02 January, 2013

Review: The Work Of The Devil by Katherine Amt Hanna

All credit to the cover designer. This is an arresting image with fantastic use of tone. I like almost everything about it. (The borders are too tight on the author's name, but I'll go with it.) This should be on a NYT bestseller, but it's not. It's on a novella from fledgling author Katherine Amt Hanna. When I read Hanna's work it feels like there is a major talent inside who can't quite get where she needs to be. The fact that I found The Work of the Devil to be flawed and still have tons of comments to make illustrates that. I'd rather be frustrated by Hanna than entertained by many. It's my hope she keeps writing.

The Work of the Devil is a fairly classic SF set up. It's evocative of golden age books while keeping a modern pace. It it was a short filler story in an ongoing series I'd probably be calling it brilliant. Unfortunately, there are no full length novels holding it up. Hanna has built more world than she can comfortably deal with in 70 odd pages. This leaves gaps the reader can't leap. She also relies on a few twists the experienced SF reader will easily see coming. As well, in a book largely free of racial cues, she ends with a bit of whiteness. It's so tiny it's not even a sin but until Hanna introduced pointedly Hispanic characters I hadn't assigned race to most of her leads. The larger problem keeping The Work of the Devil from realizing it's potential is authorial choice. Hanna appears to be supporting an American obsession - the purity of the ignorant faithful. Her dominant character holds to his simplicity and triumphs against a powerful force beyond his understanding.  He hails from a community which is faith based and machine averse. We slowly come to understand there is a an second community more like our own (or an early 1900's version) with limited mobility and no aircraft. This second community is not explored and exists only to solve problems for the main characters.

Why the main community has limited contact with the second for hundreds of years is explained as an article of faith. They are sworn to shun, so they largely do. These are weighty issues for a novella to carry. The division has to be accepted for the reader to continue. Through the second community the main community is made aware that their lifespans are shorter and their illnesses greater. A third community (or artifact) is potentially the source of this difference. The second community cannot approach the artifact because reasons. Those reasons are explained as a compulsion they involuntarily experience. Our main community feels these compulsions in differing but muted amounts. The second community theorizes it's a function of proximity but the logic for this is shaky. It's made shakier when our main community approaches the artifact and only the least worldly of the characters is able to maintain free will. The compulsion extending from the artifact affects each in different ways without an explanation for those differences made. The purpose or origin of the artifact is left unsaid as well. Toward the end our main characters are told there may be a dozen of these artifacts left in place for hundreds of years. Why? To what end? Is there a repercussion for the destruction of one?

Why destroy the artifact at all?  Is Hanna in favor of the destruction, or does she oppose it? The most sympathetic character is set up to make a sacrifice and achieve a victory. He is the least knowledgable. He is a man of faith and rules, not deep thought or insight. A man he trusts says there is an object they do not understand and that object must be destroyed. Destroying it may (or may not) change the health of their community. (I'd argue their rejection of the medical knowledge the second community has could be a factor in the differing life spans.) They approach the artifact. It has machines therefore it is evil, because their faith labels all machines as evil. It has the ability to alter their behavior and it takes an animal for food (as do they, but that's beyond their insight levels). It exists, it is not them, and therefore it must be destroyed. The author's position in this is invisible. I don't believe it's invisible by design. The Work of the Devil reads like a text written without an eye to what the author knows versus what the reader knows. The ending is frustrating because the reader is not certain of the previous events' meaning. The Work of the Devil is a great pitch piece but it isn't a great novella. You should still read it.

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