Friday, February 20, 2015

Book Review: Faces in the Flames

Book Review: 'Faces in the Flames' by Peter Tate

0 / 5 Stars

‘Faces in the Flames: Fourth in a Series of Small Wars’ was published in hardcover by Doubleday in April, 1976.

Peter Tate (b. 1940) published a number of short stories and novels in the 60s and 70s, all of them nominally sf. Two of the novels, ‘The Thinking Seat’ (1969) and ‘Moon On an Iron Meadow’ (1974) are part of a loose trilogy – along with ‘Faces’ - featuring the ‘Simeon’ character.

‘Faces in the Flames’ is one of the worst novel’s I’ve ever read. Finishing it was a chore…...I had to ‘whittle’ it down in 10 page increments, over the course of nearly a month, before I finally closed the covers.

The novel is set in the near future – i.e., the late 70s or early 80s – and deals with the political and diplomatic intrigues surrounding the newly established central African nation of Zimbabwe (this is referred to here as a former Portuguese colony, apparently carved out of Mozambique; the ‘real’ Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, came into being in late 1979).

The UN is covertly supporting a ‘liberation’ front in its quest to wrest control of Zimbabwe from the conservative bloc supported by the Vatican (in Tate’s envisioning of the future, vicious religious wars between Catholics and Protestants are waged in third-world nations).

Pope Eugenio, who is Portuguese, sees the crushing of the rebellion in Zimbabwe as his holy mission against the Antichrist; conveniently, it also is a last-ditch effort to preserve some degree of Portuguese hegemony in Africa. To this end, Eugenio is quite happy to have captured rebels burned at the stake in public executions, as a deterrent to recruiting efforts by the rebellion. The rebels, for their part, are happy to respond with atrocities of their own.

As the novel opens, the hero Simeon is in Hampshire County of the UK, grieving over the death of his wife, Tomorrow Julie (trite names are part and parcel of ‘Faces’). Simeon’s history of activism has given him worldwide credibility as an interlocutor in political affairs, and he soon discovers that the agents of the Vatican, and the agents of the rebellion, both are intent on recruiting him to further their cause. 

The agents of the Vatican, led by an operative named Prinz, are the more ruthless and amoral of the competing factions, and they have no qualms about using violent methods to gain their objectives.

As the plot unfolds, Simeon discovers that the loss of his wife is but a prelude to a wrenching series of events that will see him make a decision to side with one faction or the other…. And either choice will endanger his life.

‘Faces in the Flames’ is only superficially sf; most of the plot is a poorly-sketched framework upon which the author hangs page after page of tedious, wooden conversations. 

Compounding Tate’s deficiencies as an author is his writing style, one that that can best be described as ‘stilted’, relying as it does on a relentlessly graceless mélange of slang; empty sentences; clumsy metaphors; and a habit of regularly and awkwardly inserting ALL CAPS words to communicate emphasis to the reader. 

Simeon, and the others among the cast of characters, are so forgettable, that by the time I completed the first third of the novel, I had lost all interest in them.

It remains a mystery to me why Peter Tate somehow managed to publish six sf novels during the interval from 1969 - 1979 ; I recognize that during the New Wave era, many poorly written novels were embraced and endorsed by editors anxious to demonstrate their credentials in promoting ‘speculative fiction’. But even so, someone should have delivered a polite Rejection Letter upon receipt of the manuscript of ‘Faces in the Flames’.

This one is best avoided.

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