A friend of my loaned me Danté’s Equation, by Jane Jensen, with very high praise. It’s a big book, and perhaps I should have saved it for my upcoming (but still ill-defined) transatlantic adventures, but after the genteel, well-mannered, and rather slow prose of my last read (not reviewed here yet), I was ready for someone to let loose and just tell a good story. I was not disappointed.
The book centers around a group of five people, each of whom represents life out of balance in different ways, along the different axes defined in the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. Superficially it’s a science fiction story, enough so that the characters are each uprooted and transplanted to a universe that matches their own imbalances – essentially they are plunged into a world every bit as messed up as they are. With such a mirror to look into, the characters are given the opportunity to change — or not. Behind it all is a genius physicist and mystic who disappeared while in Auschwitz. It seems he came up with a pretty dang amazing theory, and now, sixty years later, rumors are starting to get around that there exists a manuscript that could hold the key to a new sort of super-weapon.
The “scientific” idea that underpins the whole thing (and is echoed in the mysticism) is elegant and nicely described, but when it needs to interact with modern physics, that interface is a bit shaky, and sometimes just incorrect. It’s fiction, so that’s all right, but don’t take any science morsels you pick up here and try to apply them elsewhere. Remember, kids — stay away from mini black holes!
It took me a while to get started with the story; the first few chapters suffer from similitis (inflamation of the simile gland) and some rather lengthy As-You-Know-Bobs (discussions between people who really should both know this stuff already, staged so the writer can explain them to us). Early on I was tripped up by chunks like “He always left home before the crack of dawn so he could watch the sunlight warm the stones. There was a cold bite in the air this morning. His black wool coat and hat absorbed it like a sponge.” I’m not sure I want my coat to absorb the cold like a sponge, but if (as is likely, grammar aside) the author meant that it was the sunlight that is being absorbed, then sponge really isn’t a very useful image. There were many places in the early going I hesitated, tripping up on phrases where the author was just trying too hard.
The story never completely gets over the similitis, but after a while one gets the feeling that the author is no longer trying to come up with particularly choice similes, and is content to let her natural language tell the story. Once she reaches this stage, her easy voice does quite well, and I spent two very late nights watching the intertwined lives of the characters… um… intertwine. The narration is in third person, but Jensen does a good job changing the voice of the narration to match character who’s point of view we are sharing at that moment. It’s really quite fun to understand the characters through their vocabulary and the way they interpret the world.
In the framework of the “People ending up in the place they are (literally) most in tune with” rule, there is a monster coincidence – two people ending up in the same place out of an infinite continuum of possibilities. “Ah Ha!” I thought when Coincidence Guy A was explaining the rule to Coincidence Guy B, “That they are having this conversation at all is a refutation of that rule! When they work that out, it’s going to be cool!” They never worked it out; no one ever blinked an eye at the staggering impossibility of it. I even came up with a good explanation that would have made a very interesting plot point.
You know, when I write these reviews, I spend a lot more time on the problems of a story than what was good. Maybe this is because that’s how I treat my own writing now, always looking for things to improve. So, I’ll just leave you with this: This story has interesting people who grow and change, people who find balance and maybe (just maybe) a little peace. In the end you are rooting for these people, even the jerks, and when they do change it is believable (well, mostly…) and rewarding. And that’s what makes a good story, no?
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