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David S Goyer is probably best known for his film scripts, particularly his contribution to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. His style tends towards dark, brooding atmospheres and he usually manages to combine this with an intelligent approach to plotting mingled with action and excitement.
In theory, what works for films should also work for books. And presumably this is the approach Goyer took with this 2012 novel, co-written with author Michael Cassutt. Set in 2019, it sees two groups of rival astronauts land on a Near Earth Object (or Keanu as it is christened - a pun on Keanu Reeves' character name in The Matrix). Unlike the film Armageddon, they are not travelling to the NEO to destroy it; instead they want to find out more about its composition and behaviour. They find far more than they bargained for.
The book bears all the hallmarks of a Goyer story: a relatively routine event where things quickly start to go wrong; a tense, slow-burning atmosphere where the tension gradually increases; and a plot featuring a small group of people who must work together if they are to survive. Look at most Goyer films and you will find some, if not all, of these themes.
The trouble is, contrary to that theory at the start of the review, what works on the big screen doesn't necessarily work with the written word. Heaven's Shadow is interesting and perfectly acceptable. Yet all the time I was reading it, I couldn't stop thinking that it really would work better as a film.
On screen, Goyer is a master of building suspense, taking a number of small events piling them together to create a dangerous and tense situation. He tries to take exactly the same approach here, but it doesn't quite come off because it seems Goyer doesn't always appreciate the fundamental difference between actions and words. On screen, for example, complex ideas and feelings can often be conveyed through an exchange of looks between characters or other simple visual cues. On the page, you have to spell things out more explicitly. Goyer doesn't have quite the same flair for doing this and so Heaven's Shadow seems to feel rather more pedestrian than his screenplays. This, in turn, robs the book of that feeling of slow burning tension and sometimes leaves the book feeling rather flat.
The plot was perfectly adequate and kept me interested; but it never had me enthralled. Reading it was simply something I was doing to pass the time; an enjoyable enough experience but it wasn't the type of book it's hard to put down. It's also rather let down by a disappointing, confusing and somewhat anticlimactic ending which is clearly intended to pave the way for the sequel (already published). After the slow build up which has preceded it, the ending feels rather rushed and leaves you with two distinct feelings. Firstly that Goyer didn't really know how to end the book and secondly that the 300 plus pages you have just read are actually little more than preparatory material for future books in the series. Either way, it's a bit of a let-down.
In terms of narrative structure, Goyer takes a film-like approach to the book, splitting the action down into different "scenes". Many of these "scenes" tend to be shorter than conventional book chapters, so this aids both readability and helps with the pacing. On the other hand, there's a downside as each new chapter tends to switch the focus onto a new character or situation (again, a common cinematic trick). This can be frustrating as you feel like you are flitting rapidly from character to character or scene to scene without having the time to take in the full implications of what you have read.
Whilst the plot can at times feel slightly hackneyed and unimaginative, you can at least rely on Goyer to come up with a new angle. The plot raises some interesting and intelligent questions about the nature of humanity and belief and helps to raise it above standard science fiction thrillers. Just when you think you have got a handle on where Goyer is heading, he introduces something that takes you off in a very different direction
Despite the concerns about pacing and plotting, Goyer is still very good at layering events to create a strong atmosphere. Each time you think things can't possibly get any worse for the astronauts, Goyer proves you wrong, raising the stakes still further. Each time he does this, it is for perfectly valid narrative reasons, rather than driven purely by a need to keep things fresh. He also has some pretty odd ideas in his book, and makes some pretty wild claims that could come across as preposterous. Yet, because he creates a believable world, these things seem at least feasible within the environment he has created.
Despite these strengths, though, I couldn't help feeling that there was some spark missing from Heaven's Shadow. It wasn't a terrible book, it was sometimes a bit of a chore to read. Slow-burning atmosphere is one thing but there were times when Heaven's Shadow had less of the "burning" and more of the "slow". This makes it a bit of a non-event and it feels stretched and thin. It is telling that, despite the fact that it concludes in a very open ended manner I have no real desire to go off and read the sequel. I notice that it is scheduled to be made into a film, and I actually think it will work better in Goyer's natural media, than it does here.
Heaven's Shadow will cost just over £5 in paperback (or ridiculously)the same price in Kindle format. To be honest, I couldn't recommend it at that price. I paid 99p for it as part of a Kindle promotion and was quite happy, but I wouldn't want to pay more than a couple of pounds for it.
David S Goyer and Michael Cassutt
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013