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The Hatching
by Ezekiel Boone
Atria, $27.00, 352pp
Published: July 2016

I have a lot of mixed feelings about 'The Hatching', which will flavour this review, possibly in ways I don't intend. I enjoyed the read and will surely take a look at the sequel. But...

The most obvious flaw is that it isn't a novel. It's the first three hundred pages of a much bigger novel that claims to be a series, with 'Skitter' due next year and presumably further books coming after that.

While the focus of the story, the 'ancient species' that brings 'apocalyptic disaster,' as the back cover blurb euphemises, oddly given that the cover image is built out of cobwebs and readers aren't idiots, manages to reach a natural point for pause, that doesn't apply to most of the human cast. The majority of characters are oh so carefully set up but end up doing nothing of importance whatsoever because their stories just haven't arrived yet.

That suggests that 'Ezekiel Boone,' clearly a pseudonym which turns out to belong to Alexi Zentner, author of non-genre books 'The Lobster Kings' and 'Touch,' cares a lot more about his monster than he does about the people tasked with facing it. For an author so obviously into crafting characters, that's an odd approach to take.

He takes some others, too. He introduces a host of characters across a host of chapters, so many that we wonder which ones are going to die quickly in the beginnings of that 'apocalyptic disaster' and which ones will become a focal point when one is reached. They're agreeably different on the face of it, as if deliberately created to avoid charges of sexism, racism or any other -ism. Yet they're really all the same: intelligent and capable people who do their jobs really well and aren't scared of anything (except that) until the hatching of the title, which elicits primal fear in them all.

Many of them are women, from a sheepherder in the Hindu Kush through a well-renowned entomologist to the President of the United States, but they help to underline how the Bechdel Test, which this passes, is only a start. The majority of the word count spent building these women's characters focuses on who they've slept with, who they're sleeping with and who they want to sleep with. It all feels calculated to impress readers who care about such things but doesn't actually care in return. One character even calls 'some kind of sexist bullshit' on another, but the book falls prey to this trap throughout.

What's most successful is surely the prose to accompany the introduction of these faux-diverse carbon copy characters. Zentner can clearly write and a few of his set pieces manage to elicit precisely the reaction that he aimed for: fear. While this is far from the traditional monster movie, in that we see the monster almost immediately, it is initially, gloriously, hidden with clever use of imagery. From the very beginning, outside the Manú National Park in Peru, we're shown 'black water,' the 'separate streams' of a 'black river' which whispers 'like a small patter of rain.' We can be excused for conjuring up images of the Blob, only black, but that's not what this is.

Zentner looks back to pre-history rather than outer space for his source, though he does leave so much unexplained in this book that maybe it's both. Certainly a wooden box is dug up from beneath stakes in the 150-foot spider geoglyph in the famous Nazca Lines in Peru, the suggestion being that it's 10,000 years old, so predating the other lines, which are only 2,500 years old, as conventional archaeology suggests. Yet, the calcified egg sac that it contained, which may also be 10,000 years old, is sent to the American University in Washington, DC, where it hatches inside an insectarium.

Before that happens, however, we've already seen the 'black river' in Peru and the Chinese have detonated a nuclear device within their own country, claiming that it was an accident but was apparently a deliberate act of containment. Given where the story goes from here, either there's a stunning set of wild coincidences or Zentner simply hasn't told us the real source. I'm willing to believe in both those statements, but there's not enough data here for us to be able to judge.

When compared to the Sci-Fi Channel (SyFy is too painful to even entertain) monster movies of the week, this is literate and capable. However, it calls out Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy and they're in a different league. It merely manages to find some success in avoiding the worst clichés, but it's unable to avoid all of them and, frankly, far too much of the book is spent setting us up for what's to come in 'Skitter,' that we don't know whether we might be looking at clichés or not. Only time will tell, as they say.

All we really have is a menace which is mostly identified by the end of the book and a set of characters who are presumably going to face off against it; no doubt to win out in the end for no better reason than monster movies tend to work that way. We have a pretty good idea of what Stephanie Pilgrim will be doing in the future, given that she's the US President. We know Professor Melanie Guyer's role, because she's a local entomologist who used to be married to Steph's Chief of Staff. We can see where Minneapolis FBI Agent Mike Rich is going, because it's highlighted overtly enough.

But what about Lance Corporal Kim Bock of the US Marine Corps? She gets a whole bunch of chapters that tell us she's going to be important, but she isn't yet. What about the survivalists in Desperation, California? We meet what seems to be half the town and we see action right outside it, but the two never manage to meet. Like Bock, Scots writer Aonghas Càidh and his Thai fiancée, Thuy, see the menace at hand but successfully run away from it. And there's a CNN reporter called Teddie who sees patterns but doesn't get the chance to act upon them. There's clearly so much to come but it just serves to highlight how little of it is actually here.

As a series, this has some potential. As a standalone novel, it fails. I'd recommend waiting until at least the next book is published before you try this one. Maybe wait for the whole series. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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