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Monday, June 24, 2013


A Review of K. W. Jeter's THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS

K. W. Jeter is no stranger to world building and off-beat characters. Often compared to the late, great Philip K. Dick, Jeter cut his teeth on ground-breaking sci-fi, horror and media tie-in novels, penning not only a trilogy of Star Wars tales but also Blade Runner, Star Trek and Alien Nation instalments to add to his award-winning work such NOIR, FAREWELL HORIZONTAL and DR. ADDER.

Now Jeter steps into the Berlin Noir ring and enters in style. THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS is no pot-boiler, it's not an edge-of-your-seat thriller and may be the first pure Berlin Noir novel to feature a supernatural element.

The story is really three separate plot elements that later combine. Set just before the start of the war, an insular religious sect, the Lazarenes, is introduced and, like so many other religions, is being persecuted by Nazism. Their telling mark is mis-matched eye color: one brown, one blue and tattoos that represent Jesus's scars from the cross. But one Lazarene has worked around this by having his tattoos removed and a child with a non-Lazarene - the result is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed goddess named Marte.

Marte is soon enlisted in the Lebensborn breeding program and moves to what is nothing more than a brothel where pure SS men can impregnate pure Germanic women, leaving the women, and the program to raise good little Nazis free from "genetic taint". Marte does her duty, and incurs the wrath of the resident beauty who eventually winds up raising the child once Marte is kicked out of the program since her offspring has the tell-tale mis-matched eye color of the Lazarenes.

Marte soon finds herself a budding star in the German film industry where Goebbels becomes infatuated with her. Hitler won't stand for this race mixing and Goebbels is forced to let her go. And go she does, to Hollywood, where she becomes the mistress of a big shot producer. This proves to be short-lived as Goebbels soon blackmails her to return to Berlin because he is obsessed with her beauty. The war is well underway by this point and catastrophe looms. A second plot thread touches on the woman raising Marte's child. Seen mostly through photographs and film of the child growing up, this is the carrot Goebbels dangles in front of Marte to keep her in line.

Parallel to these storylines, we see Marte's cousin, Pavli and his brother, who, along with the other Lazarenes have been rounded up and sent to a concentration camp where a fanatical SS Doctor Ritter wants to "study" them to find the secret of the strange power they possess. All three plotlines become connected later in the novel.

THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS requires patient reading, it does not hit the ground running. The novel begins very slowly, building gradually as we are treated to very well-written, though often repetitive, scenes of Marte being used by the men around her as she bounces from bed to bed between Hollywood and Berlin. I'll admit this slow start initially soured me on the book, and I lost patience with it on more than one occassion, but I'm glad I stuck with it because the novel delivers.

Once the Lazarenes enter the concentration camp, a third of the way through the book, the story gathers momentum as the noose tightens around Germany. The camp scenes are harrowing and historically accurate. As someone who delved into the history of the camps for my own novel (here and here), Jeter's research is sound and he recreates the camps with all their horror. As the story picks up steam, we soon begin to learn the secret of the Lazarenes' power and the last scenes in the rubble of Berlin are a spell-binding mix of the fear, insanity, hopelessness, perseverance and tragedy of those final days of the Nazi regime.

The plot is such a delicate tapestry that it is difficult to provide more details without ruining the reading experience. THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS is an engaging  read - one which I urge readers to stick with through the slow start as the final reading experience will be one you won't soon forget. You certainly won't be able to look at Hitler's Propaganda Minister the same way again. Jeter is an excellent writer and his handling of the characters, the history and his fantastical plot are extraordinary. Part history, part horror story, part supernatural fantasy, part character study, the novel's many levels will satisfy the most discerning reader.

The novel is currently only available as an ebook through amazon for under $5. Despite a few bumps at the outset, this is one of the best Berlin Noir novels I've read to date. Don't miss it!

Monday, June 17, 2013


A Review of David Downing's Silesian Station

It is difficult to do Silesian Station justice. All of the trappings are there. It is July, 1939. The Nazis have the world by the collective throat and are dragging nations inexorably to war. Half-American, half-British journalist John Russell and his son return to Berlin during this last peaceful summer. Only things are not as serene as one thought. Russell's lover has been arrested by the Gestapo. To get her out, Russell has to agree to spy on the Russians for the Nazis. This he, of course, agrees to do - fully intending to be a double agent and hope that the good guys will help get him out of Germany when things really get ugly. Into this mix is the sudden disappearance of a teenage Jewish girl sent to Berlin by her parents for safety reasons. Choosing the palm of the Nazi fist of power seems an unlikely place of safety but the parents are farmers who, for some reason, think that anti-Semitism isn't that big a deal in Berlin. Go figure.

As you can see, for the most part, the pieces are here for what could have been a ripper of a yarn. Instead Downing gives us an uninspired slog that moves at a glacial pace. Russell strolls, drives, rides trains, drinks and eats in restaurants and bars - all the while catching important history lessons that show the reader that war is inevitable. With so many plot elements, it's hard to imagine how Downing could give readers a 300 page novel where almost nothing happens and yet he does. In his wanderings Russell hits Warsaw, goes to Moscow to observe the pact between Hitler and Stalin, learns of the Nazis staging violence to blame on the Poles as an excuse to go to war. He does nothing about this things, however. He's just there so he can take the reader by the hand and show us the situations.

The missing girl element soon becomes the only plot thread of interest to anyone with even a thumbnail sketch of the historical period as it is the only storyline with a resolution that is unclear to the reader from the outset. Very little in the way of detection goes on though and it isn't even Russell who eventually breaks the case. The only part of the novel I enjoyed was the resolution to the missing girl angle in the last 20 pages.

The rest of Silesian Station is a lesson in how to make a novel as dull as possible. Too talky, too many historical details trowelled in to slow the story down even more than it would seem possible to do. Cardboard characters, pedestrian prose and a hero who needs help to tie his shoes all make for one of the, if not the, worst Berlin Noir novels I have read to date.

If you're putting together a list of Berlin Noir novels to read, put Silesian Station at the bottom of  your list. There are much better Berlin Noir reads out there.