THE EUTHANIST, by Alex Dolan

24514903

The Euthanist
By Alex Dolan
Diversion Books – 2nd June 2015
ISBN 9781626815490 – 315 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Do people have the right to die when their lives approach their end filled with unbearable pain? Is it murder to assist them? Conversely, do remorseless, monstrous criminals deserve death? Should they be inflicted with pain as punishment for the worst of human crimes? Is torture justified to gain answers to save the innocent?
These are the kinds of questions at the heart of Dolan’s debut novel, The Euthanist. Kali is the pseudonym chosen by an EMT who has taken up the off-hours job of assisted suicide under the umbrella of a clandestine right-to-die movement. She meets the illegality and moral grayness of her occupation by adhering to a strict code that includes a long process of meeting with clients, ensuring this is a well-considered decision and that their terminal disease is indeed certain and without hope.
Slight laxness in her process traps Kali in a situation gone horribly awry when a supposed client slaps her in cuffs and announces that he is an undercover FBI agent. Kali finds this hard to believe with his odd behavior as rather than arresting and bringing her in, he holds her captive and begins probing into her identity and psychological rationalizations for her actions. Kali soon learns that this FBI agent is not just looking to capture her, but to blackmail her into helping in his own mysterious goals towards revenge against the people responsible for kidnapping his son.
As a thriller and mystery, The Euthanist stands fairly well. The plot takes several twists and turns, and if you don’t know much of the plot going into it things will likely proceed in many ways you didn’t expect. Those big moral questions at the heart of the plot are also fascinating, making the premise of Dolan’s novel at first very captivating.
Unfortunately I felt that Dolan didn’t explore the various moral quandaries fully as the novel progressed and the action of the plot began to thicken. The debates over these questions don’t necessarily have a clear-cut answer, and the characters themselves don’t even need to come to any firm conclusions. But within the overall arc of the story, their are firm beliefs at the start, a lot of complexity enters in, and that complexity doesn’t really go. I never got the sense of the characters coming to any sort of solid ground by the end, particularly problematic with Kali, who in general comes across as a very indecisive person.
That characterization by far though was my greatest difficulty with The Euthanist. I had an incredibly hard time buying the things that the FBI agent put Kali through, particularly given the similarities to what the agent’s son went through. His vision seems incredibly narrowed, and that vision primarily is simply allowing the author’s plot to unfold. It thus ends up feeling unnatural, authorial design. Meanwhile Kali, a supposedly strong-willed protagonist battling her own demons of the past, comes across as remarkably ineffective in most situations at asserting herself, at maintaining control over her decisions. She allows the FBI agent to control her actions, and eventually begin to guide her thoughts, in ways that I found hard to swallow.
These problems with The Euthanist made it ultimately a disappointing read for me, but it still clearly has its merits. Other aspects of writing Dolan has down very well, from atmosphere and tone, to sharp dialogue, and a thrilling plot based on great moral questions. Thriller fans may still consider it worth a look, particularly if passionate about euthanasia or punishment against perpetrators of crimes against children. Reading the first handfuls of chapters of the novel should give a reader a fair sense of whether they will enjoy the remainder.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Bleeders, by Anthony Bruno

Bleeders, by Anthony Bruno
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B004BA5EUQ
274 pages, Kindle Edition
Published March 2014
Source: NetGalley

I greatly enjoyed the first Gibbons & Tozzi novel by Bruno – and have the second one to read – but I decided to take the opportunity to also read this stand-alone one. Lacking the moral ambiguity set up by the other series, “Bleeders” seemed a far more common story, a standard serial killer thriller that makes use of personal, past connections between the killer and the investigative protagonist.

The most successful element of “Bleeders” is the serial killer, effectively rendered suave and profoundly creepy. The novel is decidedly not a mystery, the killer is known from the start and it is fairly obvious how the story will proceed. Interestingly, it could be argued that the killer is the actual protagonist of the novel rather than the investigator, who is also not as interesting or strong of a character. “Bleeders” focuses on the killer’s psychological problems, the event that fully set him on his course, and his absolute obsession with fulfilling his deviant desires and fantasy. Yet even looking at the story as being centered around the killer, he is flat-out evil and obsessed, not remotely complex.

“Bleeders” is an enjoyable crime thriller, despite being standard in many respects. If reading this genre is something you enjoy for a good easy read, you won’t go wrong here, particularly if you are interested in a story centered a little more on the killer than the law. If you are looking for complexities and compelling well-rounded characters, or if you could be easily put off by the creepy dysfunction of the killer, this probably won’t suit.

Three Stars out of Five

Bad Guys, by Anthony Bruno

Bad Guys, by Anthony Bruno
Gibbons & Tozzi #1
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00I36D8RA
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
(Original Publ: 1988)
Source: NetGalley

Reading this I couldn’t help thinking of the titles from Hard Case Crime that I’ve read and how perfectly it fits into the mold, Diversion offers a great ebook deal with this for people who like gritty pulp crime stories. This one has all of the hallmarks: hardened cops skirting and surpassing the law, a femme fatale, low life crooks, demented mafia kingpins, and a keen sense of period style – in this case the ’80s, which we can now look back in nostalgia not unlike the classic noir set in decades prior.

There isn’t anything particularly new here then, rather tried and trusted tropes of noir and mafia crime stories, put together into a fast-paced intensity that keeps the reader engaged amid the twists of plot. Though vigilantes with questionable morals, the protagonists perfectly serve as vicarious fulfillments of that need for justice and revenge.

The only downside to the novel was that moment when my brain engaged fully enough to look past the entertainment to really question the logic of the plot and the ability of Gibbons and Tozzi to avoid being offed by the baddies. Really, how long could they meddle in this stuff without being more effectively targeted for elimination?

Despite this, “Bad Guys” is a simply fun book for those that like this genre, and I’d be happy to read others in the series.

Four Stars out of Five

Note to Self, by Peter Ward

Note to Self, by Peter Ward
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00G3UXP1C
256 pages, Kindle Edition
Published September 2013
Source: NetGalley

I tore through the first two-thirds of this short, action-accelerated novel in a brief afternoon, but it took me the course of a busy second week to complete the final third. Sadly it was not just my busyness, but a declining interest that made this more difficult to finish off.

The novel wastes no time getting into the action, a multi-parallel-world SF ride. At the start, when things are still unclear to the reader and kept mysterious, Ward’s writing succeeds fabulously. Things fall apart, however, when Ward begins to answer some of the reader’s questions (or at times questions that hadn’t even occurred) and explain the details of the previously mysterious uncertain plot that unfolded in the protagonists life at such break-neck speed.

While the writing is perfectly fine at a more ‘local’ level, Ward runs into problems in crafting the plot believably, even for this kind of fantastic multiple-worlds scenario, making the overall composition of the story a bit of a mess. This kind of story can be fraught with plot holes, and loads of mind-bending complexity not unlike what can occur while trying to handle time traveling in a novel. Ward tries extensively to make this universe and the events that befall the characters be consistent, but I never really became convinced that was the case. Instead the attempts at explanation just seemed to draw attention to how terribly convenient events were for the protagonist and his friends, almost as if some ‘hand’ were guiding things so they would work out to fit the story.

For instance, objects traveling from one world to a parallel one will appear in the same space – even if ‘ground-level’ on one Earth is a mile underground in another. But notes can be passed between worlds into a pocket, no matter how subtly shifted, because THOSE can be passed by a slightly different means. Which begs more questions… Far more unbelievably, events in the climax occur with mind-boggling rapidity, where an entire Earth’s population is convinced they’ve been lied to by the protagonist simply yelling his arguments in panic to some citizens on the street. Just like that, they believe him and act.

I think the novel could have stood being developed into a longer work with more effort being placed in letting events flow naturally from the characters rather than forcing situations along the path the author had mapped. I liked that the novel was not just simply a mysterious SF adventure, but also had some interesting commentary on social media and the public’s willingness to turn ourselves over with profound trust to large, secretive organizations. The novel also highlights a relevant theme of exploiting the environment for short-term selfish gains, to support massive increases in technology and convenience at the expense of things far deeper. These are all great things to write about and consider, I just wish they had been done here in a more realistic, honest fashion.

Two Stars out of Five

Witch Hunt, by Tabitha Morrow

Witch Hunt, by Tabitha Morrow
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DY5KS0A
183 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

There were some good aspects to this young adult book, but ultimately I found it disappointing and lacking.The overall plot is an interesting take on witch trials and, (I’m being vague so as not to give spoilers) is actually a mix of several genres, not simply a rehash of history with an exaggerated magical spin.

As a young adult genre book it has a certain amount of thematic predictability: a focus on strong young characters that must step up to take on responsibilities of the impotent adults; a focus on action, protagonists getting out of stick situations; forbidden romance and erotic yearning. Yet each of these elements are handled well from a plot perspective. The plot is kept lively, it is not predictable in the details of its outcomes, and it features both strong female and male characters without that mistake of making the females beholden to their attraction to the male and reliant on his presence to save them from trouble. The action scenes are well composed and the more horrific supernatural moments are perfectly described.

However, the downside of the book is foremost its character development. The protagonist begins the book clueless of her reality, both personal and universal. She does not yet know she has magical powers. Her powers appear, and her knowledge increases in bursts from chapter to chapter with little explanation on how they have developed or how they truly affect her. No particular rules for the magic are established, so its ultimate use in the conclusion of the novel feels like a fantastic deus ex machina – there is no reason to suspect anything isn’t possible for the witches, so there is no resonance with or empathy from the reader when the climax arrives. This lack of character development is not limited to magic. Many actions or decisions by characters seem to just happen. At times explanations for actions are given by characters, but with nothing more than a statement that makes it appear nothing more than the author covering their bases of ‘explanation’. In other words, it often felt as though the author was ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. Other actions or key elements of the setting that are eventually revealed are not explained at all, perhaps setting up a sequel, but leaving this novel unfulfilling.

Despite my not liking the book much due to the above, it would likely be of interest to a young person wanting to read a quick entertaining fantasy tale with characters they can relate to. The themes are obviously overt and not subtle, but they are all good themes and moral dilemmas for a young person to consider. With a little more work establishing this world and its characters it could have been phenomenal, so I would read something else by the author in the hopes of that aspect improving.

Two Stars out of Five

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DTTQBDE
363 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
(Originally Publ. 1990)
Source: NetGalley

The entry for M.K. Wren in the “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” aptly describes this novel as ambitious and eloquent. I was unfamiliar with her work before coming across this ebook reissue, but now I will eagerly pick up the “Phoenix” fantasy trilogy for which she is apparently best-known.

“A Gift Upon the Shore” uses the post-apocalyptic scenario to delve into two unique responses to wide-scale tragedy where civilization has collapsed and individuals are forced to give up or survive. The first response is one of fear and the erection of a rigidly controlling, false worldview based around the worst of Biblical literalism. The second response is one of careful rationality, deciding to preserve what is beautiful about humanity: art, knowledge, and compassion.

The conflicts between these two world-views drives the plot of the novel, related through the first person present point-of-view of protagonist Mary Hope, an elderly teacher living amongst (though philosophically apart from) a small Christian community. The origins of her present conflicts within the community are related through her first person past recollections of the advent of nuclear holocaust, her survival along with friend Rachel in solitude as they turn to preserving Rachel’s library, and their joyous, though ultimately disastrous, encounter with another survivor sent forth from “The Ark” to find potential mates to repopulate the devastated Earth.

The dichotomy between the rationally agnostic (or atheist) Rachel or Mary and the fervently ignorant religion of other characters has led some to criticize the novel as anti-religious or anti-Christian. This is only true, perhaps, if you accept reason and faith as diametrically opposed. Instead, the novel is more aptly described as being a reaction against the anti-intellectual Conservatism that we sadly see all to frequently coming from political and social news. Wren’s target is not Christianity itself, but rather a form of religion that grabs hold of simple, comforting answers or interpretations and holds onto them vehemently in the face of reality, because if they were to acknowledge reality their rigid and weak system would crumble, leaving them exposed to fear and despair. Rather than investing energy to support a dogmatic system of suppression, Wren argues that something more divine (and, I would argue, more religious) is possible, namely focusing on what is beautiful about humanity and about creation.

Wren masterfully uses female characters, something sadly not that common in science fiction. Rachel and Mary are each memorable, finely rendered and realistic characters. However, the other characters are less developed. The major antagonist is dogmatic repression made manifest and many of the rest are simply literal weak-willed followers. This arises from Wren’s separation of the two philosophies: one very liberal humanistic and the other totalitarian and thus unsympathetic and less ‘humane”.

These religious or philosophical points of the book are thus perhaps too overt and not presented as complexly as one would hope. But, the heart of the novel doesn’t lie in simply presenting the conflict between these two opposing ideas, it lies in Wren’s appreciation for life and the world, which the beliefs and behaviors of Rachel and Mary merely echo.

Here is the true gift presented by Wren to the readers of the novel: her descriptions of nature are profoundly beautiful. Numerous passages describing the Oregon coast and its surrounding ecosystems are rendered in hauntingly poetic language. Reading this and thinking of another literary ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel, “The Road”, I can only think how much more evocative and meaningful is “A Gift Upon the Shore”, though admittedly, they are very different kinds of books. This is truly eloquent and ambitious, and though it may not attain the profound heights that it strives for, I would easily recommend it.

Five Stars out of Five