Dan Ronco,
Unholy Domain
(Kunati, 2008)

Unholy Domain has not been the easiest book to read.

Of course, that's what happens when one tries to lift a heavy cooler out of a canoe and manages to tip everything, including the novel one is supposed to review, into the lake. Luckily I had only a few more pages to wade through when sogginess struck.

But, regardless of the difficulties of carefully teasing apart the dampened pages that closed off this near-future text, Unholy Domain was a bit of a struggle. Author Dan Ronco has concocted a future America in which a nasty computer virus with a deceptively friendly moniker -- PeaceMaker (which is also the title of the first book in this series) -- has precipitated a worldwide economic collapse. The anti-technology backlash that sprang up in PeaceMaker's wake has spawned the Church of Natural Humans, which not only preaches against artificial intelligence and other demonic technologies, but openly supports the killing of people involved in the pursuit of advanced science.

On the flip side of the coin is The Domain, a covert group determined to move humanity toward a merger with artificial intelligence. Lead by the egomaniacal Dianne Morgan, The Domain controls a black market in forbidden technologies, adding to the political chaos. The Domain's ultimate goal is to seize the reins of political power in the U.S. and lead a charge across the fallen corpses of any who stand in their way toward a utopian techno-future.

Needless to say Unholy Domain isn't exactly swimming in sympathetic characters. But unbridled villainy is relatively easy to create and Ronco has spread unsavory character traits pretty darned thickly across his complement of characters. These aren't the sort of endearing flaws that lift a protagonist off the page. These are the kind of glaring faults that make characters feel two-dimensional. Every male in Unholy Domain is obsessed with the size and shape of the breasts of the female characters, characters who are either spectacular, but dangerous, beauties or homely and dull. The shapely ones tend to survive while the unattractive end up raped and bullet-ridden.

The whole thing feels like a shoot-'em-up computer game, barely enough character development to hook the player in, nowhere near the sort of depth that might cause any delay in gleefully blowing folks away. And what limited character development there is comes via italicized sentences that serve as thought balloons. While this can be an interesting and enlightening technique, Ronco overuses it, cluttering the text with irrelevant asides.

The book's dust jacket may proclaim Unholy Domain as "unique, provocative" and "thought-provoking" but I can't say I was much impressed. There's a sloppiness to Ronco's writing that I think can best be described by quoting the following sentence: "He settled back in his seat, watching islands chug by in the wind, separated by miles of open sea." Or, "The man's laser pistol hissed and a deadly beam whizzed past David's head." Somehow the notion of islands "chugging by" or something that moves at light speed "whizzing by" suggests that the author could have better chosen his words.

This is not a novel that will leave the reader savoring the texture of the sentences. They're utilitarian, unlovely things designed simply to move the reader from one action scene to the next. And, frankly, the action isn't even particularly believable. Certainly the scene in which Ronco's protagonist, David Brown, is imprisoned by the artificial intelligence, Alice, when she transfers "his mind into the computer, a searing, painful experience" is inadequately explained given its centrality to the plot.

There's plenty of halfway decent science fiction on the market, fiction that balances character and plot rather than sacrificing one to the other, fiction that uses science in thoughtful ways, as a means to probe human failings and redemptions, fiction that leaves the reader really, really ticked when the book falls in the lake. In this case however, I wasn't all that upset.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

18 April 2009

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new