The Apocalypse Door - James D. Macdonald

Another review for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Apocalypse Door
James D. Macdonald
Tor Publishers
ISBN 0312869886

Macdonald seems well known in the US for the Mageworlds series, but he's new to me. As is usual, I bought this book on the basis of some discussion here, triggered by Norman Spinrad's review .

Original discussion, with links to r.a.sf.w usual suspects' reviews is here .

I loved the premise of this novel - it's a hard-boiled espionage tale, told in the wise-cracking first person. The twist is that our hero, Peter Crossman, is a Knight of the Temple. More specifically, he's a Knight of the Inner Temple, their trouble shooting branch. (Dispensation to kill, more or less.) The action opens with Peter pulling preceptor duty - taking a new Knight of the Outer Order, Simon, on his first covert mission. Well, the hero has to have a partner in this sort of novel. It's traditional. It's not so traditional to have our lock-picking secret agents whisper short exorcisms to traps on the stairs of course.

Naturally, there's a femme fatale - of the scariest sort. A nun. Specifically, Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares. "The fun nun with the gun." I have to admit, the scene where Sister Mary is introduced is almost perfect; it's not going to spoil things much if I say that during Simon's first operation, Sister Mary walks up to Peter in a seedy bar and whispers in his ear:

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two days since my last confession."
My cover was blown. She knew what I was, even if maybe she didn't know exactly who.
And she knew exactly how to get to me. I couldn't refuse her the sacrament, not
risking my own damnation. Sending her away again would serve nothing except my own
convenience, which wasn't important.
[...] I had no choice but to ask, "What is your confession, my daughter?"
"I've come here to kill you."

Wonderful stuff. Sadly, the book alternates being brilliant with being, well, disappointing. The writing is cracking stuff, with some wonderfully witty lines. In particular, the handling of the hard-boiled voice is hilarious; I particularly liked "like lust through a teenage heart" as a simile for "quickly"! The writing is very smooth, and there is plenty of entertaining milage to be had from the core conceit of covert Catholic orders battling evil "with special skills and training granted to us by the World, the Flesh, and sometimes the Devil".

What's bad? Well, I have seen other reviews complain that the alternating story thread doesn't work well and isn't very relevant - I disagree, I thought it was very obvious, and I rather liked the way it tied in. It could have been dropped, I agree, but come on, it's a hard-boiled pastiche, the hero has to have a Dark Past! It's traditional!

I had a much stronger objection to the central plot; and I'm going to try hard to avoid spoilers here.

The problem is that the central conceit makes us assume that, well, evil is real and needs battled. It is arguable that much of the work is prosaic and cannot be taken as an indication that the supernatural is real, but some of the background indicates that demon possession etc is real. Now, this is being played as a comedy, albeit deadpan, and much as I would have liked to have found another Black Easter (James Blish, look it up if you're not familiar with it, it's superb), I was quite happy for the bigger ramifications to be ignored. So, the plot kicks off with Peter and Simon finding an artefact in a warehouse, a living material which is scared of the cross and can set rosary beads on fire. Demonic mushrooms strike me as, well, less than scary. Still, off we go with the plot, merrily carried along by the sheer quality and fun of the writing. (As with Brust channelling Dumas, I could hear Macdonald cackling over his keyboard.)

Things thicken with the introduction of the head of Baphomet, and the discovery that the Teutonic Knights are also involved. It's also at this point that things fell apart for me. The origin and nature of the mushrooms and the head of Baphomet were, frankly, out of place, and lacked any resonance with the setting. Equally, much of the interaction with the Teutonic Knights felt rushed, and rather mundane. All of which would have been fine if the writing style hadn't lost some of its appeal too - the hard-boiled-isms drop off, and there are fewer desperately dry puns. Basically, this feels like a good book where the author couldn't maintain the pace. If he had, this'd be a great book. As it is, I found it very, very entertaining in places, but flawed structurally.

I'll buy any sequels on sight, but I'll need convincing about his other works; much of the appeal of The Apocalypse Door was due to the background, and Mageworlds doesn't sound as though it'll appeal to me.

Aside: I wonder how this reads for non-Catholics? I suspect much of the glee to be had from it relies on a familiarity with the material, and, more importantly, an awareness of the deep traditions that go with the material. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned" isn't just any old phrase...

Posted: Mon - June 30, 2003 at 05:12 PM