“There can be no easily believable explanation for everything I’ve seen in this little ball-happy universe of ours. Occam’s well-worn razor will do us no good. There will be no ‘simplest’ explanation. A single world combining galaxies, black holes, Jerry Seinfeld, over 300,000 varieties of beetle, Shakespeare, adrenal glands, professional bowling, and the bizarre reproductive patterns of wasps (along with teams of BBC cameramen to document them), precludes easily palatable explanations.”
~ N.D. Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl
The line belongs to Clint Eastwood in the 2008 movie Gran Torino, but it would sound equally appropriate coming from Evan Gabriel, the hero of Steve Umstead’s sci-fi trilogy. Any villains reading this review, take note: there are some guys who should be left well enough alone. And Mr. Gabriel is one of them.
Science fiction is, as many of you know, a passion of mine. Give me futuristic gadgets, time travel, alien invasion, chilling dystopias, apocalyptic wastelands, the whole shebang. It can be heavy, it can be light; it can be serious, it can be funny. So long as it’s science fiction you can bet I’ll be interested. Some people may regard it as inferior to other genres, but that’s neither here nor there. As Ray Bradbury puts it, “People who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The first book of the Evan Gabriel Trilogy, Gabriel’s Redemption, serves as a worthy introduction to the title character, a disgraced North American Federation Navy Commander with a chip on his shoulders. When a Special Forces team is placed under his command and dispatched to a distant ice-bound planet, Gabriel sees it as a chance to redeem his name. But of course, things are never as easy as they seem; there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell otherwise.
Book two, Gabriel’s Return, follows our hero as he journeys to the world where he lost his naval command (and his original team) so many years ago: Eden. Facing a well-armed terrorist group, the dangers of the planet itself, and his own haunting memories of the past, his work is clearly cut out.
Events come to a head in Gabriel’s Revenge. Upon returning from Eden, Gabriel finds Mars in a state of political turmoil. Two major dome cities have been seized by some of his most ambitious enemies, and the very existence of the planet is threatened as rival governments argue behind closed doors. I won’t spoil anything for you; suffice it to say, Gabriel is looking for closure, and he won’t let anyone or anything get in his way.
I always approach new authors with a bit of trepidation, but Steve Umstead impressed me from the get-go. His prose is consistent and surprisingly smooth – I never got the feeling that he was still looking for his “voice”. I won’t say the writing is flawless, but two things are certain: 1) the guy knows how to spin a good yarn, and 2) I had fun reading it.
The trilogy’s blend of military action, interstellar travel, and political intrigue struck me as something Tom Clancy might write if he ever did sci-fi. Coming from an ardent Clancy fan, that’s a compliment of the highest order. The pacing throughout is stellar, the characters work well together, and there’s some genuinely great dialogue between them. And let’s not forget the action, because Umstead has that part nailed down tighter than a good metaphor for something nailed down really tight. *cough* If futuristic firefights are your thing, you’ll find some of the best right here, in these books.
Evan Gabriel is, simply put, a great hero. A guy you can actually get behind. His character – battered, bruised, and sometimes barely breathing, as he battles both terrorists and politicians – is one readers can really cheer for. His character arc reminded me ever so slightly of Jason Bourne’s, because at the core of each is a lesson for the ages: mess with a human weapon, and you’re going to wish you hadn’t.
One of the best things about the trilogy, however, is its restraint. Many of today’s writers labor under the impression that explicit sexuality is a necessary ingredient of modern fiction – Umstead is not one of them. Similar moderation is shown in the use of profanity; while I don’t have a problem with language in certain contexts, I do have a problem when it’s used as a crutch, because the author can’t find a way to express himself more creatively than to have his characters spit out the F-word. Kudos to Umstead for proving that dialogue doesn’t automatically require colorful expletives to be engaging.
The entire trilogy is currently available on Amazon for $8.99 (Kindle format). That’s a steal, if you ask me. Pick it up if you have any interest in a fast, furious, and throughly fun ride through the outer reaches of space. You won’t regret it.
Like many guys, there was a time when my reading endeavors were devoted almost exclusively to the Hardy Boys. It is, unfortunately, time that I will never get back; but it has caused me to wonder what sort of writing advice the author (or perhaps, authors) would give to curious fans. The following is a work of fiction, but it’s what I imagine Mr. Dixon would say, given the *cough* quality of his books.
For many writers, crafting memorable characters is like working with clay. I’m here to tell you there’s another, better material to work with: cardboard.
Don’t laugh. Cardboard offers a cleaner, easier way of doing things – you won’t have to deal with the messier aspects of your character because there won’t be any! Grab some scissors, do some snipping, and voila! your insubstantial, unconvincing, two-dimensional cutouts are ready for any adventure you have in store for them. What more could you ask?
And of course, the best cutouts are the ones that think they aren’t. Take my characters, Frank and Joe Hardy, for example – two chaps who run around a 58-book series under the illusion that they’re interesting. Their personalities have the approximate flavor of a glue-stick and can essentially be broken down this way – Frank has dark hair, and Joe is blonde.
There may not be much to ’em, but who really cares? Depth, complexity, realism – it’s all overrated. These guys are memorable because of how forgettable they are; exceptional by virtue of their profound mediocrity. It’s magic.
A Recipe for Formulaic Fiction
When it comes to storytelling, there’s no need to worry about repeating yourself. Heck, I repeated myself over fifty times and still managed to make the bestseller list. I mean, if you’ve read one of my books, you’ve read them all – but that doesn’t seem to stop people from reading them all anyway.
Formulaic writing is my specialty. Why spend blood, sweat, and tears on a fresh story when I can rewrite what I’ve already written? Nefarious plots for world domination (or something like that); mentally-retarded criminal masterminds; dangerous thugs who never last long in a fist-fight; and countless near-death experiences for Frank and Joe, usually by way of falling objects. Bad guys like to drop things on people, don’t you know.
And let’s not forget all the clues, conveniently dropped around like cookie crumbs for our heroes to find. We wouldn’t want the case to, y’know, challenge them. Throw in a ton of cliff-hangers that don’t really leave anyone hanging, and you’ve almost got it made. Just one more thing…
Rock ’em Sock ’em
Action. In all of my stories, there comes a time when it behooves the heroes to go around inflicting damage with their well-sculpted arms. The mysteries which Frank and Joe set out to solve inevitably end in a bout of fisticuffs – no matter that each fight is essentially the same as all the others.
When it comes to describing a manly bit of physical confrontion, it’s wise to have the persons involved do a lot of grunting. Make sure the villains go down after one or two neatly-placed jabs – you don’t want your heroes to run any risk of serious (or fatal) injury. Last but not least: always, always have someone get punched in the solar plexus. You may not be entirely sure what the solar plexus is, but punching it is a surefire way to get your bad guys doubled-over and gasping for air – after which they will happily offer a full confession.
Having subdued the opposition and brought another criminal to justice, your heroes can congratulate themselves on a job well done… until they just happen to stumble upon another mystery. One which promises (like all the others) to be the most challenging case of their careers!