Linda Paulson Adams
Cornerstone , June 2000. Trade paperback:
Suggested retail price: $14.95 (US)
(Please note: I am aware that others have already reviewed this book. Iread those reviews, but do not have a clear memory of how they evaluatedthe book. I've elected not to re-read the reviews, avoiding as much aspossible an unconscious bias in the present review.)
"Prodigal Journey" is presented as a novel of "speculative fiction," placedsome years into the future. As such, there are few rules an author mustabide by. Inasmuch as the events have yet to happen, there are fewhistorical markers that must be noted. And ideas, always fluid andflexible, may manifest in any way the author chooses. Science is always atricky thing; there are inexorable laws of the universe that are challengedonly with a wink and a nod. But it can be done.
But writing purely "speculative fiction," without either a sub-text or anover-text, is very difficult. It must sufficiently engage the reader and,at the least, present plausible possibilities and reconcilableeventualities. Consequently, authors will choose a parallel theme, orstory, to help carry the speculation. In the case of the current work, theparallel story is a tale of love, faith acceptance, understanding andsurvival.
But, just as a cupcake consists of cake carrying the icing, such books endup with one story carrying the other. In the case of "Prodigal Journey,"the love story is the cake; the speculative science is clearly the icing.
And after reading the book, this comes as no surprise. Adams has a surehand when she's writing about the known. One story segment involves theheroine, Alyssa, being forced into living in a futuristic slum, a place ofexile for society's rejects. Her narrative of life in the slum isabsolutely riveting. I couldn't put it down. It was gritty, realistic,and completely believable. It contains, in my opinion, the mostinteresting cast of characters, nearly Dickensian in their eccentricity andoutspokenness, and could easily have stood alone as a tale of the place ofriches and the value of family and friendship.
But her footing is less certain when the author enters the world ofapocalyptic horror. The continuing story line of bioterror mixed withclearly satanic references became less and less believable, and ultimatelyfailed to intersect with the main story line. Although there are placeswhere the stories cross, they tend more to run parallel, and affect themore powerful parts of the story in ways in which the science andspeculation were not necessary.
If one were to segregate the "speculative" part of the book from theessential story, the former doesn't hold up well. But it's easy tounderstand what Adams is trying to do -- presenting manifestations of good(in the persons of Alyssa's several friends, and even an ultimately heroicrepresentative of the evil "government") against evil entities, both humanand superhuman. This is tricky stuff. You want to present the good as thebetter way, but you don't want to minimize the allure and power of evil.This is not an easy balance to achieve.
Ultimately, the bulk of the story is devoted to Alyssa's journey, from smugself-satisfaction and relative luxury, to a life of poverty and depression,and finally into a place of (albeit reluctance) acceptance and a sense ofmission. This, in my mind, was the real story. The techno-stuff was, as Isay, just icing.
But even the good parts of the book have problems. And I will confess thatmy overall enjoyment of the book caused me to cast a very critical eye onsome of the details. None of the problems I will mention are fatal; nonereally detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
One of the problems I detected was a lack of continuity and closure. Therewere inexplicable absences of narrative, in a book large enough to havecovered all the bases. A few examples:
Alyssa, while away at college, experiments with drugs which, according toher pharmacist/boyfriend, have lasting effects. (The drug turns out to bepart of a governmental experiment of the effect of this drug on humans.Alyssa unknowingly becomes one of the test subjects.) Even after stoppingthe drug, she continues to have nightmarish visions of strange beings, evenduring broad daylight! (Adams does an exceptional job of depicting thesedaymares -- very frightening, very eerie.) Later in the book, sheencounters Jesus on the road back to her home. She is basicallyirreligious, and can't quite explain the encounter, where she is healed ofa bullet wound. But she never reflects that this might be another resultof her drug use! I expected her to say this; it never comes. How is thispossible?
Alyssa's mother, Joan, is presented as a violent, vindictive woman, proneto beating Alyssa while adoring her other daughter, Lauren. This issomewhat explained by the revelation that Joan never wanted Alyssa, thesecond child. But there's never any explanation for why she's soviolent. It provides a rationale for Alyssa's finally breaking ties withher family, especially after the death of her father, but such extremebehavior on the part of her mother merits some further explanation. Thismay be resolved in future volumes.
The evil Victor Caldwell, an employee of the "government," one very high upin the pecking order -- is at the helm of the deconstruction of Americansociety and his ultimate ascension to power. He is behind the drugexperimentation that Alyssa gets caught up in. And he needs Alyssa tofurther evaluate the drug she'd been taking. But she wants no part of it.She knows who he is, she knows his name and what he's up to. Her flightfrom college, and eventually into the difficult slum life, is essentiallyan effort to get away from Caldwell. Later, toward the end of the book, asshe recovers from her ordeal in the home of a childhood friend -- her mainlove interest -- she gets the news that a number of governmental peoplehave died of a strange illness. Even the President has been stricken. Butshe never asks her hosts whether the name "Victor Caldwell" was among thosereported stricken. Again, I waited for her to ask -- this is of paramountinterest to her, wondering whether her pursuer were dead. But she neverasks.
Now, why am I being so picky? Because, in the end, I really liked thisbook. I liked Alyssa and her friends, I hated her mother for her crueltyand her father for his weakness. The characters in the slum, as mentioned,were just riveting, the despair of their lives described in stark andbelievable terms.
One can argue that the book is a bit too long. Adams' narrative styleindicates a fondness for "real time" discussions, wheresometimes-tangential conversations span many pages. Recollections likewiseare belabored, in my opinion unnecessarily. These, however, may be mattersof taste.
Adams knows how to move a story along. There's a surprise around everycorner. Her good characters are wonderfully multi-dimensional, andsometimes play against form, making for a textured presentation that isvery pleasing to this reader. Her evil characters, however, like VictorCaldwell, are one-dimensional and totally predictable.
My main recommendations to Adams:
1. Future volumes, if they are to continue the theme of speculativescience/love story, ought to be better integrated, with less attention totechnical detail and more to the human dimension of the characters. Iwould have enjoyed learning more about Victor Caldwell. I would have likedto see him fleshed out a little more.
2. As illustrated above, certain parts of the story ought to be linked upa little better. The reflection on the drug experience, is an example. Inother words, I would have liked Alyssa to ask the questions I would haveasked, had I been in her situation. This kind of closure serves to linkthe reader with the characters, a very desirable effect.
3. Narratives really don't need to happen in real time. The essence of aconversation does not require the recitation of every word spoken and everyimpression thought. Most readers would appreciate less chit-chat and morecharacter development.
I'm being fairly critical because this series has so much potential. It isa good start to what can be a fine series. There is much yet to learnabout Alyssa and the people who surround her, so many unresolved storyelements. This, of course, is expected in a series book. And Adams hasset up a situation where the various characters in her book can ultimatelycome together and achieve great things. Each of the protagonists is adistinct character; most have little in common except their faith. And yetone can anticipate them joining their talents and strengths to provide apowerful response to an oppressive and murderous regime, the speculatedAmerican government of the future.
Again, overall, I really liked this book, and am very glad to have read it.I look forward to the next volume. Adams has given us a good start to whatcan be an exciting and satisfying series.
Jeff Needle firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2003 Jeff Needle