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The Labyrinth Key

by Howard V Hendrix

(Del Rey, $14.95, 320 pages, trade paperback; April 2004.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

Do you like Tom Clancy? If so, you'll like this book. cover scanIt's that simple. Any other comparison fails to capture the essence of Howard V. Hendrix's writing and this tale in particular.

Why, you ask?

Dr Jaron Kwok worked for the US on a top secret project to build a quantum computer for the main purpose of developing and cracking codes. Sadly for him, his body is reduced to ash while in a Hong Kong hotel. But wait! Is that actually ash or is it some kind of biological-nanotechnology? And what is the meaning behind a surreal webcast Kwok sent out moments before his disappearance? The race is on between the US and China to develop the aforementioned computer, and now the police, NSA and numerous others are all attacking these mysteries from different angles. The clock is ticking.

Reading that limited summary, you may already see some of the similarities with Mr Clancy's work, but allow me to take it all a bit further.

On the plus side, we are treated to a technothriller-meets-sf novel which should appeal to and please most hard science-fiction lovers. Just like ol' Tom, Hendrix drenches the prose with in-depth descriptions of the technologies (both new and old) and the theories surrounding them, while extrapolating a bit into the future of the Net and quantum computing. He also provides a few intriguing characters that propel the story through its many twists and turns.

On the minus side, we are treated to a technothriller-meets-sf novel which should appeal to and please most hard science-fiction lovers. Yes, I know I just repeated myself, but hear me out. This novel gets all the hard sf and techno aspects down quite well. What's missing is the thriller part of the description. What should have been an intense, nail-biting, action-packed story in which each reversal and discovery flips the reader into an "Oh my gosh!" moment ends up feeling more like a science lecture. Sure, the science is interesting at times; however, the point of story-telling is (first) to tell a story.

I have a problem with the fact that Ben, a character whose wife died and who has thus not had a sexual experience in quite some time, finds himself happily being treated to a lap dance, and what does he do? He starts explaining quantum theories. Now, I don't want to spoil the plot, so I'll say that the fishiness of this moment is supposed to be fishy, but Ben (a rather intelligent fellow) doesn't seem to find it odd at the moment of its occurring. I could come up with many plausible reasons for his behaviour, but unfortunately the author fails to provide any, and that is part of his job. No, I don't need everything handed to me on a platter, but I do want to be able to trust that the author has made conscious decisions with crucial (or odd) developments such as this. That trust was missing as I read this book.

Besides, had I been given a little of what Ben was thinking, I could then have seen that he was indeed clueless to the "fishy" situation, thus heightening (or at least creating) some tension -- a key component of a thriller. Alfred Hitchcock once explained suspense as watching a man walk into a restaurant with a briefcase and knowing (although the characters don't) that there is a bomb in the briefcase. Too often in The Labyrinth Key, the reader is kept in the dark. Likewise, we are also kept at a cold, analytical distance from the characters -- another factor that takes away from any suspense. What the reader is left with amounts to a good science story but not a thrilling one.

As Murphy's Law would have it, though, I see that many of the big names in the genre thought The Labyrinth Key worthy of their praise. So, my dear readers, the choice is in your hands. Do you trust them or me, your faithful reviewer? Oh, I guess we don't have to be so dramatic about it. Go read those first three sentences again. For better or worse, I think they say it all.

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