Review - THE SCARLET CRANE by J.E. Hopkins

THE SCARLET CRANE, J.E. Hopkins. Available at Amazon. Current promotional price: free; usually 0.99.

There are certain expectations for genre books. The definitions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and their differences, have been the subject of discussion and argument for decades. My personal version of that argument is "Science Fiction deals with the consequences of social and technological change; Fantasy deals with the presence of the miraculous."

Another popular genre is the Thriller. Thrillers are novels of action, of constant forward momentum. Here's a diagram from Thriller writer Matt Rees showing basic plot points for a Thriller novel: Plot A Thriller.

THE SCARLET CRANE takes a very, very interesting fantastical premise and tries to map it onto a Thriller framework. It doesn't quite succeed. I felt the (fairly standard) thriller elements overshadowed the (underdeveloped) fantasy element.

That fantasy element is a doozy, though. In the world of THE SCARLET CRANE, the beginning of puberty also brings a one-month long period known as Transition. During that month, your eyes turn lavender. And... IF you perform the appropriate ceremony/invocation/prayer properly... and IF your invocation/prayer/wish has "uniqueness", if it's something that has never quite been wished for in quite the same way before by anyone else... then your prayer, your wish, might be granted. You can perform magic. You can perform miracles, from something small and inconsequential to literally rewriting the past.

BUT... here's the catch... if that invocation ISN'T properly performed... if that wish DOESN'T have that ill-defined quality of "uniqueness"... then you die. Stone cold freakin' dead, instantly. And that death, almost invariably, is what results from trying to invoke Transition magic. Successful Invocations are rarities.

What are the consequences of such a world? Hopkins shows us some. Knowledge of the Invocation ceremony is kept widely suppressed, especially from young people. (But it's also findable, with some effort, on the Internet or from other sources.) Parents go to extremes to prevent children from attempting Transition magic during that lavender-eyed month, including constant surveillance or even sedating their children during those weeks. There are government agencies devoted to dealing with Transition issues.

That's okay, so far as it goes. But I couldn't help feeling there should have been much bigger consequences to the existence of Transition magic. If Transition has existed for centuries or millenia, it would have had major, major, effects on history and society. How was the proper form of the Invocation originally discovered? How differently would religion have developed in a world where everyone has the potential to be a miracle-worker, but if your first attempt isn't pitch-perfect a fickle murderous God will strike you dead? Wouldn't there be entire libraries filled with the writings of theologians, philosophers, alchemists, scientists, all trying to understand the reason for Transition's existence and how it works? Or, conversely, wouldn't those few who invoked magic successfully and tried to pass on their experience be decried as witches and warlocks (which, essentially, they'd be) and burned or drowned to protect future generations? What of the adult miracle-workers throughout history (Oh, hi, Jesus!); what's up with those guys?

But the action of THE SCARLET CRANE takes place in a world almost brick-by-brick identical to our own. There's very little deep background or history to show Transition's long-term effects on society or history. Looking at the book as fantasy or science fiction, I found that disappointing. There are some hints that further books in the series (there are several) might go a little deeper into Transition's history, or show the wider effects of successful Transition magic.

Viewed a a Thriller novel, it's mostly successful. John Benoit and Stony Hill are US agents for an agency missioned with not only trying to protect kids from trying to use mostly-fatal Transition magic, but preventing kids from being manipulated by malign adults or government into Invoking magic hostile to US (or world) interests. The action moves right along, bam, bam, bam, leading to a final battle at a secret Chinese base where experiments with kidnapped children are making progress in controlling and weaponizing Transition magic. (Kids still die, but fewer of them, and Transition magic is successfully invoked more often.)

But... the relentless action, the constant forward momentum of the plot, also seemed to leave little room for much character development. John Benoit's distinguishing characteristics are carrying a cane (mostly for show, and for the concealed stiletto inside it), and that he's still an active agent at age 70. (I haven't seen a senior citizen action hero this spry since Manning Coles' Tommy Hambledon was still shinnying up drainpipes in his 80's.) I would have liked some understanding or background of what continues to motivate Benoit to do dangerous field work at an age when most agents would be driving a desk or have retired.

So, overall, pretty successful as a Thriller, with some reservations. As SF or Fantasy, some bigger reservations. The predominant Thriller plot and pacing makes Transition magic a MacGuffin for much of the book. ("MacGuffin" -- the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is the audience doesn't care -- attributed to Alfred Hitchcock.) Benoit and Hill's race toward the final chapter might have as easily involved a stolen nuclear bomb or plans for the Death Star, rather than the kidnapped children and secret base; Transition magic isn't an essential element of their quest.

But like I said, that whole concept of Transition is a doozy of an idea, with some great potential. I hope Hopkins develops that potential in further books. I'll almost certainly read the second book in the series, THE SAFFRON FALCON.

No comments: