James D. MacDonald, The Apocalypse Door (Tor, 2002)

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two days since my last Confession."

"What is your confession, my daughter?"

"I've come here to kill you."

With The Apocalypse Door, author James D. MacDonald has combined seemingly incompatible genres: Raymond Chandler-era hard-boiled detective together with spy thriller, with a priest and Knight of the Temple as hero. And he's done it all without his wife and long-time collaborator, Debra Doyle.

His hero Peter Crossman has appeared in short fiction in thematic "Knights Templar" collections edited by Katherine Kurtz. Unfortunately, this novel seems like nothing more than a thin short-story-length plot padded with an unnecessary subplot and stretched out to 224 pages.

The main premise of The Apocalypse Door is that the ancient brotherhood of the Templars still exists in our modern day, and are still guardians of the Temple. Crossman and his sometime partner Simon (Simon? Templar? The Saint, anyone?), meet up with an assassin nun named Sister Mary Magdalene, whom they call "Maggie." Their quest leads them into contact with -- among other things -- a demonic fungus that burns Maggie's rosary and dead people with sliced off faces (bone and all). Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we are told a story of a man named Michael who, in 1980, is air-dropped into the deep jungle of Vietnam on a mission.

Now, if you thought that this sounds like the makings of a bang-up novel, you'd be right. Unfortunately, that's not the novel MacDonald has written. Some authors specialize in multi-genre undertakings (F. Paul Wilson, author of the Repairman Jack series, is particularly good at it), but this time out, the different styles just don't mesh.

I didn't buy a "warrior priest" having the kind of aloof attitude that is inherent in the writing style. He narrates a scene with apparent disinterest, but then makes sure to absolve each person he kills. Is he conscientious or is he just afraid of repercussions from above? I couldn't tell, and on top of that, I didn't care.

In fact, I didn't give a damn about anybody in the story. One of the main things I look for in any kind of story is at least one character I can identify with and care whether he or she lives or dies. I didn't find that in The Apocalypse Door. Nor did I find a single scene that especially gripped me. Even the "gruesome" death scenes were scarcely noticeable. I'm not saying this is the dullest novel I've ever read, simply the dullest one I've ever forced myself to finish.

[Craig Clarke]