Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: Slain in the Spirit

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Personal rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to read Slain in the Spirit, by Walt Rosenfeld. The book is a near-future sci-fi mystery and the themes are extremely familiar in today's world: environmentalism, the ethics of medical advances, and combat PTSD.

The story is mostly told from the viewpoint of Bill, an ex-soldier who is currently leading what might generously be called a "screwed up life." When you first meet Bill, there is a temptation not to like him. In fact, the character himself almost dares you not to like him. He's reclusive, mean, lazy, and a stoner. His greatest joys in life seem to be playing virtual poker and smoking marijuana. He's spiteful to his cousin, Marvin (who happens to be gay). But the spite doesn't seem to stem from a disapproval of Marvin's lifestyle, Bill is just being a jerk. To be honest, I felt bad for Marvin.

This is something that is particularly tricky for an author - the unlikable protagonist. If your protagonist is a stoner jerk-off, there needs to be a reason and that reason needs to spark the sympathy of the reader. Because nobody wants to read about an unlikable jerk-off.

Fortunately, Rosenfeld handles this well. Eventually you learn Bill's backstory and discover his, sometimes severe, PTSD - which has cost him a lot: a career, his wife, his ability to live. Bit by bit, Bill's journey, via his investigation into the death of Marvin's lover (which he initially takes on just for the money and to get Marvin out of his house), brings Bill out of the darkness and back into life. He even manages to love again, and find some of the joy he once had. Perhaps the best visual of the book is the final image of Bill on his "fuel-burning" motorcycle, reveling in the joy of being alive and free.

Against this, the investigation of the murder is a little bit of a secondary thought, but it's kind of okay - because that doesn't seem to really be what the plot is about. So if it lacks the "pizzazz" of a gripping, twisting, uber-complicated murder mystery, that's why. This is the story about a man's journey from darkness to light, set against the "who killed the mayor?" story line.

The story started out a bit uneven for me, as the first chapter is actually from the Mayor's view. I understood what Rosenfeld was trying to do, but that chapter lacked the smoothness of Bill's narrative. In fact, there are several chapters from other character's POV's and most of the jarring notes came from those chapters (except the one from Marvin's view, which was rather funny).

Fortunately, Bill's narrative had me hooked pretty quickly. Who did kill the mayor, who is trying to kill Bill, and will this guy ever stop being a dick? Since I became invested in Bill's growth early, I was able to move past the awkwardness of the alternate character POV chapters pretty easily.

It was easy to pick out current themes (environmental change, medical ethics, PTSD of combat veterans) pretty easily and they were all very relatable - the more things change and all that. I found the near-future technology inventions intriguing. I mean really, who hasn't dreamed of a car that drives you to your location? Julie's questions about the ethics of "playing God" with genetic manipulation are also pretty direct and relevant to current debate around genetically-modified food, etc.

This is a first novel effort, and displays some of the roughness to be expected of a first book. However, the author shows a lot of promise and should only get better with future books.

Slain in the Spirit is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

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