[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
FORMAT/INFO: The Watchers is 560 pages long divided over a prologue called ‘Quietus’, four titled books, forty numbered chapters, and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third person via Marc Rochat, Katherine Taylor and Jay Harper. The Watchers is mostly self-contained, coming to a satisfying stopping point, but it’s the first book in a trilogy. The sequels are tentatively titled Angel City and The Way of Sorrows. June 9, 2011 marks the UK Hardcover publication of The Watchers via Bantam Press.
ANALYSIS: Like many other reviewers, Jon Steele’s The Watchers caught my attention because of its tagline: “Imagine The Bourne Identity rewritten by Neil Gaiman.” After finishing the book, I can see why the publisher chose such a comparison, but it is a little misleading. The truth is, The Watchers is a very difficult novel to classify.
For starters, the book opens with a prologue set in 1917, at the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the first World War. It’s a beautifully written prologue – full of magic, wonder and mystery – and immediately intriguing, but how these events are connected with the rest of the book are not revealed until much later in the novel.
From this prologue, The Watchers shifts to present day Switzerland with the next 300-some pages of the novel introducing and cultivating the book’s three main characters and their relationship to one another: Marc Rochat, a 21-year-old boy, handicapped both mentally and physically, who serves as the guardian of Lausanne Cathedral – think Quasimodo; Katherine Taylor, a 26-year-old American former Playboy star who moved to Switzerland to work as an escort for the Two Hundred Club which caters to Europe’s rich and powerful; and Jay Harper, a thirty-something Brit who cannot remember anything prior to waking up and accepting a job as a freelance security specialist for the International Olympic Committee.
How these three characters are connected to one another is all part of the “mysterious mystery” that Jon Steele slowly unravels during the first two-thirds of the novel, which also involves a once famous Russian hockey player gone missing, Inspector Gobet who may or may not be crooked, extremely dangerous killers, and Lausanne Cathedral. Most of this “mysterious mystery” is presented through Harper’s narrative, which contains a detective noir influence. Over the course of the book, Harper also suddenly remembers things – understanding French, quoting poems, etc. – without knowing where that knowledge came from, which is where The Bourne Identity comparison comes in. Meanwhile, a Book of Enoch subplot – “an apocryphal book of the Hebrew Bible, long discredited until it was discovered as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948” – is introduced around page 280, injecting a Dan Brown element into the novel. Magic realism on the other hand, best describes the narratives by Marc Rochat and Katherine Taylor, although a sense of ambiguity keeps the reader guessing as to what is real and what is imagined.
It’s around page 360 that The Watchers starts shifting in another direction. Before that point, I was completely engrossed by the book, thanks mainly to Jon Steele’s exquisite writing, which in turn is the key behind the novel’s compelling main characters, a vividly described setting that felt almost as real as what I imagine the genuine article would be like (especially Lausanne Cathedral), and a story that brilliantly straddles the line between reality and fantasy. Characterization in particular, is a high point of the novel because of the amount of detail and effort that is used to flesh out the protagonists’ different personalities, narrative voices and worldviews. Of the three, Marc Rochat is easily the most interesting because of his uniquely charming outlook on life (detectiveman, weather-teller, workermen, beforetimes, nowtimes) and the way he communicates with ghosts, his cat Monsieur Booty, and the bells of Lausanne Cathedral.
The story admittedly, is a bit slow-moving and lacking in the action & adventure department, which can be partly attributed to the amount of details and information used by the author in establishing the setting and characters, but it’s really the nature of the book. In other words, The Watchers was never meant to be a page-turner like a James Patterson or Dan Brown novel. Instead, The Watchers is a character-driven book, where even the environment is a character, and editing out what may seem like unnecessary details would only lessen the novel’s impact. Besides, The Watchers is gripping in its own way, as I found it nearly impossible to put the book down. At least for the first two-thirds of the novel.
Once the book starts shifting into supernatural territory around page 360, The Watchers becomes less engrossing. Part of the problem is that once the cat is let out of the bag, the novel loses its intriguing sense of mystery and ambiguity and becomes a straightforward battle between good and evil. Another problem is that the supernatural elements – fallen angels, Nephilim, dead black potion, time wake, stasis, etc. – lack the detail and clarity found in the rest of the book, giving the last third of the novel an unfinished feel. However, since The Watchers is just the first volume in a trilogy, I’m hoping the sequels will explain the supernatural war in much greater detail. Finally, the author goes a little overboard with some of The Watchers’ supernatural elements, especially compared to everything that came before, but the Epilogue was satisfying while introducing a number of interesting developments to be explored in the next book…
CONCLUSION: Because The Watchers shifts between so many different genres – historical fiction, detective noir, magic realism, religious conspiracy, supernatural thriller – it’s difficult to say what kind of audience would enjoy Jon Steele’s debut. Personally, I loved The Watchers because of Jon Steele’s exquisite writing, the novel’s compelling protagonists and the vivid setting, but I felt the supernatural elements did not work nearly as well as the rest of the book and I’m a bit worried about how the author will handle these elements in the sequels. Nevertheless, The Watchers mostly enthralls, seizing the heart and imagination, while leaving the reader satisfied, but still tempted for more…