“The Dark Continent” by Scott Reardon: Review

“You could follow your bliss to the ends of North America. And at the end, you might have found none of what you initially sought. But the search was still worth it – because you’d tried. And when you did that, you often found something else instead. That was America to Karl. It was all the wonderful, disappointing things that happened when you rode in the sunset, chasing your dreams but never quite reaching them. And the place wasn’t perfect. In fact it has always been kind of a giant shitting mess, but free people had existed here for two hundred years – at times, the only free people in the world.”

Synopsis: Off the coast of Alaska on a seemingly-abandoned oil rig, a rogue CIA operation threatens to open Pandora’s Box. Researchers have unlocked the secrets to modifying the human body, and have tested it on a group of highly dangerous death-row inmates. When an unexpected incident leads to their escape, they throw the entire United States into chaos. Tom Reese, the only former test subject to properly handle the changes, and Karl Lyons, a CIA troubleshooter, are the only ones with the ability to salvage the situation… but will they be enough to stop a small army of psychotic supermen?

Hello fellow readers! I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room (in the room, out of the room, pretty much everywhere…): these are scary times. There is a lot of uncertainty right now about what is happening with the current pandemic. That said: let’s not panic. This is a time for us to band together (at a socially acceptable distance of course) and take care of each other and our communities. The governments of the world are not going to save us; we need to take care of ourselves. It was definitely surreal to read this novel in such times… I will preface the review by stating quite clearly that I have looked at the text quite objectively, and have not allowed the subject matter and current world events to impact how I feel about it. On to the review!

While this is a direct sequel to Reardon’s “The Prometheus Man”, there is absolutely no need to read Book 1 before starting The Dark Continent. Reardon does a spectacular job of introducing characters in a concise yet powerful way. This allows Reardon to leap directly into the narrative, which benefits greatly from the driving pace which is set. Take note, authors! The “show, don’t tell” approach works wonders here. Our primary protagonists, Tom and Karl, are interesting fellows. There exists an endearing and implicit sort of father-son relationship between them: Karl is the voice of experience, world-weary, wise, cynical and hopeful all at once; Tom, meanwhile, is a youth set adrift, trying to understand his place in a world that seeks to crush him and yet is simultaneously unprepared for what he has to offer. Tom’s “powers” are a fitting metaphor for the Millennial experience (in my opinion, at least). While they definitely mimic certain tropes, it isn’t distracting or unpleasant and both are likable characters.

The supporting cast doesn’t quite hit the same notes for me unfortunately. The (arguably) third “primary protagonist”, Dr. Azamor, is just far too… passive. I didn’t describe her in the same paragraph as Tom and Karl because she simply does not feel like a complete person, which is somewhat disappointing. What I mean is that the good Doctor (who is a Psychiatrist) is more of a mirror than a complete person: she is used in almost every instance as either 1) a POV “plant” (i.e. she is on the oil rig purely to have a POV person to attach the narrative to), 2) a victim, or 3) a mirror to reflect others in. She is defined purely by loss (her child), and is used by the test subjects as a witness of sorts. Even her time on the oil rig seems to portray her as a sort of Gothic Heroine. Kronin (our antagonist), meanwhile, is a scheming, mustache-twirling, Hannibal Lecter stand-in seeking the total upheaval of America. While the character is interesting enough, I found myself completely unable to relate to such an individual. Contrary to Hannibal, a character with a profound distaste for those lacking in civility and manners, Kronin makes a mockery of civilized behavior; his mannerisms and speech are a thin veneer for his contempt towards all of Western society. He is an animal who has learned to speak, masking his savagery beneath a human guise. He is clearly some sort of genius, and is a superior physical specimen, and yet… the grand culmination of his plan is simply to break the system? Anarchy? A man of vision he is not.

The Dark Continent, to me, is like an Action movie. The plot is not enormously complex, nor are the characters, but there are readily-available archetypes to cling to. Here is your good guy, here is your bad guy. Here is the game of cat-and-mouse, and here is the inevitable climax. That said: I happen to ENJOY Action movies. You will not be able to put this book down. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of story, and there is a reason why this style of narrative is widespread: it is popular, accessible, and compelling. There is something to be said for a story of good guys busting up the bad guys and bringing order back to chaos. I would go so far as to say that in times like these, this is the type of story we NEED. It is good to immerse oneself in a narrative where horrible things happen but, in the end, we are left with a hope that things will right themselves, that humanity will pick itself up again, dust off the filth, and take that next important step towards the sunrise. Reardon’s effective use of this narrative template, along with his command of terse and commanding prose, make this a highly enjoyable story overall. Take your mind off of things for a while, and immerse yourself in this fast-paced adventure; Reardon’s done a good job, and you won’t regret the buy.

Happy Reading!

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