Steel Breeze by Douglas Wynne
I suppose writers find it easier to create characters who, for one reason or another, are flawed. It’s rather like the adage that good news doesn’t sell newspapers. There’s a relentless public appetite for stories about people struggling with adversity. For an inspirational ending, authors can then allow their characters to find redemption. It gives readers a faint ray of hope that they too can be saved (in the purely secular sense, of course). Alternatively, characters can be seen to fail and wallow in disaster. This gives readers a there-but-for-the grace of-God frisson before they pass on in their own lives, usually unaffected by the fictional exemplar’s fall. Put the other way round, readers find it more difficult to relate to characters who are “perfect”. Indeed, in real life, most know-it-alls are only ever one step away from universal dislike or hatred.
So in Steel Breeze by Douglas Wynne (Journal Stone, 2013) we have a protagonist who’s wife was murdered in fairly spectacular style — by a decapitation, no less. Not surprisingly, he’s a bit upset and begins drinking. His employer tolerates this for a short period but eventually has to “let him go”. Had he not had a four-year-old son, the disintegration would no doubt have continued to homelessness and probable death by self-neglect on the streets. But for the sake of his son, he pulls himself round and manages to publish a novel which earns just enough money to keep a roof over their heads. This fits the necessary stereotype perfectly. Almost every reader is going to be able to relate to a character whose response to a tragedy has been to hit he bottle. We all know people who have avoided alcoholism by the skin of their teeth. Perhaps in our own lives, we immerse ourselves in television series or read endless books as a form of escape from real-world difficulties. That’s human nature 101 with a father suffering the same weaknesses as the rest of us.
This emotional stability is, however, threatened when a man seems to spirit our hero’s son away from a play area. The shock of losing the boy for about ten minutes is appropriately disproportionate. When he finds a Haiku on this portable computer, he not unreasonably concludes the threat against his family persists. This now gives the author the chance to consider the question of fragility. His recovery was at a plateau. He could now rise to the new challenge, or begin slipping down the slope again. Of course, this also forces us to consider whether the hero should be likeable. Just where is the balance between character flaws and more redeeming features? I’ll give you my answer on the question applied to this book at the end of the review.
The book has a several narrative tracks with the central father and his son, the locally-based Detective Chuck Fournier, the FBI Agent Erin Drelick, and Shaun Bell and his Sensei. This latter young man was psychologically damaged during his parents’ divorce. Perhaps some might say the boy was saved by this old Japanese man except the man was a predator, a predator that found an apprentice. One of the games I play when I read is to recall other stories that parallel the current book. Perhaps surprisingly, this tragedy reminds me of Hamlet, yes the Shakespearean play. You’ll hopefully recall the Bard had a central character who’s a little on the introspective side, what with the death of his father and the consequent change in his family’s circumstances. He’s then distracted by a ghost from the past, begins to look with new eyes about the way in which he arrived in his current situation, and ends up surrounded by dead bodies. Of course, there are many other details added to fill out time on the stage, but the essence of that plot matches Steel Breeze.
Now I’m not suggesting this book is as good as Shakespeare, but it’s definitely an above average thriller with tragedy running through its veins. Having lost his wife through an attack involving superior sword skills, the transitory kidnap of his son and the arrival of a Japanese style poem, confirms a threat, but not a threat the local police or his parents-in-law want to believe. As Hamlet knows he would struggle if he spoke the word “fratricide” aloud in court, so our hero finds himself increasingly in difficulties as he tries to protect his son from unknown dangers. Although there’s one minor absurdity almost at the end, this is a very clever story about revenge. The ghost of the past truly hangs over the present as we watch a small town struggle with its prejudices against the background of a sea of national troubles. Indeed, the reason for our hero’s troubles really does turn out to be outrageous (mis)fortune, yet, for all his problems, he does prove to be a good father. Answering my earlier question, I find the hero credible and quite surprisingly likeable which, in all the circumstances, is high praise for an author who rather made a rod for his own back by picking such a stereotype out of the writer’s tool box. Putting all this together, Steel Breeze is a book that deserves a wide readership.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.