Another sad one, unfortunately. I may have to rethink my reading plans and get something cheerful in, before this becomes a trend.
I was wondering how they were going to end Bester’s story. I mean, it’s a tricky one, isn’t it? He’s the bad guy of the tv show, no question, but the books have made him… if not the hero exactly then certainly a very sympathetic character. So how do you reconcile those two? Do you give him a happy ending? Do you leave it hanging, as an exercise for the reader? Or does he meet retribution and justice (or “justice”, depending on point of view)? I wasn’t sure, going in… and I wasn’t even sure half way through the book where we were going with this. Because Keyes has succeeded in telling Bester’s side of the story for two books, succeeded in giving us his perspective and getting us to really care about him… but you can do that quite easily without it getting in the way of the stories the show told. Endings? Bit harder. There wasn’t really a way Keyes was going to get out of it without picking a side.
He tried, though. Up to about half way through the book, we have a valiant attempt to keep the story away from any sort of real consequences, and so I found myself hoping it could end positively for Bester. I think my previous reviews made it clear – I do sympathise with him a heck of a lot. Keyes has written a great socially awkward character and I feel for him so very much. It doesn’t hurt too that Garibaldi makes an appearance in this one, and he’s annoying as all heck. He was in the show, but now he’s more so. Truly, a work of genius. I can’t cheer for Garibaldi, I just can’t. He’s exactly the stereotype I hate in my fictional police-type-people. Rules? What rules? Oh those rules. Eh, but I get results. And my gut’s telling me things. And I’m only going to punch him a little bit, just so he tells me the truth and I can be right. No. He doesn’t get to be like that and be a good guy, not if he wants my sympathy. The drinking problem thing just adds to the stereotype, and even though they try to play it for feels, it just… doesn’t work. I really do not care about Michael Garibaldi, and Keyes has reinforced this for me nicely.
But like I say, he kept things separate for the first half of the book. He let us believe that maybe, just maybe, things would be ok.
Spoilers: not so much.
For all that I’m saying that Keyes gave me hope for a bit, I didn’t actually believe it. It was too nice, too safe. There was too much whimsy. It had to end badly. And then it did. Realistically, I don’t think there could be too much straying from the themes of the show, or the books wouldn’t work. And if you let Bester get off scot free, heck even if you give him redemption of some sort (like he’d ever actually repent…) then it goes against so much of what is already canon. There needed to be some sort of… well… yeah… reckoning. God damn it, it’s like they put it on the cover or something. It was really just a matter of how sad Keyes was going to make us when we got there. The answer is “all the sad”, in case you hadn’t guessed.
I don’t think I’m projecting when I say that I reckon Keyes is… at least partially on Bester’s side. But he manages to make us see both sides of the character really clearly towards the end of the novel, and it’s like Bester’s self-image is slipping, ever so slightly, and the reality of what he’s done is creeping in. It’s really quite well done, I think. He never stops being Bester, but there are some cracks, and the rest of the world’s certainties about him worm their way in, undermining his own certainties which saw us through two books squarely on his side. But somehow, even this doesn’t make the reader stop caring about him. It doesn’t matter that we know what he’s done, and we know that the reasons he did it are getting shakier and shakier… it’s just too hard not to care about him. This is what it should be, writing a properly complex character.
Much like the other two books, the events kind of take a backseat to the exploration of Bester’s character (as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now). Yes, what happens matters, but only because it’s happening to (and affecting) him. Considered on their own, the events of the book aren’t all that inspired or exciting. I don’t habitually read crime novels (just not my genre) but even I know this gets so very tropey as it goes on. The way Bester is caught out, finally… it’s all been done so very many times before. But I can forgive, because they’re a backdrop for the character, not the purpose of the story. It’s enough that I can’t say this is a stunning novel in its own right or anything. It’s not. So much of what it does is hackneyed and almost silly. But as a vehicle for finishing the story of a character from a tv show? Yeah. That it does pretty well.
It’s not a great vehicle for post-tv-show plot exposition, alas. I wanted more “what happened to all the telepaths?” but we only got that in hints and whispers, really. There were some answers, but no wholesale rundown of the ramifications of the wars and so on. Which is a shame. I think he could have squeezed it in somewhere. We were following Bester’s stream of consciousness, after all – how hard would it have been to get in a bit of reminiscing or musing on the sad fate of his people? But it’s a short book, and you can’t do everything, I suppose.
Keyes has managed to do something quite tricky – he’s picked an ending that isn’t a good ending, and certainly not one I think anyone is supposed to like, and made it still feel like the right ending. Because once I put the book down, I couldn’t think of any other way it could have played out. So well done to him. He’s also thoroughly sold me on novelisations, which may or may not be such a good thing. And he’s made me really sad. Bah.
Next up, let’s hope The Wicked + The Divine is a bit happier, shall we?