Author Scott Allen asked me to review his book and even went to the trouble of mailing it to me from the USA at his own expense. I usually say no to review requests, but the cover art and theme of the story appealed to me. My confidence that I was in for a good read was further bolstered by the many positive reviews of the book I found online and by the fact that Allen is an English teacher. Sadly, the novel didn’t live up to expectations. My problems with it began in the very first sentence:
It was the same type of dark, dreary night as when I was delivered here in this dreadful prison of the wilderness.
For authors, the opening line is your crucial moment to hook a reader’s attention. The last thing you want to do is blow it on a comment about the weather. In fact, starting a book with a line about the weather is generally regarded as a cardinal sin of writing fiction. However, I could forgive it here, if not for the dreadful grammatical error that made me read the sentence several times, to make sure I understood it before I moved on. It should read “I was delivered here to this dreadful prison,” not “in this dreadful prison.” To say that you were delivered in a wilderness really means that someone gave birth to you there!
Unfortunately, this grammatical misstep was not an exception, but the shape of things to come. However, I thought, “Okay, the book is far from polished, but let’s ignore that fact and hope the story is good.”
The protagonist is Marcus, a homeless thirteen-year-old boy who is kidnapped by a criminal organisation called Survival Op. Marcus is part of a scientific experiment to enchance the human body’s survival ability. As part of the research, the organisation implants a microchip in Marcus designed to monitor the chemical changes in the body during stress. Then they release him onto an island wilderness and begin to hunt him. Marcus is soon joined by a girl called Lynn, and together they learn to survive.
That all sounds okay as the basis for a story. But big problems arise in its execution. For instance, Marcus and Lynn start a fire just inside the entrance to a cave in order to burn out all the snakes that live there so that they can make it their home. The plans works. However, a couple of chapters later, the duo enters the cave, only to discover an S-bend leading to an expansive cavern at the back of which are several holes. So why didn’t the snakes simply move further into the cave? Okay, it could be argued they died from oxygen depletion, that is, until our heroes decide to build a fire at the back of the cave, under one of the holes. Lo and behold, the smoke escapes up this convenient air-hole (or should that be plot-hole?).
Marcus and Lynn’s relationship isn’t believable. One minute they’ll be sharing a joke, and the next minute Marcus is inexplicably angry. Furthermore, the dialogue is written as if two robots are communicating:
“I cannot believe they would die to rescue us,” Lynn said as she leaned her head back on the cave wall. “Who would die for someone they do not even know?”
“Ms. Wayne told me that it does not matter how special or awesome something is that a person does, it is the reason why that person does that thing,” I said.
The author sometimes uses inappropriate words. Marcus constantly calls Lynn “punk” (a term I’ve only ever heard referring to males). Fish swimming through the water are referred to as “figures” (a term I’ve only ever heard reffering to humans).
The story meanders through fairly predictable territory. The main surprises were those of incredulity. The reader is literally slapped across the face with Marcus’s instant transformation from ordinary boy into experienced survivalist and killing machine. He does survival tricks that no young teenager would know, instantly knows how to handle captured weapons, kills without mercy or conscience.
On a descriptive level, one of the most disappointing moments was when Marcus finally comes face-to-face with a fearsome beast that has been skulking in the wilderness. It is described as ten-feet-tall, black, with bright yellow eyes. That’s all the reader is given. We never know whether it’s hairy, scaly, whether it moves on two legs or four.
As a result of this review experience, I’ve actually changed my submission guidelines on the blog. I read for pleasure, and I would rather avoid having to read bad books altogether. But right now, my personal commitment to review everything I consume compels me to write this painful one.
Survival Op is just another title in a sea of poorly conceived, sloppily written, non-edited, novels that gives self-publishing a bad name. Sorry, Scott, I wanted it to be different, but I have to tell it like it is.