Friday, April 01, 2011

Urgent: ASHES OF THE EARTH by Eliot Pattison

International attorney Eliot Pattison already has two powerful detection (and spiritual search) series underway: one sent in Chinese-occupied Tibet, more or less "now," and the other set in Colonial America, tying together the despair and strength of a Scottish exile and a Native American shaman.

In ASHES OF THE EARTH, Pattison dares to stare forward into a ravaged world, one torn and decimated by the horror of a nuclear holocaust. Although survivor Hadrian Boone is dealing with a fragile remnant of population -- so fragile that the very idea of abortion, for instance, is more than heresy, since the need for repopulating the earth is so extreme -- and although cities have shattered and fallen, still, evil in its most common forms of lust, covetousness, and cruelty looks likely to prevail.

How could the author have guessed that the week of the book's release would see a real world still uncertain about radiation and fallout from a catastrophic collapse of four nuclear plants poised in an earthquake zone in Japan? "Hardened" robots, enormous machines capable of burying sites in water or cement, experts in the mass health crisis formed by radiation in a massive urban area's water supply: all these are headed to the Pacific Rim at this moment.

Hadrian Boone's world is far simpler, mechanically, because so many of the urban structures failed and collapsed in the global holocaust of his time. But emotionally, it's at least as complex. Local children are feeding each other myths of a "better world" reached through suicide, where what they suspect are unreal, never-seen luxuries -- toys, cars, abundant food -- will greet them. Moreover, murders of colony leaders keep occurring, and Hadrian begins to see a plan behind the deaths. Criminal elements, blessed by the protective concrete walls of prisons, have survived the holocaust, along with the dogged pioneers with whom Hadrian identifies. Stronger and with few qualms of conscience, the criminals are close to their goal of overrunning the colony and forcing it into submission.

Readers of Pattison's other two series will recognize in Hadrian Boone's fragile psyche the damaged mid-life souls of protagonists Shan Tao Yun (survivor of the Chinese Tibetan gulag) and Duncan McCallum, unwilling outcast. These are men who have lost "everything": family, home, safety. But they are enriched by friendships with older men who have learned how to love the earth and its creatures in ways that make a difference in who we can become. In Hadrian's case, the losses are made more poignant by the absence of that "teacher" figure: Boone's friend Jonah, a leader who had understood how to empower and embrace the struggling colony, has died. And although a woman police officer, Sergeant Waller, appears to offer Boone support, she's a frail reed -- so ignorant of her own past and present that she betrays Boone and his cause repeatedly, mostly unintentionally but sometimes out of a childlike vindictiveness and refusal to mature.

Some of Boone's struggles have an inevitable "MacGyver" quality as he fights to make his way around and through the tangle of loyalties and collapses that make up his Carthage. But if you stop to consider how we'll manage if the Japanese power plants go into complete meltdown, or how your friends in Tokyo are getting through brownouts, food shortages, and transportation snags, Boone's Carthage begins to make ominous sense.

The question is, can Boone -- and can we -- summon the inner resources needed to make survival into a life worth pursuing? Or are the suicidal children the smart ones after all? "Hadrian wearily rose, searching for something on the young faces, on the magazine pages, that might explain the mystery these children guarded. He should have been angry, yet all he could feel was a deep sorrow."

Pattison dares to turn us toward confronting the mysteries of more than our past: We are building our future in every step. While Hadrian solves the workings of a criminal enterprise and tries to stop it, we as readers listen to his friend Emily, the group's most skilled doctor:
Emily frowned. "Lost world. Lost technologies." She paused and tilted his head, holding the bottle to his mouth.

Hadrian watched the doctor in silence, seeing not just exhaustion and anger there now, but an edge of something that could be fear. "There were a lot of types, a lot of names -- speed, ecstasy, acid, meth, fly powder."

"This is Carthage, Hadrian. This is the other twenty-first century." ...

He was finding no answers, only more questions. Smugglers. Drugs. Murder by jackal. Munitions. 
It's not a "brave new world," but a dire one. Only courage, loyalty, love, and laying one's life on the line -- in collaboration with willing friends -- may take Hadrian Boone and his community out of the ashes that remain.

Read it first as a taut, tightly plotted detective novel, human and agonized. Then let it rest in your thoughts. What Pattison offers us is a dose of courage for ourselves, disguised as a rattling good story.

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