by Stel Pavlou
Review by John Berlyne
Simon & Schuster (Trade Division) Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0743208595
Date: 03 January, 2005 List Price £12.9 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Stel Pavlou's debut novel, Decipher, was published by Simon & Schuster back in 2001 with some fanfare. Received well by both critics and readers (the book was a top ten bestseller in hard cover and went on to sell 45,000 copies in paperback) Decipher was an energetic and pacey thriller with SF elements thrown in. It's fair to say that Pavlou, once an assistant in an off-license and now a best selling novelist and Hollywood screen writer (he scripted The 51st State) has done rather well for himself so far, and judging by his new novel, Gene, this trend deservedly looks set to continue.
Gene opens with a great set piece--unsurprisingly it's very filmic (and effectively so) in its approach. At New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, an unassuming man walks into the rooms displaying artifacts from ancient Greece. He studies particular objects, statues and swords, and appears to be weeping quietly to himself. Then, quite suddenly he smashes a display case, grabs a bronze short sword and begins to cut a swathe through the crowds. The hall clears in panic, but not before the perp grabs a child and a hostage situation ensues. The police close in and a standoff develops--the man will talk to no one but Detective James North, a man whom he has never met and who, we learn, has no connection to our villain. Thus antagonist and protagonist are introduced. The hostage scenario lurches into a chase across the city whereupon North finally corners the assailant only to have him slip through his fingers. At the last, the villain stabs the Detective with an antique hypodermic and pumps him full of "something". This all makes for a pretty breathless and exciting opening. Pavlou knows how to grip his audience and the stakes are immediately high.
Whatever North now has in his system begins to slowly affect him. Aside from the quite natural post-traumatic stress anyone might feel after such an encounter, North is haunted by nightmares, hallucinations and apparent memories that he cannot make any sense of. And here we enter to meat of the novel, for this is a story of reincarnation, of a titanic struggle between two men stretching back 3000 years. Through a series of flashbacks, the reader learns of Cyclades and Athanatos, at odds with each other for millennium, one a noble Greek warrior, the other a sinister Babylonian mage. Cyclades is born and dies in a seemingly endless cycle of reincarnation, his life's aim each time to find and destroy Athanatos in revenge for the slaying of his one true love. Cyclades's immortality is a natural phenomenon--or perhaps one bestowed upon him by the Gods, whereas Athanatos' rebirths are the result of dark magic. This premise gets really interesting when Pavlou explores the implications of modern day genetics--Athanatos seeks to be free of having to reincarnate himself through arcane means, and so if he can find and study the modern day Cyclades, perhaps technology will provide the answer. Is there a gene that Cyclades has that defies extinction upon death?
It's a highly successful and provocative plot thread and the effect is heightened by the author's great skill in playing each card of the novel at just the right time. Pavlou constructs and paces his story in such a way that the reader has no way of knowing exactly which reincarnation is which--both Gene and North could be either Cyclades or Athanatos and the great energy of the book comes from this central device.
There are sections, particularly in flashback in which the pace of Gene palls a little, but these are faults that are easily overlooked, for overall this is an intelligent, entertaining and damn exciting genre thriller from a writer who is surely the natural heir to Michael Crichton.