THUNDER: The Problematic Nature of Dream Therapy and the Rehabilitation of Felons by Rich Wilkie – Book Review [Bellarius]
Looking into another indie outing, Bellarius gives a few thoughts on Rich Wilkie’s solo outing, Thunder.
“An interesting start to be sure, and with a few great ideas, but still a hard book to truly recommend.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Thunder is yet another of those stories which are problematic to judge to say the least. There’s a great idea at its core, many aspects are nailed and there’s definitely a fun element to it which fits the comic book approach the author was going for. At the same time though, as a first outing this is one which is extremely rough around the edges. It’s promising to be sure, and there’s more than a few definite signs of greatness in here, but in more than a few areas it seems to be more than a little off of the mark in terms of presentation.
The story here follows the dreams of a criminal, Thor Kazan, sentenced to Dream Therapy Rehabilitation, locked away within his mind as others outside manipulate the illusions in his head. In his head, Thor’s thoughts follow a pair of thirteen year old boys, who find a ring linking them to a superhuman protector who can be summoned via a word. However, in the world beyond, the analysts and operators probe his thoughts and twist them one way or the next. as they learn more of what goes on within, the dreams begin to quickly dissolve into nightmares…
As you might have guessed from that little synopsis, this is very much a tale of two parts, one interlinking into the next. While the dream itself is at the forefront to begin with, only occasionally cutting away to the facility itself for moments at a time, elements start to bleed over from one to the next as things go wrong. The book has the trouble of juggling two very different subjects with exceedingly different themes, a superhero tale and what’s almost an Orwellian prison plot, but for the most part it works. Wilkie does show skill as keeping each section separate and coherent from one part to the next, which is largely down to his characterisation and handling of dialogue. Writing young teenagers can be problematic at the best of times, and all too often people tend to present them as adults in smaller bodies, but here their crass nature and behaviour has a very genuine feel to it. The stunts they pull and the way they interact has a surprisingly human element, and given how much of the story centres upon them it makes it quite engaging throughout the first act. Even though you know this is an illusion of sorts, even though you know that this could be wiped away in a second, he still manages to keep this engaging thanks to the oddly genuine nature of their behaviour.
The actual story itself plays out very quickly, developing rapidly and going through the initial motions you would expect. Their reaction to finding the ring, discovery of its power, reactions and events surrounding trying to remove it and learning about their abilities, these all play out as normal. What keeps this a lot fresher than usual however is that it’s written less like an intentional classic relying upon nostalgic storytelling methods and more like a modern Marvel origin, snark and all. This allows it to maintain its feeling of being alive for the first half, and the moments where things begin to break down to hit much harder, especially when certain a intelligence begin interfering with events.
Unfortunately, while this provides the book with a strong start and a strong core of events, it’s far from perfect. A key issue found here is that the script itself feels as if it often skips initial introductions, and you’re shown the characters mid-action rather than fully setting the scene. This is evident from a very abrupt start, with the court case going for a very brief look into past events, but it doesn’t spend quite enough time properly introducing people to Thor. Ironically, given the book’s subject matter, it often feels as if we’re not spending enough time inside their heads with their thoughts, and the kinetic energy of the storytelling is overriding a few of the potentially more introspective moments. This is coupled with the fact that, all too often, the scenery and environments seem very barren. Dialogue seems to overtake the time for a few sentences or even a paragraph to fully set up the environment in the reader’s mind, leaving certain events and scenes as very vague. Too much of it seems as if it has been written as a script for a comic, with rapid introductions followed by a action-reaction format which would be better suited to a writer-artist duo. The writing style here is akin to what can be found in some of Peter David’s recent books, but it lacks some of his more well rounded elements which still makes his style work with full novels.
Finally, the key issue here is that the characterisation either seems to go too far not not enough. While I praised the genuine feel of the two children the story focuses upon, it sometimes goes more than a little too far. Their comments surrounding an older woman they encounter and even curses towards one another can seem overly juvenile. While that might be expected, it can easily cross the line from being oddly charming to off-putting, especially when it comes to some subjects which stick out rather awkwardly. At the same time those in the real world never felt as if they had enough of a presence in the story, and while workable for the tale, they were hardly memorable at the best of moments.
Overall, Thunder is a novel which is hard to call a success despite some shining moments and good elements here and there, but this is an author i’d personally like to see more from. It shows some great ideas and some serious potential, but at the same time the material here remains extremely rough around the edges and suffers from more than a few notable problems.