by Dan Simmons (1989)
What a terrible, terrible, terrible ending. (EDIT: Immediately after writing this review I learned that this was originally written as the 1st volume and should probably be considered alongside the sequel before passing judgment. Still. . . frustrating.)
The whole book was a compulsive read, but the ending was frustrating enough to stymie my urge to continue the series. There were basically six short stories within the novel that served as a platform for Simmons to try his hand at various genres (with varying degrees of success). There was the horror mystery that made up the Priest’s Tale, then a war epic, a literary psycho-thriller, a straight tragedy, a cyberpunk noir, and finally a romance.
The bad: Most of the characters were thin and didn’t arouse much sympathy. Brawne Lamia’s noir and Martin Silenas’s literary thriller were the weakest sections mainly because they exposed Simmons’s limitations as a writer. The Consul’s romance at the end deserves a dishonorable mention due to the artless “Romeo & Juliet” allusions.
Many of the tropes were painfully trite, and the over-reliance on 19th-20th century anachronisms were as distracting as was the 20th century American English dialect. You can build all the world you want, but when you have your 27th century characters speaking with the same slang as me, even as an affectation, it pretty much shatters whatever reality you’re trying to create. On the opposite end of the spectrum, all of the techno-jargon that Simmons injected was oftentimes mystifying.
The good: The other three stories were varying shades of riveting, horrifying and enthralling. Despite my problems with some of the aforementioned distractions, the reality of the novel was impressively constructed. The enveloping story was extremely inventive, and the Shrike a uniquely terrifying specter haunting the entire proceedings. Of course this made the ending, which never resolves the central conflict of the Shrike, all the more disappointing.
I’m still on the search for the least flawed Sci-Fi novel/series. I’d put this up near the top except for the horrible copout of an ending. For the longest time Stephen King’s The Dark Tower was my runaway favorite but then I actually read the last three books and. . . well, plech. Now I’d put up some of Ursula Le Guin’s books or Octavia Butler‘s, but the former is not as entertaining as this one while the latter has perhaps more significant flaws than Simmons.
Maybe I will check out the next in the series despite my current feelings. It’s possible Simmons could redeem himself I guess. But I won’t feel good about it if I do — there’ll be some ground to make up for sure. In the meantime, I’m eagerly soliciting suggestions for the “Best Sci-Fi Ever” if you have any good ones.