Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Book Review: "Life Unworthy" by Christopher Taylor
In the old days, when authors used agents and got publishing contracts, Christopher Taylor's books would have been published by Ace Books or Ballantine, and would have been in bookshops across the country. Today's publishing climate is both easier and harder for writers who aren't celebrities, and so Taylor is an independent author and "Life Unworthy" is a contract-worthy book available on Amazon for Kindle and in Trade Paperback. I bought the hard copy.
It's a good werewolf tale, keeping us on pins and needles all the way through, true to its genre, and a solid mystery story as well. But for those looking for more depth than monsters, "Life Unworthy" is rich historical fiction, replete with accurate detail that gives us a genuine sense of life-on-the-ground in 1943 Poland, occupied by the Nazis and terrorized by ancient curses.
Meticulous research includes many tiny details true to the era that might not be consciously appreciated by a casual reader. I love the way everyone smokes *everywhere*. Young people won't recognize that bit of "atmosphere" from a time when up to 80% of adults smoked and didn't die from it, but it is just one of the myriad ways Taylor paints us into a realistic picture. The ubiquitous cigarettes, the constant reference to "the Great War", are not essential to the story, but serve to rattle us into thinking a little deeper, immersing us into the time and place.
The psychic hold "the Great War" has on the soldiers in this novel is particularly effective, and has been seldom covered in war writing - whether fiction or fact, most WWII writing is colored by later knowledge that this was indeed "the second world war", whereas in the early years, it was still seen even by those in it as a more hopeful war: the Nazis were buoyed by recovering what they had lost in the catastrophic brutality of the Great War, Poland had not yet been betrayed, and so even the Poles and Gypsies in Life Unworthy desperately clung to belief that it would end with freedom.
Great characters are fleshed out well, and believable. It is crazy to see how almost likable some of the Nazis can be, and it jars when we realize the jobs they are doing, how much "routine" funnels them into the soul-killing deeds they do in response to orderly commands.
Almost an allegory, the werewolf's struggle to control the beast is an opposite, a mirror image of these Nazis' efforts to rationalize within themselves the evil they are promoting. This is a subtle juxtaposition all through the book that slowly dawns on the reader as we go.
Look carefully to catch the clues woven throughout the novel. They are difficult to spot, seamlessly inserted into the prose. And the whispered hints are even more difficult to unravel. I found myself stopping along the way to look up a reference, a location, to uncover more layers of the deep history. It's impossible to anticipate the ending, yet when it comes, the threads trace back to early hints, mentions, shadows, and you think, "Ah! So that is what that meant!"
A satisfying resolution that takes its own sweet time to unfold is one of the best things about Taylor's writing style. I am often annoyed by otherwise good writers who rush their endings - building to the climax then wrapping everything up in a quick couple of paragraphs, as though they suddenly realize they've reached their word limit. Taylor doesn't do that. He never leaves his readers in the lurch. He continues to follow the story for a bit to let us absorb what happened and neatly finish the final seams, so that it is complete and full.
All in all, "Life Unworthy" is a good story, a satisfying read, that doesn't waste our time. It's a book for adults, and will leave you thinking about the characters long after you've shelved the book in your permanent collection, to read again someday.