Harper, 1998, 499 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-101251-3
Looking at genres, from time to time, I despair: Is it possible to do something new or innovative any more? A standard thriller features a lone protagonist who loses everything by fighting a vast conspiracy. Betrayals, unlikely allies and multiple murders usually complete the picture. In this familiar context, is it possible to create something interesting?
Well, yes. Any sufficiently-capable author can still work wonders with even the most overused plot. It all depends on good characters, interesting twists and good writing. Kyle Mills’ Storming Heaven doesn’t deviate a lot from the usual thriller plot, but the execution of the premise makes it all seem fresh, somehow.
It starts with a murder, obviously. This time, a suburban millionaire couple is found dead in their home. Their teenage daughter is missing. FBI agent Mark Beamon (suitably renegade enough to serve as our protagonist) suspects something is up. His investigation eventually uncovers disturbing links between the young girl and a vast new religion with links to a telecommunication empire and a few paramilitary operatives.
Scientology, anyone? Not quite. Clearly, some parallels exist: The Kneissians do pillory their opponent through lawsuits, have an ongoing feud with the German government and operate according to a series of “levels” similar to the real-world sect, but Mills take the concept much farther. The Church of Kneiss is actually closer to Scientology++, if you want: Mills imagines a new religion that consciously uses the latest techniques in marketing and social manipulation to set up a brand-new system of belief. Without the “limiting factor” [P.236] of outdated dogma that holds back established religions.
Every jaded reader should be paying attention at this moment; while real-world governments are too ponderous to engage in conspiracies and businesses are too subject to market fluctuation to be menacing, religion is something else. When its influence comes crashing down on our protagonist, there isn’t much he can do to stop them. It’s a formidable opponent, and our hero has to use his wits to extricate himself from an impossible situation.
Fortunately, this is yet another area where Kyle Mills distinguishes himself. We’ve seen countless smart renegade cops before, but few of them are as believable as Mark Beamon. He repeatedly demonstrates his intelligence without inexplicable leaps of logic or hand-waving. Storming Heaven‘s good characterization doesn’t stop there; the novel is filled with memorable supporting characters that resonate even weeks after finishing the novel. The young heroine herself is one of the most sympathetic kid-in-distress in recent memory, as she even gets a chance to shine her wits later in the novel.
Somehow, everything else seems sweeter when good characters are at the core. Even though the plot mechanics may seem familiar, they work much better when we care about the humans they affect. Beamon’s descent in obscurity is stronger, and so is his inevitable triumph.
A strong, unconventional, too neat conclusion ties everything together with an effective resolution that doesn’t dredge up the mano-a-mano cliché, and takes the time to deliver a few scenes of pure payback pleasure.
Well-written and well-executed, Storming Heaven is a shining thriller that can restore your faith in the tired old conspiracy genre. Strong characters remain at the core of the narrative, making this novel more than your run-of-the-mill escapist entertainment. The religious sub-themes are deftly handled and may make you think hard for a moment or two. Mills vaults in the ranks of promising thriller writers. More, please!