We meet Robert Strong, protagonist of The Eidolon, shortly after his life has been upended. His job at a Dark Matter laboratory in Manchester has abruptly vanished along with the lab itself, which has been shut down by sinister men in black who claim to be from the government. Gone with the lab are Robert's scientific data, his forthcoming paper, a conference booking, and a sideline as an associate lecturer. His problems are compounded by the fact his relationship with girlfriend Cora is in equal trouble. The couple have grown apart; while rationalist Robert believes only in what he can see and touch, creative Cora is much more suggestible and the recent death of her sister is causing her to reconnect with her spiritual beliefs. Cora meditates, burns incense and finds new friends through her yoga class. Robert picks some part-time web design work and mopes about the loss of his career.
This grim tale of contemporary life comes to an abrupt end when Cora tells Robert she has seen her dead sister and is convinced that what she saw is real, not a dream or a fantasy. Robert rejects this as palpably false and the most support he can offer is "I believe that you believe it." A week later Robert sets off for Tibet on a back-packing holiday with a university friend—and in his pocket is the ring he once gave Cora and she has now returned to him as a sign their relationship is over.
As Robert and his pal Danny set off up the Tibetan plateau in worsening weather conditions, it's clear that this is not going to be a jolly escapist holiday. Inevitably the weather changes and the two men narrowly avoid plummeting into a crevasse and being buried alive by an avalanche. But our hero is encouraged by a mysterious voice he hears inside his head warning of the dangers and instructing him about a safe path down the mountain, chivvying him along until eventually Robert passes out from exhaustion. He awakes in a Tibetan monastery where a mysterious monk informs him that "the energies are changing—they are shifting between the worlds" (p. 46) and that Robert must leave at once.
There's something very cinematic about this book and the early scenes are full of contrasts between the mundanities of Robert's Manchester life and the bleak white snowscape of Tibet, the trudge through the snowstorm and the image the monk portrays of two lakes on the mountain: the Lake of Consciousness and the Lake of Demons.
The narrative continues to blend these two warring images. On the face of things Robert continues his normal life. He pays a birthday visit to his mother in Scotland. He visits Cora at her parents' pottery, in the same Scottish village. He has a pint in the pub with Casimir: a friendly elderly neighbor who he regards as a mentor. But Robert's rationalism is beginning to crack under unfamiliar pressures. He too has started to see Sarah, Cora's deceased sister, both in dreams and on occasion when he thinks he is awake. His elderly neighbor asks him to pass on a birthday greeting but when he does so his mother reacts with alarm and informs him Casimir died the night before so Robert could not possibly have seen him.
At Casimir's funeral, a well-dressed man with hair like a raven's and eyes like the blue of a Tibetan crevasse offers Robert a job. Despite warnings from his mother (who reveals that Robert's deceased father also once received a job offer that seemed almost too good to be true—and died before he could take it up) and Cora (who reveals that she can see auras—something she's been shy of telling rationalist Robert until now—and that his potential new employer has no aura of any kind) Robert sets off on his job interview, which takes place in a secret subterranean secure laboratory. The job, Robert learns, is to travel to the CERN lab in Switzerland and enact a piece of sabotage—or the world will end.
The secret lab opens the door for the narrative to become an espionage thriller. There are helicopters and motorbikes, near misses from explosions and car crashes, an incapacitated scientist with CJD whose findings have been suppressed, a socially abnormal Asian programmer with a collection of deadly computer viruses in his desk drawer. As Robert is swept off to a glamorous high rise penthouse apartment in Geneva his mind is full of the ethics of the task ahead of him while warning visions of Sarah and Casimir trouble his dreams.
At this point the number of questions and mysteries has really stacked up to an unmanageable degree, and it's more than time for some answers when a new secret group reveals itself. These individuals, who call themselves Eidolons, appear to possess supernatural powers and arrive with revelations that stagger our rationalist to his core. At least he says they do. But he seems to accept this latest twist with remarkable equanimity, right up until Cora arrives on a flying visit and he's unable to find the secret meeting room of the Eidolon society to prove to her these strange people exist. "I believe that you believe," Cora tells him with a level of snarkiness I wish was more typical of her character, because she really only seems to be here to play the victim in the next scene of high drama.
The role of the women in this book is surprising from a female author. Cora is spiritual and gentle. Robert's mother is an artistic homebody who makes a delicious home-cooked meal when not mourning the husband thirty years dead. There's a slightly suspicious scientist called Helena at CERN who asks Robert a few awkward questions before vanishing back into the rhubarbing crowds of extras. And another attractive extra named Aiyana who grumbles a bit about the circumstances that caused her to join the secret society of the Eidolons. But in espionage-movie style, this reads as a very male world and most women appear only as wives or partners or victims.
Also lacking is a sense of the emotional reality of these events. As Robert digests the information the Eidolons provide and is taught how to use their supernatural powers of telekinesis and teleportation, he seems completely cut off from his original introduction as a rather morose Mancunian who works at the bottom of a mine shaft. He accepts himself as secret spy, inheritor of industrial espionage and as Eidolon-in-training more readily than this reviewer is able to.
And, as a hero, Robert is strangely passive in his own plot. He doesn’t actually discover anything himself: every piece of information he has is provided by mystic monks, secretive scientists, or enigmatic Eidolons. And once his initial reluctance to believe anything non-rational is broken down, Robert seems prepared to believe anything and everything anyone tells him.
As the various events churn towards a conclusion, primed to go off all at once when the experiments at CERN are initiated, the mystical plot is in ascendance and has leached the drama out of the narrative, as Robert himself is progressing to a superhuman level of achievement and doesn't appear to be in danger of anything more than the loss of a girlfriend he never really seemed that invested in. The final revelation of the narrative wasn't exactly a surprise, since it's the only plausible explanation for the final third of the book, but it also doesn't end with a sense of resolution, or answer any of the questions that have been raised. Several loose ends are never tied up, and what's really lacking is motive for what has occurred or an idea of what will happen to the characters once the end credits have rolled.
Ultimately, The Eidolon reads as undecided about what kind of book it wants to be. The action-packed plot distracts from this most of the time but once the wild ride is over, the scenery is noticeably flat and the characters lacking in depth. I didn't find the science held together either but a physicist might have gotten more out of it. The individual elements of the book are fine in themselves: it's the unity of the plot strands and themes that doesn't quite hit the mark.
Rhiannon Lassiter is an author of science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, magical realism, psychological horror, and thrill novels for teenagers. Her favorite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Mahy, and Octavia Butler. Her own novels explore themes of identity, change, and becoming. Rhiannon lives and works in Oxford, United Kingdom. Her ambition is to be the first writer in residence on the Moon. Find out more at rhiannonlassiter.com.