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The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765315168
Date: 13 May 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Officer Richard Oort stepped out of the world he knew when he intervened in the most bizarre assault case of his career: a young woman menaced by three human-shaped bundles of twigs and mud. Never mind that his gun wouldn't work or that the creatures exuded a cold that shut down electrical power, Oort shouldn't even have been able to see them ... and thereby hangs a tale.

This is the beginning of The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass. Taking a very different view of the ancient battle between science and magic, Snodgrass plunges into controversial terrain very quickly, breathing new life into an old genre plotline.

Richard's rescue of Rhiana, a physics student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, triggers a new battle in the war between the Old Ones (ancient creatures that use "magic" and feed on human emotion) and Kenntnis (a seemingly immortal entity who fosters science, logic and rationality). Kenntnis has a handful of allies, including Cross -- a character likely to cause some ruffled feathers among certain readers just by being who and what he is -- but he is badly overmatched by those who trade in religion, magic and superstition. Richard, that rarest of human beings who is completely without magic, may help him turn the tide.

Rhiana herself proves to be an uncommon being, in that she appears to be as oversupplied in magic as Richard is bereft. She struggles to find a place for herself in this new status quo.

Meanwhile, Kenntnis arranges for Richard to be promoted from beat cop to detective. The move doesn't sit well with his peers, but Richard begins to make friends and allies on the force, including Lt. Damon Weber and coroner Angela Armandariz. Their friendships are tested severely, first when Damon and Angela learn about the war of science and magic, and second when a dark secret about Richard surfaces, endangering his career and even his life.

The adversary in this tale is Rev. Mark Grenier, a world-famous evangelist who is best friends with the U.S. president. Grenier is the ringleader of a conspiracy to ensure the supremacy of magic and usher in the reign of the Old Ones. All he needs is a certain mystical object -- one that only Richard can control.

Rocked by betrayal and the echoes of past nightmarish events, Richard must pull himself together for one last, desperate ploy. If it works, the side of reason wins; if it doesn't, Richard won't survive to see how the Old Ones reshape the world -- much less reconcile with his emotionally distant and judgmental father.

Snodgrass delivers a thoughtful, enterprising story built upon the genre classic of "science versus magic." Unlike nearly every other version of this plot, however, Snodgrass clearly and unapologetically sides with science. Her critiques on the role of religion are cutting and no-holds-barred, getting at how most religions -- even those putatively about loving one's fellow man -- unleash more raw savagery than nearly any other pretext for war in mankind's history.

Richard begins as a devout believer but finds reason to doubt, even as Kenntnis reveals his own role in fostering those aspects of religion that are least harmful. To say that Kenntnis is fighting a long rearguard action is an understatement.

The harm of religion and magic are explained succinctly and cleverly; the Old Ones (most of whom have been worshiped as gods over the past several millennia) feed off emotion, and since negative emotions are the easiest to generate, they work to perpetuate an emotional climate of fear, hatred and violence. When they succeed -- by starting wars, triggering terrorist attacks or causing outbreaks of mass insanity -- they are empowered ... and able to open gates to their home dimensions, allowing more of their kind in and accelerating the world's descent into misery and madness. That Snodgrass makes her case so well should dismay even the most stolid true believer.

Her lead character, Richard, is a short but ethereally beautiful young man whose demons are almost all internal. He struggles with accepting himself, having given up a promising musical career to become a cop and failing to please his taskmaster father Robert (a federal judge and scion of a very old and wealthy Rhode Island family). He grapples with the challenge of accepting the world as it is, not the world as he believed it, and draws several of his colleagues into his quest. He never backs down from doing the right thing but questions his judgment and suffers tremendous guilt over the least failings, qualities that bolster his basic humanity. And his dark secret proves to be truly shocking, as Angela learns firsthand.

Kenntnis, the ancient foe of magic, reveals some fascinating secrets of his own, including a number of identities he's worn over the ages. He is the head of the powerful Lumina Enterprises, a corporation that supports enlightenment throughout the world, and a source of vast knowledge about the enemy they face. His decisions are not always perfect but they are extremely well informed. His agent, Cross, is a powerhouse as well, though prone to devastating identity crises of a singular nature. He is homeless and seeks only one goal: release. As readers learn why, it becomes apparent why Cross is fighting on the side of science, not religion.

Rhiana and Angela represent the female contingent among the good guys, with one an innocent and the other very experienced in how the world works. Rhiana faces great challenges in trying to master her dual nature, being a science student and a sorceress both, while Angela's major challenge is understanding Richard and trying her best to help him. It's fair to say that both women have their share of successes and failures.

Grenier and his henchmen (including a psychopath who may be able to match Richard's particular aptitudes) are less fully developed, if only because they are seen far less. Using an evangelist as a criminal mastermind isn't a new trope, but Snodgrass pulls it off.

What seems a bit opaque is what precisely the human collaborators stand to gain if the Old Ones triumph. If they win, do they really need their human agents? The motivations on the bad-guy side seem less clear, though the ending of this book assures the reader that there will be a sequel to explain further.

Ending on a cliffhanger (of sorts), Snodgrass moves the players into a new and interesting configuration at the close. This is only the opening of an apocalyptic battle -- but one that's definitely worth the reader's time and ongoing attention. Fans of epic "good versus evil" tales (including the larger-canvas works of Stephen King) will find this highly rewarding.

Recommended.

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