Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review - At First Light

I received a free copy of At First Light as a gift in exchange for an honest review. The adventure premise of the book was compelling enough for me to accept though I must say that even just reading the initial book summary I was a bit concerned as to the quality and nature of the novel. At First Light is an ambitious story that, in my opinion, tries to do too much all at once. The book bounces between two distinct story lines for the first half (or more?) of the book with nothing to link the two other than the knowledge from the synopsis that they will intersect at some point.

Plot one focuses on Jesse and his adrenaline-addict style life. He races his motorcycle up and down mountain roads and around blind turns just to get his blood rising. He’s dissatisfied with his life as a construction foreman and recklessly bounces around the site Parkour style trying to bring some excitement to the job. After the “last straw” on the job site, he sets off aimlessly on his motorcycle and randomly stops at a roadside diner in the middle of the lumber harvesting mountains of British Columbia. He narrowly avoids a fight, talks himself into a job and stumbles across a pair of other adrenaline seekers…this time in the form of hang gliders looking to use the science of air flow to take the ultimate flight. His engineering skills come in handy as he devises the best way to use the current and fly the peaks.

Plot two happens simultaneously and focuses on Piper, a young woman from a family with two much money. In an effort to make a statement to her parents, Piper has run off to South America and is hiding out in the city of Manaus. One morning she stumbles across a child tied to a post and being sold on the street like livestock. Piper is enraged and tries to stop the sale. The natives laugh at her and try to conclude their business. Fortunately for Piper, she has plenty of money so she goes ahead and buys the girl. She takes the girl into her hotel room, cleans her up and feeds her. Then Piper decides to turn the event into her own personal crusade and sets out to find a way to reunite the young girl with her family. Piper hires a boat and sails up the Amazon in search of the native tribe. She learns that the tribe not only has trouble with slavery but also with the ultra-violent leader of a neighboring tribe. Turns out this guy is sadistic and evil and has methodically murdered all of the men and works to maintain his power and influence by spewing terror around the area.

These two plots bounce back and forth for a while, moving between one another every few chapters. Each story was interesting but without being directly connected, the alternating from one to another was distracting and felt disjointed. It also felt like each story potentially suffered from full and proper development because of the need to keep each story balanced against the other. Thus instead of two separate, distinct fully alive stories, I found myself reading two stories trying to mesh their tone and feel against one another. The result felt less than satisfying.

The stories finally work towards one another when Jesse gets into a fight with one of the loggers which results in a tragic and fatal confrontation. The local law basically says they can’t do anything and suggests Jesse and his friends had best skip town. After a very quick discussion, the hang gliding crew decides to head to the Amazon and end up in the same small native village as Piper.

As the two plot lines joined up, the story worked to pick up the pace. Since Jesse’s story was all about the adrenaline high, it was already fairly ramped up. Piper’s story had been trying to maintain a similar feel and pace to Jesse’s. So when the two stories came together and worked to ramp up the intensity I felt like the plot started whipping out of control.

Before I go too far down the rabbit hole and make you think I hated the book, I want to comment that I was impressed by the creativity and the overall storytelling aspect of the author. Taken from a high level, there is a compelling story here. Or more specifically, there are two to three compelling stories here. The writing was often very vibrant. Some of the descriptions of the settings and situations were almost poetic in their sensory presentation. Unfortunately, the mirage broke down for me in a number of situations.

First of all, as I mentioned above, the plot felt like it was trying to tell two or three or more stories. Even though these stories eventually connected with each other, the individual stories felt stifled by the need of the book as a whole to maintain the tenuous balance between each story.

Secondly, and possibly related to my initial struggle with the book, was that many aspects of the storyline felt far fetched and strained at the believability of the plot. From a distance, the behavior of our adrenaline junkies in the Amazon sounded plausible but when looked at from close up during the individual scenes, their comments and actions felt a little less natural. The “love at first sight” trope strained at the seams especially in its extremely literal nature (Piper was enamored with Jesse literally from the first instant she sees him). It might have been more believable if we’d gotten to know Piper better earlier on but in context it seemed ridiculous. Instead, the biggest things we learned about her is that she is a spoiled rich girl (who insists on ordering Spaghetti-os even in the heart of the Amazon) with a compassionate heart that makes her impulsively charge in to try and fight against slavery and torture. Smaller storytelling aspects also made me shake my head in an effort to believe them or even understand the reasoning. The adventure of the overall story was fun, but if I paused for even a second to think about what was happening, the illusion fell apart.

Finally, I found myself frustrated with the editing of the book as a whole. An editor could have helped with some of the continuity and plausibility issues noted above. In addition, there were a number of awkward phrases, typos and grammatical issues that distracted me. The worst offender for me was the lack of good gender identification for one of the core characters. When this character was first introduced, there was a comment made by one of the characters that made me think the character was male. For the next hundred pages, this character is only referenced by a genderless “nickname” and no personal pronouns. There is never any physical description given to help flesh out this person. Instead, my mind conjured up a stereotypical image based on an old 70s-80s sitcom. Imagine my surprise a hundred pages later when a female pronoun is used in connection with this character I thought was male. I shrugged it off and though perhaps it was another typo. Later we finally get confirmation of the character’s gender as female. I actually took a few minutes to thumb back through the previous hundred pages to try and find some gender indication and was dismayed to find none.

Generally speaking, I felt like this book has potential. In fact, if you read it as pure escapism and try to read fast enough to not think about style, tone or balance, you’ll probably really enjoy it. As for me, I was distracted by the discontinuity and found myself dizzied by the breakneck pace and changing balance.

2 out of 5 stars

View all of my reviews on Goodreads.com

No comments: