The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough.
First, I really liked the book. I read about it on Chuck Wenig’s blog, bought it on Aug. 1 devoured it by Aug. 3. All 496 pages of it. Even for me that takes a bit of time, but it was worth it. I also appreciate that it is part of a trilogy with the second book out in a month, and the third a month after that. That’s a strategy I wish more trilogies would try.
Hough brings two strengths to the book: world building and his action sequences. Darwin, Australia, has become the last bastion of mankind. A plaque has turned most humans into feral subhumans. But those who could make it to Darwin and huddle around the sky elevator the aliens left don’t succumb. Those, and the humans who live in habitats at the top of the elevator. The wealthy and the scientific community live in comfort and safety, the masses in fear and squalor below. Bt they depend upon each other: food goes down, air and water and specialty items go up.
The protagonist is an immune — a rare human who does not catch the plaque. He and his crew of other immunes fly out to the potential sites to scavenge what might keep humanity afloat a bit longer. The scavenge scenes and the battles with the subhumans are excellent. I feel as if I were one of the team.
The book has some weaknesses — don’t we all. And for a first book, it’s a pretty smooth read.
A smaller weakness is his characterization. The characters are a bit cardboard-like,
and we’ve seen them them before — the scheming businessman, the brutal dictator that rules the masses, the large man who rarely leaves his hideout as the fence. That doesn’t make them bad characters — they fit into the world the author built. His females are even less fleshed out — the asexual sidekick with the smart mouth, the princess in the tower is a scientist who holds the key who of course is beautiful but wants to be recognized for her brain. Likeable, but without much depth. That may come as the writer develops.
But the biggest problem is the pacing of the narrative arc. The book is likened to Josh Whedon’s well-loved, but short-lived TV show. It is a fair comparison. If the book was a TV series, the episodic, world building that the book does so well would be all that we’d ask of it. But with a book we ask where are we going with this? — the overall narrative arc. The Darwin Elevator reads like the author realized he was 400 ages in, and that he need to wrap it up. As a result, some key events toward the happen off-stage. Hard to believe, but the book needed another 50 pages so that the author could detail the action sequences that wrap up the story in the way that he did the other, earlier world-building scenes.
Still, I will eagerly wait for the next installment. This is a good story. And I like the title. There is the physical meaning — the elevator is in Darwin. The religious fanatics believe the elevator to be Jacob’s Ladder, a religious metaphor. And the book questions why the builders were changing humans — some kind of evolution, and Darwin becomes a reference to Charles Darwin. Nice.
As a writer, I wonder if there are pacing guidelines that help you plot the key points of the narrative arc. In Everybody Lies, I worried that the plane/auto race would happen too fast leaving the reader wondering what just happened. It was good for me, because I went back and re- visualized it adding more detail, ratcheting up the tension. And then I went back and did it again, until I felt like it was weighty enough to be the final anchor to the narrative arc.
I’ll probably reread some of the action scenes. I think that’s a weak point in my own writing, and this book does them very well. I was envious.