Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: Secret of the Scribe by Douglas Misquita

Has there been a more competent writer to emerge in the past year in the Indian English mass market publishing than Douglas Misquita? I very deliberately choose the word, "writer"  --  using it in the sense of a "craftsman" -- rather than calling Misquita a "storyteller." Misquita to me, in his earlier book -- Haunted, and as well as his current publication -- Secret of the Scribe, comes across as very skilled hack -- a writer who is accomplished in writing the genre fiction of his choosing, but whose storytelling and the stories themselves hardly leave behind anything for you to savor and remember. Misquita's Haunted too was a well crafted exercise, but would you remember any incident or character quirk or a plot point from it? Unfortunately Secret of the Scribe leaves me with the same feeling. I marveled at Douglas Misquita's competence, but even as I read it, I had the disquieting feeling that I had read all of this in some other story or book by some other author at some other time. That little or nothing of the story will stay with me once I am done with the book. And this kvetch of mine, could probably be generalized to any other example from the Indian English mass market publishing genre.

Misquita, however, for me stands out because he is so very good at what he does. To me he has become one of those writers about whom I wonder more than I wonder about his books. Why is he willing to settle for something that will at best be a mediocre story rather than use his talent and skill to narrate a tale that will be interesting? Is he more secure and confident about his ability only as long as he confines himself to tried and tested story in a tried and tested template? Is it because there is a vast (and presumably easy) market for this kind of genre writing? Or is he a writer who is still coming to terms with his own skill before attempting to push his boundaries?

Once you start with Secret of the Scribe, you know you are in the hands of an adequate and efficient writer. You also realize that you are going through an equally adequate plot, one that you have read in some form or the other, or whose elements you have come across, in many other similar books. And you know that the combination of this particular writer and this particular story will keep you moving at a brisk pace from the first page to the back cover of the book.

A venture capitalist launches Linguistics, Inc. that develops a remarkable nanotechnology-based communication that seems to proclaim that the age of the written and spoken word is over. The unsuspecting world enamored by this wonderful technology fails to realize that Linguistics Inc. is actually setting the stage for total control of everyone in the world. Lance Michener, the leader of a resistance movement (whose father is connected with the initial development of Linguistics Inc.'s technology when it is not consumed by the world-dominating vision of its management), along with a few others tries hard to shut down the Linguistics network before it manages to fulfill its agenda of global mind control.

This conspiracy plot line, plays out in the background of the extraterrestrial and the mythical. A cave-expedition somewhere to the remote borders of China and Tibet unearths some discs believed to be of extraterrestrial origin - a discovery that is quickly squashed. What is the significance of this discs? Why is Linguistics Inc. seeking them? And this conflict between Linguistics Inc. and Michener's band in the book is centered around a hunt for the mythical Book of Thoth -- the Book of Wisdom of the Gods -- a book that is believed to contain the key to all the languages on earth and the languages that will ever be in the future.

This -- a tale of an evil organization trying to seize global control, the story of extraterrestrial/mythical artifacts of great power, and a small but determined bunch of heroes resisting what seem to be insurmountable odds -- is ground that has been trodden so many times by many a book and a movie that all the writer and the reader has to do is to dutifully connect all the dots from the start to the end of this well-worn path. The story and the plot points, from one confrontation to another, from one near escape in an ancient maze to another, virtually write themselves. But apart from a demonstration of proficiency with the craft, there is nothing remarkable in it -- no character, no moment in the plot or even an interestingly wrought passage. All there is on display is dull competence.

Like I have said earlier, Douglas Misquita, the author of Secret of the Scribe, knows what he is doing -- he knows how to skillfully set up the plot and then set up a brisk pace as it moves from one location to the next, from one fight to the next conflict. His problem with this story (apart from that mentioned earlier) is that he cannot decide what he's after -- a thriller of a David standing against the almighty Goliath of an organization or a puzzle that seeks to unravel an ancient extraterrestrial/mythical mystery. So pulled is Secret of the Scribe between these two strands of the plot that at times you feel that you are reading two books in one, neither being able to dominate and establish its supremacy over the other.

All of which is another way of saying that Secret of the Scribe, is more fun to chew on as an exercise in writing rather than as a story. And I mean it to be an "exercise" in a manner very similar to the assignments students are set in schools and colleges -- to perform a task in order to develop skill or understanding. I can't shake off the feeling that Douglas Misquita set himself this assignment of writing a thriller mixed with elements of extraterrestrial and mythical in it. It shows his immense skill that he makes a very decent and workmanlike book out of it. But I can't help thinking, Misquita is a better writer and storyteller than he currently allows himself to be.

Note: Thanks to Douglas Misquita for a review copy of the Secret of the Scribe. Also my apologies and a special thank you for his immense patience - this post was months in coming.

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