"In these pages many mysteries are hinted at.
What if you come to understand one of them?"

"Words let water from an unseen, infinite ocean
Come into this place as energy for the dying and even the dead."

"Bored onlookers, but with such Light in our eyes!
As we read this book, the jewel-lights intensify."

- Rumi

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review - UNDER THE DOME - By Stephen King

One of my biggest pet peeves in all of fiction is when a writer has characters do stupid things because the plot of the book requires them to do stupid things in order for the story to keep moving.  Two writers come to mind when I think of this, Elizabeth Hayden and Sara Douglass, who I will never read again based on the stupidity of characters who should have known better.  I mean, really should have known better.  On the other hands, the Game of Thrones hand, we have normally intelligent people who make poor choices, which some might call stupid choices, because they are in unfamiliar situations and/or completely out of their depth.  The big difference between the two: the first kind of stupidity serves the plot (blech), the second serves to enhance the reader's understanding of the character, especially the character in a crisis.

In Under the Dome, a strange barrier appears to surround a small, New England town, cutting it off from the outside world. Story unfolds as people deal with this and make choices, good and bad, based on this new situation in their lives.  Many of the townsfolk, quite a few of them rational, intelligent people, make very poor choices.  King, a master storyteller, never once uses these choices to keep his plot rolling.  Yes, the choices have consequences for both the good guys and bad guys alike.  People die as a result of some of these choices.  However, in King's seasoned hands, these choices are all based on the terrible situation these characters find themselves in, and the events that follow the choices evolve naturally as we would expect from real-world cause and effect.  Not once while listening (I got the audio version for company on a long trip) did I ever think to myself, "Oh, King wanted this event to happen in his story and forced the characters to behave in X manner."

Writers can do anything in fiction, just as long as they earn.  Sound easy?  It's not.  Well, not nearly as easy as it sounds.  If it was, every hopeful whoever put pen to paper or filled his recycling bin with reams of discarded drafts, heavily marked with corrections, edits and notes would be a bestseller.  We'd have no need for editors, and not nearly so many critics.

In Under the Dome, King earns almost every bit of this crazy situation.  From the moment the dome appears and the body count at it's sudden arrival starts to rise to the cat and mouse games the various groups begin to play with each other as lines of power are drawn in the sand, King takes us for a grand tour in this surreal landscape.  The characters, good and bad, smart and stupid, are engaging and we want to know how they are going to react to this situation they've found themselves in.  We're along for the ride because they behave in the way real people, good and bad, smart and stupid, might behave in such a situation.  They might not.  We'll probably never know, because I'm pretty sure an invisible, impenetrable force field is going to cut off a small town in rural New England.  The point is, King makes us believe that this is how they would behave.

I did find a bit of the novel unsatisfying, though in small pieces.  First was the nature of the dome, how it got into place, and ultimately how the characters dealt with it in the climax of the novel.  I'll not touch on that any more, as I despise any form of spoiler, except to say, this little stumbling block is not nearly large enough to derail my enjoyment of the book.  In fact, it doesn't really have anything thing to do with the book's brilliance in any way.  This book is about the characters and their reactions and choices to the situation, not about "solving the problem."  They do, at least some of them do, and it creates moments of conflict, but it's just one situation amongst many in life under the dome.  The other thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the religious undertones throughout the book.  Several of the "bad guys" are very fundamentally Christian, though non-denominational.  One of the "good guys" is also, though secretly an agnostic at best, suffering from a massive doubt in her faith.  By the end of the book, only the bad guys are true believers and a lot of the screwed up things that happen in the book happen "in the name of god."  Religion and faith have nothing to do with the outcome of the book, and it made me question why there was so many thematic elements wrapped up in religion when, at the end of the day, it didn't have anything to do with the resolution of the story.

Yes Under the Dome, has some issues.  It is not King's best work.  However, King on a bad day - which this certainly isn't a bad day for King, just not the best day - is still pretty darn good.  Want a good read that will keep you turning pages?  This is it, though be warned, like in many Stephen King novels, really screwed up things happen to decent people.  Looking for a near-perfect example of brilliant characterization?  This is your book.  I recommend it to the reader who enjoys a good story as equally as the reader who is seeking to study the crafting of great fiction.


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