Novel November

The Border

by Robert McCammon

Reading Review by Michael Channing

The Border by Robert McCammon

This book marks a return to a genre many of McCammon's fans thought he might never revisit. Science fiction horror. Two alien races are engaged in a centuries-old war, and Earth just happens to lie along the disputed border. The human population is decimated, the atmosphere is poisoned and causes survivors to rapidly mutate into flesh-hungry monsters, and death rains randomly from above as the two factions launch increasingly more destructive weapons against each other, blind to the insignificant humans suffering below. Humanity's​ outlook is grim. As the book opens we meet a stronghold of survivors who face a dwindling supply of food and fresh water and a weakening will to live. Suicide is almost a daily event. Into their lives​ comes a young boy. He doesn't remember his past or his own name, but he has powers that might help make life bearable. And he has knowledge.

The boy is the one who tells everyone else the Earth is smack dab between the aliens’ disputed territories. He just knows, but doesn't know how he knows. He also knows there's a place where they can find hope and a possible way to pull out of humanity's downward spiral. He's not sure what they'll find there, but they must get there as soon as possible. Trust me, he says, I'm special.

Now he actually does prove himself to be special. He's not your average teenager. But as his story began to unfold, I became uneasy. I hate characters who have plot-necessary knowledge without earning that information. I despised the final season of Battlestar Galactica because of that very sin. It's the writer being too lazy to lay the groundwork of story, setting, or characterization. But I knew from previous novels that McCammon was too talented to fall prey to such traps. So I read on.

Writers have many tricks to set up a story's ending. Say, for instance, a character loves playing chess. We see her challenging and defeating her father, studying transcripts of masters tournaments. Then Earth is besieged by aliens who value not physical prowess but logical strategy. It's clear our hero will soon find herself across the board from an alien opponent. That's a rather heavy-handed example, but all writers do a version of this. They manipulate you into accepting a fictional world full of people who don't really exist. The better they are, the quicker you accept the necessary coincidences that tie together a narrative. Robert McCammon earns his transgressions, if we are to call them that. He sets up an engaging scenario, introduces a handful of hardened characters with just enough background to make them believable and sympathetic, and he does so with an expert command of the English language and perfect pacing. Yes there is a god-like character in this book, but he's not God. McCammon imbues him with enough limitations and frailties that we accept his superhuman abilities.

The great things about this book are many. The aliens are very alien, unique in a long line of literary invaders. The horrors are gut-wrenching. When blood flows, it flows deep. And there is meaningful loss. We watch a character sacrifice himself for the benefit of the larger group. It's a scene that pulls all the right strings, hits all the right heartnotes. From the very moment the band of survivors enters the stage, we feel the pressing doom of inevitable death. We hope they all make it through the story, be we can't help but feel someone has to die. So in the middle of the book we get this sacrifice scene. If it feels the author is showing his hand, it's because he is, but not because he lacks skill. No, he's letting you think you know what's happening just before he delivers a devastating blow. I read that section on a lunch break in a little cafe I'd never visited before, and I'll never forget that place or that sandwich. Not because of the quality of the food, but because of the quality of the story telling.

Now I feel I must address the ending. I won't reveal any spoilers, but I have mixed feelings about the end of this novel. They definitely tip more to the side of acceptance, but I can't completely shake my doubts. The ending is a Deus ex machina. Throughout the novel, the main character is leading the rest towards a specific destination, and he continually says, the answer is there, the answer is there. So we the readers expect to find some kind of solution. There's no way the story can end with: Nope, there was nothing there after all and everyone gets run over by a truck. But on the other hand the author does such a good job of presenting a hopeless situation, we have to wonder what could possibly defeat two enemies of equal, staggering strength. I will admit that McCammon writes the best possible ending he could, but I feel just a little--not cheated, I won't go that far--but just slightly unsatisfied. Even with that said, McCammon does all he can to deflect our thoughts from the actual device of the ending by giving us one final, unexpected twist. It turns out that for one character, the world’s destruction might have been his only hope for redemption. That will echo in your mind as the final pages turn.

McCammon has blown up the world before. This book does have similarities to his older novel, Swan Song. Though it does bloom into its own unique flower, if you get to the end of The Border and feel somewhat disappointed, I will understand. But this is still the work of a master craftsman. It's an exciting ride, perfectly paced and full of sights you've never seen. Jump in and hold on.

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

November 8, 2017