the one with the least to do with the main plot of the novel. Sol probably has the least to do of all the characters in the present, but it's his story that really resonates.

The final backstory is the most unusual. It's the story of the Consul, the mystery man who is basically the novel's de facto protagonist. The first part of his narrative is the story of his grandfather, a man caught in a romance with a woman's who aging much faster than he is (yeah, this plotline basically reads like an amalgam of the other stories in the book). The whole interlude was actually published as a standalone short story prior to the writing of Hyperion, and it shows. It's not exactly a bad story: the concepts are solid and Simmons's imagination is, as always, fascinating to see at work, but once again, the emotional backbone is lacking. It's also too long, considering its level of relevance to the larger arc of the novel and its position at the very end of the book. A dicursion of that length might have been acceptable closer to the beginning; at the end, it's just a momentum-killer.

Then we get the whammy: the Consul tells his own story, and many separate threads from throughout the book are bound up together in one fell swoop. This is the kind of thing at which Simmons excels: an epic rug-pull that completely shakes up the story. I have to say, for all that I sort of dragged my feet through the novel's weaker spots, Simmons does justify the disparity of the book's many plotlines by tying them all up at the conclusion. It's the best kind of ending for a first book: an ending that feels like a beginning. A truly enormous stage has been set for Book Two, with several mysteries resolved, and many more still hanging.

I still can't call Hyperion a true success. There's too much sci-fi gobbledygook (for my taste anyway) and characters that aren't deep enough to be the leads in a series this immense. For a science-fiction epic of this scope to be really excellent, there needs to be at least a couple of characters worth rooting for, or against. Hyperion's characters have not yet proved themselves to be compelling protagonists, nor has the Shrike really done anything extremely terrifying. I enjoyed all the book's spectacle and its wild ideas, but the stakes don't seem very high. Hopefully, the second book will get rid of the tiresome flashback structure, bone up the character development and fulfill the first book's promise of heady space opera.

NEXT UP: Meg Gardiner's Mission Canyon.