Black Mad Wheel
by Josh Malerman
Cover Artist: Shutterstock / Getty Images
Review by Katie Carmien
Ecco Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: 9780062259684
Date: 23 May 2017
The year is 1957. Philip Tonka and his band, the Danes, are not the stars they once were. So when the US government comes knocking, offering a thousand dollars apiece for the four of them to investigate a mysterious sound emanating from deep within the Namib Desert, they eagerly accept. But they are not prepared for what they'll find--or what the desert will do to them along the way.
A year later, Philip is under the care of a nurse named Ellen in a government hospital. She's used to keeping her mouth shut about her patients, but Philip is the strangest of all, with horrifying, inexplicable injuries that heal impossibly fast. The doctors seem more concerned with interrogating him than treating him, but why? What really happened out in that desert?
Black Mad Wheel's greatest strength is that it's as weird and twisty as things get, drawing horror as much from the malicious Doctor Szands and his unknown motives as it does from the strange happenings in Namib. Philip is in the dark for most of the book, as is Ellen, but it never feels frustrating; rather, it adds to the creeping, unsettling horror.
Malerman is excellent at drawing the tension to a fever pitch and then halfway releasing it when something happens, and then building it up again--much of the book is about building that tension with atmosphere and small details, but it never feels boring. Rather, it keeps the reader on the edge of their metaphorical seat, wanting to know what's about to happen. Likewise, the worldbuilding and concept are just as strong, an engaging mix of totally original concepts--the mysterious sound--and fresh takes on old ideas--the untrustworthy government willing to break every single medical and scientific ethic possible in pursuit of its goals.
One problem with the book is that I often found myself unable to tell the other Danes apart, which made it hard to form any real emotional attachment. It would have been better if either the book had been longer, to allow more time to flesh out the members of the band who aren't Philip, or if the cast had been whittled down--all the Danes are given the choice to go to Namibia individually, so Malerman could have cut down the numbers by having some of the band refuse. Philip and Ellen are engaging and well-developed, but everyone else felt flimsy.
Another was that the romance subplot felt unnecessary and underdeveloped. Ellen and Philip made good friends and allies, which was a relationship I really liked reading about, but once they moved past that it seemed shoehorned in. It was as if the author felt that since a male character and a female character spent a lot of time together, they must perforce couple up, regardless of whether that actually made sense. It didn't feel natural or believable at all and pulled me out of the narrative every time it came up.
Black Mad Wheel is a wonderfully eerie novel but could have used as much effort spent on characterization as was spent on the plot.