A year ago, I read about an upcoming Sci-Fi novel about a battle between two indestructible spaceships. The novel is called Faith, and according to io9, the Publisher’s Marketplace description of the book was as follows:
a sci-fi mix of Moby Dick and the classic movie Duel, in which an unknown, invincible, Kafkaesque alien ship has returned 300 years after breaking one galactic empire to now threaten the human Commonwealth, and the best and brightest minds that are sent in a invincible ship of their own to stop it, with the only problem being that those best and brightest are also some of the Commonwealth’s most twisted sociopaths and if they win, the human empire may find itself in more danger than ever.
I can’t tell you why, exactly, but I really wanted to read this book. The problem was that the article was posted well before the actual release date of January, 2012. In the intervening months, I kept forgetting the name of the book, the author (John Love – this is his first novel), and where the heck I had saved the information. Finally, early this summer, I tracked it down. It took some searching, but I found the info about the book again. And I contacted Nightshade Books to see about getting a review copy. It took them a while, too, but at long last they were gracious enough to send me one.
Let’s cut to the chase. I finished Faith last night, and to be honest, I’m still digesting it. It starts out incredibly slow – so slow, in fact, that I almost gave up on it. I typically follow a loosely-imposed 3 chapter rule: if you don’t hook me within the first 3 chapters, I’m done with the book. The way I see it, I’m being more gracious than most editors. Word is, if you don’t hook them in the first page, you’re up a certain creek with no oars.
Faith has a story that really doesn’t kick in until 30% of the way through the book. The character and back story development that happens before that feels tacked on, like maybe it was necessary for the author to flesh out the world, but that it should have either been left on the editing room floor, or somewhat more sparsely interspersed throughout the narrative. That’s my first complaint about this book.
My second? Errors that shouldn’t be showing up in a for-publication copy. Typos in a couple spots, but more than that, repetition. Repetition of phrases, or of words, in a way that tells me it’s not just the author flexing his prosaic muscles. The kind of repetition every writer struggles with as they knock out a first draft, but the kind that gets cleared up on a second or third pass. Certainly something that gets taken care of when an editor comes at the manuscript wielding a red pen. Interestingly, most of these errors seemed to show up in the unnecessary initial 30% of the book, which lends weight to my argument that that section needed to go, but it also puts up further obstacles to intrepid readers wanting to find out what Faith is all about. Again, I almost gave up on this book. (I’m glad I didn’t, though. More on that in a second.)
My final complaints are these: at times, Love’s descriptive phrasing left me very confused. I tend to assume that when that happens, maybe I’m just being stupid (like I always was in math class) and I give the author the benefit of the doubt. But when it comes to Love’s use of some of the most mind-bogglingly bad metaphors ever committed to print, I know it’s him, not me. No,really.Try this one on for size:
The sky—a grey inverted bowl shot with high trailing clouds, like the roof of a giant mouth streaked with mucus—had again started to be full of them, like it was last night.
Or how about:
The chimaera breathed heavily and rhythmically as they walked, like masturbating dinosaurs; for them, it was the last stage of a long journey.
Ok wait, just one more:
It was a silver jewel-box full of functionality: drives and weapons and sentience cores, bionics and electronics and power sources, scanners and signals and life support, all packed to almost dwarf-star density. Externally beautiful, but internally dark and cramped, like a silver evening gown hiding ragged underwear.
You see what I mean? Painful. When I read these, I found myself wondering if the book was written by a horny teenager. Then I looked him up. John Love looks like this:
Definitely not a horny teenager. Then I read his bio, which begins:
John Love spent most of his working life in the music industry.
So maybe my assumption was mostly correct. In any event, I had to get all my complaining out of the way up front. These are real issues, and they really do affect the readability of the book. But you shouldn’t let any of this stop you. Because Faith is a brilliant freaking book. It shows more imagination, more creativity, more conceptual thinking than any Sci-Fi novel I can think of. And I read a lot of them.
So here’s where things get a little spoilery. I will keep big revelations to a minimum and just focus on the outline of things.
Faith is about a universe in which humans and other species live in relative peace, but something has gone horribly awry. 300 years before the story begins, a mysterious ship appears and begins decimating one of the most powerful cultures in the galaxy. It only attacks them militarily, never in civilian populations, but the effect is enough to cause their civilization to falter and turn inward, to become a race which is described as “together…always less than the sum total of the individual parts.” A sacred book is written about the encounter, and the entire ordeal shapes the path of this species forever.
Enter the present timeline. The ship – called Faith because:
Three hundred years ago the same unidentified ship had visited Sakhra, and left it devastated. One Sakhran recognised what the ship was, and wrote the Book of Srahr, and when they read it they turned away from each other. The Sakhran Empire went into a slow but irreversible decline, and was later absorbed by the Commonwealth. Sakhrans were mostly agnostic, and they called the ship Faith out of self-mockery. Faith was something they didn’t understand and didn’t want; it had come to them suddenly and without invitation; it would not be denied; and when it left them, which it did as suddenly as it came, they were ruined. They would never recover.
On balance, Faith seemed a good name.
I appreciate the irony of the name. It’s an earthy, lived-in sort of irony. It smacks of experience of the dark night of the soul. And the ship that is sent to counter Faith is filled with individuals who know no other type of night than a dark night. Sociopaths all, some even psychopaths, those who crew the 9 Outsider ships strong enough to face this unknown peril are sick, twisted, brilliant individuals. Unwelcome elsewhere, but particularly well suited as instruments of destruction on an all-powerful ship.
The ship chosen for this task – to fight Faith, alone, as is the Outsider way – is the Charles Manson. The name of the ship alone tells a good part of its story.
When the engagement begins, the book transforms from a cure for insomnia to a gripping page turner. Love infuses the battle with brilliance, beauty, and an incredible depth of creativity. These two unstoppable opponents, who communicate not in words but in actions, who seek to anticipate each other’s moves and simply out-know each other, are amazing to behold. It is less a war of attrition and more a war of anticipation. The battle is decided in small, laborious ways. It comes down to who can better outflank, outmaneuver, or out-trick the other. From the outset it is clear that whoever or whatever is piloting Faith is at an advantage, and even the normal rules of physics do not apply to her strategies and tactics.
The book ends somewhat unlike it began: abruptly, surprisingly. The final, decisive battle of the engagement is described almost as an afterthought, but the description of what happened, of what Faith is, how the interaction of the Charles Manson’s crew with her changes them, and how things all shake out in the end is still worth the price of admission.
This is a book that at first resists you. Then it grabs you. Then it appalls and fascinates you. Then it abandons you. Then it grows on you. And it keeps growing on me. If it continues to grow on me, I may just have to buy a physical copy to add to my library, my hall of fame of books that most impress, influence, or inspire me. I know that as a writer, I will be drawing from this deep well for some time to come. Like the crew of the Charles Manson, I feel that my encounter with Faith has changed me in ways I never could have anticipated.
Faith is undoubtedly rough around the edges. But it’s a genius bit of writing, and an absolute home run for first-timer John Love. I don’t know if an author can write a magnum opus like this right out of the gate and ever hope to capture that kind of magic again, no matter how much he refines his craft in the process. I hope he tries, though. I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.
UPDATE 8/14/12: Having sent a link of this review to John Love himself, I received the following response:
Thanks Steve. I read your review with a lot of interest.
As you’ve probably seen from my website, responses to FAITH have been extremely good. It’s got a lot of great reviews. There is also a small minority ( a very small minority) of bad reviews. I wanted to write something genuinely different, so I expected the reviews would show strong feelings, either pro or con; fortunately the former have outnumbered the latter. But your review was different from most of the others: it set out a mix of pros and cons, with detailed reasons for each.
I don’t want to get into detailed arguments about the things you didn’t like, because in such a subjective area as this differing opinions can be equally valid as long as they’re the product of considered thought, which yours clearly are. All I would say is that the things you didn’t like, such as the early pacing or some of the imagery, were as much the product of deliberate choice as the things you did like.
And turning to the things you did like: thank you for what you said at the end of your review. And yes, I am writing another novel. Not a sequel or prequel – I’ve never been enthusiastic about them – but a near-future political thriller with some metaphysical twists. My agent wants to start selling it now – commendable enthusiasm, but I’m only halfway though so far. I have at least two more novels, and a few short stories, which I’d also like to write.
Thank you again for your interest in my book, and the consideration you gave it, both in praise and in criticism.
I would like to thank John Love for taking the time to offer a thoughtful response to my review. I feel as though I have a relationship with this book that goes beyond what I have with the many others I’ve read this year. As I said in the review, something about it hooked me when I first heard about it and I knew intuitively it was a must-read. It was not at all what I expected. Upon further reflection, I think it’s safe to say that it was actually much more. The book really is brilliant in so many delightfully unexpected ways.
On another note, I’d like to comment on what an interesting time we live in. As a child, devouring books and perceiving how distant their authors all seemed from where I was, I never dreamed that I would some day have the opportunity to have a dialogue with the writers of the books that were making the greatest impact in my life. It’s a truly marvelous thing. And I hope that if I ever succeed as a writer of science fiction, I will remember the dedication of authors like Mr. Love and be certain I do the same.