Debra Tash,
Masters of the Air
(Amber Quill, 2004)

Debra Tash's Masters of the Air is a "dynastic epic" historical novel, the story of Michael Ryan and his descendants and the tragedies they build into their lives.

Ryan was born in a Chicago whorehouse and turned out when he was 11. Somehow, he made it as far as being a pilot at the end of World War I, and then spent the early 1920s as a barnstorming performer in the West, falling into rum-running as a profitable sideline. He went legit, founded one of the first passenger airlines and married the daughter of his business partner, who had been one of his important clients in the rum-running business. The story goes on, riddled with heartbreaks and disappointments, until his granddaughter Rachel finally learns to let the past go.

Letting go and moving on is a platitude at this point, but it's something that eludes Michael Ryan for his entire life, with disastrous effects on him and his family. Nor does he ever learn he can never rely on security provided by others; the story is devoted to his search for stability from someone else.

I did not find it easy to get involved with Ryan. The story starts off slowly and he didn't seem to be terribly involved himself. The book does wake up, but it takes a while. And it wasn't until a good third of the way through that I really started caring one way or the other. It may be because I've never been a fan of soap operas, and Masters of the Air strikes me as being, when all is said and done, nothing so much as a historical soap opera. The tragedies that afflict the family become almost gratutitous, and there isn't much left for deep examinations of character or, for that matter, much in the way of subtleties. Characters quite often do not ring true, taking actions that seem more or less random and more or less unbelievable. Even Rachel, who should know better -- and who we believe does know better -- acts irrationally, chalking it up to the "family curse," which somehow, when she's on the verge of breaking the mold, doesn't quite cut it.

I'm making this sound worse than it is. Although the narrative does veer toward the purple from time to time, never one of my favorite things in fiction, it is readable, sometimes absorbing, and if one is prepared to make some allowances, enjoyable once one gets beyond the first hundred pages or so. Tash is an award-winning author of historical fiction, and this is a creditable entry into that field, if not the most absorbing.

by Robert M. Tilendis
10 March 2007

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