Brutal Light by Gary W Olson

Rating 6.2/10
I thoroughly enjoyed Olson's style of writing, his evocative and efficient prose.

Review by Clive S. Johnson

Olson’s Brutal Light describes a short but complex period in Detroit’s occult underworld when a number of sects begin to see an opportunity of exploiting Kagami Takeda’s unique ability to handle the Radiance - an almost godlike sea of light and unfathomable source of power.  Although apparently a natural inhabitant of its unreal world, Kagami’s gift gathers to it many victims, her own parents included, only Nick Havelock somehow being immune.  It eventually becomes clear that the situation is further complicated by the Radiance itself having plans for its own future.

I thoroughly enjoyed Olson’s style of writing, his evocative and efficient prose which was both easy to read and added interesting colour.  It was particularly well-suited to dramatic and dense action where a more laboured style would have made it very ponderous.  This does, however, bring me to a criticism.  I did find the narrative unrelenting, seeming to proceed at an unceasingly dramatic volume.  The interspersing of more mundane, quiet or reflective periods would have added respite from what continued to be a bit of a narrative barrage.  This meant it was hard to pull significance from the story, to see its threads in any real relief and so follow what was a commendably clever tale.

Yes, it was clever, but I felt the tale was unnecessarily complicated by focusing so closely on so many characters and their interests, each bringing their own intricately woven threads to the tapestry.  It was made even more difficult by all those characters constantly flowing into and out of one another’s bodies and minds, although Olson does excel in describing this metaphysical process.  It was again as though the author was carried away by his own clear skill in this area but at the expense of the story’s clarity.  So many threads also meant the tale’s culmination became, from a very promising climactic build up, both protracted and steadily more tiresome.

I feel Olson set himself a difficult challenge, to depict the kind of interleaved, convoluted and multi-layered world at which China Mieville is certainly adept.  I spent too much time turning back and rereading passages in order to keep a grip on what was happening.  It may have been helped if the characters themselves had gripped me, but I felt little or no empathy with any of them.  Again, this is probably because of their unreal nature, all having been made largely other than human by the effects of the Radiance.  I was continually looking for some way in to the story, through some human aspect of character but could not find it, indeed the characters seemed to be shallow servants to the plot.  It was a shame for Olson’s plot devices are very impressive and compelling but demanded to be set in some kind of reader context.  I had hoped Nick Havelock was going to be my way in but it didn’t quite come off, his character always remaining two dimensional and stilted.

I enjoyed the brief glimpses into various districts of Detroit and its infrastructure but this was often squeezed out by the overpowering storyline, attention to place suffering as a consequence.  It meant I had little sense of setting on which to hang the story and so its remarkable events lost much of their impact by not being positioned against a more evidently commonplace background.  This was so problematical that when Nick and Kagami did have such a prosaic thing as a coffee break, or when Nick’s occupation was briefly described, the matter-of-factness quite simply jarred!

I felt it a shame that the editing process hadn’t reined in the exuberance of Olson’s fine prose and fertile mind, that it didn’t temper and constrain the telling enough for the wonderful tale to shine through, as it deserves.  Directing some of the evident energy in his writing to character development and building a feel for time and place would have helped Olson bring a much more rounded tale to light, one that would have better shown off his undeniable skills and thereby satisfied the reader more.  Likewise, a simpler and more implicit approach would have better served the story’s climax and so brought out more clearly the underlying message, without it having to be laboured.

I was left with the impression that here we had a fine writing style, an imaginative and resourceful mind but a lack of editing rigour, not proofreading attention to detail which was generally good, I hasten to add, but an objective and critical voice representing the readers’ interest. A bit of gentle but firm guidance could have delivered a highly readable and engrossing work with a far wider appeal.

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