Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: The Flock (2006)

A few months ago I came across James Robert Smith's novel 2006 novel The Flock and the rather strange story about just how the movie rights got optioned. Sufficient to say, this seems to be the one time that arguing on the Internet has actually produced financial benefits.


The Plot

In Florida, in the last major region of long-leaf pine savanna in the United States, a former Air Force training ground holds an unusual secret--a surviving population of Titanis walleri (imagine the most jacked-up ostriches that ever lived, with two-foot razor beaks that in their time hunted horses) that have escaped the scrutiny of men. The birds have escaped detection by becoming nocturnal, avoiding hunting humans, and dwelling in an area that humans have long been excluded from--but now the 400,000-odd acres that once made up a bombing range are being disputed by the Disney-esque Berg Brothers, a cantankerous militiaman, and a wealthy environmentalist who knows more than he lets on.

Into this mess stumbles a young investigator from the Fish and Wildlife Department looking into some mysterious attacks on animals near the Berg Brothers' model community that bears a strong resemblance to Celebration, Florida. The game is afoot, and somebody's going to end up lunch...

The Good

*I buy a fair number of fiction books to read while I'm on the elliptical at the gym, since although the elliptical burns a vast number of calories in a relatively short amount of time, it's extremely tedious. I finished the book in two 1.5-hour sessions that went by in a breeze. The book is fast-moving and never, ever boring. Its excellent entertainment value alone makes it worth buying, but there's more...

*I have never heard of a horror novel or film featuring terror-birds before, so points for a creative concept. And Smith's characterization is so good that he makes the two terror-birds who have point-of-view chapters--the rogue male Scarlet who wants to establish a flock of his own and Walks-Behind, whose job is to destroy evidence of the flock's presence, interesting characters in their own right. And with two mutually-contradictory goals in mind, this is going to get nasty.

*And although it'd be very easy to make this just some "rampaging monsters" novel, the primary baddies in the story are actually humans. This is something I can agree with on a philosophical level--a predatory animal is acting according to its nature and although they might need to be killed to protect humans, pets, or livestock, it's not like they're evil per se. Humans, however, can sin, and there's plenty of choose from in this one--murder in the name of greed, racism, etc. No wonder Smith invented an entire fictional entertainment conglomerate instead of setting it at Celebration.

*One of the human factions has a mole within one of the others, but Smith lets the reader think it's someone else, then someone else, etc. until they're finally revealed. Very well-done, and surprising.

*There are some amusing bits, like comparing two terror-birds dueling to the world's biggest cock-fight and an ending joke based on an ability the birds display in the climax of the novel.

The Bad

No book is perfect, so here're my critiques:

*The prologue strongly implies that the Scarlet was a chick in 1946 when a group of soldiers stumble on something they shouldn't. That would make Scarlet at least 60 years old if the book takes place in 2006-ish, with Walks-Behind and his parents even older than that. I'm not aware of any wild animal that naturally lives that long other than the Galapagos tortoise and maybe some whales. Scarlet also comes off a bit like a human adolescent wanting to break away from his family and establish his own. Were it me writing this, I would have set the prologue in the 1980s or 1990s so Scarlet (and by extension, his elders in the flock) are much younger.

*In the climax of the novel, the terror-birds display some interesting abilities on top of their near-human-level intelligence and their extreme physical prowess. Not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers. Although their being able to do one of these things does make sense in the context of earlier events in the story, giving them these abilities on top of everything else is taking things too far. Even if it does provide for a funny bit of humor at the end.

*In a scene where some hired goons try to shake down a character and are foiled, the characters don't immediately call the police. That could have unraveled the villains' plans right there--or forced them to act prematurely. The latter course is something Smith could have adopted without changing the plot much if at all.

*The flock has adopted its lifestyle because they know they cannot stand before humans with guns, but one would think if European colonists or Native Americans killed most of them off, there'd have been some record of their existence. If I took down one of those critters, I'd have it stuffed and mounted and displayed with pride. This is a pretty minor thing that could be explained away by invoking them as some kind of local legend that the characters write off...until they can't anymore.

The Verdict

A wonderful book. 9.0 out of 10.0. I'm looking forward to the sequel The Clan that's apparently in limbo, as well as the movie that seems to be in similar straits. Maybe if some of y'all bought the book and reviewed it on Amazon?

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