Vostok – Steve Alten (blog tour)
Posted by maddalena@spaceandsorcery
I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review and as part of a blog tour to promote it: HERE you will find the complete schedule of the tour’s posts. My thanks to iRead Book Tours for contacting me.
This has been a truly weird reading experience, because what started with certain premises transformed, around the midway point, into something else – into several somethings to be precise. But let’s proceed with order.
Marine biologist Zachary Wallace, a man who had several brushes with death and as a consequence has developed a serious phobia about going underwater, is contacted for an expedition to Antarctica to explore the mysteries of lake Vostok, a huge body of water buried under polar ice, where the life forms that might still be dwelling there are the same of our prehistoric past. Wallace accepts despite his above-mentioned psychological problems and some serious misgivings about the effects of a prolonged absence on his already shaky marriage, and is soon plunged into an adventure that goes from the discovery of a few incredible scientific facts to the uncovering of multi-layered plots and conspiracies with world-wide scope.
As far as beginnings go, this one was promising enough, despite a few narrative “hiccups” due to the author’s penchant for imparting a brusque stop to the story in order to provide in-depth details about a character or a situation: the most glaring example is the chapter-long synopsis of events contained in the previous book, The Loch, so that the reader is brought up to speed about Zach Wallace and everything that happened to him from childhood to present day. I found this narrative technique quite peculiar, to say the least, as was the choice of using a phonetical rendition of the Scottish brogue every time a Scottish national was on the scene. This particular quirk became a little annoying in the not-so-long run, but still I played along because the just-discovered mystery at the bottom of lake Vostok was too intriguing and I was eager to see where the story would lead me.
Once the action went underway (or rather under water…) I felt that my patience might have been rewarded, since the exploration of lake Vostok was carried out with a submersible probe whose launch also meant the launch of the promised story: indeed I was somewhat reminded of the Clive Cussler books I used to read and enjoy in the early ’80s, but with a substantial difference. Cussler’s hero, Dirk Pitt, was a square-jawed, larger than life, danger-defying character, wading into peril with almost supreme indifference, while Zach Wallace, with his issues and phobias, not to mention heavy family burdens, is a more relatable individual – flawed, human. His efforts in overcoming those flaws and the courage he’s able to summon when faced with tremendous odds, make him an interesting protagonist and show him off well against the darkening background of the story as some elements come to the fore to show that there is more behind the scientific expedition he’s been enlisted in. An expedition rife with secrets, double-dealings and mysteries within mysteries, including the presence of an artifact of unquestionable alien origin.
And here is where the narrative fabric began to unravel before my eyes, because a huge number of elements and sub-plots were introduced, with somewhat tenuous links between each other and the context of the story: conspiracy theories mixed with jumps in space-time; past and present alien visitations and wise aliens watching over wayward humanity; secret organizations and corrupt movers and shakers shaping politics and economy, with the required twisted military thrown into the mix; out of body experiences linking human and alien consciousness, telepathy and so on, including a peppering of extra-terrestrial mysticism – all of the above again related in long, often debilitating explanations about past events and their influence on the present. What had begun as an intriguing and sometimes humorous adventure had morphed into something I could not find a name for anymore.
I confess I wondered more than once where all this was headed to, what the author’s intentions might be, and I despaired to be able to make head or tails of it, so I let myself flow with the current, but the damage had been done: the unwritten contract between writer and reader about suspension of disbelief had been breached beyond repair and I found myself falling prey to the strange dichotomy of following the events out of bewildered curiosity, but without the slightest interest for the story’s outcome or the characters’ fate. The last straw – mercifully placed toward the end of the book – was the “lucid dream” in which Wallace re-lives (at length and with abundance of detail, of course) the experiences of an alien scientist, involving slavery and exploitation of a people dreaming of a better land and of relocating there after a hazardous voyage, the metaphor complete with the mention of a succession of plagues hitting the place where they were being mistreated. If this sounds biblically familiar… yes, you can rest assured that no myth, no legend, no allegory or tired trope was left unturned for this book.
Not a book for me – not with the problems I listed, to which I must add an annoying portrayal of female characters that covered the whole spectrum from cliché (the proverbial nagging wife) to teenager-like wish-fulfillment (a human-looking beautiful alien, raised in a lab and trained in the arts of Kama Sutra? Seriously???).
Definitely not my kind of preferred reading material.
My Rating: 4/10