I was a little surprised when I opened the cover of The Oblivion Society and noted that according to the date of the author's autograph, I had been in possession of it for almost two years. I was surprised because I had yet to read it. I don't think that I had been consciously avoiding the book, but at some level I think I may have been giving it some distance.
There is a misconception that if your book isn't published by a "real" publishing company, but instead self published using one of the many on demand and online companies, that the book is in some fashion inadequate for public consumption. "Surely," the reasoning goes, "if it was any good, then a 'real' publisher would have paid money for its distribution and marketing."
Of course, one only has to read a novel by Kevin J. Anderson or Brian Keene, to realize your reasoning is flawed. The book publishing industry is just as much a self fellating and self punishing industry as the film business. Many many times a year, terrible books get green lighted for little more than the name of the author on the cover, who may or may not have actually written it, while good books are left in the dust for a variety of often times poor reasons. More often than not, those reasons have less to do with the quality of the writing and more to do with the perceived lack of marketability of the work.
Despite having just said all that though, I think I may have harbored the suspicion, conscious or not, that Oblivion Society wouldn't be any good, and then my friend, the author, would ask for my opinion. Being the person I am, I would be forced to tell the truth and then hurt his feelings, which is a very poor thing to do to someone who probably gave me the book for free. It's entirely possible that Marcus himself had some doubts, as not once in the intervening years since he sent me the book, has he asked me any direct questions about it.
Fortunately, I don't have to be the kind of dick (this time) that says "Do you really want me to tell you the truth?"
As it turns out, Oblivion Society is a good book. I'm not sure I'd call it great, but then I'm also pretty sure that Marcus Alexander Hart didn't set out to write Avalon Landing. What Hart has produced is a novel that is tightly assembled from traditional elements of post apocalypse fiction into a cohesively assembled plot with few if any dangling threads. Peppered liberally with pop culture references and characters displaying a range of emotive drama, it reads very much like an end of the world comedy film produced by Ivan Reitman and John Hughes. All that's really missing from the book to cement this impression is Glenbrook North High School.
It's not all roses though, and I have to admit that in the first act I had some concerns about the potential of the story. Considerable time is spent in the first act developing the setting and establishing the characters before the eventual catastrophe, that was boldly implied in the first few pages, comes to fruition. Adding to this sense of plot crawl is Hart's writing style, which has the potential for being even more descriptively affected than my own, with the additional burden of being draped in a shimmering cloak of near constant pop culture shots. It's rather like reading James Fenimore Cooper as he sends Nattie Bumpo to live with the cast of The Family Guy.
By the beginning of the second act though, I was hooked. The mark of my dedication to and appreciation of the story was how much I had come to equally loathe and laugh at the character Trent. Trent is, save for the nuclear holocaust itself, the primary antagonist of this tale, but curiously has a foot in the protagonist camp as well. He's one of those characters that you love to hate. Personally, I loved to hate him so much that I creeped to the edge of my seat with anticipation every time I thought he might be killed. Practically anyone can write a character that is easy to like. It's quite another thing to write a character frequently constructed as sympathetic, that your audience will still want to kill themselves.
As the climax approached swiftly and aggressively (like the semi truck in Maximum Overdrive) I found myself eagerly tearing through the pages, something that has rarely happened since I was a teenager. I read the last four chapters in a single sitting, racing the clock to my bed time. Fortunately, I completed the story just at the stroke of the eleventh hour, figuratively speaking. It's a testament to Hart's storytelling prowess, and the deft manner in which he collected all the plot elements at the very cusp of the dramatic climax, that I was willing to forgo my normally very rigid week day slumber deadline.
Marcus, my hat is off to you sir. Not only because you had the stamina and dexterity with prose to assemble, and the tenacity to get published, your novel (something that I will likely never do), but also because you did it so well. Congratulations.