Too many one-in-ten-million chances that somehow pan out
Reviewed in the United States on 23 June 2016
I really liked the first two books in this series. Although they both had an excess of serendipity, they also had sympathetic characters, plenty of action, some interesting scientific questions, fun discoveries and lots of 'What If?' to balance it all out.
That sense of balance is what this book lacks. Too much of the story is a series of disasters and discoveries that repeatedly hurtle onto the page with no breathing room left between, leaving no chance of character or relationship developments. There's one disaster after another, but somehow each would-be tragedy is paired with a spectacularly improbable save. Not everyone makes it, of course, but at one point or another, almost everyone lives in some unrealistic way when they really should have died. To top it all off, during the final incredibly prolonged rescue attempt, yet another impossible discovery happens, even though the odds against it are worse than the odds of one person winning ten Powerball lotteries in a row.
I did, finally, get to the last page--but it wasn't easy or pleasant. All those death-defying escapades and shocking discoveries made the book both tedious and exhausting. I just wanted the story to end--and I can't think of another book I've felt that way about. There are plenty of well-written books I find dull: the subject doesn't interest me, or I don't care enough about the characters, or I feel the author's world is too claustrophobic, ugly or painful for me to stay immersed in, so I don't finish them.
With this one, however, I had a different problem. I wasn't ever bored, as there's far too much going on, the situation itself was fascinating, and I still cared about the characters and wanted them to find a way to survive and win against their enemies. I just desperately wanted everyone to get off the rollercoaster safely and be someplace where they could relax long enough to regain their sanity. At that point it felt like we all needed room to remember that most of life is made up of very ordinary things and that most of us are very ordinary people, who are living mostly very ordinary lives. The extraordinary does break through our lives sometimes, and some of us become extraordinary for long moments of time, but that's not something we can sustain for long. After a certain duration, even extraordinary events become banal, because that's the only way we can survive them.
In that way, Portal strongly reminded me of Jean Auel's Clan of Cave Bear, a book in which a woman who begins as a sexual tool and slave to the men of her group, manages to raise herself up socially, invent language, discover fire, develop new methods of hunting and farming, and completely reshape her entire society. Clan of Cave Bear's heroine didn't seem like a real person because she was just too good at absolutely everything, as well as so unbelievably lucky that Auel should have just made her the personification of Good Fortune. She was more a goddess than a human being, and as the book went on, she just kept adding to her list of accomplishments. After a certain point, I just kept wanting to laugh. I was waiting for her to split the atom while stumbling into a portal into another dimension where she'd find the Fountain of Eternal Youth and incidentally decode the human genome...
Portal isn't that ridiculous, since at least the characters are mostly lucky in their own fields, but the sheer number of wild escapes and earth-shaking discoveries became so overwhelming that it actually got tedious. No sooner had they Macgyvered themselves out of one bottomless pit than they were falling into the next even deeper one, or else tripping over yet another revolutionary bit of science, all while making miraculous discoveries that propel them light years ahead of everyone else in their fields. No one has such a long run of luck this bad or this good, and even Jeremiah Joe Buckley was pushing his fortunes much too far by the end.
After a certain number of authorial missteps, the reader can begin to regret her once-willing suspension of disbelief, and to lose faith in the author's willingness or ability to keep the story aloft, steer it well, and guide it at last into a satisfying harbor. This book certainly had me doubting Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor, and yet because I've read and liked so many of their other books, their works stay on my reading list and I'll continue with the fourth book of the series.
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