These are the hardest reviews for me to write (other than the reviews where I absolutely loved a book and just want to gush about it without any critical thoughts): when a book’s ideas were interesting, but the execution left something to be desired. This is the situation I find myself in with The Watchers, by Jon Steele. The idea of fallen angels roaming the Earth (who were the watchers the title alludes to) is a cool one, and a lot could have been done with the biblical Nephilim. However, The Watchers fell flat for me for several big reasons: the pacing, the characters, and the story-telling.
I’ll start with the good. Many of the twists were unexpected, and there were several mysteries whose resolutions I wasn’t able to guess. Once the plot kicks in, you will probably want to finish the story, even if just to figure out who Harper is, who the “bad shadows” are and what they’re after, etc. Also, the scenes with Katherine after she is kidnapped are genuinely scary. The novel was unafraid of getting dark, that’s for sure, which I appreciated. And like I said, the biblical lore is interesting enough to stand on its own.
“The angel has come to Lausanne Cathedreal, Rochat, just like Maman said.”
Now for the bad and the ugly:
The first 200 to 300 pages are excruciatingly slow, as we are introduced to our main characters of Harper, Katherine, and Marc through largely-unconnected vignettes. As the plot finally begins to unfold, the pace then switches back and forth between “frenetic” and “glacial.” It was…disconcerting. Each time I began a new chapter, I would wonder if I could skim it or if this would suddenly be the paragraph where a twist or plot point was unveiled. I think if those first few hundred pages had been pared down, the actual plot would have been given some more urgency, as well as space to expand. As it stands, the pacing is just too disjointed to allow the thriller this book wants to be take hold.
As for the characters: Katherine was completely useless, there to be a pawn/damsel-in-distress/excuse to write in sex scenes/allegory for Mary Magdelene. She is meant to undergo a sort of transformation as the book proceeds, from a selfish, silly young woman to someone more thoughtful and mature. The problem was, I didn’t really believe it, or her as a character. Whatever characterization she is given is about as deep as a puddle. Harper was…eh. Technically our hero, but surprisingly low on the heroics and instead more consistent on a) getting beaten within an inch of his life, b) lagging a step behind the major good/evil forces, and c) cursing at people who can help him/have more knowledge than he does. Amnesiac detectives can be written well, but I felt as little connection with him as I did with Katherine.
I liked Marc, though he was so obviously a Quasimodo clone that multiple characters commented on it in-story. (Admitting you’ve written a cliche doesn’t totally erase the sin of using a cliche in the first place, at least in my opinion!) Marc did grow on me, however, since he is easily the most sympathetic character, and I liked his day-to-day interactions with other people. I even liked his conversations with inanimate objects as time went on. I wonder if the story would have been more enjoyable had he been the only POV. In some ways, he can stand in for the reader: I certainly related to his confusion to the bizarre events taking place in Lausanne. The secondary characters are okay, though the Inspector working with Harper is a ridiculous amalgam of deus ex machina and “hard-nosed police chief from Law & Order.”
At times, it was difficult to follow along with new developments (which can be linked to the pacing problems I mentioned above). Once Harper “remembers” who he is, a variety of concepts are thrown at the reader with little to no introduction: time warps, the dead black, killing knives, magic water…I can suspend my disbelief for a lot of stuff, but you can’t just throw it in there! The groundwork for it should be laid organically. There is a constant tension between info-dumps in the form of dialogue from mysterious, all-knowing figures to suddenly and without warning having new information thrown at you. There needed to be a more natural smoothing out of the introduction of new information, and certainly less of the “As you know, Bob…” explanations.
Finally and apropos of nothing, the repetition of “half-breed” at certain points of the story drove me nearly insane. You’ll know the page I mean when you see it.
All of that said, I imagine fans of Dan Brown might want to check out The Watchers. It hits on many of the same points–especially religiously-based mysteries–that his books address. I would also ask Mr. Steele to consider writing an autobiography, as his note at the end of the novel actually made his life appear super-interesting–he was a news cameraman for years in conflict zones around the world. (Update: he actually already did write a memoir! It’s called War Junkie. I would certainly give that a try!)
I received The Watchers free for review by the publisher through NetGalley. It will be released May 29th, 2012.
Bookwanderer Rating: Two out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Ain’t nothing sadder than an angel in nowtimes.”