David Herter, Evening's Empire (Tom Doherty Associates, 2002)

David Herterís first novel, Ceres Storm, was, apparently, published to widespread acclaim. It was called "distinctive and imaginative" by one reviewer, who also said that Herterís tale moved to his own "disconcerting logic." Let's just pause there for a quick semantic debate. Surely logic that is "disconcerting" is illogical, Captain? I prefer my logic to be comforting and reassuring, thank you very much. But, more of Herterís flow of logic later.

Eveningís Empire is set on the Oregon Coast, in Evening, a small town famous for its cheeses and large cheese sculptures of famous townsfolk and prominent town buildings -- which sometimes get eaten by the populace at town get-togethers.

Russell Kent, an opera composer from Massachusetts, lost his wife here in a freak walking accident a year ago, and has now returned to lay the ghost of her death, and to work on his latest commission -- an opera based on Jules Verneís 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Illogic, I fear, is raising its disconcerting head again, and weíre hardly a chapter into the book. Why, for instance, did Kent and his wife go to Evening in the first place (this important background to the story is never explained) and why should the opera be about Captain Nemo (his name becomes the title of the operatic work -- but, again, there is no obvious connection between it and the rest of the story). We may never know -- and more importantly, we may never really care! At the beginning of the book, Kent returns to Evening, off-season, and takes a room in a guest house owned and solely occupied by a beautiful, unattached woman (now, thatís logical) from where he retraces the steps that led to his wifeís death, and sets about composing "Nemo."

This book holds a great deal of promise at its outset. There is the potential for a mystery thriller, surrounding the details of Kentís wifeís death. She had fallen, mysteriously, from a cliff while they were out walking together. Mysterious dwarf-like men stand outside Kent's room and stare up at his window. Sculptures are being made of large buildings, from local cheese. OK, thatís not particularly mysterious, but itís pretty damn strange, you have to admit! Plus -- and this is the biggie -- there is something extremely mysterious going on underneath the whole town.

In fact, Eveningís Empire has so much going on in the first three plot-filled chapters that I found it difficult to read it without shaking with excitement and nibbling at a nearby plate of cheese! Herter, it has to be said, does a very job of weaving several intriguing sub-plots into the early part of the narrative. Disconcertingly, he also does a good job of confusing the reader with language that would have been best kept in the Encyclopaedia of Classical Music (Just a quick personal comment before I go on: I know music pretty well, or so I thought). There was so much technical musical jargon that, after the first half-dozen terms or so, I gave up trying to work out their meanings. Rather than being impressed with Herterís musical knowledge, I just became annoyed that he was "showing off." Itís just not logical, Captain, to irritate your readers by making them feel inferior. OK, the guyís a composer, but Iím not. When Iím reading a book, I like to conjure up mental images, to get inside the words and have them paint pictures for me. Herter managed to do nothing for me by his use of these highly technical words, other than get my dander up!

There are also some inconsistencies in the narrative that I found somewhat irksome. For example, given that Kent is a highly knowledgeable composer who knows the difference between his Ostanato and Glissando, he doesnít seem to recognise the sound of a violin when he first hears it at a ball in Eveningís town hall! Some obscure Middle Eastern percussive instrument might leave him foxed, surely, but a violin would be a very familiar instrument to an opera composer. Towards the end of the book, the female protagonist runs from a car, towards Kent, wearing a Tee shirt and jeans. Moments later, they are wrapped in a fond embrace and he begins to unbutton her blouse! How did she manage, logically, to get from the car to the embrace and put a blouse over the tee shirt at the same time?

OK, so Herter is occasionally inconsistent and likes to show off. Thatís not a crime, is it? Maybe not, but he has committed some crimes, in my view. And these may be the biggest crimes that a novel writer can commit. His story lacks tension. It doesnít go anywhere. It doesnít excite. It doesnít thrill. It doesnít read very well. He weaves at least four potentially very exciting threads together in the early part of the book -- and then does absolutely nothing of any literary merit with any of them. By the end of this book I didnít know if I felt bored, angry, confused or all three. I mean, did I miss something? No, actually I donít think I did. Unfortunately there is no getting around the logical truth about Eveningís Empire. It is boring.

I feel that David Herter lost an opportunity to write a very "novel" novel. He had the plots, the characters, the scene and the quirky little nuances that other writers would not have conceived. And he wasted them. Thatís not at all logical, and certainly very disconcerting.

[Steve Power]