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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book Review: RedDevil 4 by Eric C. Leuthardt

I didn't come to this novel with many expectations.  The cover description didn't exactly entice me, but I figured I could give it a shot to surprise me.  And surprise me it did.  This is by far my least favorite read of 2014 thus far, though the Hugo Award packet may offer a few surprises in the near future.  From the first chapter, I knew I would hate this book, and by page 100, I gave up because it showed no signs of improving.  If there's one good thing to say about having picked up RedDevil 4, it's that I learned never to read anything written by Douglas Preston or Steve Berry, both of whom provided cover blurbs; if Preston found anything here that "blew [his] mind," he clearly doesn't know a cliche when it smacks him repeatedly in the eyes.  And if Berry thought I'd "[savor] a peck into the psyche [and] one into the future as well," I'd just assume he doesn't know what words mean.

In short, this is going to be a mean review.  Prepare yourself.

Here's the cover description:

Renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Hagan Maerici is on the verge of a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that could change the way we think about human consciousness. Obsessed with his job and struggling to save his marriage, Dr. Maerici is forced to put his life’s work on the line when a rash of brutal murders strikes St. Louis. 
Edwin Krantz, an aging, technophobic detective, and his ex-Navy SEAL partner, Tara Dezner, are tasked with investigating the horrifying killings. Shockingly, the murders have all been committed by high-profile citizens who have no obvious motives. Seeking an explanation for the suspects’ strange behavior, Kranzt and Dezner turn to Dr. Maerici, who believes that the answer lies within the killers’ in-brain computer implants. 
Soon Tara Dezner begins to suspect that the doctor himself is a key piece of the puzzle. As the investigation turns to Dr. Maerici’s own work, it threatens to expose the doctor’s long-buried mistake–a mistake that now stands to endanger the lives of millions. 
With time running out, this trio of unlikely allies must face a gauntlet of obstacles, both human and AI, as they attempt to avert disaster. Ultimately, the key to survival may lie in the boundary between man and machine…a boundary that is becoming more ambiguous by the minute.
Almost all of RedDevil 4's problems are a result of its structure.  Billed as a thriller, Leuthardt's novel follows the typical structure of a James Patterson-esque novel.  This might not be a problem if the novel remained focused on a title character, as Patterson mostly does in the first of his Alex Cross novels, Along Came a Spider; RedDevil 4, however, shifts between multiple characters:  Hagan, Krantz, Trent (a seemingly random virtual reality user), Reverend Elymas (who uses special drugs to enhance his "performance"), the Chameleon (a drug dealer), and some other mostly irrelevant figures.  There are so many POVs in the first 100 pages that the novel's main plot points -- mysterious murders and Hagan's invention -- make little to no progress.  This is a 300-page novel, and yet barely anything of note actually occurs in the first third.  Even when things do happen, they are painfully cliche and hopelessly detached from anything resembling actual people.  These are the second and third biggest problems with this novel.

A poorly structured novel is fully capable of transcending its limitations if it can provide adequate characters to distract the reader from the other issues.  RedDevil 4, unfortunately, doesn't have adequate characters.  Hagan, the apparent protagonist of the novel, is about as wooden and cookie-cutter as you can get.  Scientist working overtime to create some newfangled thing?  Check.  Is he pressured by corporate interests?  Check.  Does he have marital problems because he works too much?  Check.  Does he try to justify those problems by saying "but I is gonna make sumfin good, dood"?  Check.  One can certainly write a scientific cliche well, but Leuthardt provides so little actual emotion and depth to Hagan's character that you could have deleted him from the first 100 pages and not have noticed at all.  There's nothing new about Hagan's archetype.  We've seen this dozens of times before.  It's like being on autopilot.  When I see scientists in this situation, I desperately hope they won't be like Hagan.  In this case, I found myself utterly disinterested in what was happening with Hagan; I didn't care about his marital issues because they felt as common place and desensitized as breathing.

The other characters are equally as undeveloped.  Trent doesn't appear to have any real connection to any of the other narratives, nor are his internal emotions, motivations, or desires demarcated in any way other than the most basic sense.  Like Hagan, Trent (and most any other character here) could be deleted without causing any real damage to the existing narratives.  Additionally, none of the characters seem to be connected in any significant way, except for the Chameleon and Elymas, who have a "business" relationship (drugs).  It's as if Leuthardt started out by writing three bog standard genre novels, and then he shoved them all together and called it RedDevil 4.  I'm sure the dots are connected later on in the novel, but I couldn't get over the lifelessness of the characters to convince myself the rest was worth reading.  Even if I could get over the characters, though, the rest of the novel reads just as cliche.  AI inventions are not new to science fiction, nor are scientists with marital problems, virtual reality users who become obsessed with the virtual and unearth weirdness, etc.  The closest thing to "new" in this novel are the religious elements, but these are mostly stuck in the background.  A novel about the public's debates over the moral and ethical questions raised by artificial intelligence (with a side of terrorism) might actually make for an interesting read.  But, again, that's not RedDevil 4.

In short, I pretty much hated this book.  I'm not one to quit on a read, but I found Leuthardt's RedDevil 4 a pointless literary venture into familiar territory.  Wooden characters, overly simplified prose, shoddy structure, and eye-rolling cliches are not for me.  I'd rather read James Joyce's Ulysses again...

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I've sat on this review for a long while.  There's a good reason for that.  First, I could only manage 100 pages of RedDevil 4; second, I knew I wouldn't have anything nice to say about it.  Given the recent conversation about negative reviews in the sf/f community, I decided I'd post the review in the interest of fairness.

Most of what I'm going to talk about in this review applies to this excerpt of the novel.

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2 comments:

  1. Whoof. There is some seriously terrible prose in that excerpt you linked to. "...he had an annoyed look that suggested an irritable impatience" has got to be one of the most repetitively redundant (see what I did there?) sentences I've ever read. And if the excerpt is anything to go by, you could play page roulette with the book, randomly lay your finger on any paragraph, and dollars to doughnuts some character is sighing. How did Tor get behind something this shoddy? Seriously.

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    1. I think it's actually a Forge book, which may be edited/helmed by a different crew. Can't confirm. I don't get a lot of Forge books, though. No idea who let this one slide through. I suspect the author's credentials got him a slight pass.

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