I picked The Dark Continent up as a comfort read. An apocalyptic novel in an apocalypse is a funny kind of comfort read, maybe, but that isn’t why I picked it up. I didn’t pick it up because it is speculative fiction; I picked it up because it is a thriller. I don’t read enough thrillers. The great thing about thrillers is that, as a genre, they tend to be extraordinarily well paced and make good use of suspense. They are the prototypical page turners. And, in a time when I haven’t been getting much reading done, I wanted a book that would encourage me to keep turning the pages.
As a comfort read, The Dark Continent succeeded, even if the subject matter is pretty dark and the book frequently grisly. It is ultimately pretty unbelievable in places and the plotting a little thin. It wound up being an enjoyable but disposable, popcorn read.
The Dark Continent is an Übermensch story—the sort of thing famously done in the Khan arc in Star Trek, the Bourne movies, and Stephen King’s Firestarter. There is a coherent sub-genre there, although I don’t see it being called Übermensch stories elsewhere and I don’t know what else to call it. It has its rules and conventions, and no rule more binding than this: all attempts to create a superman will end in tears. There can be only one exception, and his name is Steve Rogers.
The Dark Continent is the sequel to The Prometheus Man. I haven’t read that one. The Dark Continent works well as a standalone. The earlier attempts at producing an Übermensch had just one success—Tom Reese. He is living in hiding at the beginning of The Dark Continent. But they have started trying again, this time with serial killers on a shuttered offshore oil rig off the coast of Alaska. Predictably, things go wrong on the rig. Predictably, the killers escape and begin causing mayhem. Predictably, Tom Reese is the only one who can stop them. All of this is predictable, but none of it is unwelcome.
One of the first things the men do is knock out the power grid for the eastern United States, triggering the apocalyptic portion of the book. Which was my main problem with the book, to be honest. It is here that the pacing starts to betray the story. These elements of speculative fiction would have been well served by more speculative fiction-style worldbuilding. The journey from functioning electrical grid to almost complete societal breakdown happens in a blink of the reader’s eye, robbing it of much of its potential effect.
More effective worldbuilding with the setting happens before all that. The Dark Continent is (very) near-future science fiction. A character describes a world in which “the stock market was at all-time highs, yet half the country seemed to be out of work.” Which doesn’t sound all that strange. A vicious terrorist attack—in which two dozen men appear, kill almost 900 people, and then disappear—turns the criminal justice system vicious. Although saying that “a year after the attacks, one in every four men had a criminal record” doesn’t quite land with the impact intended. By age 23, roughly half of black men and two-fifths of white men in America have been arrested. Maybe Reardon meant new arrests within that year? Or criminal records for college graduates? I don’t know how much of that is in the first book or directly affects it, but it makes me want to read that first book more.
Also very effective is the man who rises to lead the escapees and serve as the main villain in the book, Kronin (most of the others, though, are unmemorable). The copy compares him to Colonel Kurtz and Satan from Paradise Lost, but Kronin really reminds me of the Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. He has same creepy inhumanity and omnipresent malevolence (and is appropriately Nietzschean, given the sub-genre).
3 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of The Dark Continent via NetGalley.
I talk about The Dark Continent in the first episode of the Whiskey and Book Club.