Source: Review copy
Publication: 31 December 2020 from Zaffre
ENTER THE SPIRAL.
FIND THE TRUTH.
Erma Bridges’ life is far from perfect, but entirely ordinary. So when she is shot twice in a targetted attack by a colleague, her quiet existence is shattered in an instant.
With her would-be murderer dead, no one can give Erma the answers she needs to move on from her trauma. Why her? Why now?
So begins Erma’s quest for the truth – and a dangerous, spiralling journey into the heart of darkness.
The Spiral is an interesting concept and one that will certainly offer appeal to those who enjoy playing fantasy quests and multiple choice RP games.
Dr Erma Bridges is a university lecturer and specialist in Y/A fiction, especially those games she played as a child – the ones where you could choose your path and the endings varied according to your choices. She is currently writing a book about these games and it prominently features the reclusive inventor of many such games. On returning from a trip abroad she is summoned by the University to find that she is accused of inappropriate sexual activity with several of her students. Then her primary accuser, her research assistant Jenny, turns on her in the most spectacular fashion and as a result, she dies.
After that, Erma needs time to recover and it is only some months later that she starts to wonder what has become of the research material that Jenny had been gathering for Erma. In particular a Dictaphone containing an interview with an important and reclusive writer is missing. Erma needs to find that Dictaphone in order to finish her book and she is also hoping that she may find some clue as to what was driving Jenny to behave in the way she did.
Erma decides she will retrace Jenny’s steps and endeavour to re-run the last interview that Jenny undertook.
This story then splits into two parallel narratives, Erma’s first person story and a character from a game named Sero the Barbarian who is the protagonist in a fantasy multiple choice game. Clearly Erma and Sero are following similar dangerous paths, but is Erma dreaming, or is she involved in something that has not yet become clear to the reader?
This fantasy/thriller crossover is certainly an interesting and unusual pitch and though I found myself intrigued, in the end it just did not gel sufficiently to hold my interest.
As Sero follows the Spiral deep into the game, making choices and uncovering danger at every turn, so Erma also follows a path that is constantly spiralling her downwards towards a dark conclusion.
This section of the book is somewhat unevenly written. Erma’s narrative is almost dream-like while Sero’s choices lead to battles with evil characters, but the connection between the two while tangible, seems confusing.
Perhaps you need to enjoy fantasy fiction more than I do in order to get the most out of this book? I’m not sure. What I do know is that while I was curious to see where Sero’s and Erma’s paths would come together, the final reveal just felt too contrived and ultimately that meant the book as a whole did not work for me.
Part of that is the characterisation. Erma Bridges is not a sympathetic character; quite the contrary. I also felt that the latter part of the book descended into every teenage boy’s fantasy wet dream – and not in a good way. It left me with something of an unpleasant aftertaste.
VERDICT: Sadly though the concept was different and ambitious and the first half of the book held my interest well, the book as a whole is just not for me. It may well appeal to RPG gamers and those who enjoy fantasy fiction, so please don’t let my review (as a straight laced crime fiction and thriller fan) put you off. The concept is certainly interesting and much of the writing holds the attention well.
Iain Ryan is an Australian writer who lives in Melbourne. He is the author of two previous novels Four Days (2015) and The Student (2017), both shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award.
Photo: Shannyn Higgins Photography