Tag Archives: James Powlik

Meltdown, James Powlik

Dell, 2000, 445 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-23509-X

I remember reading James Powlik’s first novel, Sea Change, with some interest but not much enthusiasm. It was a solid, competent thriller with good sequences featuring familiar elements. Some silliness here and there, but nothing bad enough to make anyone stop reading. In other words, a thoroughly adequate thriller.

Meltdown doesn’t step too far off the mark set by Powlik’s first novel.

At least it has (for this Canuck reviewer) the added interest of taking place in Canada. In Canada’s extreme North, mind you (somewhere at large of Baffin Island), but in Canada nonetheless. The prologue bashes Canada’s treatment of its Inuit population, there’s one amusing reference to Ottawa’s Sparks street and the Canadian Coast Guard gets to be mentioned a few times, but otherwise it doesn’t matter much: Meltdown is simply set in a cold and desolate location where something very bizarre is about to happen.

In the first few pages of the novel, two divers are severely affected by a short dive in glacial waters. Suffering from an extreme form of radiation poisoning, they die within hours, prompting their colleagues to call for help. If you’ve read Sea Change, you may already expect a certain someone, and you won’t be disappointed: Brock Garner, renegade oceanographer extraordinaire, is more than willing to answer distress calls from a beautiful woman, especially if she just happens to be his very own ex-wife Dr. Carlon Harmon. (Yes, there’s still something between them.) Before long, he’s on a plane headed north, having packed both his long johns and his advanced oceanographic gadgets.

What he discovers up there is alarming enough: massive radiation contamination, with drastic effects on everything it touches. Left unchecked, this terrible environmental disaster could heat up the Gulf Stream (or something like that) and usher in a new Ice Age. What is the source of the contamination? What can be done to stop it? And how is Brock going to escaped unharmed from everything that’s sure to happen to him in a thriller?

To be fair, Meltdown starts with an intriguing mystery and milks a lot of interest out of the source of the radioactive spill. Is it natural or man-made? Accidental or intentional? Civilian or military? Water is the great unifier, and so Powlik’s novel is a grand excuse to learn a little bit about tons of subjects, from radioactivity to metal-eating bacteria to secret military catastrophes. Techno-thriller fans; welcome, please enjoy the book.

Unfortunately, there’s a palpable lessening of tension once the source of the radiation is identified. Silly little side-plots mixing Chinese (or is it Indian?) spies and super-absorbing molecules start appearing suddenly with various degrees of effectiveness. I quite liked one unfortunate accident three-quarter of the way in, but the latter half of the novel was uneven, sometimes grabbing my interest and sometimes not. The ending is a bit too tidy: I happen to believe that eco-catastrophes can’t be solved with a magical silver bullet; unfortunately, that seems to be the case here. (Amusingly enough, while Sea Change had an ominous epilogue, it doesn’t appear to be the case with Meltdown. Another case of an author settling for easy answer in order to stretch a series of thrillers? We’ll see.)

Still, the book is easy enough to read, and there’s plenty of fascinating asides to satisfy any beach reader. Some vivid action scenes stand out despite the uneven nature of the narrative. The characters may be unpolished, but they’re efficient at moving the action along and don’t torture themselves endlessly with moral dilemmas. It would be helpful if Powlik could sustain interest in both his plot and his characters, but Meltdown isn’t particularly worse than Sea Change. (Indeed, reviewing my notes on the previous novel, it looks as if Meltdown isn’t quite as silly as the first book, which is already something.) I may not be overly enthusiastic about Powlik’s oeuvre so far, but I’m not repelled either; if nothing else, I’m more than willing to try his next effort. After all, if nothing else, I’m a sucker for tons of techno-jargon.

Sea Change, James Powlik

Dell, 1999, 481 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-23508-1

Hey, an oceanic thriller! No, it’s not JAWS. Tagline: “There’s a new terror under the sea with a mind and a hunger of its own.” No, it’s not JAWS. It opens with a few death, continues with a few more deaths, and features quite a few more deaths before the end comes by. No, it’s not JAWS. Though, like most aquatic monster thrillers, the comparisons are hard to ignore.

It’s a shame, really; Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film so definitely imprinted itself on the collective unconscious that any novel about a roughly similar situation (danger underwater!) will labor under undue expectations. But then again, it allows us critics to make easy comparisons and skimp out on actual critical content.

Which is fortunate, given that Sea Change stands up as a particularly average thriller, JAWS comparisons or not.

You know the drill; at least one person dies in the prologue, in a gruesome manner that can be delightfully interpreted as a supernatural event. Then the protagonist comes in, an oceanographer named Brock Garner. Fortunately, he’s described as being “renegade”, thereby qualifying to be the hero. (When was the last time you read a novel about a professional hero described as “a loyal follower”, “unimaginative” or “strictly average”?) The female sidekick doesn’t come in long after. Ellie Bridges is a doctor, easily embodying the motherly characteristics of any good love interest. (Oh yeah; she’s also a renegade doctor. Good match.)

But that’s not all! The antagonist is a rich (uh-huh) shallow (yah) media-hungry (familiar, yet?) pseudo-environmentalist (aren’t they all?) magnate who, oh heavens, married Brock’s ex-wife. Don’t worry; she’ll come around to our stalwart hero for some much-needed true lovin’. Plus, the clueless antagonist will eventually make an ambition-driven mistake or two that will effectively seal his fate. It all comes together in the end. Natural disaster plus military conspiracy plus human conflict here and there and pretty soon, you’re talkin’ thrillah!

Mix in the requisite evil father, capable military units, more gruesome deaths and a countdown to some major havoc, and you get the thriller that you expect. Granted, Sea Change gets better as it advances, even including a few spectacular scenes toward the ending as all means necessary are taken to stop the evil menace. (Which, predictably enough, isn’t completely stopped in the epilogue.)

There’s a certain journeyman quality to Sea Change in that it does the job, but with no extras. If you’re stuck with the book and want to care about the characters, you will, but they won’t grab you by the throat by themselves. In much the same vein, the various incidents are interesting, but not overly so; for his next novel, Powlik could use some brush-up in convincing dialogues and sustained tension. It’s a novel whose essence is hard to isolate, liquefied as it is in a sea of averageness.

Which would have been fine if it would have been snappy, but Sea Change isn’t, dragging along for far too long while carefully setting up the mechanics of its plot. At least one subplot (the insensitive father-figure with a secret to hide) could easily have been removed, along with many other sections that don’t really advance anything or give us something new. With thrillers of this sort, we know where we’re going; we don’t need to have our hands held along the way.

Fortunately, few of the above should apply if all you’re looking for is decent time-wasting entertainment. Powlik hasn’t wowed anyone with Sea Change, but at least he demonstrates his ability to write a baseline thriller. The plentiful technical details are reasonably convincing (be advised that there’s a glossary hidden at the end), the monster hasn’t been seen before and the ending delivers a reasonable amount of bang for the effort invested into it. As far as nautical thrillers go, it’s no, say, Steve Alten’s Meg, but it’ll do.