Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Victor Banis Reviews The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Today, I’d like to share Victor J. Banis’s review of my latest novel, The Plain of Bitter Honey. Enjoy

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin
Reviewed by Victor J. Banis

Rating – 4 ½ stars out of 5

Before anybody jumps up and starts hollering, let me say that the author based this novel somewhat loosely upon my own futuristic novel, Angel Land. Yes, he asked permission before doing so, and yes, I gave him my blessing. How could I be anything but flattered that an artist of such prodigious gifts thought anything of mine worth emulating?

Truth to tell, however, the two books aren’t very much alike. Alan borrowed the basic plot idea – a future America ruled by a corrupt church, and a ghetto in one-time-San-Francisco-now-Angel Land (in my version)  in which gays are held as virtual prisoners. But my story focused on those living in the ghetto; only in a brief epilogue did I show a small band of them having escaped from the city.
Alan’s version is almost the opposite, following as it does a band of refugees heading north from San Francisco, trying to reach The Plain of Bitter Honey, where the leaders of the Resistance movement dwell, and only briefly glancing back into the ghetto.

Oddly, I did find this distracting at times. Whenever our story arcs crossed, my writer‘s curiosity compelled me to look at how he and I had handled the same material. But that is of little consequence to other readers.

I am a longtime fan of this author’s work, but I am also fully aware that for the last few years he has been trying on a number of different “writer’s hats.” In general, I think this is a good thing for a writer to do – the more varieties of material he masters, the better overall an author can manage his craft.
Of course, not all those hats will be equally becoming. This writer’s forays into melodrama are evidence enough that this is not his strong suit. And, when I first approached this work, obviously an action-adventure, I half feared that it would be another example of a hat that didn’t fit.

What lifts this far above that – or any - genre, however, is his lead character, Aaron Swann, a protagonist worthy of the best in literature. Aaron is a tragic figure, and as with all great tragic figures – Macbeth comes to mind, certainly – the ills that befall him throughout the story all spring directly from his own flaws and weaknesses. The very best writers – the very best students of human nature, if you will, since they are the same thing – know that there is not much of value that you can teach another – one’s weaknesses reveal themselves in due time, and one’s strengths no one – not even he who possesses them – can know before he is called upon to use them, and beyond these, not much matters in a person’s character.

Shakespeare’s genius, however, was not in the creation of Macbeth – after all, any number of writers through the years have penned tragic figures. His genius was in creating, in Lady Macbeth, a co-protagonist, if you will, worthy of the title character and, indeed, very nearly eclipsing him. So clearly do these two mirror one another in their greed and ambition that they might almost be one character – and surely no one else is necessary to the play. Indeed, the others who flit briefly across the stage are no more than reflections of the inner turmoils of the two leads. What is Banquo’s ghost, after all, than the personification of Lady Macbeth’s guilt and fear?

I wish I could say that Alan Chin has surrounded Aaron with a character or two worthy of him, but alas, with one exception, he has not. Well, it is hardly criticism to say that someone falls short of Shakespeare but it seems to me here that the author has fallen a bit short of his own considerable talent.

I paraphrase Oscar Wilde somewhat when I say that a writer may let his heroes develop in their own skins, but he must choose his villains very carefully. A villain who does not engage us, in whom we cannot recognize ourselves to some degree, however infinitesimal, becomes a cardboard cutout – as happens here with Elder Whitehall, the author’s “baddie.”  He isn’t scary because we simply can’t see ourselves in him – after all, nothing is more frightening than the beast within us.

Aaron’s brother, Hayden, offers some possibilities. Cyrus Hodger, another of the religious leaders, never did come into focus for me – I had no more idea at the end what was motivating him than I did at the beginning. Only the minor character, Logan, chief of the renegade tribe, the Caliban, seems to me real and vital, a man both tragic and noble, and on a par with the lead character. His role is small, though he imbues his few scenes in which he figures with a regal melancholy.

When the author is focused on Aaron, then, the story flows naturally and easily from his character, and especially from his frailties. When it shifts to the others, everything slows down, and the plot takes charge.

Fortunately, this happens only a few times, and well before the surprise ending – which I confess I did not see coming at all, though the author has been fair in planting the necessary signposts along the road – we are back to Aaron, and the story’s ending belongs to him, as it must.

So, this is a flawed work, but at the same time, it represents such a leap forward for the author that I can only applaud vigorously. Its flaws are noble ones, the flaws of a major talent coming to grips with itself, and for that I can fault no writer. It tells me that, without a doubt, this is an author on the verge of the greatness that he once or twice touches upon here.

 This is certainly not Alan Chin’s best work, which I am convinced is still ahead of him, but it does encourage me to think not so very far ahead.

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