Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Review: The Stonehenge Gate

Well, this is the final review of the last batch of books I got out of the West Florida Regional Library, and will probably be one of the last book reviews that I write for a week or so (tomorrow's review of the anime kō no Strain will be the last review until I can get settled in a new house). I'm in the midst of moving, so I have very little time. I am reading Hal Spacejock but since I'm spending a lot of time packing most of my reading this week will probably be at the end of the week as we go on a house-buying trip to our new city.

But all of that is neither here nor there. We're here to talk about Jack Williamson's 2005 novel The Stonehenge Gate (ISBN: 0765308975). It's a moderate sized novel, with the hardcover edition clocking in at 316 pages. The dust jacket blurb reads:

A dark mystery has been buried beneath the sands of the Sahara desert since the beginning of time. In a basement in New Mexico, four poker buddies find reason to believe that a startling secret is out there...

These four amateur adventurers are about to uncover the key that could unlock the vast reaches of the universe.

A sudden burst of curiosity propels mild-mannered English professor Will Stone and his three friends to the Sahara to excavate a site where radar has evidently detected huge, assembled stones hidden beneath the sand. There they stumble upon an ancient artifact that will change their lives, and the world, forever...a gateway between planets, linking Earth to distant worlds, where they will discover wonders and terrors beyond imagining.

Jack Williamson, the dean of science fiction writers, weaves an exciting tale that takes the friends to the far corners of the universe. One leads an oppressed people to freedom. Another uncovers clues that could identify a long-dormant civilization of immortal beings. Now each traveler must play a crucial role in unraveling an ancient mystery, the solution to which may reveal the true origins of the human race.

If they can just survive their journeys back to earth...
You know. I wanted to be excited about this. I did. Really. Sure, this is a story that has been done before; one of my favorite movies, and my third favorite Heinlein novel uses a similar concept. Of course they're not done exactly the same, but I just loved Stargate and while I know that not even Stargate originated the concept of linked gateways to different locations (as it's been a fantasy trope for many-many years now, and Heinlein used it in SF the mid-fifties), I think that Stargate did it best (though, like I said, I am fond of Tunnel in the Sky).

But, all that aside, this is still a review of this book, and despite the overt similarities, I'll try to not allow my love for that particular movie impose on this review.

The plot of this book is simple. Four friends find these stones that look like Stonehenge, and will take you to various worlds. At which time they get separated and start spending a lot of time plodding around the universe trying to find one another and earth. Basically, it's Stargate mixed with Sliders (I know I said I would try to not let my love impose on the review, but that's a comparison, so it's fine). Execution wise, there's nothing wrong with this plot. It is pushed forward relatively swiftly but a decent pace does not always make a good read. After all, no matter how well a plot is executed, piss-poor characters can leave it quite dead.

The primary character here is Will Stone, professor of English at some university in New Mexico, with his three co-protagonists. He's an odd duck for POV character, in the fact that he's not a scientist, he's not athletic. In short, he's not the sort of person that one usually reads stories about. Frankly, he's a bit of a boor, and I didn't particularly care for him one way or the other. Which lead to a serious lack of dramatic tension in those parts of the books where we're supposed to care for him.

Will's poker buddies are as follows: Derek Ironcraft (astronomy & physics), Lupe Vargas (archeology) and Ram... well, it was something, but I couldn't find it in the first dozen or so pages when I looked for it. Nor is it explained exactly what he teaches. Ram is said to have assisted Vargas on a dig, but I think that's as close to anything as it gets. Sadly, because the story is in first person, and Will's that person, we don't get a lot of characterization from these guys. Of course compared to the various antagonists that pop up throughout the story, these four have well defined personas, with unique views, thoughts and emotions all succinctly expressed.

Yes, that was sarcasm.

Settings though... ah, the beautiful settings. There are some beautifully described settings in this book, but for an English professor, this guy sees a lot of things. Truthfully, it's just another point deducted from the character, as he's an English professor. Now, if he had been an art professor or someone who taught something like mechanical engineering or biology, or basically anything where he would be constantly looking at the environment, and trained to notice details, well, it would have made sense. Yet, Stone is an English teacher - and please don't think I'm smacking on English teachers but let's be honest, unless they have a background in art or some other details-oriented field, most people don't see the details unless they're specifically looking for something. Things would be shoved into pre-existing concepts, rather than new detailed analysis. For example, most people would see a forest, and thus describe it as trees, as opposed to a description on the types of trees appearing most predominately, the lone tree that is different different colors of bark, etc.

Oh well.

Beyond that, the mechanics were well and good, I can't remember anything that my mind flagged as an issue.

In the end though, I just didn't like this book, and am extremely glad that it came from the library rather than a purchase I made at the bookstore (even the used bookstore which I frequent). The lack of a dedicated antagonist left us without a sense of something happening, and that coupled with the poor protagonist made me not even care when he was in danger from one of books mini-antagonists. Those two influences, cancel out the well wrought mechanics and execution of the plot itself, leaving me with a lackluster feeling about the book in general.

Frankly, I just did not like it that much, so I have to give it a 1.0 out of 4.

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