REVIEW: FADE TO BLACK
Every now and then I like to try something a little different from what I normally read. Before I started using the Kindle app on my tablet, I was rather narrow in my choice of literature. If something wasn't required for a class or didn't fit my interests exactly, then I just did not give it a chance. Now that I am into using Kindle, I've found it a lot easier to get into things I might not have before since books are so much cheaper, and there are a bunch that are even free either from time to time or are the start of a series and always free. FADE TO BLACK by L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain is both the start of a series and was free for a couple of days so I gave it a try.
HOW I CAME UPON IT
Right around the time that I started promoting DIGITARUM, I started getting a whole bunch of new Twitter followers from people within the indie scene. One of the authors of this book was/is among them and sent me a private message on Twitter saying something to the effect of: "I'd drink drano to get you to read a sample of my book [book link]." It definitely got my attention and I did give the free sample of the book. I found it intriguing, but not compelling enough for me to jump for a purchase right away, especailly since I was already reading a couple of other things and the book was priced at a little under $5 which seemed a bit steep for an eBook of this length. So I just shelved it on Goodreads with the full intention of reexamining how I felt about it after I had completed my current reads. Later on I saw it announced on Twitter that this would be free for a bit, so I snagged myself a copy. That probably sounds pretty cheap of me, but I knew this was just the start of a series and figured a free download would increase my chances of getting into this story-line (and therefore make me more likely to support the authors through buying their other work). So with out further delay, I will get to how that plan worked out for me.
HOW I RATED IT
3/5 I can safely say I was a little torn when trying to figure out how to rate this. On one hand, I felt a desire to like this because it was written by fellow indies and I truly did think that they had an interesting concept going on with this. There are even aspects of this story that are really good: 4/5 good. But then there are other components that just feel extremely weak: 2/5. I think a 3/5 is appropriate then in this case because while there were certainly aspects of the story that I really enjoyed, the overall package just did not come together for me in the way that I felt it should. Now, 3/5 is not a horrible rating, in fact its very respectable, but it does also reflect that there were more than a couple of things that detracted from my ability to enjoy this piece in full.
The characters are easily where this work shines through the most AND where it also falls flat on its face. Let me explain:
The main protagonist of the story is 27 year-old Jeff Grobnagger. At first I immediately disliked him because he literally feels like a modern rendition of CATCHER IN THE RYE's Holden Caulfield, a character that I find to be utterly insufferable and irredeemable as both a character and general human being. Normally, I don't like to compare books to other books, but the resemblance between Jeff's moody, sarcastic, hypocritical, phony tough guy routine is uncannily similar to Holden's own obnoxious personality. Jeff is a loner and it didn't take me very long to figure out why since this guy has one of the worst attitudes about everything and is selfish beyond compare. Ironically, he's also my favorite part of the novel.
Unlike Holden, Jeff is funny. His snarky demeanor and twisted internal thoughts actually have a bit of charm to them. He's still a selfish, immature, prick, but also an entertaining one. It gets better though. Whereas Holden had really no feasible reason for being the way he was, Jeff has actual reasons for being this way. I don't mean reasons that have to do with alleged metaphors and symbolism, I mean real-life actual reasons, This is hinted at fairly early on and as the novel progresses, I learned more and more about Jeff's past and how it has shaped him. Near the end of the novel, I felt very close to this character and identified with a lot of the hurt that he felt. He has this sort of coming-of-age arch despite his being 27 and well of age. While that might sound weird, it actually works in a way because we are all always growing and big life changes shouldn't be reserved for the very young because if you're not improving upon yourself and overcoming hardship, then you're probably doing something wrong. These authors seem to get that and I found it really endearing to read this type of story with someone who is suffering from adult angst which can be a lot more painful than teenage hurt simply because the stakes feel so much higher.
Now while I genuinely fell in love with Jeff as a character and really appreciated what the writers did with an adult coming-of-age theme, the problem with the rest of the cast is they just didn't feel like they belonged in an adult novel. There are a number of side characters with varying levels of degrees in the story's events, but none of them really have fully dimensional personalities. Most people I met pop up once or every now and then and even Glenn, who is Jeff's primary companion throughout the novel, just fell so flat for me. It's blatantly telegraphed that several of these characters (like Glenn, Ms. Babinaux - a mysterious informant - and Louise - a really vague love interest) all have something more to offer the story, that potential is never really fulfilled. They're all just kind of there for the ride and contribute very little aside from supplying tidbits of plot to help things roll along. They have distinct characteristics, but aren't vibrant in the way that characters should be in an adult novel. That's not to say that every adult novel needs a strong supporting cast, but this one certainly felt like it should. Now Glenn and Babinaux do START to become characters during the back 15% of the novel, but it feels like its too little, too late. It's also unclear if this is actually the start of them having real characterization or if this was just something to create more hype for the next novel in this series.
From reading the description of the novel, I figured this for some kind of world where a seedy occult underground ran rampant and uncontrolled. To an extent, that is exactly what this world is, but the problem is that we rarely ever get a peek at it. For the most part, we are kept confined to the normal world except when Jeff gets dragged into one of his mysterious dreams/visions/spirit quests. There are hints that things a bit paranormal exist by I as a reader rarely ever got exposure to any of it until right at the end. There just isn't anything particularly noteworthy about this world. It's pretty average, and kind of grubby - plus most of the events are confined to a select few locations. The imagery is (mostly) well described, its just that the actual locations the novel took me too were not as interesting as the synopsis led me to believe.
By now, you have probably gathered what I think of the plot. It becomes a real problem when the synopsis kind of oversells the story that I as a reader am actually going to get. It's really not super action packed and I felt next to no suspense whatsoever at any point. This mainly because (1) most of the action takes place in Jeff's dreamworld and after the first couple of times his tormentor kills him in the dream, the other encounters lost all sense of consequence because I knew Jeff would be fine when the chapter closed and a new one began and (2) because I had no real attachment to any of the characters except for Jeff who I didn't really establish a connection with until a little more than halfway through. The plot also just sort of rolls along at its own pace most of the time and moments that I think were supposed to be shocking in some way just kind of felt inconsequential. It's not that this is a predicable novel, it's just that the information that Jeff and Glenn uncover is neither refreshingly different in the way of paranormal mysteries, nor does it go very far toward helping Jeff uncover the truth about what is happening to him and around him. What makes this effect worse is that at the end, NONE of these answers are fully delivered. The only piece that felt at all completed was the developmental arc for Jeff. Aside from that, nothing is answered - only more questions are asked. If that sounds like the story ends in a bit of a cliffhanger, that's because it does.
I take great issue with the way a lot of writers use cliffhangers a lot of the time. Can they be used in a positive way? Absolutely! Some stories are just to jam packed to end any other way and others come about AFTER some of the main plot points are tied up - effectively introducing new sources of conflict as a teaser for the next installment. Neither situation is great for me, mind you. I like to feel a sense of closure after reading a book since it generally takes me a little while to get through and even if its a free book, I still spent time reading it. I don't want to feel ripped off that I wasn't given a complete story whether the book is a freebie, cheap, or standard retail price. And a complete story this is not! Without wrapping up any of the main plot-related ideas and really not even truly answering the mystery behind Jeff's out-of-body experiences, I was really just left with a really sour taste and I'm not really sure if this is a series I want to continue since I'm not sure that any of the next installments will have endings that satisfy me.
Tonally, I also had a lot of issue with this. The dialogue and general intelligence level of Jeff and Glenn seems very inconsistent. It ranges from formal and informed to ignorant and obnoxious. There are also WAY too many pop-culture references. While a few here and there can be fun, the authors go so far as to replace actual descriptions with cheap references. One such case is a pair of boots a character is wearing. The brand or maybe the style is named and since I was not familiar with what that was, I merely envisioned a generic pair of work-boots. This sort of cop-out is also used in place of explaining how Jeff is actually feeling in particular circumstances. I also found some of the immaturity to be a bit distracting. While this is largely what defines the characters as well as the overall tone of the novel and is mostly a funny quality, there were points where it just felt like too much. It wasn't a total miss for me in this area, but it also was not something that I would count among the novel's strong points.
This is a novel that definitely has a couple of pretty good things going for it. Jeff is an absolutely fantastic character. He's honestly the Holden that I deserved, but never got so I have to really credit these authors for managing to pull off this type of character when one of our "great American classics" didn't even manage to pull it off (in my opinion of course - there are many who would disagree with me on this point). Despite failing to be fully realized by this installment's conclusion, the overall idea of the plot-line is really quite intriguing. It's just a shame that I don't feel confident that this piece will get better because of how much is withheld from readers. I also tend to be rather hesitant to continue series when the first book leaves off with an unsatisfying cliffhanger because it feels like a manipulative ploy to get me to buy the next book in the series right away. I don't know that this plot earned its cliffhanger and I'm not sure that I'm too keen to continue onward without knowing that things get better.
Like I mentioned before, these are decently expensive for eBooks of this size (in my opinion) and I don't really care to spend time and money on future entries if I'm not going to feel satisfied by the end. The authors can certainly invent a genuinely compelling idea, but whether or not they can execute and complete it really still remains to be seen. If anyone has read the second book and believes that things improve a bit, then I'd certainly be open to giving the series a second go, I just don't think I'll be continuing onward otherwise. The first novel in a series that tells a longer story is sort of a courtship to readers, and while I didn't flee from the first date, I'm also not too inclined to pursue things any further.
This probably sounds like a lot of really harsh criticism, but I don't necessarily mean for it to be. Indie authorship isn't easy and mysteries are a tough thing to pull off, nevermind ones that dip into the paranormal. There were a lot of things this novel had to balance and I just didn't feel like this work managed to pull it all off. While it is possible that they have created a more satisfying experience in their later work, there is nothing in this particular book to indicate that I should really want to go out and get the next installment. I also think that there IS an audience that this would be 5/5 for. It's a nice, easygoing read that doesn't require too much focus in order to follow, nor does it take all that long to read. I plodded through this on lunch breaks and could very easily recommend it to anyone who is looking for a light read that they can either dive into over a weekend or just chip away at here and there. It wasn't a huge hit for me, but I can also understand why there is a lot of praise for this. I'm a little puzzled by much of the hate coming from the opposite end of the reader spectrum, because I don't think this really deserves to be completely torn apart the way that some readers have. This definitely did not have everything I look for in a novel, but I also don't regret reading it - I simply don't find myself wanting more.
FADE TO BLACK is available in eBook and Paperpack editions on Amazon.