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The Astonished Eye by Tracy Knight
with an introduction by Philip José Farmer
(PS Publishing, £37/$60 inc P&P; limited edition of 500 copies signed by Knight, Farmer and cover artist Alan M Clark; 506 pages, hardback; published 2001.)

As Philip José Farmer points out in his Introduction to The Astonished Eye, some of the "story elements seem at first sight to be staples of the science-fiction/fantasy field", and yet in all his cover scanyears in the genre he still found this novel intriguing and he asserts that Knight "has something to say that's new and surprising".

Well, naturally Farmer is going to praise the book he introduces -- that's what he was invited to do -- but the way he chooses to do so is interesting: his vague sense of surprise that he can still find novelty in an apparently standard genre novel after so long. It's true that The Astonished Eye looks to be loaded with clichés: a summary could easily make it look like derivative X Files/Twilight Zones fare, and so Farmer's words are encouraging. This book is, indeed, more interesting than a summary may lead the browser to believe, but it is also less satisfying than it might have been.

The novel opens with a prologue in which an alien approaches a blue world. Plenty hinted at, little given away.

Back on Earth, we join a young boy, Jeffrey, on the run from the latest in a succession of foster parents. Shortly, and amid some rather clunky prose ("Its tongue dangled from the side of his mouth when it panted"), he finds a dog and we get a dump of backfill and rather heavy-handed character analysis.

Next, we meet Ben Savitch, "a cocksure wordsmith who could turn a good phrase when the mood took him". Again, the prose creaks, which may be some kind of auctorial joke at Savitch's expense: the self-avowed sharp journalist described in rambling prose -- but I doubt it.

Things pick up when he drives into town and runs over a dog. A quirky exchange with the locals follows and he finds himself borrowing a shovel, putting the dog in the back of his car and driving Jeffrey (for it is the dog the boy found a few pages earlier) off to bury the mutt.

Savitch is in town to follow up reports of a UFO sighting but as this opening suggests, he encounters far more: the last Munchkin from the Wizard of Oz, a vestigial TV superhero desperate to rediscover the reason for his existence, a little girl who really shouldn't be out, and more. The town of Elderton, it turns out, is a magical place, and Ben Savitch, who grew up there but left as a small boy, must find out if he still has any of that magic in himself.

This is a novel that struggles to find its voice early on, betrayed by some rather laboured writing (which is largely smoothed out further into the book). It's also a novel of missed opportunities, a novel that could have been far better than the often-interesting, often-engaging read that it is.

Much happens off-stage, for example, distancing the reader from events. When Ben gets invited back to talk to two of the town leaders, in walks someone he recognises from childhood TV and there the chapter ends. When we return to Ben's story strand, it's much later and he recalls for us some of what happened in summary form: the reader never sees the encounter. Where's the drama in that? Where's the reader involvement?

The novel suffers from a number of lapses in continuity, too. At one point, a character looks in a set of files dated 1967; a page later, she finds an item dated 1966. No comment that it had been misfiled; no suggestion that she had moved on to check the preceding year. Trivial, perhaps, but distracting. Earlier, the same character says of Ben, "If he wanted the story of Elderton, he'd get it", but although she knows he's interested in the UFO, she doesn't yet know that he's a journalist, and she certainly doesn't know he's after "the story of Elderton"... Knight should have been picked up on these minor discrepancies.

The Astonished Eye is pervaded by an air of small-town, folksy good-naturedness -- so much so that any real sense of suspense is often absent. Even when a bunch of kids are taken off blindfolded in a car, it takes an observation by an onlooker to alert us to the possibility that anything dark may be happening. By the end, this spirit is uplifting and genuinely endearing, but sustained through the book, as it is, it lends this novel a flatness of tone that detracts.

There is a sub-genre of the fantastic, the small-town tall tale, and this is where The Astonished Eye belongs. Done well -- as by Waldrop or Bradbury or Barrett -- these tales appeal to just about anyone. Done passably and reasonably interestingly, as this is, they probably only really work for those readers particularly drawn to this sub-genre. You know who you are.

Review by Keith Brooke.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

  • features - find out about PS Publishing, publishers of The Astonished Eye, the infinity plus anthologies and a highly-acclaimed series of novellas.

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© Keith Brooke 13 April 2002