England, the 9th century during the reign of Alfred the Great. A bloody war ensues as Vikings raid the English countryside. King Alfred, desperate to put an end to the loss of English life agrees to grant the invaders vast portions of land in exchange for peace. The Archbishop of Canterbury locates ancient arcane scrolls and through them obtains the power to create horrible abominations from any living creature. His experiments begin small with farm animals, but as his new power warps his mind, he begins to use human subjects to create an army that can destroy the Viking invaders despoiling his homeland. King Alfred fears the Archbishop’s army will be a greater threat to England than the Viking squatters so he calls upon his champion Wulfric to hunt down and stop the Archbishop before too much harm is done.
No stranger to storytelling, Gary Whitta cut his teeth as a video game journalist and is now building a successful career as a screenwriter with credits including The Book of Eli, After Earth, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He was also involved as a writer and story designer on Telltale Games’ award-winning video game The Walking Dead, based on the television series and comic book of the same name. I have enjoyed Whitta’s work ever since I heard him appear as a special guest on the PC Gamer podcast several years ago, long after he had resigned his seat as Editor-in-Chief of the magazine in favor of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. His easy nature and witty humor delivered in his comforting British accent charmed me right out of the gate. He seems sincere and genuine and like the kind of guy with whom I would love to chat over a pint of ale. Much of Whitta’s previous works are set in post-apocalyptic or science fiction settings. Whitta leaps backward several centuries for his debut novel Abomination, a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, a real world setting of Dark Ages England spiced up with magic and monsters.
As the opening chapters unfold, the story is a typical fantasy adventure starring the king’s champion sent on a quest to destroy evil and save the kingdom. Pretty standard, right? It is the kind of plot my creative writing professor encouraged me to avoid. And so the story goes for the first few chapters but I was surprised to find myself acquiescent to it. I have recently read a few dry non-fiction titles that I was not able to muster even one iota of enthusiasm to review, so I was in the mood for something light and fun. Fun I had, though it was the kind of fun one has sitting on a slowly rotating carousel, familiar and soothing. However, as the first act of Abomination drew to a close, I found myself disappointed because everything happened too fast, too easy. What could have been interesting scenes of character development, political intrigue, and exciting action are instead blocks of summary text. It is heavy on exposition, an overlong prologue reminiscent of the opening of the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It seemed as though Whitta were rushing through the first act to get to something else and I began to suspect the story was about to head in a different direction. Sure enough, the novel veers left at Albuquerque in chapter eight and with that one chapter, Abomination changes from typical fantasy fare to something much more intriguing.
The scope of the story zooms in from kingdom-spanning war campaign to an intimate character-driven tale about a grizzled old warrior and a feisty young girl, reluctant companions who grow to respect and protect each other. Wulfric is the quintessential hero, honest, honorable, and valiant. He endeavors to protect those around him, even to his own detriment. Far removed from his days as King Alfred’s champion, Wulfric now wanders the countryside a broken vagrant unrecognizable as the hero of the realm, but he remains as strong and patient and disciplined as he was during his glory days. Indra, in contrast, is young, impulsive, and hot-headed. She is attempting to complete her year-long initiation trial and earn status as a paladin of the Order, an elite cadre of monster hunters. Both characters suffer demons but have noble goals and the story is most interesting when these two are together. They remind me of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars Episode IV and that ain’t a bad thing. It is their story Whitta really wants to tell, but he chews up a hundred pages to get there. I fear many readers will bail out too early and miss Wulfric’s and Indra’s excellent interactions which comprise the bulk of the second act. Wulfric and Indra are interesting and likable characters. I bear not the burdens of either character, but I was still able to relate to them in some measure: the desire to perform well, a sense of duty, loyalty to loved ones. These are probably traits to which most decent people can relate.
Sadly though, the conclusion of the novel is as weak and rushed as the first act. Wulfric’s burden is solved in a manner that is the literary equivalent of yanking a power plug from the wall to stop a nuclear meltdown. It is woefully unsatisfying in its simplicity and presentation. It is a shame that such weak first and third acts mar what could have been a great book. Still, I found myself entertained throughout despite the flaws. I wonder if Whitta’s background as a film writer influenced the structure of this novel right down to the Hollywood ending. So much of it seems like narration or camera direction. Abomination might even make an entertaining movie if the filmmakers can find a way to do the middle of the story justice while cleaning up the beginning and writing a more satisfying conclusion. Ultimately, I enjoyed my experience with Abomination, but if your leisure time is scarce and you want to spend it on a sure thing, read something else. If you are a voracious reader willing to take a chance on something a little different, you might find it here after chapter eight. I will definitely read Whitta’s next book and will report on his progress as a novelist. I still dig the guy even if I did not completely love his debut.