Hello again! Welcome to The Naked Truth, a review blog where I strip down a published novel as if it were in a critique group and lay out its three big “+’s” and “Δ’s”. What did the author do well? What could have made the novel even better? Let’s find out!
This month I started with Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, but the book was so weird and good that there wasn’t enough for me to find worth fixing…so I moved on to Sam J. Miller’s The Art of Starving and found his snarky, teenage protagonist unpalatable (hah), before finally landing on The Dark Net, an urban fantasy/techno-thriller cross-genre nightmare by Benjamin Percy.
My final analysis of this work is quite mixed, as I found it both filling and stale, like expired graham crackers that could still be used to make a serviceable s’mores…
A s’mores that might open the very gates of HELL!
+ Apocalypse party in Portland!
This book is very in-your-face about being set in Portland, Oregon, but Percy does it in a way that’s fun and accurate. The descriptions of the weather and the smells in particular—”earthy, mineral scents like a stone dipped from the bottom of the river”—really nails the vibe of the city. It was somewhat reminiscent of Mieville’s Kraken in that sense, with Portland serving as America’s rain-enshrouded version of London.
+ Characters have strong voices
The general cast of characters for a thriller all show up here: Lela, the take-no-shit, gonzo journalist; Mike Juniper, the quiet-yet-deadly one with a mysterious past; and Hannah, the disabled-kid-whose-disability-turns-out-to-be-a-major-superpower, among others. My favorite is Lump, a homeless person who can conjure vermin like a wart-covered Pied Piper, and the dialysis-vampire character Sarin has her moments as well. While they all feel a bit like stock characters from a comic book, they’re serviceable and sing with individual voices, helping make the story feel more real.
+ Vivid descriptions
Percy must have had an earlier, second life as a literary author, because there are portions of this book with wonderful prose. In particular, visual details are rendered with stunning colors and light.
Δ Truly horrendous “demon dialogue”
If your demons sound like second-rate cartoon baddies, immediately grind them all under your hell-wheel and forge some new ones in your abyssal furnaces! Whenever one of the demons opened their mouth in this book, it was like a one-way ticket on the Shatter My Willingful Suspension of Disbelief Express. Part of this I think is due to the fact that Percy never went “all-in” with his demons—they were a mix of Christian, Pagan, Fantastical, etc.—and having these generally “agnostic evil forces” made them weaker all around. It feels as if he did the bulk of his Satanism research at Hot Topic…
Δ Pace slowly tapers off and is occasionally murdered
Whenever the pace really starts kicking up, Percy throws us a left hook of unnecessary backstory, which I neither needed nor wanted. Maybe if he would have shortened those sections or left them out, it would have streamlined this a bit more. About half-way through this story I could see the end coming (railroad plot), and it really didn’t deviate in any fundamentally interesting way. The train kept slowing down, and then the ending was strangely abrupt.
Δ Nothing profound happens — RECYCLED ACTION TROPES
What really killed this book for me: characters getting out of situations in an identical fashion to a B-movie. For example, at one point Lela is trapped by a demon-hound in Powell’s bookstore and she defeats it with the cliche “knock down the shelves like dominoes until a shelf falls on it.” In another scene, a character has planted a bomb in the thing they give the bad guys. Hannah goes into the Dark Net and defeats the demon code with a ” ” (insert first cliche thing that comes to mind here and you will be right). Over and over again tropes are used to power this narrative, with no obvious attempt at subversion or doing something truly creative. Argh!
Read Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, then if you want something similar but with a weirdly generic horror/urban fantasy theme instead of actual computer science, read this.
This book is billed as “horror” and yeah, a lot of people die in gruesome ways, but somehow it still managed to come off as boring for me. The terror of the “Dark Net” is never fully realized, no matter how high the body count rises, all while the real dark net is out there…waiting…