A while back, I read and reviewed Robert Finn's Adept. It was a book I didn't expect a great deal from - it sounded like yet another addition to the "search for ancient secret" genre that's sprung up in recent years. So, it was a really pleasant surprise to find it to be a fun, readable book.
Sequels, of course, have a trickier task as expectations have been raised. Yet, whilst Ex Machina may not be quite as good, it still offers plenty of easy reading and entertainment.
With sequels, you often either get an almost carbon copy re-telling of the original adventure or a "bigger is better" tale that has little in common with the original, other than the characters.
Robert Finn introduces a different approach. It could have backfired horribly, but works surprisingly well. Instead of ditching the central idea and keeping the characters from the first book, he does it the other way round: he keeps the central idea and (mostly) ditches the main characters.
The first book centred on the discovery of a magic society by David Braun and Susan Milton and followed their quest to uncover its secrets and avoid its deadly devotees. Ex Machina barely mentions Susan or David at all. They are still connected to the plot, there are occasional references and they do put in an appearance towards the end. Yet for most of the book they scarcely feature in any meaningful context.
Expecting readers to switch allegiance to a new character with whom they have no previous emotional involvement could have been a fatal weakness. Yet, Finn handles this change very smoothly. There is an initial jolt as your mind struggles to come to terms with this departure from convention, but in the long term, you won't miss the two "leads" at all. It's difficult to see where Finn could have taken the original two characters next, so by introducing someone completely new he gives himself far more freedom to develop a story which maintains strong links with the original adventure, but can strike out convincingly in a new direction.
It also helps that the new central character- Jo Hallett - is just as interesting as David and Susan. Jo is a very contradictory person: highly intelligent, yet lazy; full of self pity and righteous anger, yet very self-aware; a victim, yet also strong. All these contradictions make her fascinating. Initially, she is actually quite unlikeable. However, as we find out more, so we warm to her and sympathise with her more. Finn judges this aspect just about right, balancing out each negative aspect of her personality with a positive one. Jo is flawed and vulnerable, but this helps us to identify with her more and makes her feel like a rounded character.
Particularly engaging is her sense of humour, which clearly comes through in her dialogue. The book is written as though Jo is recording the events described and is full of amusing little asides and footnotes. This gentle humour was one of the things which set Adept apart from other wannabe occult thrillers, so it's pleasing to see it carried into the sequel.
Ex Machina is actually fairly slow to get going in some ways - and anyone expecting a more fast-paced thriller may feel a little disappointed. Around the first 100 pages or so are spent building up Jo's character, rather then concentrating solely on wider events. This could have been the kiss of death, but once again, Finn judges it right. By making sure we get to know Jo in more depth, we care about her more deeply than we would normally and invest ourselves in her quest. Since she feels so real, the book always remains grounded in reality, no matter how outlandish events become.
What doesn't work quite so well is the sidelining of some of the other characters from Adept. Although Jo is a more than adequate replacement for David and Susan, she is very much a loner and the book misses the banter between those two. Similarly, The Professor, who always amused and delighted in his cameos in Adept is too often reduced to the role of researcher-bureaucrat in Ex Machina and has lost the spark which made him such a fun character. Similarly, the loss of the blokey banter between David and his friend Banjo (not even mentioned in the sequel) is a sad one.
Whilst the core plot is superficially similar to that of Adept (someone stumbles across secret powers and attempts to master them), it introduces enough new elements to feel fresh and new. It develops some of Adept's key themes and builds on them. It expands on the universe Finn has created and gives us plenty of new material to ponder. Some of the new developments are perhaps just a little more far-fetched, but set in the overall context of the book, this is not a serious issue. The plot always remains plausible within the confines of the world Finn has created.
Don't even think about reading this book, if you haven't read the first one. Finn automatically assumes that you will have read Adept before tackling Ex Machina. There is little or no attempt to explain previous events or key plot ideas. It is just assumed that you will know. New readers may be left scratching their heads and wondering what on earth is going on. Even if you've read the first one in the distant past, you might want to refresh your memory on the key points before starting number two.
Ex Machina is a highly readable book - a real page-turner in the best sense of the word. It's not a difficult read, but it is immensely fun and satisfying. Finn's tongue in cheek humour and highly readable style perfectly complement the slightly silly central idea behind the book. The humour brings an extra element that stops things from ever becoming too serious. It's also helped by the fact that he paces his plot well. After making sure we are involved with the central character, he builds in regular plot developments, cliff hangers and new ideas to keep us reading. Whilst the main plot may just be yet another search for a mystical object, Ex Machina never feels derivative
Sequels always run the risk of disappointing. Yet, by taking the brave decision to ditch his lead characters and introduce a new one, Finn ensures Ex Machina stays fresh and fun. An entertaining, undemanding read.
Snow Books, 2006
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