fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Beautiful Land by Alan Averill The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill

The Beautiful Land, by Alan Averill, is one of those books that I could mostly enjoy as I go along thanks to some snappy dialogue and likable main characters placed in some interesting situation, but always with the nagging feeling in the back of my head that things just aren’t holding together as they should be, that the whole underlying structure is just a little shaky and were one of those moments of witty repartee to suddenly go awry, the whole thing just might collapse underneath me. The Beautiful Land never did, not wholly, but it was definitely teetering by the latter third or so of the novel and though I ended up have a good time with it, it didn’t leave me feeling totally satisfied, especially if I thought about it for very long.

The story opens up with a bang, as our main character Tak, a big star thanks to a reality show where he’d get dropped off anywhere in the world and survive, is about to hang himself in a run-down motel room because he’s “seen it all” (it turns out there’s more underlying that death wish, but we don’t get those revelations until later). Suddenly, a phone rings and the Axon Corporation is on the line offering him a heaping sum of cash and a promise of some place he’s never seen before to explore (the voice on the line is also displaying a disturbingly accurate sense of exactly what he is doing at that moment). Quicker than you can say Takahiro O’Leary, he’s jetting off to Australia to work for Charles Yates, maddest of mad scientists, and his not-so-mad-but-also-not-so-moral assistant Judith (the voice on the phone) exploring alternate realities thanks to the machine Yates has built, called, in a burst of creativity, The Machine.

Meanwhile, Tak’s best friend from childhood (and unrequited love though she doesn’t know it), Samira, is back from her third tour of Iraq/Afghanistan with all sorts of PTSD issues leading slowly but surely down the path to suicide herself. Before she can get there though, Tak (whom she thought actually did commit suicide three years ago) shows up with a magical briefcase and a story about how mad scientists can really do some mad stuff that isn’t so great for the rest of us and if Samira doesn’t come with him like right now, she is so going to be dead. Oh, and so might all the people in all the timelines. So the stakes are pretty high here.

As I said, the two main characters whose POVs we follow the story through are both quite likable, each in themselves and also in their interaction, which moves through the spectrum from great long-time friends since childhood to awkward “oh, you like like me?” to still awkward “I like like you too” to slightly less awkward “I wonder what it would be like if we were both naked,” to out and out love. All of which was handled smoothly and realistically with a nice blend of emotional warmth and humor. Tak, despite being scared out of his mind much of the time, is witty and charming (though not in any suave way) and fun to hang with. Samira is less so thanks to her problems, which are mostly handled as smoothly as the relationship, though this aspect carries a much greater emotional burden. I found myself quite moved quite often by her POV. And this emotional heft is borne throughout the entire novel; Averill doesn’t suddenly make her PTSD magically disappear thanks to a relationship or a “greater threat.” This is a scarred woman and those scars remain through to the end (and beyond). Tak’s backstory is a little more tired (rigid father, daddy issues, etc.) and as much as we’re told about his survival abilities, I can’t say I really felt that was an authentic part of him. I would have preferred to have seen more of that rather than be told it. Especially since it’s what got him the job.

Speaking of which. Granted, nobody is going to explain alternate reality travel well, but I could have done with a bit more of an attempt here. I also would have liked to have seen more of the alternate realities, which have a bit of a dull sameness to them (admittedly, Averill gives us a reason for this), save for one or two really original moments of vivid imagery second-hand via Tak’s description of one or two to Samira. Yates is a bit too on type in terms of the mad scientist route. His dastardly plan makes some kind of sense, but only some kind, and again, I would have liked to see it develop rather than come at us fully sprung. All of the four major characters’ actions run the gamut from perfectly reasonable to make some kind of sense to not so much sense to “really, that’s what you decide to do?” and that’s true as well for some of the authorial decisions. There’s one scene, for instance, where we meet a trucker character who makes the novel really come alive in those few moments he’s on the page (this was in a relatively static section, of which there are several — static or repetitive or cooling one’s heels while plot wheels spin) and afterward I thought more of that would have helped; there’s a paucity of characters in the novel and so it all feels a bit removed and barren. It doesn’t help that one of the four major characters is pretty stock (the mad scientist) and the other isn’t very fleshed out and serves mostly as a plot vehicle (making decisions never really wholly explained).

The ending is a bit anti-climactic and in fact, sometimes it feels Averill wrote past his ending, or maybe could have reordered things to better effect. The very end, however, is poignant and effective. But again, effective so long as one doesn’t think too much about how they reached the point where they could have an emotional close.

A good novel is a balancing act and The Beautiful Land drops a few of the balls. Dialogue, a pair of engaging, likable characters, and mostly smooth and at times original prose makes it all go down pretty quickly and easily and enjoyably. But issues of plot, structure, side-characters, and background make it a less flavorful and less satisfying meal than it could have been. It’s not a bad read; in fact, I’m guessing many will enjoy it, but it is a naggingly frustrating one. I would, however, be happy to pick up a second novel by Averill to see how he’s honed his talent, which does come out clearly here.

~Bill Capossere

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsI picked up The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill because its plot summary piqued my interest:

Takahiro O’Leary has a very special job…
…working for the Axon Corporation as an explorer of parallel timelines—as many and as varied as anyone could imagine. A great gig—until information he brought back gave Axon the means to maximize profits by changing the past, present, and future of this world.

If Axon succeeds, Tak will lose Samira Moheb, the woman he has loved since high school—because her future will cease to exist. A veteran of the Iraq War suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Samira can barely function in her everyday life, much less deal with Tak’s ravings of multiple realities. The only way to save her is for Tak to use the time travel device he “borrowed” to transport them both to an alternate timeline.

But what neither Tak nor Axon knows is that the actual inventor of the device is searching for a timeline called the Beautiful Land—and he intends to destroy every other possible present and future to find it.

The switch is thrown, and reality begins to warp—horribly. And Tak realizes that to save Sam, he must save the entire world…

There are several elements in that synopsis that would usually get me interested in checking out a novel: parallel timelines, PTSD, a multi-cultural cast. The novel also won the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. All of this meant I had fairly high expectations for this debut. In the end, some of those were met, and some of them weren’t. My opinion boils down to just a a few words: amazing characters, ludicrous plot.

Starting with the positive: The Beautiful Land  has two amazing protagonists. Takahiro O’Leary is basically a survival expert, one of those Man vs. Wild-type guy who gets dropped in the most inhospitable corners of the world with a handheld camera and then documents how he survives and makes it back to civilization. He’s scrawny and incredibly high-energy and almost obnoxiously cheerful. He’s a bit manic, really — think a half-Japanese, half-Irish combination of Miles Vorkosigan and Bear Grylls.

Even though the novel starts out with a suicide attempt by Tak, he’s simply a lot of fun to read about. Before he manages to complete the act, he gets offered a job to explore parallel timelines for Axon, and so the entire crazy plot of The Beautiful Land  gets started.

Main character nr. 2 is even better. Samira Moheb is a former military translator who is back in the U.S. after experiencing the horrors of war in Iraq. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder to such a degree that she can barely function. The chapters written from her point of view are, at times, simply stunning. With Samira Moheb, Alan Averill somehow has written one of the most convincing depictions of PTSD I’ve ever read. She’s a memorable character and easily the best part of this novel.

Also impressive: the author gradually reveals more and more details of Tak and Samira’s past. There are many more experienced authors who could learn a thing or two from the way Averill does this: he manages to make these characters’ youth and family history part of the novel in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story. It’s meaningful and lovely and occasionally even touching.

But, then, unfortunately, there’s the actual story. The plot of this novel is, at times, simply silly. There are a few twists that are so improbably convenient they just don’t make sense. The Beautiful Land starts off, well, beautifully: interesting characters and above-average prose. However, once the plot really gets going, it turns into a B movie or, occasionally, something that feels like it might be a parody of a B movie. A big part of the problem is the main villain, who is so spectacularly and utterly evil that it feels as if he just wandered out of a Saturday morning cartoon and into this novel.

Reading The Beautiful Land, I kept going back and forth: the plot is utterly ridiculous, but the characters are awesome, but the plot is ridiculous, but… It’s hard to process that the same author could write a character like Samira and then put her through this plot. If I hadn’t been so invested in the characters, I would have probably given up on the novel around the halfway point. I ended up giving the novel three stars on GoodReads, splitting the difference between an “excellent” rating for characterization and, well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.

So. I’d recommend The Beautiful Land if you don’t mind reading the type of story in which only one person could become the key to the crazily over-the-top evil villain’s master plan because, well, that’s just how it goes in these Ed Wood-like “we have to save the girl or reality as we know it will be destroyed” adventures. I’d recommend The Beautiful Land  for Samira, and to a lesser degree for Tak, but only if you’re prepared to feel charitable about an utterly loony plot and a villain who’s impossible to take seriously. And, I’d recommend keeping an eye on Alan Averill, because, despite the flaws in The Beautiful Land , there’s a spark of talent here that promises great things for the future.

(One final note: Alan Averill needs to get himself a Wikipedia page. The lack of disambiguation on this one may lead to some confusion.)

~Stefan Raets

Release date: June 4, 2013 An exciting debut novel, in the tradition of The Passage. The Beautiful Land is part science fiction, part horror–and, at its core, a love story, between a brilliant young computer genius and the fragile women he has loved since high school. Now, he must bend time and space to save her life, as the world around them descends into apocalyptic madness.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  • Stefan Raets

    STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping.

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