Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Hand of God Book Review

"My focus was always on God and his work for me. This was why I was always disconnected from those around me. Some would say I was a sociopath. They could be right, I suppose. I saw it as a gift. With the work God had chosen for me, I could not allow myself any emotional attachments. No telling who God would tell me to kill for His glory. I couldn’t let feelings get in the way." --The Hand of God

"The Hand of God"  is the unholy step-child of the Dresden Files and Father Dowling Mysteries, rolled up into one bloody package.

Pastor Charlie Sims is an inhuman monster (literally); a wolf in sheep's clothing posing as the head of a Pentecostal church in Texas whose favorite past-time is hunting down sinners and dragging them in his "special" church on his family's abandoned property and crucifying them. Life is pretty sweet for this Man of God serial killer, until the faith healer Bishop Hoover comes along and begins stirring things up, swaying Pastor Charlie's congregation against him by healing incurable diseases, regenerating lost limbs, oh yeah, and bringing people back from the dead and turning them into hideous demons that do his every bidding.

"The Hand of God" is both a casual horror novel about good vs. evil and a philosophical debate about Christianity and God's love-hate relationship with mankind. Unfortunately, most of the questions poised by the novel and the answers given therein are all things that I've heard before so I didn't find them as interesting as other people might find them. Fortunately, the ideas and themes of the novel are solid enough to make it an enjoyable light read.

There are a few things that could be improved however. It's not that it's bad writing or a terrible novel per se, it's just that it's lacking the totally epic Biblical doom feel that it should have. It's the end of the world. The time of Revelations. It should be BIG!

For a story about the second coming of Christ and the Nephilim that stopped him from ending the world, "The Hand of God"  lacked the urgent, the whole world's at stake and we have to stop it or we're all dead thing. I think this is because most of the descriptions do not go far enough, especially when there are supernatural events occurring, which make the scenes really fall flat, when they could be spectacularly awesome. I mean, come on, fire and brimstone falls from the sky and all we get is:

"After almost fifteen minutes, the sky began to turn black. It shouldn’t have been nightfall for a few more hours. Yet, the sky turned black as night. Stanton and I watched, thinking it might be some kind of storm. Something like a shooting star came down and struck the street, causing a small explosion. Then there was another, and another. Fire was falling from the sky. Stanton and I ran for cover. Balls of fire exploded around us as we hit the street. I did my best to keep my head down, but as I looked around I could see it was happening all over the city. It wasn’t rain, but it was fire and brimstone falling from the sky.

We ran a few hundred feet from the gate and across the street. There was an old gas station there with a large box truck parked outside. We dove underneath the box truck hoping nothing big enough would hit it. From what I saw, the brimstone was about the size of baseballs. We could hear some hitting the top of the truck, but it was thick enough they didn’t burn through. At least not yet anyway."

There should be more here. A sky that is raining fire and brimstone should be crackling with red lightening or look more ominous in some way to build up to create dread and suspense before it actually begins to unleash it's devastating supernatural attack on the poor townsfolk. (And it is supernatural in this case, as there are no active volcanoes that I know of in Texas, and no crazy meteor showers or anything mentioned in the novel itself.)

Adding to the descriptions would make them have a bigger impact on the overall mood and tension of the scenes on the novel and editing of some other areas would help immensely with that. It's not just the descriptions of what is occurring in a scene, but people's reactions to the events and dialog that come off as a little meh at times as well. For instance, Lucifer does not sound like an ageless trickster and the Prince of Hell, but talks like some guy you'd meet on the street and is as stale as a cardboard cut-out stereotype full of cliches. Which is sad. Because he had an interesting role in the novel that just was not exploited for all it was worth.

Editing to eliminate sentences that state the obvious would help as well, as we are given statements that underestimate the reader's intelligence and ability to put two and two together, such as "Lock picking is another unusual skill for a preacher, but I wasn't an ordinary preacher."

Well duh. You're a serial killer. We know that picking locks isn't a usual preacher's skill, well, unless you're an inner city minister who grew up scrapping on the streets. But that is not what Pastor Charlie is. He is a mild mannered white picket fence suburban hell kind of guy. So obviously a man of his station would not normally know how to do such things.

There are also a good number of scenes at the beginning that aren't necessary as they really have no function other that to reiterate that Pastor Charlie is a serial killer who crucifies people. And the flashbacks of his childhood and the traumatic event of losing his little brother makes an interesting backstory, but it really should've just remained a backstory and be mentioned as something that haunted him and made him terrified of large dogs. The flashbacks seriously interrupt the flow of the plot and often ruin the mood of the story. They aren't exactly subtle.

My biggest complaint though, is that Pastor Charlie's mysterious origins and evil necromantic psychic abilities aren't hinted at from the very beginning. They are all discovered one after the other, within a day of each other, without much struggle or doubt involved. The information dump about his origins and his supernatural abilities provided by the fallen angel who disguises himself as David Davidson robs the reader of some serious angst and inner conflict which would have made Pastor Charlie a more sympathetic anti-hero.

It would've made more sense and created a heck of a lot more suspense if he knew that he was adopted or that he wasn't quite human and different from other people (you know, aside from being a schizophrenic sociopath-- err.... I mean a man who recieves visions from God about people doing evil things who hunts them down and kills them) than to just have this information dumped in his lap, or being able to look something up on Google while investigating what is going on.

While it is All-Powerful and Knowing like the great Wizard of Oz, not everything can be learned from the Google. It's a good place to start, but I was expecting Pastor Charlie to have to do some leg work and actually investigate things, you know, go and talk to eye witnesses and find himself getting further and further into trouble as he uncovers Bishop Hoover's plans.

Speaking of Bishop Hoover (which makes me think of vacuum cleaners, but could also be meant to conjure up an image of the vile President Herbert Hoover) a lot of his actions don't make sense and seem to be out of context.

After threatening Pastor Charlie's life and kidnapping him to make a point that they are enemies, Bishop Hoover asks him to join his cause. From a plot and pacing perspective, it would've made more sense if he first tried to get Pastor Charlie to join him in his endeavors and then later on revealed that he was the villain and go so far as kidnap him and try to kill him. It would've made things more personal for the anti-hero of the story, which would make readers care more about what was at stake.

For character that is supposed to be a dangerous, powerful villain, he doesn't have as much influence or effect on people as he should have, and he isn't described as having any sort of unholy presence about him until close to the very end of the novel.

If he really gave Pastor Charlie the creeps, it should've been obvious, such as Charlie suffering a negative physical reaction to standing near him or even shaking his hand. This is another waste of a good opportunity to create suspense in the story and make the threat feel not only real, but up close and personal as Bishop Hoover goes about orchestrating the end of the world. 

But, all those points aside, I find myself being a bit forgiving of a lot of my pet peeves that are present in the novel as "The Hand of God" ends quite well and presents to us an original take on an old theme, and a refreshing one at that.

Tim Miller breathes live into the old Nephilim archetype (that's a half-human, half-angel hybrid for those of you that don't know) and creates a deadly power struggle between two different Pentecostal church leaders, with Bishop Hoover being a villainous faith healer that actually heals and Pastor Charlie being an anti-hero that kills sinners and is given a quest to put an end to Hoover's evil ways. Because they suck! Heh.

Sorry about that. I just couldn't hold that bad joke in any longer.

Anyhoo, since it's his first published work, I''m optimistic that the second Pastor Charlie novel will have some of the kinks and idiosyncrasies worked out, as there is plenty of room for improvement. Hopefully, the next time we meet Pastor Charlie, the epic story of Nephilim vs. indifferent and uncaring God will be a bit more epic in scope with great BIG bold descriptions instead of mediocre ones. I for one, am looking forward to it.

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