Winter Games is a thriller, a “gripping tale of military cover-ups and international crime,” according to the description on the back cover. The novel blurs the edges between science fiction and thriller with the use of a female, and very helpful, robot named Sarah who comes to the aid of the human protagonist, Tim Sutton.
I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries written by such authors as James Lee Burke, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly, Craig Johnson, and others, so I was looking forward to reading Winter Games. I have to confess to not being gripped.
The back-cover plot synopsis says, “Mild-mannered 24-year-old Tim Sutton runs a humble comic store in a small New Hampshire town.
“But he receives a mysterious message on cold winter morning that turns his simple life upside down. Tim suddenly finds himself racing against the clock to find his long-lost brother Eric. The perilous quest soon sweeps Tim around the globe and across hostile borders into a deadly landscape where laws are ignored and life is cheap.
“As Tim quests for his missing sibling, he is forced to ally himself with jilted government agents, hardened criminals, and other shadowy figures whose backgrounds are as nebulous as their motivations for helping Tim. Tim is gradually forced to question the true identity of the brother he is desperately searching for.”
There, on the book’s back cover, lie both the central problem and its cure. Ground between the passive writing and excessive detail, the exciting concept of the story does not hold a reader’s interest. At least not this reader’s interest.
For example, after his long search, Tim finds his brother. On page 100, he sees lighted windows in a building: “Someone was inside.” After 67 lines, in which Tim enters a room and the narrator describes the room and its contents, Tim sees a “table surrounded by twelve chairs, all of which were empty.
“At the far end of the table, leaning over a laptop computer and a mess of paperwork, sat a single man. When he saw Tim standing at the far end of the room, the man jumped up from his chair in shock. Frozen, his eyes focused on Tim.
“The man was about five-feet, ten-inches (sic) tall. He was Caucasian, with a slender, unimposing frame and pale-white (sic) skin. The man’s cleanly-shaven, brown-eyed face was capped with a crop of short, neatly cut blond hair.
“Tim exhaled. A cornucopia of emotions flew through his head: joy, satisfaction, fear, trepidation, validation, and of course, curiosity. Tim’s legs seemed ready to buckle beneath him as he slowly approached the conference table. When Tim reached the table, the two men stared at one another in silence.
“Then, with the best smile he could muster, Tim spoke.
“’I’m here,’” Tim said, “’Little Brother, I’m here.’”
A character – or a person – who has just found his long-lost, beloved sibling does not pause to count the chairs and note that there are twelve of them. The more logical behavior would be to realize that his brother is present in the room, then look around to be sure it’s safe to approach – if he had the presence of mind to do that after coming on his brother unexpectedly. And listing the various emotions does not work for me, either. It’s the old recommendation for fiction writers: Show, don’t tell. Show the reader what the character feels by the emotion’s effect on him. Don’t tell us that he feels a cornucopia and then dump the thing on the page. How do you feel a cornucopia, anyway?
That sentence tells us that a cornucopia flew through the character’s head. Think about it. The emotions are secondary and come in the list of what’s in the cornucopia.
The English language works in a very simple manner. Its basic pattern for action is: Subject-Verb-Object. To write strong sentences, don’t clutter the pattern with adjectives or adjective phrases. The cornucopia didn’t fly through Tim’s head, obviously, but that’s not what the sentences says. The emotions are stuck off in an adjective phrase, or as English teachers used to tell us, in a prepositional phrase used as an adjective.
The author has endowed the robot Sarah with less emotion than a rock. But before anyone reading this review jumps up yelling that robots are machines and can’t experience emotion, let me site two of the most famous robot characters in science fiction: R2D2 and C3PO. They have no facial expressions because R2D2 doesn’t have a face, and while C3PO has a face, he has no muscles to work it. He can blink his eyes and move his mouth and gesture with his arms and legs, and he can talk in various tones. R2D2 can only tilt, chirp and waddle. They are lovable. Our introduction to Sarah tells us that she can function effectively well below anyone’s radar or motion sensors, that she drinks coffee to warm herself, and she “never smiles.” Rational and emotionless, Sarah may be one of the heroes of the story, but I didn’t find her particularly appealing. And I wanted to. A super-human female robot is a fine invention.
This novel could have a lot going for it. The story is original, and the main character, Tim, is engaging. I found his naïve willingness to undertake this bizarre adventure a bit of a stretch, based as the whole story is on a translated comic book that purports to be his brother’s plea for rescue. He is so naïve that Sarah has to remind him to prepare for a week in a sealed container and sends him off to buy food and toilet paper. Tim has made no preparations for food or potty needs but is willing to travel in a sealed container bound for North Korea.
Thank goodness for Sarah, whose robotic practicality makes up for Tim’s naïve lack of thought. Together they could make a good team, and sometimes do.