Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: Enigma Black, by Sara Furlong-Barr

At an unspecified time, presumably in the not too distant future, the United States is rocked by a series of terrorist acts. This gives the president at the time the opportunity to secure his grip on power, enforcing a curfew, being granted a third consecutive term in office, and gradually curtailing civil liberties. Totalitarianism slowly closes its grip on the nation, all under the pretext of keeping the people safe. The perpetrator of these terrorist attacks is, apparently, an almost superhuman figure who comes to be known simply as ‘the Man in Black’. Among the victims of these attacks were the parents and brother of Celaine Stevens. Ten years later, slowly recovering from this trauma, Celaine is beginning to build a life for herself. She has a good job in a bank, dear friends, and the love of her life, Dr Chase Matthews.

Suddenly, into this life, steps a strange figure, Blake, offering Celaine the opportunity to gain the revenge for which she has always longed. In order to combat the Man in Black, the government has begun a research program to develop a team of ‘superheroes’. With one of these heroes having recently been killed, Blake recruits Celaine to become his new partner in this endeavour. To do so, however, she must leave behind the new life she has built for herself and disappear. There follows the story of Celaine’s training and development as a ‘superhero’, and her subsequent missions with Blake.

This is the first part of a trilogy, so although there is action here, there is also a sense in which this volume is setting the scene and preparing the ground for what is to come. 

The story is told partly in the first person from Celaine’s point of view, and partly in the third person. This could potentially lead to confusion, but Ms Furlong-Burr actually handles this quite well: it is always clear when the perspective changes. Celaine’s character is well-developed, but I didn’t exactly warm to her. Although the author does a valiant job of taking us through the anguish of Celaine’s decision to leave her life behind, I wasn’t quite convinced that she would do this so readily on the basis of the fairly flimsy and fragmentary description of what, exactly, she was committing herself to become. Other characters are fleshed out to varying degrees. I’m not exactly sure why, but I never quite became emotionally invested in them. This may have something to do with the writing style, which lacks a certain economy. Consider a sentence such as this, from Chapter One, which describes a character’s reaction to the gambling machines in a casino:

On top of the shrill, deafening noises emanating from them, he found himself having to shield his eyes away from the flashing lights the ones at this particular casino seemed to favor.

Personally I find this too verbose. A more succinct, punchy style would help to bring me closer to the action, and closer to the emotions of the characters. The action scenes and fight scenes were among the better written sections; the quieter moments were perhaps those when wordiness intruded on intimacy.

The overall scenario for this story—the incremental loss of freedom in the name of ‘security’—is frighteningly plausible. It is also not difficult to buy into the conspiracy elements. As concerns the details of the plot, there were a few that bothered me. However, I was prepared to overlook most of these, as what action/adventure book or movie does not have some fuzzy plot moments? Having said that, I was not at all sure why an increase in the body’s levels of adrenalin (which is how these people are engineered into superheroes) would enable a human body to impact a concrete wall at very high velocity, leaving the body unharmed but the wall dented. I guess a certain level of implausibility is inevitable when we are dealing with stories about people with superhuman abilities.

Although I was not aware of a huge number of typographical errors in the text, some of those that I did notice were clangers: for example, the use of the word ‘varietal’ when the context made it pretty clear that the author meant ‘veritable’—this happened more than once. There were also several other incorrect words (eg. ‘decent’ for ‘descent’, ‘raucus’ for ‘ruckus’).

As the first in a trilogy, it is difficult to rate this. I would like to see what comes next, before giving a definitive opinion. However, on its own merits it rates around three stars. Let’s hope that Ms Furlong-Burr can deliver at least four stars next time.

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