I found myself in two competing states of mind when reading 'Charisma', the final novel before Steven Barnes moved away from modern genre fiction into more overt explorations of race and history: a pair of alternate histories, called 'Insh'Allah' that invert the racial balance of 19th century North America; a pair of 'Ibandi' novels set in prehistoric Africa; and a series of contemporary murder mysteries set in the fringes of Hollywood, the 'Tennyson Hardwick' books by Blair Underwood, written with Barnes and his wife, Tananarive Due.
On one side, I felt that I was reading the smoothest prose of Barnes's career thus far. 'Charisma' has a lot of similarities to his late nineties solo efforts, 'Blood Brothers' and 'Iron Shadows', with its look at men with power over others and the impact they have on the world through secret organisations and conspiracies, but this unfolds more comfortably and with more apparent purpose. I don't know how he felt while writing it, but it reads like the words just flowed out of him and pages stacked up quickly in their final form. It feels a lot less crafted and a lot more natural.
On the other side, I felt that this smoothness and his focus on a set of kids as the leads moved this into Stephen King territory and it lost me a little because of that. It's not horror, per se, though Tor appear to have no idea what it is: the cover calls it a thriller, the spine calls it science fiction and the cover art hints at horror. Then 'Blood Brothers' was really horror, even if it was marketed as science fiction, and 'Iron Shadows' was kind of horror too, even if it was marketed as thriller. This one's more traditionally horror but the back story we have to learn keeps it at least partially in science fiction territory.
Certainly, it's science fiction we have in mind in the early chapters. We seem to be focused on a set of kids in Claremont, a small town outside Vancouver in Washington state; who have a secret, even if it's not something they're aware of themselves. We first meet them in court, testifying about their abuse at Claremont Daycare in eerily effective fashion. Then we learn something about them out and about as they live their lives and, while they do many of the things that all American kids do, they're not like everyone else and we don't know why. Most thirteen-year-olds don't live by the Nine Principles of the 17th century samurai Musashi Miyamoto, for a start, especially not in rural Washington.
We're torn between two possibilities. They might be prodigies, leading to our questioning why such a small town would be home to a whole bunch of them. Or they might be psychopaths, leading to even more questions. Of course, maybe they're both. Who did this to them? More importantly, why was it done? We always believe there's a hidden hand at work here, though it isn't clear who it is and, while the back cover blurb appears to confirm that it's "popular rags-to-riches politician Alexander Marcus", that's rather misleading. If you pick up the Tor paperback, don't even read that blurb. Dive in and see where it takes you.
I'd call the kids the leads here, not only because Barnes focuses on them far more often than the few adult players, but also because they're arguably the most capable characters in the book, something that really flavours it throughout. If I had to call out one, it would be Patrick Emory, who manages to accomplish rather a lot in this book, even though he's only thirteen-years-old and faced with notably adult situations. Turning the gay bodybuilding Jesus freaks on the ruthless drug dealers is as joyous and traumatising as it ought to be. This book isn't afraid to get dark when it needs to and it handles a kid's reaction to a succession of traumas well.
The most traditional lead is Renny Sand, a journalist who has fallen a little on hard times and may have stumbled upon the story of his life. However, he's a better romantic lead than he is an action one. He might be in the most overt action scenes, but he doesn't lead any of them. His love interest was both one of my favourite characters and one of the most disappointing. She's Vivian Emory, Patrick's mum, who's a single mum in effect even before she is in truth and I'm unsure how she ends up so passive, as she's such a driven go-getter. They both need to be here but they're the background to the story that unfolds with the kids.
Other characters called out in that back cover blurb are Alexander Marcus and Kelly Kerrigan and it's fair to say that both are important. However, the former doesn't show up outside flashback scenes, as he died years before the timeframe of the book's main thrust, and the latter only just squeaks onto a page before the hundred page mark. This is partly because the build is so patient and comfortable, a build that focuses on character building as much as teasing us with details of the plot we can't see yet. For a long time, it feels like a coming-of-age story for Patrick and his friends, though we always know it isn't only that.
And so we get back to those two states of mind.
On one side, this feels like a better book than Barnes's earlier solo novels. It's a lot simpler at heart than 'Iron Shadows' and more consistent in approach than 'Blood Brothers'. The prose flows, as if the author is a better writer than he was when he was writing his 'Aubry Knight' books or 'The Kundalini Equation'. Comparing the leisurely build to Stephen King speaks to accomplished writing. This is good stuff, both easy and quick to read but also meaningful and with emotional depth and impact.
On the other, I didn't like it as much as many of those earlier solo novels. I think my favourite is still 'The Kundalini Equation', even if Barnes got better as a writer as he went on. This feels thematically tied to 'Blood Brothers' and 'Iron Shadows' and I prefer both of those, in part because they're edgier, more complex and with adult leads. I'll stand by that Stephen King comparison, because it's fair, but I ought to point out here that I'm not a big Stephen King fan.
And with all that said, I should call out the Arizona locations, from the real city of Prescott to what I presume is a the fictional city of Diablo, a tourist town southeast of Tucson that I expect is based to a large degree on Tombstone and maybe Bisbee. I should also call out the neat suggestion that Marcus Tower, home base for Alexander Marcus's newspapers, is better known as the Nakatomi Plaza in L.A., home base for the action in 'Die Hard'. Those aren't reasons to read this, but they're cool anyway.
Next up for me is either Barnes's next novel, 'Lion's Blood', the first of his two alternate histories, if I can find a copy, or his 'Star Wars' novel, 'The Cestus Deception', which followed those two, because I already have it to hand. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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