Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book Review: The Arcanum

The Arcanum, by Thomas Wheeler, is about Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, H.P. Lovecraft, and Marie Laveau (sort of) as a paranormal task force called the Arcanum, taking on an evil sorcerer to try to protect one of the world's last great hidden secrets. That's about it. If you think that sounds like fun, you may want to give it a shot. Otherwise, please steer clear.

The novel is very cinematic, which makes sense since the author is primarily a screenwriter. I don't feel I have to worry too much about spoilers, since just about everything in this novel is a well-established trope. It even ends with a train chase... well, before the "twist" ending where a character who totally wasn't a villain before turns out to have totally been a villain the whole time!

What irked me was that the characters were so nondescript that they really didn't need to be based on historical figures. Doyle could have been any stout Englishman with an eye for detail, Houdini could have been anyone with good balance, and Marie Laveau could have been any woman with generic nature-based sorcerous powers. H.P. Lovecraft didn't even act like H.P. Lovecraft: he was described as a demonologist several times, and I highly doubt that the cripplingly antisocial Lovecraft would ever have considered himself one. Worse, he seems completely okay with palling around with a black woman wielding voodoo powers, when ancient, "savage" magic is one of the primary vehicles of evil in the Cthulhu Mythos.

Speaking of the Mythos, the book refers to supernatural creatures as "of the Mythos." That really bugged me.

The book suddenly shifts in pace about halfway through. Where it starts off relatively realistically, with attempts to create plausible explanations for every supernatural-type occurrence, suddenly we have demons swishing through the air and Lovecraft starts waving around improbably-described steampunk gadgets. He even wears a steampunk gauntlet at one point, and gauntlets are second only to goggles as overused steampunk accessories.

Like I said in my review of The Last Hot Time: if you want to read an inventive modern fantasy, try Bad Magic instead. Still, if you have the opportunity and the inclination, The Arcanum is worth a skim. Just don't take anything about it too seriously.

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