RealmShift by Alan Baxter
|Formatt:||Paperback / Audiobook / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Horror / Thriller|
|Release Date:||April 7, 2010|
I’ve been following British/Australian author Alan Baxter online for a while now. He’s one of a group of very passionate and talented writers in the land down under doing great things. So when he put the word out for reviewers for his two earliest novels—his first being self-published back in 2006, then picked up by Gryphonwood Press for a release in 2010—I was eager to jump in to discover just how good this man was.
Two free copies later (thanks, Alan), and one incredible debut down, and I’m very glad I did. Because, while RealmShift isn’t without its minor problems, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling book—and one that showcases a writer unafraid of throwing universe-sized ideas out there, before nailing them to the page like a pro.
The Official Blurb
Isiah is having a tough time. The Devil is making his job very difficult.
Samuel Harrigan is a murdering low-life who used ancient black magic to escape a deal with the Devil. He’s on the trail of a crystal skull that he believes will complete his efforts to evade Lucifer, but Lucifer wants Samuel’s soul for eternity and refuses to wait a second longer for it.
Now Isiah must protect Samuel and keep the Devil at bay, because Isiah needs Samuel’s search for the skull to continue. Not for Samuel’s sake, but for the sake of all humankind.
The Good News
From the outset we’re moving in the right direction, at pace. We’re quickly introduced to Isiah, our hero, a world-weary man of incredible age and incredible power. Watch as he casually fights demons, beams himself around the city, and chats with Satan—pausing only to offer comment on the scorched floor of his apartment after the latter’s visit. An interesting fellow, to be sure. It’s clear he’s seen and done a lot, and that his standing in the universal order of things is incredibly high.
Of course, in most situations this is a problem. Having a protagonist as some kind of supernatural superman (for the most part) runs the risk of killing any kind of tension the writer can muster. So it’s testament to the skill of Alan Baxter that Isiah remains engaging throughout. Despite knowing he can take care of himself in all but the worst situations, you STILL worry about his wellbeing and the success of his mission. And this engagement only increases once you discover just how he found himself in this precarious position, working as a hired gun for the universal Balance.
As you’d expect for a thriller, the writing is crisp and solid, with little in the way of flowing, flowery fantasy sentence structure. But…it’s different too. There’s an almost noir-haiku-like quality to the author’s prose that I found really interesting. And it also works well to keep the rhythm up—so that even in a beginning with the potential to get bogged down in exposition (as we learn more about the incredible universe on show), I didn’t find my mind wandering at all. I was always keen to read on.
But my favourite aspect of the book has to be the worldbuilding. Not necessarily the physical world—as it’s mostly set in the one we know (except for a trip somewhere ‘hot’ that is brilliantly disturbing)—but the creation of a universe built upon on theological ideas that really struck home with me.
Sure, talk of ‘the Balance’ and energy that binds us all rings bells of the all-encompassing Force (pre-midichlorians at least). But what I found here went beyond Jedi mind tricks. Rather it’s a thought-provoking take on God/s, belief, fate, balance and religion that makes more sense to me than anything I’ve yet read, fictional or otherwise. To try and explain it here in so few words would do the idea a disservice. So I simply say that if you read the book you will get more out of it than you might think.
That said, if you simply take this dark fantasy thriller at face value, it won’t disappoint. It’s a fun, riveting adventure involving crystal skulls, archaeological digs and a race against time. Throw in several despicable (and again disturbing) villains, including the Devil himself, and a climax where you’re still not sure what exactly is going to go down until the final few pages, and you’ve got a fantastic debut.
The Bad News
I seem to read a lot of books these days where all my niggles are minor ones, and fortunately that’s the case again here. For the most part.
There is a little slipping of points of view now and then, which led to the occasional backtrack to identify who is thinking what. The opening few pages also tried a little too hard to set the scene of this grim city, with an overabundance of rain-as-tears metaphors that detracted somewhat from the mood being set. And there is a blatant information dump near the beginning that I don’t think was needed and possibly took away some of the fun of discovering what the hell was happening—although it set up such an interesting plot that I forgave it and read on.
However, there was one consistent issue that ran throughout the book which ensured, for me, this book didn’t reach masterpiece status. Which, frustratingly, I actually think it could have done.
Laughing. Chuckling. Smiling. Grinning. Smirking. Winking. And any other kind of cute, banter-obligatory action that all writers try to force into their stories (God knows I’ve done it enough) and all editors should (almost always) eradicate. This is a dark fantasy. It deals with some pretty awful characters and events, and some major implications for the world should things not go to plan. So while other more family-friendly fantasy stories might get away with it (just) there should not be even a 10th of the good-natured action appearing here. The dialogue was well written. It more than adequately conveyed the banter, or the smart remarks—as it should. There was simply no need to confirm every smile, grin, or chuckle, that by the end of the book made me want to throttle the next happy person in a dire situation.
The very, very end of the main story suffers from this quite substantially. The climax itself is awesome. The build-up throughout the book is absolutely met head on and dealt with remarkably well. But after the dust settles? Well, let’s just say that after facing such terror, there’s a bit of a Famous Five moment for a couple of characters where it’s all shrugged off with a chuckle and we’re away for lashings of ginger beer and cucumber sandwiches.*
Maybe I’m just a miserable git, but the constant smiling and grinning here wore a bit thin. Which is a massive shame, because otherwise RealmShift is rather brilliant.
A solid dark fantasy thriller, it deals with suitably interesting characters and events, and contains really wonderful theological ideas that keep you thinking—and believing—long after you’ve turned the final page. The plot is fun and fresh, keeping you guessing how it’ll play out until the very end, and the main protagonist and villains are layered and engaging. Plus there are plenty of threads that make a sequel a must-read (which I’m about to embark on now).
Overall, thoroughly enjoyable. I highly recommend.
*They don’t actually do this, thankfully. But they come close.