Michael: Gehenna Book One by H.W. Taft

Ms. Taft’s book is a well-written thriller that’ll hold your attention over the course of two to three evenings of compulsive reading and not a moment longer. The pace of the story and the way she writes it are both spot on, but there’s not much that will stick with you once you finish it. The setting, the story, and the characters are all missed opportunities that are particularly unfortunate given just how well Ms. Taft can write. Despite that, this book is an ideal read and forget thriller/romance.

To be clear, the writing and pacing are spot on. The author puts the sentences together well, seamlessly transitions between scenes, ends the chapters in the right place, and does a generally excellent job of presenting the story she’s come up with. I could easily see a publisher putting Ms. Taft’s work on the shelf beside a Stephanie Plum novel.

That said, writing stock thriller/romance novels for the rest of her days would be a waste of Ms. Taft’s abilities, and that’s the primary reason I’m going to be exceedingly critical for the rest of this review. Let’s be clear: if you just want something to fill the time without having to dwell on it too much, this book is a 5/5. If, however, you want to read something of substance that’ll stick with you and roll around in the back of your head, this book is nothing more than a great execution of bland formula you’ve trudged through a hundred times before.

First, there’s the content of the story itself: it’s about Liz, a woman who falls in love with a troubled bad boy, Michael Thane, who’s had 900+ years in Hell to strip him of all emotions. Of course, by the end of the book they’re married and breaking bed-frames like stress-testing machines at a furniture factory. It is the standard troubled-but-reformed woman turns a bad boy into a lovable, romantic stud through the force of being herself. Sure, there are the people they’re trying to protect, the villains trying to make Hell a worse place than it already is, and the jerks in between who don’t care, but the core story is a bog-standard improbable romance.

Second, the setting itself is both incredibly troubling and a wasted opportunity. It’s set in Hell (or Gehenna if you prefer), and it is very much Hell in the Christian sense. There’s a whole quarter full of those poor, ignorant pagans ticked off that they chose the wrong gods and happily sacrificing every soul they can get their hands onto. Most everyone and anything evil in the book enjoys murder and torture. Everyone who isn’t desperately seeking redemption is little more than a drunken nihilist. And those trying to redeem themselves are quite clearly Christian. The implication is that if you’re not a Christian, then you’re ultimate fate is to turn into a crazed, sado-masochistic vampire.

It’s a pretty bold theological statement to make, and it is made for no other reason than to offer a unique setting for a forgettable story. The location could have as easily been New York City. It’s not that I had a horse in this race, but this book has all of the plot holes that every work of fiction set in the afterlife and not written by Dante or Neil Gaiman have.

Souls spawn into Hell like pod-people, at random. If the entire point is to give souls a chance at redemption, it’s pretty silly that some can spawn in the middle of a bad part of town and get torn to pieces within seconds. Sure, the main character gets saved, and it’s implied everything happens for a reason, but given the book emphasizes just how many people get torn apart upon seconds of entering the afterlife, that doesn’t cut it.

The second problem: religion aside, Gehenna is nothing more than a Gritty Urban Place, a Gotham City that people also happen to call Hell. There is the nice part of town, the crappy middle part where all of the dance clubs, brothels, and drug dealers are, and then the part of town where people like to skin each other alive. I’ll say it again, but there was no good reason to set this book in the afterlife.

The third problem with the setting: people need to eat, sleep, work jobs, and can die. So it’s basically just like the real world with a few more psychopaths per thousand people. Sure, old souls turn into ‘demons,’ but demons are just another word (one that gets dropped relatively fast) for vampires. Vampires. So if you don’t find redemption fast enough, you get super powers and eventually turn into an insane monster. And if you die, I’m still not quite sure what happens.

There’s a simple rule: if you’re going to set a story in the afterlife, and people can die in the story without you knowing what happens to them afterward, then you’ve completely missed the point of setting your story in the damned afterlife. As far as I can tell here, about the only reason for the setting is so that the main character can fall in love with a vampire.

The afterlife, as a setting, has vast amounts of potential, but in this particular book that potential wasn’t realized.

As for the characters, there was nothing wrong with them, but they were little more than tried and true archetypes: the brooding vampire, the woman who warms his heart, the troubled but good commissioner, the dedicated best friend, the conniving council member, etc. They all served their purposes well, and they managed to rile me up a few times, but none of them really stood out.

The biggest problem, as mentioned earlier, was that every villain was a sadist, a masochist, or both. Gabriel, for his part, got off on torturing women. Physical violence, especially towards women, is one of the more predictable and boring ways to depict evil. If you really want to get into something that’s interesting, write about the mental processes necessary to allow a person to think that something like torture is acceptable.

Also, all of the villains enjoy kinky sex, and none of the good guys apparently do. This is a problem in a lot of crime drama where writers assume that anyone who enjoys messing around with a few peculiar toys has to be a serial killer or a murderer. There would be a loooot more serial killers in the world if that was actually true, so it’s a pet peeve of mine. Most author’s don’t realize they’re sending that message, but it’s something to watch.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing that makes this book special, nothing that burrowed into the back of my mind and made me think. Its setting and many of the characters are problematic for the reasons discussed above, and the story is about as straightforward as they come.

All of that said, Ms. Taft is a fantastic writer, and I’m giving her so much trouble for that exact reason. Her talents are ill-served writing bog-standard thriller/romance novels. But again, let’s be clear: she can write them damned well. This book serves the same functions as a good 90s action movie. It’s just that I believe Ms. Taft is capable of much more than that. I give it a 4/5.

You can pick up a copy from Amazon here.


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