I've been looking somewhat wistfully at Greig Beck's debut novel Beneath the Dark Ice for a few years now, but I'm an opportunistic reader. Why get hold of a book I don't already own when there are already several thousand books in my home, with more arriving daily? Therefore, when Beck's publisher offered me a review copy of his latest, even though the story didn't especially appeal, I thought, "Why not?"
Return of the Ancients opens with a group of college students on a field trip to visit Illinois' Fermilab. The protagonist of the tale is 17-year-old Arnold "Arn" Singer, who you'd never guess to be Shawnee Indian based upon his name (or, frankly, any element of his characterization). But his ethnicity and general intelligence make him unpopular enough to be the brunt of a stupid prank by dumb jocks. They lock him in a dark room, which turns out to be exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. Arne has been put in the path of the latest test firing of the lab's particle accelerator. The scientists discover him too late to prevent the firing, and when the proverbial dust clears, Arn is nowhere to be found.
That's because, he's been blasted (through a wormhole?) many millennia into the future. It's a post-apocalyptic world, filled with dangerous and scary creatures. And one peopled by non-human races living in something like a medieval society. The first race he encounters (the Panterrans) look distinctly monster-like want to read his entrails. Therefore, it's no surprise the race of upright wolves (the Wolfen) seem pretty fantastic by comparison. Here, what started as a science fiction creature feature veers into epic fantasy and (?) Wagnerian opera! Yes, the Wolfen make frequent references to Odin and Loki, and dream of dying and battle and going to Valhalla. How their culture is somehow based on Norse mythology (of all things) is never even slightly explained.
Now, as far as I can tell, this novel is being marketed entirely as adult fiction. And the barrier between adult fiction and YA has become highly permeable in recent years. But this novel doesn't read like a story that could go either way, it reads like very young YA fiction; therefore, I can't figure out why it isn't being marketed as such. As for me, I read plenty of YA fiction, and have nothing against a story on that basis, but I do think that it's a good idea to let readers know what to expect.
Other than this discrepancy, I had several other issues with the tale, some of which are alluded to above. While clearly this isn't a character study, character development overall is superficial at best. By the novel's end, several characters do, indeed, go to Valhalla, and it was difficult to muster up the emotion to really care. Certain elements of the plot are handled somewhat superficially as well--though I may be premature in that criticism. This is merely the first book in a trilogy, so there is more yet to be discovered. And it must be admitted that Beck does a good job of salting unanswered questions throughout the tale to make readers want to come back for more. Beck also follows the unfortunate trend of ending the first novel of his trilogy on multiple cliffhangers with very little resolution of any kind. As a reader, this merely pisses me off. The other big complaint I have is that this story is neither fish nor fowl. Is it science fiction? Is it epic fantasy? I realize that many books cross any number of genres, but they do so a hell of a lot more gracefully than this one does.
Now that I've gotten my grump on, let's discuss what Beck gets right. This is a fast read, and the story moves quickly. He certainly surprised me with the direction the story took. Many of the characters were appealing, and overall, the story went down easily enough. I could see all the faults mentioned above as I was reading it; nonetheless, the actual reading experience wasn't unpleasant. Beck has a vivid imagination and has a lot of fun with his world building. And as strange as they were, the Norse mythological references were plenty amusing. My favorite was the enormous cave millipede monster called Jormungandr, after the world-encircling serpent of Norse myth.
Will I continue this trilogy? It's unlikely. I'm just not the right target reader. However, never say never. If the publisher delivers it to my Kindle (though why he would after this review is a mystery), who knows? I tend to read what's in front of me, and I certainly didn't hate this. What I will also say is that I'm still interested in reading Beneath the Dark Ice, which I'm convinced is much more my cup of tea. So, criticisms aside, I'm not writing off Greig Beck. I'll just be more selective in which of his books I read.