Monday, May 2, 2011

REVIEW: The Five by Robert McCammon

After a decade of wondering if we would ever see a new novel from Robert McCammon, we were surprised with a very different form of storytelling that in the Matthew Corbett trilogy. Published over 8 years, those stories took us back to the 1700s, treating us first to a witch-trial legal thriller, and then to a pair of serial killer thrillers with some rather interesting psychological twists. Now, 20 years after the publication of Gone South, he has finally returned to the realm of contemporary horror with The Five.

The Five is as much a book that’s about something (the quest for music) as it is one that tells a story (the impending destruction of The Five). It’s a story about making music, about writing songs, and about the power of music. This is a book that’s steeped in musical history, and often written in musical language. Music is what brought Nomad, Ariel, and the others together; it’s what sets Jeremy on their trail; it’s what carries them through their trials; and it's what, ultimately, provides their means of redemption.

A fantastically diverse group of musicians, The Fiveare three men and two women (plus a manager) who we quickly come to care about. McCammon develops all of his characters carefully, balancing their rough edges with just enough sentiment to ensure we're fully invested in their fate, without robbing them of their grittiness. Even the deluded villain of the piece, Jeremy Pett, is a character who elicits our sympathy right from the start, even as he keeps us guessing as to his true motives. Depending on how much supernatural influence you choose to read into that motivation, his tragic fall may be just as important as the band's struggle to survive.

Although there are aspects of the novel that remind me of many of his earlier works, it’s his classic Boy’s Lifethat most often came to mind while reading The Five. Both are rather subtle tales, relying upon anxious tension and ongoing mystery to feed the horror, as opposed to outright gore and terror. The story touches gently upon the supernatural, exploring the same themes of good versus evil that McCammon has so deftly dealt with before, but leaves the interpretation to the reader. Depending upon how one chooses to read it, this can either be a novel about the all-too-human pain within our hearts, or the inhuman fury and deception that haunts the fringes of imagination . . . or both.

This uncertainty lends itself to a very interesting read, leading the reader to question almost every development. Without narrator who makes no effort to either confirm or deny to existence of the supernatural, and with such a wide variance of belief among the members of the band, we’re left to take sides based upon our own beliefs. It’s a brave approach to the story (especially since we're also being asked to weigh the political pros and cons of the war in Iraq), and one that demands the reader do more than just follow along, but it does make for an awkward and slightly unfinished ending.

If your taste in McCammon’s work runs more to Boys Life than Swan Song, then I suspect this is the book you’ve been waiting for. Even if it doesn’t, this is a well-told tale that is definitely worth experiencing. Personally, I quite enjoyed the period detour of the Matthew Corbett trilogy (and would not be at all disappointed to see a return to that world), but it’s still nice to be taken to masterfully back into the present.

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