I’m used to having technothrillers with dubious backgrounds, especially ones written after the fall of the USSR. But Mike Lunnon-Wood’s Dark Rose, set in Ireland, takes the cake. The zombie sorceresses were strained to their limit here.
Well, at least this isn’t formulaic. Sure, this has the general literary pattern, but in terms of variance from the thriller genre, it’s big. This book is also a very good example of why being formulaic isn’t necessarily bad, and why diverting from the formula isn’t necessarily good.
The rivet-counting doesn’t really pick up until the action starts, but when it does, it does so very hard. Furthermore, the rivet-counting infodumps are exacerbated by Lunnon-Wood’s writing style, which I’ll get to.
They have the effect of being “look how much I know” telling rather than experienced showing.
Oh boy. Palestinian-led Arabs seize control of Ireland, first financially, then militarily. Their goal is to use it as a bargaining chip in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, for the Irish lobby in American politics is extremely strong.
They and their Irish puppet government are countered by having Irish-descended soldiers in armies around the world volunteer for the resistance, led by the newly crowned queen of the restored Irish monarchy. It’s mentioned as being little but a legal trick, but still. This makes Cauldron look like a meticulously researched counterfactual.
This is one of the most “zombie sorceress”-dominated stories I’ve read. There’s a lot of emphasis elsewhere in the book (and in the rest of Lunnon-Wood’s work) of interviewing military personnel, of being detailed and accurate. But it’s all the service of this ridiculous plot.
So, this book has two problems independent of the crazy zombie sorceress backstory. The first is its pacing. The book’s “action” doesn’t start until about halfway through, and it only really intensifies about three quarters of the way through.
The second is its prose. Lunnon-Wood’s writing style is this take-your-time, talk-it-out lush slow system. It’s almost as if Hemingway wrote ridiculous cheap thrillers. Because of that, the small-unit actions (when they start) are tricky. They’re detailed, grounded, and sometimes gory, but the nature of the prose doesn’t make them feel very visceral, for lack of a better word. The characterization suffers from almost the exact same problem. Characters get so many drawn-out conversations that they feel like blurs, and Lunnon-Wood isn’t the best at distinguishing them.
Applying conventional technothriller infodumps to this style makes them worse, and when the “resistance forces” (a giant multinational technicality that includes the USMC) finally do mobilize en masse, it’s a (realistic) never-in-doubt Gulf War-style crush. So despite the slow pace, this book is also kind of too fast as well when push comes to shove.
Also, there’s a lesbian seduction subplot that stops about halfway through the book. I will leave it to the review readers to guess as to whether it’s an important part of the story or just cheap sleaze.
The Only Score That Really Matters
Dark Rose could have been worse. It could have been unreadable in its prose. It’s not. It could have been more axe-grindingly political than it was. It could have been even longer.
As it stands, the actual substance of the book is a little aimless and clunky, but the concept is so completely ridiculous that I feel it’s still worth taking a look at. That it’s not too political makes it more pleasant to read, and you don’t see “grounded” stories with setups this ridiculous every day.