Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book review : Under The Dome - Stephen King 8*

I have not read a King novel for quite a while, but I enjoy the chance to get my teeth int a really large book every so often and King's latest enormous tome held some appeal.

Under The Dome is similar in length, and style, to what is probably Stephen King's finest work, The Stand. Although King is tagged as a horror writer, many of his books contain elements that are more sci-fi than horror, Tommyknockers / Dreamcatcher, and King again uses a vast alien power, the sudden creation of a force field dome over a small American town, to provide the setting for this novel.

As with so much of King's work, it isn't so much the horror and the situation that endears the author to his legion of fans, it is the way King builds characters and human tensions.  In both The Stand and Under The Dome there is the factional split into good and evil, but whereas The Stand's split was much more light and darkness, UTD's factions are much more reminiscent of a facist style power grab.  The bad guys here, who have a dark secret to keep hidden, behave like fascist politicians, especially in their implementation of a police state soon after the dome has appeared.

King also has a go at environmental issues here, the atmosphere in the dome rapidly deteriorates as the town's citizens continue to drive cars and use their generators, trees and plants begin to die and the sunsets change colour as the sun is viewed through the smog building up inside the dome.

The hero of the piece is ex-Army captain Dale Barbara, who has timed his moment to leave the town just a fraction too late.  Already having has a brush with the powers that be, Barbara is left almost powerless when the chief of police dies and all round bad guy Big Jim Rennie seizes the reigns of power.

Under The Dome has a large cast of characters, and somewhat in the style of Steven Erikson, King shows a malicious glee in building a character to the point where the reader is captivated by their life and struggle to survive, and then brings their life to a violent and bloody end.  What King does really well though is human storytelling, he quickly brings his characters to life, illuminating their foibles and traits and weaving the lives of people together.  Of course his characters are exaggerated, the good guys are shining knights, the bad guys are evil scum, but it all works so well that you can excuse the slight cartoon feel it gives.

The thing I didn't enjoy quite so much in UTD is the way King lapses into folsky style talking directly to the reader.  It isn't done so badly that it shocks you out of the narrative, but in places the transition between scenes could have handled in a more accomplished manner.

UTD isn't quite as good, or as epic in feel as The Stand, but King's innate storytelling ability and the way in which he keeps the sense of tension going from scene to scene fairly drags you through the book.  There has been some criticism of the way he ends the novel, and I'm trying to review this without spoilers, but he has used the dues ex machina method of ending novels before, besides, King's writing has always been much more about the people than the obvious plot device.  I had not seen the end of the novel coming, and the two part showdown I was taken by surprise by the first part, and only mildly let down by the second and final act.

So, a couple of negative points, but King's re-write of a novel that he first put down on paper almost 30 years ago is a really enjoyable read, fast paced and action packed, don't worry too much about the serious issues, just enjoy the ride. 

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