Review: End of Days

As far as post-apocalyptic dystopian novels are concerned, Robert Gleason’s End of Days is unique mostly because it’s mid-apocalyptic. Some of the blurbs on the jacket proclaim Gleason as the “Dante of our age,” so it must have been worth reading. I’m not sure what kind of hyperbole inspired a comment like that, but I really hope it’s sarcasm.

That isn’t to say End of Days is bad! Far from it. Overall, I found the narrative engaging, the loose plot unique, and the sub-threads interesting. Gleason writes well enough, and his social commentary is fairly accurate, so it can easily contribute to a misleading sense of prescience. Unfortunately it’s mostly empty and bizarre in a myriad of mutually conflicting ways.

Let’s begin with those sub-threads I mentioned. There are several of them, and they’re all essentially self-contained, though it’s clear they’ll eventually influence each other.

We have Sailor, a sentient rat who roams the world searching for relevance. Then there’s the Magruders, a relatively wealthy family whose matriarch, Lydia, is exceptionally paranoid and has constructed a massive Citadel out in the desert. There’s the John Stone, a reporter searching through the Middle East working on his groundbreaking exposé on the looming and basically inevitable nuclear war. We have the president and his cronies, most notably Jack Taylor, who gets to set the stage for most of the action as the curtain falls. There’s Cool Breeze, a former baseball legend turned prison inmate due to an unfortunate temper. Of course, “Mad” Vlad Malokov acts as a foil to whip everyone up into a frenzy. There’s Cassandra, a former nun turned infamous gospel diva, crusading in her own way to bring understanding. And we can’t forget Thucydides, a newly emergent AI set in a space station, the better to chronicle the downfall of society. Most notably are the figurative and literal barrage of personified nuclear weapons, given “life” because of the spark of the universe each contains.

Did I forget anyone? Probably. There’s the usual cast of supporting characters, of course, and other named elements that explore various facets of the emerging implications. But I hope the problem with this novel is obvious at this point. It’s not that the novel tries to do too much with too many characters. It’s that all of these things happen simultaneously, all of them have roughly equal weight, and any attachment to any of them is ephemeral at best. It’s that the plots are disparate and confused, a work of short stories loosely stitched together and called a novel. But why?

Cassandra’s songs are meant to inspire, but her admittedly tragic origins become washed out bellyaching. Yes, we know “Hiroshima’s gone.” Repeating this ad infinitum among her various scenes leaves her less of a touching inspiration, than an irritating emo teen. That Thucydides considers Cassandra humanity’s soul is understandable, if an odd fixation as the world collapses around it. I thought the idea of Cassandra and Thucydides were both completely wasted because they were marginalized. The true tragedy of Cassandra isn’t her horrifying past, but her flat characterization.

John’s interactions with the Sin Sisters starts out terrifying. What will they do to him next? Will they ever let him go? Why did they even kidnap him? But it just goes on, and on. Gleason seems to take a sick pleasure in narrating genital torture, since that seems to be the prevailing focus of their administrations. Oh, and one of the sisters is a doctor, so Stone becomes the proverbial Schrodinger’s Cat. This also becomes tiresome and overplayed. Oh, they’re torturing him again, and ranting crazily whilst doing so? Bummer.

But nobody does crazy ranting like Mad Vlad. He has a gleeful, almost suspicious knack for it. Gleason clearly did his homework, because he describes several mechanisms chemical, biological, and nuclear, which Vlad threatens to unleash, or justify the havoc he’s supposedly unleashing. There’s even a clever explanation for how incessant Vlad is about jerking Jack Taylor’s chain. This too, is overdone however. Vlad calls Taylor and yells at him. Taylor blanches! Vlad calls Taylor and berates him. Taylor flinches! Vlad calls Taylor and gibbers mindlessly like a baboon for an hour. Taylor becomes aghast! Vlad calls Taylor and describes the painfully intricate minutia of a prostate exam. Taylor cries. It got so ridiculous, I started skimming these sections, because they were all the same.

But nothing broke my suspension of disbelief like Sailor the rat and his adventures, or the sentient nuclear devices. This isn’t Redwall, so he’s supposed to be an actual rat. But he’s also much more. He’s a hero, a leader, a philosopher, a giant, an explorer, a visionary, a sous chef, a rodeo clown, and everything in between. This starts irritating, but becomes outright ridiculous. Is there anything Sailor can’t do? Nope. And I can say that because he basically survives several proximal nuclear strikes, in addition to outsmarting every human he encounters. Of course, his hopes and inspirations are equal to the various musings of the missiles and suitcase nukes as they yearn to fulfill their duty, and fretful anguish should they possibly fail. Oh, the trials and tribulations of spiritual WMDs, how I weep for their suffering.

All of these fragments are ultimately weakened by their reliance on the overriding narrative. I would have read a short story about Sailor. A sentient space station is a great concept. Cassandra would have been a much stronger character if she wasn’t forced to whine about the looming holocaust. It’s the little things like this that make the novel a weird read instead of a good one. Gleason seemingly tried to touch every genre simultaneously, and like any Jack of All Trades, he mastered none. This novel is good, but it absolutely does not live up to the hype. Keep that in mind, and you’ll feel a lot better about reading it.