Forge, 1998, 371 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56461-8
Even since Clive Cussler grabbed the modern American adventure novel by the throat and gave it a wedgie, writers have been struggling to imitate his success and rip off his formula. There may be a few forthright mimes in the bunch (Craig Dirgo’s The Einstein Papers was a conscious attempt at aping the formula, but Dirgo has the distinction of being a frequent Cussler collaborator), but there are also outright copycats such as Jack Du Brul’s Vulcan’s Forge. (But don’t think that Cussler disapproves. There’s a big honking blurb from him on the cover of the Forge paperback edition.)
How is it a copycat? I’m glad you asked. Grabbing my steel pointer and a schematic plan of Vulcan’s Forge, allow me to poke at the novel’s protagonist, a true squared-jawed American hero named Philip Mercer. Take note: Mercer is built according to the precepts of serial fiction, not simply the needs of a single novel. He is single (though handsome and suave enough to be able to seduce any woman easily, at least once per novel), independently wealthy as a freelance geologist, and tough enough to be willing to travel anywhere on the globe to deal with the problem at hand. Proficiency with survival techniques, big vehicles and weaponry is assumed. Aficionados of Dirk Pitt will oooh in recognition at the Mercer home, an innocuous building that has been completely re-built to act as a museum, research library and depository of cool toys.
Cussler fans will also nod whenever one of the two main antagonist is revealed: A rich man with dastardly plans for a chunk of the United States, a plan that plays well with the schemes of the other main antagonist. The threat, of course, directly links to Mercer’s professional credentials as a geologist, suggesting that further books in the series will all depend in some way or another on a series of rocky premises. The plot is ludicrous and the science is worse, but that should be seen less as a problem, and more as a further proof that Du Brul is writing in the Cussler vein. Heck, there’s even some underwater action built-in.
Fortunately, it work relatively well. Though no one will recognize this as a fine piece of literature or even a superior thriller for the ages, Vulcan’s Forge goes through the right motions with some skill, and the result is readable enough. It is a bit longer and blander that it ought to be (some editing would have been able to tighten the action), but not enough to matter. There’s also a late late plot twist that doesn’t matter one bit and makes the novel even more preposterous than it already is. But since it’s a Cussler copycat, can it actually be too preposterous?
Your answer to that question will determine whether you’re likely to enjoy this novel. It’s strictly a formula thriller meant to launch a series, and as such it’s better than many other attempts. I certainly prefer it to Craig Dirgo’s The Einstein Papers, to name only one such recent example. Philip Mercer’s not an unlikeable protagonist (though I can’t say the same of the company he keeps), so there’s a very good chance that I’ll pick up his next few adventures. Of course, it’ll remain to be seen whether Du Brul will stick to the Cussler formula, or branch out to something of his own.
[April 2007: Ew. Du Brul’s follow-up, Charon’s Landing, is a step down in almost every way: Not only is it considerably duller and lengthier, it’s also taken with a rabidly conservative viewpoint that keeps poisoning whatever enjoyment is left in the novel. Here, Good old Philip Mercer has to fight big bad environmentalists, but don’t worry: his manhood is sufficient enough to turn a convinced antagonist into his love-kitten in a matter of pages. Virulent denunciations of environmentalist excesses may net Du Brul the usual Crichton-loving readership, but it makes the novel unpalatable to everyone else. Not that a correction there would have helped the rest of the novel as it muddles through a plot that offers little of note. Not the most auspicious follow-up novel.]
[May 2007: Huh. Du Brul novels keep going but don’t necessarily feel like they’re part of a consistent series. Third volume The Medusa Stone is much better than either the first or second volume as it pits Mercer against a complex web of international intrigue in Africa. The action is unusual, the pacing keeps up and there are a number of fairly interesting scenes here and there. It’s not so successful as far as characters are concerned: Mercer can’t keep a girlfriend and presents a serious risk to his acquaintances, but characters are almost irrelevant in this type of novel. It’s acceptable beach reading, though it still falters even as a simple Cussler copycat. It’s good enough to make me grab the next Du Brul novel at used book sales, but certainly not good enough to go and buy them new.]