Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Answering Review Request: Phoenix Rising

Martin Allen asked me to read his book "Phoenix Rising". It's about a guy from a theocracy investigating a freelance preacher in the space age. I will examine plot, characters, and polish and then assign a grade.


I like to call this story "The Gosepl According to Javert" because it is a blow by blow copy of the New Testament but from the perspective of a zealous law enforcer, like Inspector Javert from Les Miserables.

It's an interesting idea. Because Decimus has seen charlatan preachers in the past, he assumes that to be the case here. From that perspective, the healings are staged, calming the sea is made up, some stories are conflated to be more than one event, etc. This makes the early parts funny by way of Dramatic Irony. Because Decimus doesn't accept the miracles at face value, he reaches for earthly explanations that are more complicated and less likely, right up to inventing a "Shadow" figure that is manipulating and providing for The Phoenix. Thereby, he makes his own atheistic "God of the Gaps".

Because this story is framed as the Investigator's private log after he's been converted to The Phoenix's flock, the Investigator also takes on dimensions of Apostle Paul. He's an antagonist that eagerly prunes what thinks is/could be heresy, then ultimately sees the light and spreads the word himself. It's like Mr. Allen arranged for Apostle Paul to meet Jesus in the flesh instead of in a vision on the Road to Damascus.

I also like how the setting is space age. I disliked the Out Grown Such Silly Superstitions trope, which states that space age capable societies are atheistic by default. I find it illogical to think that religions would passively fade away because humans live on Mars instead of Earth or what not. It's not a problem here. (The Corrupt Church thing is another matter.)

There are many things I don't like about this book.

This story takes place in the future of Earth. Rome is the main setting, Naples is visited, etc. My problem is there's no connection between 21st century and this setting. I don't understand how this solar system spanning theocratic empire was created. More importantly, I have no idea where this "Sol Invictus" religion came from. Without that, I lack the fundamentals for not only the society but the main characters's motivation and the conspiracy driving the plot.

There are two narratives here. One is the setting update for the Christian New Testament. The other is wholly original yet also wholly dependent on the first. The problem is that these two plots don't mesh.
1. The Passion in the original text was about saving people from sin. Here it sounds more like trying to prevent earthly slaughter, but the thing is, there was no threat of such before The Phoenix started preaching and even if his followers didn't fall for provocation, it wouldn't solve the root problem. I'm left wondering why he started in the first place.
2. The text doesn't confirm if The Phoenix is just one more preacher or something special. I feel Mr. Allen wants to keep it ambiguous but this creates problems. If he's not special, which is what the text leans toward, then this creates a number of plotholes.
2.1 The Transfiguration scene has two instances of clearly supernatural happening. The first is when Decimus tries to eavesdrop on the private scene, and he is repeatedly teleported away from it. The explanation given is that he spaced out and climbed down. This doesn't make sense because it doesn't fit the mentality of a investigator.
2.2. When he finally gets close to the area, he sees a bright white light. There is no explanation here. Decimus merely states that there was no way to create earthly light.
3. The Phoenix clearly knows the Passion is going to happen and he knows the full extent of the plot before Decimus is sure that there is a plot. How does he know this if he is just one more free lance preacher in no man's land?

There is no ending. There is no conclusion. There is no resolution. I feel like it's a Shocking Swerve downer ending. After following the story beat by beat, everyone with even a passing knowledge of the New Testament would expect a Resurrection Scene. Thus, averting this at the last moment is a Twist Ending. It's cheap and more than that, it doesn't make sense.

This whole time the followers are portrayed as cowardly, self-interested, assholes. The Peter figure even does the "deny three times" thing. Yet at the end they're storming the Imperial Compound. If there hadn't been a plot involved, they would have been quickly and effortlessly slaughtered. This can't be called anything besides "suicidal devotion". Why did they wait until now?

I don't understand why a nuke would be used. This is a handful of bums trying to free their small-town leader. A nuke is hardly justified force. Also, Rome is considered to be the lowliest place in the empire. Everyone believes it to be a cursed place and full of the worst of the worst.  Who cares if it gets blown up again?

Why is Decimus horrified at this turn of events? His fellow Investigator clearly believes it will benefit the Empire and the only cost is the dregs of society. Decimus cares nothing for these people. He still thinks of them as diseased and sinful wretches. At no point is he trying to save them. What's the problem? I'm left wondering why they're fighting. Histar has no idea what's going, and without Decimus telling her, she wouldn't know what happened. Thus, there's no reason to silence her and no reason for the fight.

Decimus knows that the Empire is corrupt from the start. He talks about how higher ups live in luxury while others scrap to get by, or how he knows certain big whigs to be pederasts, or others in the Empire that wouldn't survive one of his investigations. Yet he is shocked that an innocent man would be condemned to death in a kangaroo court. It gets worse. He acknowledges at numerous points that Phoenix's sermons could easily be interpreted as heresy or criticism of the Empire. One of them was as transparent as "replace 'Evil' with 'Empire'".

Normally, I refrain from suggesting improvements in reviews. Despite any dislike I may have, I try to respect the author's vision. However, this book personally offended me and since a large chunk of it is ripped straight out of the New Testament, I feel it qualifies as an exception.

I think there should be an epilogue. Something that goes back to the start of the narrative, where he's introducing this story. It should involve his plans to duplicate this narrative and spread it around like the other works in The Movement, because he considers himself part of it now. He would frame it in terms of atonement, both for turning in The Phoenix and all the other murders he's committed for the Empire. This would bring forth the full potential of the Apostle Paul expy in his character.

 Also, he would declare himself to be investigating the Empire. This would bring forth and crystallize his doubts about the Empire (especially the upper echelons) that have been sprinkled through-out the narrative beginning with the start of his investigation of The Phoenix. I believe something like this would bring closure to the narrative, while at the same time, serve as a fantastic sequel hook.

I don't ask for a Resurrection scene. While I'd like to see one, and I feel some sort of explanation for the supernatural happenings is needed, I'm going to respect Mr.Martin's desire to keep it ambiguous-leaning-nonsupernatural. In fact, giving Decimus bad dreams or "hallucinations" of The Phoenix would further this ambiguity and contribute to the Road to Damascus theme of this entire book.

There are basically three characters here. They are Decimus the Investigator,  "The Phoenix" the preacher, and Histar the follower.

Histar is like an Audience Surrogate and Morality Pet. Her only role here is to humanize Decimus and act as an opposing influence. She does not otherwise contribute to the plot

"The Phoenix" is a carbon copy of Jesus the Christ. Even the speeches are similar but with local terminology. It is a well done copy, but a copy it remains. On TvTropes, we'd call this an "expy".

Decimus is, as written in the previous section, interesting. He's like this mix of Inspector Javert and Apostle Paul, with a sympathetic Judas mixed in. Now give this composite character the conditioning and weaponry of Halo's Master Chief.

Despite this mix, he is a passive character. More accurately, he is an active character that is made passive by the narrative. The bulk of what he does is read about The Phoenix and then observe him in person. He does a lot of thinking and explaining, which means a good chunk of the report is his own speculation about things. The only action he takes other than his Judas thing is to get Histar out of Rome before The Very Bad Thing happens.

The relationship between Histar and Decimus makes no sense. It goes beyond Love At First Sight and becomes instant irrational obsession. Out of a large crowd, Decimus  spots Histar. As the narrator, he points out that it made no sense to rescue her from rapists (outside the investigation) and even less sense not to kill her afterward (she realized he was an investigator from his fighting ability). For someone as heavily indoctrinated as Decimus is supposed to be, her safety quickly becomes his only objective.


There are several spelling and grammar errors. It's not excessive but the book would definitely benefit from a proofreader. Also, there are few paragraph breaks. Most pages are a single paragraph. This makes it hard to read.
Interestingly, there is a In-universe justification for this. The book is a first person narrative and Decimus says that he's using "lowtech" to better avoid detection. As interesting as it is, the errors could also be due to other reasons.

The first person narration is poor. The in-universe justification is to be account of the life of the Phoenix, but it's more about Decimus' life. At the beginning, he states that there are written works besides his own being circulated by The Movement, yet the ending implies that only person left in the Movement is headed toward suicide.  At the end, one would think he would reach the point in the story where he would begin to write down what happened, i.e. the beginning of the narrative where he explains his purpose. Instead, it cuts off at the end of The Passion. Without that connection, the narrative doesn't make sense. There's not even an afterword stating "thus concludes my account/investigation" etc.

I like the idea for the story but the execution is weak and I feel the desire for a tragic twist ending over-rode the desire for a complete narrative.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Phoenix Rising" an F

This is a free review request. I received nothing in exchange for it except a free copy of the book.

Click here for the next review request: "Within Ruin"

Click here for the previous review request: "The Experiment"

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