by Gary Whitta
Reviewed by Adam Armstrong
To paraphrase Clive Barker (back when his writing wasn’t the terrible mess it is now), monsters are more interesting when they come from within. Defeating the outside, the aliens, is tired and trite. But to battle the monsters within us, that is something interesting. That’s all well and good. Though we all do battle with our inner monsters, some monsters are too big to defeat and we just have to live with the horrors they do to those we love.
It is the dark ages and England is fending off a seemingly never-ending barrage of Vikings. Alfred the Great is young, weary, and growing desperate. By chance someone stumbled on ancient Latin scrolls so old they may be from the beginning of the Roman rule. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Aethelred, spends months deciphering the scrolls and finds a secret that may turn the battle to England’s favor. Aethelred wants to hold court with the king; Alfred only agrees because he thinks the man is a fool and he wants a reason to remove him. But when Aethelred releases the power of the scrolls and turns a pig into a horrible twisted monster, Alfred feels two things: revulsion and hope.
Alfred saw the power in the beast and how long it took his men to put it down and how many lives were lost fighting it. Creatures like this could turn the tide in his war with the Vikings. Aethelred admits he has little to no control over the monsters--but he is still learning. The king grants the archbishop time to work out the kinks in the incantations and make a suitable army of monsters. Alfred couldn’t see what was coming next.
Months pass and Aethelred once again wants to show his progress to the king. If the first display was unnerving, this one was down right horrific. Aethelred has found a way to control the beasts. Instead of using animals he uses men.
Alfred orders Aethelred imprisoned and the scrolls to be destroyed. Aethelred begs for more time to perfect his magic. He asks to be given time to learn how to turn the men back into humans. Alfred wants nothing more than to put these horrors behind him. The only thing he doesn’t think of is what Aethelred can do to the men who are supposed to guard him.
Now Aethelred is building an army of abominations and Alfred has to reach out to his friend and one of the best knights England as even seen, Sir Wulfric. Wulfric has given up the sword and now lives a life of peace with his wife. But a promise to Alfred brings him back to war, this time against monstrosities. Wulfric brings forth a campaign that quickly crushes the monsters but he suffers a defeat as well. Fifteen years pass and now a young woman, Indra, hunts down the final abomination. Only this last beast holds a secret that could end everything.
If the name Gary Whitta rings any bells it is because he wrote The Book Of Eli, After Earth, and was one of the writers behind The Walking Dead video games. Screenwriters are a little different than novelists. Their main job is to tell. They can’t really show because everyone working on the movie has to know what they are working with and it is the actors' and director's job to show. There is definitely some of that "telling" bleeding over into his fiction. While it doesn’t make the writing terrible it is a bit distracting as you go.
Another thing that Hollywood (and I assume screenwriters) is getting increasingly terrible about is origin stories/explaining how everything came to be. Not only do we have to know every aspect of certain characters, we also have to be beaten over the head with exposition. This was the only aspect of Whitta’s writing I really disliked. There was a tsunami of exposition every time a new character showed up. We even got a little backstory on some characters that were only in a scene or two in the background. Philip Marlowe is a literary icon, and still we only have a vague idea about his past and what made him the man he is. We could use more Philip Marlowe in the media we consume and less characters like Spiderman where we know almost everything about their lives.
The novel goes in one direction for the first hundred pages before abruptly changing direction and becoming a different type of story altogether. While at first I found this a bit jarring, I started to see the benefit in shaking things up a bit from the norm. Not to mention the originally story was running out of steam before the directional shift. The second part of the book switched from the chest thumping slaughter to an introspective search for meaning for both the protagonists. It also tied back together a few threads that were lain out at the beginning.
The book has something for everyone, though a bit much in parts. It wasn’t the most original story ever written but it was much better than 95 percent of the movies made now. Perhaps Mr. Whitta has found a calling where original ideas are still sought after and treasured.
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