Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On Portals: A Review of Upsetting the Tides by David Englund

I know, I know, I'm supposed to be reviewing Magic Slays by Ilona Andrews. But I got stuck in a waiting room yesterday with nothing but my Kindle, and one thing lead to another....Magic Slays is coming, probably by the end of the week. In the meantime, I present you with a review of Upsetting the Tides.

Our main character is Clark, an ordinary guy who finds a portal in his backyard, which contains thousands of doors that lead to other worlds. He also finds a device designed to enable intergalactic travel. It can generate a protective shield, allow him to fly, translate alien get the drill. So, Clark merrily begins exploring worlds at random, but there's a problem: The alien (Tr'zez) that this device belongs to is demanding it back, and the only thing that he'll accept in exchange is a much better device that's found on a hostile planet. In order to keep traveling, and keep Tr'zez from attacking Earth, Clark must retrieve the device and try not to die in the process.

Positive Comments:

The narrative is written half in third person, half first person (in the form of Clark's thoughts). At first, I was ready to call this a negative, but it actually works really well for this type of story. You get an immediate sense of everything Clark is thinking and feeling, as he sees and does incredible things.

The story has a good tone to it. It reminds me of a comic book or a video game--undeniably fun wish fulfillment. An ordinary guy gets to experience something completely extraordinary, he tries to save the day, girls like him, the whole package.

The author obviously put some thought into the creation of cultures of the beings on other planets. The creatures themselves are not well written (I'll get to that) but at least there was an effort made to compare and contrast these non-humans to the human culture Clark is used to.

Critical Comments:

You really have to turn your brain off to deal with the pseudo-science in this one. Here are just a couple of issues I had with it.

1) The technology is not even vaguely explained. Oh, I have this invisibility/shielding/flying machine handheld device...I'll just use it with rampant abandon! No question as to how any of those things actually work and whether or not they're safe. In my mind, Clark is probably going to end up with horrifying full body cancer from using the device, and it would serve him right.

2) The portal only lets through one individual at a time, and only for about three hours. So, even if there were only 100 planets with intelligent life forms, and even if only a third of those life forms knew about the portal, you'd still have as many as 33 people trying to get in at any given time. And once one did get it, it would lock the portal up for three hours. That's a hell of a wait.

3) The evolution explanation. I might be the only one bothered by this, but it bothered me a lot. Many of the planets seem to have creatures similar to animals we have on earth (such as ants), only they've developed human-like intelligence, language, and what not. They've "evolved further" than their Earth counterparts. Later, there is talk of creatures "evolving backwards" to become more primitive. THAT IS NOT HOW NATURAL SELECTION WORKS! Populations of creatures don't evolve toward some perfect being, they just grow more suited to their environment, which tends to change. It's not about better or worse, it's not about the superiority of traits like human speech or walking up right--it's just about survival.

4) Why would there have been ants on other planets? How likely is it that a different environment would produce that exact same creature? Convergent evolution? It just doesn't make sense.

Moving on...

Clark really bugged me. He keeps the portal and everything else that he's discovered to himself. Part of the reason is his mistrust in the government, which is valid. But the bigger issue is that he wants to be the one who gets to use the portal to travel. He's selfish. A discovery like that has implications for every field of science, not to mention the cultural, philosophical, and religious implications. But hey, screw that, Clark has to have his portal-hoping mid-life crisis.

Then there are the other characters. Sarina, a woman from Clark's office, is the ostensible love interest. She's a cardboard cutout of a real person, whose traits include "nice" and "likes fashion". Then, Clark meets this alien chick, and starts to think he likes her too. A love triangle? Really? Love triangles are what authors use when they have no other way of creating romantic tension: It's cheap and it's boring.

The dialogue is awkward. It's not the worst I've seen, but it's definitely on the wooden side. Characters who don't talk like real people don't feel like real people, and it's hard to get invested in their story.

The conflict is weak. Why not just give back the device? I know Clark likes exploring, but when an alien threatens your planet and blows up several buildings in your home town, why not just give up? Why help an obviously unstable person obtain a new unknown device that for all you know may be a world destroying weapon?

So no, I didn't like this one. This type of story can work, and it needs a little more time and a lot more thought put into it. There are too many leaps in logic that make no sense. I don't recommend this one. 1.5 stars.


  1. LOL, I was reading your summary of the story and thinking to myself - why doesn't he just give the device back! I figured that because I hadn't read the book there must have been some bigger reason why he wanted to keep it. Huh, guess not!

    And I'm not sure what to think of it being written half in first person, half in third person. Why not just write it all in first person?

    Great review but I don't think this is a book I will be picking up any time soon :)

  2. Chrissie, like I said the narrative actually works...the story, not so much. :)


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