The Three: Should have been terrifying

The Three by Sarah Lotz fantasy book reviewsThe Three by Sarah Lotz

Sarah Lotz’s The Three is a stand-alone horror novel which should, by all rights, have a terrifying plot: Four high-capacity passenger jets crash on the same day, with no warning or clues as to the cause. After three of the crashes, a single child is found alive among the wreckage: one Japanese, one American, and one Briton. Global media coverage focuses on these three children (and the possibility of a fourth in Africa), creating a maelstrom of controversy over what may have happened and whether these children are symbols of hope or something far more sinister. Complicating the issue is the last known communication from an American woman, a voicemail which is appropriated by her pastor for self-aggrandizing purposes.

These events are bookended by a framing device: A journalist, Elspeth Martins, has taken it upon herself to better understand the plane crashes and the effect they had on humanity, and make a little money in the process. To that effect, she has collected newspaper articles from around the world, interviews with people who interacted with “The Three” (as the children become known), and the unfinished manuscript which was intended to be the personal story of Paul Craddock and his “heroic” guardianship of his orphaned niece Jess. These sources become the fictional text Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy, supposedly published in 2012. Simply writing it as a collection of first-person narratives rather than a book-within-a-book containing newspaper and blog articles, interview transcripts, letters, e-mails, and chat logs would have been more effective. As The Three is written, though, it’s difficult to differentiate one narrator from another, leading to jarring shifts in location and time.

If the events of the book had just been presented as the actual experiences of the various caretakers, rather than a hodgepodge of interchangeable first-person narratives, it would have made the story more compelling and would have provided emotional weight to the actions of characters like Paul and Chiyoko in particular. Additionally, including Elspeth and Pamela’s third-person limited perspectives at the beginning and end of the book only served to illustrate Lotz’s actual skill and highlight the novel that could have been. Had a more intimate view of each character’s personal motivations been provided, their thoughts and feelings in each moment rather than recollections removed at a distance of three to six months, Paul and Chiyoko’s gradual descents into psychosis would have become outright terrifying.

I did enjoy the core concept behind The Three, namely that human beings are irrational creatures who can be swept up into dangerous behavior if given the right motivation. I wish that more had been done to explore this concept, rather than what seems to be an experiment which didn’t quite succeed. Furthermore, the greater cast of characters are reduced to stereotypical tropes, offensive on many fronts: a flamboyantly gay British actor; technology-obsessed and socially awkward Japanese teenagers; Americans who are nothing more than gun-hoarding religious extremists; the nebbish elderly Jewish couple; Africans who believe more in witchcraft than science. More nuanced characters would have gone a long way toward salvaging the failings of the novel’s structure.

My review copy also contained a number of errors, particularly when it came to the dialogue of American characters. I refuse to believe that a woman who is so dim-witted that she’s proud of herself for remembering that “Caucasian” is a synonym for “white people” would casually use “queue” instead of “line” or “car bonnet” instead of “hood.” These are distinctly not American colloquialisms. In general, the dialogue between South African characters or British characters was far more natural and believable than the words Lotz put in the mouths of her American or Japanese speakers.

It’s my understanding (from press releases that I’ve seen) that The Three is being considered for a television series adaptation, and I honestly think that this is great news. A story like this would unfold very well over the course of a season or two, allowing viewers to better understand character actions and motivations. However, as a novel, I do not recommend it.

Publication Date: May 20, 2014. Four simultaneous plane crashes. Three child survivors. A religious fanatic who insists the three are harbingers of the apocalypse. What if he’s right? The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage. Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioural problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The Three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival…

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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3 comments

  1. It sounds like a great concept that just didn’t gel. Thanks for the insightful review, Jana.

    • Thanks, Marion! It really was a shame, because there’s so much potential that just wasn’t realized. If a television show does come together, though, it could be fascinating to watch.

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