7th Son: Descent, by J.C. Hutchins
review by Miriam Zibkoff
J. C. Hutchins begins his tale the way many creative writing manuals recommend; with a big pointy hook to yank the reader into the story. The president of the United States is on an ordinary baby-kissing re-election tour when he’s assassinated by a four year old! With a knife! And the kid then uses foul language! And then dies mysteriously (and somewhat grossly!) And then there’s this musician who almost immediately gets brutally kidnapped by mysterious agents! And then this priest who we also don’t get a chance to learn much about is kidnapped! And this TV psychologist is kidnapped, too! And they kidnap this paranoid hacker crazyman! He uses tinfoil to block imaginary spies like all those crazymen do! And a few other guys are also kidnapped! And they’re taken down to this huge secret government facility that’s, like, the size of the Chrysler Building but all underground! And they find out that they’re CLONES! And their whole lives are a lie engineered by this totally powerful government agency that not even the president knows about! And that there’s this other guy, who was also deceived and lied to by the totally powerful government agency and knows all its secrets, who’s made himself even more totally powerful and wants revenge against the agency, and also revenge against the world just for the hell of it! FAR OUT! (the author’s phrase, not mine). And then Vengeful Guy tortures some woman by unscrewing her fingers with a power socket wrench! He’s EVIL! And blood and bone splinters GO FLYING EVERYWHERE! OMGWTFBBQ!!!11!!!!!111!!
When invited by an author to follow him through a thriller, an initial sharp tug is fine to get my attention. But I then prefer that he offer me a gentlemanly arm to escort me through his story, draw me in with a line of seductive patter pointing out the scarier features of the hellish landscape, before leading my willing self along the ever-narrowing cliff path to throw me off the precipice. When an author grabs my arm and tries to drag me bodily through his opus while screaming in my ear about how AWESOME the tour is…well, call me an ornery bitch, but I tend to dig in my heels. It seems the intent is a Dean Koontzian thriller, with an SF background, grimly determined jut-jawed protagonists combating evil in breathless action scenes, and lots of gleeful carnage. But since we usually fall short of the ideals we aim for, it probably isn’t wise to take Koontz as your writing model to emulate, because what you will likely end up with is a sub-Koontzian quality book, which is sad. Aim higher. Aim for Stephen King, at least.
Hutchins has some promising ideas. Cloning and memory downloading in the plot lead to the protagonists paranoically questioning the identities of those around them, and even their own identities. The premises (especially the memory downloading thing) as depicted in the novel are, of course, outlandishly impossible. That’s no flaw, in itself; many a great genre novel (horror, science-fiction or fantasy) is based on a ridiculous impossibility, but something of the writing is good enough to make you believe it. Stephen King is no Nobel winner, but his characters really live; you identify with them, cringe with them as you follow them through their torturous ordeals in an ordinary world gone mad. Thus sympathizing, you’re drawn along without worrying about the essential absurdity of it all. But Hitchins’ characters almost never go beyond stereotypes (The Priest. The Marine. The Villain. And so on). Their reactions to their bizarre circumstances strictly serve the plot, without bearing much resemblance to what actual humans might do. Writing with stereotyped characters isn’t necessarily a problem either; Agatha Christie and Isaac Asimov wrote nothing but. But they compensated by writing plots that tick along as smoothly as Swiss watches. Hutchins’ plot, unfortunately, stumbles frequently. Some stumbles are enormous. (A supremely powerful government agency traumatizes a teenage genius by revealing that his beloved parents have been experimenting with him all his life in the service of the agency that has made of him their lab rat. What does the agency do with this young genius, who now has reason for a huge grudge? Why, invite him to join the agency and learn all their most dangerous secrets, of course!) Many are minor, but annoying. For instance, this scene, in which the author tries to infuse an internet search with a sense of Breathless!Action!
“‘…Kilroy, find me an online copy of the DSM…I don’t care if you have to hack, slash or burn your way through the whole Net to find it. Just find it, Kilroy.’
…it didn’t take long for Kilroy2.0 to access an online version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, probably because he did indeed hack, slash, and burn his way through the Internet. He hijacked the identity of at least on psychiatrist (using the doctor’s so-called secure information including Social Security number, address and credit-card numbers) to get the information.”
Dude. Did you try typing “DSM” into Google?
While a bold impossibility as the basis for a novel is perfectly acceptable, a series of mere improbabilities like those above is absolutely fatal. They boot you out of the story too frequently to let it weave its spell. So give 7th Son a pass unless you’re fond of occasionally putting your brain in neutral and letting it coast downhill when you’re reading.