Monday, June 22, 2009

Acts of the Saints by K.A. Schuster

TITLE: Acts of the Saints
AUTHOR: K.A. Schuster
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 88k)
GENRE: Thriller
COST: $5.50

In a dystopian world where ultra-conservatives have turned the United States into a battleground between zealots and resisters, four lives intertwine. One: Father Theo, an alcohol-dependent priest plagued by visions that incite him to find resolution. Two: Catherine, his divorcee companion struggling with her own inner demons. Three: Martin Sovalle, a beautiful bisexual man who shows Catherine that love has all the power she ever hoped it could. And four: The Summoner, the enigmatic leader behind it all, behind the newfound religious movements, behind the danger, and most frighteningly, behind the lure that draws Catherine and Theo ever closer to his Citadel…

Trying to describe this book is like trying to mold dry sand. No matter how I try, I can never get it to hold its shape, because it’s ever-changing and slips through my fingers. On the surface, it’s about two resisters attempting to get to the central figure of a powerful and dangerous religious group. But it goes deeper than that, with rich theological and philosophical debates, and questions about how far is too far.

Paragenesis is the name of the organization inflicting its strict moral code upon the American populace. At its heart is the Summoner, a charismatic individual that is almost more myth than man, with very definitive views on how he perceives the world and the God he worships. The book starts with Theo and Catherine already on their sojourn, the hunt to find this mysterious leader. They travel along an invisible underground railroad of resisters, gathering information as they go. For the purposes of protecting themselves, they’ve married, though Theo has maintained his celibacy. In a lot of ways, however, they really are as devoted to each other as man and wife could be, supporting their views, helping each other through sticky moral dilemmas, making hard decisions when the time demands they be made. Theo is fascinating. This is a man divided, still very much devout, still very much in love with his Lord, and yet, he’s being forced on a daily basis to see the atrocities that are being committed in the name of his preferred religion. Sometimes he deals with it poorly, retreating into his alcohol. At others, he is as passionate and powerful as he ever was in the pulpit, an instrument to be utilized, a force to be followed. The magnetic pull he feels for the Summoner is both frightening and fated, and as a reader, I was as tossed in confusion regarding the whole situation as he was.

Catherine, unfortunately, isn’t quite as interesting to me. She’s probably more relatable as one of the most normal people in the story, but her entire motivation hinges on her feelings for Marty, something I am never able to believe or invest in. Now, she is just meeting Marty at the top of the story. She’s been in St. Louis for a grand total of six hours. He’s gorgeous, and she’s sexually frustrated, so it’s very natural for her to be attracted to him. No problem yet. In chapter two, they get a chance to sit down and get to know each other, though we only get the beginning of their day-long conversation. At the top of chapter three, they have sex, which is good, and still I don’t have a problem. However, immediately following that, the house they’re in is attacked, and Marty is its victim. She has no more interactions with him in St. Louis except when he gets dumped back at the house the following morning and she helps get him medical treatment. All of this happens in chapter three. From that point on, Catherine uses her feelings for Marty as a guiding tool in almost all of her decisions. She worries about him constantly, which is fine, but very quickly, she’s decided she’s in love with him, and it’s because she loves him so much that she is able to follow through with Theo on their quest. I never got it. I never understood just what the big deal was that she would invest in him, mostly because much of their interaction happened off the page. At least, I’m guessing it’s that day long of conversations that tipped her feelings in that direction. She is understandably hungry for affection, but the way she threw herself so whole-heartedly into him never resonated for me. Because of that, it was very difficult to invest in a lot of her emotions when it came to Marty. For much of the book, he’s this ethereal creature, more symbol than man.

Ironically, the Summoner ends up being more man than symbol. This is the single most intriguing character in the entire story, though that’s partially due to the mystery shrouding him for a good part of it. We get snippets from his POV through the first half, but they are all just one big tease for the last third when more of his history and motivations come out. They are dark, they are twisted, and in the context of his theological make-up, they all have a morbid logic that is as chilling as it is mesmerizing. His relationships are the ones that prove most intriguing, whether it’s with his unctuous assistant Griggs, damaged Theo, or even Catherine.

All of this gets wrapped up in dense, articulate prose, and while there are some exquisite turns of phrase – I especially liked, Remnants of ice broke through the skin of Lake Superior like violently fractured bones. and One bleached streak lay like a moonbeam directly above his left eye – it often feels like the prose is trying just a little too hard. Some of the effect of the evocative language gets lost when it’s loaded with ten-cent words that ended up distracting me at times rather than drawing me in. It slows down the read, though the pacing also gets weighted by the intricate world building. For instance, at the very start, the reader is thrust into the middle of a group conversation – Theo and Catherine amongst a group of resisters. On top of not knowing the primary characters at that point, I also didn’t know any of the other seven men in the scene – yes, seven – nor any of the politics or situations about which they’re discussing. Instead of hooking me in, it ground me to a halt almost right away, as I struggled to keep straight these nine strangers while at the same time, tried to get a grasp on the world they lived in. It took time to adapt, though thankfully, that wasn’t the pattern throughout the book. Once the general political and religious atmosphere is understood, it’s easier to get involved.

But this is the kind of book where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I raced through the last third, tense, worried, and wondering how in hell everything was going to play out. Reservations I might have had early on vanished as I read, and while I can’t say that I was fully satisfied by the ending – the last few pages felt incredibly rushed, and then it just stopped – it remained true to much of what the entire story promised. It provoked me into thought, and into considering my review, and wondering just what in hell was going to happen next, and ultimately, what in hell I was going to do next. Compelling, if flawed. Rather like its charismatic priests.


8/10 – Some absolutely gorgeous turns of phrase, but dense plotting/world building keep it a slow read until the end


7/10 – Some characters shine, while others are overshadowed


9/10 – I loved the idea and machinations

Entertainment value

8/10 – Compelling and thought-provoking

World building

8/10 – Dense and more than a little frightening, I found myself having to re-read passages in order to keep all the details straight



1 comment:

K. Z. Snow said...

By far the most thoughtful, and thought-provoking, review I've gotten for this book. I'm definitely going to save it and pore over it again. I want to get as much out of this commentary as you put into it.

Impressive work, Book Utopia, like all your reviews.

Thank you so much.