by Dan Simmons
Cover Artist: Photo: Ken Rosenthal
Review by Andrew Brooks
St. Martin's Griffin Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312567071
Date: 24 November 2009 List Price $19.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Dan Simmons is one of those writers who can write both impressive space operas (see his Hyperion quartet) and amazingly good horror (read Summer of Night). Carrion Comfort, however, appears to have been written by a different Dan Simmons. It's a book that I'd long had on my to-read list, a kind of ace up my sleeve in case I really needed a good read and couldn't find one. The book is huge, what they call a door-stopper, and has glowing blurbs of praise on the front and back covers, one such comparing it to a book I hold in high regard when it comes to epic fantasy/horror. Stephen King's apocalyptic The Stand. I had read the aforementioned Summer of Night and was blown away by how versatile a writer Dan Simmons, having spent a frantic few months devouring his Hyperion books. The man can write a darn good story, there's no doubt about that, and I went into reading this book expecting great things. But Carrion Comfort, for me, was a disappointment.
As far as ideas for stories go, Carrion Comfort has one of the best. What if there were people who could control others with their minds, feeding off that complete domination in a way that gives them longer, but not immortal, lives? Mind vampires, if you will, that have been shaping world events but living in the shadows for a long, long time. And what if a small group of ordinary people found this out and got caught up in an effort to stop these mind vampires from further controlling the world in secret? That's the basic premise of Carrion Comfort and, while it sounds like you're in for a mind shattering experience of over 800 pages, you aren't. This one needed an editor with a brutal red pen, but even that might not have saved it. Because while the premise of the novel is great stuff, the execution of the actual story leaves a lot to be desired.
It starts off well enough. Saul Laski discovers the existence of one of these mind vampires while imprisoned in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, before being used as a living chess piece in a scene that is both horrific and brutal. Two big thumbs up for purveyors of grisly and scary horror novels with this scene. (Minor spoiler ahead, skip to the next paragraph if you don't like your reads spoilt.) When Sal escapes the concentration camp and mind vampire the Oberst, Simmons gives us a great look at just what these vampires can do and how devious this particular one can be. We see Sal manipulated and almost killed, and the chase scene here really sets the stage for the rest of the novel.
Unfortunately I found it all down hill from there. As I said the idea behind this book has a lot going on for it, but the actual execution of the story left me cold. There's a lot going on, I get that, but one of my major gripes with this book is that Simmons feels the need to show us all of it and to do so repetitively. Towards the beginning of the novel we are treated to a breakfast scene between two characters, one of whom had just lost a loved one the night before but is now eating with the hero sheriff as they plan their next move. In this breakfast scene we also have crammed in some hints at a future love connection between these two people who just met and have no apparent common interests.
Another problem I had with Carrion Comfort is a section in the book where two of the main characters work with a street gang in order to deal with one of the mind vampires. It was the most repetitive and tedious reading I've done in a long while. Carrion Comfort switches POV's frequently, and while this can sometimes generate suspense I felt it failed here. I felt ready to gouge my eyes out at points, wishing Simmons would get on with the story instead of giving me another perspective on things I knew from reading the previous chapter or chapters. It turns what should have been a epic showdown into a slog of are-we-there-yet storytelling. I felt like there were too many characters and too many viewpoints.
I sometimes think that expectation can play too large a role in one's perception and enjoyment of a book, and I did have pretty high expectations going into this one. But regardless I think Carrion Comfort would have worked better had it been pared down some. There are some good ideas in there, I just don't think there were enough for a 800+ page novel.