Trevor Shane’s debut novel, Children of Paranoia, revolves around Joseph, a soldier in a secret war who has spent all of his adult life assasinating The Enemy. He doesn’t care who The Enemy is or why, he simply does his job and moves on to the next target. There are three rules in this war: don’t kill civilians, don’t kill minors, and don’t have kids before you’re 18 lest they be hand-delivered to The Enemy. When Joseph meets plucky young Canuck Maria, those rules are broken with disastrous consequences. Our protagonists are, of course, star-cross’d lovers, and wind up on the lam when The Man comes to rip them asunder.
This is a curiously written book. It’s first-person narrative written by Joseph as if it were a journal, but he writes it as if he were speaking to Maria. This leads to long jags of detailed descriptions and less in the way of actual dialogue than there should be. These factors made it a bit difficult to get into at first, but once I got used to style the book breezed by. It’s a bit by-the-numbers, but just because something’s predictable doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Standard John Grisham terminology applies: fast-paced, clever premise, heart-pounding, page-turner, etc.
But here’s the thing: I don’t buy it. I don’t buy any of it. I don’t believe that there could be an international secret war being waged for centuries that nobody knows about. I don’t believe that not a single soldier has ever defected, waxed philosophical on the nature and reasons for the war, or set up a resistance faction. I don’t believe that civilians have never discovered what’s going on. I don’t believe any girl would ever flirt with a complete stranger lurking in front of a strip club ogling strippers, much less someone with an attitude as confrontational as the heroine. And, most crucially, I don’t buy the reason Joseph and Maria get into trouble in the first place. There’s adhering to Chekhov’s gun, and then there’s continuously providing Shyamalan-esque twists and surprises that are a little too convenient because you’ve written yourself into a corner. From the moment they meet at the strip club to the last page, everything that happens to them is practically drowning in plot-necessitated conincidences.
The thing about good fiction is even if in reality the story is completely implausible it has to feel plausible in the world you’ve created. If you’re using the real world as a base, then you have to take into account humanity’s profound inability to keep something a secret. We talk. All of the time. About EVERYTHING. To EVERYONE. So if there’s a war being waged that kills a hundred thousand people every year, someone is going to notice, lots of someones. And they are all going to talk about it. They’re going to post links on their Facebook walls, tweet photos, make Tumblr accounts dedicated solely to the killings, post YouTube videos of the crimes, and generally stir up a ruckus. If you’re creating a world where that isn’t happening, where all of society remains in the dark except for all those people running around murdering each other, then you’d better have a damn good reason why it’s remained a secret for centuries. Shane doesn’t even bother to hang a lampshade on it; he just outright ignores it. I suspect it’ll be brought up in the sequel, but dancing around it in Children made it very difficult for me to willingly suspend my overwhelming disbelief.
The characters also pose a bit of a issue. Neither of the main protagonists grow or change. They are passive actors: everything happens to them and they react to it by running away then resting on their laurels until something else happens to them. Not that every female character has to be as tough as Batgirl, but does she really have to spend so much of the book sitting around crying? Joseph and Maria start out as people with no personal lives outside of the story, characters who are two-dimensional to a point and have little in the way of personality, and at the close they are exactly the same blank canvases. I suppose that’s probably for the best, otherwise we might actually care about what tragic fates they might suffer. And who wants to feel genuine concern for someone in whom you’ve invested a large chunk of your time? Then again, I could care less about Sookie Stackhouse and her harem of supernatural love interests, but that doesn’t stop me from devouring the books and True Blood.
Speaking of television, Children of Paranoia doesn’t feel like the first book in a series, but rather like a pilot episode of a new TV series. It’s 371 pages of setup for the real story. Not that pilots can’t be complex and nuanced (see: Homicide: Life on the Street), creepily intriguing (see: Twin Peaks) or just plain fun (see: Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But at the end of the day they’re just pilots. Their job is to set up the chessboard and move a couple of pawns around so the rest of us have a general idea of what the rest of the series has in store. The first book in a series isn’t a pilot. It should be a complete story with its own arcs and mini-arcs, and plenty of tangible plot points to hint at the overarching story.
Take something like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. You could easily read them out of order (though I wouldn’t recommend it) and still get a solid individual story and tantalizing hints as to what sinister things might be lurking behind the scenes pulling strings. With Children of Paranoia I felt like I only got the beginning and middle of something — albeit something pretty cool — without a real ending or any idea about what the hell is going on or what the sequel could be about other than Christoper being The Chosen One. (And if you didn’t get the heavy-handed symbolism inherent in the names — Maria, Joseph, Christopher — then maybe you should pay more attention.)
Despite the tone of this review, Children of Paranoia is actually worth reading. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t have been as hard on it as I was. I wouldn’t bother deconstructing something meaningless and trite. There’s a lot of potential here, both in the story itself and Shane’s writing ability. He’s not some hack who thinks he can write because mommy dearest always loves his ideas. I suspect more of his talent would’ve shone through if he’d opted out of the restrictive journaling format and gone with first- or third-person narrative instead. The story would’ve flowed much better, and he would’ve been able to spend more time on character development and less on info-dumps and needlessly long expository scenes. The time I spent was Children was more or less entertaining, and, truth be told, I find myself wondering what’s next for our protags. If I had to give it a grade I’d probably go with a B/B-. It is an interesting yet problematic book that lays down a clever premise and fails to fully deliver on it. But don’t let that discourage you; it’s an entertaining and engaging read that is worth picking up.
Alex Brown is an archivist by passion, reference librarian by profession, writer by moonlight, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.