Takahiro O’Leary is an ex-reality TV star with daddy issues and a melodramatic death wish. Samira Moheb is an Iraq War vet with PTSD, OCD, and a heart full of oppressive guilt and unrequited love. Judith Halford is a science prodigy with a conscience and a severe survival instinct. Charles Yates is a mad scientist with a god complex, endless financial resources, and psychopathic tendencies. One fateful evening, the ever-adventurous Tak is made an offer he can’t refuse, to work for the Axon Corporation and Yates exploring alternate realities. At first it’s all fun and games in a bizarre assortment of realities*, but eventually Yates’ sinister intents begin to ooze to the surface. When Tak discovers a timeline in which the company rules the world, he uncovers the truth about his work—that they plan to supplant the real world with the parallel one.
Trouble is, in that world Samira died in the war, and Tak won’t let that stand. Bigger trouble is, Yates, the inventor of the time machine, has his own evil plan afoot and doesn’t give a flying fart about Axon or anyone other than his own egotistical self. He’s using Tak to locate what he calls the Beautiful Land, a heaven-like personalized paradise, and when he finds it he’ll erase everyone and everything to keep it for himself. When Yates sets his scheme into motion, timelines are destroyed in horrific ways, and the only people left in all the universes who can stop him are a beleaguered explorer, a mentally ill vet, and a guilt-ridden scientist.
I started writing this review last week, and have rewritten it several times. That rarely happens. When I review The Walking Dead, I watch the show while taking notes, take a breather to let the plot settle in my brain, then write the review while watching the episode a second time. When I review books, I take a day or so to mull over the topics I want to cover, but ultimately I sit down at my laptop, type away for a few hours, polish, and submit. With The Beautiful Land, beyond the basic synopsis, I couldn’t figure out what to say. And then, after watching the seventh series finale of Doctor Who on Saturday, it came to me. Both Moffat-era Doctor Who and The Beautiful Land are full of grand ideas, paradoxical time travel, love that not even death can quell, and friendship so grand and expansive that the whole of existence depends on it. On the surface it’s all thrilling excitement and witty cleverness and sassy dialogue and epic romance, but after the credits roll—or you finish the last page—and you have time to pick at the threads the whole thing comes down like a poorly planned Jenga move...or a badly mixed metaphor.**
Look, there’s nothing egregiously wrong with Land. While reading it, it’s very easy to get swept up in the action. The characters sound like characters rather than people, but that’s the case with most fiction dealing with young people in the post-Joss Whedon world. At the time, the choices the characters make feel merited, and the snappy, urgent tone makes it hard to see that the options they think are the only ones available are really just the worst of half a dozen much better plans they for whatever reason are ignoring. To go back to Who for a moment, there are quite a few times where Averill does the literary equivalent of retconning the Statue of Liberty, a hollow statue MADE OF COPPER, into a Weeping Angel that could walk UNNOTICED through NEW YORK CITY.***
The story actually ends about halfway through, but a full length novel requires another 150 pages, so the main characters go back to the real world to do the thing they went to another world to avoid doing. There is no reason to send them off world in the first place except that it makes the ending and denouement more poetic. Not that they make any logical sense to begin with, but, again, they’re written in such a way that the emotional reactions feel more deserved than they actually are. The logical assumptions placed on the ending would send Spock into heart failure, and if that didn’t kill him then the denouement would. But boy does it feel good in the moment.
Alan Averill began The Beautiful Land through NaNoWriMo, and last year he won the Amazon Breakthrough Novelist Award. He said in an interview that his novel had been turned down by multiple agents before he submitted it to Amazon, and his victory lead directly to a publishing contract. Good for him. It’s a tough industry to break into, so bully for him for using the backdoor. In that same interview he states that he removed several characters from the story in order to uncomplicate the plot. I think that was ultimately to the detriment of the story. Additional characters might have solved some of the plot problems by giving everyone more to do. As it stands, half the plot is wheel spinning.
Averill has an undeniable skill at crafting intriguing and unique characters, and his flair for prose is impressive. There is a lot of talent on display here, but I’m not sure he’s “there” yet. Dialogue and eloquence don’t make a novel. He’s got a lot of work to do on structure and plot contrivances. That being said, he’s chosen a really creative way to tackle the time travel conceit and the unexpected and uncontrollable ramifications caused by its inherent paradoxes. Even better are his choice of characters: the two leads are a Japanese-American man and an Iranian woman. Rich white people are relegated to secondary or villanous roles, and speaking as a woman of color with a lot of debt and a mostly empty bank account, that pleases me inordinately. For that alone, Land is worth its weight in gold.
The Beautiful Land is published by Ace. It comes out June 4.
*This book repeatedly calls them timelines, but most of the worlds are so fundamentally different than ours that they’re really more like separate realities or parallel dimensions/universes than alternate timelines.
**To muddle things even more, every time the [SPOILERS] showed up, I thought “Don’t touch the baby, Rose!” Also, those [SPOILERS] reminded me an awful lot of the Reapers....
***Yes, I’m still angry about that. I will never not be angry about that.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.