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Reviver

Seth Patrick's Reviver is SFFnal noir with forensic procedural elements, and it kicks off with the discovery of a brutally murdered blonde woman. Make of that what you will: noir is, after all, a genre rife with the repeat, unironic usage of some pretty specific tropes, and dead women, along with damsels in distress, dissolute detectives, and damaged ladies, are some of the most prevalent. The fact that Reviver features all of the above in spades is therefore par for the course, and if that's what you look for in your crime-based stories—or at least, if that's not a combination of elements you find so problematic and/or unoriginal as to be immediately offputting—then you'll likely find Reviver right up your alley.

This wasn't the case with me. As much as I love my procedurals, I also loathe sexist tropery with a fiery vengeance, and while Reviver certainly isn't the worst such offender I've ever encountered, there was still enough default usage of unexamined stereotypes that I repeatedly put the book down in disgust. Adding insult to injury, as far as I can tell, it scarcely passes the Bechdel test—just once, on page 358 of 409. (There's a moment fifteen pages earlier when we're told two female characters are talking, but we don't actually see it happening; and in any case, they're talking about a man.) There's much more to discuss than that, of course—some of it negative, some of it positive—but right from the outset, I need to be clear: for me, personally, the gender issues are a dealbreaker.

Set in a version of present-day America where certain individuals—the titular revivers—have the ability to briefly resurrect and speak to the dead, Reviver is predominantly the story of Jonah Miller, an employee of the Forensic Revival Service (FRS). Jonah is a skilled reviver with a proportionally high risk of burnout made higher still by his psychological problems and tragic personal history—so when his revival of Alice Decker ends with Alice's ghost expressing terror that "something's coming" (p. 6), followed by an unfamiliar, menacing voice speaking from her mouth, Jonah's version of events is attributed to stress. Elsewhere, journalist Daniel Harker—the man responsible for not only publicizing revival, but helping it to become mainstream—is awaiting the arrival of his daughter, Annabel, for the Fourth of July, though the yearly tradition and their relationship have both been strained ever since the death of Daniel's wife. But before Annabel arrives, Daniel is kidnapped and murdered. The ensuing investigation throws Jonah and Annabel together in a search to find out the truth: why was Daniel killed? What's the relevance of certain buried research into revival? And whose was the voice that spoke through Alice Decker?

On paper, Reviver has all the elements of a solid, engaging thriller. Though the idea of being able to speak to the dead is neither new nor original, it's a fundamentally compelling one, and Patrick has clearly put a lot of time and effort into working out its impact. His construction of FRS procedures and the language of revival are generally well thought out, and in the second half of the novel, he takes the concept to some genuinely exciting places. That being said, for all the detail he's put into his forensics, much of it feels cobbled together and ultimately unnecessary. Particularly in the early chapters, his propensity for lengthy infodumps takes a serious toll on the structure. As a result, the signal-to-noise ratio in these sections is somewhat frustrating. Information for its own sake isn't automatically a bad thing: in-depth worldbuilding done right is a thing of beauty. But in this case, the extraneous detail often serves to confuse the story rather than flesh it out, offering overly ornate explanations for concepts that ultimately play very little part in the story—all at the expense of the pacing.

In the meantime, details with a much stronger bearing on events are left to be taken at face value. We're told, for instance, that revivers can always tell when the dead are lying because of their connection to the subject's emotional state, but despite how crucial this distinction turns out to be, we're neither told why the dead retain emotions nor why an emotional connection would render revivers infallible judges of truth. We're told elsewhere that some revivals are subvocal—meaning that only the reviver hears the subject speak, due to the body being damaged—but that decapitation prevents revival, as it takes the lungs out of the picture. Similarly, it's never explained why moving a body postmortem prevents revival, nor why a particular burn victim's injuries mean revival couldn't even be attempted, when someone with severe head trauma could be brought back. If these rules had been openly acknowledged as arbitrary in the text—as something revivers had slowly discovered about their abilities, but without fully understanding why—that would be one thing; but this doesn't happen, and instead, they feel contradictory.

A far bigger problem, however, lies in the final speeches given by revival subjects. Despite the fact that Patrick elsewhere demonstrates a solid awareness of natural, idiomatic dialogue, when it comes to the dead—or rather, to anyone telling a story—he universally employs a strange, distancing form of descriptive speech, the sort of thing you'd expect of a novel narrated in first person, past tense, but which feels entirely stilted when placed in the mouths of actual, third-person characters. It feels like a conscious decision: something he's done to emphasize the utility of taking victim statements from the dead and to flesh out their personal narratives. Instead, and even with the personal touches he appends to them, the effect is to turn what should be the most powerful, emotionally harrowing moments of the novel into bland and samey eyewitness accounts.

He saw my hand on the phone. He moved fast, and wrenched it off the table. He hit me hard, the side of my head" (p. 5)

Says Alice Decker—this from a woman whose head was brutally bashed in at work.

I woke up, standing in the living room. A man was going through the drawers on the sideboard. It was dark, he had a flashlight. He wasn't even looking at what was in them. He just pulled out each drawer, took out the things inside and put them on the floor. He turned the drawer over and set it down, too. (p. 61)

From the ghost of a nine-year-old girl, murdered when her sleepwalking interrupted a burglary. No fear, no tears, no pleading or confusion: just a blank, detailed statement.

He put out a hand, said "No hard feelings." Bewildered, I took it. His grip became firm, then painful. No empathy in his eyes. He grabbed my arm as the shorter man came behind, reached around and held me fast. . . . He injected something into my arm, a rough stab that made me understand just how bad this was. (p. 178-9)

From the testimony of Daniel Harker, our primary murder victim. Naturally, his is the longest statement, and even though the character was a writer in life, the poetic flourishes in his statement still felt incongruous—as did all the others. These are people describing their murders mere hours after the fact, and if the logic Patrick has created for us is to be believed, each one has their emotions fully intact. The emphasis on description over idiom robs us of their true response, whatever it contributes to setting the scene, and as a result, the cost of the choice feels too high.

And then there's the contextual history of revival itself, which, while not so constant a problem in terms of the actual narrative, nonetheless left me feeling profoundly irritated. Reviver is set in America (though Patrick, it should be noted, is English), and though the inference is that revival, as an ability, exists worldwide, we never hear about how it fares in other countries. Daniel Harker's journalism, we're told, was so effective in championing revivers that the only real opposition to the concept is a group called Afterlife, whose religious aspects are (of course) informed by Christianity, but which is otherwise painted as a minority mish-mash of random dissenters. Otherwise, we're led to believe that revival has become universally accepted in just over a decade, and while that might simplify things for the purposes of the story Patrick wants to tell, it rang very hollow to me. It never feels plausible that a lone journalist could wield enough power to singlehandedly normalize an ability so radical as to pose a serious threat to the foundations of pretty much every religion, and it's glaring that Christian opposition alone is mentioned, and then only in the abstract.

I kept on wondering: wouldn't some believers worry that revival would keep them from ascending to the afterlife, by way of detaining their immortal souls? What about people who believed in reincarnation—if the soul didn't properly transmigrate into a new body because a reviver pulled it back, then wouldn't the act of submitting to revival count as a form of permanent death? What about cultures with strict purity laws regarding the circumstances under which a body can be touched postmortem, and by whom? How would they feel about revival? How would a strict Muslim woman (for instance) feel about being revived—being touched—by a strange man, one she'd be forced to talk to without the veil? For all the wordage Patrick expends on making up new terminology around revival, the oversimplification of its effects on a diverse, global population rankled with me the whole way through. And in a book with exactly two characters of color—Nala George, who appears in two early scenes before disappearing forever, and Detective Ray Johnson, both of whom have their race described against the default of implied whiteness—it couldn't help but feel like oblivious Anglocentrism at its finest.

In terms of the actual writing style, Patrick is on slightly better footing, but not by much. In addition to his constant infodumping and hollow characterization (more of which later), he has a lamentable tendency towards melodrama and cliché. When Daniel Harker recalls upsetting his future wife the first time they met, we're treated to: "Her face had fallen. He'd sworn to himself to do what he could to make that smile return" (p. 16). Not long after, a depressed Jonah thinks: "To look down, and watch those scurrying from place to place, would bring unwelcome thoughts into his head. . . . For every one of them, the day would come. Who would grieve them? A mother? A father? A wife? A child?" (p. 20). On page 137, Jonah's old flame, Tess, is described thus: "She was an enigma, then, but to a young man with an impossible crush, none of that mattered." Or, to quote my favorite, unintentional mad scientist line of the entire novel: "I wanted to put an end to grief itself" (p. 257).

The combined effect of these problems is to render the first half of the novel a treacherous slog, full of emotional wrong notes, confusing asides, and fruitless quirks. I struggled all the way up to page 232; at that point, however, the story changed remarkably, picking up pace and becoming, if not unputdownable, then certainly gripping. Though the reason for the sudden emergence of revival is never explained—which feels overly convenient, given the ultimate ending—the supernatural is finally brought to the forefront: however much Patrick struggles with the noir and procedural elements, his skill with the SFFnal is considerable. There are still some dropped threads at the finale (whether unintentionally or as entry points for a second book, I don't yet know), but the last half kept me engaged and interested—and once or twice, even surprised—in a way that the first half simply didn't; and in that sense, both the slow build and the eventual payoff could be fairly termed a success, and therefore potentially worth reading.

But.

What I cannot get past—what I cannot ignore—is the sexism and attendant creepiness. Such as, for instance, the near exclusivity of female victims. Aside from Daniel Harker, who is briefly a point of view character while living, and who thereafter continues to appear in the story when his ghost possesses Jonah, every death in which we're meant to be emotionally invested is the death of a woman. True, Reviver also has a number of living female characters. But their lot isn't much better: in the main, they're described sexually, in a way that either diminishes their competence ("Pru Dryden was twenty-nine years old. Her small size and good looks always drew confused glances when people saw her for the first time, arriving on the scene like some kind of revival fairy" [p. 35]) or else becomes their defining characteristic ("Jonah turned and he saw her, walking into the middle of the room, drawing all male eyes from around her and many female too. Tall, perfect curves, shoulder length auburn hair, she was wearing a light dress that gave her an ethereal quality as she walked" [p. 134]), while the one competent, professional woman who escapes either fate is still described as having had an affair with her boss, even though the information has no bearing on anything ("She and Sam had been close friends for a while; Jonah knew it had soured, and there had been rumours of an affair" [p. 112]; "[he] realised there might have been some truth to those rumours" [p. 119]).

The abiding sexual preoccupation of the male point of view characters doesn't help. On page 46, having only just been introduced to Nala George (whom Ray Johnston describes as "the looker with the bracelets"), Jonah finds himself "watching [her] with longing and sorrow"; and just in case we didn't already get the picture, Never, Jonah's friend and colleague, follows this up immediately with, "Nala George is cute, huh?" (p. 47). Otherwise, there's endless descriptions of female fragility and helplessness to contend with. Pru Dryden, the "revival fairy," is deemed by a male observer to have a "scared smile" before a difficult revival (p. 167), the strain of which causes her to collapse. Soon after, she's revealed to be a victim of domestic abuse: "Pru was small, but Jonah knew she could take care of herself. She'd had a daughter with a long-term boyfriend who'd started to knock Pru around . . . right now, though, she looked impossibly fragile" (p. 171). Later on, Annabel gets the same treatment: "Jonah opened his eyes and looked at her. . . . No, he hadn't seen her smile before. And even though the smile she wore now was so fragile, it was preferable by far" (p. 216). Even Tess, who's not only older than Jonah by almost a decade, but is originally described as being something of a savior figure to him—a competent, sharp woman—ends up treating him as though he's the senior figure in their relationship: "I think you'd be proud of me," she says (p. 141), to a man she hasn't seen since he was a teenager, but for whom she's apparently been pining ever since. A similar trick is pulled with Annabel, Daniel Harker's daughter: rather clumsily, we're told that Daniel, who interviewed Jonah as a teen, relayed his story to the younger Annabel, who was so transfixed by it that she's remembered him ever since. On this slender justification is their romantic connection hung: "She'd been fifteen at the time. Things like that leave an impression" (p. 236).

The creepiest thing of all, however, is the fact that Jonah is expressing sexual attraction to and openly seeking a relationship with Annabel Harker while possessed by her father's ghost—a fact that Annabel knows, but is apparently untroubled by. The idea that this might constitute some sort of problem is mentioned exactly once, when Jonah hopes that Daniel will soon be gone from his head for good; but otherwise, when he and Daniel actually talk about Annabel, it's rather skeezily in the context of Daniel giving Jonah permission to pursue her "Take care of yourself," Daniel says to him, "And of Annabel."

Jonah smiled. "What makes you think I'll get the chance?"

"Oh, I can't guarantee it," said Daniel. "But just look around you." (p. 392)

If Daniel's ghost had just been a passive presence, this would be creepy enough. But instead, we've seen him actively influence Jonah's subconscious thoughts and reactions; their memories have bled together at different points, so that Jonah has experienced flashes of thinking he really is Daniel—and at once point, Daniel even takes control of Jonah's body in order to speak to Annabel privately. One could be forgiven for thinking that Annabel, if nobody else, might find this arrangement confusing at best and disgusting at worst, especially once she realizes her feelings for Jonah, but no: as with Never calling Tess "a massive bitch" for no good reason (p. 363), and Annabel mocking Never's phoning to check on Jonah by asking "What, does he think he's your mother?" (p. 217), it's left in the narrative as just another piece of creepy background sexism for the reader to absorb without comment.

Reviver, then, is something of a mixed bag. Remove the treatment of women from the equation, and its flaws are very near balanced out, if not actively surpassed, by the strength of the premise in general and the second half in particular. Though Jonah's characterization is ultimately shallow, Patrick's decision to tell the story from multiple points of view helps to flesh things out—but while I understand that not everyone would have the same vehement reaction to the novel's treatment of women as I did, I nonetheless found the trope usage, negative stereotyping, and unconscious sexism surrounding their role in the story to be both grating and deeply problematic, and as such, it completely transformed my opinion of the book.

Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality and sometime fantasy writer. She blogs about tropes, pop culture, feminism, politics, and SFF at her website, Shattersnipe, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. She is also the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt.



Foz Meadows is a genderqueer author, blogger, essayist, reviewer, and poet, and in 2014, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer for her blog, Shattersnipe. Her third novel, An Accident of Stars, is due out from Angry Robot in 2016. She currently lives in Brisbane.
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