So, starting Greg Stolze’s new novel SINNER when I decided to take an hour to relax before bedtime?
Yeah, not a good idea. In fact, pretty serious mistake.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t put this book down. But putting it down involved considerably more willpower than I expected, and I certainly didn’t make any attempt to go on with my own WIP until I reached the end. Luckily it was a fast read!
You may remember that I backed this novel on Kickstarter, just a few days ago? I didn’t kick in as much as I originally intended to, because by the time I looked at it – and I’m grateful to Ken Hite’s twitter comment for the pointer – the project had already funded, so my contribution was just a casual gesture of support for a book that looked like it might be pretty good. And, you know what? It may not be perfect, but it’s way better than just pretty good. Here’s how it starts:
I’d just pushed my way through the revolving door when I heard a snicker. My first instinct was to give someone a smack for the disrespect, but seeing as I was in the St. Louis city central police station, I decided to forbear. It wouldn’t exactly set the right tone.
“Hello,” I announced. “I’d like to turn myself in.”
“End of the line,” the functionary behind the glassed-in desk said. There was a short queue of people standing before her. I went to gently nudge aside the sweating man at the front and he said, “Back off, fruitbat!”
“I don’t think you understand.” I tried very hard to be patient, and to display my patience. “I’m Sinner. The supervillain? Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
“All I see,” he snorted, “Is a pansy in a purple suit acting the nutjob and tryin’a cut in line.”
“Everyone will be seen to in order,” the woman said, not looking up from her computer monitor, raising her voice authoritatively but with a tired note. She was sick of this, I’m sure, and who can blame her? No doubt she saw more than her share of cranks, weirdos and impostors.
“I can do this,” I explained and, running a finger through the inch-thick bulletproof plastic, swept a circular hole in it as easily as you’d pop a soap bubble. The hidden layers of plastic fluoresced purple, as matter always does when I disintegrate it.
The policewoman screamed. The sweat-hog dropped his forms on the floor and fled, shoving a woman aside on his way to the revolving door. Other people started shrieking and fleeing too, pressing back against the walls, lunging into the bathrooms, cramming themselves in the chambers of the rotating exit, which clearly wasn’t spinning anywhere near fast enough for them. Then there was a brief pause before patrolmen bubbled out of the back—not rushing, but emerging in a resolute, steady stream, guns drawn and aimed.
“You won’t need those,” I said. “I’ve come to surrender.”
“Yeah right,” one announced. “Keep your hands where I can see them!”
“They are where you can see them.”
“And keep ‘em there!” he barked, as if he’d adroitly defeated me in a battle of wits.
Okay, that’s a promising start, right?
Actually that’s not the REAL beginning, though. The actual first bit is a set of partial newspaper clippings: A Man Can Fly (April 1955, special edition of the Times). First Man on Mars is Russian (September 1984). Javalin Halts Nuke Disaster (April 1986, Tribune) – “Warned by the radiological senses of the All-Seeing I, American superheroine Javalin was able to mitigate a meltdown at the Russian nuclear plant in a city called Chernobyl . . .”
All through this book, Stolze weaves in newspaper clippings, some about superheroes and some about incidents having to do with space travel. His world, it turns out, is very like ours, except that superpowered people started showing up in the fifties and also that our ability to travel through the solar system has been a reality for roughly that long. These two factors eventually tie the book’s plot together into a coherent whole — we find out why superpowers started showing up, for example — but the story is mainly tightly focused on Hector Lear (‘Sinner’), who used to be a supervillain and has now decided to just quit with the villain thing and turn himself in. We find what led to this decision over the course of the story, of course.
Let me just say here that this kind of novel, which makes extensive use of asides and flashbacks to propel the present-moment first-person story, is pretty darn hard to pull off. Stolze does an excellent job: every newspaper article, every flashback and every digression is beautifully integrated into the overall story. Nothing about the way Sinner holds back important information feels like Stolze is cheating, largely because we can feel right away how utterly unwilling Sinner is to think about certain events. How did Javalin die? Is she really dead? How about Black Marvel? [And wow, what a villain he is, btw!] What the heck was Sinner’s role in whatever happened? And did he really turn himself in, really for real, or does he have some kind of long-term plan and this is just a tactic? We have many unanswered questions that Sinner could answer, but doesn’t – at least not till it’s appropriate in the story. As I said, this works quite well, which is a tribute to Stolze’s chops as a writer.
Sinner is a great protagonist, with a fluent first-person-smartass voice. But what’s even better is that Stolze seems to give just about every character, no matter how minor, the same careful attention. Supervillains, superheroes, other prisoners, prison guards, Hector’s sister, everyone. This is particularly impressive because lots of these characters get very little time on screen, but we get a solid sense of them just the same. I love the superhero Pilgrim, but then I love the public defender who defends Sinner just as much. There’s even a very (very) faint thread of romance through the story, one that actually adds a nice grace note to the end.
So is this book perfect? No. Stolze has a stylistic feel for certain commas that differs from my preferences – see the third-from-the-bottom line of the excerpt above; to me that should be “Yeah, right.” But that’s probably a recognized alternate comma usage, I guess, and even though it bugs me, it bugs me MUCH LESS than if he’d spelled “all right” as one word, which thankfully he did not. (The book I’m reading now does, and it drives me NUTS).
Much more importantly, to me the ending seems more than a bit rushed and maybe a little contrived. I’ll try to put this clearly without giving anything away: the way Sinner winds up in position to be contacted and picked up by the Egghead et al near the end? For some reason, Stolze didn’t show Sinner making the important decisions that led him into this position. Instead, we only saw glimpses of that part after the fact and from a third-person perspective. Since his decisions during those offstage events seem to contradict years’ worth of earlier decisions we actually did see, I couldn’t really believe in those events.
Even more important, the continuing lack of a first-person view of the very important events right at the end? Not only does that continue to make the action seem rushed, but the shift from a detailed first-person narrative to mere glimpses from a third-person perspective also forces the reader away from the protagonist. Imposing this distance from both the protagonist and the action seems an odd choice for Stolze to make. I would definitely have preferred that Stolze add another fifty pages in order to draw out some of these important scenes in more detail.
I will say, though, that the problem of distance was partly fixed by the brief epilogue, which once more brings the reader closer to the protagonist.
Okay, having said that, I do expect that I’ll probably buy a print edition of this book, partly because I turned out to be unable to get this book to load properly on my Kindle (I read it via Calibre on my laptop, which was okay, but definitely not as nice as reading something on my Kindle), but mostly because if I get the print copy, I’ll be able to loan this book around, which I want to do. I will also be looking for other work by Stolze, because SINNER was more than good enough for me to want to try something else of his. MASK OF THE OTHER sounds like it might be fun, though Cthulhu is not usually my thing.